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Not that anyone outwardly disliked the proprietor of the Americana Bookshop in Coral Gables. (No one we at New Times know of, anyway.) It's just that Detrick, founder of the Miami River Yeti Watch and chairman of the West Zion Primitive Neo-Dionysian Church of Elvis Slim and Triumphant, was a man who relished confrontation. Who challenged the status quo. Who was an unabashed pain in the keister.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why he had such a knack for wheedling his way into the pages of this newspaper. Arrogant, abrasive, and occasionally brilliant, Detrick was also impossible to ignore.
A history freak and military buff who attended the same New Jersey military academy as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Detrick first piqued this paper's editorial interest in December 1990, when he swore he had found Secret Nazi Sex Caves along the Miami River. Mindful of the potential historical significance of such a discovery, New Times editors dispatched reporter Ben Greenman, along with a photographer, to paddle the river with Detrick in his canoe. After the day's expedition, Detrick admitted that maybe the caves in question weren't used by U-boat commanders for resupply. As for the sex part, he allowed, "Oh, that's just for the headline."
One such incident should be enough to convince anyone that the man was not to be trusted. But a few months later, in August 1991, the intrepid Detrick was back in these pages, roaming the streets of Miami in pith helmet and lab coat, a busty comedienne by his side, Ben Greenman and photographer in tow, attempting to prove scientifically and irrefutably that it was hot enough to fry an egg outdoors. On the steps of the county courthouse, no less. As well as on various other objects, including the aforementioned comedienne's silicone-enhanced breasts. Despite Detrick's bellowing through a bullhorn, doing his best to attract a crowd of onlookers, and robustly endeavoring to get himself arrested outside the courthouse, not a single egg was fried.
Detrick, and New Times, finally achieved a modicum of scientific and historical significance in September of this past year, when the Americana owner, while being observed by writer Todd Anthony, successfully intoxicated himself -- to the point of hallucination -- by sniffing fresh cow dung through hollowed-out coconut shells. (Producers at WSVN-TV [Channel 7] were so impressed by the triumph that they persuaded the pair to re-enact the event while news cameras rolled.)
When Detrick wasn't elbowing his way into New Times stories, he was paying to plant his picture in the paper, purchasing ads under the pretext of shilling for his bookshop. That campaign, which since has been employed by Madison Avenue agencies as a negative-reinforcement tool and by local physicians as an emetic, variously hyped Detrick as "The Book Dude with an Attitude," "The Sultan of Hyperbad," and, once, "Barbara." (This last ad ran with a photo of the proprietor smiling demurely, clad in a shoulder-length wig and a small, yet tasteful, strand of pearls. The headline: "Single? Jewish? Pregnant? That's nice. But if you want real fun...drop your dreidel and waddle into the Americana Bookshop.")
"He loved publicity," notes his wife, Rona Sawyer, in the understatement of the year.
"He was a Boy Scout," says his father, John. "He made good grades and he was in every school skit and play that they had. He never caused me five minutes of problems in all his life."
"He was a human pinball machine who tilted and then was never properly reset," observes former New Times staff writer Ben Greenman.
He shot and killed himself Monday, September 13, in the back yard of his home in Miami. John Detrick was 42.
His wife and other family members are at a loss to explain or understand the suicide. Recently, his father says, Detrick had mentioned the possibility of putting the Americana, which specialized in used books and an eccentric array of collectibles and esoterica, up for sale. "He said, 'Dad, I'm just burned out on the store. I can't hire anyone to run it, because when people come here, they come here to see me,'" the elder Detrick recalls. "But that's no reason to kill yourself. We're all so surprised. We're all shocked."
A memorial service for Detrick is being planned. Rona Sawyer says she hopes to sell the bookshop as soon as possible. "So much of his soul and personality were intertwined with that store," she explains. "As far as I'm concerned, without John there is no more Americana Bookshop."
Had he been around to analyze his own death, Detrick no doubt would have found significance in the fact that it occurred on the same day Yasir Arafat and Itzhak Rabin shook hands. He always loved a good conspiracy. This was a man, after all, who railed that Scientologists were conducting dangerous naval maneuvers off the Florida coast. He carefully tracked outbreaks of cattle mutilations across the United States. He mailed dildos to Siberia in an effort to further glasnost. He was described by the Miami Herald, in that newspaper's 1990 coverage of The Great Yeti Watch, as "sane."
"He was not to be restrained," says Rona Sawyer. "I always got so much entertainment and so many laughs from him. I was just as much a part of his audience as anyone. I know he had a sense of humor that I will never come across again."
Neither will we.
Perhaps John Detrick will be missed, after all.
Just a little.