Portrait of My Father as an Extra on Miami Vice


I wanted a city in which the American dream had been distilled into something perverse...
I wanted to place an existential hero in a city based on greed.

—Show creator Anthony Yerkovich

“No Exit,” Season 1, Episode 7, 1984 Unscripted and unauthorized, on break from a shift at the air traffic control tower, my father tries to melt into the columns of the Terminal E snack bar. He’s wandered down for coffee and the crowds—scouting always for the rich, the famous (ask him about shaking Larry Hagman’s hand)—and found this gift: cordons, cameras, and lights, a staged stake-out outside international arrivals. Imagine my father on the periphery, pretending to be a tourist from Minnesota with a blond mustache and feathered hair. See him inching his way along the snack bar counter beneath pink neon lights, or lingering by the trash. He’s caught just before the cameras roll stirring cream into his Styrofoam cup, looking the other way. Get that guy out of here, someone shouts, and my father, giddy with near-success, is nudged off-set. In six months the city will be busy remaking itself in its televised image— we love our heroes haunted and in good suits. For now, though, my father has no narrative for what he sees, no gun-running back-story, no Phil Collins, no Sartre. So he watches the choreography of cues and clipboards and looks for celebrities. The crook this week is played by an unknown New York actor named Bruce Willis. In a year he’ll be a star, while my father is nowhere to be seen no matter how slowly I advance the frames of the finished episode. When vice cop Tubbs, impersonating a Jamaican arms buyer, walks past that snack bar counter, the camera pans over a man in shorts and a Hawaiian print, not my father in his pilled plaid flannel, buttoned against the airport’s artificial cold, but watching it now, I imagine him then, standing on the sidelines, confusing tedium for glamor. He’s thinking of the story he’ll bring home, where he’ll boast I nearly got away with it.

CHELSEA RATHBURN is the author of two poetry collections, The Shifting Line, winner of the 2005 Richard Wilbur Award, and A Raft of Grief, which won the 2012 Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The Southern Review, New England Review, The Threepenny Review and Ploughshares, among others, and her prose has appeared in Creative Nonfiction. In 2009, she received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Young Harris College, where she directs the creative writing program.