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Category: International Date: 26 Jul 04


The high, pointy, clear plastic shoes were exactly at eye level from my position on a low seat in the shoe shop. I watched, riveted, as the double image in the mirror-the wearer of this exquisite high-heeled vamp-meets-Cinderella creation-stepped forward and then stopped in front of me. I looked up slowly as the pieces and parts came together -the shoes, in long slender feet, joined to perfectly toned waxed calves, moving up to enviably slim hips and torso, long neck, long face, stubbly chin, bright cloud of hair, shimmery eyes. Stubbly chin? I looked again-no real hint of Adam's apple, breasts (are they real?), skirt disguising gender. He, no, she, was making perfect sense. "That fit is perfect on you but the green won't go with everything. Would you like to try it in taupe instead?"


"Yes, yes, taupe," I said, hoping taupe was beige and not some outlandish colour. He was the best shoe salesman/woman I had ever come across. I must have tried a dozen shoes, decided on buying the first pair I tried on, and then changed my mind about it after walking in them for a few steps because they felt uncomfortable. Still he/she was all understanding. "We women have to be careful," he/she said, "not to feel pressured to buy things that we will hate later-because that leads to depression." That's when I knew she was a woman at heart, even if she grew afternoon shadow. "Yes," I replied, looking severely at my husband who was impatiently crossing and uncrossing his legs with the look of a man who would rather boil his head than shop with his wife. "We women understand." She shot me a look of pure happiness as I walked out. I had acknowledged that she was a woman.


That's Miami for you. It's an American city that I have resisted visiting for years thinking it sterile (malls, malls, malls), artificial (the plastic surgery industry), built on vapid consumerism (Mickey Mouse, for God's sake).


Yet, here I was, actually enjoying myself in South Beach-where, from a distance, it was impossible to know if someone was 16 or 56, man or woman-where secondary organs were simply clay to be cut, enlarged, injected, flattened, where people could wipe out traces of their genes with this hormone or that.


I liked the buzz. In this place every man or woman was free to be themselves. If you felt like a woman trapped in a man's body, that could be fixed. If you felt like a man trapped in a woman's body, well, that could be fixed too. If you felt old, that could be fixed. Nobody batted an eyelid at the sight of sixty-something women in mini skirts lining up to go into a club with twenty-somethings. If you felt like a freak, there were plenty of others to keep you company.


I know it's a huge place-there must be pockets of problems-unemployment, poverty, incompetence-but each city holds out its badges of governance.


(Ours, unfortunately, is often filthy; quaint historical buildings razed for ugly business places, highways flanked with garbage instead of trees.)


The skyline is Miami's badge-high-rises are painted and placed in line with an overall modern aesthetic that is pleasing, but more crucially it gives you a sense that the people who govern here are serious planners. Politicians managed the image of their city down to the placement of a crane, enforced strict building codes and hired professionals to keep it looking good. No builder could raze a beloved art deco building down to the ground and build ugly flats here. No exceptions, not even for Donald Trump. If this was an indication of the level at which politicians were required to perform, at the efficiency with which the city was run, the people here were doing okay.


Another indicator: in a supermarket a little pouch labelled "Need a penny?" was placed near the cashier, for people who needed or had spare change while they paid for groceries. Can you imagine what would happen to that pouch here? It would be permanently empty-raided either by unemployed youths, pensioners, women, men who regularly have to choose between sardines and milk. And it wouldn't be enough. No, a pouch like that, in this country where 400,000 live below the poverty line, would be sad. And then there was the survey that showed that of all the American cities this was one in which immigrants were in the majority. So no-one was a minority.


I didn't realise until I was on the way home that the eagerness and the friendliness of the people had everything to do with the prosperity of the city. They were the little cogs in this well-run city - every smoothie sold, every dollar turned, adding to the overall prosperity.


Walk in to get some running gear and the guys in the shop are all runners. You're flat-footed? No problem. "Just step on this treadmill ma'am, so we can do a thirty-second recording of your running style. Okay, try this one. Doesn't work? Try this-it should give you more support." People clearly want and have to be the best they can be-shoe-selling no exception.


Salespeople of all ages and races, Trinis among them-16 to 80-spend all their time trying to charm you-people selling smoothies, and hairbrushes-they ask you where you're from, they expertly assess what you want and try to get you to buy it and in the process you feel as if you've made a friend.


Okay, so after four days of this kind of perfection, I'd had enough, was ready to leave, to plunge once more into the chaos that we islanders have come to expect and are addicted to.


But if there is one thing that Miami taught me it's that you can pull apart and change an entire human body so it looks nothing like the original, and you can smile because you need to sell, but silicone never stopped anyone from expressing their real, vulnerable selves to you, and service is not servile, but can be just another way of touching another human being, participating in another life.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur