"Competition of the Week" story # 1

Miami, Florida, USA           August 14, 2001

"Is the bus station within walking distance?" I asked.
     The restaurant-worker in the Miami, Florida airport thought for a second. "No," he advised.
     After I'd done my best to stay out of the country for as much of the George Bush administration as possible, I was now back in the United States. And, to make matters worse, I was going to have to spring for a taxi - my light wallet's least-favorite method of transport. Why, I'd almost prefer to eat my money for its nutritional value than to spill it into a cab.
     Forty seconds after I got in the cab, the driver pulled up to the bus station and asked for a small fortune. To make matters worse, the next bus going my way, to St. Petersburg, Florida, wasn't leaving until six a.m., meaning I'd have to spend six hours in the bus station.
     I became quick bed-fellows with a funny, drunk black guy on his way to Ft. Lauderdale. He had only five dollars to take him from the bus station there to the airport, but his bigger worry dealt with the arm-rests on our bench. "Man, they gotta be all nasty 'bout us sleeping here, puttin' in these steel bars and everything ... 'You are NOT gonna be comfortable in our bus station!' ... We oughtta get a blow torch up in here and weld these things off."
     My friend managed a sleep full of tosses and turns. He shook awake every ten minutes or so, blurting out loud, "Man, I need a joint!" or alerting the other sleepers that he'd carelessly misplaced his ticket on the floor again.
     Soon after he'd rounded up some taxi-fare from me and another guy, he was on his way to Ft. Lauderdale. It was three o'clock.
     Meanwhile, my negotiations with the bus company turned sour because the bus driver possibly wouldn't drop me off at a strategic hitchhiking position in the highway. I opted not to buy any ticket; I could do Miami to St. Petersburg, hitchhiking, in eight hours anyway. Interestingly enough, the bus ticket I declined would've cost me only 3 times as much as my earlier cab ride and would've taken me, in comparison, 4000 times as far.
     Stepping into the steaming Florida summer, I grumbled one last time over the $8 cab ride that had transported me only TWO BLOCKS from the Miami airport. With two heavy bags on my shoulders, I was on a mission to define just what exactly "walking distance" signified.
     It was four-thirty a.m. "The early hitcher gets there quicker!" I coined a proverb.
     The streets were dark, my thumb was out, and Highway-75 was on Miami's opposite end. And Miami's a big city. Why, Miami, while technically in the United States, is such a big city that it actually encompasses several countries. Cuba and Colombia, to name a few.
     Obviously, I got lost. Gas stations were open, but in the part of the United States I was in English wasn't spoken.
     Luckily, I'd studied Spanish for three-and-a-half years. And if I remember correctly, approximately two-and-a-half years of that was spent specifically studying how to receive directions. "Izquierda," for example, means left. "Direito" means right. "Direito," for some reason even three-and-a-half years couldn't explain, also means straight.
     Asking a guy for help, I came upon a down-right impressive level of incompetence. First of all, he didn't speak our country's language. Second, in a city with a pretty straight-forward numbered street system, it took him a good ten minutes of baffled stares to find his workplace on the map.
     He regrouped and, thankfully, pointed to the "izquierda."
     I got on-track and walked. And walked. And walked. The air was heavy with water and hot. By seven-thirty, I'd already soaked through two shirts with sweat. And Highway-75 was yet a ways off.
     A long residential walk later, I reached the start of 75. Happiness flooded my body, as I leaked water like a sponge. If Highway-75's blue, medallion-shaped sign hadn't been so high, I would've kissed it. This road would take me to visit college friends in St. Petersburg; this road would take me to "Johnny" and "Johnny!"
     I put out my thumb.
     No cars stopped.
     I clapped my hands and smiled.
     No cars stopped.
     I pointed at my face with two hands and gave a big thumbs-up.
     No cars stopped.
     I showed seven figures then five and pointed to my beloved 75 sign. I even invented a football-like rock-juggling game to give the drivers an idea of just how fun it would be to have strange me in their car for the next two to four hours. But ...
     No cars stopped.
     As the time I'd spent with 75 increased, I grew to like it more and more.
     "No one's stopping, but the morale remains high!" I said.
     "If the heatstroke doesn't kill me, the sheer joy I'm feeling will!"
     Seriously, my body was being pummeled by the heat. My head was spinning. My back was crumbling from the weight of my bags. My legs ached. One time, I took a split-second glance at the sun's golden rays and felt my eyeballs pierced, my retinas microwaved, and my brain poisoned.
     It was eleven-thirty. I needed water.
     At the gas station, I got water and my first ride of the day. A Cuban handy-man offered to take me ten minutes up 75. I accepted, listening as he pointed out the differences between Cubans and other Miami latinos. The Cubans, he said, kept cleaner yards and like Americans more.
     The Cuban let me out on the highway in West Miami. Cars whizzed by me; none considered stopping. To make matters worse, I couldn't find a proper-sized rock to play my juggling game with. So, I gave up.
     It was twelve-thirty p.m. After eight hours of hitchhiking, I was still in Miami.
     The only thing I'd succeeded in doing was reaching a part of Miami not serviced by public transportation.
     With my visit to St. Petersburg canceled, I was left with few attractive options: I could collapse into a coma beneath an apartment complex's trees, thus getting my first sleep of the past thirty hours; I could try walking six miles backwards to the nearest bus stop, melting into the asphault somewhere around the fifth mile; or, I could do the worst thing imaginable and call a taxi.
     I opted to walk.
     The heat didn't let up. My bags felt like boulders. Their straps like chains on my back. My stomach muscles were outlined in pain. My head spun so much the road seemed to be rising to meet my steps.
     Worst of all, I was walking the "Road Straight from Hell." The flat, boring, gray, steaming road was completely without stimulus. Only by squinting could I make out the tiny red of a far distant traffic light. Every five minutes of walking, the traffic light grew by a barely noticeable speck. After thirty minutes, it was still a half-mile off.
     I finally reached the stop-light. And what did I have to look forward to? The EXACT SAME two-mile stretch of road was before me again!
     Pressing on for forty minutes, I arrived at another traffic light, and the EXACT SAME two-mile stretch of road was before me again!
     Soon, I could take no more. I ducked into the first apartment building along the "Road Straight from Hell." I dumped my boulders on the floor. I choked a water request to the building's leasing agent, and she also gave me my first bagel in five months plus $10 cab-fare to take me to the nearest bus stop. She may have just been a mirage, though.
     Once on the city bus, I calculated what my version of "walking distance" had been on the day: about eighteen miles. The next time I want to know if a strange place is within walking distance, I'll be more clear: "Is it within eighteen miles?"
     And if you don't find it amazing that I walked eighteen miles in the Florida summer with five months of travel on my back, listen to the next day's challenge. After snoring away ten hours on the Ft. Lauderdale airport floor, I crammed FIVE MONTHS of Brazil travel supplies into only one bag in order to catch a stand-by flight to Philadelphia. My bag was bursting at the seams, my pockets were full of flashlights and Portuguese dictionaries, and I was wearing four shirts on my back, two shirts around my waste, two pairs of long pants, four pairs of underwear, and my snorkel mask.
     Just kidding about the snorkel mask. But, it was a tight fit to get a cheap flight.
     And all de-hydrated flight long, I thought about the one main thing that had made my first twenty-four hours back in the States so miserable. Not the hitchhiking. Not the walking. Not the heat.
     It was the fact that I paid EIGHT FRICKEN DOLLARS TO A CABBIE TO GO ONLY TW'FRICKEN BLOCKS!!! My great-grandma would consider two blocks "walking distance."

Modern Oddyseus

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