Gran, me & the USA Part 4: The Miami Growth Spurt
I arrived in America as a wide eyed eleven year old, yet within a matter of days I felt like a fully fledged adult. This could be because I was always in the company of other adults; my grandmother and the people she was befriending. Gran was good at making friends, so there was no shortage of conversations taking with our fellow holidaymakers.
It was also the case that wherever gran went I went too, and as she enjoyed going out in the evening I’d go with her. There was never any prospect of me being left with a babysitter, even as a seven year old she took out for the evening during one of our visits to London, where for some unknown reason I was taught the waltz. A night out that included learning new essential life skills, gran really knew how to show me a good time!
So one evening in Miami it came as no surprise to find myself entering the bar we’d walked past earlier in the day. This was the type of bar given the choice you’d do an immediate U-turn out of, it really was melancholy. Its patrons were three men, sat in silence at their own tables contemplating their drinks. You could tell they each had a story to tell, and that their stories wouldn’t be uplifting. Social convention kicked in and we felt obliged to make it to the bar and order a drink as it would have been too obvious to just walk out.
We took seats at the bar, and the barmaid gave us her immediate attention. I couldn’t help but notice her blue sequined boob tube (a fashion must at the time) was performing a Janet Jackson style wardrobe malfunction. In my new state of adulthood I tugged at gran’s arm and using my eyes directed her to the unfortunate exposure. In an instant gran performed a mine showing the barmaid how to correct this situation, not a word needed to be said, other than the “thank you” from the slightly embarrassed, but much relieved barmaid. We only stayed for one drink, but it was long enough for me to realise that not everyone got to live the American dream.
Each day would bring new encounters and experiences, and this particular day was no exception. Gran and me were sitting in our hotel’s reception waiting for a sudden downpour to end when a couple came running in. The woman was holding her shoes, and loudly announced she wasn’t going to “let the rain ruin a $200 pair of shoes.” My sharp witted grandmother immediately replied with, “I’d take my stockings off too!” The laughter brought us together and we were soon enjoying the company of couple who lived locally, and had run in to escape the rain. They told us about the history of South Beach, and confirmed what we’d seen on our first day, that the old Art Deco hotels had, in most cases, become homes for retirees. We also heard that if we headed in the other direction we’d come across a truly glamorous destination; the legendary Fontainebleau Hilton hotel. Gran was intrigued and once the storm had passed, and her outfit had been slightly upscaled, we headed to this Miami Beach icon.
Gran greeted the doorman as if he were her best friend, ensuing the door was opened for us as wide as his welcoming smile. The Fontainebleau was very different to the cosy and homely Atlantic Towers Hotel we were staying in. Tired furnishings and decor were replaced by masses of marble, every metal fitting glistened. and we walked under a chandelier that was truly bigger than my parents' house. It really was the most spectacular building I’d ever entered, and then we got to the swimming pool. Now I’m not sure if non-residents were allowed to go poolside, but if there was a sign forbidding this, I know gran would have taken great pleasure in ignoring it. Either way, I was soon enjoying swimming in the pool and exploring its “grotto” that looked to be built from rocks and came complete with a waterfall. It may also have had a slide that deposited you into the pool, but my memory may not quite have that right.
The grotto also held a secret, you could walk inside it, and this is where I discovered a kiosk selling oysters that were guaranteed to contain a real pearl. As cultivating pearls hadn’t been covered by my education this captivated me. Thankfully the kiosk was busy, which meant I could stand there and watch in amazement as customers looked on as their chosen oyster was opened to reveal their very own pearl. Quickly washed, the pearls were mounted into gold cages, placed on necklaces and presented to their new owners. In later life I have come to understand this was a very neat way to sell pearl necklaces.
To this day I always smile when I see the Fontainebleau Hilton appearing in films, the pool was featured in Goldfinger when James Bond (Sean Connery) was playing cards with the villian. Bond was also wearing the most amazing baby blue towelling zip-up short legged jumpsuit in this scene. I really can’t understand why these aren’t stocked by shops everywhere, and I may even take up sewing just to make one for myself! The Hotel also featured in the Bodyguard when Whitney Houston’s character was staying the penthouse when performing in Miami. In real life, I know my tastes are simpler, however experiencing a touch of the high life is fun, and of course the people watching is totally fascinating.
Swimming in that pool, little did I know that my most grown-up experiences were yet to be encountered. We were going to have a big night out at a cabaret club, which must have been one of the excursions on offer as part of our package holiday. This would be an evening of food and entertainment, and we’d be joined by a Scottish couple gran had befriended. They ran their own pub in Scotland, and from experience I can confirm that publicans on holiday really do know how to enjoy themselves.
Big nights out require preparation, and gran had already booked an appointment at the hairdressers for her “do” to be done. We walked to the salon along the now familiar street, and arriving there I think we both realised that even my patience was going to be stretched waiting for this process to be completed. To my surprise I was given permission to go for a walk on my own. Gran will have assessed that there were very few people around, and that I was sensible enough not to get into trouble. She dispatched me with a list of instructions: no talking to strangers, don’t go too far and don’t cross the road.
Off I went, and it did feel strange to be solo on the streets of Miami. I wasn’t scared, but at the same time I knew I was a long way from home and in a strange country. So I did take care, I walked close to the shop fronts away from the road to prevent any strange man pulling up and asking if I wanted to “see his puppies.” As a child the infomercials had warned me of such dangers and clearly they had worked. I did however break one of the rules and crossed the road. Sorry gran. The temptation was too great, and it meant i got to push the button the crossing and see the red “Don’t Walk” sign change to the green “Walk” instruction. This made me feel very American.
My extended walk took me past a school, where one of the classrooms was close to the pavement, and I could see inside. The pupils looked to be a couple of years older than me, they were all wearing immaculate white shirts, and were sitting perfectly still, facing forwards paying full attention to their teacher. This was in stark contrast to my own Portacabin based educational experience, here was a school that looked to be in a permanent state of readiness for inspection. Realising this was term time for the American children, and being a child myself, I suddenly had an irrational fear that the school would take me in and I’d become one of those pupils. I headed back to the salon - quickly.
By this time gran’s hair was at the drying stage, and I arrived to see her sat between two other women all under the dryers. They were chatting as if they were lifelong friends, and as they were all of similar age I suspected the conversation was going to be about their grandchildren. “And here he is, my wonderful grandson.” Gran’s words confirmed my suspicions, and during the course of the introduction it seems I had many more talents and had achieved so much more than I had ever realised. The same was also the case for my siblings and my cousins. I was laughed inwardly, gran was super proud of us all, and in the competitive world of hair salon customer conversations she wasn’t going to lose. So yes, there may have been some exaggeration, but I guess all the women under the dryers were doing the same! I played my part by being perfectly polite and well behaved, after all I couldn’t let our team down.
I didn’t know what to expect from a cabaret club, but as always a small detail managed to capture my attention. In this instance, it was the electric table lamps on each of the round tables that intrigued me. Where do they plug in? Why is there no cable running across the table cloth? I wanted to get under the table and take a look, but my new found adultlike sophistication prevented me from doing so. I was frustrated, but that soon faded as the food and entertainment began. Singers and dancers performed for us as we ate, and our Scottish friends provided more good humored entertainment between the acts. All too soon it was time for the final act. This came with the added benefit of providing the audience with a practical demonstration of the Law of Gravity, which became all too evident as the performance progressed.
Over coffee the curtains drew back, and in the middle of the stage was a large bath overflowing with bubbles. Soon a woman’s leg appeared, then it disappeared only to be replaced by another leg, then an arm and a head popped-up too. A sponge was soon being deployed to wash an assortment of limbs. The performer must have been satisfied that her ablutions were complete because at this point she rose from the bath. This gave the audience the opportunity to witness the Law of Gravity in action, because once the bather stood up the bubbles started to slide down. This was, in part, assisted by some strategic use of the sponge. During the performance I couldn’t help but notice just how the men seemed particularly fascinated by the Law of Gravity. So much so they seemed positively disappointed when the curtains closed just before this scientific demonstration turned into an anatomy lesson.
I really wasn’t expecting my cabaret club experience to be quite so educational, and although everyone no doubt appreciated this performance for its artistic merits, I think the whole table was relieved when gran broke the silence with, “Bless her, I hope the water wasn’t too cold.”
The real adults were all in good spirits, or maybe the good spirits were in them, so when we returned to the hotel there was an appetite to keep talking and drinking. The Scottish publican proposed a nightcap and although not wanting to stereotype him, he did of course happen to have a bottle of whiskey in his room. It wasn’t in his room for long, and while he went to retrieve it gran had been to the bar to collect glasses and ice. This was to be my first taste of whisky, and suffice to say my next taste was some seventeen years later. However, I think it was a good decision of gran’s to let me try it, all children are curious about the things they’re not allowed to have. So by letting me have whiskey, she demystified it and of course such was the experience I was in no rush to repeat it.
I was happy to continue the evening with a bottle of coke, sit with the adults not feeling like a child, and simply enjoy the end of this very grown-up night out. I seemed to be growing up very quickly on this holiday.
In the next Part, I’ll be recalling the tourist attractions we visited during our time in Miami, before we checked-out and made our way to Orlando.