A Skid Row Sleepover

Wherein our intrepid writer attempts to pierce the veil of sleaze on Miami's main street

The stretch of Biscayne Boulevard that slices through the Upper Eastside has long been Miami's version of skid row. Near hotels with bright neon signs that are totems of some bygone era of tourism -- the Seven Seas, Sinbad, Shalimar, Star Dust, Vagabond, and Sunshine Motel -- hookers ply their trade curbside. Pimps lurk nearby. And crack dealers whisper offers to passing pedestrians.

But in the past few years, the boulevard has, well, turned a corner. Real estate from downtown north to 79th Street has shot up in value and millions of dollars in construction is under way. Just north of Bayside, the Miami Heat is building a $165 million arena. A few blocks up, the county will soon commence construction on a $200-plus million performing arts center. Smaller projects line the boulevard to NE 55th Street, where a fashionable restaurant named for Miami's premier restaurateur, Mark Soyka, opened in May. A gourmet grocery has been operating next door since April and both a cinema and a new theater are planned for the neighborhood. Urban homesteading in Morningside, Belle Meade, and Buena Vista has both fueled and benefited from the boom.

The outlaw culture along Biscayne may or may not survive the yuppie onslaught, but one thing is clear: The place has a powerful draw. Both the humble and the mighty have been apprehended while pursuing sordid sex here. It was at NE 31st Street just off Biscayne, in 1992, that former-County Commissioner Joe Gersten was caught smoking crack with a hooker while thieves stole his Mercedes. In April 1998 Miami-Dade County Court Judge Reginald Richardson was charged with offering $50 to a prostitute at the corner of Biscayne and, coincidentally, NE 31st Street. And of course, this past January, on Super Bowl eve, Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson was popped by the cops at NE 22nd Street trying to pick up an undercover officer pretending to be a call girl. He offered $40 for a blowjob. Robinson agreed to counseling and the charges were dropped. Gersten took off for Australia. Richardson was acquitted after claiming he stopped to help a woman in distress.

Such a distinguished history.

And yet this era could be nearing an end. So in late August I resolved to see firsthand the motels and those who earn their livings at night. So, on a Thursday night I threw some shirts, pants, underwear, a bathing suit (ever the optimist), and a pewter flask containing some ten-year-old Haitian rum into a backpack and embarked from my South Beach apartment.

My first stop was just off the boulevard at the home of two friends who live in Morningside. The city is currently finishing a decadelong project to block access into the neighborhood from Biscayne (workers are placing barriers where NE 52nd Terrace through NE 57th Street meet the boulevard and two guard gates are going up), so I was forced to turn at NE 52nd Street. The reason for the construction is residents' desire to thwart prostitutes, drug dealers, and others from taking their clients down the quiet, tree-lined streets.

My friends, a photographer and a writer, rent a beautiful Thirties-era, two-bedroom, pale peach house. Its back yard includes two avocado trees and an aviary. After questioning my idea of a good time, one of them offers me some pillow cases. I decline. I don't want to dilute the experience. She then wraps a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in tinfoil. I accept. When I turn on to Biscayne, the quiet, banyan-lined streets vanish like a mirage.

My plan is to stay in the most rundown motel first and then upgrade. At 10:00 p.m. I pull into the parking lot of the Sinbad Motel on NE 61st Street. Almost as soon as I step from my car, I hear a husky voice to my left ask, "You need anything?" I turn and observe a young black man on the sidewalk. I quickly conclude he's not a motel employee. "No, no," I say. "I'm okay." Then I walk briskly to the office, a cashier's window with bulletproof glass, and ring the buzzer. An Indian man appears. A list of rules posted on a wall next to the window states in bold print: "There are no hourly rates!" I ask for a room. "Thirty-three dollars. You can't have any unregistered guests in your room, and no drug use," he warns sternly. That shouldn't be a problem, I tell him. I fork over the cash, along with a two-dollar key deposit. He gives me room number 24 on the second floor. On the way to my car to get my bag, I pass a scruffy man in a T-shirt and jeans. "Need anything? Need anything?" he asks quietly. "No, I'm good," I shake my head. As I turn back toward the motel, I note a friendly looking couple sitting on the stairs.

When I step into my room, I get a perverse thrill. It's delightfully seedy. There is one double bed, a dresser, a bedside table, and a TV mounted on a swinging arm that is attached to the wall. The strong scent of deodorizer fills the humid air. I turn on the air conditioner, which emits a frigid breeze. The blinds are drawn, but where some of the slats have broken, newspaper is taped to the window. I examine the bathroom. The fixtures are stained with rust and there is a nearly empty roll of toilet paper. I decide to leave my things in my dopp kit.

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