While I don’t normally write about cities other than Atlanta, I recently noticed that the News Cafe in South Miami Beach has announced what they are calling a temporary closure though, given the plywood on the windows, it seems permanent. While it could be the result of a COVID-related business dip it also looks like the Yelp reviews in the preceding months have not been kind. In any case, The News Cafe is (was) located at ground zero of South Beach and became something of an unofficial check-in spot for residents and tourists alike. Many know it as the place where Versace used to score his morning paper (or had an assistant do it for him) although my introduction to the area predated his arrival or at least coincided with it. Not that I knew anything about fashion or Versace. The Art-Deco district, as it was more commonly known then, was still emerging from a darker era, and there yet remained abandoned and dilapidated hotels next to the emerging luxury accommodations.
While Madonna, as well as other celebs of the poodle-clutching variety, could be seen cruising the area, it was mostly working fashion models, German tourists, and wealthy South Americans who landed in South Beach. My first time on the boardwalk near Lummus Park involved a near collision with an impossibly tall bikini model zooming by on roller skates while holding a box of condoms. My first thought was, “Wow, they sure know how to welcome a visitor.” I had unknowingly stumbled into an active production set for an HIV Public Service Announcement. There was laughter all around albeit at my expense.
SoBe (as it later came to be known) was clearly on the up and up and Gloria Estefan, who was experiencing significant popularity at the time, was a local investor and the growing contingent of Cubans added to the already established Latin flavor of the area such that one need not speak English at all to function. But it was still a self-contained bubble of sorts in that South Miami had little to do with North Miami and few remember that Miami was/is actually a different city than Miami Beach. If you suspect there were cultural politics behind all of this you would be correct. There were also communities such as Overtown and Liberty City distal to the Beach that figured heavily into area dynamics as well. Just to say that the South Beach of today was not at all evident in the late 80s and early 90s version. Then, you could still park your car pretty much anywhere on Collins. Mandatory valet service was rare unlike now when even Mcdonald’s has a valet parking service. And not far from The Beach was Coconut Grove which was starting to boom with the popular Coco Walk Mall.
The News Cafe itself was a 24/7 operation offering a combo of indoor and alfresco dining with access to international newspapers (hence the name) which, in the early 90s made it popular with tourists seeking a “back home” news fix. Even though the cafe is now closed you can see archives of their web-cam which shows the never-ending stream of people marching in front of the tables. For me, it was simply a place to zone out, read and slow down the mental hamster wheel. Many people travel with an agenda of “finding oneself” though I question this terminology as most people already know very well who they are and the real work involves coming to terms with how others, family, friends, society at large, are reacting to you (and vice-versa).
Certainly, the boredom and fatigue of existence can lead us to fantasize about another identity and that’s actually not a bad thing. But care must be taken to counter-balance it with established instinct. Then again, I could be totally full of crap. (I’ll save the philosophy for Happy Hour). I’m just saying that my side trips to Miami were actively restorative even if my engagement of the scene was passive. I’m definitely not the “George Hamilton, base tan” type of guy so I just soaked up the easy-going tropical vibes and that was enough. I’m one of the few people who can go to a sunny beach and actually come back more pale than when I left.
I picked Miami Beach as a semi-regular getaway destination for two reasons. It was $90 for a round trip flight which meant I could leave my home in North Atlanta around 1 p.m. on Thursday afternoon and be checked in at the El Sol hotel by 5:00 p.m. If the airfare seemed cheap, consider that Miami was then dealing with an image problem resulting from the assault and murder of German tourists and was trying a number of things to lure travelers back. I’d been dealing with Southside Atlanta crime all my life and concluded that Miami could be no worse and at least there was a beach. El Sol, about 15 blocks up from the News Cafe, was my go-to hotel. While I didn’t spend much time there, I did return each afternoon for the free poolside drinks where I encountered a large family of Argentinians who mistook me for a rich businessman although I did nothing to promote that impression. The Matriarch of the family invited me to dinner which I realized was to be a chaperoned experience involving a formal introduction to her daughter who was sitting quietly next to the pool. I got it – from their point of view maybe she can meet this rich American who will eventually propose marriage. Extricating myself from this situation while allowing them to maintain dignity wasn’t easy but I found a solution in feigned illness. “Lo siento. Creo que los camarones son malos.”
This was all so odd as I was recovering from some recent surgery and was quite thin, almost skeletal. And on this trip, I was mistaken for a homeless person, a junkie, a fashion model, a musician, various actors (young and old), and for the most part a garden variety beach bum. Most people would be offended to be seen as a generic vagrant type whereas I was cool with it because nobody bugged me for money and as my Stewart Avenue mentors used to say, “life is better if you can’t be easily identified in a police line up”. While I agree with that sentiment, it’s not as if I engaged in enough ongoing shady behavior to develop an active concern for avoiding lineups but sure, standing out can bring problems. Let’s just say that if anybody thought I was somebody, I put it down to fame of the Warholian kind – a whispy, ephemeral form of notoriety that departs as rapidly as it arrives.
I went to a custom clothing establishment in North Miami and the owner recounted how just that very day, Mel Brooks had popped in to pick up twelve tailor-made shirts but was not happy with the eventual price. I don’t know if he was conditioning me to accept the notion of premium pricing or perhaps just wanting me to know of his famous clients. I just ignored it and started trying on a few things which pretty much fit straight away thus allowing me to avoid the high markup for alterations. Later that night, I wore some of the clothes and was instantly misrecognized as some soap opera actor whose primary appeal was to the divorcee set. That the actor played a physician was evidently the hook though I had to remind my “fans” that 1) I was not the actor in question and 2) even if I were, I still wouldn’t be an actual doctor! This didn’t seem to matter to them. I began to rethink my rejection of the Argentinian proposal…
One of the more interesting things that happened on one of these trips was the accidental friendship I developed over the course of a few days with a retired cardiologist from New York. He was basically a Snowbird seeking warmer climes and Miami was THE place. He was very outgoing and almost immediately started in with the “so what brings you to Miami” talk and he simply wouldn’t accept that I had no agenda or intent other than to relax. “You mean you aren’t here on business?“, “You have family here, then”, “Oh so you are you thinking about living here.” I just laughed it all off. This guy was wired to the max and even in his mid-70s, he had to be doing something else he experienced guilt. And by extension, he assumed everyone else should also. He was basically a walking Woody Allen movie. The concept of just chilling out was totally foreign to him. He was all, “I wish my daughter would take her life more seriously“, so I’m thinking maybe she had quit school or had run off with someone. “No, she’s a corporate attorney in New York but really should be a cardiologist” to which I replied, “you, mean just like you?” He laughed, “Didn’t I see you in the Catskills?“
And just when you think he might relax into the moment he would pivot into, “You’re well into your 30s, why aren’t you married? It’s time to settle down don’t you think? And maybe finish graduate school?” Ah, the Jewish parent I never had. I responded, “most people leave their neuroses at home whereas you make them essential travel companions.” I think he liked my apparent zen attitudes and perhaps I saw some hope in his assurances that hard work would translate to success. We were like a mutual antidote to each other’s problems. “It’s perspiration, not inspiration – what you do does not have to be perfect but if you keep doing it, then it probably will be“. Stuff like that which DID in fact make sense for someone like me, a procrastinating perfectionist. Given his age and accent, it was very likely that he recalled WWII and might have even had some personal experience in a concentration camp though it didn’t come up. Laughter didn’t come easy to him but when it did, he greatly enjoyed it.
Back to The News Cafe. While I hope that it does reopen, I don’t know that I would run right down there because it would be pointless to try reproducing the sense of a bygone era. Take what’s in front of you and make something out of that. Some years ago, I did take my Wife there but the magic of the area had long been consumed by hype and crass over promotion. In the end, most of my emotional respites wind up being simple – a Library, a cafe, a park, or even a familiar book. Everyone has some respite that occurs more or less naturally and without effort. Sometimes they last though many times they do not. Just be on the lookout for the next one which is hard to do if you are lost in nostalgia.