Friday, January 29, 2010

Through the Alley

Yesterday I took a different route to the beach. I went down the alley west of Meridian Avenue. It was quiet and shady. The trash men hadn't come. There were two couches and a mattress.

I took a shot of the washing machine chained to the ground, roofless. For a dollar and a quarter tenants can do their wash outside.

There were two doors painted violet.

I appreciated the charm of a life with violet doors until I came to the cart, which served as someone's home. The person had stepped away, so I thought, and I took a picture. Among the stack of books was "Gray's Anatomy." These carts have their own vocabulary: there are always brooms and plastic bags. This one had four brooms and many plastic bags, as well as a tarp, rope, a painting, and a carved fish on a plaque. I went closer; my camera clicked, and I saw someone sitting on the ground in back of the cart. The person was bare-legged. I saw the twitch of a thigh muscle, put down my camera and hurried away.

When I came to the cross street I didn't know where I was. The horizon had tilted. The familiar street looked strange. Finally near the beach I stopped at the women's toilet and went into the stall. A voice filled the room--folksy, southern, confidential, a Sugar, Precious, let-me-tell-you-how-to-bake-biscuits voice. A woman's voice announcing the end of the world. I heard the words "fire" and "sun." Someone must have a radio, I thought, but when I stepped out of the stall, the voice stopped. There was someone in the large stall; there was a suitcase pushed against the door. I saw bare feet in flip-flops, veined ankles.

Everything seemed strange. The gulls huge as Thanksgiving turkeys for a crowd of thirty. Click of the camera, twitch of a muscle, Sybil of the Stall had brought on a change of perspective.

On the beach at Fifteenth Street I heard music like Nino Rota's. Three lithe men were juggling, criss-crossing in an elegant dance. There movements were like the carnival-like scenes that redeemed the world in Fellini's films.

Just west of them, on the hard pavement a man flung himself into the air in ragged pirouettes. He had tremendous velocity but not great lift. He whirled. "Is it exercise or is something wrong with his mind?" a passerby asked. The whirling man turned to me. "In honor of Jesus," he said.

I walked down fourteenth Street to Collins, then Washington Avenue, on to Pennsylvania, and Euclid and went home to our condo on Meridian.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop: Description Hall of Fame

The poet Elizabeth Bishop is a great describer and belongs in the Pantheon of Describers on High, eternally, if any such thing exists. Very often her work registers the experience of crossing into unfamiliar territory; her senses come to attention in foreign places. I found this description of her visit to a Chinese laundry ("Seven-Days Monologue," The Library of America, Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters):

The father was making out accounts in a black note-book,--erect lines of Chinese lettering. He had a little round wooden dish of black paint and a fine brush on a white handle. On the wall is a large calendar, just the ordinary girl kind, but she's a Chinese girl and all the printing is Chinese. The walls are bright blue.

There was a lighted candle beside the father's note-book, and it had burned down on one side and left a thin shell of wax on the other. The hollow was full of light, like an ice cavern lit by its own midnight sun.

My favorite part is the description of the candle. I didn't like "midnight sun" until I looked it up to make sure I knew exactly what it meant and what she meant. From Wiki:

The midnight sun is a natural phenomenon occurring in summer months at latitudes north and nearby to the south of the Arctic Circle, and south and nearby to the north of the Antarctic Circle where the sun remains visible at the local midnight. Given fair weather, the sun is visible for a continuous 24 hours, mostly north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle. The number of days per year with potential midnight sun increases the farther poleward one goes.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Taking It Easy

My friend said, "Some days I don't do much of anything." I was shocked, but yesterday I didn't do much of anything--a day without ambition. After breakfast I mopped the kitchen floor. By eleven thirty J. and I were at the Epicure for brunch. I took my ticket at the counter, number 25, and waited my turn. Only one person had the skill to slice sable--"It's carp," my friend M. would say--and I had to wait until he was free. J. ate chicken salad. We talked about our family's coming visit.

After a siesta--I slept deeply enough to dream--we walked to South Point Park, stopping at our allotment at the community garden on Collins, below Fifth Street. The bok choy has tripled in size. J. dead-headed the marigolds.

The wind was fierce as we walked past the tall buildings at the point but quieted down once we got clear of them. A cruise ship passed.

I studied the patterns in the stone.

And appreciated the people dressed all in white.

There was a wedding on the beach.

The lovers wrapped themselves around each other.

The surfer rose on a wave.

We walked along the shore and came home.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kamani Trees

Kamani trees line Meridian Avenue in South Beach and form a canopy overhead, shading the street and the sidewalks. Thick cool shade. We came here, in part, because of the trees. They are native to east Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia and the South Pacific, and they have been naturalized in the main Hawaiian islands. They are at home here on Meridian, as I am.

Daily I walk under the kamani trees; from the balcony I look down into them.

The sidewalks are pink in South Beach.

Some say the recent cold spell--the coldest time in Florida since the 1940s--shocked the kamani trees. They've been dropping so many leaves, which now have been swept into huge piles. I hope they will come back to themselves and put out more green. Once on a hot day when I was feeling nervous and frail, I walked under the trees, stopped and put my hand against the trunk. The bark was cool, the tree immensely solid, fortifying.

Monday, January 18, 2010


The theme of this year's Art Deco weekend is the automobile. After a brief rainstorm the owners immediately began rubbing chamois cloths over their antique cars lined up on Ocean Drive, among them this Chevrolet from the 1950s. The cars look more than brand-new; they seem hyper-real.

I prefer corroded metal and glass, which I've piled in this dish. The larger pieces have been run over. I picked them up in the road. Most of the coins I found on the beach, close to the water, flung up on the tide, tarnished, pocked, limed, corroded, stained verdigris. There's a sand-blasted bottom of a beer bottle, and a looped wire specked with lime.

They require no polish.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Yesterday I went for lunch at the Epicure, a market in South Beach, which also has a coffee bar. Customers may buy food in the market and eat it at the coffee bar. I bought three slices of sable, a lightly smoked fish, a pumpernickel bagel, and cole slaw, and took my food to the bar. There was L. with his brother, S. and S.'s mother. They come here to shop, eat, but most of all to schmooze. I sat at L.'s table. He is a great talker, smart, well-informed. He brings people together. He has a marvelous speaking voice, much better than Garrison Keillor's without a trace of Keillor's crankiness. L. has an intimate voice. I can't imagine L. yelling.

I had been reading Leonard Michael's essay, "My Yiddish." Michaels grew up speaking Yiddish and entered kindergarden with very little English. In his essay he summarizes the critic Benjamin Harshav: Yiddish "contains many words that don't mean anything: nu, epes tockeh, shoyn ["so," "really," "well," "already."] These are fleeting interjections, rather like sighs." I would also say, like "shrugs."

I took the lid off the container holding my three small slices of sable. L. looked at it. I said, "Sable, I love it."

L. said, "Carp. It's carp. They give it a fancy name."

"S0?" his brother said, and I laughed. (I've made his response a question, but it was the faintest question.)

I broke up my bagel, scooped out the soft insides--I prefer crust--and covered the dark bread with sable. It was the best sable I had ever eaten.

The soft parts of the bagel I had scooped out filled most of the plate. "Are you going to eat those?" L. asked me, and I told him no. He took a small packet from his pocket and unfolded it, revealing coarse white breadcrumbs. "For the birds," he said. "For the birds," his brother repeated. L. took the pieces of bagel and crumbled the dark bits between his shapely fingertips as we talked about the Federal Reserve, Lincoln's assassination, Juval Aviv, the Israeli agent who was Golda Meir's bodyguard, and upon whom the film Munich was based.

"Yiddish serves speech--between you and me--rather than the requirements of consecutive logical discourse," Michael writes. The English of those who grew up hearing Yiddish, does this as well. At the Epicure we sighed and shrugged with our interjections.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Clearing the Air: Epoxy Fumes

The air has cleared in the condo, and I've lit a candle. Yesterday, workers three stories below us were refinishing a concrete floor. They used etching acid, and epoxy paint that released toxic fumes. The job has been shut down, and an inspector from the code violation department should be here today. We opened all the windows and turned on fans.

The refinisher had been working with all the windows and doors closed, no respirator, no fans. The fumes poured into the building's ventilation vents, air and heat ducts. Last night, after the fumes had left our condo, and we had come back, we turned on the heat. More fumes. We turned off the heat, opened the door to the balcony, and slept wearing layers of sweaters, socks, and pajamas. It hasn't been this cold in Florida since the 1940s. I wore one of John's fleece tops. He also gave me a pair of his flannel pajama bottoms. I'm still wearing them--dark blue printed all over with pairs of bright red dice. Good luck to all today!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fashion Divas, Williams and Hulanicki, and SAVE Dade

On January 10, the Wolfsonian Museum, the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and SAVE Dade, presented two films, the first about Irene Williams, "The Queen of Lincoln Road," known for her extraordinary, vivid outfits, which she designed and made, including the hats; the second about Barbara Hulanicki, the designer, who founded Bibi in London in the 1960s and is now working in Miami. Both women developed, adapted, persisted.

Williams said she hated Boston, "There was nothing for me there." She moved to South Beach, to an apartment on Michigan Avenue, and set up business in a small office on Lincoln Road as a public stenographer. Every workday morning, dressed in one of her creations, she would walk from her apartment, down Lincoln Road, to her office. One day, Eric Smith spotted her. They became friends. It was Eric who made the film, "The Queen of Lincoln Road."

Williams at home with her hats.

Barbara Hulanicki and her husband were at first enormously successful in London. Her little, inexpensive gingham dress caught on, and the business went from a small shop to the grand Bibi in Kensington, successful until partners ruined it. Hulanicki walked away, worked in Brazil, came to Miami, where for the first time, without any experience, she designed interiors, among them the lobby of the Marlin Hotel. I wish I had a picture of that lobby with its polished metal design and metal bar. I would take friends to see it, the lobby, and the women's room tiled in bright colors. Sadly it's been changed. Barbara wore black to yesterday's screening.

A page from the Bibi catalog.

Two of the volunteers from SAVE Dade, an organization founded "to protect gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender individuals from discrimination on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation," welcomed us at the door. All the volunteers wore the SAVE Dade tee shirt with the bright red equal sign.

There were contrasting looks at the Wolfsonian: Williams in bright colors, Hulanicki in black, SAVE Dade in boldly lettered graphics: red, white, and blue.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Two Suns

This morning I noticed two suns, the one rising over the ocean and the buildings of South Beach, already tinting the clouds with pink and pale yellow, and the sun in Diane Churchill's painting, which was influenced by the landscape and atmosphere of Mojacar in Southern Spain, where I first met her.

It's warmer today after an unusual cold spell. This is the first time in ten years that we have turned on the heat. No, we did once, to test it. The newspapers published pictures of Florida strawberries encased in ice. Now the temperature is rising.

I've brought home some marvelous books from the Miami Beach Library:

The Writer's Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers
The Places In Between, an account of walking through Afghanistan by Rory Stewart
The Essays of Leonard Michaels
Images of the Holy Mother by Jacqueline Orsini

When I walk into an American public library I feel proud and delighted to be a citizen of our republic.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Blue, Green, and a Lizard

This morning I was feeling blue after waking from a melancholy dream in which J. and I were waiting for a train that was long delayed. J. wanted to leave the station and find a restaurant. I thought it was not a good idea but went along. We ate; I was more and more uneasy. When we got back to the station, the train had come and gone, the station deserted. O, those desolated train stations. I realized the bag I had left in charge of the porters was missing. They told me to look through a pile of luggage. I could not find my cream leather bag and thought of all the special clothes I had packed for a warm climate, clothes that were particular to me, intimate with me. When I got out of bed, an old medical problem kicked up.

I could speculate about why I had this dream of loss--loss of myself. It might have been because I had spent much too much time putting my little cabinet of wonders in order, dusting each thing, setting the cherub more securely in the cup full of pennies, opening the fan, throwing away old papers and finding a note from J. on which he had drawn a red heart. It brought back memories of a difficult time when I had acted badly. But what use is it to look for causes?

The pain in my leg eased up. I put on make-up, went out, and found a lizard sunning itself. "That's what I'll do," I said to myself, and walked facing the sun.

On the way home I saw this blue flower--I think it's plumbago--growing along side the cactus.

It's time for me to listen to myself no matter how soft my voice.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Feather on the Breath of God

When we read we often read ourselves, that is, we bring ourselves to the book, so every reading is different. The first time I read Sigrid Nunez's memoir-like novel, A Feather on the Breath of God, it was 2004--my friend Roger had sent it to me in Florida--and I was thinking more about my own family, and interested in her portrayal of the mother character, a German who marries a man who is Chinese and Panamanian. The portrait is uncanny, as if the daughter-narrator were literally conjuring up her mother: Her "eyes were enhanced by shapely brows that made me think of angels' wings. Their arch gave her face an expression of skeptical wonder. When she was displeased her brows went awry; the arch fell; the world came tumbling down on me."

Five years later, aware of my aging body, I am more interested in the sections about ballet, especially this one:

I have spoken about the pain of dancing. Now let me say something about the pain of not dancing. You stop dancing and your body tightens. You feel like a piece of clothing that has shrunk in the wash. A sensation worse than any muscle ache. You are trapped in a body that is too small for you; you want to claw your way out.

I've stolen a part of this passage for a poem. Luckily, most days, I can walk myself out of this body that seems too small for me, walk until I heat up, and then stretch and walk some more.

I've written about only a few aspects of this sensitive novel that I love. Nunez's prose is lyrically tempered: "Bright sun, ancient stones, the endless noon of the streets and the eternal dusk of the churches." I'll steal that too.

Friday, January 1, 2010


There are many gated "communities" in Florida; I prefer to call them subdivisions. While they promise privacy, security and exclusiveness, they lack mystery. I can imagine the look of life behind the gates.

The gated recesses in South Beach are more mysterious because they are varied and offer glimpses of lush interior courtyards and statues like this one. I may look at the fountain, the slim girl with an arched back holding a giant bowl into which water flows, a metal bird perched on the rim, but I am not allowed to enter. I can't stereotype the residents, not even to say they like statues of naked women. Some may turn their eyes away.

On Meridian Avenue, someone has left a gate open, and I can enjoy the shadows of the palm trees on the pink stucco wall.

The empty serenity of this interior courtyard draws me in, but just so far. I stand on one side of the iron gate through which I slip my camera.

The man I met on the beach this morning seems to show everything. His face is ghostly as the Aboriginies who paint themselves with white chalky pigment. I asked him if I could take his picture and whether the salve covering his skin was for the cold. I was thinking of those cold water swimmers in the English Channel who smear their bodies with grease. 'No,' he said. 'It's a cream for my skin.' Did he have an affliction? I asked myself. He did not. 'The cream leaves the skin very smooth,' he said. 'Marvelous,' I said, sounding theatrical. But he was a marvel. When he smiled he looked less ghostly. I wished him Happy New Year. Has he shown us everything? No. Just as a penitent with his or her confessor does not tell all, but by little sins indicates more. The ghostly white suggests penitence and or devotion, like the Saduhs' of India, but this is South Beach of prized smooth skin.

I wonder what I have shown you about myself: how I like to look into recesses, and speak to strangers, and sometimes sound too dramatic. I would have asked him more, but there were others eager to speak to him.