Portrait of My Father as an Extra on Miami Vice

by Chelsea Rathburn

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 PoetryThe Atlantic MonthlyThe New RepublicThe Southern ReviewNew England ReviewThe 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.