The Main Drag

When we ventured outside in the morning, we met Pete, who was hosing down his foliage. Of middle-age and gray-haired, stout but not fat, Pete spoke with a heavy accent, decidedly un-Canadian. He said he was originally from Yugoslavia, and he volunteered to write out his last name to spare me the trouble of trying to spell it: Petkovich. He bought the Miami Moon several years ago, he said, from a man who had owned it since the late Fifties. The place was originally built around 1953 and served as housing when Opa-locka Airport was used as a military base. Single people were given the smaller rooms; families got the bigger units. Pete told us business is pretty good: "I have full all the time." He lives over on the beach, he said, in a $450,000 house he built for himself and his family. He unlocked his gold Mercedes and showed us color photos of the house, which he's trying to sell now that his daughter has moved out.

Tanya BeMent, who tends bar at the Frosted Mug and who had asked for ID the night before, is another semipermanent Miami Moon resident. She said she was born in Iowa and was working as a game operator for a carnival when she came to Miami on vacation. She had a baby here, and a breakup and she didn't leave. It was roommate trouble that brought her to the motel; she knew Pete from her job at the bar and he offered her a good weekly rate. "Right now I can't afford the money it takes to put down a deposit," she said. The Frosted Mug, incidentally, is a fine beer-and-wine establishment if ever there was one, with a decent, country-dominated jukebox, two pool tables, and a healthy assortment of regulars. Two additional features worthy of note: Tanya removed many of the drop-ceiling tiles, painted illustrations on them, and reinstalled them; and toward the back of the room, behind the bar, a crooked pool cue is mounted on the wall, in memory of Russ (1933-1990), who, according to reliable beer-drinking sources, was a pain in the ass but a great old pool-shooting man.

There are some gems on Biscayne - the Yahweh Motel at 74th Street and a tiny old place at 60th called Carl's "El Padre" Motel (so named because it was originally called the El Padre) are two of the boulevard's best kept - but dozens of the motels are a tribute to brash and kitschy signs, clashing interior color schemes, and the human mating ritual. Beneath this veil of interior and anthropological decoration is the strata of Miami's growth and decay.

Across from the Miami Moon, just west of Tarks seafood restaurant, are one or two thousand asphalted feet of history, one of the longest remaining stretches of the original Biscayne Boulevard, the oldest road in Dade County. That road, which connected Fort Lauderdale and Fort Dallas (now downtown Miami), was built in about 1855 by Abner Doubleday (of dubious baseball parentage). The boulevard as modern Miami has come to know it wasn't constructed until the end of the Twenties, when a wide swath was carved through private property, including Charles Deering's estate, where the upscale Bay Point subdivision has since walled itself off from the main drag. Even during the Depression, Biscayne was the grande dame of Miami streets, described in the 1939 WPA Guide to Florida as "Miami's show street...adorned with royal palms...a four-lane motorway for almost a dozen blocks where it parallels a landscaped park overlooking the bay." During the Forties and especially in the early Fifties, motels sprang up and did a booming tourist business; the boulevard was a prime street and a safe one, with lots of schlocky shops for tourists. Then, in the early Sixties, Interstate 95 opened and the inner city began to die. Despite enjoying a bit of a heyday as jazz lounge centers in the Seventies, without the drive-by tourist traffic, local motels experienced a drastic decline in business.

With 50 ("Ultramodern"!) rooms, the Mardi Gras is one of the biggest motels - and definitely the southernmost - on Biscayne's corridor. It's also been owned by the same family ever since it was built by Dr. Irving Gordon in 1953 - the same year the Fontainebleau Hotel was constructed in Miami Beach, according to 45-year-old Bruce Gordon, who runs the Mardi Gras with his brother Larry. While the motel has lost out on American tourist trade, it has managed to maintain a tenuous hold on commercial customers who conduct business downtown, thanks mostly to its location just south of I-195's Biscayne Boulevard exit. And there's the added attraction of the Cocorange, a "private" (free for motel guests; ten dollars for a one-year membership) club that has become a hangout for local media, especially TV news crews, and that is celebrating its eleventh anniversary.

A room at the Mardi Gras goes for $39 per night. Leslie Wilheim, a portly and pleasant-looking man who emigrated to the U.S. from Hungary via Paris in 1947, took a job behind the Mardi Gras's desk after retiring from a 27-year career in the textile business. "I had heart attack and the doctor advised me, `Cool it off,'" Wilheim explained when we came around on our motel tour. "I was like a working machine."

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