Strange Man in a Strange Land

Mauricio Pavez came from Chile to Florida as a tourist. One mugging and eight months later, he refuses to leave.

He could be almost anyone, the clean-shaven black-haired man in his thirties wending his way through the strolling, posing, gossiping, blading masses along Ocean Drive on a Saturday afternoon. He's wearing a faded paisley shirt, brown pants, and rubber-soled brown leather lace-up shoes. In a black folder he carries several legal-size sheets of paper. Listening for fragments of conversations in Spanish, he stops near three teenage girls in identical white tank tops and denim short-shorts.

The man pulls out one of the papers, leans forward, and angles it toward the teens. "Excuse me," he says in Spanish, smiling respectfully and squinting slightly. His eyebrows form a continuous line across his brow. "I would like to offer you this poem." The girls look at the paper and then return the man's gaze with some curiosity. Encouraged, he continues: "This is a poem that is several hundred years old. The author is unknown, but it has become a classic among the indigenous people of South America because of its inspiring message. Read it. If you like it, you can keep it." Now the girls lean forward in an earnest attempt to make out the fuzzily photocopied words of the Desiderata, which is not really a poem but a popular meditation framed and hung in homes, shops, and dentists' offices around the world.

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence," it begins, in perfect irony amid the overhyped, overhappening tumult of South Beach. Something about it captures the girls' interest, enough so that the man notices. "As I said, you can keep the poem," he says. "Here, I'll give one to each of you. Also, if you could, a donation to support artistic endeavors would be greatly appreciated."

The girls take the papers, hand the man $1.25, and don't ask him what artistic endeavors he's referring to. Maybe they'll read to the end of the Desiderata or maybe they'll just leave it on the sidewalk to be swept away by a breeze or broom. The man doesn't wait to find out. He moves on and soon spots two young women languishing over the remnants of their drinks at an umbrella-shaded sidewalk cafe. He starts up his usual conversation, and the women, who looked bored to begin with, assume expressions of even greater boredom. They let him speak, but when he gets to the part about supporting the arts, one just shakes her head and hands the paper back, telling him they're using her boyfriend's credit card and don't have any cash.

It's close to 6:00 p.m. now, and the man in the paisley shirt has barely picked up enough money to buy dinner. He's waiting for the C bus to take him across the MacArthur Causeway and into downtown Miami, where he'll transfer to the 77 and hop off at NW Seventh Avenue and 27th Street, a few blocks from where he lives for the time being: Beckham Hall, a Dade County facility that houses about 100 homeless men. "That's how it goes in the sales business," he says, adding that his past jobs have included selling everything from life insurance to computer software. "Some days people respond better. In reality, you're selling yourself."

The man should know. During the past year he has sold, or attempted to sell, various versions of himself. And that is one of the few things that can be said with any certainty about Mauricio Pavez Munilla, who holds a Chilean passport and an expired U.S. tourist visa and seems determined not to return to his country even if it means living in homeless shelters and scraping dollars off the street.

One other thing is certain about Pavez. He is angry. He's mad about being a crime victim last November, and angrier still at the legions of officials, public servants, and law enforcers in Florida who, as he sees it, have let him down. Since arriving in Miami from Orlando eight months ago, Pavez has been on a crusade to Dade County's various social or legal service offices. He has told his story to a huge contingent of bureaucrats and attorneys and a few reporters -- many of whom have noticed that the story is not always the same, that the details shift and slide. But the events did happen, one way or another, leaving Pavez to live in an American limbo, not at all the dream he seems to have been looking for.

Some claim he could go home to Chile today. But he insists he really can't go back, at least not until the State of Florida somehow recognizes its responsibility for what happened to him in Orlando, the tourist mecca Pavez calls, apparently without irony, la ciudad de Pato Donald -- the city of Donald Duck.

It was Pavez's 36th birthday, November 10, and he was on his way to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Orlando after spending the day at Disney World. He was walking to the station to pick up a duffel bag, his only luggage, which he'd left in a locker. It was around 11:00 p.m. As he neared the building, he says, a man in dreadlocks caught up with him, smashed a metal container over his head, and lifted his last $42. Bleeding from a gash near his left ear, Pavez made his way into the station, where someone called the police. An Orange County deputy sheriff showed up along with another officer, both of whom spoke Spanish, and filled out an incident report. They called an ambulance to transport Pavez to Princeton Hospital, where doctors diagnosed a perforated eardrum. "They told me if I didn't take care of it I could lose my hearing," Pavez recounts. He was bandaged and given free antibiotics and pain pills.

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