Right in the Middle of Nowhere

Anyone who thinks Dade Corners is just a gas station probably thinks the Everglades is just a little wet spot west of Miami

TONY

"Last week I sold $5000 of Budweiser, you believe that? We're like a -- what they call it? -- a premium account or something like that. Never mind the microbrew beer and all the other beer. We got our grocery aisle, we got our fishing aisle, we got our automotive aisle. We usually carry almost $300,000 worth of merchandise, you believe that? We got blocked ice, bagged ice -- nowhere else can you get blocked ice. And we bag our own ice. Probably do 100 bags a day." Tony Branciforte is walking fast and talking faster as he moves through the convenience store at Dade Corners, the gas station/deli/bait shop/restaurant complex at the intersection of Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail in deep West Dade. "Aviation fuel," he continues, "100-octane racing fuel, $1.69 a gallon. Jose Canseco and his brothers used to come by and fill up their Corvettes with that stuff. Propane" -- Tony hasn't taken a breath -- "and we have diesel. We try to do a little bit of everything out here."

As he takes a measure of Dade Corners' stock he also mops up several gallons of water that have spilled out of a coffin-size beer-and-soda cooler, sorts out a dispute between a cashier and a patron over a twenty-dollar bill, fetches a bucket of shiners for a weekend fisherman, orchestrates the installation of an ATM, receives a delivery of bait ("Dade Corners is one of the great loci of the Dade matrix," asserts the bait man), and patiently answers a raft of customer questions, the same ones he's been answering for sixteen years: How far is Homestead? (Twenty miles.) Do you have a telephone? ('Round the side of the building.) Where's the bathroom? (Over in the corner.)

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Tony is Dade Corners' perpetually genial, preternaturally hyperactive manager/ maitre d'/ringmaster. His thinning hair is mussed up, his eyes puffy with fatigue. "Worms. We probably sell twelve to fourteen cases a week," he continues, then suddenly blurts: "Hey, man! How's it going, dude?" Tony has seen a customer he recognizes; he seems to know, at least by sight, about half the 1500-or-so patrons who pull into the place every day.

But there's really no time for small talk. Tony's off, hustling at top speed across the store, taking a detour past the bank of self-serve coffee and soda machines to pick up some scattered debris, finally coming to a stop at a glass case next to the cash registers. Radar detectors, CB radios, radar jammers, police scanners. "If I told you what I did in radios you'd say, 'No way, Tony!' Honest to God!" Then: "AQue pasa, Daddy-o?" Another customer. "To me it's like being in a honky-tonk," he chortles. "Like being in a country bar. Honest to God, I love it. It's kind of the end of the world."

Or the end of several worlds, all colliding. This is the last stop before plunging into the wilderness and the first stop coming out of it. It's the meeting of the rural South and the urban The quintessential crossroads, a buzzing confluence of cultures, South Florida's Timbuktu.

"Friday night, Saturday morning it'll be full of drunk Indians," Tony continues. "It'll be full of airboats; it'll be full of dead animals. Even when the hunting traffic dies" -- between the end of turkey season in April and the beginning of archery season in September -- "we still got the fishermen. I'm a fisherman. Honest to God, I'm a fisherman. I go out and when I get back I feel like a million dollars. I don't know what it is but I feel like a million dollars. Hey, whatcha doin'?" Tony waves to a customer. "Hi ya! Haven't seen you in a while."

Photos of people posing with their catches of the day cover a bulletin board near the back room where the bait is kept. During the hunting season, the bass and snook become deer and wild pig. Classified ads are posted on another bulletin board: Someone is selling a flats fishing boat for $2000 but would be willing to trade for a small swamp buggy. There's a 150 Lycoming airboat for sale too. Also on the market: a Max II amphibious all-terrain vehicle with "large tires, gun racks, roll bar, compass, and electronic backtracker unit." And animals: emu chicks at $75 apiece, as well as an eleven-year-old pointer named Buddy and a two-year-old Lab mix named Rosie -- "Both dogs are great with people and like to hunt!"

Someone is looking for a particular CB antenna but can't find it on the shelves. Several times today Tony has apologized to customers for the absence of a particular item. Inventory is low, he points out, shelves uncustomarily understocked. The reason: Bob Dollar, whose family has owned Dade Corners since 1978, is preparing to sell the complex. At least that's the rumor that's been circulating among the staff and up and down the Trail for days. "We used to have a rack of canoes outside," Tony says, sounding wistful. "Sold 250 last year, if not more. The shelves are empty, you know. But we'll rebound, we'll get back. I could get it back up in no time!"

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