Strangers in Paradise

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This is Mikey. He came to join the hundreds of teenagers from all over America who make up Miami's Beach people, ravers and runaways whose lives are far from the ideals of the sunshine state. When the British novelist Alexander Stuart moved there in 1990, he found in this city of exiles, with its fractured

social framework, a version of America that undermined the cliches and offered him, too, an escape hatch from the past

MIAMI'S beautiful, now, at 4am, when the air is muggy and the black sky over the ocean is alive with the silent flickerings of an electrical storm. The only sounds are the muffled bass beat of the techno / rave club a few metres away on Ocean Drive and the chatter of the group I'm with - young friends who grew up here, who are still growing up.

Despite its non-stop carnival image, Ocean Drive this late on a Thursday night is dead except for these hard-core ravers and the assumed European sophistication of the 24-hour News Cafe, four blocks up. Further along is the house Gianni Versace has just bought - perhaps the most satisfying building on South Beach, a relief from Deco overkill: Casa Casuarina, a 1930s Spanish / Moorish adaptation of the 16th-century home of the viceroy Diego Columbus of Santo Domingo. And Madonna moves in next, to the house on Brickell Avenue that cost nearly dollars 5m - the most anybody has ever paid to live in Dade County.

But to my friends, the Beach (as the whole area is called - effectively an island off the mainland of Miami, connected by bridges and causeways) is everyday reality: no fantasy in the palm trees, no glitz to the neon. The Beach is simply where you party, just as Disney World is where you go after high school graduation to drop acid and unwind.

The rave culture - largely imported from Britain - offers a brighter glimpse of racial integration than can be seen elsewhere in Miami. In these clubs, all colours mix, though not without comment. 'The Spanish still call the blacks 'nigger' and the blacks call the Spanish 'spics',' says Lorraine, her long black hair framing startling green eyes and Latin features, as she takes a break from the heat inside. Recently turned 17, she has one parent from Ecuador, one from Puerto Rico.

'There's all this talk about unity,' she

says. 'Why can't we just love each other?'

And while drugs are no more in evidence than in London or Manchester, they are still a factor in growing up - a symptom rather than a root of adolescent problems. The difference in Miami, given America's anti-drugs hysteria, is that kids are sent to rehabilitation centres as casually as a British kid might be sent to a dentist. 'I was in rehab for two weeks,' says Diana, who is 14 and from a Chilean family, though she looks older dressed in black shorts and bra, with a black chiffon shirt. Diana is no addict, just a one-time runaway who, when I first met her two months ago, had dropped out of high school, though she has now returned. Charismatic and frighteningly persuasive (nickname: Diana the One and Only Dominator), she talks her way into clubs where ID is required to prove you're 18 or 21 (21 is the legal drinking age in Florida).

Prior to rehab, she had stolen money from her parents, run away from home and 'started getting really messed up'. Then she was caught tripping in school, and rehab was the result: 'When I first went in there, it was very scary, like going to prison. They had bars all over the windows. The first question they ask is, 'Do you do drugs because you're depressed or did you get depressed because of drugs?' Me, I was depressed already, because my mom was really sick, she got cancer. I thought she was going to die, but then they stopped it in time. But I'd already tried drugs, you know. Like I tried

marijuana and acid and ecstasy, and it got me away for a while from everything, so I liked it. And I started doing it more and then I started fucking up in school.'

'I did rehab when I was her age,' says Lucy, 18 now, and also from Chile. 'I was there for three months. I was going through a severe depression, I was pulling out my hair, I didn't eat anything. I thought I was insane until I went to rehab.'

'Exactly.' Diana's face flares as she lights a cigarette. A cop on a stool outside the club watches as we talk. 'I thought, 'God, I'm such a fuck-up.' But if you go to rehab, you look at everybody else, they've been sexually abused, they don't have parents, and you're like, 'I never had a problem. Compared to these people I never, ever had a problem.' '

These girls are not losers. They're articulate, self-aware and they have hopes for the future. What draws me to them in a sense is what has always drawn people to America: a dream of beginning. I find them mostly easier to relate to than the Americans I know in their late twenties and thirties, whose optimism seems to take on a largely materialistic edge. But also, perhaps, due to some personal denial (I am 37), I am fascinated and moved more by the conflicts of youth than those of middle age.

Most of my young friends here are struggling to cope with family situations which are at best strained, at worst chaotic: a young black friend, Luke, who jokes that the only drug problem he has is that his parents are always asking him for some - they're both addicts; Todd, the most gentle and unlikely graduate from the Marine Corps, fighting to win approval from his father and never finding it; or Stephanie, physically abused throughout childhood by her father, who last saw him from behind the barrel of a gun she was holding, saying, 'Stay the fuck away from me]'

It's as if a whole generation has fallen apart, and its children are trying to pick up the pieces. Mostly they do pretty well: they show courtesy and respect to each other; they have values they cling to. The test will come when they move into the adult world.

MIAMI IS not a segregated city, but there are times when it might as well be. Where I live, on South Beach, the community is a mixture of Hispanic Americans and the young and the trendy - mostly white. My favourite bicycle ride over the Venetian Causeway takes me past bus stops offering a regular service into Overtown. But the affluent owners of the waterfront homes (most with their own speedboats or yachts moored to private jetties; most of them Anglo and car-owning) are unlikely to visit Overtown by bus or any other means. It is a predominantly black community, and the bus service to San Marco Island and other stops along the causeway is for the staff who service the houses of the rich.

Overtown and neighbouring Liberty City, with their high-density, low-rent housing, drug warfare and crumbling infrastructure, have long been the focus of Miami's racial violence. There was a night of rioting last year, after a Miami police officer who had shot and killed an Afro-American had his conviction for manslaughter overturned; a year earlier there had been serious rioting in Winward, the largely Puerto Rican section of Miami. And in 1980, 18 people died in Liberty City in riots sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers charged in the beating and subsequent death of a 33-year-old black man.

I have driven through the heart of Overtown, where people's lives spill out of cramped houses and run-down bars into the streets. I'm suspicious of my motives for going there: curiosity, voyeurism, a wish to counter the received negative image. I have been assured by black friends that white Europeans have an instantly recognisable, less fearful or judgemental look in their eyes than white Americans. But they also warned of the dangers, and I have not ventured there on foot.

'CASTRO, he make a mistake] England, she make a mistake] God and your momma make a mistake] I love you] Don't make a mistake]' Inside a bar in Little Havana, Charlie, an old Cuban, is hugging me repeatedly, announcing his crazy verdict on the situation that keeps a whole generation of exiled Cubans in Miami, waiting for Fidel to fall.

I've been warned of dangers here, too. But Calle Ocho, SW 8th Street, the most visible centre of the Cuban American community, is calm, prosperous and about as architecturally interesting as Oxford Street - full of furniture and gift stores. Its blandness is broken only by the occasional neighbourhood bar or the Botanico, a store specialising in religious statuary, palm reading and a selection of santeria charms (santeria is the hybrid of Catholic saint worship and African voodoo popular in Cuba).

For most families in Little Havana, Cuba is an imagined land; a country made unreachable by the severe travel restrictions imposed by the US Government, and circumscribed by anger, sadness and fading memories. 'Havana before the revolution was a beautiful city, a wonderful city,' says Dulce, whose family left Cuba in the Sixties, but who has never seen it herself. 'Now everything is crumbling, the stores are empty, the people are hungry. My uncle went back, and cried to see what it had become.'

The local Fox Television affiliate, Channel 7, runs nightly propagandist reports on the latest bizarre attempts inside Cuba to poison or overthrow Fidel Castro, whom it rarely fails to refer to as 'the Teflon dictator'. And the city's only newspaper of note, the Miami Herald, has, since 1976, published an autonomous daily Spanish language edition.

A reporter who covers the Cuban American community for the Herald believes that, ironically, the exiles are themselves a factor in Castro's survival. 'A lot of people in Cuba fear that, if Castro falls, the exiles will come back and take over, seizing property and taking control of the political system,' he tells me. 'There is discontent in Cuba, but no imminent danger of a counter-revolution. The discontent would disappear if the economic situation would improve or if Castro would make some accommodation to political change, but I don't believe there is an overwhelming desire for it.'

By American standards, this is an extremely liberal view of what is often regarded as the last bastion of the Evil Empire, and may be why another friend on the Herald told me that Jorge Mas Canosa, the leading player in Miami's exilio politics, 'probably hates the Herald more than he hates Castro'.

ON THE CORNER of Calle Ocho and SW 11th Avenue, Isaura is at an age - or has lived a life - that makes years indeterminate. She might be 25, she might be 40. Her dress hugs her figure and reveals much, both of her legs and bust, but the slightly split and frayed seam at the back lends a quality of pathos which somehow confirms her account of why she's waiting by a pay phone now - at the end of a relationship in which everything seems to have occurred this afternoon, but the numbers don't quite add up.

'I'm not a hooker, though I dress like one,' she says almost by way of introduction, and it is difficult to doubt her, or not to like her.

'My boyfriend started coming on to my little sister.' She pauses to greet a friend who walks by. 'I caught him watching her, getting a hard-on, playing with himself, so I told him, 'Stop the car] I'm getting out now]' That's why all my shit is out here on the street.'

She points to the doorway of a car where a dozen or more plastic carrier bags of clothes rest against the glass. 'I'm trying to call my mother to ask if I can stay with her,' she says. 'I have nowhere to go. Maybe next you'll see me dancing in a bar like that to survive]'

The whole story is delivered with great spirit and no hint of a hustle, or even a desire for sympathy, as if her telling it to me gives it more sense or shape - or perhaps just passes the time until, as I leave, another friend arrives to help move her stuff.

SEVEN AM on the beach on a weekday is a time I love. In summer, the Atlantic is usually mirror-still in the early morning. The sand is deserted, save for a few old folks up for a swim before the heat becomes lethal, and perhaps a patrol car. In winter, at this time, it might be 80 degrees Fahrenheit or it might be 60, and cool days, when they come, are relished ('A chance to accessorise,' as one friend puts it). The light this early is always fine: either a clear, warm, low-elevated sunlight or a wash of cloud, like the fog of memory.

This is a good hour to run and swim, before the beach gets busy, while the Dade County earthmovers are raking over the sand and the line of seaweed at the water's edge to keep the beach in shape. Pelicans fly low over the ocean like clumsy antique seaplanes, eyes trained for fish with which to stuff their sagging bills. Tiny sandpipers make rapid, darting runs alongside the waves, abruptly turning and retracing their hurried steps. Gulls gather, searching as ever for food, their orange and black bills open in the strangely muted cry they make here.

Andrew Kuncas is a lifeguard who, like a large proportion of Miami's adult population, came to Florida from somewhere else - Pittsburgh, in his case. I've often wondered what lifeguards think about all day, stationed in their tiny huts. 'On days like today where it's overcast,' he says, 'not many people come out, it can get kind of boring. But on a regular day when you have a large crowd, the crowd itself is rather entertaining. And then there's a lot of minor problems - people who masturbate in public, people with dogs, lost children, people who are bothering other people by drinking or loud music or whatever, so the day goes by pretty fast. It's not numbing.' But when I try to draw him on his feelings about the sea, the sense of inner peace it gives me, he says only, 'Yeah, it's quiet out here.'

We talk about body culture, which in America sometimes seems the only culture. On the beach, tourists aren't identified merely by their white or broiled-lobster skin, but by their obvious unfamiliarity with a gym. Andrew says: 'Women here respond totally to body type. The more you work out, the better your body is, the more likely you are to be able to pick them up.' Although, as he admits, it's not always easy because 'women see lifeguards as promiscuous and untrustworthy. Sometimes I can go months without dating.'

Of another aspect of local body culture, Andrew is less accepting. The Beach, like southern Florida as a whole, has a large gay and lesbian population. Despite liberal views on the poor representation of women and minority groups among City of Miami Beach lifeguards (three Hispanic, three women and one black out of a total of 55), Andrew is unhappy about what he sees as an overly dominant gay culture in the clubs and on the beach.

In the evenings, certainly, fantasy wear is the norm for the two main gay clubs, Warsaw and Paragon, and cross-dressers are not an uncommon sight on Washington Avenue. On the beach, G-strings for men are permitted - as they are for women, along with topless bathing, rare in the US - and at two beaches in particular there's an emphasis on male physique.

'It affects living here,' says Andrew. 'Twelfth Street isn't so bad, that's the respectable gay beach, but at Twenty-first Street, which used to be the main gay beach, there's a lot of hustlers and Italian hairdresser types. I resent my tax going to Aids treatment.'

AT THE 5th Street Boxing Gym, the body culture is of a more specific nature. Here, trainers and fighters from Angelo and Chris Dundee and Muhammad Ali to Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns have sweated and spat in a setting as fusty as any production designer could dream of. Outside, on peeling pink stucco by a supermarket parking lot, only a hand-painted sign announces the gym. Inside, old red theatre seats line one side of the ring. Boxing paintings and faded posters decorate the walls. Here, time is marked by a ringing bell, dividing the hours into three-minute dramas as young fighters work out in the hope of making the leap from oblivion to celebrity.

Time shifts here for me, too. My first weeks in Miami were spent at this gym, watching Nigel Benn work with his trainer Vic Andretti as he prepared for a fight with Chris Eubank in Birmingham and for a promised dollars 5m ( pounds 2.6m) purse in a Las Vegas match against Thomas Hearns - which, since he lost to Eubank in a particularly savage encounter, never took place.

Returning now, I ask for Beau Jack, the old black fighter who took care of business when Benn was around. Beau Jack was a character - 69 years old when I met him, twice world lightweight champion and reputedly six-times married with a clutch of children, though here on Miami Beach he lived alone in a single room. I remember him telling me, when a young fighter complained to him that he'd lost dollars 100 in a bet on the Buster Douglas / Evander Holyfield heavyweight sitdown: 'I don't bet money. Douglas was never going to win. A Co-Cola, that's all I bet. A can of Co-Cola.'

He'd shown me cuttings from his heyday in the Forties, recounting that he had sold out Madison Square Garden 21 times. He had won a plaque during the Second World War for attracting the Garden's highest gross in history, raising over dollars 35m for US War Bonds with a fight for which Beau received a nominal payment of one dollar. Now, when I ask for him, I'm told he's been sick with stomach cancer, and though he's someone I hardly know, I feel it almost as a blow to my own stomach. The three-minute bell rings.

WHY DID I come here? I came because of cancer - my son's death at five-and-a-half - and because I had separated from his mother and wanted a new life. I came by chance.

I stayed because Miami offered what I wanted: a sense of freedom from the past and an intensity about the present (to sweat as I write seems somehow reassuringly physical).

I stayed also for the sea, which is seductive and accommodating here all year round. And for the fact that in my neighbourhood on South Beach I hear Spanish in the streets every day. Because Miami offers the atmosphere of a Third World country with the advantages - and disadvantages - of the First World.

I stayed for the dream that America can still be, even at its worst. For the clash of cultures and experiences and ideas. For the gun show at the Coconut Grove Convention Centre, where I learned that for dollars 800 and a single piece of ID, I could walk out with an Uzi sub-machine-gun under my arm. For the downtown skyline at night, glimpsed from a freeway or from across the bay, with I M Pei's three-tiered International Building bathed in three different colours of light, and the neon graffiti of the

elevated Metrorail track snaking through the city like an illuminated conduit in some computer graphic.

I stayed for the Apocalypse Now sunsets last year, during a week of fallout from the Philippines volcano, when the palm trees of Star Island were silhouetted against a blood-red sky that seemed impossible to believe. For the plume of flame from the space shuttles, just visible from the beach under good conditions as they lift off from Cape Canaveral, about 200 miles up the coast. For the Clean Machine, a laundry on 12th Street, where I can wash my clothes in the company of fashion models newly arrived, their own heads full of dreams. And for the run-down shacks and shanty towns in the wastelands of central and north-west Miami, which with the heat and dust would not be out of place in the poorer parts of Honduras or Cuba, and which put the rest into perspective.

My memories of living here are still confused, belying the fact that, mostly, there is very little to do - one house-guest likened Miami to Leicester in the rain.

But I remember running one morning on the beach and seeing a school of fish, each five or six feet long, arcing through the waves. I thought at first they were sharks or possibly dolphins until a lifeguard assured me they were tarpon and that they'd be safe to swim out to. I remember swimming with a baby three-foot shark in the Florida Keys, and with dolphins in a natural lagoon at the Theater of the Sea - an organised, dollars 75-per-person experience but none the less remarkable. I remember Dustin, a disabled homeless man I got to know last year, who told me of his three tours of Vietnam and complained bitterly when I brought him a Tony Hillerman thriller to read: 'Why don't you bring me a real book? Henry Miller or Proust.' I remember a sign in a bank from the 'Feed Miami's Hungry' programme: 'GREATER MIAMI: 21 per cent BLACK, 44 per cent HISPANIC, 35 per cent ANGLO, 20 per cent HUNGRY.'

I remember missing England greatly when I first arrived, missing the Sussex Downs and Brighton, where I last lived, and tuning every morning to the World Service for my British fix - and feeling nostalgia well up as, on my first Christmas Eve here, I watched Carols from Cambridge on PBS.

And I remember my sister and brother-in-law visiting, and last Christmas, my parents. I walked on the beach with my father one night and thought: 'Now I feel that I live here. My memories will have resonance.'

FIVE AM, Sunday morning, Ocean Drive. I'm back with Diana and her friends after another night spent dancing. The club was crowded because a club on Key Biscayne had been raided by the police and everyone had come here. 'There's always gangsters and guns and car accidents and shootings in Key Biscayne,' Lucy says. 'That's why I don't go there.'

I have just met Michelle, who straight away told me, 'I'm a preacher's daughter, I'm tripping and I've got to go home and listen to my father's sermon.' Laura has backed her car tyre on to my foot in what I regard as a deliberate attempt to maim me. And I've heard that Kenny, a funny and affectionate 17-year-old who told me the first time I met him that he had just decided he was gay, is in the hospital after trying to slit his wrists.

Ocean Drive is a street in a ghost town, the neon dead, chairs on tables inside the cafes, a hosepipe here and there spraying the sidewalk: a Deco film set after the lights have been killed and the cast has gone home.

We move on to the beach to watch the sunrise. The air is balmy, the sea smells good. Freighters dot the horizon, their lights like tiny candle flames. A cruise ship heads for port - the Fantasy or the Ecstasy, the two biggest liners here.

Everyone is quiet for a moment, thinking their thoughts, willing America to exist, because more than any other country it is a myth that exists in the minds of its peoples, a machine they keep up in the air.

Alexander Stuart's new novel, 'Tribes', is published this month by Chatto and Windus.

(Photograph omitted)