Learning the Miami schlep

A few years ago, I worked as a moderator for an online forum about travel and relocation to Miami. I could smell and knock out a troll from a mile away. And as a rare native Miamian, I also played den mother to innocent, defenseless cubs: those wannabe Miamians seduced by sun and fun.

It’s a good thing our beloved tourists, most of whom had vacationed in Miami Beach for just a couple of weeks, couldn’t see me across their computer monitors. Many an eye-roll, tsk-tsk, point-my-finger, and shake-my-head gestures overtook this mama bear when I read that predictable question: “OMG Any tips? I need advice! I so fell in love with Miami and I so want to move there!”

The autopilot in me had a stock reply: “Which Miami do you want to move to? There are many Miamis.”

It’s easy to fall head over heels with a destination when you don’t live there. I wondered if these tourists had miraculously missed the stench of piss on Washington Avenue or the absence of dollars from their wallets after they paid a taxi driver mucho bucks for a bumper-to-bumper Ocean Drive crawl. I knew for sure they hadn’t ventured far past the flood zone of Beachhattan — West Avenue from Lincoln Road to 5th avenue. With so many high-rises, you can barely see the sky and the only water you’ll wade in is a puddle at the Whole Foods parking lot.

Greater or lesser Miami?

The convention and visitors bureau only mentions greater Miami and the beaches because it sounds more glamorous and enticing than Miami-Dade and the beaches. It begs the question, though — where the heck is the implied lesser Miami? Where is this elusive, subpar, mediocre, not-worth-mentioning Miami in the vast expanse of the county’s nearly 2,000 square miles? Greater or lesser, a true Miamian knows that living here is all about the schlep.

Other forum members — former tourists who had become seasoned (read: jaded) residents of the magic city — would chime in along with me, gently bursting the bubble: “Sorry, but Miami isn’t Miami Beach. Oh, and you’re going to need a car.”

Some disagreed. “You don’t really need a car,” wrote one intrepid friend who also happened to work less than 3 miles from his digs. Of course, during one commute on Miami Beach, he injured two limbs when a taxi door suddenly slammed open in front of his bicycle.

Residential land use by Matthew Toro, via Miami Geographic
Residential land use by Matthew Toro, via Miami Geographic
Yep, the bad news bears had to disappoint many a tender Miami rookie: Miami Beach isn’t the epicenter of Miami-Dade; for us heathens on the mainland, it’s a foreign island across the causeway. Get your Britto passport stamp on the Alton Road overpass.

For my cyclist friend, Miami was an afterthought. For him, life here was The Beaches and Greater Miami. He enjoyed a short schlep on Collins Avenue, in spite of roadway hazards like late-night hookers and tourists who fling cab doors open in the middle of the road without warning. Heading to the mainland was an adventure.

Schlepping everywhere

Miami just turned 119 years old this year. I wish I could go back in time and sit with founders Julia Tuttle and William Brickell on a front porch, gazing upon the swampy banks of the Miami river and swatting mosquitoes, waiting for the Seminole Indians to float by on their dugout canoes.

Flash forward. I snap my fingers and show Tuttle and Brickell a satellite photo of the sprawling urban creature Miami has become. It’s 2015 and we’re surrounded by the concrete and glass behemoths investors call condos. A bail of cocaine drifts by under the roaring din of cars passing over the Brickell drawbridge.

Everything’s just too darn spread out here, like a big palomilla steak spilling over a plate, but with no room for plantains, yucca, and black beans. (Next time you eat at a Cuban restaurant, notice how the side dishes are literally on the side.) As in food service, so in construction — if you can’t pile it on, you pile it out.

Everyone is schlepping everywhere.

One fine day, I quit the league of carbon footprint offenders and sold my car. After a few weeks without a car, the schlepper in me began to seriously wonder why it took forever and a day to travel within Miami-Dade or even to Broward using public transportation, just like I often wondered about other epic journeys: how Columbus sailed galleons to the New World, how devout Christians from Europe trekked by foot on pilgrimages to the holy land, how pioneers managed to cross the U.S. in horse-drawn wagons — these and many other herculean feats of long-distance transportation crossed my mind. Of course they did. I had nothing else to think about on the bus or the train after my cellphone battery died and I couldn’t fart around on Facebook.

Flying would be faster

The global schleps you read about in history books almost paled in comparison to my last Miami-Broward schlep. Scheduled to speak at a conference near the Galleria Mall at 3 p.m. — and being a punctual city native who doesn’t have her clock set to EMT (estimated Miami time, two hours late) — I woke up at the crack of dawn to catch an early train from the South Miami station, destination Tri-Rail. The ETA was four hours, according to my well-researched itinerary.

Well, Miami time bit me in the ass like a pissed-off gator. Two trains, one shuttle, and one bus later, I arrived at the conference soaking wet from the rain and short of breath after eight hours. Yes. Eight hours to schlep 40 miles! I could’ve flown to Spain across the wide Atlantic sea in about the same time. I guess I really earned myself some public transportation cojones that day, because no sooner did I finish my presentation, I retraced my steps back home, arriving just past midnight. Metrorail, like Cinderella’s pumpkin, stops working just when the whacked out ravers, fresh from their disco naps, come out to play.

This wouldn’t be the first time I’d be watching paint dry using public transportation in South Florida. A 12-mile schlep to Hialeah from Miami Beach in the middle of a weekday is about two-and-a-half hours, even if Google Maps tells me otherwise.  That’s four to five hours of bumpy schlep time out of my day while my butt wiggles on a hard seat. I might as well drive to Disneyworld or fly to the Northeast! Drive to Orlando from Miami: four hours. Flight to New York City from Miami: two-and-half hours.

Most people in Miami who use public transportation seem to manage but it doesn’t make for good quality of life in whichever Miami you choose to call home — unless you live spitting-distance to everything that requires you to leave the house or you find some schlep-proof public transportation route for your everyday needs.

The buses and trains themselves aren’t the problem. In fact, you can even check schedules on your phone, the trains are usually quite punctual and 311 offers friendly customer service. The problems lie in poor urban planning and population density. Too many schleppers in this town, and not enough options to get where we need to go.

Even behind the wheel of a posh Bentley, you’d be stuck in some kind of traffic most of the time, doing the Miami schlep.

So ask me again. Which Miami do you want to live in? And how far do you want to schlep?

By Maria De los Angeles
Maria de los Angeles is an award-winning multimedia storyteller and one of those rare native Miamians who loves all things Florida. When not catching 200-pound bull sharks or chasing pirates up the east coast, you'll find her whipping up delicious vegetarian meals and practicing yoga.