South Beach: Then and Now

I dined alfresco the other night at one of the dozens of cafes that sprawl along the Lincoln Road mall in South Beach, savoring coconut chicken soup under a red umbrella, listening to a strolling guitarist in shorts strum "Yesterday."

The moon over Miami was crescent, a warm breeze ruffled multi-lighted coconut palm fronds, dogs with hats yapped under the tables and around splashing fountains, long-legged Latinas and buff fellas, tourists and druggies and varied genders preened in an endless paseo.

A guy in a pink bodysuit with huge, fake (I think) genitalia whizzed past on a unicycle. I felt part of a Fellini scene, like the time on Lincoln Road when a man asked me to hold his parrot while he disappeared for an hour into Books and Books.

South Beach wasn't always cool. It was just plain hot when I was growing up near Flamingo Park, on Euclid Avenue, in a Mediterranean style apartment house with a fountain in the courtyard. Today the whole building is probably owned by an over-the-hill rap star or a Frankfurt trader.

I hear rapid-fire Spanish as I sip my soup, but when I was a kid the second language in South Beach was Yiddish. I remember Mrs. Wallach, a neighbor with jiggly arms, a World War II refugee from Poland who wore dark dresses and smelled like Cashmere Bouquet soap. She'd get upset when people said "Orange Juice" because she heard it as an anti-Semitic slur.

On Washington Avenue, where clubs now pulse till dawn, stores used to sell whitefish and five-and-dime notions to gray-haired ladies like Mrs. Wallach. Now almost nobody looks older than 30: SoBe crowds are as rehabbed as the buildings. I just read some survey that people down here are the most beautiful, and the vainest in the country. And from my observation, probably the most reworked.

Oldsters used to sit on the art-deco hotel terraces across from Lummus Park, staring at the ocean, tanned and creased as the big leather purses the models on "go-sees" sling across their shoulders today. Those terraces today are expensive bars and restaurants which celebrate excess and make it seem cool and normal.

A couple of years ago my friend and I celebrated Mother's Day outdoors at Vix at The Victor, across from the beach and a block from the steps where Versace was murdered. The charming waiter spieled about artisanal cheese and day boats and 50 year-old balsamic vinegar and we were so distracted by the Ocean Drive scene we didn't realize we had been bamboozzled and had consumed a meal that set us back half a thousand dollars. I ate at home for months after that extreme dinner.

(I keep thinking how I need that money today.)

I remember another special meal, at the Delano on Collins Avenue with out-of-town relatives, long ago. I wore my patent-leather Mary Janes and a violinist played gypsy music and the lamb chops sported frilly paper panties on their ends, so you could pick them up. The crowd amid the billowing white curtains now draws casual guys, shirts and tongues hanging out, sniffing around the gold diggers who deserve them. And those ladies have something in common with the chops.

When I was 10 we moved to a white house with porthole windows, 15 blocks north of Lincoln Road, It looked "old" like much of the under-appreciated architecture in South Beach back then. It would be decades until we started realizing these mid-century buildings were treasures.

On Saturday afternoons in I used to hop on the K or O bus to Lincoln Road. I'd window shop at Moseleys, Saks, or The Prom Shop and dream of growing up. I'd admire the shiny Cadillac convertibles tipped with fins, slowly cruising by the stores. Shoppers today cruise blocks of fake orchids, fake "original" sketches, fake boobs at the Lincoln Road Market on Sundays. They stroll past the kind of mid-century tchotchkes that once filled our house on "Royal Palm Avenue," and by Romero Britto's gallery. They sip passion fruit concoctions, hiding behind giant sunglasses. Many probably fell into bed at 4 am.

I lost most of my baby teeth chewing Milk Duds, seeking respite from the humidity in the over-chilled aircon of the Lincoln Road movie palaces. I watched Ben Hur at the Lincoln (which was home of the New World Symphony before the new Frank Gehry concert hall was built last year, right behind it). I saw Lawrence of Arabia at the Colony (now a venue for gigs like the Gay Men's Chorus). The prettiest theaters were the Beach and Caribe, long gone. The Caribe had a waterfall and a macaw in the lobby, and constant squawks interrupted the Bronx-accented Roman orations of Tony Curtis, teasing me in a toga, in Cinemascope. But Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson were my all-time fave heartthrobs. Yes, I know. We were duped.

My friends and I would head for Rexall Drugs at the corner of Washington and Lincoln and we'd giggle at the postcards of girlies in two-piece bathing suits, and pick up tiny, smelly turtles with "Miami Beach" painted on their shells. These poor creatures would die a couple of days after you bought them, but several were flushed down the toilet before I gave up.

I'd sip a cherry coke or a black-and-white soda at the counter, and in that same vein, sometimes I'd drink from the "colored" fountain at the Rexall, at first because I wondered if the water tasted different. I'd also sit in the back of bus and got worse looks from the riders in the front than the folks segregated in the rear, who offered tired smiles. None of us could have imagined back then that a "colored" man would become our president. Or that this still southern-influenced city would blaze like bougainvillea into SoBe.

When I feel really nostalgic I head for Joe's Stone Crab at the tip of South Beach for the tart key lime pie and hash browns and cole slaw. Across the street, right where my dad bet most nights at the dog track, my sister's condo soars over Government Cut, where I can wave to cruise passengers as they head out into the Atlantic. Their tinkly laughter carries 20 floors above, and it makes me happy, too.

I felt just as giddy as those passengers when I left South Beach after I finished school. Back then I thought the place was buggy and boring, and I couldn't wait to get to New York. But I'm back and forth now, and it ain't boring anymore and the bugs don't matter much. In fact, I think I'll drive to Lincoln Road and see what's happening. The evening is breezy. The temp is 71. I do like that soup.