By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
A fleet of fifteen school buses stands ready on SW 68th Avenue to cart home most of the South Miami students. But James shuffles his suede Converse sneakers past the buses and heads to Herbie's Pizza a block away. Herbie makes a living selling his pizza to South Miami students, but James doesn't stop in that often. He's here only to meet up with Lee, the bass player.
Lee sits at a booth smoking a Marlboro with a friend, who is bragging that he was suspended for insubordination on the first day of school. Lee nods hello to James and asks what the plan is for the evening. Tonight they will rehearse, James declares. The band is playing its third gig tomorrow night back at Cheers. They'll need to get to Patty's house by maybe 5:00 p.m. Patty is James's girlfriend. She is also in a band, Denny's Unit, and the Smerffs need her amplifiers and microphones to practice. The Smerffs have so little equipment of their own that they can't play a show without borrowing a few amps. Patty is indispensible.
If he needed to, James would cross the street to the 7-Eleven and grab a Metro bus home. Fortunately, most people in the older crowd James hangs with already have their driver's licenses. It's a testament to his popularity that several of them want nothing more than to be his chauffeur, so he is rarely without transportation. Today one of his friends is willing to shuttle him around all evening long, wherever he wants to go. James hops in the car. Lee, with a few hours to kill before rehearsal, gets in the back seat.
Radio is forbidden. Even with the heralded changes to alternative-rock formats, South Florida radio remains too mainstream and boring for a passionate music fan like James. He pulls a tape out of his green canvas book bag decorated in Liquid Paper with the names of bands such as Screeching Weasel, Operation Ivy, and Green Day. The tape is of the Mr. T Experience, a band out of the same Oakland, California, scene as Green Day, and very much like that popular punk band in its sound. Green Day was James's favorite group until they exploded onto MTV; now too many other people like them. The Mr. T Experience might be his new favorite band. He sticks the tape in the deck, blasts the music, and sings along on the traffic-heavy, twenty-minute ride to his house.
Eight royal palm trees announce the entrance to James's home in South Miami. In a large ranch-style house built from Dade County pine and kept secure behind an automatic black iron gate, James lives with his mother, his stepfather, a half-brother, age six, and a half-sister, age eight. He's lived here since he was four, since the divorce, really. Inside are Audubon paintings and pillows embroidered with field birds. Stained-glass hummingbirds hover below the dining table chandelier while an aviary on the porch holds two live parakeets, two cockatiels, two finches, and two Java rice birds. The birds are a hobby of James's mother, Christine Spire. Behind the house is a pool, and behind that is the even larger house where Christine's mother-in-law lives alone.
James has his own room off the kitchen. It is a big space -- long and narrow with sliding glass doors opening out to the yard. Although he has the place to himself, two twin beds are placed at opposite corners of the room. The phone he uses to call Patty every night lies atop one bed, next to the acoustic guitar he started playing when he was twelve. The dark, wood-paneled walls are covered in Marlins pennants, there's a poster of Mickey Mantle, and a thousand loosely bundled basketball cards lie on a bookshelf. All describe a life in transition. Now it is music; before it was sports.
James's grandfather, Leo Fullwood, was a Miami tennis pioneer who founded the Coral Oaks Tennis Club on Red Road near Parrot Jungle. James's natural father was once the club pro. From age three until age twelve, James was at the courts almost every day hitting a ball around. He gave up sports because he doesn't like to sweat so much any more. He also says he has a far better chance of being successful in rock than in tennis. "I was like one of the best in the club, but when you talk about the world, that won't get you anywhere," he says of his tennis days. "My dad's friend's son was like the best in Miami. The best. But he was like number 200-something in the world and barely making money. I'll never put my kids into sports. Then they're going to want to be professional basketball players and have their minds set on that. It's really not worth getting their hopes up."
While James's sports past is still represented in his room, more predominant now are pictures of the Smerffs hanging next to flyers of shows he has either played or attended. There is a poster of Lookout Records, his favorite label because they signed Green Day before the band went big. Medals from the state band contests he has won (playing upright bass) rest on a cluttered dresser. The bass he plays every week in a community orchestra lies on the floor near a stool and some sheet music.