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
"Grab a beer. We'll go sit on the porch where we can smoke, and I'll tell you the whole story. It's the first time I been interviewed, so I feel almost famous. You got me remembering a lot of things I haven't thought of in a while. Here, knock the water off that chair and take a seat. Let's see, now. The hurricane.
"I remember they were tracking it, and I remember the next day when it come on TV, when they first started showing films of the devastation. My mom and my girlfriend and myself, we took a ride over here. It was a slow time for carpenters in Sarasota, which had a little to do with my decision to come over. I was thinking they were going to need someone in Miami who can pound a nail, get some shelters up, this and that. Then we come over and looked and I kind of got an idea what I needed to bring along. Two weeks later my truck was packed: canned goods, a Coleman stove, my sleeping bag, and my tools -- and my protection. They had talked about looting on TV, a lot of stealing going on.
"When I got here it was the Wild West. I stayed out at the Redland Tavern, right on Krome Avenue. There were dump trucks parked in the field nearby at night. There was a lot of campers, vans, guys sleeping in their trucks, and of course pup tents. I would probably say there were 3000 to 3500 guys who showed up like me, and I met 'em from Texas, Georgia, quite a few from Florida, some from New York, and one guy from Pennsylvania.
"The owner of the tavern, he was kind enough to run a hose off the back over the fence with a little enclosure so people could take hose showers. He also had free coffee in the morning for everybody. My hat's off to him. He did a hell of a job. They had meals, and it was a good place to go eat dinner. Evening meals: shrimp baskets, spaghetti, all kinds of stuff. My canned goods ran out after about a week, but by then I was making money. Some of these guys came down on a wing and a prayer. They didn't even have food to bring along, and some of 'em were starving. I'd see a guy not eating, I'd say, 'Eat some of this, I'm full.' But that tavern owner, he always managed to have food and keep his kitchen going, and if someone was hungry, he fed 'em.
"I brought my guitar down with me. In the beginning, right after the storm, we'd back the trucks up together and have a campfire in the middle. We'd all sit in the backs of our trucks and I'd play. Another guy played a harp. Sometimes we'd just have the stereo on. Of course, there was always plenty of music coming out of the Redland Tavern, till at least one or two o'clock in the morning. That guy, the tavern owner, he provided. But I'm sure he made a lot of money, too.
"There's one thing I do regret, and that's not keeping a journal. I thought about doing it shortly after I got down here. Actually, I even started one once, but I found that by the end of these twelve-, fourteen-hour days, when I would get home, clean up and eat, all I wanted to do was fall down and go to sleep instead of setting and writing for half an hour. Sometimes I would hit the sack and start writing and the line would just go down the page.
"The one character that sticks out in my mind the most was this carpenter who was the bouncer at the Redland Tavern. The place was packed, I mean every night, with guys spending that money as fast as they made it. The hookers were coming down from who knows where. Black gals, white gals, all kinds, at least four or five in there at any one time. They'd come in the door and fifteen minutes later they're going back out the door with somebody. There were fights that would go on in that bar I can't even describe. This bouncer, he would make a five-foot pathway right through the crowd. I seen him beat up four or five guys at one time. He would try not to injure them, though, because that would have cut into business. What he would do, he would bounce 'em off the walls -- boom! The guy was a gorilla. You could have put a football team on his back and he'd get up. I put my hand up against his one day. His fingers were like that much longer and that much bigger around. Muscles just bulged on him. He was a carpenter too, a local one. But I think he walked in there one day and the bar owner said, 'Please! I need a bouncer bad!' You know? 'And you're baaaad!' So the guy went to work for him. He didn't have to pound nails, just beat people up.
"It was the Wild West, like I said. One guy came in there with a baseball bat just darin' anybody to fight, then he went out in the parking lot and started bustin' headlights and puttin' dents in fenders. He was crazy. The hurricane had got to him and he lost his cool. There was one guy come in there about four in the morning, and he had a machete. You know those little pup tents that you can fold up? He went out back and started whackin' through tents with the machete, just goin' down the line. Everyone slept with their feet to the door, right? He wound up cutting some people's legs pretty bad. The cops came and hauled his ass away.
"Other times I'd be sleeping and the thieves would come into camp. Maybe an arm would come reaching in the back of the truck, going for my tools. I would hear the door of the topper start easing up real slow: creeeak. I'd hit 'em with my flashlight or my knife, and they always took off. They were just checking to make sure you were there. Rip-offs I seen a great deal of, guys that came down just to rip off. I seen guys came down who were crooks, who would get in with a bunch of workers and then wipe 'em out. A lot of guys would stash their money where they stayed, so these guys would wait till they went to work, then back a truck up to the place and clean 'em out -- money and everything else. They definitely should not have been here.
"I got so when I came home from work I'd go in the tavern and grab a quick sandwich, drink a couple beers, and get out of there. Saturday night I might hang out for a while, just 'cause there's nowhere else to go. We could make a mad dash for the titty bar, but we had to leave early. It was a place called Piggy's -- Piggy's Nude Revue. It's next door to the place where they sell those key lime pies. The road right there beside it runs straight out to the Redland Tavern. And so we'd make a mad dash over there, hit that place maybe around 8:00, and leave at 9:30, make that mad dash before curfew. If we got caught out after ten o'clock, we would have gone to jail and the thieves would have stole all our tools. I think we made that trip only twice. These girls were ugly. You had to hold your nose on some of 'em when they went by. But buddy, they were tuckin' bucks right and left."
"By day I hung my sign out: 'Carpenter. Fix anything. Build anything.' I leaned it against the truck, hung my tool belt with my saw out and my drill so they could see I got my tools. I took the truck out on Krome Avenue and parked it on the side of the road. First day I didn't get no responses, but about noontime the second day a guy said, 'Can you put my roof on?' 'Yeah!' We went down about a mile from the Redland Tavern. I started on that and rebuilt it for him, put it all back together. Then I headed into town where I knew some guys and they said, 'Yeah, there's one place where you can work, they're hiring.' So I went in and I started rebuilding condominiums -- there was like 300 units, single story. I did that for about nine months.
"Good money? You bet. Carpenters making twelve bucks an hour, fifteen. Some making more. Many prospered, and many were fools and just blew their money as fast as they got it. Many stuffed it away. I know people from Mexico who came up and got paid cash. And they were sending that shit home. They'd keep enough to get a little food, a bunch of 'em would share a room with their sleeping bags, and they'd chuck that money home. It's worth a lot more down there, and they had families.
"Drug dealing was very prevalent. The dealers would walk through our campsites and work sites every day. I'd say they made a lot of money. That coke is probably the main reason a lot of these guys went home broke. Coke wasn't something new for any of us, but there was a lot of it all around us all of a sudden. I saw guys who were makin' $800 to $900 a week cash and be broke on Monday morning and want to bum a cigarette.
"Those that had families at home, I felt sorry for the families. Their men were over here cokin' it up and partying and then going back with nothing -- and probably wound up losing what they got back there, wherever they were from. Like I said before, hookers were making a fortune. I imagine there were quite a few who turned hooker just to do it because they knew most of the people they saw were gonna be gone. They didn't do it with their family knowing about it. I met married men who chased women. I saw a lot of married men who were here to get away from home. They needed a break from home and came here just to get away from their wives and kids, whatever: 'Bye, I'm going to Florida and fix the hurricane damage!'
"I was probably one of the last few to get out of the Redland. Some of the others went to jail, some when they found jobs they moved closer to the city. They would leave the Redland and go live on the job site, which is what I did.
"But even after that condo job was over, I still had a lot of work because the people who had lived there realized the work wasn't done right, it still wasn't complete. So I went around and passed out business cards in all the door slots one afternoon. It didn't take long. I got four or five days' work, and during that time I got more. So I worked in and out of there for a year or so, even after the job was officially done.
"Dave, a boy that lives up in Okeechobee now, he and I moved into an abandoned house that didn't have any doors or windows. There was Louie that lived in there, too. At night I'd back the truck up inside, take out my Coleman stove, and set it up in the garage area. We had an old cable spool we rolled in there for a table. Then I found an electrical meter, shoved that sucker in, and got some juice going through that house! We found a little stove on one of the junk piles. I changed the burners and it was fine.
"We had three dogs that lived there, three strays, and boy did they guard the place, too. At that time there were a lot of loose dogs that were hungry. If they smelled you cooking, they'd get at the food any way they could. The animal control people were having all the problems in the world because people left their dogs behind when they left after the hurricane. The dogs that made it through the hurricane, some of 'em would get in packs. They were killing other stray dogs and eating them, eating anything they'd see walking. And these three dogs we had would guard that place like nobody's business. Each guy had bonded with one of the dogs, and named him, and the dog would sleep beside his bed. One day when we was off working, all of us gone, the animal control people come by and snatched all three of 'em.
"My girlfriend, Alice Savage -- everyone calls her Alee -- she'd come over for a week, do everybody's laundry for them because we were workin' twelve-, fourteen-hour days, do general housekeeping. While she was here she dashed off and went up to Barry University, drove up to the admissions office. Shoot, it wasn't a month later she moved back down and started college full-time. She graduated just this past month. She already was a paralegal. Now she's going for her master's in social psychology. She's got a minor in philosophy. She tries to reform me all the time. We're as different as day and night, but we get along. I tolerate her and she tolerates me. What more can you ask for?
"One of the things I've learned from being here, probably the main thing, is about different cultures. Miami has as many cultures in it as there are countries -- the Cubans, the Haitians, Jamaicans. This house I was working at yesterday, the people are from Saudi Arabia, and the whole community, the whole place is all Saudi.
"That's changed me a lot. In the military, I was in Vietnam, I was in Japan, I was in Okinawa, Hawaii. And after I got out I basically went back to my own culture. I didn't move out of it. It had been a long time since I'd worked around other types of people. Before it was, 'Well, so long as you don't come over and kick on my door I won't kick on yours,' you know? But when you're working in Miami, you have to actually deal with people.
"A lot of the people that called me, it was for defective work, cheap materials, and high prices. When I got in there I saw cheap paint that peeled within two years, surfaces that weren't prepped right before the paint was applied, lines cracking in the dry wall because they didn't tape it, doors that weren't working or were falling down. This one job I was working yesterday, it was full of doors that weren't setting right, heating units that weren't vented right. They had put in air handlers that were too damn small for the size of the house. I can go into these homes and tell where the work got done right after the hurricane. On the other hand, I seen a lot of 'em that were good jobs, and I was just coming in to change something that they wanted changed, not related to the workmanship that had gone before.
"I've learned a lot more about Florida codes and building. Things like building a new truss for a roof section out of plywood and two-by-fours. You gotta have so many feet of plywood, so many nails per foot. The inspectors were always hard on me, but after a while I got the hang of it and they'd say, 'Yup! That's a pretty good truss! Go ahead and put the roof on.' Them guys, the guys that went around on inspection, I seen 'em pass a lot of things they shouldn't of. But we'll say no more about that.
"The hurricane was a mix of good and bad. I seen people steal things they wouldn't have otherwise. I seen people band together as neighbors for survival, to protect their homes. Even the neighbors that didn't like each other. They had a common goal so they got along. But when the common goal was no longer necessary, they went back to being who they were before.
"I bonded with a lot of people. Some of the older ladies I work for ask me for advice, cry on my shoulder -- I've had that literally happen a couple times. You're there, and you've got nothing to offer except your skills as a carpenter, and they can't afford that, so you go ahead and help 'em out anyway. You know? They'll say, 'Boo-hoo! The contractor took all my money! I don't have any family! I don't know what to do, my front door won't lock!' I say, 'I'll fix it.' Because I love people."
"I grew up on a farm in Indiana. By the time I was twelve we were raising milk cattle. Of course, we had chickens, a couple of beef cattle, pigs. I quit school when I was sixteen. The principal at that time was going to paddle my butt for something I didn't do. He said, 'Oh, yes you did.' I said, 'Wait a minute.' I went down the hall to my locker and got my books and threw 'em on his desk.
"Then I went to work in a turkey-processing plant. That was real bright, wasn't it? Cleaning up turkey guts all day. Ah, but I bought an old '57 Chevy and fixed it up. I was on my way. I was the baddest little sumbitch the world ever produced, or so I thought.
"I was running with some bad guys who were older. They were not of the highest- quality character, if you know what I mean. I knew I had to get away from there. So I joined the Corps on my seventeenth birthday.
"As soon as I got to Vietnam they put me on 30 days mess duty, battalion rear. They sent me out to the bush after that and made me a tunnel rat. I went down holes with a .45 and a lot of clips full of ammo, and a flashlight with a bayonet taped to it, to check for booby traps. After about six months of it, I came out of a tunnel one day and threw my shit down and said, 'That's it. Put me in the brig, but I quit.'
"They didn't put me in the brig. They said, 'Yoder? You see that machine gun over there, .60 cal? Go carry that for a while.' Now a machine gunner, his life expectancy is about the same as a tunnel rat -- 30 days. When you have firefights with the enemy, you have to get fire superiority. So you throw everything you got at the machine gunner, because who's kicking out the most bullets? So everyone shoots at the machine gunner. Soon I was squad leader in charge of fourteen men, going out on ambushes.
"One day we went out about a klick, that's a kilometer on a military map. We come around this mountain to a rice paddy. We put up a trip flare in the middle and lay down in the bushes all night, got our firing range, and waited. We were waiting for the gooks to come down the trail that ran beside the rice paddy.
"But they had seen us set in. And when we come out in the morning, they had an ambush set up on the other side of the rice paddy, which was only from here to, say, the Big Cheese restaurant over there on South Dixie. The trail went right beside the rice paddy and we were walking along it when they opened up on us. We had to get fire superiority or we were dead. We shot at the machine gunner first and got him down. I said, 'We got to get out of here, let's hit it.' One guy got hit in the leg. I scooped him up, right? I'm helping him. I'm shooting with my left hand, he's changing my clips and putting in new ammo, pulling the slide for me, and we're bookin' the whole way.
"After that I wound up back in the good ol' USA. I put four years in the Corps and then I went to the army for two. I got married, had a kid, another kid, adopted a kid, got divorced. I was a truck driver for a year and something, driving coast to coast. L.A. to New York was my main run, hauling produce, a refrigerated unit.
"My mother and my sister lived down here in Florida, so I came down to Sarasota. About seven years ago I took my mom to a Fifties and Sixties dance. This chick was standing there by the door and I went out to have a cigarette because you can't smoke inside the auditorium. I said, 'You wanna dance?' 'Maybe,' she says. She goes back inside. Then later on here she comes. She says, 'You still want to dance?' I said, 'Maybe.' That was the start of our relationship.
"I like oldies, some stuff from the Seventies. I like some folk music, music with a little kick to it, with words you can understand and sing along with. I play some Eagles; Marshall Tucker; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Neil Young; Crosby, Stills and Nash; some Roy Acuff -- 'Wabash Cannonball.' I got quite a few songs and groups that aren't as well-known, like the Irish Rovers. Do I write songs? Well, I wrote one song, a gospel song, but I haven't played it in a long time. At what point in my life did I write it? Well, let's see. I'm quite sure it was when I was doing a little stretch in prison for conspiracy to traffic."
"I met Dean Harden on a job site and we hit it off right from the beginning. He was wild and crazy, and I put up with him. The man's amazing, really. He always has something to talk about. We'd be walking around on a job, say, and see some mushrooms growing, he can tell you the Greek name for 'em and the Latin name. He has a degree in biology. He rattles out words that are this damn long. I've had pretty good luck meeting people that we had a lot in common, like to do a lot of the same things: snorkeling, fishing, getting drunk and wrestling.
It was Dean who first introduced me to my hideout, and let's not forget my hideout -- Jimbo's. I met soooo many characters out there. When I go out to Jimbo's, Miami doesn't exist. I don't have to worry about nothing. I can relax.
"I was working with Dean and he said he had this house out on the water at some place called Stiltsville. He said did I want to go out fishing with him this weekend. Hell, yeah! I needed a break to get away from the hurricane, to keep my sanity. Sometimes I'd work fourteen, fifteen, sixteen days in a row straight through. Well, after we came back from fishing he said, 'Oh, we got to stop at this one place.' We stopped at Jimbo's, played a game of bocce, drank a couple beers, and I was hooked. I said this is my hideout, and I ain't telling hardly anybody about it. I've sat out there with Steve Clark many a time, the mayor who just died? Toward the end there he had this toupee, and when he was at Jimbo's you could walk up to him and say, 'How's the rug doin' today, Steve?' He would drink rum and Coke, and it was his hideout too.
"You see, Dean's dad and Jimbo were like that -- tight. They both fought for this A-frame house out at Stiltsville. They were one of the first ones to build out there, going through the legal system, doing the paperwork, and Steve Clark, who was then an up-and-coming politician, he became the third partner.
"Before Andrew there were like 30 houses out there. The hurricane came through and blew almost all of 'em away -- except for the A-house. I went out and helped repair it, helped rebuild it. In 1999 the leases run out and the remaining houses are supposed to get torn down. There's been some very influential people has been out there at the A-house for the weekend and loved the shit out of it.
"Here's the thing: Four years later as I go around to different houses, I'm not running into the hurricane-related damage any more. A lot of the people have found someone to repair it, and then repair the repairs. These days it's stuff like, 'I don't like that window -- I want a bigger window. Can you build a porch out back? Can you build me a shed?' Like that, it's not hurricane-related. And if I can't find hurricane-related work any more, it's pretty well died out.
"I'd say I'm one of the last guys to leave, maybe the last. My buddy Paulo just moved up to Jacksonville a few weeks ago. Then there's Andy. He fell in love with a girl here and married her, so he's staying put. But the rest -- it seems like most of the people faded out after two and a half, three years. After that it was mostly local people, because the fast work and the fast money dried up. The companies that came in and paid high wages went back to wherever they were from.
"You know what happened when they were building the railroad out west in the old days? The work crews that were putting down rails, they would come through a town, and some of 'em would find somebody and settle down, maybe turn to farming, help the population boom. They would hit a town, meet a decent girl, and decide to stay, maybe some of them realizing the railroad work was going to run out, just like the work has run out here.
"Alee graduated, and I don't like Miami that well. I like its natural resources. I like the fishing. But I hate the traffic. Quite a few of the people are hard to get along with. I don't like going to the store and I can't tell the cashier what I want because he don't speak English. He's in America, he ought to learn. If I went to his country, I'd learn his language.
"I've been here too long. My home's in Sarasota. My family. I'll always come back and see my friends, but your feet get itchy after a while. You get that yearning to go home, stand in that same fishing spot where you used to stand. I got probably one, two, three, four, five -- probably about five men over there I call friends, that I've known for a long, long time. I call every once in a while, but you get to a point where you need to see them, horse around with 'em.
"I'm gonna take the Tamiami Trail. It's the slower way back, and I'm not going to be in any hurry. Me and Alee came across that way one time. We stopped and took an airboat ride, saw the gators, threw some marshmallows at 'em. Maybe I'll stop and do that, just for myself. I'll be traveling alone. Everything I have will be in the back of that truck -- tools, clothes, guitar, TV, tapes. In four years I've gone through seven hammers, three circular saws, and a couple of drills. Kmart $5.99 tennis shoes, right? I went through probably a pair every month. So that's -- oh boy, 12, 24, 48 pairs of tennis shoes?
"I'm debating whether I should stop by Jimbo's one last time. It's another chunk of history they're gonna bulldoze over and fill in. The time won't be long. I might go out to the Redland Tavern and have dinner. That's where it all started, so maybe that's where it should end.
"If there was another one to come through, I'm not sure whether I'd come back or not. If I did, I wouldn't stay as long. I'd probably only stay a year and a half, two years. Of course, this was a gigantic hurricane, too. I'd say if I had it to do over again, I'd do the same thing. It's been a hell of a ride. The angels fanned their wings a little hard, and if they hadn't, my life would have been totally different.