The Mafia on Vacation (Part 3): Remembering Miami, Then and Now


(To read parts one and two of this series click here and here.)

Port-au-Prince was tough.  My partner Sara’s job—demanding. 

Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, 1.5 million homeless in Port-au-Prince

She put in long hours as an aid worker; she didn’t sleep well.  And I spent way too much time worrying, blogging and fretting that our internet was too slow to upload photos, stressing that the food in our frig would spoil when the electricity went out at night, complaining that we should run the generator more—to hell with conservation, to hell with saving energy or saving Haiti.  We should save ourselves, I thought.  Food poisoning could be a bitch.

Sara and I were both exhausted.  We argued.  We quibbled over everything and nothing, sometimes both in the same sentence.

We needed R & R, and it showed.

So last February we flew to Miami for a long weekend, vowing we would watch American TV, enjoy fast food and slow mornings on the beach.  Miami was as close to home as we could get—our easiest and most convenient access to all things US—electricity around the clock, unlimited refrigeration, water we could drink, a language we could speak.  This was destined to be a big time.

And it was, but not as we’d expected. 

It seems, we’d been so long without TV in Haiti that we forgot to watch it once we arrived stateside, so long without access to gadgets and up-to-date appliances, we couldn’t operate the coffeemaker in our hotel.  And once we bought Droids at a Miami Verizon store, we spent much of the remaining weekend holed up in our hotel room, marveling at all the phone could do.   Could we even brush our teeth without an app?  Could another make the coffeemaker work?

Though we did manage to meet an old friend for dinner, it was when we drove from South Beach to Bal Harbour, that something in me changed.

You see, when I was a kid, my parents had a beach-front, Florida condominium—overlooking the Atlantic. 

View from our Miami Beach condominium (1979 or 1980)

Daddy, a mafia man, had his “business calls” forwarded there—a place where he could “work” amidst the sun and sand and surf.  It was a hard life, but someone had to deal with deprivation.  Might as well be Daddy.  Right?

In Bal Harbour, we had a condo at the Camelot and a cabana next door at the Ivanhoe—a more kid-friendly location, where noise was okay and splashing was permitted. 

Playing in the pool with my siblings, the Ivanhoe--

My parents seemed in perpetual party mode in Miami.  Daddy had fun.  We laughed, power-lounging in the sun.

Emilio "I," my mom and dad at the Ivanhoe

So being in Miami last winter, Sara and I decided to visit my parents’ old stomping ground, the sandy places where we had played as kids. 

We discovered that the Camelot still stood—under a new name, of course. 

The Camelot, aka the Plaza, in 2011 (view from the beach)

It largely looked the same, but out of context with the Ivanhoe next door torn down—replaced by a high-rise condominium complex.

Where the Ivanhoe once stood--

However, a hotel several doors down still stood—seemingly unchanged in more than thirty years. 

Front entrance to the Sea View in 2011

The Sea View had been a grand old dame of Miami Beach, a place where the rich spent big bucks on fancy dinners, played shuffleboard in the sun, drank bloody Marys by the beach. 

Revisiting the Sea View in 2011

The Sea View was an institution.  It had survived unchanged by the facelift so much of Collins Avenue had suffered in the intervening decades.

Daddy had loved the Sea View—eating breakfast there on Sunday mornings.  Once on Easter, the day I turned sixteen, I remember Daddy taking us there.  I ate French toast.  The Sea View’s cinnamon-vanilla version was the best.

Easter Sunday at the Sea View with my siblings (1978). I'm the birthday girl in blue.

So Sara and I decided to breakfast there, as well. 

Breakfast at the Sea View in 2011--

It wasn’t Easter.  It wasn’t my birthday.  But even more appropriately, it was Super Bowl Sunday—the most important day of the year on Daddy’s calendar—big betting business done that day.  Massive cash was made.  (Daddy had been a bookie.)

Super Bowl Sunday at the Sea View (2011)

However, what amazed me most about the Sea View thirty years later was not so much the French toast itself, which I ate again for old times sake, but how little else had changed. 

My French toast, seemingly the same recipe more than 30 years later--

It literally looked the same as it had several decades earlier—a front desk of darkly paneled wood and polished brass, a stunning chandelier in the lobby—a massive display of crystal suspended from the ceiling, reflecting light, bouncing it around the room. 

The chandelier in 2011--

So standing in that lobby last February, I renewed my vowel to write a memoir—to remember—to reassemble a story not unlike the chandelier itself—a million little pieces of light—refusing to focus.

The chandelier still stuns me.

We returned to Haiti after that weekend and are now living again in the US, but I still struggle to tell this tale—one I remember only bits and pieces of—pieces of past that dangle overhead like cut glass.  I strain my neck to look at them.

Now Daddy’s gone, but the Sea View still stands–a testament to memory–its durability–a past refracted by the glass.

(Note: If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I am, indeed, writing a memoir and blogging about growing up in an organized crime family. To read a post called “Kids Make the Best Bookies,” click here.)

38 thoughts on “The Mafia on Vacation (Part 3): Remembering Miami, Then and Now

  1. Haiti does that sometimes – I spent an entire summer in Haiti and when i returned to the states, I realized that having running water and electricity was a 3rd world luxury. I must have taken long hot baths for hours the first few weeks back. but you see, you learn to “live” without those things even though they are essential.

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    • It’s amazing, isn’t it. When we came home to the US, for visits I would always marvel at how it felt to have round-the-clock electricity, round-the-clock refrigeration. Folks in the US really have no idea how good we have it. Where in Haiti were you for the summer?

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  2. Kathy, I am curious to know (because our laws are different here) is it illegal to be a bookie there? I’m just wondering what exactly your father did that was so wrong? We have bookies here and its all legal????

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  3. The only thing better about the beach? Drinking Bloody Marys on the beach. 🙂

    Your return visit to Miami reminds me of my cross-country road trip earlier this year to check out the places from my youth. I was surprised by both how much had changed…and how little had changed.

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    • Exactly, Mark! Your trip was a bit like this one. Hadn’t thought about that. However, I am so excited that you have begun your own memoir posts! It will be fun to have another blogger to accompany me in this process. Hooray for you, Mark!

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    • Ah, thanks, Emily. Actually, I’m enjoying this much more than I thought I would, so I’m glad to know it’s fun for you, too. I’m crazy about the beach, as well, and, I assume, this is where that love affair began. Thanks for reading, my friend.

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  4. I actually like it quite a bit when things change but there’s something to be said by the odd stalwart item, or hotel, that doesn’t even flinch at staying exactly the same. Remarkably, the place doesn’t look particularly dated or gaudy. The idea of you reliving your birthday french toast really warms my heart – and it’s my favourite out for breakfast item!

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    • I too like change, but somehow it was so comforting to go here and have it all look the same. It felt a bit like time travel, which was good for getting me going on this memoir. Kind of serendipitous, actually.

      Glad we share a passion for all things French toast.

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  5. So glad I read this post in the evening, after dinner. Had I read it in the morning at work while lethargically shoveling my usual cup of flavor-free-wood-shavings-floating-in-skim-milk-breakfast I’m sure my stomach would have emitted a roar worthy of a starving jungle beast had I laid eyes on that delectable plate of French toast you savored. That visit sounds like a pleasant step back in time especially after all the destruction and hardship you saw day in and day out in Haiti. I’m such a hardcore city slicker I’m sure I would not last an hour there.

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  6. Going back is a funny thing, isn’t it? I haven’t lived with or near my parents for 20 years now, and when I visit, it’s almost like going to a different house – a different place. New kitchen, extension here, different this, changed that. Washington’s axe, if you will. The only certain thing is change, as they say. Funny though, how there seems to be a wheel within this seemingly elliptical change that brings us back and then takes us away again.

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  7. It does look like Camelot, Kathy. (And I made french toast for the first time in ages this morning.) My dad, a pharmacist, not a mobster, ended up buying a Florida condo with my mom and it looks like Camelot, too. We traveled there as kids, as well… Pondering the similarities and differences in our childhood. There is a similar feel of privilege in both. My heart right now is trying to hold the privilege and the world’s poverty next to each other without faltering. Looking forward to reading more.

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  8. I can’t believe nobody else has commented on how PERFECT your chandelier metaphor is for your memoir process. That’s what I zeroed in on in this post– I thought to myself “How brilliant!” LOVE the idea of your memory bits (however divergent or tangent they may be) coming together and forming a beautiful, cohesive piece. Love love love!!!

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    • Thanks for mentioning that, Dana. I had begun to worry that maybe the image didn’t work, and folks were not mentioning liking it, because they, indeed, didn’t. Thanks so much. This makes me feel better. Have a great weekend, my friend!

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      • Oh, I had totally forgotten to comment but couldn’t agree more. What struck me most about the metaphor, though it works so well in so many ways, as Dana so aptly points out, is the idea of the pieces of light as out of focus, but together meaning something. It reminds me of the Hindu idea, as I poorly understand it, that we are all individual droplets of water in one common river. Or something. You’re saying it beautifully is the point!

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      • Oh, I love that image–the droplets of water comming together to form something larger and more powerful–and moving. And thanks for mentioning the matter of focus, as I wasn’t sure about that.

        The bottom line is this–I fiddled with that chandelier image a lot–rewriting, editing, actually in the end omitting an entire passage, as I thought maybe it was too much.

        I would also love to hear what you think doesn’t work in the future. I really am open to criticism, as I try to make this thing better. In fact, I welcome it, want it, value it.

        Thanks so much, Rose, for this additional comment. It means an enormous amount to me.

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  9. A truly lovely piece. Florida seemed like a stable spot on your space/time continuum, a place where the Door opened. I wonder what else you’d find if you and Sara went there now?

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  10. Wonderful post, Kathy. I always find it amazing how places can be triggers for memories we thought we’d forgotten. I’m so glad that your trip with Sara last year proved to be a great catalyst in encouraging you to reconnect with the memories and start writing your memoirs.
    It must have been great to have electricity for 24 hours straight, even if it was just for a short time. 🙂
    Have a lovely weekend, friend!

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    • I’m so glad you like this post, Jackie. It was a fun weekend, for sure, and a bonus to have 24 hours a day worth of electricity. Somehow that life in Haiti seems fairly far away now. You have a lovely Sunday, my friend. Say hello to NYC for me.

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