The Perfect Game

"In a story in the March 18 editions of The Herald, Homestead City Manager Alex Muxo's fainting in 1981 was improperly described as a nervous breakdown. It was in fact a physical collapse brought about by exhaustion and stress."

-- Miami Herald, March 22, 1989

Three years ago, observing an unspoken, decade-old tradition, a young man sat down at a cluttered desk to compose a confidential memorandum. The man was a newspaper reporter who was leaving his job. He was writing to the person who would replace him, a professional colleague he might never meet. In the memo the reporter offered warnings, advice, and impressions best kept out of a family newspaper -- a plate of hot, unleavened truth meant for one diner only.

He told of newsroom love affairs and of dangerous, talentless editors who could hack to death an original idea. He wrote of his continual frustration with the way his beat -- the social, economic, and political landscape south of Kendall -- got shortchanged by the company he worked for. While Miami lived under the scrutiny of a dozen or more news reporters, South Dade had only one: him. And now he was leaving.

Don't spread yourself too thin, he suggested. Forget everything else and concentrate on Homestead. In its own weird way, the city of 30,000 straddling South Dixie Highway was every bit as tumultuous, fascinating, and gorgeous as the magic metropolis 30 miles to the north. Its old image as a redneck backwater was way out of kilter with contemporary reality. Homestead had quietly become the fastest-growing municipality in Dade County, and now it was on the verge of exploding into the 21st Century. There were many reasons for that, but the main one had to do with a dark magus who seemed, over and over again, to shape the destiny of the town.

The reporter described the arrival in semipermanence of a large population of Mexican farm workers, and the descent of portions of the black community into poverty and ghetto drug trafficking on the west side of town. Homestead's police department, once a volcano of political infighting, still rumbled from time to time with federal investigations of its alleged brutality, he wrote. He remarked on the unusually placid, consensual tone of city council meetings in Homestead.

The memo ended abruptly, and cryptically. The reporter described an odd encounter with Homestead City Manager Alex Muxo, Jr., during which the town's Cuban-born chief bureaucrat inexplicably pretended not to be able to speak or understand Spanish. There was no elucidation of the anecdote, no conclusion drawn, no apparent moral to the story. But there was a final message. "Never forget one thing," the departing journalist wrote. "And this is the most important thing you need to know. Alex Muxo is the godfather of Homestead."

Alex Muxo, age 36, sits at a corner table in the fourth-floor dining room of the City Club, one of several buildings in downtown Homestead that didn't exist a year ago. The decor of the private club is a muted salmon-and-pastel-orange Bahamian, with whimsically incongruous paintings of Virginia fox hunts dotting the paneled walls. Muxo has finished lunch and now stirs a second espresso with a tiny silver spoon. A trickle of locals, mostly businessmen, comes by to chat and shake hands with him. Their conversations are short, friendly, and informational -- reminders of upcoming Rotary Club meetings, updates on various civic projects. One senses, beneath the good-humored tone of these exchanges, that an ancient process is playing itself out: a collection of courtiers is paying homage to a sitting dignitary. The thick school ring Muxo wears on a well-manicured finger -- an oddly pedestrian trinket in an otherwise cosmopolitan wardrobe -- takes on an eerie presence. One expects it at any moment to be lifted to the lips of a visitor, and kissed.

Since parting with his mustache at a local charity auction two years ago, Muxo has remained clean shaven, boyish looking, and handsome. The loss of his whiskers did nothing to diminish his resemblance to a cat. At five-feet-six-and-a-half-inches and 153 pounds, he's neither tall nor large. His short, jet-black hair is meticulously in place. For the first five minutes upon meeting him, one is transfixed by large and unusually alert eyes, two raven-color pools flecked with amber. Eligible Divorce is among the many first impressions Muxo makes. He mentions with some degree of pride that during a recent budget crunch in Homestead, he took a voluntary $5000 pay cut, trimming his annual salary to $100,788.80. No, he says with an amused smile, he's no longer quite the highest-paid bureaucrat in Dade County. He pulls out a recent photograph of Blake, his impish six-year-old son, upon whom he dotes passionately. Blake, he explains, is the reason he finally found for not working 80 hours per week.

Anyone who knew Muxo three years ago and met him today would immediately notice a surprising change in his personality. He smiles more. He lingers over lunch in a way he never would have in the old days. His voice, a clipped underwater warble peppered with business-executive cliches, has lost some of its old tension, and gained greater range. It is possible now to get him to reveal a few details of his personal life. "He's in love, or he thinks he is," says one of his oldest and closest friends. But more than romance, the explanation for Muxo's sea change may lie in the near-completion of a monumental labor.

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