City Portrait: Vintage Miami

Matthew Hranek
by Rick Bragg - Florida - December 2012/January 2013

Cosmopolitan, edgy, never boring, this city has a way of sticking with you


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I had a house in Miami, once. Well, it was in Coral Gables, just across 
LeJeune Road and the city limit line, but my cat lived in Miami and came and went through four lanes of traffic, unafraid. I know he was not a full-time Coral Gables cat because he did not have his shots and did not have a collar with little bells on it, and did not even have both his ears. 

He came with the house. He was as black as the bottom of a well and stitched with scars, and his tail had been broken so badly it jutted out perpendicular to his body, so that when he skulked around the yard, hunting lizards, it always looked like he was signaling a hard left turn. I named him Mofongo because I mostly fed him leftover garlic-flavored mashed-up and deep-fried green plantains, and because Mofongo had a better ring to it than “ham croqueta.” But most of the people on my street thought his name was “Come here you fuzzy bastard,” because that was all he answered to, when he would come at all. I think, now, it was because I was calling him in English. He was a Miami cat, and so spoke Spanish, solamente.

So it was my own fault that he was the way he was.  Not speaking Spanish in Miami is like working at the New York Stock Exchange and not being able to count. Mofongo had every right to expect me to habla. He was born here. Over three years, he bit anyone who tried to pet him. I loved that cat.

I think about him now and then and it always makes me smile, and that is what a memory should do if it is any damn good. Miami is like that for me. It bit me more than once, and while it was sometimes not pretty it was never dull. Miami is across the world from dull. I have always imagined that I was on the edge of something here, a jumping-off place to even hotter, damper, more dangerous shores.

Most of what I remember of my time here, seven years or so, off and on, has been romanticized a little, I suppose. I remember being neck-deep in blue water, the Atlantic and the Caribbean swirling together at my back, my eyes resting on sand covered in soon-to-be supermodels, as the air above my head swirled with good music, the words of which I could not comprehend. This was a place where much of the architecture seemed peeled from a child’s cartoons and stuck on the dingy sand between a blue sea and a great, liquid land, where the air seemed to always smell of strong coffee and hibiscus with just the tiniest taste of gunpowder, though I am probably just being romantic about that, too. I remember it as a place where, if you ordered a glass of Barbancourt, the dangerous Haitian rum, the bartender did not look at you as if you had asked for eye of newt. When I first came here, in the dawn of the 1990s, it was a place where old men still trained in the Everglades to overthrow the murderer Fidel, telling tales of a prison called la escalera as they reclined beside a great, bubbling pot of baccalau. Parrots, escapees from Monkey Jungle, nested in the banyan trees. It was not always like that, this city, but that is what I will choose to recall.

I lived here twice, both times writing for a living, chasing wonderful stories but probably not very hard. It was hard to dwell on work here, unthinkable to twist on a tie. And sometimes it was safer not to work at all. I was knocked goofy here, twenty years ago, hit on the head with a rock on a violent night, blundering around in one of the city’s more minor race riots. That, as my kinfolks say, should have learned me, should have educated me about pretending to try to make sense of a place that defied sense, then, always. I left it for New Orleans, the last time, which is like trading one mean cat for another. 

In my absence, it would hardly grow less interesting. This is where, last spring, a naked man chewed the face off a homeless man on the MacArthur Causeway before being shot dead by the police. When I lived here, the worst thing that might bite you was an alligator in the storm drain. Now pythons writhe across residential roads and have eaten many of the small mammals in the Everglades. There are still machine-gun murders in Little Haiti and election rigging in Hialeah—election rigging is a sport here—but I do not chase such things anymore. The biting has increased too much to suit me.