Saturday, July 19, 2008

Rose-colored realities

Miami, Florida

This past week, July 12-20, has been my third visit to Miami, occasioned by the quadrennial GALA Choruses Festival. The festival was a week of 15-, 30-, and 60-minute performances by more than 140 GLBT choruses and smaller ensembles presented and attended by 5,000 singing delegates from around the world.
Members of the South Florida public also attended. The logistics of making it all happen were a wonder to behold. The organizers did a great job.

All of it was more than a person could absorb or process. I fear it will become a surreal blur of memory in short order. All of my Miami visits have had a surreal quality. Unlike travel to New York, San Francisco, Jacksonville, and other coastal cities, Miami feels like a different planet.

My first trip to Dade County started on a Sunday afternoon, July 2, 1972, as the principal driver of a new, black Oldsmobile 88, equipped with a mobile telephone. Four other staffers of Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign and I were driving south from Washington, D. C., to the Democratic National Convention; the oldest of us was 21.

We passed through Richmond, Virginia, well before dusk and continued through the night. Around 4am, the darkest time before dawn, we managed to get lost somewhere in southern Georgia. Although we had a letter of introduction from the U.S. Secret Service, we had been warned not to stop along the way unless it was imperative. Unwilling to ask directions, we gutted it out for what seemed hours until we found our way across the Florida state line around 6:30am.

If you must drive the length of Florida quickly and can avoid using A1A, do so. Although this often scenic highway runs along the coast, it passes through every stop light and traffic jam in every village and city along the way. We were getting nowhere in a great deal of time when someone pulled out a map and noticed there was an interstate freeway running parallel to us about three miles inland.

Although sleep-deprived and loathe to miss my first glimpse of the fabled scenery of Cape Canaveral, Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and the rest, I yielded. It was one of many occasions when I have had to accept that a group’s wisdom might exceed mine.

We arrived at our hotel headquarters, in the vicinity of 69th Street and Collins Avenue, before dinner, and called our Secret Service contact in Washington to check-in only a few hours past our expected arrival time. From there, we jumped into doing whatever passes for important work at a national convention. Democracy was never intended to be a tidy and rational process, and political campaigns embody that reality.

My memory of those two weeks is a mix of blurred and disparate images. I recall the press conference where HH withdrew from contention for the nomination; the ocean's aquamarine color; our dorm-like accommodations; strawberry pie at Pumpernik's deli; kissing a young woman on the beach at night; ferrying people to and from the Miami airport endlessly; a party on a boat; and passing out souvenir booklets at the convention center.

I also recall feeling totally grateful that a young man traveling from Germany turned-up and offered to drive the Oldsmobile back to D.C. (Two weeks later, he and I, with another friend, from Australia, drove the car and a U-Haul from D.C. to Minneapolis.) There was one campaign charter flying back from Miami to Washington on July 14. After the desolation of losing the nomination fight I was desperate not to be left behind on the ground.

The next time I saw Miami was six years ago, in June 2002, while attending a Dance/USA Roundtable conference. About 400 dance artists and administrators from around the world gathered at the Marriott Miami Biscayne Bay for several days of workshops and networking. While I attended conference activities, my partner, James Davies, spent time across Biscayne Bay figuring out how Miami’s South Beach works. We took part of a day to tour the Art Deco District, the Jewish Museum of Florida, and other sites. One evening, all of us toured the facilities of the Miami City Ballet, and on a number of nights we attended performances of the Florida Dance Festival. At the conclusion of the Roundtable, James and I flew to Jacksonville to visit relatives.

During this past week, we again lodged at the Marriott. The Trinity Episcopal Cathedral stands across the street and next to the Venetian Causeway. Organized in 1896, it is the oldest church within the original city limits of Miami. The cathedral's distinctive Mediterranean appearance derives from Romanesque, Byzantine, and Italianate elements combined by the architect, Harold Hastings Mundy. The building is on the Register of National Historic Places. James woke early on Monday and Wednesday to volunteer with the Feed My Sheep program that provides breakfast for 150 homeless people at 6:15am.

Some of us attending the GALA Choruses Festival discovered the S & S Diner four blocks from the Marriott. Part of a small, local chain hailing from 1938, the S & S is located across the street from the Biscayne Park Cemetery. Its 23 seats at a horseshoe-shaped counter make it a great place to have breakfast or lunch for less than $8 and to hold a neighborly conversation. The wait-staff knew more about the Festival gossip than we did.

The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts is two huge structures situated across Biscayne Boulevard from each other: the Knight Concert Hall and the Ziff Ballet Opera House. Located three blocks south of the Marriott, both buildings are stunning, particularly the Knight. Although the Miami community spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the center, it required an infusion of $30 million earlier this year from Adrienne Arsht, a banker and philanthropist, in order to stabilize its finances. Things that still need fixing: (1) doors leading into both auditoria make an inordinate amount of noise when opening and closing – new closer hardware should fix the problem, and please get rid of the noisy rubber seals where the edges of two doors meet; and (2) the electrical outlet receptacle, located center stage at the base of the lowest riser in the Knight needs to be rotated (or removed!) so an extension cord can be plugged in without being seen by the audience. God lives in the details.

It is billed as "an international phenomenon" where "St. Tropez meets Miami chic." It claims a reputation as "a party playground for jet-setters, celebrities, VIPs" and others. Nikki Beach is a large, oceanfront complex with an outdoor beach club and a restaurant and night club. The Friday evening concert by gay Billboard sensation Ari Gold was fabulous, and it was great to dance 10 feet from where he was singing. Nonetheless, I just don't see the glamour of it all. I was glad to have passed through the gates of what is simply a state of mind for people who don't sweat – except for Ari. Most of the time, that glistening moisture on their bodies comes from turquoise pool or sea water.

The World Erotic Art Museum in the Art Deco District displays 12,000 square feet of erotic art from all cultures and time periods. The Wolfsonian showcases American and European decorative and fine arts produced between 1885 and 1945. While contemplating an exhibit of New Deal art, tears came to my eyes accompanied by a nostalgic feeling for an era I did not live through.

My visits to Miami have provided many blurred memories which are becoming a treasure trove of rose-colored and emotion-laden realities.

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