The air hangs in the sky like molasses on this hot South Florida Saturday night as I wind through the poorly lit pathway that leads to the lavish Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. I've arrived with the departing music editor, the admirable Mosi Reeves, who like me made the unfortunate decision of wearing a long-sleeve shirt.
As we enter the mansion's front doors, I'm overcome by the expanse of socialites decked out in Dior pumps, LV handbags, and open-collar shirts. Various wineries, food merchants, and liquor vendors offer free wares atop oversize poker tables. Puffs of smoke from fat cigars rise from the huddled masses of high-dollar fabric and silicone breasts. A vaguely talented DJ offers a mashup of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" and a generic house beat.
Tonight Vizcaya is playing host to a promotional party from rum giants Flor de Caña. It's the sort of lush, fleshy social gathering I never would have witnessed in my previous home of San Francisco. The boho-forged bylaws of that city prohibit such grandiose displays of wealth and fun. But this is not San Francisco, and my companions have deemed this party nothing less than a "quintessential Miami experience."
This is my third day in the Magic City, and to say I feel out of place would be an understatement. I'm more accustomed to the dirty DJ bars and cloistered clubs of San Francisco. While there I primarily wrote about that city's underground hip-hop scene for the paper SFWeekly as well as for national magazines URB, XLR8R, and Black Book. In that city, experimentation and underground credibility were at a premium. Artists in the Bay were generally oblivious to the outside world and could not have cared less whether MTV picked up their video. In many ways the vibe there was in direct opposition to the scene unfolding before me at Vizcaya.
But as I suspect then, and will find out in subsequent hours, this is only a small, albeit very influential, fragment of the Miami population. Later that night, we'll venture to South Beach and be held under the oddly hypnotic sway of club-cum-bowling-alley Lucky Strike's neon-lit lanes and steady diet of late Eighties power pop. Then we'll hop over to one of the few Beach havens for Miami's cool kids, the sweatbox known as Buck 15, where prints from Japanese pop artist Yoshitomo Nara hang alongside a soccer ball from NYC icon artist Ryan McGinnis. Buck 15 will almost make me homesick. But that sense of familiarity will shatter as we venture to the hedonistic palace known as Nocturnal and drift through the labyrinths of pleasure where the bass bumps so hard the fillings in my teeth clatter in a syncopated rhythm.
And at each stop I'll wonder if I'm edging ever closer to the real Miami. I've been told the various ethnic and cultural groups in this metropolis are so segmented and Balkanized it's impossible to get one single read of the city. From my research (which consists of a handful of conversations and a careful reading of Joan Didion's Miami), I've learned that assimilation is not a goal and that integration amid the factions is unnecessary. They exist alongside one another -- separate, never equal, and oftentimes disharmonious. But this is only what I've been told.
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Later at the Vizcaya party, Mosi and I meet up with Jonathan Zwickel, music editor of the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Like Mosi and me, Jonathan arrived in South Florida as a transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area. Along with political contempt and lousy weather, the Bay breeds music editors apparently.
Seeking a respite from Vizcaya's bougie set, we venture away from the main mansion and into the lush gardens cradled in the darkness. We marvel at the Greek gods made from Florida limestone that protrude from knee-high hedges snaking through the grounds. Darkened fountains give way to caverns of knotty coral that serve as makeshift offering rooms to the god Neptune. And though the statues may be gods from ancient Greece, the flowers are from Julia Tuttle, who helped found Miami when she snipped a single orange blossom that lured railroad magnate Henry Flagler to South Florida to build his empire.
When we arrive back into the fold of drunken revelers, it is nearing midnight and the fireworks have begun. Mosi, Jonathan, and I walk out to the edge of the water and watch the bursts of red, white, and blue fireworks erase the night's stars, turning everything into a smear of smoke and light. The DJ cranks up Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," pitch-shifting the song so high that the Boss sounds like a blue-collar chipmunk. A chubby Cuban man performs a series of cartwheels and backflips. Couples dance in frantic salsas. Children stare at the exploding sky.
There's a sense of magic and marvel, rebirth and promise. And maybe that, more than anything else right now, is what defines Miami for me.