“We’re going to get some blinds up,” LegalArt’s director promises. But the lack of fresh air is a permanent concession to humidity that could cripple the ventilation system. Besides, I realize, looking out my third-floor window at a parking lot where partygoers with glow sticks stumble out from the neighboring rave club, the air might not be so fresh on this block of North Miami Avenue.
I’ve driven down Interstate 95 from Washington to be the first writer-in-residence for LegalArt, a nonprofit that provides legal services, education and grant opportunities for artists. Its latest initiative is a complex of affordable live/work studios for visual artists; one studio is reserved for scholars, curators or writers such as myself. I plan to use this time to work on my third book of poetry. I’m looking forward to getting to know the other artists — on a beach, I hope, with mojito in hand, playing hooky from our studios. But because of their day jobs, most of my housemates are night owls. And I turn out to be the tired traveler, ready to crash at 11 p.m., just as they set up the Ping-Pong table.
I make a living on the road; in less than 12 months, I’ve put 30,000 miles on my car. Ceaseless trips have erased any construct I had of vacationing. I don’t pick a perfect time for the perfect weather in the perfect place. I say yes to any visiting professorship, any reading, or any residency whenever and wherever it is offered.This has landed me everywhere from Carbondale, Ill., to Fairfield, Conn. But sometimes I luck out and end up in a city that I’ve always wanted to see, such as Miami.
My family often vacationed in Florida when I was growing up, particularly while my father’s Army command was in Pensacola. Our destinations were quiet gulf towns — Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Sanibel Island, Fort Myers — with beautiful beaches and not much else. Miami became a glittering symbol of the exotic, the Other Florida.
But it turned out that my fantasy was implicitly seasonal. Every March, crowds gather in Little Havana for Carnaval and the Calle Ocho Festival. Every December, collectors and gallery owners sweep through for Art Basel. That’s the energy I had pictured. Instead, I wake to overcast midwinter mornings in a largely deserted downtown building with no view of the water. If I wanted to get lost in the dance clubs, they’d be just steps away. But as a poet, I’m not looking for Miami’s signature fashion or glitz. I want to understand this city’s outsiders, its artists, its cultural anchors.
After several restless days, I go in search. Instead of fixating on Miami as the Other Florida, I will discover the Other Miami. There is no festival going on to give me a neat itinerary. Yet some places are only truly experienced after the crowds have come and gone.