Escape from Suffolk

(A tale of drugs, guns, hookers and a charming killer in a Miami diner)

It was just like being in a movie, except that even I realised we were driving dangerously slowly. I had chosen Miami over New York because I thought that New York was too scary. New York was where you got mugged, shot at. It was full of "Saturday night specials" and murders that were not called murders but homicides. Miami, though, was where tourists went. That's why the flights were so cheap. To be honest, I wasn't sure exactly where it was.

I was 20 and the exchange rate was good and America was calling. Or something that could be America. Perhaps it was in my blood. My father had been American, or was American. I didn't know whether he was dead or alive. I didn't know him. I didn't know anyone there at all.

Still, it was something I had to do. "I might even live there," I announced breezily at goodbye parties. This was not mere travelling; it could be actual living. This bravado evaporated as I got on the plane and could smell my own sweat. I was terrified, but it was too late now.

Gusts of hot air were blowing in my face from some kind of fan; that's what it had to be, this unreal heat. Real air couldn't have been this hot. I was feeling slightly shaky and guilt-ridden and thought it was something to do with being surrounded by people in uniforms telling me to "Have a nice day" in the middle of the night.

Everywhere there were signs: instructions on washing your hands and being pleasant and smiling and being happy and not taking drugs and not dropping litter and getting in the right line.

I got in the right line. I got let into the country. Vacation or business? Definitely business. I would hate anyone to think this was some kind of holiday.

"Well, lady, you wanna hotel? You have to pay for it" The taxi driver looked me up and down.

"I can pay for it. Just not that much."

"You know Miami Beach? You know a motel? Hey, you know what you are doing?"

It was already taking too long to get to wherever it was that I was going. I felt sick, like I had swallowed too much of this hot air, that it had wriggled inside my stomach. My savings, a few hundred pounds, were ticking away on the meter. I would spend it all in one cab ride while Miami unravelled itself in front of me.

We stopped somewhere with cardboard walls and the promise of air-conditioning. Everything in the room was brown, with a fridge that whirred all night long. I fell asleep to the wailing of sirens and noises that sounded like gunshot. I guess I must have been dreaming.

The first thing I did when I woke up was put on the TV. The TV would look after me. The TV would mean that I didn't have to do anything. It made me feel safe. It must have been the afternoon, because the soaps were on. Soaps to steady me up. One was particularly soothing, about a couple, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet who had run away and broken into a department store. They were living there in secret. I was jealous. They had everything, it was a heaven on earth. I never wanted it to end, because if it ended that might mean I had to go outside. Yet if I didn't go outside, how was I going to get a job? How was I going to live in America?

In some ways, I must have already known America. I had lived there when I was little and my mum used to show me pictures of snowdrifts and talk about soda fountains and the neat little gun that my father bought her to carry in her purse. My mother had, in fact, married two Americans, with an Englishman in between. Her attraction to Americans had always been part of a desire to escape to something bigger and brighter than the confines of small-town life. It was also due to her interest in consumer durables. If love could be measured out in things, then how much better if those things were not readily available in Britain.

My father had been an American, or was American. I didn't even know whether he was dead or alive. I didn't know him. I didn't know anyone there at all.

I finally turned the TV off end left the brown room. In daylight I was surprised to find that the motel had a swimming pool. There was no one in it. I had no idea where I was, or where Miami Beach was in relation to anywhere else. The beach itself was a strip of sand - nothing great, but full of women wearing bikinis cut high up the inside thigh. They were sunbathing even though it wasn't sunny, just humid and hazy.

After two days I found a job in a diner. I lied and said I had been a waitress before. This diner looked like every diner I've been in since, like the diners my mother described to me when I was little, like every diner on every screen. Retro, repro, an imitation of an imitation. It was, for me, absolutely the real thing. It was run-down, right by the beach, still done up in 1950s style, with a counter at the front and red shiny seats in the booths. You could eat every kind of meal there for not too much money and it didn't shut until three in the morning.

Every waitress was given her own tables, though it was always better to be on the counter: more single men, more tips. We were paid way below any minimum wage.

The kitchen itself was tiny. Three or four guys sweated it out, frying away to heavy-metal music. It was unbearably hot, though you only went into the kitchen for a row or a spliff.

My waitress uniform was disgusting: a white nylon zip-up dress, red-and- white-striped apron and, worst of all, we had to wear white sneakers with those little socks with poms-poms at the back. Nightmare.

Suddenly I was serving grits and eggs-over-easy and all sorts of stuff I had never heard of. The cooks made most things, but there were some things you had to make yourself, like toast, waffles, malted milkshakes and massive ice creams with names like Suicide, which you served with sparklers in. In the heat it was hard work and the tips didn't start coming in till you got your own regulars. Hookers, I always found, were the biggest tippers and the sweetest to serve. English people were the pits. Old men coming in for breakfast were not too bad.

My God, we worked hard. Americans don't have tea-breaks or even allow you to be late in the mornings. No excuse is good enough. I was already in trouble for not saying "Have a nice day" when I put the bill on the table.

"It just doesn't come naturally to me," I attempted to explain.

"It's company policy. I suggest it does come naturally to you," said the manager.

I tried, I really did, but I was soon in the manager's office again. A family had apparently complained that I had said "Have a nice day" in a threatening manner.

Sometimes, after work, I would sit outside drinking beer with Kevin, one of the cooks. Kevin was from Carolina and the person I liked the best since I had been in Miami. His accent was gentle, his face soft. He was a gentleman and would ask me about England, talking until late. He never once made a move, though I kind of hoped he would, but just knowing him made me feel more secure. There was something innately trustworthy and decent about him, which was why he didn't really fit in with the other guys in the kitchen.

One day at work, a couple of men in suits came in. They sat down and I got their coffee. "Is there someone working here called Kevin?" one of them asked. "Oh, yeah, he's out the back, in the kitchen."

They ordered doughnuts, drank their coffee, got up and made their way through to the kitchen. They came out with Kevin, still in his apron but in handcuffs. They took him away. "Oh, my God, Kevin, what's happening?" He looked up shyly. "Don't worry, sugar, don't worry at all," he said, and they were gone.

They were the FBI and Kevin was wanted in Carolina for killing several people. "Shot them up," as they say. He had held up a bank or something, on some kind of spree that went wrong. He never meant to kill anyone.

My life turned around when I switched to the night shift. The night shift was much more like it. The waiters were hipper. We would turn up the jukebox and play Frank very loudly. New York, New York is a great song to wait tables to, strutting up and down to.

Alain and Mikey worked the night shift. Alain was French, a hippyish beach boy, good-looking as hell. Mikey was an Irish chancer who had lived everywhere. They always had loads of 'ludes. It wasn't that they were into downers, it was just a way of making sure you got drunk quicker.

The trick was to pop the 'lude half an hour or so before we finished work, so that it would be kicking in by the time we got to the space invaders machine in the bar. It was a question of timing; it didn't always work. On several occasions Mikey would flounce up to a table, take an order and immediately collapse on the floor. The customers seemed to matter less and less. They were always complaining about roaches in the food. I would rush out into the kitchen, pour on some more spaghetti sauce and take it back to them. Well, what did they expect?

It was through Alain that I met Sherry. She claimed to be his girlfriend, but he never saw it that way. Sherry was an all-American girl: big arse, bad skin, permanently erect nipples and the neatest strip of pubic hair you ever saw. She was very attractive to men. We would all meet in one of the various motel rooms we ended up in.

Soon I was kind of in love with Sherry. I had wanted to experience America and she was the most American person I had ever met. Everything she did or thought was the opposite of what I did or thought. At first I snobbily regarded her as some sort of anthropological specimen. Soon, though, I found myself thinking the things she thought.

Work was becoming boring now that I could actually do the job. Filling up Heinz ketchup bottles from vats of slop that clearly wasn't Heinz ketchup, I would find myself thinking about the middle-aged guys who sat in silence while I "refreshed" their cups. One of them could be my father and I wouldn't even know it. One of them could take me to a hotel room and then afterwards I could tell him ...

I didn't think I needed anyone to walk me home, though it's true that everyone thought I was peculiar for walking at all. I liked it, especially when it was raining that hot sticky rain and out at sea you could see a tornado. Cars stopped all the time offering me lifts, because they thought if I was walking either something was terribly wrong, or I was a prostitute. Telling people I couldn't drive was more shocking than telling people I was a communist.

When my shift finished, I was too tired to even change out of my uniform. I was crossing the road when a car stopped and a man said: "Get in the car."

"I don't want to."

"Get in the car, now." He had a gun. Did he really have a gun? "Get in the car or I'll shoot."

"Shoot me, then," I said, because I didn't know what else to say and whatever I did I knew I wasn't going to get in the car. And then I ran. It was not until I got back to my room that I started shaking, still not believing that he would have really shot me. I couldn't gauge my own fear because it was too close to the kind of fear you felt when you were watching a scary movie.

"You did the right thing," my friends assured me. "

Did I?"

"Oh, yes. He was just trying to frighten you. You showed him."

"Did I?"

"You showed him that you weren't scared of him. That's good."

The police arrived. They did not seem the least interested in the man with the gun in his car. "Why were you walking? Do you make a habit of this?" they kept asking me. "We could take you in," one of them snarled. Now I was afraid.

By now I was seeing Joe, a Seminole Indian who rolled the tightest little joints. He lived on a reservation, which seemed kind of glamorous. Besides, he always had lots of money because of the casinos set up on Indian land. Seminoles didn't have to pay tax and, because Joe was an expert in land rights, he would explain to me how huge tracts of America would be handed back to the natives at any moment. At first I lapped up this land-rights stuff, then I got bored. I guess I liked the idea of Joe more than the reality. Still, at least he had all his fingers, so I had made the right choice. Most of his friends didn't, because they earned their living wrestling alligators for the tourists and had hands full of stumps.

Joe always carried a gun. "Put this in your bag," he said to me the first night we went out. "Sure," I replied coolly.

I spent the whole evening terrified that I was going to accidentally kill someone when I tried to find my lipstick. I went to the toilet and dropped my bag on the floor. Christ, there is a gun in there. Stay calm.

Maybe I was getting back to my roots - my father had been part Cherokee - but Joe disappointed me. He was just so ... American. He even bought me a ghastly see-through nylon nightie that he seriously expected me to wear.

I needed another job. The diner was going downhill fast. No one gave a shit. There was a job going in a Jewish restaurant near where Sherry's parents lived.

"Are you Jewish?" they asked me. "Sure," I said, not realising that the customers ordered in Yiddish. Besides which, what the hell was gefilte fish? I was a disaster, but a source of amusement. I had chutzpah, they said, whatever that was.

I wanted to leave anyway. No one had ever been so rude to me, talked to me this way. "Wipe this table," they yelled. "Get me some water." Then one day I yelled back, and everything was hunky dory and I got massive tips. Unlike the diner, these people expected good service and they paid you for it. Most of the customers were New York Jews retired to Miami. Soon they were bringing in their ugly dentist sons to meet me, and I played along as these poor guys stuffed their faces while their mothers relayed their career prospects to me.

Adele was the best waitress there. She was dark and quivery, gorgeous, in her early thirties, already with four husbands behind her. She was very emotional, especially when she didn't get big enough tips. She was always being fired and rehired the next day, because Adele knew how to get anything she wanted. The day John Lennon was murdered, she came to work and burst into tears at every table she served. She went home that night with hundreds of dollars in her pockets. She taught me how to tip apple sauce over difficult customers, sometimes whole plates of food. "Oh, I am so sorry."

I learned from her chat that to be a good waitress you need a good story. Looking for my father she reckoned was a particularly good one. Waitressing was a performance and soon I was acting my heart out. Telling them about my mum, the GI bride - which was never true - telling them that I was saving up in order to see my daddy, telling them that I wanted to go to college, telling them whatever they wanted to hear. "My name is Suzanne and I'm your waitress for the evening," was just the beginning.

The money started piling up. I began to think I could go to Cuba if I really wanted, but I didn't want to leave Sherry.

Some English guys I knew wrote telling me that you could get a flight from New Orleans to the Yucatan for $75. We drank margaritas in the airport and Sherry told me that she loved me. I persuaded her to get on the plane with me to New Orleans. Roger gave her the money for the ticket. She lasted a couple of days and went back home. I went to Mexico.

Years later I read in magazines that Miami is fashionable, that it is full of art-deco hotels, that Madonna has a house there. The very streets I walked down are now considered stylish. Can it be the same place? Perhaps I didn't see Miami at all. Perhaps it was just a movie playing in my head. How do you ever tell the truth about another time, another place, when you have seen too many movies, when you have got too old to let mere events write the script for you?

So I was young in Miami. You could say young enough not to know what I was doing, but that would be wrong. For I was young enough to know exactly what I was doing and still do it. I miss that, the certainty that youth gives you.

Nothing is as clear to me now as it was then, for everything is overlaid with other visions of America, none of them mine. And even my version doesn't belong to me. I still don't know my father. I never bothered to find him.

Many years later Sherry wrote to me with news of her marriage. She had been through some hard times but had finally found the right man. She had married him, as Americans do, in the front yard of her parents' house. She sent me a picture. How respectable it all looked.

"PS," she wrote. "Did I ever tell you that I went to the doctor's and he told me that there is something really quite wrong with my brain, something chemical, some sort of imbalance?"

No, she never did tell me that. It would have made too much sense.

A longer version of this piece appears in Amazonian: The Penguin Book of Women's New Travel Writing, published on 28 May (pounds 7.99).

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