Florida City's Main Man

Hubert Albury is a fixture in South Miami-Dade's political scene. He also cooks a mean pigeon peas and rice.

Saturday nights usually start off low-key at the Elks Lodge on SW Eleventh Avenue in Homestead; members check in a few at a time at the front door, then find seats at cloth-covered tables in the cavernous banquet room. A disc jockey spins soul selections from the Seventies and Eighties, and some couples immediately hit the dance floor. Most of these early arrivals are middle-age or beyond, dressed in fancy suits or dresses, and sporting weighty gold rings and watches. This 50-year-old Elks Lodge is still the main social spot for the area's black residents, and because this crowd has been coming here for the past decade or two (even longer for some of them), members generally know each other. It's hard to find a black denizen of South Miami-Dade who isn't connected by love, friendship, or family to this lodge.

By 1:00 in the morning, younger professional men and women arrive wearing polo shirts and baggy jeans, miniskirts and spandex tops. The music has taken on a newer, Caribbean flavor: reggae, dancehall, and Haitian compas. As the hours pass the air grows cloudy with smoke, thick with music and laughter; the crowd is exuberant.

Hubert Albury is there on the dance floor, his impeccably shined black shoes stepping and pivoting, the jacket of his metallic-gray suit swaying open with the restrained pumping of his arms. His dance partner is a younger lady friend who also frequents the lodge. Albury is over six feet tall and slender, with short, unevenly shaped hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee. He claims to have shown up here every Saturday night for the past 27 years, save for the Christmas visits to his family home in the Bahamas, and one Saturday a month ago, when he had the flu.

Albury is 65 years old and a member of one of the largest extended families in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys. He has lived in Florida City since 1953 (excluding a five-year hiatus), and for eleven years he was the Elk who oversaw most of the lodge's social functions. That post, along with his popularity among the females, earned him the nickname Rooster. For a time he also ran a canteen at the lodge, serving up his own Bahamian cooking. Now, Albury says, he's semiretired after more than 55 wage-earning years. He's worked as a champion tomato picker; a builder of homes, boats, roads, and a movie set; and, for a few winters, keeper of Herbert Hoover's pipe collection.

Nearly everyone knows Hubert Albury, not only because he's been around for a while, but because he gets involved in virtually every community or charity project in one way or another. Some people describe him as one of their major inspirations. Albury's personal history contains plenty of inspiring moments, but it's also part of the historic Bahamian migration to Florida, which over a century shaped much of the character of Dade and Monroe counties. His mother, a cousin, and a nephew reside in the United States, but most of his family still live in the Bahamas.

His recollections come out in no particular order; he moves, in a single conversation, from the Eighties to the Fifties, as if his memories no longer exist in the past: They're all here with him now. He calls them up between downs in the Steelers-Packers game or the Jacksonville rout of Cincinnati. Some things, like Saturday nights at the Elks club, are more or less sacrosanct to Albury, another being Sunday-afternoon football. He is like most other red-blooded American males from September to January: glued to the TV on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. But Albury has never really been completely American, partly because he was denied many rights enjoyed by white citizens, but mostly because he was born in the islands and has never quite left them. Another almost inviolable Albury custom: Christmas in the Bahamas in Lower Bogue on the north end of Eleuthera.

"That's where the water is as clear as looking through this room," he says, staring ahead, maybe at the TV or beyond to the shimmery Bahamian seas. Like many islanders Albury has light-brown, almost hazel eyes that contrast strikingly with the opaque darkness of his skin. "That's where people live like people. They celebrate 365 days a year."

While watching TV Albury usually sits in one of two black vinyl recliners in his den, thus keeping an eye out for guests at the back screen door. To find him visitors drive through an opening in a gate and onto the grass in the yard, where two or three friendly mutts greet them. Then they make their way around Albury's Thunderbird motorboat and a maroon Buick Skylark parked at the edge of a small patio.

The den's cypress paneling, crimson-color carpet, and the minimal light, which enters through a window to the back yard, do nothing to brighten the room's general dimness. The blades of a large overhead fan wobble rapidly around a bobbing base. For all practical purposes the back door is the front door of Albury's two-story house (the only two-story on the block, he's proud to say, and one of the few minimally damaged by Andrew). He is still in the process of constructing the place, which he and a former wife built in 1971; he's always knocking out one wall and putting up another one, closing off a porch or adding another room. For the past four years Albury's girlfriend, Ruth Brown, whom he never fails to address as Ms. Brown, and her daughter Trina have lived here, too.

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