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
Every Friday at about noon Ben dons his trademark snakeskin cap with the gaping jaws of a rattlesnake protruding from the crown, gets into his aging GMC truck outside his home on the Loop Road -- a neighborhood of iconoclasts and mavericks in Big Cypress National Preserve -- and drives the 35 miles to Dade Corners, which sits on the southeast corner of the Tamiami-Krome intersection, kitty-corner from the Miccosukee bingo hall. Once there, he usually heads straight to the Frog Pond, a shabby box of a place. He will eschew the menu heavy on fried food and order a tall glass of iced tea and maybe some pie and ice cream. Thus fed, he wanders over to the store to buy his lottery tickets, then drives five and a half more miles farther up the Trail to the Winn-Dixie to do his weekly grocery shopping.
"I been coming to Dade Corners for years," says Ben, who has lived out on the Loop Road since 1964, back when it was a hideout for poachers and other scalawags. He lives alone. "They didn't call it Dade Corners back then when I first knew it," by which he means in the 1940s. The site was owned then by a fellow known simply as Happy Jack, who built a bar and restaurant and operated a bait shop as well as a small motel. "Just a plain old ordinary redneck like myself," says Ben of Happy Jack. Ben remembers that Jack had a soft spot for the Miccosukees when they were forbidden by the U.S. government from buying alcohol. "He got them a little whompooned when they couldn't get it anywhere else."
Ben once had a chance to buy the property for $65,000 back in the 1950s, but he couldn't convince any of his wealthy friends to lend him the money. "It was all woods, woods, woods out here," he recalls. "I just thought it was going to be something because everything was coming this way. It never amounted to anything until the Dollar family came along and bought it. They fixed it nicer and nicer and nicer till they got it the way it is now.
"I met all kinds of people here, nice people," he says, adding that Dollar has always been loyal to the people of the Everglades. "He'd cash my checks, that sort of thing," he says. But Ben is unperturbed by the rumored change in ownership. "Don't bother me, 'cause at my age I ain't gonna be around for long. I don't care what they do. I just hope they don't do anything with Tony. There isn't a hunter or fisherman on Loop Road who don't know Tony."
More stuff: presliced mooring and dock lines, kayak paddles, faux-Indian hand drums with rubber skins and plastic feather decorations, car air fresheners decorated with lingerie-clad women, deer-avoidance devices, pork cracklings, gum in the shape of small oranges and packed in small wooden crates, a mustache-scissors-and-comb set, tow chains.
A wiry old black man in red trousers has cornered Tony -- as well, that is, as anyone can corner Tony, who is in perpetual motion even when he's standing still. The man is telling Tony he should have some sort of deal for senior citizens. He can get a free dinner at the Holiday Inn; why nothing at Dade Corners? The store's cordless phone rings -- it's in Tony's pants pocket -- and he steps aside to take the call.
"We fish off down here, off the highway," the man continues in his lazy Georgia drawl. "We do a lot of recreation" -- it comes out reck-ee-ay-shun -- "we fish down near where the alligators are, where they wrassle with the alligators. We come by about every week, every other week, something like that."
He says his name is the Reverend Barry Gilmore and he has lived in Liberty City since 1940. "We come whenever we feel like it," he says, then pauses and scratches his stubble. "Might be back tomorrow. When you get old, you needs a place to go." He adjusts his baby-blue cap, which threatens to slide off his head at any time. "You can get gas here, you can get oil here. You can get most everything you want. People don't go home till they make their rest stop."
He turns to his buddy who is down Aisle No. 4 picking out some tackle. "Where we goin' fishin' today, Mac?"
"L-67," Mac replies, referring to a drainage canal that cuts across Tamiami Trail.
The Reverend turns back and nods emphatically. "They got reckeeashun out there."
Tony comes bounding back over. "You know, you've just given me an idea!" he says, stuffing the phone back in the pocket of his black slacks. "I should have something for senior citizens. Free coffee. You never given me a problem. You been coming in here for years. I could do that."
The elderly man scratches his stubble and chuckles; his voice sounds like sandpaper. "Hey Mac, you heard this?" he hoots. "Free coffee!"
More stuff: a 54-piece puzzle of Franklin D. Roosevelt, mobile transceivers, Dunkin' Donuts doughnuts, a book called How to Cook Your Catch, fax and copy machine service, six-digit frequency counters, rubber reptiles, grease guns, a half-dozen types of fishing net, Kool-Aid.