The Main Drag

Late evening was bleeding into early night when we passed 140th Street and pulled off Biscayne Boulevard into the semicircular driveway of the Miami Moon Motel ("efficiencies, color TV, air conditioning") in scenic North Miami Beach. A hand-written sign on the front door of the office instructed visitors to knock at a side entrance. No one answered. From the look of things, people were staying here - maybe even living here - so we walked around the drive, past the dozen cottages, some of which were divided in half, all of them separated from one another by covered carports. A lanky middle-age man emerged from a cottage across the small courtyard, wielding a portable telephone and looking bleary.

"For the night?" he asked.
Yes, we said, for the night.
"My name is Smith," he ventured. Then as an afterthought he added, "That's my last name."

Smith showed us Room 3, which rented for $25 and consisted of a double bed, a dresser and a nightstand, a bathroom and a closet, an armchair, and a round table that was home base for a motel-size color TV set. A small bug scuttled across the white tile floor. The air conditioner was on and laboring mightily.

Still holding the phone, Smith was clearly warming up to us. "I'm not the owner," he said, leading us to another room, unlocking the jalousie-slatted door and swinging it open. "This room has a kitchen - it's five dollars more." If he were us, he said, he'd take Room 3; the only difference was the kitchen. A slightly bigger bug trundled across the floor. We told Smith we'd like to look around a little more, and maybe we'd be back.

Motels, invented as the automobile entrenched itself in American culture, are a fascinating phenomenon, romantic in their transient nature, and perhaps a little foreboding. The same, too, can be said of Biscayne Boulevard, although in the case of Miami's oldest north-south thoroughfare, which last year carried an average of 35,000 cars per day, people tend to put extra emphasis on the foreboding. Not coincidentally, about three dozen motels are open for business on Biscayne, from the Mardi Gras on 34th Street up to the Raffy K just beyond 163rd. During the past several decades, many of these establishments have developed a reputation - for the illicit at best, and at worst, for the illegal. To explore their range is to expose oneself to the underbelly of Miami's urban reality, to a multiethnic cross section of South Florida society and to xenophobics, to grime and garbage, cockroaches and boric acid, to cleanliness and chlorine, to a modicum of horticulture, to mildew in all its nose-crawling variations.

Back at 136th Street we rang the doorbell at the office of the Florida Villas, whose pastel-yellow units with their Swiss-cheeselike entryways were irresistible. Almost. The night clerk passed a key through a slot at the bottom of his Plexiglas window, and we went for a look. The room was drably carpeted, and smaller than a bigot's mind. At 139th Street we stopped in for a peek at the darkened cottages of the Ben's Court Motel. At first there was no sign of life whatsoever; but in the darkness around the side of the building, the dim glow of a TV set was visible through drawn curtains. I rang the office doorbell. No answer. Finally, after bell action punctuated by rigorous bouts of knocking, an inside door opened and the very top of a very small old woman's head appeared at the very bottom of the eye-level glass panel. She may have been wearing glasses. Whatever she said was impossible to hear.

"Do you have a room?" I hollered as amiably as I could.
Her reply got lost somewhere in the thickness of the front door, but the message conveyed by the shaking of the top of her head was unmistakable.

But what did it matter? There was always the Miami Moon, where we detoured around a police car and two freshly bashed-in autos out front and were intercepted by Smith as we parked.

He wasn't the manager, Smith told us, he'd just lived there longest. "The owner, Pete, moved here from Canada," he offered, and he even went so far as to dial up Pete on the portable phone. Pete wanted to know whether we were tourists and said we could leave a driver's license or a credit card for security, because Smith didn't know how to work the credit card machine.

"Come over if you need anything," Smith said. He pointed to his door across the way. "I'll be up pretty late, so don't worry. I'll probably be watching Letterman." And indeed, when a stop for a beer at the Frosted Mug across 140th Street entailed a trip back to borrow my driver's license, Smith was watching Letterman.

That night the air conditioner bellowed, the pillows were flat as manhole covers, and the fluorescent light in the courtyard directly opposite our room lit up the bed like a drive-in movie screen. In my opinion it was kind of romantic, but Karen - my new wife and companion on this minimalist honeymoon - said it was so bright it shone through her eyelids. The ceiling fan rattled, and at about five o'clock a train came through along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks across the boulevard. It must have been a very long train, because it didn't seem to stop coming through for the next three hours.

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