It's an enormous inverted salad bowl. Or maybe it's headquarters of the Justice League of America, where superheroes Aquaman, Superman, and Wonder Woman gather to hatch world-saving strategies. Actually the distinctive building that distracted you so much you nearly veered off the road is the Aventura Government Center. Dreamed up by Michael A. Schiff & Associates and Arquitectonica, the striking contemporary structure swathed in glass and Indiana limestone features a spectacular sloped rotunda, where elected officials meet to make city policy. Since it opened in May 2001, the 72,000-square-foot marvel, housing all government operations (including the police department) has become what its creators had hoped: a one-stop shop for dealing with city business. And quite the looker as well.

Like all truly great annual traditions, Lincoln Road's Halloween parade just sort of happened. There is no sponsor, no formal organization, no one in charge. It's simply an outgrowth of the Road's late-Nineties transformation from a deserted strip into one of South Florida's prime people-watching spots. For locals who hardly need a holiday as an excuse to pose for a closeup, showing up in their Halloween costumes has become a no-brainer. Consequently veteran attendees know to stake out a sidewalk café seat early. Order dinner and a few drinks -- by nightfall the pedestrian mall is engulfed with dead Elvises, vampires, and every drag queen within a 50-mile radius -- all strutting their stuff for an appreciative audience. Never has the phrase freak show been so apropos, or so enjoyable.

A lot of South Floridians quietly cheered this past November when Gittens, less than a year into her tenure as Miami-Dade County's aviation director, lambasted the county commission as "lobby heaven," and accused a lobbyist of lying during a presentation. (Carl Hiaasen described MIA at the time Gittens took over in March 2001 as "operating with all the charm and efficiency of a hillside brothel during an earthquake.") Gittens had a history of successfully fighting corruption in her previous job as director of Atlanta's sprawling Hartsfield International Airport. And even though Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver called her on the carpet for her lobbyist outburst, Gittens hasn't stopped telling it like it is at MIA, or working hard for a more equitable and efficient system of awarding contracts.

For anyone not familiar with the local "rancho" phenomenon, Rancho Grande is a revelation. It really is a ranch of sorts, complete with horses and the occasional whiff of barnyard, way out in what passes for the countryside. But it's a club of sorts too. Tables and chairs are spread around a dance floor, all open to the breeze but sheltered from rain by a patchwork roof. You can drop by any weekend (not open weekdays) dressed like a guajiro or a prom queen or a yachtsman and lounge around drinking beer, sampling the excellent Cuban cooking (while it lasts), and watching. Infants and grandparents, fat, thin, black, white, tall, short, hairless, hirsute. The main reason to drop by is to dance to the DJ music (all Latin varieties), and that's another revelation: On any given Saturday night there's the lone exhibitionist, seemingly a different man each week, stepping and turning for hours in extended experimental theater. There are the couples with amazing vibrating butts. The salseros. The bachateros. The vendors of flowers, toys, chains and watches, snapshots of you, and "African art." Sooner or later almost everyone joins the parade at Rancho Grande.

There's nothing quite like surrounding oneself in bromeliads to ease the troubled mind. This lush little enclave has 150 different kinds. "Bromeliads are cherished for their lovely variations of color, spectacular bloom shoots, and their important role supporting animal life via rainwater collected in their rosettes of leaves," notes the garden's Website. From time to time a greedy subspecies of urban wildlife has been known to sneak in and run off with a few orchids from the Arthur Laufferberger Memorial Orchidaria, another feature of this sanctum. But you can relax. That security problem has been addressed, according to the nonprofit Beach Garden Conservancy, which manages this refuge from the sands and sidewalks of South Beach. The Japanese Garden is an oasis within an oasis. A number of tables and benches scattered throughout the grounds provide perches for those who may enter to slake their thirst or hunger with a little food or drink. The gardens are open every day from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free.

It's a bright and sunny weekend morning. You're headed down to the Keys for some R&R. You think you're pretty smart to use the Shula (SR 874) because it isn't heavily traveled at this hour and it's the quickest way to join up with the southbound turnpike. As you approach the exit for SW 107th Avenue you become aware of a change in your surroundings. Everything seems to open up -- wider lanes, broad grassy median, a smooth ribbon of highway beckoning to you. Is this the turnpike already? Just as you're about to pass under the bridge some involuntary reflex causes you to floor it. You begin to smile. So does the state trooper standing on the bridge, radar gun aimed right at you. Then a quick radio call to one of several FHP cars poised at the on-ramp. You're doomed and don't even know it.
Grimm displays a willingness to actually leave his desk, unlike some columnists we know. And as far as we've seen, he has never wasted column space writing about the comments generated by his last column. No, Grimm goes down to city hall and rummages through files. He visits the boulevard where protesters marched, and he witnesses the sentencing hearing from the courtroom. Such shoe-leather reporting informs Grimm's intelligent opinions on the news of the moment. Generally warm and funny, Grimm can definitely be prickly on occasion, and appropriately so. His subjects are as far-ranging as cockfighting, black-market plastic surgery, failed shopping malls, swingers clubs, and the tasteless campaign of "Pete the Fireman" Iriardi, an obscure political candidate who attempted to exploit a 9/11 heroism he completely fabricated. Grimm makes all these issues (and many others) relevant to his readers. In his eyes, South Florida is the most interesting, crazy place in the country. He is, of course, right about that.
Somehow we missed that particular issue of Caretas, the respected Peruvian newsweekly, the one in which it reported that Peruvian congresswoman Cecilia Tait was pregnant with a child conceived with the cooperation of Miami Herald reporter Tyler Bridges. But there it was in Joan Fleischman's "Talk of Our Town" column, in the very paper that employs Bridges. "He looks like Richard Gere but with green eyes," Tait told Caretas. Seriously? Tyler Bridges? The same Tyler Bridges who, in a Herald opinion piece, pondered the eerie similarities between his life and that of the late John F. Kennedy, Jr.? (Sample: "John John went to Brown. I went to Stanford.") More recently Bridges shared with readers his experiences preparing for and running a marathon. Surely he won't keep us waiting too long for the details of his long-distance political liaison. We'll be patient -- and maybe nervous.

You don't have to live in South Beach to be painfully aware of the fact that finding a place to park your car qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. Keep this garage in mind next time you're about to lose your mind in the quest for parking. Owned by the City of Miami Beach, the Seventeenth Street garage could not be more conveniently located. It's an easy walk to the Jackie Gleason Theater, the convention center, Lincoln Road, and only five short blocks from the beach. It's open 24 hours a day and has space for a whopping 1460 vehicles. The dollar-per-hour rate (maximum eight hours) is quite reasonable. On special-event days it's a flat rate of five dollars. According to city officials, the garage opened 25 years ago, but a thorough renovation in 1996 expanded the facility and spruced it up considerably. You can almost always count on finding a space there, shielded from the blazing sun and close to where you want to go.
"Buenos dias" in the morning. "Buenos tardes" in the afternoon. "Buenas noches" after the sun goes down, just before they lock up the store for the night. "¿Como andas?" "¿Como andamaos?" "¿Que pasó?" The list runs through your head every time you go for a newspaper. The fates have placed you in Little Havana and you're okay with it. In fact you like it, how real the neighborhood feels, how different it seems from everywhere else in America you've lived. Unfortunately you don't speak Spanish -- at all. Or at least not more than a few words. You're painfully monolingual, though you keep trying. Every day you buy your paper at the neighborhood bodega, the one with the shrine to San Lazaro burning near the cash register. Every day you wave and say hello to the butcher. He's 92 years old, you're told. He sits there every day, liver spots sprinkled over his face, all his hair gone. Plastic-wrapped hams and strange-looking cheeses mummify in a cooler. "¡Hola!" he says to you one morning. You do know that one and respond in kind. The next day, when you see him, you smile and prepare for a similar exchange. "¿Como andas?" he asks. What?!? What are you supposed to say to that? You head home and flip through a Spanish dictionary. You call a friend and ask for an appropriate reply. By the next morning you're smarter. But so is he, sitting behind his meat cooler, eating cheese off a cracker. "¿Que tal, mi amigo?" he calls out, reaching over the cooler to warmly grasp your hand. You stare at him blankly, frozen in fear. ¿Que tal? Where the hell did that come from? You mumble something, "Bien" probably, grab your paper and scurry back to your dictionary. Tomorrow you'll be ready.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®