Where the Girls Are

Crack addicts. Homeless ex-cons. Transvestite prostitutes with HIV. If life has landed you in TV Park, you probably didn't have far to fall.

Tracy's pink plastic mirror is one of those trinkets you buy at Woolworth's; one swiveling face reflects normally, the other magnifies. Mounted atop a Deco-ish base of swirly, translucent plastic, the mirror is utterly flimsy and fragile, an extreme of femininity. Late afternoons, when Tracy takes it out to get ready for work, it looks stunningly virginal in this drab, dirty northeast Miami park.

Seated on a low concrete wall next to a broken-down dresser, she slicks back her coarse black hair and pins on a strip of fake brown curls for bangs and another curly length to make a ponytail. With black pencil, she outlines the eyes, brows, and lips that already dominate her gaunt face, then sponges on a thick layer of make-up. The razor bumps on her jaw, upper lip, and chin are unmistakable in the magnifying side of the mirror, but the dimming light and the smoke of burning cocaine airbrush out imperfections and render Tracy all-woman, all-beautiful, riding a fine high and ready to do what she does: charge money for sex so she can buy crack.

Her dates, the regular clients who know where to find her, might drive past this park tonight, or Tracy might wind up standing out on 79th Street in her tight black jeans, one bony hip jutting out, flagging down passersby while her boyfriend Al waits back at the park, drinking beer and smoking, sometimes letting himself slip under the weight of an overarching despair.

Commerce Park is the City of Miami's unintentionally ironic name for this spot of shaded concrete on the corner of NE Second Avenue and 80th Terrace in Little River, on the edge of Little Haiti. Across the street is a large Southern Bell office complete with guardhouse and fenced-in employee parking lot. A thrift shop just around the corner faces a Seventh-day Adventist church, and just north of the church is Luther Campbell's Pac Jam, a teen club frequented by young toughs. The park is shielded a bit from the street by a line of bushes, and its residents have hung two ragged blankets on one side of a central outdoor pavilion to make a sort of wall for added privacy. Most days drying clothes hang on lines strung high between tree limbs, which makes the place easy to spot.

Some neighborhood people call this TV Park, though not all its habitues are transvestites. What really defines this little world is crack. The only people who enter are addicts, cops looking to bust them, or preachers looking to save their souls. Many who live here are already damned by HIV.

This is where a resident was set afire by another man in September. No one here seems sure whether he survived or died. In July a transvestite was found murdered several blocks away, but the people who live here say they aren't sure who she was. Why should they dwell on death as if it's shocking? They're well aware that they live far closer to it than most Miamians. These aren't the glamour queens who party on South Beach until morning. They're lost amid the vast demographic landscape of young urban black males dying in terrifying numbers from drug addiction, murder, and AIDS.

The park was a much more violent place until about a year and a half ago, when the transvestites began moving in. "When I first came out here, this place was jumping," says a muscled man who calls himself Heavy D. His very fit appearance suggests he's fresh from prison, where everyone bulks up until they're back out on the soul- and body-wasting street. And sure enough, Heavy, dressed in jeans and sleeveless white T-shirt, says he got out three days ago, having served eighteen months for armed robbery. "There was so much happening. I mean, hey A plenty of money, groceries, cooling out here was like the Fourth of July." Fireworks included. "We could be sitting out here minding our own business enjoying our high, when people would just barge up with guns. Rob you, rough you up, shoot you if they feel like it."

Heavy's opaque black eyes gaze steadily out from under a jutting brow. They look weary, even gentle, despite his threatening demeanor. Fourteen years ago, when he went to prison for the first of several times (always for drugs or stealing), he was mean and unrestrained, a true Aries ram. Now he's 37, subdued by incarceration and age. "Most of 'em who came around here is either locked up or dead by now," he says. "Of course, back then people of his nature" -- he gestures toward Tracy -- "weren't here." Heavy is the one who gave Tracy her pink mirror.

Like Tracy, a lot of the queens relocated from Bicentennial Park downtown, a populous homeless encampment. Once known as a transvestite mecca, Bicentennial more recently has seen a high level of violence and general illegal activities (and the police presence that accompanies them), forcing many to move north to the open-air crack house that is Commerce Park. Many queens used to join the "fish" (real women prostitutes) working on Biscayne Boulevard, but they didn't much care for the competition and scrutiny from cops. Now their turf is 79th Street. Owing to the centralization of church and charitable groups' attention, food was easier to come by downtown, but the relative privacy here is a prize.

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