Like so many offspring of parents who retired on the East Coast, I need to fly from Sea-Tac to MIA (Miami International Airport) if I want to see Dad. Florida is where men like my father move to live out their lives in condominiums by the sea or subdivisions by golf courses that make up most, if not all, of their backyards and social lives.
I like to wander the side streets of Dad's neighborhood where, today, I reach this working-class corner a mile north of the fashionable scene of South Beach. This is where real life zigzags away from the Art Deco beachfront, glitzy and make believe as cubic zirconia.
I can't remember what the music transition is called when the bad thing is about to happen in a movie. Still, it's the turn I hear as I walk up to the Starlite Bodega, where people rush in to buy beer, cream to protect them from the sun they seek, inflatable rings to keep their kids afloat. Because here, a girl stands with torn and ragged clothing, her foot with a missing toe like a gap between teeth, her terrified eyes like moons in the midnight of her skin.
I glance nervously at the man standing next to me. Through him I learn that these days when refugees wash up on the shores of Florida, it rarely makes the news. But they still come by the hull-full, and it's not unusual to walk the seafront at dawn and see a makeshift raft or crumbling rowboat beached on the sand.
By day two I can distinguish Cuban from Haitian, this refugee girl from those who arrived previously to clean hotel rooms. Who stand in white shirtwaists waiting for the bus.
As I turn to go, a woman walks up to the girl, a woman who reminds me of the squat, bleached-blond mom on Jerry Seinfeld reruns: nasal whine, aqua-net hair, the clear sheet of vinyl I imagine covers her couch. And then the most appalling thing happens. The woman yells, "Go home!" at the girl, whose whole body acquiesces, and I think, God, it's true: The most oppressed oppress the most.
And when a priest arrives, the girl smiles up at him. I suspect his words are like strands of silk eased over her skin. But when two policemen start to prod her into a van, fear, raw as a welt, turns her inside out. She vomits onto their shoes. Several people start to clap, and I can't stand back. I run up to her, and for a moment she looks my way and all I can think to say is, "I am so sorry!"
Think of all the others adrift. Searching the Atlantic for this high-rise reef. Cane fields where they labor, machetes slashing their toes. Their lives, once they arrive, not at all as they pictured.
As for me: I'm a tourist from Seattle, bikini top and shorts, not yet hardened by these fringy streets. Back home, parts of my Belltown neighborhood are fringy, too, but in a different way. And I can't say exactly why. I will say that no matter where I see poverty, I can't pass by obliviously. I haven't developed an immunity to despair the way some have. And I always know bigotry when I see it.
And when I see myself through the girl's eyes, I see a privileged white woman standing in a parking lot trying to apologize, which looks like doing nothing at all. Because that is exactly what it is. And then I see the tattered sandal she left behind.
I still can't put a name on that solitary shoe. Or the reverence I feel when it comes to mind. Reverence for a girl braver in her teens than I will likely manage in my life.
Join Sanelli at Elliott Bay Books to celebrate her newest book, "Falling Awake: An American Woman Gets a Grip on the Whole Changing World One Essay at a Time," Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m.