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.

The queens of TV Park are marginalized even by others in the already marginalized transvestite community. Many snub them for being crackheads. Others will have nothing to do with them because they haven't gone to the trouble or expense of surgically enhancing their breasts, buttocks, lips, cheeks, and other body parts. On top of everything else, they're homeless. (This, however, isn't strictly true. Nearly all have relatives in Miami with whom they could live, and at times they do. But most say their families can't accept their womanly ways, which are their best means of earning enough money for crack.)

And the uncertainty, too, is an addiction. "We enjoy living on the edge," explains Chris, who at age 36 seems not to struggle as much as the others. "You meet some of the freakiest people in our line of work."

Agrees Tokyo, lifting her chin and wagging it from side to side: "I love that thrill and excitement!"

Even in this perilous world, something of a natural order has evolved to protect and nurture its own. Because of the ever-present threat of arrest, and because crack makes you do practically anything and go almost anywhere to prove your fidelity, the population tends to drift in and out. But Al stays. Shambling and unassuming, his large round eyes efficiently surveying everything around him, he has lived here for more than a year now. That's ever since he got out of prison for the fourth -- and, he vows, the last -- time. In many ways Al is the camp's sole cohesive force, aside from crack. He can usually be relied on to find food and to cook up rice, pole beans, chicken, potatoes, and the like over small, crude barbecue grills fashioned from restaurant-supply food cans or scrap metal. He is quietly and firmly protective of the queens, most of whom are bigger than he is.

Al earns his money legally, from minimum-wage jobs -- general labor, or restaurant work. He used to support his crack habit by stealing, but he always got caught and he grew sick of prison. Born in Georgia and raised in Overtown, he says he has been in reform school since the age of twelve, locked up on and off since seventeen. That's half his life. "I'm going to stay here in this park for the rest of my life before I'll go back to prison," he says with a quick nod of his goateed chin. "I pray and ask God not to let me steal. I might be on the street now, I might skip taking a bath sometimes, but I won't be ashamed."

Al isn't the most reliable employee, and his bosses usually end up firing him even though they like him. He has four children, eleven grandchildren, and a semblance of a monogamous relationship with Tracy. He will tell you that, but he won't say outright that he's homosexual. He may not know. Al seems to be observing his life from a distance, watching and wondering exactly what to consider himself: hopeless drug addict? Man who refuses to be ashamed? Good cook? Bad father? "Crack done broke down the mentality of everything," he laments, repeating the statement again and again, as if in itself it might explain his confusion. He wonders if his whole existence is defined by what he does in the park, knowing that for most of the outside world, it is.

Al's children and ex-wife live only blocks away from here, but they don't visit. When he speaks about them, he tends to mumble. "They know I'm here in this park," he says. "They know I got a relationship with a gay person. They have their own life." His eldest son is nineteen and has a good job with UPS. Al saw him about four months ago; he spotted his ex-wife not long ago at a gas station in the neighborhood, but she didn't notice him, and he didn't speak to her.

Mark is tormented by thoughts of his family in Tampa, a nice middle-class family that's worried sick about him. He likes to joke about the transvestites in an effort to make it clear he doesn't go in for homosexual shenanigans. Yet like Al, he sticks around this symbiotic system, playing the role of male protector who benefits from the queens' earning power. At age 30, after several convictions for burglary and a couple of long stays in prison, Mark is feeling stymied. (He looks much younger, until you study his face and see the lines and the stress, from which his lighthearted manner distracts.)

He's entered a few drug-rehab programs without success; the centers are into getting government money instead of helping the addicts, he says ruefully. But even if he did get off the crack, his prison record would make it difficult to find a decent, steady job. So he smokes and steals and sleeps in the park. "You know it, but you can't do nothing about it," he says. "They ask me why I'm doing this. I just have a real bad drug problem." He takes a folded envelope from a pocket and gently pulls out a letter from his little sister, begging his forgiveness for intruding on his life but imploring him to help himself. One line reads, "It seems you're trapped in a very vicious cycle."

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