Photo: Yin Yang, credit: Getty Images

Location, Location, Location

I was in Miami for three days before I made it to the beach. The ocean was calling so I got out a map and located the best way to get to the shore.

The route seemed straight forward and easy, and since this was the 1980s, traffic was not the horror show that it would later become. I jumped into my Chevy, rolled down the windows and off I went.

My map did not deceive me as far as the route was concerned but a disclaimer for newcomers like me would have been nice, because once I crossed the causeway from Miami to Miami Beach, I entered a truly surrealistic world.

I drove along what would become the world famous Ocean Drive, but that day it was a pathetic and confusing Ocean Drive. Everywhere there were rundown buildings and rundown people. Half of the buildings weren’t inhabited and the other half shouldn’t have been.

As I drove along, to my right was a beautiful park with green grass and palm trees that abutted the beach and ocean. Out that window was truly a million dollar view.

To my left, however, was a string of run-down art deco hotels, and people living in those tiny rooms. There were lots of senior citizens slouching on lounge chairs set on large platform porches. Laundry was hanging out windows. Everything was rag-tag.

What I was seeing didn’t make sense. Once upon a time, wasn’t Miss America crowned here?

Ocean Drive is, surprisingly, a short street so soon I was forced into moving one street over, and then things got worse.

There were people all over the street and I couldn’t make sense of what they were doing until I came to a stop light. Suddenly my car was surrounded and people started talking all at once, shouting, really; throwing little packets into my car and demanding money.

I quickly ascertained that these were drug dealers and these packets were cocaine. I immediately rolled up my windows and started frantically gathering up the packets. Once I had them all I lowered my window a few inches and threw them out onto the street. And then I stepped on the gas and tore away from the intersection.

I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself down, but even as I approached the next intersection I knew that the show was not over yet.

At this location there were gathered ladies, and when I slowed for the red light they began their approach. At least this time I had my windows up.

Suddenly they were at every window, and these ladies didn’t act very lady-like. Not only were they grinding on my car doors, they were flashing and pressing their breasts against my windows. Some assertively launched themselves, stretching as far as they could across my front windshield. I got that same feeling as when you are in a carwash and the rotating sponges are blocking out all the light from outside, except it wasn’t sponges.

The traffic light finally turned green and I shouted, “Thanks for the show, but I need to move on now.” They reluctantly disengaged from my car and I drove on.

I took another deep breath.

It seemed an organized system. The next few lights showed drug dealers and prostitutes in succession. I got smart and started indicating to them that I wasn’t a “customer” before they surrounded me. As long as my windows were up, no more contraband found its way into my car.

I was starting to learn how things worked around there. I drove along the beach until the pattern stopped, then a couple of blocks more just to be safe.

Finally standing before the ocean, I believed I’d made it through enough strangeness for one day. I sat on the sand and looked out at the water. I took off my shoes because I wanted to feel the sand between my toes. The sky was a beautiful blue that I couldn’t remember having seen before. In fact, it was all beautiful, and it felt fresh and clean. It almost made me forget what I had gone through to get here.

To be truthful, what I had gone through just to find a job and make the move here, far from home, had also been grueling. But I was here now, and my first beach visit was under my belt. I decided I was ready to head home.

I retraced my route, this time a veteran of navigating the dealers and the girls. I was almost to the causeway when I saw the flashing lights in my rearview mirror.

I thought, “You have got to be kidding me.” But, no, it was no joke, so I pulled over.

With nothing to hide, I smiled as the officers approached. They asked me what I was doing there. I told them I went to the beach.

One of them said, “No, nobody goes to the beach. Why did you come here?”

I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. Because, yes, millions of people go to the beach. It is quite normal. Yet, now that he mentions it, I realize that the beach was, indeed, quite deserted. I also know that you don’t challenge what a police officer says if you want to get out of a situation smoothly.

“Well,” I said, “I only just moved to Miami and I wanted to go to the beach and so I followed the shortest path to get here.” They asked if they could look around my car. I knew there was nothing to find so I agreed.

But these officers weren’t satisfied. They somehow knew I was “holding.” They were sure of it. One of them even said, “There are only a couple of reasons why a person like you comes here.” Apparently these guys weren’t the Welcome Wagon.

Then they proceeded to take everything out of the car, even the seats.

They emptied the glove compartment, putting the papers down, unsecured beside the car. I watched them blow away while the officers held their guns on me and told me to open the trunk.

When they saw my briefcase they were sure they had stumbled upon the mother-load and with guns still drawn, they had me open it.

Then they each read a few of the going-away cards I’d been given at a party by my previous employer, because that was all that was in the briefcase.

Just then, they received a call over their radio and they bolted. With not two words in my direction, they were gone! That was a shame, because I could have told them where they could find drugs and prostitutes if they were really interested in finding some.

For the better part of the next hour I chased down my car registration papers and everything else that had once been in the glove compartment and was now blowing far down the street. Then I had to wrestle the car seats back into position all by myself.

Welcome to Miami.

I wasn’t the only person who felt that Miami Beach was upside down back then, and it wasn’t long before a small army of visionaries began reclaiming those old buildings, and slowly the streets. Once the movement got started it picked up steam quickly and it was only a few years before I was able to live quite safely close to where these encounters happened.

I loved all the quirkiness, the excitement, the glamour, and even the danger that make up that crazy place. Though I moved on eventually, living in Miami and Miami Beach gave me some of the best and most exciting memories of my life.

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Wes Heimlich, retired, currently lives between Madrid and Ibiza, Spain. In 2019 he authored “The Laws of Life I Accidently Learned Hitchhiking”

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wes heimlich

Wes Heimlich, retired, currently lives between Madrid and Ibiza, Spain. In 2019 he authored “The Laws of Life I Accidently Learned Hitchhiking”