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.

Despite the lack of support, Cates regularly receives letters from families who appreciate the way he maintains the grounds. Rosemary Carufel of Tampa sent him a handwritten note of thanks "for not forgetting me." When Virginia Pinder of Punta Gorda asked for a copy of her family's burial records, Cates attached a few Polaroids of the family plot. "We appreciate the time and effort you spent on gathering all the records and copies," she wrote back. "The current photos are special to us."

"I took those myself, with my own money, because I knew they may never have seen where their relatives are buried," Cates explains. "It doesn't take much extra effort to try to make people happy."

According to Paul George, any extra effort at all is unusual for a city sexton. "I see that job as kind of like McDonald's," says the Miami-Dade Community College professor. "The people who work there don't have a stake in it. It is just another one of their city duties. It is not that they, or their performances, are horrendous. It's more like they are overwhelmed with a lot of responsibilities and a lack of help. Cates goes well beyond that. He is very much the exception. I get the sense that he has had a lot of pride in doing things that no other city people have done for us."

Laur'rio Ahmad Walden concurs. The 48-year-old postal worker makes regular trips to the cemetery to visit the grave of his brother, a Vietnam War casualty who was buried there in 1968, and he has noticed an improvement in the way the grounds are maintained since Cates took over. "Clyde cares about the cemetery," Walden says. "He cleans back the grass to where you can actually read the names on the gravestones. He fights with the city single-handedly for more man-hours to operate. Clyde is definitely in my corner. I am in his corner, too. He is working in the best interests of the city."

When he talks to his bosses, Cates argues for a full-time assistant. He wants to be allowed to fix the gravestones. He needs more paint and more weed-whacker line. Constantly, he says, he is rebuffed. "You can talk to them all night long but it's not going to help," he grumbles. "They just don't get it. They intentionally don't want to get it, in my opinion."

Cates blames the problem on the administration of Cesar Odio, the long-time city manager who resigned three months ago amid federal corruption charges. Odio is gone, but the people he appointed are still in charge, Cates gripes. "People said, 'When the Cubans become the majority, watch out, because there will be a lot of changes, negative changes.' I had always heard about Cuba and the fight for democracy and freedom. I was naive. I thought with the freedom fighters and the Bay of Pigs and all this that what we were going to see would be fair and equal. And it was really a shock when people started coming in that were related to [a city employee] and taking a job that you earned."

He can't substantiate his charges of nepotism, but he can criticize what he sees as cronyism. Wally Lee, the assistant city manager who oversees Cates's department, worked at Odio's old company, Maule Industries. Beneath Lee is Alex Martinez, another Maule alumnus who also worked with Odio at the Des Rocher Sand Corp. Beneath Martinez is Raul Garcia, a Martinez ally. These people, Cates says, hold the sort of high-ranking positions he should hold.

"Clyde complains about Latins taking over, that he doesn't like it. But that's the way it goes," counters his supervisor Robert Frazier. "I agree with him on some points. Like since Cesar Odio took over, nobody really got the promotions they should have. But that went across racial lines. Like Clyde, I think it should go by seniority. But while that is his main beef, he didn't mention that back in the early Seventies he had a chance to move up but he gave up the opportunity. He refused the position." (Cates admits this is true.)

Another city official, who asked not to be named, is more blunt. "Clyde has been passed over [for promotions] because he would get in the interview portion and call [his supervisors] assholes. He would say, 'I should have been running this place a long time ago.' That is how he approached them. Clyde Cates is the most prejudiced person in the world. You know that, don't you?"

Cates insists he isn't prejudiced. His ex-wife was Cuban. His current girlfriend is Haitian. "It's not racism," he asserts. "I didn't start this stuff against them, you know. But the higher city administration is all Cuban. I am talking superintendent, administration, and stuff. It was all these select Cubans. None of what I have done is against the Cuban people themselves. It is against a small bunch of Cubans brought in by Cesar Odio who managed to run this city into the ground."

Several years ago Cates discussed his frustrations with a therapist. "I saw him six or seven times," Cates recalls. "He told me he felt I was in the wrong line of work. He said my job doesn't offer me enough creative outlets. In our last meeting, we were talking about the old saying that you can't fight city hall. He asked me what keeps me from saying it's so much of a fight that I'm probably not going to win. I told him I haven't used my last option yet: going outside the city to create honest bad publicity. That is the last option. If that didn't work, then I'd walk away. That ended our meeting. That was the last time he wanted to see me."

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