On our second day in Miami, Jim and I started the morning off with a Cuban coffee, strong and thick, served up in thimble-sized cups. Beside us a blond women in designer shades sipped an iced coffee while talking on her phone about shopping and beauty treatments. There was a warm balm from the sun being out and it was good to be on the beach again. I flopped down on the sand.
Later that afternoon, our friend Manny text-messaged to say he’d be coming out, so we set up a meet at a bar in Miami. We headed out for the city by bus. It was a balmy evening and a red Toyota drove down the block, windows down, blasting Latin hip hop from oversized speakers, the bass rattling the car.
Meeting up with with Manny in a low-lit, smoky bar to shoot some pool, we continued our after-dark activities. On the wall were torn posters and peeling stickers. There was the smell of stale beer. A dishevelled man sitting at the bar ordered a Corona with lime. The bartender, a fat guy with a ponytail, slid the beer across the bar. The smoky darkness of the bar had the look of a place where narcos and gunrunners met.
As I scanned the room I noticed a bald man with tattoos on his face and neck standing in the dim doorway. He was a tough, heavy-set Marielito with a knife scar on the side of his face. He had a dead gaze and exchanged nods with the dishevelled man at the bar. He spoke in Cuban dialect to the bartender. An image came into my head of him chomping on a cigar, reclining in a sunken tub with gold fixtures and black marble walls. He made me feel uneasy.
Manny was hanging out with some guys on the rail by a pool table. Jim and I were up for some pool and made a game with him and his friend Pedro. There were cigarette burns on the pool table and dead-bent cigarette butts in the ash tray. Taking out a cue I went over to the chalk dispenser. Jim screwed his cue together, sidled over to the table and racked the balls.
With the ridge of his hand on the table, he took a few practice strokes. He made a good break, smashing the rack open, the clatter of pool balls rolling across the table. We were playing five dollar racks. I sat on a scuffed wooden bar stool and watched him play. Manny rolled up his sleeves and positioned himself for the next shot. He hit the cue ball too hard. Manny was too keyed up to play well.
The cue ball was well positioned for the next shot. I walked around the table to look at the positioning of the balls, my untucked shirt smeared with chalk. I made a good hit on a striped ball. It rolled on the tattered green felt and straight into the left pocket. When it was Pedro’s turn, he grabbed a cue off the wall. He had a loose grip on the stick and a smooth, slow back-swing. He pocketed the next ball and then moved around the table, getting a good position on the eight ball. Smoothly, he stroked it into the pocket.
Manny unfurled a wad of bills. We raised the bet for the next game, shooting for ten dollars a rack. Jim spread the rack, the shot laced with back spin. He leaned into the next shot. Nervously, he lit a cigarette and took a drag. Manny bent over the next shot and slammed it. The ball bouncing off the rail.
Pissed off, he turned back to his beer. Jim was now snapping off shots, pocketing balls. He sunk a solid ball into the corner pocket and then called the final shot on the eight ball. We won that rack. Pedro and Manny took the next one and then we called it quits.
“Down the street,” Manny said. “There’s this Latin party thing.”
Jim and I were up for pretty much anything, so we straggled out of the bar. Just a few blocks down the street, Manny led us to unassuming doorway. We entered and clattered up the stairs to a dance bar and shouldered our way through the crowd. The floor was sticky from spilled beer. Bodies were pressed against each other as the bass-heavy beats rattled the walls.
The music carried a feel and there was a primal rawness to the club. Pretty women wearing mesh tops and booty shorts danced suggestively. They were dancing perreo, the doggy-style dance. A cute brunette in magenta hot pants that exposed her belly and hip bone, her hands on her hips, was thrusting her pelvis. A man danced up to her, standing behind her, grinding his hips, rubbing up against her.
We left the table to join in the dance and were nudged along by the sweaty bodies of gyrating dancers. Disoriented from drink and flashing lights, we shifted through random people and encountered Hector the Toad. Manny told us he was a known street dude, a big weight mover who supplied much of the cocaine to the clubs in Miami.
In the far corner, the DJ hovered over his Macbook Pro. Cupped to his ears were some black headphones. His song choice was good. He put some Farruko on the sound system.
The next night we continued our explorations of Miami. We went with Manny to a bar with a decrepit façade, hidden away down a back alley. Entering an unmarked side door, we walked through a thick curtain to a dimly-lit bar with weathered walls, low-slung couches and sepia decor.
Men were laughing hoarsely after a song-filled night of beer and cards. The TV behind the bar showed a South American soccer match. We sat down at the bar in the damp heat. I ordered a beer and chased it down with some mezcal shots. I was feeling pretty good after that.
On the stereo a reggaeton singer was rapping in Spanglish, sampling salsa rhythms and boasting on his sexual prowess. The song had a good beat and was influenced by the vocalising of Jamaican dancehall. The barrio rhythms played out in the music. The next song was a seduction track with a percussive beat.
A sultry woman with dark brown hair and penciled eyebrows was making slow sensual gyrations to a salsa beat. She hiked up her skirt, swishing across the floor toward the slow swagger of a man wearing a blue tank top and overstarched Lee jeans. She put her arms around his neck. He held on to her hips as they danced in the amber light. Reggaeton by J. Balvin soundtracked the night.
Next day we had a wander around Little Havana. We walked along Calle Ocho, past a colorful six-foot rooster sculpture, coming into Máximo Gómez Park, a meeting place for older Cuban men who passed their time talking politics while playing games of dominos. The smell of cigars drifting in the breeze and the clacking domino tiles from the covered gazebos lulled me into a reverie of old Cuba and made me lose track of time.
Thirsty, I bought some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. Slurping down the crushed ice and light green liquid, I felt refreshed in spite of the heat. Santeria offerings of fruit and dried bones were scattered around the roots of a ceiba tree. Going down the street we came to a cigar shop and factory. Walking into the shop we were confronted by a large wooden Indian statue guarding the door way.
A man in a fedora took out a hand-rolled cigar from a wooden humidor on the counter. After smelling it and confirming that it was of good quality, he paid the young lady at the cashier. Through an open door I could see there was a small factory in the back room where the cigar-makers were sitting at long wooden tables sorting tobacco and rolling cigars. We left the shop and walked past a bodega and some colorful street art and mosaics.
We stopped to order some plantain chips from a takeaway window. Drowsy in the hot sun, we walked over to a cafaceto counter and ordered a cafe cubano to revive us. Perked up, we left the cafe and walked past some tamale sellers, then lingered to watch a band busking outside a store. One man played a guitar, another beat conga drums while a third man was rattling maracas in the steamy heat.
As we left, a couple came up and danced to the salsa beat, the woman swishing her skirt as the man put her in a spin.
Manny picked us up in his car that night. Jim sat in the back and I rode shotgun as we headed to the concert of a Latin trap rapper. To distract me from the frightening speed with which he took a corner, I nervously fumbled with the knob of the glove compartment and a pile of papers fell into my lap. I shoved everything back and looked out at the neon blur of the city.
We sped into the night as buildings and lampposts blurred, tires screeching at every turn. I felt the thrust of the accelerator as Manny shifted gears, a song by Becky G and Bad Bunny blasting from the stereo.