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Paul William Jacob

Upstairs at the Van Dyke

  Faith and Poetic Rhythm (South Beach, Miami)

As I stepped off the plane in Miami, the staunch scent of Latin-American heat enveloped my senses. I had fifty dollars to my name and a reservation for a youth hostel on Washington Avenue. Instead of hailing a taxi, whose tourist meter would quickly drain my remaining funds, I boarded a local bus that wound through every slum and strip joint street in Miami, until I finally got off at a stop along a canal where I had to wait almost an hour in ninety degree heat for another bus.

After two buses, and close to two hours, I arrived on Washington Avenue with my shirt stuck to the rucksack on my back. I walked for a few minutes and then found my place, the Clay Street Hostel, located on a quaint side street. The lobby was a bustling social zone, where I overheard many languages being spoken. After checking in, I went up to my room and found a young Korean guy asleep on one of the bottom bunks.

It was the middle of the day in the middle of November and the room was boiling hot. I could see sweat all over the Korean guy's sheets and T-shirt. So instead of attempting what could only become a muggy, dismal nap, I decided to walk around and become more familiar with the new place I had arrived at. The first thing I noticed was that the hostel was located across the street from Madonna's nightclub, "Liquid." I also became aware of Washington Avenue's large homeless population. None of them hassled me for change, though. I guess it was obvious I didn't have any, or perhaps they were all too tired and worn out from the heat to bother.

I quickly learned, from a local guy I had a conversation with at a smoothie bar, that Washington Avenue is considered to be the cracked-out distant cousin of glitzy Ocean Drive. Ocean Drive is the posh gathering place for models, fashion designers, photographers, actors and actresses, and everyone else from all over the world who wants to be seen by those people who are watching and commenting on the scene.

Most days, as I would come to witness, hordes of people sat out at the hundreds of cafes packed along Ocean Drive, wearing their coolest outfits and dark sunglasses, hoping to be noticed or find someone worth noticing. It did not take me long to realize that the world of South Beach was just like the evening news show of any major U.S. city, constructed for our viewing pleasure. People came to South Beach to fantasize, to role play with reality. At the very least it was a pseudo-entertaining show. At its worst it could become an all-consuming bottomless pit of soullessness.

I had been living in Ontario, Canada, before the lure of easy money working the season in South Beach had harangued my mind into dragging my body down to South Florida. My soul was never really into the decision to come, but my soul did know that it loves to travel, and after three months of living in Canada without a legal work permit, my funds had been reduced to a bare minimum. This meant that I had to pick a place to live, work for a while, and stick it out until I could save enough money to leave, no matter what.

It had already snowed five or six times by early November in the capital city where I lived up in Canuck-land, thus I picked South Beach for its emblematical warmth and palm trees. However, physical warmth does not always translate into a feeling of social, psychological, or spiritual warmth. Feelings of displacement aside, I had to find a job.

Work, when one finds themself to be in a place whose outer landscape is not exactly matching their inner landscape, is a way for that individual to dive into a substrata within that larger foreign universe in order to satiate the soul long enough to make the process of being there and saving up some money bearable, and hopefully even a learning experience to build upon.

So on my second day in the decadent Mecca of America, I hit the streets in my slickest outfit, resume in hand, and searched for a bartending gig. I had not even walked a whole three blocks before I landed a one night engagement working as a barback for the opening party of a club on Washington Avenue. As I needed to be at work by three o'clock that afternoon in order to help the bartenders set up, I walked straight back to the hostel where I showered and changed into black pants and a black T-shirt, grabbed some rice and beans at a little Cuban grocery store, and after eating my hearty meal sitting under the shade of a palm tree on the curb of an unheralded back street, I headed over to the club to begin my work in the hospitality industry of South Beach.

That night I made a hundred bucks cash for grabbing cases of beer from the walk-in cooler and stocking the ice wells for the female bartenders, who were all career bartenders in their late thirties and early forties with too much make-up splashed all over their faces and tight mini skirts with skimpy tops showing off the soft flesh of their stomachs. These women were efficient bartenders who easily handled the swarms of patrons shouting out their drink orders, but to me also symbolized the inability of the South Beach psyche to come to grips with the natural aging process as something that adds character and refinement to the person, rather than being an organic saboteur that either needed to be run away from or blatantly denied.

Despite the heat and lack of air conditioning, I liked staying at the Clay Street Hostel. The place had an eclectic, international flavor: there was Alex, a fashionable young gay guy from Prague who loved mojitos; Richard, a well built but a little too short aspiring model from Amsterdam; Heidi, a stunning blonde haired blue-eyed Kiwi (New Zealander), who every straight guy at the hostel lusted after and all the gay guys bitched about in private but latched onto in public; and finally, Cubby, one of my roommates, a short, stocky Korean kid who had moved to South Beach from Minnesota a week earlier.

It turned out that Cubby was running away from a bad relationship. Back in Minnesota he had found out that his girlfriend of the past four years had been sleeping with his best friend for the last three. If that was not bad enough, Cubby had spent all the money he had earned working in a fish-packing warehouse on their rent, food, and even bought her a used Honda Civic. To put it bluntly, Cubby got played. So he quit his job, cashed his last paycheck, and took the long, grueling Greyhound bus trip from Minneapolis to South Beach.

Cubby was a study of the effect that specific actions and their subsequent psychological damage have upon the notion of place. I could see how the mere mention of the word Minneapolis opened up a bleeding wound in his psyche, even more than when he talked about his girlfriend or his best friend and their lustful, traitorous acts together. This is because Minneapolis had been the first place he had moved to upon leaving his family home in Chicago. It was his first place of independence and love. Thus he was now displaced from the only place where he had ever known himself outside of his family unit and local community.

This sense of lost individual place deeply effected Cubby. For him, that bus trip from Minneapolis to South Beach provided the framework for psychological distance to begin so that the ultimate act of healing may eventually occur somewhere down the line. However, within the macrocosmic seasonal nature of South Beach and the microscopic transient nature of the hostel, Cubby was unable to set himself in place to begin that healing process. All his unresolved, pent-up emotions could do was fester here, and that is just what they did.

Cubby and I became good friends, and I cherished the time we spent together, because the depth of his suffering at least lent the air we breathed together in South Beach a hint of soulfulness, providing me with a purpose beyond simply making enough money to get the hell out of Miami.

Cubby regarded me as some kind of spiritual older brother, and I think that I was the first person who he ever spoke with about what happened to him in Minnesota. Around the other guys at the hostel Cubby would always act the macho figure, commenting on various girls' asses and talking about how he was going to go out that night and get himself a bodacious Brazilian hottie', but as he spoke I always looked into his eyes, which betrayed any sense of lust for the opposite sex. I think what he wanted most of all was for any female to give him a long soulful hug and tell him that there would be other women who would cherish him for who he was.

Eventually, Cubby left on another Greyhound bus, this time from South Beach bound for Chicago. He needed a place that he knew and people that knew him within that place to truly begin to let go of what had happened to him. South Beach was where he ran to, and it did provide him with distance and a true friend. Yet sometimes there is nothing like family and one's childhood home to comfort and soothe the soul with the nourishing balm of psychological and social familiarity with place.

As for me, after Cubby left I realized that I had way too much time on my hands, as my only work was as a bartender for a high class catering firm that provided me with wonderful jobs working celebrity parties, but only a few times a week. Thus I became friends with Miguel, one of the owners of the café that was attached to the Clay Street Hostel. Miguel was also the head chef of the café, and previous to moving to South Beach had worked all over the world as a personal chef for extremely wealthy people. Miguel had tons of stories to tell about his eccentric clients and the exotic dishes that they would have him create. He told me that one Australian millionaire whom he had sailed around the world with used to have Miguel make him homemade Belgian waffles topped with broiled shrimp and chocolate sauce every Tuesday night.

Miguel lived in one of the rooms of the hostel that had been converted into a rather small but plush studio in order to accommodate him. When he wasn't working he would sit outside on his veranda, which was shaded by an immense palm tree and looked out over the quaint side street. Whenever he saw me walking by he would call out, "Hola Jake, would you care for a cerveza?" I usually did, so I would walk up to his room, grab a Presidente from the fridge, and relax in the seat across from him.

I knew that Miguel was gay, and that he had a crush on me. Yet I also enjoyed his company and could see that he understood that I was heterosexual and that it was not in the realm of possibility for him to turn me to the other side. Besides, the air was cooler up there on his veranda, and those soothing tropical breezes combined with the alcohol and our talks about traveling the world made South Beach seem kind of human, and during its highly vivacious pastel sunsets, almost poetic at times.

One afternoon when I realized that I was not really saving any money and had been living in South Beach for over two months, I took a stroll down Lincoln Road, a highly trafficked pedestrian area with restaurants, perfume shops, and trendy high class clothing boutiques. I noticed the deep red Spanish style veneer of the "Van Dyke" immediately. It seemed like an intimate place full of stories and characters, somewhere that would allow my poetic sensibility to unfold within this materialistic sensory carnival.

I asked the hostess at the outdoor podium if they were hiring and she replied, "Go inside and take a seat. I'll go get Al for you." I sat down at a high round cocktail table that faced onto the outdoor pedestrian mall, and watched the fashionistas sashay up and down the quay. While I was sitting there, a guy with an iguana on his shoulder asked if I wanted my picture taken with Harry, the iguana, for five dollars. I told him no and petted the iguana on its back.

Al came over to the table and greeted me warmly. He was about 5'7 and very slight. He seemed wired, like maybe he was on something, as most restaurant and bar managers I had worked for over the years had been, but he was also very nice and after quickly glancing at my resume, was very anxious to get me started working at the Van Dyke. He hired me on the spot.

The Van Dyke became my sanctuary from the rich and materialistic vibe that saturated South Beach almost as much as the dog poop that lay in small piles on the sidewalks. This was because when you think that your shit doesn't stink, you certainly do not want to bend down and pick up anything else's waste. Walking home from the jazz lounge well after midnight, I had to dodge the hundreds of unfetched landmines that littered my path, but walking up the red carpet staircase in the late afternoon before my evening shift began, I felt like I was moving into an artistic, delicate, soulful space. I was a co-star in the ambient jazz ensemble of Van Dyke characters, along with the musicians, cocktail waitresses, and other bartenders.

There really was no question as to who my favorite co-workers were at the Van Dyke—the musicians. The cast changed during the weekends when the jazz lounge brought in big names from New York City, Chicago and St. Louis, but on the weeknights there was a set schedule of local musicians who personally colored their respective nights. My favorite evening of music was on Monday, when pianist Eddie Higgins played with bassist Don Wilner.

There was hardly anyone in the jazz lounge on Monday nights besides a couple of stragglers from out of town. It wasn't that the music was bad—on the contrary, I felt it was the best music that we offered. But Monday was the one night people in South Beach took off to get ready to party the rest of the week. I liked a slow bar on these nights, as it allowed me plenty of time to listen to the music instead of mixing cocktails and pouring glasses of wine all night long like I did on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

Upstairs at the Van Dyke on Monday nights became my soul's place of worship: it was the one place in South Beach where I felt wholly connected with my environment and myself. My work nights always began with watching the sunset through the second-story windows of the jazz lounge, shadows of dying light creeping upon the facades of light pastel art deco buildings, making them seem like starlets done up for one more role before fading back into obscurity, the soothing heat of red darkness expanding over turquoise sea.

As the overall debauchery of South Beach continued to assault my psyche, the Van Dyke became more and more important to me. I picked up extra shifts so I could spend more time around the music and the musicians. I loved their stories, their melodies, and the way they played together on stage in perfect rhythm, feeding off the energy of the crowd and the cozy elegance of the lounge itself. They were a spiritual river that flowed nightly through the fertile physical place, meandering off into different sounds and textures, branching off into solo instrumental tributaries, and finally bringing it all back down into one jazzy waterfall that poured over the eardrum, saturating the audience with a mastery of beat in time.

One slow Monday night at the end of March, after the patrons and musicians had all left for their hotel rooms or homes, I took some extra time to clean the bar and re-stock. I soaked in the smell of cigar butts, leftover perfume, red wine, and cognac. This night, after Eddie Higgins stirred my soul all evening long with his deft piano playing, I had made the decision to leave South Beach. It was almost two o'clock in the morning as I sat on a stool at the end of the long wood bar sipping a twenty year old tawny port, while the street lamps of Lincoln Road glowed in the South Florida atmosphere, and I wrote this poem on a bar napkin:

A Slow Monday - Playing for the Love
(for Eddie Higgins)

I do not see your shadow
as you step onto that platform
separating the musicians
from empty tables in the room.

Nor does it play upon the walls,
as your fingers waltz the keys
during the first song.

And as time goes on,
jazz takes form
and releases
into the sensation of air and night,
bringing us closer
to that step of brilliance.

While your music
floats down to our hearts,
embraces the aloneness.

It is that texture,
the karmic unattachment,
the divine jazz pianist.

There was nothing quite like setting up the bar upstairs at the Van Dyke, or closing it down well after midnight: looking out at the throngs of dressed-up bodies walking or posing on Lincoln Road with the taste of overpriced sushi, mojitos, Cuban cigars, and the sea swirling and inter-playing upon their palates. I must admit it was an intoxicating stage, one that could make or break your ego if you allowed it to be totally real. And it was real, for a lot of people, a lot of souls lost in the camera flashes, the shark stares, and the gusty winds bending the heads of thousands of palm trees along the pastel strip.

But for me, the root was not people inside the jazz lounge at the Van Dyke, but jazz bringing people into place to blossom for a time together. For that is what being in place does, even in a microcosmic sense, it allows one to get closer to that step of brilliance that exists within them, that place where the swinging hinge of eternity, a child's urge to play on the see-saw, the rise and fall of the living road, finally glides into fluid, motionless balance—until the song ends, and like in the game of musical chairs, we begin the journey all over again.

©2010 by Paul William Jacob

Paul William Jacob is a nomadic chef, writer, and farm worker. He has also been the Editorial Director of Modern Nomad magazine, a feature writer for the international club-culture magazine Revolution, and was the publisher and editor of the alternative media publication Phage. His books of poetry have been published by The Poets Collective, Gainesville, Florida; Ghost Dog Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Gutter Press, Toronto, Canada. His travel memoir, Distilled Spirit: A Journey Beyond the Mash, was published by Aubergine Orchard Press, Cortes Island, British Columbia, Canada. His newest collection of nomadic stories, Buddha Behind the Bar: A Shaken and Stirred Pilgrimage to Selfhood, is currently under editorial review with a major press.

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