DAY ONE: MIAMI
I am here.
Whenever I get back from a trip, I’m always annoyed by the stuff I write on the first day. It seems like a long time ago and it’s usually about the quotidian details of traveling. Who cares? Yes, I got up early – a miserable 5:10 wake-up call (I set five alarms, I think) then out in the cab through the glittering darkness, snow everywhere, ice everywhere, the hard face of winter glaring at me as I paid my leave. Quitter! Fool! You think it’s better when it’s warm, but it’s not. The same human frailties attend to every situation, magnified by tropical lassitude. It’s naught but fruity drinks and sand in your shoes, you’ll be back! YOU’LL BE BACK!
Yeah, yeah. Got to the airport, dumped off my bag – 47 lbs, whew – then meandered around the gift shop until I realized I hadn’t gone through security yet. The line was long for 6:30 AM. Took a seat in farting and belching distance of three yahoos who came in the usual flavors: skinny yukster, enormous slob, and quiet brooding one who periodically told the others to shut up. Make that two yahoos, then. There was also a female companion who looked to be the sister of the slob, and spent all her time pecking at her phone. Because there’s just so much to text about at 6:30 AM. The slob kept expectorating into a cup, which he would dump out every once in a while – necessitating a trip long enough to make his sweat pants fall down six inches.
I remember when everyone on the plane wore a tie.
Wheels up at the appointed hour, into the ether. I watched some TV, being too tired to read, then had the most amazing sleep: instantly into REM, wake, right back to REM. On and on for an hour. One of the great lies I tell myself: I’ll sleep on the plane. Usually do, but it’s the difference between a breakfast buffet and a plastic bowl of microwavable scrambled eggs. Which I had for breakfast, by the way. Horrid. At least I had the presence of mind to buy a decent cheap sandwich at Target yesterday for plane-lunch, and add horseradish and onion-mustard to suit my asbestos-paved palate. Pulled that baby out at lunchtime on the plane today, and nearly wept with gratitude. Remembered daughter rolling her eyes as I bought it: Dad, they’ll have food on the plane. Yes, but this is slightly cheaper, and I can control the tomato aspect. Oh fine. Oh fine indeed; howzabout I pack your lunch with spinach and tofu? Okay no that’s okay enjoy your sandwich! Just kidding. Later that night I made her lunch, because I wouldn’t be making it for a few days. You want to do these things to remind you what counts, and that’s your kid staring at a sandwich in the lunch room the next day saying “he always puts too much Buddig on it.”
It should be noted that “Buddig” has now become the default term in the house for any form of chopped, pressed, and mechanically separated shaved meats. When I was a kid it was a generic term as well, and so the torch is passed. The term really achieved iconic status when I tossed Jasper a piece of Buddig, and it unfurled in flight and completely covered his face like a mask. He was confused and annoyed, but this was immediately overruled by the realization that his entire world was covered with a scrim of meat. Whoa.
Landed at Miami, felt the heat. Where was the heat? Coming off the street. Yes, my first time in Miami, and I was actually dressed in light blue. No stubble, but I had all day for that. Wound my way through the labyrinth, wondering why Miami had such a krephole of an airport. It looked 80s, all right, but gone-to-seed 80s. (Oldest terminal, slated for an overhaul soon, I learned.) Down to baggage, and there he was.
For the first time in my life there was a guy in a black suit with a sign that had my name on it.
I had a driver.
And his name was Angel.
So Angel drove me to the hotel, and we talked. He was from Colombia, and was pleased to learn I was actually going to Colombia. (This just gets more and more unusual for me, doesn’t it?) At the hotel I was told I wouldn’t have a room for, oh, three hours. Fine. You have a beach? Great. I put on shorts and went to the beach and found a chair right by this thing called the Atlantic Ocean. They have it all over the place here, although mostly on one side of things. So there I laid, reading about the Panama Canal, watching the gulls fight over food, listening to a happy babble of accents and languages, homesick for family but resigned to it all.
Got into my room eventually. It’s ridiculous.
I mean, it’s just silly. But gorgeous. But not exactly timeless. I’d love something that had the Miami curves, the Moderne elegance and machine-meets-the-sea aesthetic, but no. This is almost 70s, and I say that with a certain fond indulgence one has for well-meaning people who think they’ve reinvented the wheel. The drawers are all based on 70s stereo equipment – black mirrored-glass, chrome trim. It has two large flat-screen TVs which react differently to the same remote, and neither one responds to the volume controls. You may ask: is there another remote? Sure. Same thing. I stood there for five minutes like a gunslinger trying to pick off cans on a fence with a Colt in each hand. No luck. Realized I was in Miami and should not care about the TVs, even if they are enormous. So I went outside.
Love the architecture. All of it, old and new. The most poignant thing: a classic mid-century motel alongside a lagoon, now closed and boarded. It looks like it hails from the Rat-Pack era, and had an enormous sign.
Everything else is exactly as advertised, and a little bit seedy, too. I like that. Tiny hotels on narrow streets, lobbies that hadn’t seen an upgrade in 40 years. A while ago they’d redone the sidewalks and tinted the concrete red; recent utility work had ripped up every sixth square and filled it with rubbly asphalt. Construction everywhere. Empty old hotels waiting for rescue.
A high-rise being gutted and retrofitted for imaginary tenants. A drought of street-level retail, except for some tourist shops and a store called “I (Heart) Liquor.” Marvelous restaurants. And neon. Old neon. Lovely simple soft glowing neon, the handwriting of Prometheus. (hic! I Heart Liquor.)
More of the same tomorrow, and then I go somewhere else and do some other things. This will be the first Bleat to actually trace a vacation in progress, so strap in for lots of exciting things, such as “my eggs were cold this morning.” BTW, lest you think I’m on some mad crazy high-buck vacation, no. Well, yes. But this is all trade; perks-for-syllables. I am here to Talk.
About what, well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
DAY TWO: MIAMI
When you’re just a passenger in your own life there’s time for odd, curious revelations that probably mean little, but provide their own small pleasures. After I checked out from the Silly Hotel, I went to the beach -
. . . No, rewind. Walked down the street to find breakfast, and came across a cafe that smelled wonderful. Mostly Greek, except for a few token Murcan dishes. Ordered a breakfast that had pancakes and eggs and home fries, intending to have a little of each. Took forever to arrive. Restaurant was empty. I think they had to send out for it, and a UPS truck delivered the meal in an insulated bag. The pancakes were excellent, the eggs seasoned in some mysterious Greek fashion, and the “home fries” were not potato wedges, as expected, or even diced cubes, but actual French Fries. I don’t care if I’m on vacation: you can’t have French Fries for breakfast. You have to repurpose the tuber in such a way that it wears the traditional role of breakfast potatoes. If not cubed, then they shall be hashed. This is the way of things. There was also an Inexplicable Green Salad, and it wasn’t even garnished with crumbly Greek putty-cheese. Just a green salad. And fries. For breakfast.
Once you get outside of the world you control, man, you’re just at everyone’s mercy.
Back to the beach. Rubens’ “Three Graces” showed up, in thongs. Hairy fellows and model-thin women, families. No one on their oddy-knocky, like me. I read some Sherlock Holmes on the Kindle, and came across a passage where a character scoffs and declares something ridiculous. “‘Pooh,’ he said.”
I put down the Kindle and looked out at the ocean and thought: is that where it comes from? We have two Poohs in our heads: Winnie The, and the double-pooh used to indicate negation. He pooh-poohed the idea. If the original meaning of the word, as slang, was “nonsense,” then both suddenly made sense. To pooh-pooh something is to declare it nonsense; Winnie the Pooh uses “nonsense” or “ridiculousness” in a genial, amiable sense. Winnie the Silly.
You probably wouldn’t have thought Mr. Milne would have thought adults would consider such questions so many years down the line, let alone into the next century. But we carry these things in our heads and never quite put them down, for fear they will be swept away when we’re not looking. Who would want to forget what it was like to love Winnie the Pooh? There were a few years when he was part of my daughter’s cosmology of familiars, and I enjoyed making his acquaintance again. But he was still a childish thing. There was nothing hip or ironic about Pooh. You would find it odd if you checked into a hotel aimed at the adult demographic, and saw statues of Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore outside.
Well. The W in South Beach:
It’s Japanese, so that’s different!
Met my party in the lobby afterwards. One of the members of the host’s traveling crew is an art historian, and inclined to confidence in her opinions in a way I instantly loved. We got into an argument about calling Moderne buildings Art Deco almost within minutes of knowing each other. I look forward to lots of arguments – merry, oh-you-can’t-be-serious-about-that-it’s-horrid arguments. Took a van from the Silly Hotel past seaside homes and empty towers, then got on the ship a few hours early. I guess we have Preferred Platinum Stratum Ultra status, or something. I would have explored, but you know what? At this point I think I know where everything is. Bars at the front, bars at the back, pool in the middle, whatever.
How very, very wrong I was.
It’s an odd feeling living a life you cannot possibly afford. Oh, I could, I suppose, if I decided against room and board and food and cigars, but otherwise no. That said, it takes about three hours until you become a spoiled, ungrateful wretch. I was trying to find a cup of coffee on the ship. It’s a a given that there will be coffee available at any time, and good coffee, too. On the ship last March there was a machine out by the pool. Any time. Day or night. Unbelievably good coffee. On the Holland America last November, there were six machines in the enormous Foodstuffs Distribution Center, where the enormous buffets could be found. Well, I’m walking around the ship tonight trying to find a cup of freakin’ coffee, so hard this should be? Ah: the Bistro. It’s a delightful place with enormous espresso machines, tables of cakes breads and cheese.
Closed. Make a note: closes at six. Well, back to the pool area, perhaps; they had the usual grill, so you can consume nutrition while you are half-naked. It was closed. That’s not unusual; pool dining always closes around 6. I knew I could get it at any bar, and there are many, many bars here – for heaven’s sake you could buy a beer, start chugging it, walk off in any direction, and by the time you finished it you could slam it down on another bar counter. There’s the lobby bar on the Tiffany level. There’s the Palm Court Bar, the Nightclub bar, the Theater bar, the nice quiet bar by the cigar room, the bar in the back, and the bar by the pool. A fellow stands a chance of finding a drink on this boat. But coffee? Well, I’ll head to the lobby bar, and -
Then cold dread struck.
I hadn’t seen a buffet dining room.
There has to be a buffet dining room. C’mon.
But what if there isn’t? What if it’s all . . . civilized? I’d checked the meal options for the evening, not wanting to have a nine-course meal tonight, and there was something on the pool level, and it was closed tonight, possibly because the ship isn’t pulling out until 9 PM and they don’t want to make all that food. What was it called? Traces? Tastes? Testes? I found it by the pool area, and it was a tiny little niche that served two or three items.
There was no buffet dining room.
See what I mean about ingratitude? About how one could get used to anything, only to complain? This whole damned thing is free, on a ship with such a preposterous standard of luxury that a servant will materialize with a silk hanky if you look like you’re about to sneeze, and I’m worried there’s not a trough, and I will have to sit down and suffer someone putting a napkin in my lap.
I left the area and went through sliding glass doors . . . and there was the buffet. Closed, but there it was. Even bereft of food, it was a glorious thing. I went around to the end, and saw the most lovely sight of the day: three enormous self-service coffee makers.
Ahhhhh. Now the trip can begin.
BACK IN THE ROOM
Didn’t have dinner, as noted, because I’m on my own this time, all alone boo hoo, and we haven’t firmed up the dinner + Featured Speaker rotation. So where to eat? Room service. You can get anything. The housekeeper comes by with the menu, and takes your order. Housekeeper really isn’t the right word: personal servant comes closer, because they’ll do anything, and they have only eight cabins. There’s an interesting distribution of labor – nearly all the waiters and pool-area attendants are from the Philippines, the bar staff South / Central American, and the housekeepers European. Mine is from Poland. While I was on my search for coffee she freshened the room, left a mint on the pillow, a plate of fruit, a flower in the vase. I brought a small set of speakers, so now I’m listening to Gershwin piano pieces, waiting for dinner. It is the height of civilization. One more thing: there’s a certain level of catering and waiting I despise. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable to have someone deploy a napkin in my lap, or get me ice when the machine’s down the hall. Stop being deferential! No, I’ll get out of your way, because you’re carrying an enormous tray laden with food. Really, you first.
If only the ship would leave. It just doesn’t feel right sitting here. Don’t we have a country to go to?
After a nap I went down to the laundry room to iron shirts, because I’m not going to pay anyone six dollars to do something I can do myself. I even brought laundry soap, for heaven’s sake, so I can shirts in the sink. On the last cruise there was no laundry room; you had to send your shirts to be ironed, which I didn’t, so I just steamed them in the bathroom while everyone showered and hoped I didn’t look like I’d just tossed on something balled up in the bottom of the hamper. This time there’s an ironing room, and I met a nice lady from Chicago who was “gettin’ it in before everyone else does,” as she cheerfully put it. This wasn’t her first cruise on Crystal; upon hearing it was mine, I got the same reaction: oh, you’re in for something.
I keep hearing that. What? A parade of leggy showgirls delivered to the room nightly? Perfumed shower water?
We’ll find out tomorrow. Hello from my stateroom.
Update: the buffet line is not open for dinner. This calls into question the entire whim-induced auto-directed coffee procurement strategy. I will keep you informed.