It feels like Bright Lights, Big City with a Latin twist: the clock has turned somewhere past midnight and the most pressing and insoluble question in my mind is whether it’s Paolo’s turn to buy a round or mine. I’m desperately hoping it’s his, because if I have to buy and drink another, the consequences for my ability to navigate back to the hotel are likely to be dire.
In theory, all I need to do is turn left, er, right on my way out, and head south along the beach until I find Arizona Street. But I have no idea what Arizona Street looks like at one in the morning and am worried that I’ll overshoot and just keep walking until I hit Miami. I try to explain this to Paolo, but my Spanish is only a little better than his English, so he just laughs like I’m telling him a dirty joke and slaps me on the back again. The lack of nuance in our conversation has grown predictable; honestly, I’ve only understood about five words he’s said all evening. And to be fair, I’m not particularly worried about nuance at this point; his hand gestures give me the impression that most of this evening’s Spanish lesson has had to do with appreciation of the Latina physique.
I’ve completely forgotten about Google Maps by now, and my sole hope of return (assuming I can retrieve my hat and extricate myself from the generosity of my drinking companions) is pinned on finding Mamacitas. I know Mamacitas is close to Arizona Street, close to where I’m staying, because Mamacitas is where it all started. Really, I was just taking a walk along the beach to clear my head after dinner, but there was Cuban salsa blaring from outdoor speakers, and an eddy had formed where the crowd spilled out to block the flow of traffic. Kids, teenagers and older couples were dancing in the street – one woman was spinning her gleeful elderly charge in a wheelchair. You would have to be without a soul to just pass by without stopping to listen, to watch, to cheer on a bit, and maybe stop in for a beer as an excuse to stay and watch some more.
I was getting ready to move on when a tall, broad-shouldered linebacker of a guy at the bar pointed at my hat, said “Indiana Jones!” and held out his hand for one of those palm-slapping handshakes that punctuate manly conversation in bars. I shook hands all around, and before I knew it, someone was handing me another beer and insisting that he was buying this round.
I figured I needed to buy the next one, but by then the bar at Mamacita’s was getting a little rowdy (I don’t think there was a fight, but I distinctly remember the sound of a beer bottle hitting the wall a few tables over). Paolo grabbed my arm and said we were moving on. Vamos, he said. ¿A donde? He gave what might have been a convincing answer if I spoke Spanish, and I didn’t get a chance to ask for clarification. I recall that, at least early on, the irony of an American named Pablo and a Cubano named Paolo having no common language was not lost on me.
But somewhere along the way there was the smoky place with his Quebecois friends, where he said he was done for the night and was going to get a taxi. But that was an hour ago and now we’re somewhere even farther north, wedged into a corner table near the back. Everybody here seems to know Paolo, and they all greet him with the deference and kid gloves of an old client who’s been known to drop in after getting sufficiently pre-oiled elsewhere. They smile at me understandingly and the nice young lady in charge of the table we’ve grabbed whispers in my ear, first in Spanish, then in English, to check in whether I’m as toasty as my Cuban companion.
The couple on the stage is singing James Brown, getting lost all over the place, but it’s good fun, and we’re all singing along, loudly. I only realize halfway through that I don’t actually know the words to this song, but the beer decides that this is not a particularly interesting piece of trivia, and it certainly hasn’t stopped anyone else here from hollering along.
Still, it’s way past time to go, and I don’t see how any of this is going to end. Also, before it does, I need to get my hat back. It has departed of its own accord at least twice, plucked from my head for an excursion to the dance floor. It’s come back each time, so I’m not that worried, and am grateful that it’s not until much later, walking home in the quiet shush of low tide on sand, that it occurs to me hat thievery is likely a sideways form of invitation around here.
When I do find myself walking home, socks and shoes off in the wet sand, I try to reconstruct exactly how I got out. Right: it was another of his Quebecoise friends, youngish, pretty, and maybe the only other non-Latin in the bar, distracting him while I settled our bill with the waitress and made my hasty excuse, not bothering to translate. The beach is quiet now, even at Mamacita’s, and Orion is sliding sideways overhead through the still night sky. It has been an improbable evening, this last night in Florida, but then, I figured it probably would be.
[Wrap up: I’m done with my week with the amazing Collings gang, westbound with another 1.4 hours in the B-17 and 2.5 in the Mustang under my belt. Many more things I wish I’d taken the time to write about, but it was an eventful week. Back to the novel for now – stay tuned for the next roadtrip!]
Below, some pictures from Hollywood Beach. I drove down to catch my flight out the next morning and picked a random low-budget place off Google Maps. Found myself with a lovely little patio-enclosed private room twenty five steps from the esplanade. According to my artist/film maker friend Harriet from back in the Dartmouth days, I nailed the one funky, quirky little stretch of South Florida beach that defies the stereotyped Miami hardbody vibe. Oh, and across the street from her favorite restaurant. Go figure: the pabloverse still works.