Gran, me & the USA Part 3: Hello Miami
My eyes opened, and for a fleeting moment I didn’t know where I was. I wasn’t looking at Constable’s Haywian, the sight that greeted every morning as it featured on my bedroom wallpaper at home. No I didn’t choose it, and I don’t think it was a parental attempt to encourage an appreciation for the Arts from an early age. Instead, I suspect dad found a roll or two in the wallpaper shop’s bargain bin.
A second or so later realisation hit, I had woken-up in America and this would be our first full day in Miami Beach. The view from my bed was of another identically massive bed, and I could just about make out my grandmother. In a squidgy bed it was all to easy for a woman of slight build to virtually disappear, so I was reassured when her familiar voice greeted me, and I was instructed to draw the curtains. I didn’t need to be asked twice! Neither thick or thin, the curtains (or drapes as they say in America) were offering a hint of what to expect once they were open.
Two quick swooshes later, and there it was the most blue of blue skies I’d ever seen, clearly the storm that had welcomed us to Miami had long moved on. Our hotel, the grandly named Atlantic Towers, was beachfront and offered panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, for the rooms that faced the sea. Our room was on the other side facing the street, and this delighted me. Yes a seaview is lovely, but for me being able to see the other buildings and those big American cars gliding along Collins Avenue was the perfect view. My gaze was broken with a request to check if my clothes (that had gotten soaked in the suitcase by the storm) had dried-out in the bathroom where gran had hung them out last night. “All dry” I called back, and was asked to take them down and put them on the chair in the room.
Duly done, it was time for me to wash and dress - this didn’t take long, and gran took my place in the bathroom.
Gran always took a real pride in her appearance and so I knew she’d take a while. She knew this too, which is why I was given the next task to put my clothes away whilst she was getting ready. Of course that didn’t take me long. Regardless of how excited I was to start the day, I didn’t want to be the precocious brat on the other side of the door demanding my grandmother hurried-up. I knew this was her time, and I knew it was only fair to allow her the time she wanted to get ready. It felt good to be able to offer her this respect. I was so truly grateful she had brought me on this trip and the very least I could do was be patient. Anyway we were a team and all good team players always look out for each other.
On this particular morning it also gave the opportunity to investigate the air conditioning unit that had caught my attention the night before. My father had done a brilliant job of making me fearful of the dangers associated with anything electrical, so switching this on was going to be a true act of bravery on my part. I went for it, switched on it made a noise and vibrated. I was expecting the machine to pump out an icy blast of air, instead it managed a trickle of air only slightly cooler than the air already in the room. As I wasn’t an air conditioning engineer I didn’t know if this was right or if it needed fixing, and as I’d been a bit covert by switching it on without asking gran first I decided the best course of action was to quickly turn it off. Was I disappointed? No! The main thing for me was having done something “American” even before leaving our room.
My attention turned to the TV. It looked like every TV I’d seen on every American TV show. A wooden box, four wooden legs, a screen, and with the dials and speaker on the right hand side. Switched on, the black and white images all came complete with a snowstorm. Not to worry, I’m not here to watch telly, so I switched it off and went to stand at the corner of the corner window to watch the world passing by below me.
In hindsight I realise that we were staying in a hotel that had seen better days, and I’ve since learnt that the Atlantic Towers was demolished in 1983 to be replaced by a much larger complex of condominiums. Although to me the hotel was a palace, it didn’t matter that the decor was dated and some of the things didn’t work. All that mattered was that it was our home for the time we were spending in Miami and I liked it a lot.
I heard a “click” and knew the bathroom door was about to open, and gran would emerge. She would look smart, all the things that needed to be coordinated would be coordinated, and we would be good to go. Our adventure was about to start.
Taking our seats for breakfast in the hotel, our waitress arrived immediately and came complete with coffee jug in hand ready to pour. I ordered pancakes and Maple syrup. Surely every child has this for their first breakfast in America? Washed down with orange juice. because of course we were in the Sunshine State where oranges were everywhere. I took a glance at the adverts selling the dream to America in what had to be the biggest newspaper I’d ever seen. Although we weren’t going to spend long over breakfast, by now we were both eager to get outside and explore.
We mutually agreed that for our first day we’d take it easy and familiarise ourselves with our new surroundings. In all honesty we were still tired from our long journey the day before, and so it felt good not to have any itinerary to follow. As we were on Miami Beach, it made perfect sense to start our day with a walk on the beach. Leaving from the back of the hotel, there we were on the beach, we turned right and headed south.
I soon noticed the Art Deco beachfront hotels, they all offered a vision of faded grandeur, a beautiful reminder of a hayday that was a distant memory. Elderly people were sat in the shade of the hotel porches and verandas quietly contemplating life. For many of them these hotels had become what would be their final homes. It made me wonder if they had come here on vacation when they were younger at a time when these hotels were the height of sophistication, and then returned to spend their twilight days basking in the heat and reliving their memories.
With the passage of time, these very hotels have been restored, and South Beach is truly hot again as a destination for fashionistas. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it before it was transformed. There was a quiet dignity to the place, and even the peeling paint didn’t detract too much from the wonderful architecture.
We turned around and headed back to the beach by our hotel, here I took the first of many swims in the Atlantic and played in the sand. It was blissful, and the sun must have liked me as it decided to turn my back an amazing shade of neon pink. We weren’t quite so aware of the power of the sun in those days, and even though I was using sun cream, clearly not enough. Fear not, gran knew a cure, and having sought directions we were soon heading over the causeway to find the drugstore. No trips to the chemist for us, we were doing things the American way!
Walking along the pavement, again I was struck by the lack of people. It seemed they were all in the air conditioned cars that were cruising past us. Only us tourists were braving the heat of the day, walking on the long, straight, wide, and super smooth concrete pavements. With pavements like this you can see why skateboarding was so popular in the USA, especially compared with the uneven paving in my hometown.
I don’t recall the drugstore, but we must have got there as gran had the magic potion ready for me that evening. I do recall the diner. By now hunger had set in and spotting a diner we pushed the door and went in. The drop in temperature was unbelievable, from scorching to freezing in less than a second, clearly their air conditioning was working. It looked exactly like every diner I’d seen on TV. A row of red upholstered booths lined the long window, their formica tables edged with chrome, and there was a long counter with a line of red stools all bolted to floor. We sat at the counter and ordered a ham sandwich, gran had heard the portion sizes were big in America and figured we wouldn’t need a sandwich each. She was right, what arrived was a ham loaf, it didn’t quite fill the plate but what space was left had been covered with a mountain of chips (crisps in UK speak). Gran swiftly dissected the sandwich, a chunk of which was napkin wrapped and deposited with total stealth into her handbag “just in case, for later.” My accompanying chocolate milkshake was equally excessive in size, although in this case I somehow managed to complete the task of emptying the glass. There was no way I’d be leaving a drop of it behind, it was glorious, and of course Gran helped out too!
The shops turned out to be a handy way to find brief respite from the heat, and heading back to the hotel we found ourselves in a menswear store. Whilst it had a narrow frontage, it was very deep, and the entire length of one wall consisted of two clothing rails that must have been sixty feet in length. These rails only had men’s slacks on them. Yes slacks, the casual relative of the trouser, and these really were the ultimate in casualwear for a gentleman of a certain age. I was astounded, here were slacks in every pastel shade imaginable and a few you never knew even existed. They were arranged starting with the lightest of white at the front of the shop and then colour blocked their way to the very back. If you ever thought there was only one shade of white, this shop soon put you right. The shades of white, moved into the shades of cream, that went on to the shades of yellow, and greens, pinks, peaches, and blues. There were more hues than a Dulux colour chart. I was spellbound, gran was shopping and we left this slacks superstore with two pairs for her husband. On our return to Wales, my step-granddad was all set to become the swishest pensioner in town!
My back certainly wasn’t a pastel shade, and back at the hotel gran set to work with the Camomile lotion she’d bought in the drugstore. I appreciated its instant cooling effect, but wasn’t sure I liked the smell, it was also time to bring our first day to a close. That night I drifted off to sleep thinking about the things I’d seen, how different everything was and just much I’d enjoyed the day.
As I didn’t keep a diary on the trip, memories start to get a bit sketchy, so in the following episodes I’m not going to attempt to write a day-by-day account. Instead, I’ve grouped together my memories as best I can in a way that I hope makes for interesting reading.
In the next episode I’ll be explaining how I became very grown-up during my time in Miami.