A Tale of Two Cities

Philipp Meier via Flickr

Rebecca and I ate sushi for the first time the night of the Miami riots. We were finishing junior year at Beach High, and it was Saturday night so I had great plans of where to go in search of excitement. My mother was on her way to a party in Pompano. Clutching the Weekend section of the Miami Herald with its rave review of Su-Shin on 79th Street Causeway, I headed out in the Pinto to collect Rebecca.

Rebecca and I met in Journalism class. She had long black hair streaked with grey, perhaps because she was so wise. We were both A students except in Mrs. Comeau’s class where Rebecca got the only A. But this year we had Mr. Moses, who thought he was Moses—valiantly leading us from the swamp of ignorance through the liberation of literature.

My friends and I often took extravagant excursions to adult places, including a research trip for the school paper to The Crazy Horse, Miami’s first male strip show. My mother’s tennis team had been too. Shrieking groupies banged xylophone sticks on the bar next to $4.00 sloe gin fizzes (“Ladies, Bang Your Knockers,” the barker leered) and put tips in the g-string of Rocky, the Italian Stallion.

On that fated evening, Rocky removed Rebecca’s thick glasses to dance around with them on his massive member. (Of course she couldn’t see what he had done, and we never would tell her.) We had book reports to write, and that May, Rebecca had the misfortune to be working on Moby Dick. She never could keep a straight face about it while writing her paper for Mr. Moses.

Mr. Moses was a small man of 50 with bright blue eyes and a balding white crown who clearly resented not being a college professor. He adored us all but particularly me. “Wynnzie,” he would say patronizingly, in a tone my friends loved to repeat, “Read to us, Wynnzie.” And I would comply, reciting Emily Dickinson, or William Blake, or “The World is Too Much With Us.”

Mr. Moses’ great gift, as he danced in front of our class, was storytelling. Every so often he would forget all about American literature in favor of a dramatization. One Monday, ever bored with James Fennimore Cooper, he launched into A Tale of Two Cities. And not even the novel—the movie. He played all the parts: the small child run over by the imperious marquis, the cruel nobleman, the hapless father given a coin of gold in compensation for his son’s death. Who would forget the noble tale of Sydney Carton, and how he went to Paris in disguise to save Charles Darnay? Carton lost his head on the guillotine just as the bell rang.

But in May of 1980, Rebecca and I were across the bay at Su-Shin, with yet another book report due in two days, ready to delight in raw fish for our virginal palates. I ordered ambitiously. The waiter brought a carafe of hot sake that fogged up Rebecca’s glasses. Daintily, I tasted all the fish, dipping into soy sauce, spreading wasabi everywhere, opening up my sinuses for the next year. Rebecca, who was Kosher, ate only noodles.

“Delicious,” I told the waiter as I watched the chef chop octopus tentacles. Instinctively I understood that macho one-upmanship with sushi, to eat the most repulsive creatures that grow on sea walls and under motorboats.

“What kind of fish is this?” I asked, pointing to a spongy yellow roll, already my favorite. “Egg,” he said, putting down the check.

After dinner, we headed home, oblivious that Miami in general, but 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in particular, had gone up in flames.

The year before, an unarmed black man named Arthur McDuffie had been pulled over on his motorcycle by four white police officers and beaten to death. At Beach High, where as my friend Peter put it, football was played by the blacks against the Cubans against the Jews, an entire city held its breath.

And on that hot Saturday night, while Rebecca and I ate pickled ginger and dreamed about going to Ivy League schools, an all-white jury in Tampa acquitted the officers on all counts. It was only then that hell broke loose, although we didn’t know this until we were sitting in a plastic booth at Pumpernick’s on Biscayne and 125th Street, a diner with ancient waitresses where you went late on a Saturday if you didn’t do drugs or sleep around or drink, except coffee when you had a book report due in 36 hours.

So it was over a baked apple and a third cup of coffee that rumors began to fly: There was blood in the street. It wasn’t safe to go out or stay home. People—which was understood to mean black people—had been seen carrying torches and heading for the causeways to the beach.

And it’s that image I carry to this day, of men carrying torches to burn down the sacred beach, home then to retired grandmas in squeaking chairs on pastel hotel porches; to tourist hawkers who ran gift stores; and us, the white kids of doctors and lawyers who drove fast cars and ate sushi on the weekend. Our parents had taken us all the way to Miami Beach, as far south as a New York Jew could go, in search of warm winter breezes, panoramic ocean and bay views, the perfect tan. And now this.

Rebecca and I rushed home to watch the news and wait for my mom. Bricks were thrown at cars on I-95. Warehouses were on fire. People had been pulled from their cars and beaten to death.

These stories haunted Miami for years. On my way to Florida for Christmas vacation, I’d tell burly NY cab drivers where I was from. And they’d shake their heads and say, “Miami? I wouldn’t go there. You can’t walk in the streets. Everyone gets shot.”

And it was true, sort of, only on the outside, the sand still sparkled like diamonds when the sun shone on it in January. The waterfall at the Fontainebleau continued to pour, even after the Time cover story “Paradise Lost” documented what those of us who’d grown up there had known all along: that the Jackie Gleason show promise of the good life—the high-kicking memories of the June Taylor dancers—couldn’t revive a kingdom divided.

When my mother was growing up in NY, they’d taken the train to Miami. During a stop in St. Augustine, she went to use the bathroom. It was the first time she’d seen segregated drinking fountains, which shocked her. 25 years later, had anything really changed?

So that night in May, my mother and Rebecca and I wondered what had happened to our world. We had no way of knowing if the devastation would be for the better or the worse. It would mean the end of a white majority in Dade County, a world that since the Mariel boatlift, had come to resemble pre-Castro Cuba more than Havana.

I went to work the next day, popping popcorn at the Bay Harbor Theater, with its 1000 red rocking chair seats that paid for my stylish clothes and filled the gas tanks of Bay Harbor’s Camaros. But it wasn’t till school was canceled that we realized how serious it was.

Every summer, South Florida undergoes a massive hurricane prevention campaign, complete with evacuation procedures, first aid supplies, and repeated, stringent warnings not to surf in the calm in the eye of the storm. But no one could remember Dade County closing its schools.

Behind the candy counter at the movies, I was hugely relieved. I still hadn’t finished my book report on The Wild Duck for Mr. Moses. Each day, the honors English students would listen to the radio and start a telephone chain to pass on another reprieve. We might have gone to the movies, but a curfew was in effect after dark. (Until then, the only curfew I had ever heard of was on “Happy Days.”) So we stayed home and talked on the phone. And day after day, school was canceled.

We finally went back Thursday, but the Cuban kids stayed home. It resembled the early days of junior high when we’d been afraid to go to the bathroom because we’d been told that black girls with cigarettes would steal our lunch money and gold necklaces. (As far as I know this never happened to anyone. But it kept you from hanging out in the bathroom.) No one on the beach thought much about what was happening across Biscayne Bay, as desperate people in the African-American community, sick of a justice system perpetually stacked against them, burned down largely white-owned warehouses.

For most of us at Beach High, the riots were little more than an excuse not to do homework, an inconvenience. The jazz concert I had tickets for was canceled in curfewed downtown, where in that pre-Reagan era, there were not even homeless veterans to clean up off the streets.

Although we watched a woman on TV wearing a bandage wrapped around her neck describe having a bottle thrown through her car window at the intersection of 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, near McDonalds and Wendy’s and Su-Shin, I knew no one who was injured. I had no bricks thrown at my car, saw no glorious torches heading over the causeways to destroy the beach I then so despised.

But I had already plotted my escape. After a summer of working in the box office and traveling to the Washington Monument with Rebecca, I simply packed my bags and headed for higher ground: early admission to Vassar. On the last Saturday in August, I dropped my poodle at the kennel and came home to the emptiest house I could remember. Every satin and silver trace of my life packed into a box like an off-season Christmas ornament, headed for Poughkeepsie. Momentarily saddened, I turned on the TV, and there was A Tale of Two Cities, just as Mr. Moses had once acted it out in an air-conditioned classroom on war-torn Miami Beach.

For that moment, suspended between two worlds, I was divided as Sidney Carton never was, my sole nobility arising out of putting my head at the axe’s blade—or running away as fast as I could from a community I’d never been part of.

Dickens in Sydney Carton’s final, fatal triumph said, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss and in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long, long years to come. I see the end of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.”

In time the flames in Overtown and Liberty City would die down, and people would forget, only to rise up and roar again. Two years later I came home on vacation, and a police officer named Luis Alvarez fatally shot an unarmed black man playing a video game in the back. And once again the streets of Miami were on fire. TV cameras zoomed in on Neville Johnson’s mother crying, “They did it again. They killed my baby.”

But there is no “they” that kills babies—it’s just you and me.

And I knew then that there really only are two worlds, and that is the place you that you are and the other one. And the other, because it is distant and unknown, shimmers with glamour, especially in the eyes of a 16-year-old soon-to-be college freshman. And sometimes it’s just the other people on the other side of town, and you don’t know what they do at night or what kind of dog they have. Or how it feels to always have a bright light shining in your face or a sharp knife dangling just beyond reach above your head.

Diana J. Wynne

Diana J. Wynne

Diana J. Wynne believes the best stories are true. Her essays on politics and identity have appeared in Salon, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Raw Story, Pure Slush, Litro (UK + NY), and Exquisite Corpse. In between designing software and producing interactive content for kids, finance people, and priests, she's been to over 50 countries and 6 continents in search of meaning, volcanoes, and the best cup of coffee. Make her an offer.

Diana J. Wynne believes the best stories are true. Her essays on politics and identity have appeared in Salon, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Raw Story, Pure Slush, Litro (UK + NY), and Exquisite Corpse. In between designing software and producing interactive content for kids, finance people, and priests, she's been to over 50 countries and 6 continents in search of meaning, volcanoes, and the best cup of coffee. Make her an offer.

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