MAXWELL:  The mosaic called Miami

5/31/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


To me, Miami is still the “Magic City.”

Like other relatively well-informed Floridians, I am aware of the city’s problems _ its political corruption and incompetence, ethnic strife, violent crime, drug trafficking, illegal immigrants, gridlock and, of course, Wayne Huizenga and his increasingly despised Florida Marlins.

But above all, Miami, while being the sum total of its crises, is a sophisticated, yet gritty, sun-parched mosaic of humanity. Nearly every street corner teems with life _ permanent residents, visitors and whatever. In front of Border’s Bookshop in Kendall the other morning, I stood among eight other people of various complexions and nationalities. I heard no fewer than five different languages _ ebonics not included.

In the store, I listened to even more tongues and marveled at the ability of the staffers to translate and amicably serve everyone. After grabbing copies of the Miami Herald and the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, I sat alone in the coffee shop at a window table and found myself in a polyglot din of voices. The differing gestures, too, told me that I was part of an international tapestry.

When a pretty Haitian woman approached and asked _ in Creole no less _ to sit at my table, I greeted her and promptly told her that I, a Fort Lauderdale-born American black, had exhausted my Creole. Apparently satisfied with my response, she sat, thumbed through a local Haitian publication and quietly sipped, albeit ostentatiously, a mango drink.

After reading the newspapers, I walked across the street to “Metrofail” (as the city’s public rail system is unceremoniously dubbed for being underused and expensive). Dadeland Mall, where I was, is Metrorail’s southernmost stop. On the train, I shared a car with three young black males in signature baggy attire, white students from the University of Miami, Koreans with cameras, Hispanic women heading to work, black women in sundry work uniforms, West Indian men staring blankly ahead and two older white couples who were clearly uncomfortable.

Loud and profane, each black teen took up a double seat, daring anyone to sit next him by stretching out a leg on the seat. The white couples stood, holding the railing, pretending not to hear or notice anything.

The teens boldly discussed carjackings and a recent shooting. “That nigga didn’t think I was gonna pop his ass,” the fat one said. “They had to dig that bullet out of his black ass.”

His buddies laughed, chiming in with their versions of the shooting and the victim’s surprise and pain.

One of them noticed me. And my notebook.

“You the man?” he asked. “What the f_- you writin’ down?”

I said nothing. But my expression had a chilling effect: They avoided eye contact with me until we stopped at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza. There, the fat one stared at me and said, “F_- you, nigga.”

They filed down the stairs into a litter-strewed alley.

Seven giggling Hispanic girls, who sat together in the front seats in front of the car, replaced the black teens. The white couples got off at Hialeah Race Track, the men holding worn tip sheets from which to pick a winner. Three older black men wearing company uniforms got on and sat near me. They talked about the Marlins and about how Huizenga, who, by trading away top players, was “screwing taxpayers” _ who happen to be fans, too.

At the Okeechobee Road station, the northernmost stop, I realized that I was alone, except for the emaciated white dude asleep in the rear. Before the door closed for the return trip south, a Metrorail officer entered the car and woke the man by tapping him on the shoulder. Obviously drunk, the man staggered out of the car, looked around, rubbed his chin and returned to his seat.

The officer shook his head disapprovingly but had no cause to evict the man. Several black women dressed in hospital whites got on. The door closed, and I moved to the other side of the car to view the east side of the tracks as we returned to Dadeland.

That night, I ate at Shorty’s, where I sat alone in the non-smoking section at one end of a 15-foot-long picnic table. I could not believe that I had actually found some privacy in a public place in Miami. No sooner had I ordered baby-back ribs, an elderly white couple joined me. The man, wearing a white cowboy hat, sat next to me. The woman, clad in blue jeans _ too tight for her girth _ and white cowboy boots sat directly in front of me.

Why in hell are they crowding me out when the rest of the table is empty, I thought? I soon found out.

They were retired farmers from Homestead on their weekly visit to Shorty’s. Besides enjoying Shorty’s excellent food, they came to talk with new people, especially with those of different races or nationalities. The husband had seen me writing in my notebook, he said, and thought that I would be “an interesting black fella to talk to.”

We ate and drank for more than an hour, discussing Florida politics. After our third pitcher of brew, he asked, “Are you a reporter or a professor or something?”

“I read a lot and listen to the news,” I said, not wanting to change the dynamics of the moment.

He picked up the tab, I thanked him, shook his hand and walked into the warm night air. Metrorail coaches passed overhead, lovers of various ethnicities strolled past, horns honked and Latin music blasted from a beautifully customized black Chevy Suburban.

I realized again that I love this city _ warts and all.