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Chris, a 33-year-old transvestite hooker with drowsy hazel eyes and a coiffed copper hairdo, looks up from his game of solitaire. "Why am I here?" he asks. "This is where I like it best." Chris's possessions - clothing, shoes, a silk robe, a purse, plates, cooking pans, several teddy bears - are strewn around a mattress on a dusty, windswept terrace. Another transvestite, his spiked orange hair braving the ocean breeze swirling across the plaza, dunks laundry in a water-filled paint bucket, and strings wet shirts and socks through the forest of metal that once was tables and chairs.
Amid the clutter of cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and rusted shopping carts, a handful of half-clad men are sprawled on sweat-soaked sleeping rolls under the roof overhang of a shuttered building on the southeast corner of Bicentennial Park. One man sits on a cracked plastic paint bucket, another reclines in a banged-up wheelchair, picking at a pecan-walnut Danish, swatting away fat black flies.
Chris lines the creased and worn playing cards along the concrete next to the mattress. "For us it's more quiet and private. You're not in front of the whole world like you would be out on the street. We're far off the beaten path," he says, gesturing toward the gently sloping mounds of the park, the 35-acre expanse of green stretching west toward Biscayne Boulevard. "It sure ain't like the `Projects' under the overpass. Things can get crazy over there."
Chris is the acknowledged informal spokesman for the 50 to 60 people who have taken up residence on this expansive tract between Bayside and Interstate 395. Nearly every homeless person who lives here says, "Talk to Chris. Chris knows what it's about." After he graduated from Carol City Senior High in 1975, Chris says, he worked in the banquet department at a Holiday Inn, and cooked at a Howard Johnson and a bar in Liberty City. "Then I got hooked on drugs - reefer and cocaine, you know - and I went to the street. Then I became a hooker." Two years ago Chris ended up in Bicentennial; he leaves only when city officials clear out the park for special events such as the Miami Grand Prix, which roars through each April. "There's a lot of friends out here, a lot of people who've been through the same thing, so they show you the ropes, show you where to get food, things like that. This is the place to be."
For Chris and the "girls," this afternoon is like any other: card games and pastries, trading gossip about other "park people," joking about how their makeshift squatters' camp alongside Biscayne Bay is Bicentennial's high-rent district. As darkness falls, they flutter into the abandoned restaurant's bathroom, cackle like hens as they primp, preen, and help one another adjust undergarmets and dab on rouge and eyeliner. Then, with their leather purses slung over their shoulders, they head out of the park to work the streets of downtown. At dawn they straggle back in ones and twos, to sleep and begin the cycle again. "Some of them is doing it for food, you know," says Chris. "Others, well, they're smoking the rocks."
Each day thousands of motorists drive along Biscayne Boulevard past the fortresslike front of Bicentennial Park. Seldom does anybody venture in. The vast cement entrance plaza, screened off from the rest of the park by a cast-concrete wall, is vacant. Fixtures in most of the three dozen light posts have been ripped away. The basin of a brick-lined fountain, dedicated to Miami's sister city of Santiago de Cali, Colombia, is a pool of stagnant water. Dead leaves are scattered across the concrete steps that lead up and away from the boulevard. "It hides the view and keeps the road out," says Chris, "so not many people come through there. Mainly only the people who know the park come through here."
Were a visitor to venture to the top of the steps, he would be confronted by bold yellow "No Trespassing" signs painted on the floor of the concrete entrance way to the park administration building, which now serves as headquarters for the Miami Police Department K-9 and Marine Patrol units. Only fifteen years after Bicentennial Park was dedicated, it seems, it is against the law to attempt to use the clogged water fountain or the battered public telephone near the entrance.
At the top of the rise, the park rambles toward the bay, nestled around the three-quarter-mile asphalt S of the Grand Prix racetrack. Landscaped mounds, scarred by the sun, torn open by wind, rain, and auto traffic, rise and fall like swells suspended in a barren sea of grass. The built-in benches of an area created for visitors to play chess and checkers provide another convenient campground, which Chris has dubbed the Catacombs. "You see lot of guys here in the day, just hanging out. Mainly people drift in and sleep here at night and you see 'em move on again in the morning. It isn't really a permanent setup like by the water or over on the hills," Chris says.
In the distance is an elevated island of palms and a circle of rectangular cement platforms, a sculpture garden with no sculpture save for a single shopping cart that marks one man's camp. Nearby, a group of homeless people sit on the swings in a children's playground. Beyond the racetrack, at the bay's edge, is the abandoned restaurant that serves as Chris's living room, its entrance a bunker built into the side of a sodded mound. "This is the best place," says Chris. "It's out of the way, it's right next to the water so you get that breeze, and we have a roof for when it rains. The bathroom's right here, too."