FLORIDA BOASTS two spectacular amusement parks, one for writers and one for everybody else. The one with all the big mice and ducks walking around is for everybody else, and you can find it in the northern part of the state.
But the one that was made just for writers is the southern end of the state, and ever since its first literary heavyweight, Ernest Hemingway, cut the park's ribbon, South Florida has provided the source material and refuge for a veritable library of big-time American writers.
Hemingway caught the South Florida habit waiting for the ferry to Havana and whetting his parched throat in Key West's great open-air bar, Sloppy Joe's, on Duvall Street. Sloppy Joe's and most of Key West haven't changed a barstool or a curbstone since, and still reek of Papa's geist. The cat population that overran Hemingway's Key West house in his writing days has become even more populous (most of them sharing an odd genetic trait of extra toes). And the ultimate Hemingway nostalgia trip, deep-sea sport fishing, still awaits, as gruelling and frustrating as the Master described it.
Tennessee Williams is Key West's modern literary luminary, but he rarely ventures out to glad-hand with the tourists, and a tight retinue sees that few make it into his oasis to glad-hand with him; those lucky few who do will probably find him poolside attending to his passion, oil painting. And if Tennessee's getting on in years, there's new blood waiting to pick up the torch, chief among them Thomas McGuane, whose "Ninety-two in the Shade" put toughness, terseness and the Florida Keys back on the literary map. Like Hemingway, McGuane's tropical challenge is the struggle to wrest a living from the sea, and also like the Master, McGuane's been dividing his time between Key West and the far West, with a ranch and some extraordinary screenplays ("The Missouri Breaks," "Tom Horn") set in Montana.
Need a great gumshoe? On Florida's Gulf Gold Coast, put your finger on Travis McGee's spartan ad in the Yellow Pages; his creator, John D. MacDonald, concocts McGee's Crayola-colored adventures there along with an occasional non-detective novel ("Condominium"). Across the peninsula in Miami, where you'd least expect to find a Nobel laureate creating epic literature, the winter months afford comfort to Issac Bashevis Singer as well as to the whole flock of New York snowbirds. You can find the last master of Yiddish prose at an occasional public lecture in season or, by his own admission, you might spot him stalking Miami Beach's five-and-dime stores on his admittedly doomed quest for a spiral notebook whose margins are on the right to accommodate the right-to-left Hebrew alphabet in which Yiddish is written.
Everyone knows why people go to the place with the big mice and ducks and everyone knows why ordinary vacationers go to South Florida (something about suntans and maybe some waterskiing), but mystery surrounds the special writers' amusement park in South Florida. Whatever the lure is, it had precious little to do with Coppertone or water skis. There are plenty of reasons why writers have been haunting the place, but once they're out in the open, the mystery actually deepens. Who in his right mind, you may ask, would want that kind of amusement?
Good question. Keep it in mind on this quick tour of South Florida Writers' World--and keep in mind, of course, that this is a place for writers, and writers don't have to be in their right minds.
Noisy-As-Hell-All-Night-Long-Land. This is as good an attraction to start with as any, and it's conveniently located in several places and styles. Because writers never know when they'll have to whip out a socko crowd scene for their next epic, they have needs now and then to be in the midst of thousands of folks whooping it up every night on just the polite side of insurrection. The urge may hit anytime, so writers can't wait for New Years' Eve to roll around.
For my bucks, the best such concession is Called Ocho (that's Eighth Street, y'all) in Little Havana, which lies far to the west of the usual tourist haunts of Miami and Miami Beach. The all-night whoopee here has the best food by a long shot, and at shockingly low prices. The Versailles Restaurant is a great base of operations to get the feel of the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Block Party in America, and you can start your evening with a light snack dedicated to the hour -- the media noche or midnight sandwich, a tasty grilled cold cut and cheese submarine (hero, grinder, hoagie). If you're hungry for something a little heftier as you gaze around the bemirrored Cuban food palace (so you never have to stare directly at the fellow in pink trousers and white satin shirt), you can try my old favorite, lengua asada, a.k.a. roast tongue simmered in a rich vegetable gravy. The obligatory but rewarding side dishes are black beans and yellow rice. Beer fans will discover they've stumbled onto a trove of new and wonderful Latin cervecas, although the Cubans also have an inexplicable fondness for Guinness Stout, which one asks for as Cabeza de Pero--Dog's Head, because of the fierce English bulldog on the special Spanish menu at the Versailles; the waiters are trained to spot Anglos at twenty paces, and gently provide them with bilingual editions.
Out on Calle Ocho itself is the entire ambulatory Cuban-American population making the most of the traditional socializing hours of the tropics, and the full show will almost certainly last well past 3 or 4 a.m. While all sorts of canned and live music compete for your attention (dancing permitted), vest-pocket parks that pepper the street are hosting deadly serious chess and domino tournaments. These are almost exclusively male and are exclusively Cuban, so don't try to butt in, but you can watch (shoulder to shoulder with 50 others) all you want.
This-Time-I've Gone-Too-Far-Land. With the exception of Proust, who got by on childhood and a whiff, writers need experience. Pleasant experiences will do for openers, but the stuff that makes publishers reach for a blank contract goes beyond Smurfs and Strawberry Shortcake. Far beyond. That kind of mess-around is all over, too.
Beyond the confines of Miami Beach reserved for tourists, the rest of South Florida has No Rules (except Don't Get Caught). I caught my first hint of this during an innocent newspaper interview one afternoon which took place in a modest, nondescript suburban brick rambler in Fort Lauderdale. As my subject's family (and a large family of young ladies it seemed at the time) went about its business inside, the subject told me her story and posed for pictures by the boat canal in the back yard. Two hours into the interview, she clarified a point by saying, "When my husband and I opened this whorehouse four years ago . . . " For the rest of the interview, flies buzzed lazily in and out of my gaping mouth. So much for the pleasant experiences.
Sodom and Gomorrah are gone forever, but any writer with a little spare time and determination can easily recapture the old magic in Broward, Dade or Monroe counties, which respectively house Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Key West. If you take your death straight, you can cruise Miami with a police scanner at night and check out the better drug-related murders as the hopelessly understaffed and overworked police departments clean them up. For newspaper or crime writers, South Florida and particularly Miami are Prohibition Chicago all over again. The authorities try to keep that sort of thing out of sight of the tourists, but I covered one drug murder in the parking lot of the Miami Beach Convention Center, where Jackie Gleason used to broadcast his June Taylor extravaganzas. Teen-age tourists have lately been returning north with "Visit Miami" T-shirts illustrated with a mean-looking Dirty Harry revolver pointed straight at you.
Coconut Grove, Miami's Bohemian neighborhood, is a good spot to fall in with those bad companions your mother warned you about. Before you can say "Uh-oh," you shouldn't have much trouble being recruited into a cocaine or reefer smuggling deal of some respectable magnitude. The best ice-breaker for this kind of contact anywhere among the young and the restless in the Grove or Key West is a friendly game of poolside backgammon (and every apartment complex in South Florida had a pool with people playing backgammon). Plan to get to know your future partners for at least four or five afternoons before making a commitment, and let them bring up the subject. Be loose and mellow, but for God's sake, don't flash a lot of money around.
If this lane's a bit fast for you, just be content playing backgammon for money, and your new friends will gladly help separate you from a few thousand dollars as you learn the game and the nuances of the infamous doubling cube. (For a little safe fun, put your sanitized drinking glass against the wall between your hotel room and your neighbor's and catch the drift of his conversations over the phone and with visitors anytime after midnight. Don't venture into the hall.) Once you stumble into any of this forbidden experience, you've also found the entrance to the Gallery of Very Memorable Characters, a very popular attraction for any ambitious novelist.
The Dodge-Em Ride. Writers have little use for things that are predictable or tame, so they always enjoy the drive from mainland Miami south through the Keys to the southernmost island, Key West. This vehicular horror show can take anywhere from three hours to the better part of a week, depending on the cooperation of a few strategically located ancient drawbridges and one's driving skill and steel nerves. The direct, scenic and only route is U.S. 1, a challenge that makes "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" seem like a breeze; on this Dodge-Em, they play for keeps. Curiously enough, you can break the nightmare up at a remarkable and entirely hidden gourmet restaurant with a spectacular view of sunset over the Gulf of Mexico -- the Marker 88 on Plantation Key (look for the 88-mile highway marker and a right), which does sinfully wondrous things to the locally caught seafood. (Reservations are a must in winter and on all weekends.)
After dinner, more thrills are in store. If you're a real sport, pick up a Key-West-bound hitchhiker, who'll range from the merely bizarre to the fully berserk and probably armed. Along the deserted stretches between Plantation Key and Key West, fight the temptation to pick up a little speed; the endangered midget Key deer like to stand in the middle of the highway and become transfixed in your headlights. And on the way back to Miami, don't forget to pause for a swim in Lake Surprise. It received its name because the railway builders had no idea it was going to be there when they hacked their way through the mosquito-infested mangrove swamps, but you'll get your surprise when you meet one of the lake's crocodiles -- about the only place left in America where the crocs still hang out.
The Land Where Time Stands Still. After they've survived all the experiences they can stomach, writers need absolute quiet and calm on the order of a hospital zone for months at a stretch. At this juncture they invariably move to Key West, where for the most part Absolutely Nothing Happens indefinitely. (The main drag, Duvall Street, though, is another Noisy-As-Hell-All-Night-Long-Land, without the good food, but with frontier-style bar fights and scads of memorable characters.)
The established residents of Key West are called Conchs, and years before writers or tourists showed up, Conchs had mastered the art of stopping time. All things throughout the Keys happen on their own schedules, if at all. (One of the feeder airlines for years has had to fight the somewhat unfair local nickname of Air Sometimes.) Mellow out; you're doomed if you don't. Two northern businessmen once marched off the plane straight to the rent-a-car desk where their travel agent had sworn in blood that a car would be waiting for them, all gassed up and ready to go. Unfortunately, the clerk had closed up shop an hour earlier to make her pickup softball game. After recovering from their apoplectic fits, the shattered businessmen took a taxi into town.
All this is just what writers crave; just ask Tennessee Williams when you see him. A northern big-city writer's phone and doorbell may ring day and night with crises, emergencies and deadlines; but (assuming the phones are working in or out of hurricane season) the phones rarely tinkle in Key West, and anything that does bother to knock or ring is usually glad to go away at the gentlest suggestion.
Key West may become the first municipality to set a quota on incoming Colorful Characters; there just doesn't seem to be enough floor space for the ones there already. A writer can abstain from all the adventures these folk have to offer or, when the urge becomes irrepressible, the writer can saunter to Mallory Square for the evening sunset ritual and soon scare up any variety of No Rules action. Key West is paradise for rootless drifters, which makes it paradise as well for writers whose bread-and-butter are stories about rootless drifters. Anyone who runs out of that kind of raw material in Key West just isn't trying.
The-Clash-of-Lifestyles-Tug-of-War. Writers thrive on conflict, and conflict grows on the parrot-jammed trees in South Florida. Being first a bona fide region of Dixie, fundamentalist Christians (not the Johnny-come-lately trendy variety, but the old ones who know the ropes and mean business) represent the earliest layer of society. Subsequent waves, however, consisted of immigrant northern liberals to start the pot seething, and among the more recent waves are transplanted communities of homosexuals in Coconut Grove and Key West. The layers blend poorly, to say the least, and Voila!--there's Anita Bryant and a full-scale community uproar.
On the purely ethnic and religious spectrun, a bus sputtering up Miami's Biscayne Boulevard contains Baptists, Jews, Catholics, Anglos, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Afro-Americans, Haitians, Jamaicans, at least enough Argentines to field a pretty slick Argentine restaurant, and a few Cuban-Chinese, whose cuisine is the low-overhead bargain of the century. (Wealthy Protestant Anglos don't ride the bus, of course. They park the Audi in Coral Gables, across U.S. 1 from Coconut Grove.)
The Exit. Just like the other amusement park with the big mice and ducks, all too soon writers come to the exit of South Florida Writers' World, though a good many of them think it wasn't soon enough. Some of them have had so much fun that their brains have burned to a cinder. More than a few who weren't content to observe and take notes are probably doing time in the out-of-state federal pens or in the state penitentiary which, alas, is in the northern part of the state. Others with the proper mix of luck and good sense scoop up all their collected swell experiences and get the hell out; I now write my tomes in a New England hamlet that had its annual murder six months ago and is still somewhat dazed by it. (The victim and alleged perpetrator were kin and no money or drugs were involved.)
But for you writers-to-be, the park stays open all year, 'round the clock, as it always has for the writers who've always gravitated there. You can usually spot them in South Florida. They're the ones without the tans watching you in the mirrored walls of the Versailles.