Tropical nectar mixes with carbon monoxide outside Miami International Airport. Salsa blares like a tribal antidote for concrete. Ferretti and I gawk with fellow tourists from Port-au-Prince and Brasília and Jerusalem.
The shuttle to South Beach arrives. The driver either has to pee or confess. He winces.
Ferretti sits in back and plays host to the passengers. I ride shotgun. On the dashboard are the driver’s forms from Calder Racetrack. Around-the-Bend. Fur Missile. Fast Breed. I think about circuits and aliases and the glamorous grind of being a male stripper.
"Ninety-nine bottles of cerveza on the wall," Ferretti calls out. "Ya bounce on the seat and sing." He gets a chorus of silence.
I turn to suggest 99 bottles of antifreeze but something catches my eye. I try to follow the blur but it’s too late. I’m only 99.9 percent certain that I’ve just seen a laughing candy girl driving a Suzuki Samurai down MacArthur Causeway — topless.
The Causeway is lined with palm trees. On either side is the sapphire blue water of the Intracoastal Waterway. An egret flies lazily. The sun casts a tantalizing light. Ferretti tries humming Beethoven’s "Appassionata" but settles for a Madonna medley. I suggest that if Beethoven had had the balls to be a male stripper then he wouldn’t have died a bachelor.
"You gotta get naked to make great art," Ferretti answers. "But not like that. Just be glad you were born in the 20th century. We’ve got sunscreen."
The driver bites his tongue until all the passengers disembark. "You guys are white," he asks, wincing. "Aren’t you?"
"We’re pretan," Ferretti says.
"It’s a different country down here," the driver confides. "This ain’t America. They got refugees from civil wars and monsoons what ain’t got no education. They got refugees from New York City what got too much education. They got guys arm-in-arm with guys. They got heiresses with face lifts and tummy tucks humping busboys in parking lots. They got black Brazilians with green eyes that are stacked like Pamela Anderson and hung like King Kong. It ain’t the Midwest. I’m a retired cop from Howell. I’m used to propriety. South Beach is lawless."
"Then why d’ya stay?" Ferretti asks.
The guy casts a mean eye over the street. "Because," he whispers, "I love it."
The shuttle rolls over a curb. It stops on the sidewalk. Ferretti and I exit into the path of in-line skaters in bikinis. They’re listening to Walkmans and holding hands and swaying like palm fronds in the breeze.
Approaching from the other direction is a monster redhead with a brisk runway walk. Braless. Wearing a transparent muslin dress over a flesh-colored thong. I take 5 dollars out of my wallet and search her thigh for a garter.
"The driver," Ferretti says. "Tip the driver."
"In winter," Ferretti says, "the housebound artist ponders his musty navel. In the tropics navels are aired daily. Jeweled navels. Pierced navels. Navels that are the hub of swirling tattoos."
"It’s a surface culture," I say.
We’re on the beach in front of the Clevelander Hotel where every day is a "Gong Show" rerun. A butterball in a Speedo passes with a live snake stole. A string bean with a shark’s-tooth necklace hawks "ice-cold beer" from a cooler.
A Greek god distributes flyers for Groove Jet nightclub. He’s tall. He has blond hair and a square jaw and a clubfoot that slurs in the sand.
A young couple coaxes their naked daughter into the surf. Dad is on his knees with open arms. Mother bends beside the child to plant a good luck kiss. The child seems to draw from the well of Shakespeare. To be or not to be? How can the little girl know that’s the question? But she does. She rushes the water.
To be or not to be, I think.
Stripalooza. Maybe they’ll have a senior’s division.
The thought stirs me to preen for a topless technoblonde who’s talking on a cell phone while reading The Millionaire Next Door. Her indifference grieves me. I don’t know whether to fart or speak French.
"Ferretti," I say. "I’m worse than lost in South Beach. I don’t know whether go backward or forward with my gimmicks."
"Sunscreen," he says. "You need sunscreen."
South of me is a yogi standing on his head near the dunes. Beyond him are the volleyball pits and the Jet Ski rental and the Port of Miami where an ivory cruise ship glides toward the open sea.
To the west are the famous art deco hotels of Ocean Drive.
To the north is a pickup game of soccer where the players speak German and Portuguese and Creole.
Ferretti is lecturing seagulls on art. "It’s the light," he says. "That’s where the spirit lies. Matisse knew it best."
The sun’s rays pierce the water. They rebound from the shallows and are absorbed in the deep. This gives the ocean myriad shades of blue, upon which waves crest with a crystal glint. It’s muy rico.
In the water, an emerald sandbar has been staked out by lovers. They’re up to their necks, passing through increasingly tight and torrid chambers as they slither through the nautilus shell to orgasm. They’ve got kundalini churning beneath the surface. Their work exalts the pagan mecca of South Beach.
Washington Avenue is a mix of tourists on the sidewalks and cleaning women at the bus stops and Mafia wannabes teetering on the curbs. Dusty construction workers flirt with homegirls who work the Cuban cafés in shrunken T-shirts. Truant schoolgirls debut their budding booties. Delinquent schoolboys alternately swagger and cringe. Brittle grandmas mumble prayers. Bums scheme.
Ferretti and I waver on a traffic island. The light is yellow. "Forget Stripalooza," Ferretti says. "Your talent lies elsewhere. Find a sunburn contest."
A courier in dreadlocks is holding the fast lane on a skateboard. He accelerates with Olympian thrusts of the leg. A smart-looking woman in a new BMW convertible toots her horn.
"It’s a small stage here," Ferretti says. "People are quick to get jealous. I don’t think that the coffee helps."
"It’s like Haight-Ashbury for supermodels and gays," I answer.
Down the street is Liquid, where we wait in line every night to join the beautiful people. The bouncers dress in black. They carry walkie-talkies and wear earphones like Secret Service agents. We never get in. Maybe Kmart tennies and sunblisters aren’t in the dress code.
Directly in front of us is Club Madonna. It’s a strip club. It’s misfit friendly. They’re happy to accommodate guys who’ll pay for the skin that’s visible on the beach for free.
Ferretti and I cross the street. Two young policemen question a bloated woman in a vinyl mini. Go-go boots. Platinum wig. To the side are giggling sorority sisters with Alpha Chi Omega jerseys. They pose provocatively and fondle a camera. They’re waiting to have their picture taken with the cops. Meanwhile, a rawboned guy creeps past on a bicycle. He glares at the cornered woman. Her pimp?
The ocean is a block away. Ferretti ponders something floating above the skyline.
"Why don’t ya quit with the male stripper biz? There’s no Stripalooza. This town needs a realist and so do you."
"Whaddya mean?" I ask while sighting a Para-Sailer.
"You’re ugly," Ferretti said. "That’s why people trust you. What was wrong with that girl you were kissin’ last night at Club Deuce?"
"She wouldn’t go home with me. She’s married."
"That’s what was right with her! She’s got a string pulling her forward. If she cuts it, she’ll be free for a second, then flounder. It’s like that Para-Sailer being pulled by a boat — it provides propulsion and rudder. Can’t you see the connection?"
Ferretti shakes me by the shoulders. "Why don’t you just take thirteen hits of Ecstasy and go dance in a glitzy club and greet the day in the kind of superglam bisexual orgy that’ll really sever the rusty ol’ umbilical chord that ties you to Detroit? Remember this," Ferretti says while sweating bullets. "You’re too old to go home cryin’ to mama. You’re just the right age to be howlin’ in an alley."
"Cut!" someone screams. The audience claps. The sorority sisters from Alpha Chi Omega muscle their way forward. They run fingers through our hair. They want us in pictures.
END OF THE LINE
We’re in line at the Russian Bear Café on Lincoln Road. Ahead of us is an anorexic maven with muscles. She’s wearing spandex bicycle shorts and a women’s boxing T-shirt and a diamond bracelet.
"I’d like an iced mocha with skim milk and Sweet ’N Low," she says. Her bred-down greyhound growls at us. "Oh, my baby!" she says.
Two guys enter looking like West Point fencers. One leads the other by the hand. They walk through us to greet the maven.
"I want you to meet Jacques-Pierre," the first guy says. "I stole him away from Paris. The girls are so jealous. We’re spending the weekend together at the Delano."
"Oh he’s perfect for you," she says. "Just a warrior!"
The maven cradles her miniature greyhound. She feeds it a biscotti dipped in white chocolate while complaining about her masseuese and her script-writing class and her work for the Art Deco Preservation Society. She wipes the dog’s snout then polishes its red toenails with the napkin.
"I’ve been so bored with South Beach," she says. "It’s insipid."
I get homesick for Detroit when the woman brags about her boxing classes. She isn’t Kronk material.
Ferretti and I see that we’ve lost our place in line to a clique of 25-year-old Venezuelans who have the run of clubs and art schools and world capitals. We learn that Rome is stupid. London is dumb. Washington, D.C., is a fortress.
They pass around a copy of On the Road while discussing "Beats." They agree it’s an English word with a nomadic life as noun and verb and adjective. The forum tapers into silence.
"Clinton is a real bubba," one hombre blurts.
"What’s a bubba?"
We retreat outside and watch a jet pass under the stars.
"This place is as fun as it is pathetic," Ferretti says. "People standing in line to get into clubs and submitting to rejection for an errant zit. Black strippers from the All-American ghetto imitating the affectations of inbred Eurotrash. Gigolos lying about being ex-Israeli commandos in the daytime and sleeping with German sugar daddies at night. Rich folks being decadent. At least they can afford to do it."
"It’s a surface culture," I say while patting my sunburned belly. Tomorrow I’ll be back in Detroit eating donuts and drinking diet Pepsi and watching The Michigan Sportsman.
"That’s right, bubba," Ferretti answers. "It’s Buffalooza."