A Skid Row Sleepover

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

I give the sergeant, a clean-shaven man in a green polo shirt, my card and tell him I'm interested in observing. This is how it works, he tells me. The three female officers stand out on Biscayne within sight of at least two male cops, termed the "takedown squad." When cars approach, the women negotiate a price for their services. If drivers mention a dollar amount, officers request a meeting around the corner, where the beefy backups are waiting.

For the next two hours I wait in the station and watch as a parade of males wearing plastic handcuffs are written up, then released. There's an endless supply. Biscayne is a river for depraved desire. Most of the johns react dispassionately when they learn their cars are being towed and that they will be charged with soliciting a prostitute, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail for a first offender. Under a one-year-old city program, the johns will have to pay $1000 to get their cars back.

One of the first arrestees is Miguel, a 33-year-old, mustachioed, one-legged man in shorts and no shirt. He enters the station on crutches after a blond, baby-faced cop solicitously opens the door. Despite his disability Miguel is healthy and almost boyish in appearance. He jokes with the officers in English and Spanish. When the paperwork is complete, they allow him to step outside and smoke a cigarette. He agrees to talk with me as long as I don't use his last name.

"I pulled up to this corner and this lady came up to me, and, you know, she said, 'How much you got?' and I said, 'Hey, I just bought this beer, I got about eighteen dollars,'" he recounts. "She says, 'Eighteen bucks sounds pretty good to me. Meet me around the corner.'" Miguel laughs. "I've lived in Miami too long. Here's a beautiful young thing, straight out of Playboy, and she's willing to go with me for eighteen bucks? I said to her 'You smell like 'trol [as in 'patrol']. She's like, 'No, no, I ain't no cop.' I didn't go where she wanted me to go, but they pulled me over anyway."

Miguel takes a long drag from his cigarette, and leans heavily on his crutches. "Let 'em arrest me." He winks and gestures to his stump. He says he lost his leg owing to clogged arteries, which he describes as "old man's disease." "They can't do anything worse to me than that. I tell you what: I'm going to go home and I'll get another car and I'll pick up another prostitute tonight most likely. You can't keep me down."

In five hours police net nineteen alleged johns. Among them is a Spaniard dressed in a pressed blue shirt, gray slacks, and black dress shoes. There's also a heavyset sixteen-year-old kid who tells the officers he was on his way home from a football game when friends dared him to talk to a woman they assumed was a hooker. The arrest report states he offered five dollars for a blowjob.

Across the street at the Davis Motel, Adela is watching the activity from the balcony. She is from the Bahamas and comes to Miami once a month to shop for supplies she can't find in Nassau, she explains. A travel agent booked her in the Davis because it is near the office of a doctor whom a friend is seeing. Motel managers and the police tell me that many of the legitimate guests at the motels are from the Caribbean islands.

I explain to Adela why the police cars and handcuffed men are there. "This is frightening, mon" she says with an island lilt. "Why are the men doing this? Are they here in this motel?" she asks. "Do you think there are prostitutes in this motel?"

Even during the Great Depression, the boulevard was a source of pride for the city, according to a 1939 Work Projects Administration Guide to Florida. The publication describes Biscayne as "Miami's show street ... adorned with royal palms." After World War II, when the United States started its love affair with the automobile, motels sprang up on the boulevard in a cluster. They catered to tourists on their way to the Keys and families who couldn't afford pricier inns on Miami Beach. The new structures were modest, affordable, and clean. There were few architectural flourishes; they were geared more toward convenience than style. The signs, swirls of neon, accented by flashing light bulbs, were the sole flamboyant touches.

Stores such as Burdines and Jordan Marsh, restaurants like the Red Coach Grill, and movie theaters sprang up on Biscayne. All along the boulevard restaurants and shops opened. "This was just a grand area," recalls historian Paul George, who grew up in Miami. "This was a wholesome street, very safe."

The construction of I-95 in the early Sixties put an end to this boom. Once the highway was complete (the link from downtown to NE 95th Street was finished in 1962) travelers bypassed Biscayne on their way to points south. That strangled the life from the motels. Other forces were at work on the boulevard: the racial strife of the Sixties, which prompted white flight from the inner city; the subsequent rise in crime; and the crack epidemic. It became outlaw heaven.

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