Translation: Mi ami.
At what point I fall in love with Miami I do not know. Maybe the rice at the Cuban diner does it. Maybe the guy crossing the street talking on the phone to someone he loves in Spanish, pleading about something; maybe the music coming from the car next to me at the stoplight.
It’s orientation week at the University of Miami and every permutation of middle-aged sorrow-faced parent accompanied by a scared/ecstatic/gawking teenager wanders about gripping phones or paper maps, looking up at building names. The teen boys, like mine, do not remove their hands from their pockets and most the parents, except me, bear bright new t-shirts in either screeching orange or simple green. The girls all have perfect hair.
The schedule seems overkill. We are invited to info sessions about campus safety, dorm life, disability services, health and wellness … it is too much, but I try. I ask for directions many times. “Where is the Shalala building?” I ask, pronouncing it -LAY LAH.
“The Shalala building is right here,” the ‘ambassador’ in an orange shirt corrects me, pronouncing it –LAH LAH.
I realize soon that it is day three and my son has not been to any orientation events. He’s already missing out, I worry.
“Mom,” he reminds me, “I have three auditions this week.”
“I gotta test outta the basic piano class; I have the thing Thursday where they place us in an ensemble…then there’s the Big Band placement Friday.”
Although I’m eager to meet the professor he’s been emailing with all summer and chat with the dean, this now seems logistically impossible. My son is a music major.
I drag my kid to a salad bar at the campus food court and wonder, once we get there, what we had been talking about on the way. Because there behind us in line is the head of the department and my kid’s main professor. The one looks like Cervantes or one of his characters and from his address earlier that day I know he is equally passionate.
The other remains oddly stoic, but when he plays his instrument that night he will reveal too the passion that seems to make this whole place sing.
I am starstruck but I feel I must thank them. I am dropping my child in their laps, in their offices, in their practice rooms. Whether they feel the burden or are busy thinking “I should have put Feta on my salad,” I’ll never know because neither responds.
Finally I get one of them talking about how long he’s been here, admits when he first came here just one high-rise could be seen.
I ask him what built Miami—“tourism?”
“No,” he surprises me, “it is all built on drug money.”
“Really?” I’m sure he’s exaggerating.
This is not a U.S. city, he informs me, it is a global city, it belongs to the world.
I reflect later that this man is free, he is a university professor telling a parent that the place she is leaving her kid is built on drug money. It’s kinda great.
Every time I have traveled to or from South America, I ponder, I have spent at least an hour at Miami International, whether destination was Costa Rica, Chile or Argentina.
I remember the crowded, yet stylishly beautiful skyline.
That’s a lot of drugs; that’s a lot of laundry.
My last night with my youngest son we join a family friend for dinner. The just-past-middle-aged man we’ll call “Bruce” knows this place and selects a mid-range restaurant he says is around the corner from my hotel.
Everyone from his era uses clichés like ‘right around the corner.’
It’s kinda comforting, though probably wildly inaccurate.
We google the restaurant.
Bruce is precise. There’s no other way to describe it; it’s right around the corner. We can in fact, see the back of our hotel from the window of the restaurant.
We sit near the front because I do not remember what Bruce actually looks like. But, I tell Seth confidently, I know I will recognize him even though I have not seen him since my mother’s wedding to Bruce’s friend 12 years ago.
When he comes in I prove myself right. Bruce’s face and mannerisms and sense of humor comfort me into an easy joy.
He insists we move to an interior table so we can get a feel for the place.
We are seated next to a tree beneath a fiberglass roof that, because it is now dark, no longer allows in light.
I order a ‘Pisco Passion’ after being assured it is not one of those sweet drinks. It arrives not-too-sweet but surrealistically small in the hands of our hunky waiter.
Bruce recommends the t-bone, because it is Thursday. “They’re famous for their t-bone,” he says, then orders pizza for himself.
Soon he is giving us a history of the University of Miami.
“Donna Shalala,” he reports, (he pronounces it as I did on first instinct: -LAY LAH) “turned this town upside down. She said ‘I’m going to raise a billion dollars.’”
“We all,” Bruce said shrugging his shoulders, “said ‘sure.’”
Bruce takes a sip of his white wine.
“She raised two billion dollars,” Bruce’s eyebrows are sky high as he remembers the time.
Used to be the football players were all prisoners, Bruce continues. She raised this place to a respectable level, he says, spreading his hands out, raising them up as though lifting a tray of dishes. “She put us on the map.”
As parents like myself wander about campus and explore sidestreets, I sense the underlying culture.
We read the crocodile warning signs in disbelief, listen to the tourguides and struggle to think up questions. We google ‘soapdish’ and ‘flipflops’ and ‘granola bars’ on our phones as we make our final contributions to childhood.
Then we get in our cars and leave.
When I arrive in Sanford for the train home I am an hour early for my car’s appointment with Amtrak.
I spot an Army-Navy Store as I drive through the sprawling town. I have some river trips coming up and all river trips require ammo cans. It’s how we store everything that would be damaged by a ride through the rapids.
Inside I find lots of ammo cans, new and used. But none big enough for my intent.
I also see a wall of machine guns, racks of knives, bullet-proof vests and camouflage everything.
As I am wondering whether I can actually make a purchase from a place that sells a switchblade with a confederate flag on it, I overhear a conversation at the gun counter.
“…because I hear I cannot legally carry this in my car.”
“Oh no, my friend,” the salesman says. “People like to say that but it’s not true. You just can’t hide it. It has to be like out on the seat where it can be seen, that’s all.”
I have been taking pictures of ammo cans because they seem cheap to me and I wonder if my son needs any for his camera gear.
Then I turn to take a picture of some mid-eastern style scarves… a modern version with gun emblems woven in.
I figure it is time to go.
As I put my phone in my pocket, I wonder at a pink t-shirt in this place and stare at it as though I am interested … then head for the door.
In the parking lot, engine running, is a silver Mercury Lincoln with tinted windows, the one I think I saw on the set of Breaking Bad.
But it’s a long way from Hollywood.
What exactly am I doing leaving my child down here?
Giving him a chance to live.