March 17, 2005

Day One; Tips on South Beach

      There are only a few major North American cities I haven't visited yet.  Let me clarify that - There are only a few North American cities that I actually want to visit which I have not yet.  They are, off the top of my head:  San Francisco, Toronto, San Diego and Miami.  And now I can check Miami off the list.  Technically, we only visited the South Beach portion of Miami and not downtown Miami at all, but really... Does that matter? 
        This trip came about a few months back in the middle of another New England winter when my tropics-born wife said, "I hate this crap.  Let's go somewhere warm this year."  Now, I'm hardly a beach goer, but I am a damn good husband, so I started planning a short trip.  Initially I thought about hitting Key West but once I realized that would mean an extra flight, a lot of extra money, and most importantly - being surrounded by booze-fueled hippies while being endlessly assaulted by Jimmy Buffett songs, I sought an alternative. 
        So I booked the flights and hotels for mid March and waited through the months of snow and ice.  Lots of snow and lots of ice.  Ah, yes... The winter of my discontent.  South Beach was to be the light at the end of the tunnel.
        We woke at 3:45 AM Thursday morning, left the house at 4:25, got to Bradley Airport at 5ish, went through the variety of lines and security checks, and got safely onto our on-time flight.  Sigh, I miss the pre-9/11 days of getting to Bradley (not the biggest airport in the world) 30 minutes before the flight and never being concerned about missing it.  Note:  At Bradley, they make you remove your shoes and change and belt and jacket... Essentially everything but your pants and shirt.  Someday in my lifetime, maybe the FAA will get every airport to follow the same protocol.  Case in point, when leaving Miami 4 days later, I did not have to remove my shoes, my belt, or change.  Go figure.
        The full flight was painless and boy do I love me my Quaker Chewy Granola Bars.  Hoang makes fun of me because I've eaten one almost every day for the last 5 years at work - and she simply can't be so culinarily repetitive.  If only they gave us a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, a bagel, a yogurt, a water, and some cheap cookies, I'd have been all set. 
        Despite intentionally only wearing light jackets from our 20 degree home, we were immediately sweating upon landing in Miami.  And this was March.  I can't imagine the swamp air those people live with in June-August... Nasty.  After a $28 cab ride to our hotel in South Beach, we dumped off our luggage and began to wander the sunny streets.  We were starving so we ate at the Cafe Des Arts which I insisted was a Lonely Planet recommended place, despite it's being small and out-of-the-way.  While eating, I frantically thumbed through the guidebook to no avail.  Was I losing it?  (Yes... I later realized I was remembering a Nice joint last July in France from that Lonely Planet guidebook.  Whatever, my breakfast was good.  But my bill sucked.  Hidden in the food items was the 15% gratuity charge... Then, below, they have another line for a tip.  I was fascinated by this subterfuge - is that even legal?  Later, I did read about this uniquely South Beach practice in that very same guidebook.  At any rate, this is shamefully lame and dishonest.  How many waiters and waitresses down here are getting - at minimum - 30% tips?  (Actually, slightly more since the tip would be on the 15% tip already included!)  Listen, if the service is average I give 20%, so I'm not a cheapskate.  Suffice it to say that I did not add additional tip to this, or any of the later restaurants who had the gall to add this hidden gratuity.  It's bullcrap, pure and simple.  Not only that, I made sure to let the wait staff know that they'd have gotten more tip from me if their employer didn't automatically add the 15%.  Hoang got upset with me for doing that, but I couldn't help myself. 
        At this point I realized that I knew exactly where I was at all times in South Beach, without needing a map.  Why?  Grand Theft Auto Vice City, baby, that's why.  I was astonished to note how accurate that game's rendering of Miami is.  Even some of the buildings were recognizable.  The expensive cars and scantily clad women were all certainly here as well.  It was all I could do from opening a passing car's driver side door, tossing out the driver, and speeding away in his car.  I did punch a few passing policemen in the head, however. 
        After the lazy lunch/breakfast, we walked the 2 blocks over to Ocean Drive and headed south.  Ocean Drive is, of course, the prime real estate in these parts.  Overpriced restaurants, overpriced bars, and overpriced hotels are all that are here - and they are all designed in that corny Art Deco style that this city is famous for.  Some of the buildings were pretty cool, I guess, but it's not really my style.  And besides, with the streets filled with young women in micro mini skirts and bikini tops, who really cares about a stupid pink or lime green building?  Not getting enough of that on the street, we crossed over and walked back north up the beach. 

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        The beach itself is great; huge, white sand, calm waters - all that good stuff that glowing pale white boys like me usually avoid like the plague.  It was only about 11:30 AM on a weekday, so there weren't many people there yet which was nice.  Even so, I saw more thongs and topless women than I did on the French Riviera.  Yeah, I could handle the beach if this is what I could expect.  After the walk, we chilled on the beach for about 25 minutes, reveling in the fact that we had nothing important to do for the next few days.  Well, that wasn't true... March Madness was starting soon and we needed to find our Uconn Huskies on satellite somewhere.  Shouldn't be too difficult... We had passed several bars, and surely they'll be showing all the games of the 2nd biggest sporting event in these United States of America, right?  Wrong.  We searched up and down, all around town and every place was showing the local CBS affiliate game, nothing more.  Not only that, but no one seemed to care.  I was mystified.  How could this be?  The first two days of the tournament are minor holidays in Connecticut - people take work off, my corporate office building puts the large screen TV on the games and the room fills to SRO both afternoons.  Yet, the entire city of Miami did not seem to even know it was going on.  I was going to tear my hair out. 
        I leafed through the free City Paper guide thing looking for sports bar ads touting "March Madness."  It was difficult to find them amongst the (literally) hundreds of ads for waxing and lasering and all sorts of body hair removal services.  After leafing through the paper, I was surprised anyone in Miami had any hair on their bodies.  I did see an ad for some place called "Michael Collins'" that bragged of its "25 TV's - any game you want."  That's it, I decided, and we trudged the 15 blocks or so to get there.
        Upon arriving, it didn't look promising.  It was empty and the bar area we saw had only 2 TV's.  So I asked the bartender with the fake Irish brogue if I'd be able to see a particular NCAA game.  "Ay, mate!  We be got twintee tele's in de back, ayyyrrrr, we be got e'ry game you be wantin' to see, laddie." 
        Awesome!  Our glee lasted for the 5 seconds it took to walk "to the back."  Sure, there were a million TV's.  And apparently there were a million soccer games going on in the world at that very moment.  Oh, and a golf tournament or two.  WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS CITY?!  This bar specifically advertised March Madness and they didn't even have it on.  Furthermore, when asked to put on the games, another faux-Irishman determined that they didn't, in fact, have the satellite NCAA package and that we'd be stuck watching the local affiliate.  Just before I was about to go all fake British paramilitary on the guy, it finally hit me... Uconn wasn't playing until tomorrow.  Vacation had made me temporarily retarded.  However, my immediate concern was whether or not I'd be able to find a sports bar who bought the satellite package within 24 hours.  I was coming to grips with the fact that in this town, that wouldn't be so easy.  Good Lord, how do people live like this?!
        Those of you reading this who noticed the date at the top of this article may also now be wondering what the heck was happening in an Irish bar besides soccer and golf.  For it was also St. Patrick's Day, the Patron Saint of alcoholism.  Again, in Connecticut, this is a big deal.  In Miami... Nothing.  Ok, there were some green streamers and a few paper shamrocks, but other than that, you'd have thought you were in a mostly Hispanic city or something... Oh... Wait.  Actually, Hoang noticed one of the other 3 patrons drinking a green beer, so she ordered a "green beer."  Too bad for her that she got a Grolsch, one of her most hated beers in the world - because it comes in a green bottle.  So Pedro O'Toole made it green for her.  Great.  Happy St. No One Watches March Madness Here Patrick's Day, baby.
        We walked back to the hotel (The Clay Hotel), took a nap, and made our way back out for a late dinner at someplace called Sushi Saigon.  Great concept - Japanese and Vietnamese food offerings all on one menu.  We ordered a ton of food, including several of our favorite traditional dishes from the homeland.  Hoang, obviously a harsh critic of all Vietnamese food not made by her or her mom, gave it the stamp of approval.  The sushi was great, and the atmosphere was cool and low-key.  Best of all, this was the only place we ate on the entire trip that didn't charge the gratuity up front - and then ask for more on top of it.  I made sure to tip them extra.  I wasn't even upset the TV was tuned into NBA basketball, rather than the infinitely more enjoyable NCAA games that were being played concurrently.  Great food (well, we were starving at this point, clouding our judgment somewhat), nice staff, and relatively very inexpensive for South Beach.  As a result, it gets my very prestigious BVA - the Besetting Vice Award, awarded to anything that I'd make an effort to return to, if ever back in that area.  Yes, I just made that up.
        After dinner we wound our way a few blocks back over to Ocean Drive and into the massive bar complex called The Clevelander.  And lo, what did I see?  All the NCAA games being played on different TV's!  Alas, there was ONE place in this entire city that spent the 59 bucks per receiver to make me happy.  And they had some specials... A Coors Light for 4 bucks or 5 Coors Lights for 20 bucks!  What a deal, huh?  Marketing genius.  That's like back in my bartending days when some random patron would order a $4.50 drink and ask me how much and I'd hesitate ever so slightly, look him or her in the eye and say, "For you?  $4.50."  Got me an extra buck every time.  Yes, people are that stupid.  And so was I, because I immediately ordered the "special" 5 Coors Lights in a bucket for 20 bucks.  Whatever, at this point in the day I had picked every single tournament game correctly.  (In fact, I finished day 1 getting 15 of the 16 games right.  You won't read about my picks again, so let's just say by the time I got home on Sunday, my picks sheet was no longer intact.)
        We watched some people dance outside for a short while, decided we were tired, and made our way back to the room.  It was raining on the walk back, so we hung up our shirts in the closet and went to bed watching the local news... Man, Worst.  Local news.  Ever.  Miami CBS - unbelievably bad.  Put it this way, the moronic sports reporter guy didn't even give the scores from the NCAA games which just finished showing on his network!  I wished horrible death upon him and his producers and fell asleep.  

Continue on to Day Two; Such Nice Boys Here
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