Grudge Match

Feuding Miami Beach tennis instructors Richard Johnston and Howard Kaufman need to find a new racket, before there's another arrest

Johnston remained relatively quiet for about a year, until the day of Kaufman's arrest. In a report he titled "Incident at North Shore Tennis Center," he sounded like a new man, one who has finally surmounted a great problem. Unlike in his previous letters, frantic and pleading, Johnston was coolly detached and confident. He began by explaining that three days earlier, on a Friday, he had handed Kaufman a tennis membership application and told him he had to pay to use the courts. Of course, Kaufman ignored him.

Then: "On Monday at 4:18 p.m., I went over to Howard Kaufman's court with a city employee (Tania Gelabert), greeted him nicely, and told him he owed $2.67. He refused to pay."

Johnston continued, a tone of vindication, even triumph, in his memorandum: "He challenged me to call the police and also stated that he spoke with Kevin Smith that morning and Smith said if I call the police on him I would get fired. Having known Mr. Kaufman for years, I called his bluff." Johnston called the police.

"I stated that 'Mr. Kaufman is to pay for the court and use three balls,'" Johnston wrote. "Mr. Kaufman tried to change the issue, but I would not stand for it." The police were called.

Rather than defeat him, however, the arrest empowered Kaufman. Two days later he returned to the courts. He resumed his old schedule of arriving at about 4:00 p.m., though now he resigned himself to the sidelines. Kaufman's retreat gave the impression that he had given up teaching on the courts, when in fact he was biding his time. On December 11, the day after the city dropped the theft and trespassing charges in a vain hope that Kaufman would gratefully follow their rules, Kaufman stepped onto a court with a student and began playing. Amazed at Kaufman's temerity, Johnston confronted him and gave the familiar ultimatum: Pay up or leave. Kaufman refused, but walked off the court before the police arrived. A tennis attendant told Smith she heard Kaufman shout at Johnston: "You are an asshole!"

Johnston cranked out a longhand letter to Smith: "After the police left Howard started speaking with me. He said that 'You are not very bright. I just might have three votes on the commission and they just might put pressure on the city manager. You just might lose your job.' He said that after the holidays I will get slapped with a civil suit unless I leave him alone.... He said, 'I just might do it. You'll have to pay for an attorney and that will cost you.'

"This is the type of tactics Howard Kaufman has used on me for over five years. I did not sleep well last night due to this incident. No matter how much I try to stay away from Mr. Kaufman he creates incidents."

Within a week Kaufman wrote Mayor Gelber and met with Police Chief Richard Barreto, expressing to both his surprise and disappointment with the city's actions. Barreto said Kaufman relayed "several incidents involving the behavior of Mr. Johnston ... and then affirmed that he was only volunteering his time to help the needy children in that area." A few weeks later, city officials held another round of talks with Kaufman, and this time Assistant City Manager Joseph Pinon asked him to comply with the rules of the tennis center -- scheduling lessons, obtaining fee waivers for children from poor families, and abiding by proper court etiquette. Smith even said he would go easy on him by not requiring a teaching certificate. But, according to Smith, Kaufman responded that "the rules that apply to the people who buy permits or pay court fees don't apply to me."

Kaufman is sitting in a nearly empty commission chamber at Miami Beach City Hall, where after the lunch recess he plans to publicly air his troubles. He expects those listening to react with indignant outrage and to help correct the injustice.

"Listen to me," he tells a New Times reporter. "You make me out to be the nicest sonofabitch that ever lived. The old volunteer helping underprivileged kids who is being pushed out by an insensitive, abusive city administration."

The chamber fills and Kaufman grips the podium. Like always, he's wearing the white floppy tennis hat. He appears downcast and begins speaking in a dispirited tone.

"I'm very grateful to the City of Miami Beach for having entered into an agreement with me that many of you don't even know exists. It was called the Youth Tennis Program for the City of Miami Beach at North Shore Park. It's for zero dollars -- they wanted to pay me a dollar a year; I refused -- and it's cancellable by either party, which is agreeable to me and has been at all times."

After making this remarkable admission, Kaufman starts to rehash his arrest but is prompted to finish by Mayor Gelber. Kaufman: "I hope you'll give me time to finish, Mr. Mayor."

Gelber: "Well, I hope you'll finish."
Kaufman drops the arrest and digresses to "about ten years ago, when I stopped coming to the commission." There's a collective roll of the eyes from the commissioners and staff. "If you knew me then, you would know that I was at every commission meeting, almost every one," Kaufman continues. "During that time I developed the reputation for being a troublemaker. The reason that I was called a troublemaker -- or two or three of them, I'd like to mention them to you if I might --"

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