Read Walking Through Walls Online
Authors: Philip Smith
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Copyright Â© 2008 by Philip Smith
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Walking through walls: a memoir / Philip Smith.
Contents: Redneck mamboâWar on sanpakuâThe human ray gunâDevil be goneâSpirit talk in OvertownâMeet the preacherâPsychic shoppingâPink or gray?âDios mio, Dr. SiegelâIn shockâFuturamaâInto the ethericâAnother angry doctorâThe goddess debutsâThe mad scientistâMister magic.
1. Smith, Lew (1904â1981). 2. Smith, Philip. I. Title.
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This book is dedicated with eternal gratitude to Esther Rand Smith, my beautiful
brilliant mother, who not only gave me this miraculous opportunity to visit planet Earth but the full love and content of her own lovely soul.
My father knew that one day this book would be written and wanted to make sure that whoever took on the task had all the resources he would need. He documented all aspects of his work, and much of this book is based on the hundreds of hours of audiotapes, testimonial letters, extensive notebooks, photographs, diagrams, artifacts, and over five thousand pages of spirit dictation that he generously left behind.
The majority of names in this book have been changed to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.
It was late July.
The summer mangoes had dropped from the trees and were lying rotting on the ground, ripped open by feasting bugs and birds. Their intoxicating, sweet smell mixed with the heaviness of the night-blooming jasmine. This languid perfume created a thick, rarefied atmosphere that at times made breathing difficult. In Miami nature is often a mix of colorful abundance and dark decay.
This evening I was walking home from a friend's birthday party. We had listened to the new Rolling Stones album,
then turned off the lights and pretended to make out with the nearest girl. Some party. But then, this was 1966, and I was only fourteen.
It was long after eleven o'clock. I should have been home hours ago but was having too much fun to leave the party. As I approached my father's house, I realized that I had forgotten my keys. The porch lights were on, my father's car was parked out front, but the house was completely dark. He must have gone to bed early.
Not wanting to startle him, I knocked somewhat timidly. A tornado of mosquitoes brought on by the summer rains swarmed around my head.
I knocked again, this time louder. “Pop, it's me, open up.” No response. Not hearing any movement from inside, I became concerned that something was wrong. I decided to walk back to my friend's house to use his phone to call my father. As I turned to leave, I heard the front door's dead bolt click open. Relieved, I spun around ready to greet my father and apologize for coming home so late.
As I stood there, the front door remained closed. I was wondering if the sound I had heard was just a very loud cricket or a buffo toad looking for a mate. Then, ever so slowly, like in some black-and-white horror movie, the door creaked open. From the shadows emerged a tall man with grayish skin. I had never seen this guy before; he had the stature and demeanor of Lurch. Without any introduction, he looked at me with a cool stare and said in a flat, robotlike voice, “We are currently in communication with the master souls of the eleventh plane. Your father is deep in trance and cannot be disturbed.”
Lurch began to back away and close the door. He then paused and asked, “Why did you even bother to knock? After all, you are your father's son. Haven't you learned to walk through walls yet?”
“My, aren't you a cutie!” She leaned closer to me and took a drag off her cigarette. As she exhaled, her ample sunburnt breasts, spilling out of her black fishnet one-piece, bobbed up and down against my face. Dressed in my blue blazer, bow tie, khaki shorts, and freshly shined Buster Browns, I was, at six years old, an irresistible magnet for drunken middle-aged women looking for love. Mom always insisted that if I were going to sit at the bar and drink that I at least be well dressed.
I was at my favorite bar, the kind that was very popular in the 1950s throughout the Caribbean: below ground with a big picture window looking directly into the front of the pool. For hours I would watch would-be Esther Williams types engage in aesthetic swimming routines or drunken couples attempting to make love in the shallow end of the pool completely unaware that some of us had a front-row seat.
At the moment, the hotel's live mermaid was doing her aquatic show while sucking on an air hose. I lived for the mermaid. She was my fantasy come trueâa sleek woman in a tight flesh-colored bathing suit, wearing very red lipstick, who did artistic somersaults and blew bubbles at you through the window. For some reason, possibly due to the Gulf Stream or immigration, mermaids did not exist back in my hometown of Miami. Mermaids were strictly a foreign phenomenon.
Being a gentleman, I restrained myself from telling this aggressively drunk woman that her breasts were blocking not only my view of this very important show but my air passages as well.
The Bahamian bartender gave me a wink and a smile. I was a regular, and he had witnessed my powerful little-boy charm on women many, many times. I was the Cary Grant/Hugh Hefner of my first-grade classâsuave, debonair, and just a bit naughty when necessary. I knew the difference between Manischewitz and Bordeaux.
He poured my third drink: a planter's punch packed with dark rum. Delicious. On these weekends away, my parents would often park me at the bar. What better babysitter than a bartender and an open tab?
At the time, I spent many of my weekends in tiki bars throughout the Caribbean, accompanying my mother and father on business trips. Nassau, Havana, Port-au-Prince, Kingston, and the Caymans were each just a short hop from Miami. In 1958 round-trip airfare to Nassau was around twelve dollars. Sometimes we would fly over for the day just to bring back duty-free liquor for one of my parents' parties.
Pop was an internationally known interior decorator who, through no real effort of his own, specialized in making pretty for Caribbean dictators, prizefighters, minor celebrities, assorted mobsters, and just plain rich folk. Because Miami did not have a great demand for decorators, my father's clients existed largely outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Wherever there was offshore banking, Pop seemed to have clients. Once they had quietly exchanged one passport for another, his customers would discreetly retire to their Lew Smithâdesigned villas, usually the kind with an ever-ready seaplane parked out front. In the fifties, the only thing those Miami rednecks knew about decorating was driving the wife over in the pickup and grabbing whatever piece of colonial furniture with brown plaid upholstery was on sale at Sears during the Midsummer Spectacular.
When my parents visited Havana, Mom would usually step off the plane and head straight for the casino, from which she would often emerge the next morning after beating the pants off every English expat at blackjack. With her gold cigarette holder, emerald earrings down to her shoulders, and style for miles, Mom was a brilliant gambler and always walked away with a win. Gangster Meyer Lansky regularly bought her breakfast after a night at the tables; he was probably hoping to recoup some of the house losses with a little snuggle behind the bar. While Mom was shaking the dice, Pop was doing business with President Carlos Prio or sugar mogul Willie Lobo. President Prio had given my father his signed personal calling card to keep with him at all times as his passport against any type of trouble. With just a wave of the card, Pop could slip right past the gauntlet of bodyguards packing plenty of heat who thought nothing of icing a potential political rival. The card magically opened every door not only throughout Havana but also in Miami after Prio fled. Pop often visited the ex-
at his home on one of Miami Beach's exclusive private islands to make Prio comfy at his palace in exile.
In addition, Pop's services were sought after by plenty of legitimate clientsâforeign developers with funny-sounding names and even funnier accents who were building new beachfront hotels throughout the Caribbean. These guys usually gave my father free rein on any project. Their attitude was “just fix it,” as if designing a tropical-themed resort was basically a plumbing problem.
Back then, Miami was not much more than a big ol' cracker swamp due east of the Everglades. Dixiecrats, blacks, and coral snakes summed up the population, in that order. Miami was still the Deep South. Tropical apartheid ruled. The local A&P on Bird Road had three bathrooms upstairs above the meat counter: one for men, one for women, and one for coloreds. All that back-of-the-bus, separate-drinking-fountain, Woolworth's sit-in stuff that everybody thinks was limited to the redneck South of Alabama was alive and well in Miamiâcorrectly pronounced at the time as “My-am-
.” If you were black and found walking along the pink sidewalks of Miami Beach after 5:00 p.m. without an official permit or a letter from your employer, you were immediately thrown into the back of an intimidating black-and-white police car and escorted off the island.
However, blacks weren't the only ones whose access was restricted on Miami Beach. Entire islands, such as Indian Creek, along with the various social clubs such as the Bath Club, the Surf Club, and the Indian Creek Club, did not welcome Jews. Guards and property associations kept them at bay. Additionally, many of the best hotels and apartment buildings were for “restricted clientele”âsome by implication, others by not-so-little signs on the front lawn that clearly stated
NO DOGS, JEWS, OR IRISH ALLOWED
. Mom, who had lived her entire life in New York City, had never seen anything like this before.
Occasionally, for sport, Mom loved walking into a hotel, registering, and then telling the guy that she was Jewish. She stood there until they either broke out laughing or threatened to kill her. She usually got off easy due to her emerald-green eyes, Nordic nose, and blond hair, all of which confused the desk clerk as to whether this was a
event or the real thing. It was not unusual for her to be met with a forceful shove from a foul-mouthed cleaning lady telling her to get out or else. Pop, never one for confrontation, quickly put an end to her freedom-fighter routine for fear that she would end up dead in the back alley of one of the hotels. Most of the hotel owners had mob connections and thought nothing about making a quick phone call to rid the premises of a pesky little Jew.
Just as my mother and father started their new life in Miami proper, Miami Beach was about to enter yet another one of its many incarnations as it began to cater to the movers and shakers of the day. Rather than flappers and polo players, certain sections of the Magic City, as it was touted in tourist brochures, were now becoming the winter haven for the Rat Pack and the newly emerging Jewish middle class. Mobsters and elderly Jews began to soak up the sun at hotels promising some crass class, such as the Roney Plaza, the Shore Club, and the Delano.
The Carillon, Deauville, Eden Roc, and Fontainebleauâwith their sweeping, audacious curves and free-form poolsâeventually grabbed the high-rolling clientele just waiting to have their names announced poolside: “Paging Mr. Sy Bernstein. Paging Hy Lefkowitzâplease report to the main cabana for an important phone call.” After each announcement on the PA, heads would turn to see who was the VIP from Brooklyn.
The exotic scents of suntan lotion, cigars, and kosher pickles mingled in the warm air. By the late sixties, Sy and Hy would be replaced by Manuel and Alfonso. The kosher pickles would be replaced by yuca and
However, the suntan lotion and cigars would remain constants.
In eighty-five-degree weather, wives of Jewish lawyers paraded around the lobby in smart little mink wraps to combat the “cool inside” frigid air-conditioning. Everybody came down during season, from Frank Sinatra to boxer Jake LaMotta. The joint was jumping, and the palms were swaying.
During the long summer months, when most of the city was deserted, the hotels would run unbeatable weekend specials in order to keep their doors open. Mom convinced my father that we should take advantage of these offers with three simple words: “Let them cook.” Basically, we had the place to ourselves. I'd splash in the pool as the searing sun bleached the landscape and its inhabitants. At night Mom would sneak me into the Boom Boom Room for a whiskey sour and a floor show of “Live from Las Vegas: Girls! Girls! Girls!” It was very important to her that I understood and embraced sophistication, so as not to end up as another Jewish schlub accountant but rather a jet-set playboy who intimately knew the likes of Paris, London, and Havana.
Whenever a favorite singer or comedian came to town during the season, Pop would take Mom to one of the hotels, such as the Eden Roc or the Carillon, for dinner and a show. At intermission some sexy blond photographerette would temporarily blind the happy couple with the flash from her maximum-sized Graflex camera. Several drinks laterâManhattan for him, whiskey sour for her, usually with small, brightly colored paper umbrellas imported from Japan perched jauntily in the fresh-fruit garnishâPop would reach for his wallet to purchase the black-and-white souvenir of their evening. These documents show my father in a sharkskin suit and my mother in a little black cocktail dress and pearls, smilingâactually beamingâfor the camera. Pop was delighted with his beautiful little blonde, and Mom was thrilled with her dashing decorator husband. After the show, Mom would screw up her courage and ask the star to autograph whatever was available: a napkin, a business card, or the drinks menu. When she got home, she would wake me from my sleep, tell me all about the show, and present me with the latest autographed treasure for my scrapbook.
While my parents were enjoying their drinks, listening to Dean Martin or laughing at Shecky Greene, farther up the strip at the cheesier hotels, brilliant but naughty comediennes like Belle Barth (whose famous live album was titled
If I Embarrass You Tell Your Friends
) would sit at the piano in smoke-filled rooms, tickling the ivories and telling bawdy jokes with a studied finishing-school innocence for the entertainment of lower-middle-class patrons munching fat cigars and getting plastered on cheap scotch. Bloated salesmen and young studs on the make stimulated by the toilet vaudeville usually had two or three blondes on their arms, waiting to “go back to the room.” Nearby, at Place Pigalle, Belle's competitor, Pearl Williams, “Direct from New York's Lower East Side,” told jokes like, “Did I tell you the one about the drunken cop who fell off his whistle and blew his horse?” Her live routine was captured on an “adults only” album titled
A Cruise Is Not a Trip Around the World,
which was quite a mouthful back then and can still shock today with its clever and scandalous innuendos. And then there was Tubby Boots, an obscenely overweight nerd in thick black glasses who dressed in shiny purple boxer shorts with tassels pasted on his nipples, which he could swing in wild syncopation to the beat of the swing band that accompanied him.
The real miracle of Miamiâwhich still exists to this very dayâwas the opportunity for anybody from anywhere to suddenly show up and reinvent himself. Supposed Guggenheims, du Ponts, and Rockefellers, as well as princes and princesses, were always washing up on the social scene only to end up convicted of fraud, embezzlement, or, more often than not, murder. There is a radiant quality to the light that makes people feel as if their past and their soul have been completely sanitized. All is forgiven. They are suddenly swept clean of any personal history and wholly convinced that they have always been who they now say they are. The fabled Miami light encourages even the most humble man in the street to start again, or at the very minimum to mythologize the past.
Countless Cubans who were once sweeping the streets in Havana or serving
and arroz con pollo in some shack on the outskirts of town now publicly bemoan the loss of their sugar plantations, summerhouses, maids, and chauffeurs with the arrival of
They swear on their beloved mother's graveâwho, by the way, happens to be buried in the “good” section of the Havana cemetery, near the mausoleum created by Lalique (far away from the section for both Arabs
Jews)âto one day overthrow Fidel and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Only in America, and, especially, only in Miami.
It was in this miraculous light that my father was able to convince the ultrarich that he was just the man to fluff their pillows, hang their drapes, and ease them away from their addiction to anything rococo or European baroque. In no time at all, he was designing tropical-fantasy interiors that combined the best of Oriental splendor and high-style fifties moderne.
Pop brought an enlightened sensibility to his clients, introducing them to current styles and educating them to new possibilities. When he sketched a room, and no such furniture existed in the market, he quickly designed it and had it custom fabricated. Everything from high-style, free-form modernism to Zen-inspired minimalist furniture began to fill the better homes in South Florida. His commercial work for restaurants, bars, hotels, and even hairdressing salons tended to be more adventurous and experimental than anything else seen at the time. For one Miami Beach hotel, he created a prepsychedelic black-light lounge where his mobiles were painted fluorescent glow-in-the-dark colors along with the eye-popping murals. Drunken patrons appeared as Martians bathed in the purple light.