The Main Drag

"Here's something for you," said motel owner Brian Patel. "When my family bought this place in 1984, almost every motel that was open had a name that started with S. I don't know why - maybe you can think of a reason." Indeed a succession of rooms at the Saturn, the Seven Seas, the Sun 'N Surf, the Stardust, and the South Pacific had led us to the Sinbad Motel and its small, dark, soft-spoken, 26-year-old proprietor.

The Sinbad's green-and-pink paint job didn't immediately recommend it as a peaceful haven for the local traveler in search of a flop. Its prominently advertised motto ("For a Night to Remember") and its prominently advertised water beds and ceiling mirrors promised little more than a mean once-over from a bulletproofed clerk, followed by yet another noseful of mildew.

Wrong. The Sinbad, at 62nd and Biscayne, has got the mirrors and the water beds, all right. It's also got a paint can beneath each room air conditioner to keep drips from clogging the walkways with algae; it's got a frangipani in full blossom out front; it's got planters upstairs on the balcony level; it's got a computer-printout sign behind the Plexiglas window of the office that says, "1. We do not rent rooms for the purpose of prostitution; 2. Neither do we rent rooms knowingly to pimps and drug dealers; 3. Neither do we allow gambling...."

Brian Patel, who holds associate's degrees in business administration, marketing management, and accounting from MDCC, showed me a room and told me the Sinbad is one of five motels on Biscayne that are owned and operated by Patels. None of them is related. The surname is Indian, he explained, and it's extremely common. So common that there's a South Florida association of Patels; some of them own motels, others grocery stores, appliance stores, et cetera.

Patel was the first motel manager who spoke openly about one prime source of business for boulevard motel owners: sex. "Mostly they bring a girlfriend, or maybe their wife," he volunteered. "The age range is mostly twenty to thirty and up, and mostly it's an overnight stay."

While he acknowledged that prostitution has been an ongoing problem, as have drugs, Patel insisted that he tries his best to keep the place free of lawbreakers. He argued further that motels like the ones on Biscayne serve a purpose. "I have traveled to many cities in the United States," he said. "All of them have places like this. In Miami we have three areas that have these motels: Eighth Street, Okeechobee Road, and Biscayne Boulevard. If you didn't have these motels, you would have a lot of people complaining about people in cars. People need a place to go, and these are the only places," he went on, elucidating a fundamental and historical truth about the nature of motels. "Why do people blame it on us? And it's not prostitutes."

The prostitutes, for the most part, live in apartments off the boulevard. Sometimes they manage to entrench themselves in a motel by having a client rent the room, then cadging the key and holding on to the room the rest of the day. "When that happens and we see that a room has a lot of traffic in and out, we just tell the woman to leave," said Patel. "We say, `Get the hell out.' Almost always they leave. If they want the money back for the room, we just give it to them. And if they killed all the prostitution on Biscayne, my business would be better."

As for the mirrors on the ceiling, Patel explained, "It's a part of the business. They were here when we came here, but they're an attraction. We used to have the adult films. I still have the VCR and the movies - if I wanted to, I could hook them up to a few rooms again. But a few years ago, the Miami Herald printed a story that said something bad about the movies in these motels, and all of a sudden the movies were bad. So we took them out. I'm not going to put them back. They want something, though, so we've got HBO. Another time a reporter came and rented a room here. He didn't say who he was, he just rented a room. And he went back and wrote about how the curtains didn't match the bedspread and the rug."

Patel said he and his brother take turns manning the night shift, answering the bell when a customer rings. Crime on Biscayne is a fact of life, he admitted, but they have learned to live with it. "We have to be careful," he said quietly. "My whole family lives here - my parents, my wife, my brother, his wife. I have a three-year-old nephew." He doesn't carry a gun; a portable telephone is enough. "If someone calls from a room and says there's a problem, my brother will go see about it and I'll stand outside with the telephone in case anything happens."

Only once did anything happen. A man hit his brother in the head with a baseball bat. "But this is the way things are," said Patel. "I'm not telling you I'm in a bad business. I like this business. I like Biscayne Boulevard. I live here."

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