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
On a Friday evening Lawrence Moore is standing on Fourteenth Street in Overtown behind the open back door of his big white delivery truck, which is parked next to his grocery store. It's about 5:00 p.m., the time some people crave Moore's conch salad and drive by for a cup. The sturdy soft-spoken 51-year-old, dressed in a beige Dickie's work outfit, serves up the spicy, diced concoction from two coolers perched at the edge of the truck's otherwise empty cargo compartment. He charges one dollar. He also offers bullets (slang for muscadine grapes) and slices of fresh pineapple seasoned with vinegar, salt, and pepper for a buck. "When football season is on, I'm out hustling on the streets," he says, noting that such excursions can garner almost three times as much money as his store on any given day. "Sometimes I'm out selling on the street till two o'clock in the morning."
Then two cop cars pass, and a tall gray-bearded man with a backpack strolls down the sidewalk belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner." "Oh say can you seeeee ... !" He heads into the shop to buy a beer.
Were it not for profits from the sale of the conch salad and homemade baked goods, Moore's grocery store might have closed long ago. A look up and down the block offers one explanation for the lack of cash flow. Across the street is a vacant overgrown lot, sandwiched by one small apartment building that was abandoned long ago and another that is nearly empty. The lack of customers would be enough to drive out most shopkeepers. But Moore and his wife Lessie have endured far more daunting misfortunes during their 22-year tenure, including riots, fatal shootings, and the myriad problems that arise in one of the most blighted communities in the United States.
Over the past decade, the Moores' inventory has dwindled to a sparse two aisles whose shelves bear a few cans of soup and vegetables, six dusty bags of charcoal, and a smattering of chips and other snacks. A few baseball caps, baby pacifiers, and a lone pair of boxer shorts in a yellowed plastic package hang from hooks on a wall of particleboard behind the register. Cans of beer, which float in two cylindrical containers near an old vinyl check-out counter, and cigarettes are the place's bread and butter.
Along the back wall is a dilapidated deli counter that harkens to more prosperous times. The refrigerator case stopped working three years ago, when thieves stole the copper wiring from a compressor outside. In another section, empty shelves and counters in varying degrees of disrepair stand amid a jumble of plastic milk crates. Nearby three tall glass-door refrigerators are empty.
Amid the Spartan offerings, one can find slices of Lessie's sweet potato pie and layer cake, which seem like ambrosia alongside the junk food and canned goods. This evening the energetic 47-year-old is also serving up roast turkey and rice for three dollars per plate.
It would be difficult to find a place in Miami-Dade County more in need of economic revival than Overtown, and equally hard to identify a business in greater need of assistance than Moore's Grocery, which has been at 122 NW Fourteenth St. for 22 years. Knowing they could not fuel a financial recovery with sales of conch salad and baked goods alone, the Moores this summer applied for a $25,000 grant from the county's Commercial Revitalization Program. A total of 52 business owners from Homestead to North Miami-Dade also entered the competition; five were located in Overtown. In October the county divided a little more than $1.1 million in awards among seventeen companies. None of the Overtown applicants won.
On this Friday the Moores receive another rebuff, courtesy of a City of Miami code inspector. He leaves a notice warning they could be fined up to $500 dollars per day if they don't improve the building's façade, remove trash, and renew their $250 occupational license for the boarding rooms upstairs. "Three people moved out on me this week," Lawrence notes, adding that he can't really afford the fee. Then there's the price of conch, which has shot up. That will cut into salad proceeds.
The glut of bad news isn't discouraging to Moore, though. He is seated in a chair behind the register later on this evening when a thin man walks in. "Turkey," the reticent customer says.
"Oh, you is a turkey," the grocer jests.
The man says he has only two dollars.
"It costs three dollars," Moore tells him.
"I'll fix you up in a minute," Moore says with a sigh, surrendering to his charitable nature.
A few minutes later a man jogs into the store. "You better call an ambulance," he shouts nervously. The storekeeper rushes outside and over to the dark stairway that leads to the second floor. As it turns out, one of the Moores' tenants is drunk and has passed out on the stairs. "You okay?" Moore asks the inebriated man. "Yeah," he gurgles.
Moore heads back inside. "That guy has rented a room for about six months. But wherever night catch him, that's where he sleep at."