I took the morning off work yesterday to get my car serviced. I like to go to Mickey’s, a one-man operation owned by Keith since 1958. Aunt Nancy recommended him to me when I moved here two and half years ago and had to buy a car. Keith was Aunt Nancy and Uncle Carl’s mechanic since he’d opened for business. I prefer giving my money to small owner-operated joints and so have clocked more miles than I should without an oil change because Keith works Monday-Friday, just like I do. So, yesterday morning I made the time.
Keith is seventy-five and wants to retire next year. I asked him what he’ll do then and he said he’ll go work for someone else. Doesn’t sound much like retirement, I said. He just laughed, but I’m sure it’s not that funny. I told him I’d follow him. How’s business? I asked. Slow, Keith told me. Not too funny either, I thought to myself. Then Keith told me he’s being sued for not having designated handicap parking. I looked at the vast flat empty expanse of asphalt that wraps around Keith’s corner garage. The set of bright lines around a handicap symbol in fresh paint at the edge of the front lot seems operatic in contrast to the fading paint peeling off Keith’s garage facade. I wonder how much that cost to slap on. Some guy’s been going up and down the street looking for businesses without handicap parking, Keith tells me, and now he’s suing all of us, he adds. We both swear – using different words – and then excuse ourselves to each other.
Nothing about Keith’s story shocks me. I’ve lived in Miami long enough now to know to expect anything, especially graft. Just as Keith was referred to me by my aunt, anyone else I see for assistance or service of any kind has to be vouched for by someone I know. From doctors to haircuts, realtors to tattoos, if I don’t know someone, personally, who can vouch for someone else, I won’t go to them for anything. I learned this the hard way. The way I see it now, people here are either on the make, or on the take. Those in between relentlessly underwhelm me with their indolence, their incompetence, or both. Of course, like everything, there are exceptions, and they’re the ones who’ve been vouched for. Like Keith.
While my car was on the hoist, Keith popped off one of the front tires, checked my brake pad and showed it to me. Then he went into the back and got another one to show me the whole contraption, explaining what it would look like if it were worn down and needed replacing. He checked my tire treads and explained what to look out for. Once the car was back down on the ground, he lifted the hood to check all the fluids and topped up those that needed it. He showed me the fan belt, the A/C hose and valve, the radiator, and he talked about coolant; he explained why synthetic oil is better, and he told me it’s ok to buy 87-octane gasoline rather than the more expensive stuff. He told me about the gas station he uses and the point system they have there that eventually saves him $2 on a tank of gas. I don’t like owning a car and having to keep up with the maintenance it requires, so the time Keith was giving me was enormously appreciated, and relieving. For all that, he charged me $35.
He released the hoists that were cinched under my car and I climbed in to leave. Standing in front of the vehicle, Keith motioned to me how to turn my wheels to back out, rotating his hand to imitate the steering wheel. I’m sure there are women would take offence at this. I didn’t. Unfazed, I just smiled. I may hate owning a car and looking after one, but I’m a really good driver and very comfortable behind the wheel. I can parallel park like nobody’s business. On South Beach once, where parking is tight and hard to come by, I zipped into a tiny spot lickety-split. When I stepped out of the car and locked the doors to leave, a man across the street started applauding. I took a deep bow. I was wearing a tiny hot pink summer dress and platform flip flops.
I pulled out of Keith’s lot and headed south on NW 7th Ave, a huge boulevard I prefer to the ugly turbulence of the I-95 right beside it. Where Little Haiti meets Liberty City, I was stopped at a red light, windows down, music blaring. I was listening to a playlist I made and called The Best Of Van Morrison According to Me. Staring up at the sky out my window, awash in Van’s wise wails, I thought I heard something else, and I looked to my right. In the lane beside me was a gleaming bronze truck, boxy and pristine, vintage. The driver was wearing massive aviator sunglasses; he was middle-aged and muscular, and he had super black skin that his black t-shirt hugged tight. I realized he was talking to me. Pardon?, I said. He was rotating his hand slowly, a lot like Keith had, his index finger extended toward my open window, slowly looping round and round. What do you know about the blues?, he asked me. Too much, I told him. You?, I asked. Same, he said, and we both start laughing really hard. His wide smile revealed a full set of gold grillz that flashed in the sun.
I don’t know how we could have appeared more different. I was dressed head-to-toe in white, and, as my friend Juan has observed, I might be the whitest woman in Miami – my blue eyes and my white-blond hair scream Nordic like nothing else. And there I was listening to some old white Irish guy singing the blues, loud. And here we both were, this white-clad white girl and this dark shiny black man, laughing together about our blues.
The light changed and we wished each other a good day. He pulled away fast, and in the blast of metallic shine receding down the long road in front of me I saw the small oasis of his blue antique plate. The perfect touch, I thought to myself.
I got to work just in time for my meeting with Yucef. Someday I want Yucef to explain to me, chronologically, everywhere he’s lived, and what he was doing in each place. Yucef is Venezuelan but he hasn’t lived there in decades. He’s a digital artist and his work ranges from sublimely connective and poetic to radically political and very possibly an endangerment to his life. Yucef and I see eye to eye. He’s one of those people we all wish for in our work life, not just a colleague and a peer, but a kindred soul.
At the end of our meeting, Yucef noticed that he’d received a phone call from an unknown number. He showed me his phone: the caller ID said No Se. Yucef hit call-back, not something I would have done. Here in the wilds of the unregulated marketplace all manner of unwanted solicitation runs rampant, all these corporations-are-people throwing around their rights with the swagger of the class brat and the bully, without regard for responsibilities that might accrue to them in return for all those rights to which they are forever laying claim. I never confirm reception of a call from any number I don’t recognize, never; in fact I block every one of them. It’s R_ _ _, Yucef says. I know R_ _ _ _ too. He’s also an artist. Yucef puts the call on speaker and we all chat for a while. Then Yucef and R_ _ _ _ talk together in Spanish and I understand nothing.
When they finish the call, Yucef tells me that he thinks R_ _ _ _ is in Cuba. What makes you think that?, I ask. Because he wouldn’t say where he is and the Havana Biennial is on right now and it’s perfect for his work, Yucef explained. I know R_ _ _ _ is distrustful of the state and he also protects his privacy carefully. I also know that Cuba is out of bounds for Americans and there’s a history in this county of government agencies monitoring private citizens’ telecommunications. So, somewhere sixty minutes away from here by air and a world away is R_ _ _ _, non grata.
All cities have their particular tinctures, textures and tones that distinguish one place from another in ways that are inimitable. Yesterday morning was quintessential Miami. And it all happened before noon. Behind the ritual indeed. Welcome to Miami.