The Grim Keeper

The sexton's post at the Miami City Cemetery is a burial ground for troublesome municipal employees. But Clyde Cates wasn't about to just roll over and die.

He tosses the blueprint onto a bookshelf, one more archive in the museum that is his office. In a space no wider than two coffins and only about as long, Cates stores all the tools he needs to maintain the graveyard, from a stapler and a bucksaw to a time clock and a water fountain. Also squeezed in are dozens of magazines and paperbacks. Smithsonian, The Mighty Aztecs, The Joy of Snorkeling, A Guide to Cacti, The American Legion Magazine, Arts of Asia, Complete Health and Maintenance Guide for Dogs, The Oregon Trail. Any remaining shelf space is filled with the bric-a-brac he accumulates on his daily trips to a nearby resale shop: candles, vases, a porcelain figurine of the Virgin Mary, a kid-size Rawlings catcher's mitt, a bumper sticker declaration of love for Jesus, and much more. The walls are covered with calendars and selected pieces from his personal art collection. "I love the old Spanish Catholicism, especially in art," he says. "I love it. I've got a Spanish dancer with most of her face covered by her hands that is very Catholic. It's unusual and interesting. I like it."

He offers a hand, first wiping it on the front of a City of Miami polo shirt that he has matched with faded Levi's and a pair of Dr. Martens boots the color of green M&Ms (acquired earlier this day at the thrift shop; only three dollars). At age 44, Cates has the strong, healthy look of a baseball player in the last days of a long career. Blue eyes peer from behind tinted prescription glasses. Thinning hair the color of yellow squash is covered by a City of Miami baseball cap with two pins stuck to the brim. One pin commemorates his twentieth anniversary with the city. The other commemorates his twenty-fifth.

Cates was seventeen in the summer of '69, when a friend told him the city was hiring laborers for $1.97 an hour. Preferring outdoor work to schoolbooks, he chose to stay on full-time. His application for work, still on file at the city, is so dated that his phone number begins with a two-letter prefix: MO7-0975. He had to sign a piece of paper stating that he is not a communist, and because he was so young he couldn't drive a city car for four years after he was hired. When asked to list any foreign languages he spoke, wrote, and read fluently, he put "English."

By 1986 he was the supervisor of Virginia Key beach, where, by all accounts, he was an industrious employee. "He was the hardest worker I have ever seen," recalls Robert Hubsch, head lifeguard at Virginia Key during Cates's tenure and now head lifeguard at the Venetian Pool. Cates did have a reputation for eccentricity, however. On breaks he'd practice his hobby -- knife throwing. He also adopted a pair of homeless kittens, feeding them at first with an eyedropper.

The cats, apparently, led to his departure from Virginia Key. "His working ability there was never questioned," says a city official who didn't want his name published, "but he took a real liking to the cats. It came down to where he became obsessive over the cats, so they removed him."

That was in 1992. Cates landed on a city truck that sprayed weed- and ant-killing chemicals in city parks. Bothered by the way the chemicals often spilled carelessly from the truck, he says, he obtained a note from his doctor saying he was allergic to the substance. A transfer to Watson Island didn't work out either; Cates claimed his supervisor placed impossible demands on him and his assistant. Supervisors alleged that he was faking migraines. He went to a therapist who diagnosed a "stress-related syndrome."

And so it was that he was sent to the cemetery.
"I'm not here because I have any great professional skills. I'm here because they don't want me anywhere else, basically," he opines. "Out of sight, out of mind. The cemetery is a graveyard for employees too."

Maybe he's just paranoid. Maybe not. In 1993 a veteran city worker named Gerardo Lopez-Morales nearly died after he heard he'd been transferred from the city's marina to a new assignment as a security guard at the cemetery, on the midnight shift. As he warily edged his automobile closer to the intersection of NE Second Avenue and Eighteenth Street for a look at his new post, the frightened senior citizen suffered a stroke. Officially, city administrators said "changing staff needs" forced the transfer. But Lopez-Morales claimed there were more mysterious motivations. He had no experience as a security guard, had no prior work-related problems, and always received satisfactory performance evaluations. But he was a friend of Miriam Alonso, and when Alonso lost the 1993 Miami mayoral election to Steve Clark, Lopez-Morales lost the marina job he'd held for a decade. He filed a lawsuit last year alleging discrimination on the basis of his political beliefs or ties. The suit is pending.

Unlike Lopez-Morales, Cates accepted his new post -- with a caveat. "I told them: 'I don't mind being here as long as you don't sabotage it -- if you don't support it, I will get vocal about this,'" he says.

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