Tag: Miami

Five Things I Miss About Miami

I moved to Los Angeles County almost two years ago from Miami, and I have found, while L.A. does feel like Miami’s big brother, there is no city quite like the magic city.  That doesn’t mean one city is better than the other, but there are aspects of Miami culture that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else — and maybe they just don’t exist outside of the tip of America’s wang (Florida: for those people who can’t see the state is phallic).  So, I decided to create a list of the Top Five Things I miss about Miami.

5. The Docks in Coconut Grove — Dinner Key

bike Miami

When I lived in Coconut Grove, I would take my bike — almost every day — and drive around the docks.  I would pass Peacock Park, and I would listen to the homeless telling stories on the checker-board picnic tables.  I would, sometimes, stop and play basketball — until one day I almost got my ass kicked by a bunch of guys who didn’t like the way I played.  I would watch softball games filled with students from the University of Miami. But the best part was when I would driver my bike along the sidewalk that ran along the docks filled with yachts and shrimping boats.  The shrimpers were always the most interesting people.  They had crappy skiffs that seemed to perpetually have smoke coming out of their engines.  I would love to write a story about those guys one day. Then there was an area near the docks where I used to go sit; it was on the opposite side of Scotty’s Landing — a bar with one of the best views of the ocean and Key Biscayne in Miami — and watch the waves, see the image of downtown in the background, and write, well, poems in my head.

4. Lincoln Road — South Beach

Britto
Britto

At one point, actually the first year we lived there, Heron and I lived in South Beach.  We found a place that was a reasonable price for two graduate students, living on loans and stipends, and we moved into the back cottage of a house owned by a Cuban retiree.  Well, it turned out we were getting ripped off, and the landlord turned out to be a jerk, but that’s another story — and it’s a good one, too.  But we moved into this place so we could be near South Beach.  We figured, well, we’re living in Miami, why not be the closest to all the action possible?  I wasn’t really into clubbing or any of that, but we were so close to Lincoln Road, and we used to walk there a lot.  We would stop at David’s for cafe con leches, and we would just wander around the stores.  They had these great museums there, too.  I used to go to the Britto museum all the time.  It was amazing how polarizing Britto was as an art figure (this might be a cool post for later), but I’ll never forget bringing my good buddy into the museum, and he grabbed his crotch and told the store and Britto they can suck on his testes.  That was funny.  In reality, Lincoln Road is just a boulevard of shops in South Beach, but there are always interesting people — an artist who drives around with a rooster on his bike, a smaller Books and Books, a strange man in a dress dancing to a boom box, and if you’re lucky, you might see one of the funniest and most awkward mimes in the world.  One of my best memories, however, is heading down to Lincoln Road on Sundays with Heron, and I would buy her fresh flowers.

3. Calle Ocho — El Rey De Las Fritas

El-Rey-De-Las-Fritas-Frita

Calle Ocho — eighth street — is one of the most historic streets in the city.  It runs through Little Havana, and in the parks, you will find men playing dominos and smoking cigars.  One day, I sat in the park and watched the old Cubans playing dominos, and I had no idea what the hell was going on.  All up and down this street, you will find monuments, memorials, Cuban restaurants, music shops; but my favorite place on Calle Ocho — like all cool things in Miami it was introduced to me by my good friend, El Gonzo — was El Rey De Las Fritas. The king of the fritas.  Anthony Bourdain ate at this restaurant on his show, No Reservations.  It’s nothing extravagant — in fact, it’s greasy.  But oh-so delicious.  Now, you may ask what is a frita, and I will tell you the truth — pork mystery.  But it’s delicious.  They put these potato sticks on the top, and it is a wonderful “culinary” experience.  But maybe the best part is that you can wash the fritas down with an amazing shake.  They even have a shake made out of rice puffs — or something that tastes like that.  If you’re in Miami, and you’re looking for something off the beaten path, then you better go here.

2. Coffee — Espresso –Cafecito — Cafe Con Leche — Cortido — Collata

Davids

I have tried for years to find a cup of coffee that can compare to the cups of Jose in Miami.  But nothing compares.  “Cuban coffee,” usually made with cafe bustelo, is made in various ways with espresso and sucre: cafe con leche, cortadito, collata, cafecito.  My favorite was a cafe con leche.  Basically, it’s an espresso with milk. But there is something about the way it is made in Miami that is completely unique.  I used to love to walk up to a coffee shop — usually just a window — listen to the espresso machines gurgling and eat an empanada or these amazing cookies filled with dulce de leche.  And I have tried to drink a cafe con leche in other places, but it’s never made right.  It’s frustrating.  But no one, at least in Los Angeles, seems to know how to create an authentic cafe con leche.  (If there is, then tell me where.)

1. Books and Books — Coral Gables

Books and BooksIn Los Angeles, there are countless book stores that are incredible. Book Soup and The Last Bookstore are my favorite.  But in Miami, there was no question; Books and Books in the heart of Coral Gables was the best book store in the Magic City and one of the best spots to eat and hear an incredible reading.  I can’t tell you how many great writers I’ve seen there, and when I was in the MFA Program at Florida International, Books and Books became a sort of meeting ground for the program outside of the university.  Our teachers read there; our alum read there; and even, sometimes, the students read there, too.  So many good memories. I used to order a cup of coffee, sit on the patio, and write stories.  Plus, they had this turkey, apple, brie sandwich with mango chutney butter that was just out of this world.  For the literary crew of Miami, Books and Books is a special place — a meeting ground, a repository and trade post of ideas, and, well, just a beautiful site of book displays.  Go to Books and Books.  I can’t wait to return.

How the Pacific Ocean Heals the Mind & Two New Published Pieces

This weekend, I had a buddy in town from South Florida.  He was an old neighbor in a great neighborhood called Coconut Grove.  Well, seeing him brought back a ton of memories from Miami. I went to graduate school at Florida International University.  That’s where I received my MFA.  What a great school.

But I almost love the city as much as the school.  I’ll never forget driving over the Julia Tuttle Causeway in my Buick LeSabre with my father, my brother, and a car packed with all my shit during a hurricane that was quickly degraded to a tropical storm.  My father wasn’t going to allow a tropical storm to stop our travel itinerary.  We had driven down from Massachusetts and stopped at few places.

Well, that was almost five years ago.  Crazy how that works.  Crazy how the world just keeps on spinning — no matter how much you want it to stop.  And for some reason, today was just a tough day.  I couldn’t get started with work, and nothing seemed to be exactly flowing.  I even had two new pieces come out today, but something was just keeping me from getting excited.  Even right now, as I write this, I feel like I’m slogging through, going through the motions, instead of raging against the dying night and the blue-eyed death of summer.

So to escape that cycle of self deprecation, my buddy and I went down to Huntington Beach with my dog.  It had been almost three months since I went to the dog beach in HB.  What I love most about the dog beach is the drive there from the LBC.  Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, watching the Pacific Ocean burst into sight, and cruising as the ways crash a 100 yards away is one of the most enthralling and invigorating experiences I know.

Once we got to the beach, my buddy and I were throwing a frisbee back and forth, and my dog, Hendrix, would jump and snag it out of the air.  Then we jumped into the freezing cold ocean — even though today was one of the warmer days for the Pacific — and we body-surfed while Hendrix kept an eye on me from the beach.

Sometimes, the ocean can have a feeling of rebirth, almost baptismal.  It can just clear aware all the worries, all the stress.  That’s what I had today.  And that’s what I needed.  Tomorrow, I will be finishing up a piece I’m writing on classic L.A. novels.  Plus, I’ll be pitching like crazy.

Here are the links to the two new pieces: Wilmore Guitars and How Tom Tombello Hopes To Invade Your Personal Space…I blogged about the Wilmore Guitars piece a couple days ago, and you can see the final product. Really happy with that one.

Has My Master of Fine Arts Prepared Me for a Career as a Writer?

It’s been about a year since I graduated from my Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Florida International University.  Life has taken unimaginable turns.  So, last night, I started to think about where I was four years ago before I applied to MFA programs.  Was I actually better off now with my degree?

Four years ago, I was living in Detroit, Michigan, substitute teaching in the Ferndale Public Schools and working at the front desk of a Royal Oak YMCA.  While I was lucky to even have a paycheck back in the beginning of the Great Recession, especially in D-Town, the jobs were unfulfilling.  So I told people I was going to be a writer.  A famous writer.  I believed if I started to say it, to own it, then my pride would never let me stop until I was a writer.  So I wrote on breaks, scribbling down lines and ideas for stories.

Well, I had no idea how to write a story, let alone become a writer.  Creating a novel seemed like an impossible journey.  I had no idea what was next.

I started researching continuing my education, and I ran into a lot of writers and graduate students who raved about MFA programs.  And I remembered my college poetry professor talking about MFA programs.  So I started to apply, thinking I had nothing to lose.

Then the rejections started to roll in.  I remember, one morning, after receiving two rejections in one day, staring into the washing machine at the YMCA.  Part of my job was to wash the dirty gym towels.  I remember the water swirling around the towels as I scooped in the detergent that stung my hands.  I was measuring my future by the number of hampers full of dirty gym towels I would wash.

Finally, I was accepted into FIU.  And after some polite begging, I was awarded a teaching assistantship, which meant I would receive a stipend and a tuition waiver.  I was set free from Detroit.  I packed up my books, my clothes, my dog, and my lady, and we moved to Miami.

I was so happy to be out of Detroit that I didn’t even think about the loans I took out for living expenses.  I didn’t even think about the career opportunities that would be available after graduation.  I didn’t even think of the probabilities of being successful as a writer.  I only thought about my goal.

Three years have gone by, and my book is still unpublished.  I don’t have some cozy teaching job at a private university where my students worship the ground I walk on.  And I don’t have an agent ready to take my phone calls whenever I have an issue.  So, was it worth it?

Yes!  Without a doubt.  Yes.  Let me give you five reasons.  Just five.  Even though there are plenty more.

  1. Time.  For three years, I had the time to write without interruption.  I had the time to read poetry, psychology essays, stories, novels, novellas — any book I could get my hands on.  I had the time to ride my bike through the streets of Miami, contemplating Theodore Roethke’s North American Sequences.  I had the time to think about myself, write about myself, and figure out who I wanted to be.  I had the time to write a novel, a collection of poetry, and songs.  I had the time to try out the life I had always wanted to live, and I found that I loved it.
  2. Teachers. At FIU, I had the most amazing teachers. I used to arrive at the creative writing department office about three hours before my teachers, and I would sit in one of the empty rooms, writing and reading.  Then I would sit by their offices about thirty minutes before they showed up to make sure I was the first in line.  And I wouldn’t leave.  I asked them every question I could imagine, and every single one of those questions were somehow related to—“How do I become a writer?”  My teachers gave me their time, too.  They listened to my ideas for stories; they encouraged me; they told me the truth no one else would tell; and they pushed me until I was a better writer.  They taught me how to build stories and poems the way architects create plans for buildings.
  3. Work Ethic. During the first year at FIU when I sat down to write, I became overwhelmed with anxiety.  What was I supposed to write about?  Would anyone care?  Is this a waste of my time?  And in the beginning, I would walk away from my journal or computer, declaring that I just didn’t have it that day.  Well, that thought is crap.  I was in my own way.  Writer’s block is a lie; a fiction created by the inner ego.  To overcome this, my pedagogy professor introduced me to freewriting, and my writing teachers taught me how to work.  I’ll never forget one of my teachers telling me he once stared at a computer for eight hours until he could write one sentence.  Even that was work, because he wasn’t leaving the table.  He wasn’t running from writing.  He was tackling it head on.  I have learned to sit and work, to fill up journals after journals, to write pages after pages, because I no longer work in fear.  I write to discover, to understand, and to learn.  I am comfortable with the struggle.
  4. Community. People have real problems — paying bills, relationships, cancer.  Most of those people don’t want to hear that you can’t figure out your character’s want or what is missing in your plot.  But other writers do.  That’s why having people around you who are going through the same struggles is extremely important.  During my MFA, I was a part of an open-mic night at the Luna Star Café.  Once a month, we would gather together and have a new member of the program read.  We would drink, play music, share stories and poems, and just simply be together.  We were all wanna-be writers, and at least in numbers, it’s harder to feel lost and confused.  There were people out there just like me with the same dreams and goals.
  5. Preparation for Reality. After I graduated in May, 2011, I packed up all my clothes, my books, and my menial possessions, and I moved to Southern California to live with my lady.  I had no real prospects for a job when I left.  I did, however, have opportunities around my school in Miami.  But I took the chance to leave anyway.  Several agents were reading the novel I wrote as my thesis, and I checked my e-mail every second, waiting for that glorious acceptance into the writing world.  Well, that e-mail hasn’t arrived yet.  Plus, it was difficult to find a job.  At first, I blamed my degree.  Who would want to hire an MFA?  So I started to think outside the box.  Finally, I found a job teaching and tutoring at a rehabilitation center.  (That is a whole different story.)  But here is the greatest lesson I learned from my MFA program.  I learned how not to quit.  I learned how to find internal motivation.  I learned how to see every rejection as not a failure but as a chance to learn how to succeed.  I’ll never forget saying goodbye to my teachers, my role models, my fellow classmates.  It was truly an amazing chapter in my life.  When I left, however, I was so convinced that my book was going to get published that I couldn’t see anything else.  And when the rejections started to pour in, I was prepared.  My thesis director had been prepping me for the real life of a writer, for the rejections, for the journey, and I didn’t even know it while she was teaching me.  She told me that in this business, there are many ups and downs.  You can never see what is coming.  And the ones who last are the ones who never quit.

In the end, I have a higher degree, memories, and several stories and poems I send out every day.  Plus, lessons from my teachers that are just starting to hit me.  My thesis director told me the lesson of story takes time to sink in, even after the program.  I’m starting to figure it out.  And I’m grateful for the push my program gave me.  Even if I’m not sure what direction that push is sending me.