It’s 1:25 PM and we are in Little Havana.
A man in a tricycle is standing by our car. He looks irritated asking a tourist for money to take his photo. His mode of transportation is filled with objects like pots of plants, a mannequin head donning a helmet, sunglasses, something that appears to be a pipe, an American flag, old clothing, wires, a bottle of wine and a cut-out cardboard sign that reads, “4 Rent.”
As the two debate, I snap a photo.
We continue walking.
In Miami you don’t ask. I knew the woman was a tourist merely for the fact that she asked. Had she just taken a photo, no doubt our eccentric friend would have shouted at her, maybe even including some choice expletives, but he would have gone back to his usual business. That’s how it works here.
I was never used to this when I was young. Taking what you want and apologizing later was rude, but I eventually acclimated. I learned it’s better to apologize, or sometimes even not, I adapted to never using a blinker when switching lanes as it gives the person behind you time to speed up and block your passage, I even learned not to take it personally when people cut you off in lines at the grocery store, or just about anywhere. This is Miami.
We walk into El Exquisito, it’s a small restaurant on Calle Ocho I’ve never been to. Shamefully, I’ve never eaten in any restaurant on Calle Ocho. Ever. We’re here today because I need a change and this morning I woke up with anxiety. It’s not the first time it’s ever happened. You’d think a crowded street full of people certainly wouldn’t be the remedy to such an ailment, but appreciating a place people come to visit as special in my hometown actually began to calm me.
I never came here before because it took a long time to get used to navigating Miami. I had a small-town mindset despite being raised here my entire life. It took until college to toughen up and not take people’s shit. Sometimes I think I got a little too tough, but that’s a story for another time. Today is abut feeling better about living here.
In front of me is a laminated menu in Spanglish. Everything is fried and greasy and everything is under $12. Perfect. The older woman at the counter signals my boyfriend that she’s coming. She affectionally calls him papi and it makes me smile. The people here are warmer than they get credit for. Normally, we’d be eating at a place where the menu would include a key to translate the various symbols throughout the dishes: gluten free, vegetarian, vegan, etc, etc. That won’t fly here. This is a street run by people of another generation. The Clint Eastwood’s of the world who think young people are pussies and gluten intolerance is fake.
Our coffee comes right up and there’s nothing pretentious about it. No barista hand-prepared it letting us know where the beans are from or asked us which of the 4 types of milk we’d like. Here, the coffee is good and strong and the only milk they know about comes from cows. It’s comforting on a day like today where my thoughts are racing.
There’s a TV on loudly playing a game of some sort, all three waitresses are yelling, I can hear the woman behind me tell someone on the phone she’s walking into a movie and will have to call them back when she’s out. Outside there’s a tour right at the window that connects to the counter, the ventanita. It’s where they serve coffee.
The American man is translating this strange culture to a group of tourists. They’ve never seen anything like it. Unless you’ve been outside the U.S., you wouldn’t get it. Little Havana doesn’t come from anything American and yet, its patrons are among some of the strongest patriots you’ll ever find. They are more proud of being in this country than anyone I’ve ever met, even the last few actual Americans remaining in Northern Florida whose seasonal flag decoration is always confederate.
At first, the commotion bothered me, but after a while, it turned into background noise. I settled into it and hardly notice anymore. As we eat our greasy breakfast and thick Cuban bread lathered in butter, I giggle a little bit thinking of the alternative place we usually brunch at. Man, they’d find this disgusting. They’d probably have indicated its unhealthiness by placing warning symbols next to it on their menu. Full of gluten, grease and evil.
We pay for our breakfast and begin to walk. It’s a cool day by Miami standards. Easily 75 degrees and a little windy. My hair is only slightly curling and I can wear a light sweater. Various waiters greet us as we walk by their restaurants. The music gets louder and then it fades as we walk on. This continues for blocks. All the music is the same: Cuban trumpets with loud boisterous singing. It’s happy music I’ve come to appreciate. When I was young, I absolutely hated it. It was the hallmark of boring family parties. I just wanted them to play Paula Cole or Hole, but instead I got Celia.
It’s funny how things like that turn.
The art on the walls and small galleries also make me nostalgic. I used to like painting and drawing. There’s no time for that these days. I’ve had writer’s block for weeks and I’ve felt depleted. But here, there are bright colors and tourists drinking mojitos for the first time. I can’t believe we never come here. I haven’t appreciated Miami since I’ve lived here. I’ve wanted it to be somewhere else. I support bars that open up and feel like New York or Chicago. I love restaurants that are health conscious and fresh like California. I long for breweries that embody Colorado. And don’t get me started on wineries, Florida wine tastes like broken promises. I don’t even bother with it.
The same lack of appreciation I have for Miami or the moment at hand is the same source of my angst. I constantly imagine doing something different somewhere different. My mind is in a daydream instead of where it should be. Sometimes life doesn’t hand you what you want, but it gives you what you need. Miami has been that for me. It hasn’t been what I wanted at various points, but it’s ended up making me the person I needed to be.
Words by: Cris Ramos, Miami native & word artist. Find her work @ The Emerald Journal.