The Sunshine State

//The Sunshine State

The Sunshine State

<Smiley face

So where were we? Oh yeah, leaving an old woman to die in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

I don’t feel good about that, but, hey, I had bigger problems to deal with. The Traipsemobile sewer tank had sprung a leak, leaving little droplets of shitwater all over the Northeast. Sort of like Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign.

I’m not sure how long it had been going on, or what caused it. A friend in Massachusetts had mentioned a bit of a barnyard smell emanating from the rear of the vehicle, but there wasn’t any visible evidence of leakage. Not then, anyway. But every once in a while – as I crossed Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware, I’d notice a puddle in a place where I did not want a puddle to be. Uh oh.

I made a couple of unsuccessful and hilarious attempts to fix it myself, jamming waterproof molding – stuff that looked like plastic explosives and had to be hand-rolled to activate – into the wet spot under the tank. This worked, until the drippage move around the glob of clay and reasserted itself. I did what I could. I laid on my back in a variety of hardware store parking lots, wearing rubber gloves and trying to affix all manner of gums and sealants, succeeding only in covering my gloves with the smell of chemicalized shit. I drained the tank. But seepage, from parts unknown (and best left that way) continued, all the way into Virginia. It was as if I were leaving a trail of shit-soaked bread crumbs wherever I went.

Which is why I went to the Restless Wheels RV Center in Manassas, VA, out by the A to Z Pawn Shop on Centreville Road. They were not thrilled to see me. Upon initial inspection of the still-damp trouble-spot, they informed me that the leak was irreparable and that the whole tank would have to be replaced, which they could not do for a week and a half. But what about a patch job? I didn’t think I could keep from pissing for 10 days, especially not with my beer intake.

So, reluctantly, they took the vehicle inside (and later informed me that my draining of the tank had not been as complete as I thought). For six hours, while I wandered around the RV Supply store, attempted to make musical instruments out of PVC piping and sat in every folding camp chair they had, they struggled with my shit-dripping tank. The problem, they finally determined, was road debris, yet another souvenir from my Dalton Highway dirt-road adventure in Alaska. For those of you scoring at home, that little 400-mile off-road trip has, so far, cost me two windshields, four tires, one set of shock absorbers, one set of brakes and a continuing nightmare involving talking musk ox, who pick up the Traipsemobile with their surprisingly prehensile hooves and slam it down on the tundra while bellowing, “You do not belong here.” Ambien. It’s my nightly hallucinogen.

I left Restless Wheels $600 poorer, and in possession of a collapsible salad bowl set that I will never, ever use. But I leaked no shitwater in Virginia, or North Carolina, South Carolina or Georgia. I drank. I peed. I flushed. But, to the best of my knowledge, I left no stinky trail.

Because, God knows, you don’t want to bring any new smells into Florida, which already has plenty of its own, that peculiar mix of swamp gas and sun tan lotion that lets you know you have crossed into “The Sunshine State.” The whole place smells like coconut oil and rotting crabs. I’ve lived here twice – once in Clearwater and once in Hollywood Beach – and I left both times thinking of the place as an unrelenting freak show, full of palm trees, bad drivers and giant flying cockroaches. Oh, excuse me,  “Palmetto Bugs.” “Florida,” I used to say, “where winter is like spring, spring is like summer and summer is like hell.”

And, because I’m a moron,  this is where I decided to spend the winter. Most of it anyway. It seemed like the logical choice, seeing as how I was already on the East Coast. Also I liked the idea of ending the year in Key West, of having driven from the most-northern point in the U.S. to the southernmost point (Hawaii not included) in the same year. Symmetry! Symbolism! Rationalization!

There were people I wanted to see, of course. College friends. High school friends. A couple of journalism pals from Dallas, neither of whom work for newspapers anymore. I guzzled local beers (I grew particularly fond of Jai Alai IPA from Tampa) and stuffed myself full of conch fritters and grouper sandwiches. I bounced from one strip mall to the next, past a hundred costumed homeless guys holding up “We Buy Gold” signs in front of pawn shops. Can that possibly work? Who happens to be driving by a pawn shop, sees a guy in a pirate costume and goes, “Oh, shit. I’ve got some gold in the glove compartment! Let’s sell it. Thank God, he reminded me.” Does that ever happen?

Mostly, though, I was just killing time, waiting for Christmas and, more specifically, the arrival of my friend Dog in South Beach. You may remember Dog from last year’s adventures in Las Vegas (chronicled here). As a connoisseur of all things garish and somewhat skeevy, he felt it was wrong that he’d had never been to Miami. Or to Florida at all. So, to remedy this, he chose to spend Christmas in South Beach. Who was I to dissuade him?

Dog, who just turned 50, has dialed back the debauchery in recent years. It used to be almost guaranteed that on a road trip to, well, anywhere, he would end up naked on top of some local landmark, getting his picture taken. And there would be long, boozy visits to strip joints and assorted pleasure palaces. He was the very proud owner of a special pair of  “lap dance pants,” easily washed and extra-thin. And no Sunday party would be complete without Dog shocking a newcomer with some long (and hilarious) description of a recently-attempted sexual escapade. Dog loved to work blue.

Dog at The Big Texan, surrendering

He still lives his life as sort of a performance art piece, but he’s definitely more tame. Now he spends his free time entering poker tournaments, running half-marathons and attempting to eat massive amounts of various foods. One of his goals in Miami was to go to Don Shula’s Steakhouse on Miami Beach and consume a 48-ounce Porterhouse steak. Sadly, we didn’t get around to this. (Although, a week later he came damned close to eating the famed Big Texan’s  72-ounce steak in Amarillo, TX, the granddaddy of all ridiculous-consumption offers. If you finish the steak (all attempts go out live on the restaurant’s webstream) with fixin’s, it’s free. It’s the fixins’ that bring down most attempts. Dog ate all the fixin’s and 64 ounces of steak. But that’s not good enough to get your picture on the wall. Or a free meal. Alas.)

He’d done a fine job scouting out South Beach, mostly by watching Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel. Somehow he’d managed to find the only reasonably-priced hotel on Ocean Drive, the Beach Paradise, which is semi-funky but not uncomfortable. Best of all it has this terrific, lobby, with ceiling fans and chessboard-tiled floor, the perfect place to plot a revolution or a drug deal. The hotel was built in 1929, so I imagine this has actually happened on several occasions.

The lobby of the Beach Paradise Hotel

And it’s right in the heart of the Ocean Drive freak parade, that Miami-specific mixture of grifters and models, Euro-trash and South American tourists, low-lifes and big spenders. Garish art-deco architecture mixed with a kind of midway seediness. Bad-taste neon and drinks the size of small aquariums. Lots of people  dress like criminals and whores, but probably aren’t either. They’ve just watched too much MTV for their own good. Miami is, Carl Hiaasen once said, “Newark with palm trees.” I would say, “Like L.A., but sweatier.”

The restaurants on Ocean Drive set up tables on either side of the sidewalk so in order to walk down the street you have to walk through the middle of the restaurant, often under an awning or giant umbrella, with scantily-clad “hostesses” attempting to entice you to sit down, sometimes just by flirting, sometimes by shouting out incomprehensible “specials” which invariably are something less than they appear. “Half-price” turns out to be a relative term.

Dog, by this point wearing a dashiki I’d given him (a re-gift from a Kenyan friend) was dancing down the aisles BEFORE he was drunk. He’d ask about the drink specials and the lobster specials and then dance off to the next place. I just sort of followed behind him, thinking this would be a good place to be a pickpocket.

Dog has Christmas Eve mojitos (note red dress in background)

We ended up at a restaurant called Kitchen, partly because they were offering gigantic 2-for-1 Mojitos but mostly because their hostess was the best on the block, in the sense that her clingy red dress defied the laws of gravity and because she managed, somehow, to smile at every single person that walked by and then, as soon as they passed, to look bored beyond belief. It was fascinating. And exhausting. And some day, surely, she will be an anchor on Access:Hollywood.

Did I mention the mojitos? They were the size of bowling balls. And tasted like they were mostly made out of Sprite. Dog had four. I had half of one and then switched to margaritas. Still, by the time we were back on the sidewalk – I have no idea how much time had passed – it felt like that scene in Thunderball where Sean Connery is fighting his way through a Junkanoo parade in Nassau. Everything was whirly. Including Dog.

Did I mention this was Christmas Eve? It was.

Christmas Day was more sedate, in that we avoided the restaurant barkers and went straight to Club Deuce, an Anthony Bourdain recommendation, which was dark and dingy and had NBA games on tv. It was perfect. There’s a giant horseshoe-shaped bar. Customers were making waffles in the corner. I had six beers and a cigar. Dog ended up dancing with many local drunks who just referred to him as “LA. Guy.” We were not killed and did not puke. Merry Christmas.

We drove to Key West the next day. It’s 120 miles from Miami to Key West on U.S. 1, the mostly-two-lane Overseas Highway,  which opened in 1937,  replacing an elaborate system of ferries and floating bridges. It’s been rebuilt a half-dozen times since then, usually after hurricanes. There are 42 bridges, the longest of which is 7 miles long and is cleverly called “The Seven Mile Bridge.”  There are stretches where you can see the original lanes off to the side, all rusty and crumbling, people fishing over the side.

It’s a fine drive, through mangroves and tidal basins, past hundreds of tacky souvenir shops and sleazy motels. You go over Jewfish Creek, past Lois Key, where there are escaped rhesus monkeys who have gone wild and pretty much destroyed the native vegetations and Deer Key, where are deer (I saw one!). There are scuba shops and smoke shops and shell shops. Most of the people who come this way are on their way to scuba dive, or camp or take nature walks. We went to the Waffle House. (Shockingly, this is the first and only time I’ve been to a Waffle Shop since The Traipsathon began. I know. It seems wrong.)

Dog got a room at the Blue Marlin Motel in Key West. I slept in the parking lot. We did what everyone does in Key West: we walked up and down Duval Street, we ate key lime pie, we ogled the drag queens outside the 801 Bourbon Bar, none of whom were wearing leopard print pantyhose. Sunsets were applauded. Rum drinks were consumed. Every time I saw a Hemingway impersonator I’d suggest they take it all the way and shoot themselves. Artists have to commit.

We ended up at the Green Parrot Bar, which has been in business (under various names) since 1890 and has a sign over the bar that says, “No Snivelling.” My old buddies, Spiritual Rez, (who you may remember from our encounter last year in Vermont) were playing. Dog went back to the hotel. I stayed  a while and, at some point, may have sniveled.

We went back to Miami the next day, stopped for lunch at Porkey’s Bayside BBQ in Marathon and, for a good half-hour, watched a manatee lolling around next to a boat, floating on it’s back and drinking fresh water from a spigot. Then we went to see the Miami Heat beat the Boston Celtics, got stuck on the Miami Monorail when the power went out and declared that we’d seen all of Miami we needed to see.

Dog went on to the Everglades from there, to play poker and ride on an airboat. I went back to Key West, to take in New Year’s Eve. I had all sorts of elaborate plans, to walk amongst the drunken mobs of pirate wannabes  to watch them lower a drag queen from a balcony at midnight (no, they really do this) and be staring out towards Cuba when 2012 began.

But I didn’t do any of those things. The off-and-old flu symptoms that had been plaguing me ever since I entered Florida returned with a vengeance, all cold sweats and muscle aches. So I spent New Year’s Eve alone at the Boyd’s Key West Campground on Stock Isand, the first time I’d checked into an RV Park. It was quiet there. Most of the other campers had gone into town.

So I poured myself a shot of tequila as the New Year began. My campsite was on the water. I listened to the waves and thought about how far I’d traveled since Prudhoe Bay. 6,000 miles since September.  Three provinces and 20 states. From the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, with a hundred coffee shops and taverns in between. Not sure where I’ll be this time next year. But it probably won’t be Florida. Unless I’ve got some gold to sell.




By |2012-02-20T23:49:31-04:00February 20th, 2012|Dispatches|1 Comment

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