Buddha and the Beach

Some people go to the beach and stay until the sun is low in the sky. Others go to the beach and never come back.

At water's edge in Miami Beach, early in the morning, a large black man with a shaved head begins to dance. As his sleek head moves from side to side, his belly -- about the size of a medium Butterball turkey -- rolls in perfect counterpoint. Facing the rising sun, he steps forward first with one foot and then the other, his arms pumping like a slow-motion fighter working low on a body bag. The music comes from his boom box in the sand. Behind him is the stack of lounge chairs he'll soon drag into position in anticipation of the beachgoers who will head for the concession at Eighteenth Street.

As the music thumps the cool air, retirees from nearby apartments and condos begin crossing the sand for their morning swim. Some will even join the dance. Most of these elderly folks don't know Freddie Wayne Gatlin by name. Neither do the tourists, who come during the week, or the locals, who appear as regularly as the sun on weekends. But they have found it easy to become one of his friends. First they watched Freddie, then they listened to him espouse his philosophy of the simple life, and now they trust him.

He picks up the old people when their unsteady legs give way in the surf. They know they can call for him from the water "if something bites you," as one of the morning regulars puts it. The tourists send him letters from Berlin and Texas thanking him for his restaurant recommendations and his warnings about what parts of Miami to avoid. On Sundays the doctors, lawyers, and other South Beach cognoscenti gather round to hear his political discourses, delivered with the rhythmic cadence of a Baptist preacher.

None of them knows much about Freddie or where he came from, but they all sense the implicit message conveyed by this Buddha of South Beach, and it makes them wistful. Sometimes it makes them question decisions they've made about their own lives. "To me Freddie doesn't have a care in the world," says Bill Noonan, a morning regular who is two years shy of retirement from the U.S. Postal Service. Noonan and the others envy Freddie's life on the beach because they think he has achieved that illusory freedom Americans constantly talk about, that dream of autonomy and independence usually delayed until old age.

Freddie's employer, Dawn Becerra, likes to think her family is living that dream, too. She and her husband, Pedro, own the concession, which consists of the stack of beach chairs, canvas cabanas and umbrellas, and the yellow-and-white trailer that serves as a snack shack. From morning until evening (except when it rains), their business keeps them on the beach. Many of the sunbathers who go "chairing" with them have become their friends, and their three children have grown up on the sand, meeting people from around the world. "The beach," Dawn says, "gives us freedom."

But at night and when it rains, the Becerras go home like their customers. Freddie, on the other hand, stays day and night, rain or shine, because he is convinced it is his destiny. Somehow he has found his divinely appointed spot in the sand. Even Dawn, who says Freddie has become one of the family, doesn't know what led him to this exact place at the precise moment he was needed. He just appeared on the shore, as if by magic. "I never saw Freddie until the day I got here and I was crying because no one was here to help me," Dawn recalls with a smile and a nod to a fond memory. It was early one Sunday morning this past April; she had arrived to find that her hired help had not shown up for work. Pedro was visiting his family in Mexico, leaving Dawn alone with her three small children on the busiest day of the week during one of the busiest months of the year. By 9:00 a.m. beachgoers would be looking for lounge chairs. Unstacking and arranging 50 to 100 of the chaise lounges is heavy work; so is the added task of twisting umbrellas into the sand and setting up canvas cabanas. Dawn approached Freddie, the only person sitting on the beach that early, and made a desperate plea for help. He saved the damsel from distress. And when Dawn invited him to stay on, as it turned out, he also saved himself.

The manmade sand dune at the western edge of the beach, with its vegetation and footbridges, has become Freddie's demilitarized zone between the responsibilities and regulations of a life he has forsaken and the one he has embraced, in which time is marked by the cruise ships entering and leaving Government Cut. "Once you crest that berm you are in a whole new world without car horns and traffic lights," he says. "Here you can sit and create whatever world you want."

In fact, Freddie rarely leaves the beach these days, except to take a bus to an occasional movie. He spends his nights on the beach providing security for the concession's equipment, and his home is one of the crescent-shaped cabanas that covers a lounge chair. A second cabana, which overlays the first, is spring-loaded by a bungee cord, closing against the rain and opening for the full moon above the water, like some giant clam beached on the sand.

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