The Main Drag

While there are still some foreign tourists - German, Swiss, French, and Italians - most Mardi Gras patrons are business people from the Caribbean. The guests find it convenient to do their shopping downtown and not have to pay higher room rates and tip hotel bellhops, Wilheim said, adding helpfully that he speaks Spanish and Creole, not to mention German, English, and of course Hungarian. "I don't say it's like the Omni," he confided, "but we give the clean rooms, the color TV, and the radio."

We told Wilheim we were going to have a look at rooms at other motels. "Don't go this way," he said, pointing north and shaking his balding head. "It's dumps. You go this way and you see nice dumps. I wouldn't stay there for million dollars."

Thanks, we said. Maybe we'll be back.
"I am here every night, Wednesday through Sunday," said Wilheim. "Monday and Tuesday I am somewhere else." Then, as we opened the door to leave, he added, "Hotel Vagabond is not a bad hotel."

Another of the boulevard's biggest, the Vagabond Sunshine Motel was built about the same time as the Mardi Gras, toward the north end of Biscayne's highest concentration of motels, at 74th Street. Its main claims to aesthetic fame are a swimming pool with a mermaid mosaic inset at the bottom, and a nearly life-size sculpture set into a niche at the north corner of the building - a trio of Venuses on a single half-shell, accompanied by a pair of dolphins, illuminated with lights below and a neon VAGABOND MOTEL sign above. The Vagabond's desk clerk is an Indian; part-owner David Lin, whose corporation bought the place about three years ago for $1.3 million, is Taiwanese. Lin lives with his family in a Vagabond room, and the $30 plus tax he charges guests is a few dollars more than the going rate along the street. Helps to keep out the riffraff.

"He's doing a good job, really working on fixing the place up," said James Hill, who has been staying at the motel for almost a year. "I like living in a place like this - I can leave if I want to, I can move to another room when I get tired of the one I'm in, or when too many people know where I am and come to bother me. And there's no rent deposit. I pay by the day."

Hill wore a moustache and sideburns, jeans, and a T-shirt with the logo, "Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown," and sported a fat gold ring that encompassed an entire index-finger knuckle. His life story tumbled forth in a perpetual exhalation through a missing-tooth gap in his lower jaw. He invited us into his room, told us he came to Miami from L.A. this past June and still hasn't left, told us about experiences driving cars cross-country for Auto Driveaway, about a job as a counselor at a high school in L.A., about racism, gangs, hookers, drugs, cops, the lack of black role models, and corporal punishment.

"One time this woman called the school about her son - one of the teachers had caught him ripping off a girl's purse," Hill said. "When they caught him, they broke a gold chain he had around his neck. His mother called up. Here was this spoiled kid ripping off something he didn't even need and all his mother could say was, `You broke his chain!' Another time I had a woman call me when her boy got in trouble and she said, `Can't you beat him?' She was a single mother, didn't have any idea about discipline. All she could say was, `Can't you beat him?' Can you believe it?"

We made a quick stop at the Bay Point near 36th Street ("Big-screen TV $57," "Enjoy Our Spa," "Kindly refrain from leaning over the balcony and excessive noise") and then pulled into the parking lot of the tiny, unprepossessing, and moderately grimy dozen-unit New Deal Motel at 5061 Biscayne. Darkness was falling. Through the dull bulletproof window of the office, separated from another room by a drawn curtain, I could make out stacks of papers, a couple of industrial-size bottles of boric acid, a VCR, and videos with titles such as Bi and Beyond and Wet & Wild. I pushed a button and a man appeared behind the glass, offering a room for $28. I don't know, I said. "How much could you pay?" the man asked.

Just then another couple pulled up, in a late-model Nissan. A well-dressed man got out of the passenger seat and came to the window. "Just a minute," said the man behind the glass, nodding to me, pushing thick fingers through the waves of his graying hair. He took the natty dresser to a $28 room in the corner of the little court and returned, then led us to a two-story edifice next door.

Beyond a doorway marked EXECUTIVE were two newly installed and still-unfinished doors, one of which the man opened, revealing a room barely big enough to hold a bed, a credenza, and a color TV set. The sheets looked white and crisp. There didn't seem to be any windows. "This used to be an accounting office," said the man, who introduced himself as Pedro Fuentes and spoke with a thick accent. "I am closing on it next week. And this," he announced, gesturing proudly toward a set of wicker-inset double doors, "is the room I am fixing for myself."

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