By Linda Mannheim:
I used to joke that Miami was the kind of place where, even if you weren’t a writer of crime fiction, you wound up writing crime fiction. I arrived there in the late 1990s. The drug wars of the 1980s were over. Edna Buchanan recalled Lincoln Road shootouts and the 5,000 violent deaths she covered for The Miami Herald in her memoir The Corpse Had a Familiar Face. But by the time I arrived, Lincoln Road was lined with art galleries and gelato parlours, one of Miami’s few good bookstores and buzzing German tourists.
And still there was something explosive in the air. In New York, people screamed at one another on the street, but the aggression didn’t mean anything – they moved on. In Miami, a man hinted he was going to pull a gun out of his car when I dared to challenge his idea that he had right of way when he was turning. Street harassment thrived in the tropical heat. South Beach was supposed to be the city’s most gay friendly neighbourhood, so why were so many men bothering me? The straight men are trying to show they’re straight, ventured a friend. My attempts at solitude were usually interrupted by smacked lips, sonorous sexual pronouncements, whispered profanity.
I was alone in Miami. Or so it seemed to me. I lived in a little art deco apartment by myself that was mostly one big room. There was a separate little kitchen whose old linoleum tiles frequently came unstuck. Sometimes lizards climbed the walls and a ceiling fan in the main room slowly stirred the air. An old air conditioner drowned out the sounds of neighbours in the courtyard downstairs. When the window was open, you could hear everything – even the guy who lived underneath me complaining about how long it had been since he’d last had sex. You could hear the palm fronds rustling in the breeze. Salty air from the sea drifted over. The beach was only two blocks away.
The mythology of private eye stories and film noir is that the protagonist is always alone, unable to trust anyone. And I, in that place and time, was indeed alone, having discovered exactly who it was I couldn’t trust. And like the protagonists of shadowy black and white films, I’d been betrayed by the person I trusted the most. So it was perfect to be there -- in that city of heavy heat and wide streets, in that city of exiles, that city of unpredictability, that city of breathtakingly blue skies and glaring sunlight. The turquoise sea and the white sand seemed a consolation on some days. On others, the beauty was painful to see because there was no one to share it with. Miami was the perfect place to have a broken heart.
And yet, the fact that I’m still in touch with friends from that time means that I couldn’t have really been as alone as all that. And within weeks of being left, someone new had come along, so my loneliness couldn’t have been as constant as I remember it being either. But being carless meant that it was never easy to socialise. There was one trainline running through the town, a maze of unreliable busses all converging on the Omni Center in the middle of the city. Most people who rode busses stood outside the Omni Center at least twice a day. But when I tried to get friends with cars to meet me there, they had no idea what I was talking about.
Why don’t you buy a car? Asked a gee-whizz-voiced acquaintance. I knew the kind of car I could afford – the kind that broke down, left you by the side of the road, left you stranded. I wasn’t going to buy a car.
The city had brutal past and present. Car jackings, cocaine distribution, and corruption remained part of daily life even after the homicide rate went down, and whether you profited from this or were injured by it depended on who you were and where you lived. Did you live in the bright suburbs that looked like something out of E.T.? Or were you exiled to the bleeding rows of derelict motels lining the main drag of the bashed up downtown? Were you among the agua, fango y factorias of Hialeah? Or were you living in a Fisher Island mansion accessible only by a residents’ ferry others couldn’t board? Money was all that mattered in that time and place, and how that money came to be in your hands didn’t matter to the people that money mattered to.
The inequality of Miami was part of its design. When the Miami was founded in 1896, it, like other Florida cities, designated a section where black people were permitted to live. That part of Miami was later named Overtown. Count Basie, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday were not allowed to stay in Miami Beach when they performed there; they returned to Overtown at night. Liberty City started out as a middle-class black neighbourhood, a housing development that was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Early films of it show pristine buildings sparkling in the sun, gleeful children leaping into swimming pools. When South Florida’s biggest highways were built, they cut right through Overtown, displacing generations of families and destroying Overtown’s heart. Liberty City succumbed to a deteriorating economy, disinvestment, and drug battles. In its early days, it had been surrounded by an eight foot high ‘segregation wall’ separating it from the white areas.
Don’t go on the public transport at night, I was told. Don’t go anywhere after dark without a car. Don’t leave your part of the city and go the other part. Don’t go through Downtown, or Overtown, or Liberty City. No offence, said the man on the phone, but you sound white and you should know this is a black neighbourhood. Don’t go wandering if you don’t know where you’re going. Don’t let anyone know you don’t know where you are. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I was stuck in South Beach at night. South Beach, one of the few places in Miami where you could walk; it had sidewalks. And I walked everywhere. I walked past the plastic-faced shoppers and rough sleepers on wide carless Lincoln Road, up to shabby Alton for the breakfast taco and coffee special, over to Fifth street past the gym where Muhammad Ali once trained, down Collins Avenue where the aspiring pretty wives went to get their hair done and buy expensive clothes, and back over to Alton for Pollo Loco’s yuca frita and black beans. I walked up Ocean Drive where the cars gunned at night and the college students gathered outside of nightclubs on the neon bright streets. I went up Washington Avenue where the Nicaraguan diner served café con leche to the old men wanting someplace to sit, and I went back to the beach where the men with tattoos who waxed their chest hair off eyed other men in the outdoor showers beneath the burning sun.
And I rode my bike. I’d bought a cheap, fat-tired ten speed at Target – the cheapest bike they sold. I bought a good bike lock. The lock cost more than the bike did. Bikes were snatched easily, even with two locks on, disappeared fast, were rumoured to be put on boats at the marina and shipped off immediately. I used to ride my bike down the roads and down to the beach and right onto the sand, ride on the damp, flattened down sand along the shore.
And, one day, while I was riding along the shore, I remembered a joke that a man and I used to have. He’d once told me, ‘I’d do anything for you.’ And I’d goofed back, ‘I want you to kill my husband.’ And then we laughed and started riffing on the dialogue of noir films, kept pretending we were characters in it and laughing. And I thought, that would be a good opening for a story. What if this couple started playing around like that and then things got serious? And then, like every writer who had come to Miami, I started to write crime fiction.
Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction: Risk, Above Sugar Hill, and This Way to Departures. Her broadcast work has appeared on BBC Witness and KCRW Berlin. She recently launched Barbed Wire Fever, a project that explores what it means to be a refugee through writing and literature. Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.
This Way to Departures will launch in London on 3 October at Burley Fisher Books and in Berlin on 12 October at The.Word.Berlin. You can find out more about these and other events on her website.