Growing up in a famous resort area shapes how you view the immediate world. A tourist's vacationland is home to you; what is exotic to him is your everyday.
As a kid in Miami Beach in the 1950s, I played in some pretty classy hotels. Not the whole hotel, just the best part. The pool. And not by invitation.
It was hardly a noticeable offense. Who cared about one more 10-year-old with Noxzema on his nose?
But for me it was a very big deal. A bicycle and a bathing suit were my passport, lifting me from an otherwise dull preadolescence to true adventures. All of Miami Beach was mine -- its 10 1/2 miles of beach, and fanciest pools. The Saxony, the Fontainebleau, the Americana. Whatever was THE HOTEL of the season was fair game.
It was easy. Since all the hotels front on God's free Atlantic, I simply secured my bike at the nearest public beach and walked along the water's edge to the hotel of my choice, entering the pool with the other guests returning from the ocean.
Through my teens this remained a favorite sport -- during Christmas, Easter and summer vacations. In my school years the hotel pools were ideal for meeting daughters of tourists. Snowbirds, we called them.
But of course these activities are part of my past, expressions of youthful exuberance. Or so I thought.
On a recent trip home, while driving along the beach up Collins Avenue, I felt a strange and at the same time familiar urge. Maybe it was all those hotels, looking so secure. Or maybe it was the tie around my neck, and the realization that my little niece -- not even born when I crashed my last pool -- is now 20 years old.
The next day I parked on 65th Street off Collins and entered the public beach just south of the Deauville Hotel. I chose that place for sentimental reasons: A lifetime ago, when my family first came to Miami Beach, that hotel was the site of the old McFadden Deauville, which had the deepest pool and highest diving tower I had ever seen.
The view at the ocean and 65th Street had improved since my last visit. Years of erosion had cost dearly, in some places shrinking the shore to little more than a path. But the city's recent reclamation project has added from 150 to 200 feet of land, leaving broad expanses of even beach to the north and south, miles of whitish sand dotted with umbrellas, folding chairs and lifeguard stands.
The pool at the "new" Deauville -- actually, by now it must be 30 years old -- is less spectacular than the one of my childhood, but perfectly adequate. And, with its colony of chaise longues, its little round wading pool, its shuffleboard courts stretched across the top of the beachfront bank of cabanas, it represented a classic example of Beach hotels.
As I entered the complex, wearing only a swimsuit and a pair of sunglasses, I got a flash of the old excitement. My father's voice rang in my ears: "You're breaking the law. It's called theft of services." My pulse quickened, and suddenly everything looked a little newer, a little fancier.
My mind played back over countless other incursions into countless hotel pools. Posture, I thought; attitude. My spine stiffened. Passing the neatly stacked towels by the lifeguard's station, I smiled "good day" as I grabbed a towel and tossed it casually over my shoulder.
My bravado was thin; it had been a long time. I glanced at the big white hotel. Easily 14 stories, I guessed, trying to think ahead. If challenged I would be "Goldberg, in 816."
Dropping my towel on the apron of the pool, I walked around to the low board and executed a passable swan dive. As I swam those few yards near the bottom, the warm water, that slightly salty taste, brought me back to when such visits were common. Even then, the nervousness was common. I began to relax.
I surfaced near where I had left my towel, and pulled myself up to a sitting position on the apron, just like in the old days. Clearly, I was on the way back.
It was nearly 4 o'clock, the perfect time. Early in the day, before 10, there are so few sunbathers the staff notices everyone who arrives. At noon the pool is jammed, every chaise taken. By 6 most of the people have gone, but so has the sun. But between 3 and 5, when the sun is still good, guests begin to collect themselves and abandon their pad-covered lounges.
In the second row by the pool stood four lounges with no sign of occupancy -- not a paperback or a bottle of sunscreen. I moved in. It was a nice day, bright and sunny, and without the high humidity that often makes Florida unbearable. Everything felt right.
Within minutes, I was approached by a young woman carrying a tray. "May I get you something from the bar?" The thought buzzed in my mind. Would Mr. Goldberg of 816 like a gin and tonic? I cautioned myself: Prudence, prudence! "Not just now, thank you."
It was all coming back as I lay on my pad, watching the sun dance off the gently rippling water of the big pool. There is a balance to be struck in this game, a safe posture between the frightened trespasser sneaking in for a quick swim and the mad eccentric signing bills to non-existent guests. That pose is of a confident, slightly arrogant tourist in a $100-a-day room, a man who knows he belongs, a man of quiet power.
Before me unfolded a scene that had changed little over the years: toddlers, splashing in the wading pool; slightly older children, sporting a variety of tubes and water wings in the larger pool. Women, well oiled and baking in the afternoon sun; men, cooling themselves in the shallow water, their gold jewelry glistening from just below the surface.
Watching the activity at the shuffleboard deck, on the lounges, in the pool, I could not keep from wondering how many of the vacationers were frauds, and further, what species of fraud.
Pool crashers fall into two categories -- sitters and drifters. I was always a drifter, stopping in at one pool for an hour or so, swimming a little, maybe working my way into the fringes of some corporation's party for a snack, then moving on. The truly committed are sitters, who come in before noon, take a lounge -- tipping the attendant as would any legitimate guest -- then spend the day.
Twenty years ago I could spot a drifter from a sitter from the genuine article in a second, but that afternoon they all looked as if they came from Scarsdale, Des Plaines or Chevy Chase.
It was unsettling to realize I was that out of practice, so I headed for the beach. I did remember to deposit my towel in the big bin before leaving. Nothing gives you away faster than strolling into one hotel carrying the towel from another.
Walking north, I took a quick dip at the Carillon, a hotel not unlike the Deauville beside it, of similar vintage, but with a pool area trailing by a half step -- everything a little smaller. Then I headed for the public beach that dominates most of the blocks between 72nd and 84th streets.
The personality of the public beaches is very different from what you find behind the big hotels. Lounge chairs, colorful umbrellas and polite children building sand castles introduce the Eden Roc, Deauville or Doral. Public beaches are jammed with families on old bedspreads eating picnic lunches, kids scrambling to stay on huge truck inner tubes, highly competitive Frisbee matches and the blaring sounds of Prince and the Police.
At 87th Street I stopped at the Holiday Inn. There were no Holiday Inns on the Beach in my day, no chains at all, at least not that anyone knew. Individuality was the goal. Times have changed; this was pure Holiday Inn, big green sign and all. But it had a nice, rectangular pool, worthy of a plunge.
Big hotels are scarce along that stretch, so I worked my way through the apartments and apartment-hotels, swimming a lap at the Four Winds Apartments on 92nd Street, under the scrutiny of two elderly residents. I stopped at 93rd at the Rodney Motel and Apartments, using the larger of their two modest pools, then visited the Palms at 94th Street, a motel with a large pool and a casual attitude toward floating locals. "Just tip the boys," winked the bartender.
The Singapore is a proper hotel, seven stories at 96th Street with a good bar and a pool far enough from the main building that it remains safe from late-afternoon shadows. I swam, then considered a round on the little putting green. But I rejected it.
Next came the Americana, one of the classiest hotels on the north end of Miami Beach.
Actually, the Americana is now the Sheraton Bal Harbour. As I approached, the resident fleet of wind surfers and catamarans told me the change was in name only.
The pool is in a beautiful setting, just a step or two up from the white beach and flanked by thatched huts for the service centers and stretches of grass and palm trees.
It had always been one of my favorite stops, and, as I slipped into the oddly geometrically shaped pool, I felt more at home than I had all day. Midway through my second lap, I encountered a young woman, a teacher from Denver.
We talked, swam together and continued our conversation as we walked back to her lounge.
The tropical setting, the soft glow of late afternoon, the pleasant conversation lulled me into such security that I sat on the adjacent chaise without looking. It happened to belong to a paying guest, and before I could apologize, the pool attendant showed up, clipboard in hand.
I was very cool. I simply told him I was with the teacher -- her guest. Guests are allowed.
There was this awkward silence. Before anyone spoke, I knew. She was no guest; she was a "sitter," who had sneaked into the pool during the morning. We both were asked to leave.
This should end with the two of us walking into the sunset, but that didn't happen. She blamed me for blowing her cover, and stormed off.
I headed back down the beach, and envisioned my picture being plastered in every pool office south of Ft. Lauderdale.