We're well into Spring Break all over the continent - yet it's snowing again here. Probably one of the last snowfalls of the year. On MTV and MuchMusic, we see bikinis and tans in places like Cancun and Daytona, anywhere there's sun and sand. God, kids go crazy on Spring Break.
When I was 17, I went on my first memorable Spring Break with two girlfriends from high school. My drinking career was already in full swing (I got drunk for the first time on my 13th birthday), but I have "special" memories of Fort Lauderdale 1980. Wish I still had the t-shirt to prove it.
One of the girls usually spent a couple of weeks in Florida every winter with her parents at the Holiday Inn in Miami Beach, and since she had a crush on one of the lifeguards who worked that beach (and we could get a good deal on the room) we decided to stay there.
Of course, Miami Beach wasn't what it is today. There was no South Beach, no fab retro-hotels, no fashionistas. It was all retirees and blue rinses. So we tanned during the day in Miami, got ready with the hair and the makeup when the sun went down, then took a cab to Fort Lauderdale at night to party with the rest of the kids. (The ride was about $40 if I remember - a small fortune back then, but faster and easier on your outfit than the bus.)
My drinking was already ending in puke and/or stumbling and/or blackout sessions by this point. I think part of the reason I started to drink so much was because it camouflaged my insecurity. I had always been the smart, skinny blonde who got bullied a lot. But when I started drinking, it felt as if I had extra powers, a sort of armor that I could pull on me. When I was blasted and had no inhibitions, I didn't feel vulnerable anymore. I felt powerful, protected, wild. And I was definitely the heaviest drinker - and the most promiscuous - of my friends.
My two travel-mates had just hit the legal drinking mark, but I was still underage and couldn't get into every bar. The ones I did get into absolutely baffled me. There was so much to drink, so much dancing - so many BOYS!! I literally didn't know when to start.
Funnily, with a boy buffet all around me, I was completely stumped. As if there was too much choice. I couldn't decide which boys I liked and somehow it made me start missing an ex-boyfriend back home.
My two friends, on the other hand, didn't follow my lead. Always protecting their reputations in the hometown bars we fake-I.D.'d our way into, as happens to certain females in the spring, Florida seemed to put them both in heat. I had never seen them so openly sexual.
I remember one night in particular, the three of us went to a hotel room with three boys we met in a bar. Before long, I could hear my friends having sex with the two they'd paired off with. I, on the other hand, was just not into it. Probably for the first time since losing my virginity at 14. I don't know whether I didn't like the guy or whether the whole thing just seemed a bit off, but I wouldn't have sex with him and he started getting sulky. Especially since in the darkness it was perfectly clear his friends were getting lucky. Very lucky. Wow. There must be something in the sun.
Anyway, "my" guy and I were on the floor (the actual copulating couples got the beds) and when he finally realized he wasn't getting anywhere, he ignored me and rolled away. I leaned over to him and said, "You're still going to drive us home right?" He got so angry, he literally picked me up in his arms, carried me across the room, opened the door (somehow) and deposited me in the outdoor hallway. He didn't throw me down or anything, he just set me firmly on my feet, but clearly the answer was 'no.' He was NOT driving us home.
Meanwhile, the girls saw in the half-light what was happening. Suddenly they started squealing and screaming, yelling at their own dates about what a jerk their friend was. Running around naked, trying to find their clothes and get dressed before joining me in that dark outdoor hallway surrounded by palm trees. It was the middle of the night.
I remember we tried to find a phone booth - no cells back then - and the only one was beside a nearly burnt-out gas station with broken windows. A pickup truck screeched by in the darkness. Someone screamed out the window at us. We seemed to be in the middle of some swampland slum. We finally got a cab and climbed in the back, all passing out for the long ride home.
For anyone who's gone to Miami Beach, you might know that the Holiday Inn - at least the one we stayed at - was about halfway up the main street, Collins Avenue. Somehow or other our cab driver missed the hotel and kept driving southward to the very bottom of the island. I remember opening my eyes at one point near the end of the drive. I don't know what woke me. My friends were still sound asleep. I looked out the window and I saw the most amazing old, abandoned buildings. All of them in pale, peeling stucco with art deco swoops, domes and cut-outs. Most of the windows were broken, all of them were dark. It was obvious that these old buildings were empty, abandoned for years. If you want to get an idea what the place might have looked like check out Al Pacino's "Scarface." The chainsaw bathtub incident takes place in the exact neighborhood and close to the time frame. Though the place was even more derelict in the years since filming had taken place.
Anyway, I was absolutely awed. I sat up and just stared out the window as block after block went by, all these incredible art deco low-rises sitting empty beneath streetlights that were half burnt out. Everything was quiet. I didn't even talk to the driver; he couldn't speak much English (which might have explained the wayward fare). I was too riveted to even wake up my friends. So I just stared around the streets in wonder.
What I didn't know at the time was that the driver had missed our hotel and gone all the way around the bottom curve ... and we were driving around what is now South Beach. Of course, this was before the 80s revival of all those fabulous groovy hotels. Before the yuppy investors came in to renovate everything. Before HIV-positive gay men from all over the world went there thinking at least they could die in paradise.
With the help of modern medicine, they didn't die of course. Not all of them, anyway - thank God. And the ones who stayed on helped establish one of the hippest travel destinations in the world. (Plus they ended up with some great real estate.)
As for me, I'll never forget that half-drunk/half-hungover trip through the abandoned streets of South Beach when it looked like a blasted-out ghost town. All those buildings seemed on the brink of being demolished - when actually, they were on the brink of being revived. It reminds me of the changing, amorphous quality of life ... that things can get better even when it looks as if they might get worse.
But it also reminds me of the fragility of life. Because one of those girls I went to Florida with died of skin cancer a few years ago. She was barely 35 years old.