We got into the car, and rolled out of the lot onto U.S. 1. We live in Coconut Grove, a part of the city of Miami. It's a nice place to live, if one is actually living, and if not, people there tend to leave you alone. It retains some of the louche and freewheeling atmosphere it was famous for some years ago, but if you talk to anyone who was here in the sixties and seventies, they will assure you that it's ruined. I once spoke with an old woman who said that the best time was before the war. She meant the second world one. Nobody had a dime, she said, but we knew we were living in paradise. In those days, huge flying boats used to come down from New York and land on Biscayne Bay right at Coconut Grove and the wealthy passengers would have dinner ashore. The place is still called Dinner Key and the great hangars still exist. The Grove is certainly ruined, as will be any place in America that has cheap funky housing and artists living in it and some community energy going on. The rich people want to be around that, having drained it out of their own lives in the course of making a pile, and so they move in and build great big houses and shopping malls, and create the quaint, where once there was real.
Of course, the Grove is not as ruined as it might have been because black people live there, in their own mini-ghetto west of Grand and south of McDonald. In America, if you are willing to tolerate the sight of a black face on the street you can get a good deal on your housing and the developers will not bother you until they have chased all of them away.
We live on Hibiscus Street off Grand, in a neighborhood that clearly is scheduled for gentrification, being on the good (or white) side of Grand, but that repels the money boys still because half the houses are owned by black people who have not yet been taxed out. They are Bahamians and Dominicans and African-Americans. The rest of the inhabitants are white people who don't mind this or positively love it. Myself, I'm as indifferent to race as it is possible to be: that is, I am somewhat racist, like everyone else in my nation. There is no escape. On our street we have several run-down cinder-block apartment houses, painted pink or aqua, so there is transience and a moderate amount of crime. This is fine with me; the transience is cloaking; I have nothing to steal; I can defend my body against anything but a gun.
Our apartment is above a garage, painted brick red with white trim, like a barn. The front room has two tiny windows looking out on a dust and- shell driveway, and the back room, where I sleep, has a big sliding glass window from which you can see a tangled hedge of cream hibiscus and pink oleander. The window is so large and the room is so small that when the window is open it is almost like sleeping outside, or in an African house.
In my bedroom is a thin mattress, resting on a door, supported by six screw-on legs, each of which stands in a can half full of water. This is an old field-worker trick to keep the roaches from chewing the dead skin off you while you sleep. The child sleeps there now. I have my string hammock, slung from hooks in the wall, low, so I can watch her and touch her if I wish. The rest of the furniture is junk from the garage or collected during walks around the neighborhood: a warped pine bureau with two out of three drawers, a chaise lounge I restrung with thick cotton rope, a pine table, three mismatched wooden straight chairs, a pink fur bean bag, a brick-and-board bookshelf. Over the table is a hanging bulb in a Japanese paper globe. Next to the kitchen is a tiny bathroom, with a stained claw-foot tub with shower and the usual facilities. Its once-white walls are scabrous with mildew. We have no air-conditioning. A fourteen inch Kmart fan blows garden air over us at night. The one closet is an anal-obsessive's fantasy of order, although I don't recall being particularly obsessive when I was living real life. It's just that I've spent a lot of my time in VW vans, and Land Rovers, and tents, and hovels, and boats, and I'm very good at storage and retrieval. Kmart sells a nice line of wire rack organizers and I've bought largely in their closet department. When I moved in here, the walls were pink-orange and the floor was covered with avocado shag. I decided that, if I was going to die here, I didn't want my last sensory impression to be avocado shag, and so I ripped it up and replaced it with cheap black vinyl tiles and I painted the walls white. The walls are bare. When I was laying the tiles I found a corner missing out of one of the four-by-eight plywood sheets of the floor. I made a plywood hatch for this hole, and tiled over it, and it fits so closely that you have to yank it up with a big glazier's suction cup. What I have to hide, I hide there.
The foregoing is excerpted from Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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