Murka

Often spelt Murica.

dictionary.com defines it as “a slang way of referring to America, implying extreme patriotism and stereotyping how white southerners might say the word” and pronounces it [ mur-ih-kuh].

But Miami doesn’t feel much like murka—English is thin on the ground, frequently absent altogether—the city and adjoining beaches are a Hispanic stronghold, and it seems as if the previous owners departed with no forwarding address.

I was last in town a couple of decades ago, and much like the marsh grass creeping in as the sea level rises, so immigration has systematically changed the nature of this city.

Race is a constant issue in the US, finding its way into the most unusual spots. I was on a couple of websites over the weekend planning for a COVID test—Florida is fast and loose with the virus—masks are thin on the ground and no one is unduly concerned. The consequence is that the most recent flavor, the big O, is running wild—the seven-day moving average is the highest on record, with 43,168 cases.

Both websites asked me to identify my race, out of a panoply that includes Caucasian (one site said ‘White’), Black, Hispanic, Chinese, and a bunch of races I didn’t know existed. Why this should be needed is completely beyond me—I think the more you underscore race, the more it begets racism.

Miami Beach reflects this troubled history, in much the same way as the US itself. The beach was once a set of barrier islands inhabited by the Seminole Indians. As the whites arrived, mangroves were cut and coconut palms planted. Over the years, canals were dug to help move produce to market—no longer coconuts, but avocados, brought in by John Collins—the man who gave the aorta of Miami Beach its name.

The dredged spoils were used to reclaim land and the island grew—literally. It didn’t take long before the tycoons from the Northeast imagined a whole new concept—a beach resort that ran all year round. These men, most notably Indiana millionaire Carl Fisher, were property developers. A landmark ad was placed in Times Square—’Miami Beach, Where Summer Spends the Winter.’

But all was not well in paradise. Until the 1930s, Jews could only live south of 5th Street, reinventing the confinement of the Venetian Ghetto, because no developers would sell them property north of that line.

During the mid-XXth century, local hotels wouldn’t accept Jewish guests, and as late as 1960, neither Blacks nor Jews could have lunch at the Woolworth’s counter on Flagler Street.

As soon as Jewish folks were allowed into the property market, the panorama changed—Jewish-owned hotels flourished. Mount Sinai hospital was built, providing health care for the community, once again to fill a gap created by anti-Semitic policies—Jewish doctors could not get staff privileges at any hospital.

The mob banker, Meyer Lansky—Hyman Roth in the Godfather movie—led the charge onto the beach, bringing in Mafia investment from New York, Chicago, and Vegas. Casinos, nightclubs, and horse and ‘dawg’ tracks flourished. Prostitution and drugs went along for the ride. The playground reputation of Miami Beach reached a new high, accompanied by the requisite amount of sleaze.

Enter the Cubans—the Castrist slogan ‘Patria o Muerte‘ is now being fought with ‘Patria y Vida‘, but almost three generations have passed since Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. Little Havana is still a fixture of the city—a heady mixture of music, gastronomy, and crime—but now there’s also little Haiti.

Through the decades, the Jewish diaspora came and went—in the 1970s, around twenty thousand Jewish retirees came to the beach—I don’t see so many here now. There were cocaine wars, Mexicans, Colombians, Panamanian money launderers… never a dull moment, and the Jews moved north to Broward and Palm Beach.

The supply chain ain’t what is used to be—perhaps the coins are made in China.

As I cycle up Collins, dip into strip malls here and there, stop off at the beach for an early morning swim, or wade into an outlet mall off I-95, I feel the pulse of the nation. Immigrants buying building materials at Home Depot, joggers, skaters, and cyclists, lycra-legged dog-walkers—people walking around muttering to themselves, as if gripped by a new verbal dementia virus, until you realize every last one is on the phone, starting and ending conversations that just can’t wait. Hola, amor, porfa, claro, dá-le!

Back in the day, you couldn’t visit the US without bargain-hunting, but things are very different now. Sure, you can still go to an outlet store and see the bill magically split in half, or buy a pair of Levis for fifty bucks, but the never-ending stock is gone.

Empty shelves? Sure. And plenty of them. Covid queues everywhere. In a guitar store, I was advised it would be best to search online.

First, the big stores did it to the mom ‘n pop shops. Then the malls did it to the big stores. Now Amazon has done it to them all. Off the airport freeway, a gigantic Prime depot. Off the runway, Amazon jets. Prime Air.

And all it took was a spot of the ole pandemic, y’all.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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