White on Black

Sure enough, at the end of my brief stay, Davis walks me to the door. "I'm okay," I say as I walk toward my car, which I'd parked outside the Elk's Lodge lot across the street. Still, Davis stands outside the door, flanked by the painted figures of Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan, until I pull into traffic and head north.

Twenty blocks west and 30 blocks north an architectural behemoth dominates the 79th Street scenery. For miles billboards, conspicuous by their vibrant patriotic motifs, have heralded the retail giant at 3015 NW 79th Street: Flea Market USA, a white building the size of a K-mart, insulated from the street by acres of paved parking lots, is Liberty City's answer to the shopping mall. In the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce's Visitors' Guide to Black Miami, prepared by Carol Ann Taylor and the chamber's tourism committee, Flea Market USA is described as "retail shopping at the right place."

"It's great, to be honest," says Norma Foster, a clerical worker at Review Newspapers in downtown Miami. "You find a lot of things under one roof instead of going from store to store. It's closer. The bargain is really there. And it's famous, too, because it's the biggest in the area. People travel from the south to go there, even though there are flea markets in their area."

Technically, this is no flea market; everything sold here is brand-new. The vast square footage is packed with vendors selling T-shirts emblazoned with black Bart Simpsons ("It's a black thing. You wouldn't understand."), Nelson Mandelas, Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs, plus denim-and-lace shorts, baby-doll tops, leopard-print pantsuits, sneakers, faux fashion perfumes, kinetic jewelry. On weekends the market sprawls outward to include open-air stands. A couple of stalls offer an assortment of human and synthetic hair, dyed in every shade from platinum blond to dark purple. Salt-and-pepper wigs for the older woman. Twelve dollars buys a six-inch braid; $22 is enough for the twelve-inch version. Between sprees, shoppers can treat themselves to a pedicure, manicure, or haircut at one of several beauty salons.

Although the typical Flea Market USA customer is black, many stall owners are Asian. One, a petite woman, shoos me out of her wig store. "No say anything," she says, waving her hands in front of her face. Carmen Stuart, a frequent shopper, says relations between the owners and customers have been strained. "It's getting better," says Stuart, a housewife from North Miami. "Years ago it was a lot worse. They were rude." Stuart says she shops at the flea market because it's one of the few places that carries reasonably priced merchandise designed for blacks. "Like this," she says, picking up a bottle of hair relaxer. "This is $2.99. It costs $5.99 anywhere else."

"Muthafucka!" booms from a pair of giant speakers in front of Ultra Sound, one of the complex's music stalls. For eight dollars, manager Leo Tejeda custom records tapes with selections from his inventory. "If you buy a tape at Peaches, what are you really buying? One song," says the burly Tejeda. "You might not like anything else on the album. Here we'll make you custom tapes that you know you'll like."

The lights suddenly flicker off, then on again. "This is when things start getting wild," says Tejeda. "This is when it gets wild. A couple of months ago, the last time this happened, there was an attempted burglary at one of the stores. The guy who tried it got killed. It hasn't really affected the business, though," he adds. "I guess you just have to be careful. It's crazy everywhere. Where you gonna go?"

At 2:00 a.m. the neon sign at Club Rolex stands out like a jaundiced star on this desolate stretch of NW 27th Avenue. The parking lot at 120th Street is as filled with cars as its gaping potholes are with muddy water. Two men I know recommended Rolex, calling it a "rite of passage" for younger black men and a hideaway for the few older customers. The three of us walk past the heavyset uniformed guard sitting outside the open door. One patron, his wrist being stamped after paying the $3.50 cover charge, is more blunt. "It's earthy, like, `If you don't like it, get the fuck out.' And," he adds, "you don't have to worry about seeing boss man."

One of my companions flashes me a malevolent grin as we walk through the metal detector and into the crowded room, past the buck-naked woman sliding painfully down the fireman's pole on the bar and the dozen other "live nude girls" of all shapes, sizes, and colors, smoothly grinding in front of small groups of men. We find a small side table, and another dancer, a short, Hispanic-looking woman with an ass the size of two basketballs, struts by, a helium-filled balloon rising from her back, the ribbon clamped between her dimpled cheeks.

Part Three

The real action is taking place in the middle of the room, where the early birds have circled their chairs around five dancers, like so many covered wagons. Reclining in his seat is one very large man, swiveling a cellular phone between his legs in sync with the undulations of the busty woman inches from his face. His companions look on with the wide-eyed fascination of little boys sneaking their first peak at a girlie magazine.

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