Club Coke

Forget booze. This place's big draw is cocaine served tableside.

At the bar, people are ordering powder from a bartender just as they might request more ice in their drinks. A bald, wiry man who sits in a thronelike wicker chair in a side room near the bar quietly attends to these orders. With ramrod-straight posture he walks to table after table bearing a plate with a sifter, plastic spoon, and a playing card. After collecting $25 he lays the plate down like a waiter, opens a small Ziploc bag, and wordlessly dumps cocaine into the flour sifter. Then he crushes the lumpy blocks of blow through the screen and onto the plate with the spoon. Using the corners of the card, patrons scoop up a pinch of the powder and take a bump.

The proprietors are strict about keeping order. At one point I wander out of the poolroom toting a cue stick. The eagle-eye bouncer is there in a flash. "Can't take the stick out of the room," he points out solemnly. It could be used as a weapon. This would be a bad place to cause trouble. It's off society's radar, therefore order has to be imposed from within. It's a sure bet that if something goes down, no one's going to call the cops. Because of that, everyone is warily respectful.

At the pool table, a lean-looking man with a shaved head, his olive-drab work shirt unbuttoned, explains this is his first day out of prison after fourteen years. The charges? "Drugs," he says. "Listen, I'm trying to get my shit together. I just need a little help. Do you want a little pussy? I can get it for you." Not all the people are so raw. One man in a beret introduces himself, says he's a musician, and chats amicably about the Florida Marlins.

In the main room, Red's friend Paco has struck up a conversation with a woman in a halter-top standing by the jukebox. She's friendly and high. She talks excitedly to him. She asks him to take her home. He declines. But he buys her a gin and tonic. "That chick was fucked up," Paco says later. "She was talking a mile a minute, telling me she was in nursing school and that she has a teenage son. She said she didn't come here that often."

Like Red, Paco doesn't do cocaine. He prefers to smoke reefer. He even has a joint on him, but declines to indulge. Something holds him back. "I know it would be cool to whip it out," he says looking around. "But it's not the vibe in this place."

Red, Paco, James, everyone agrees that the mood in the bar is nonthreatening. Two women dance softly to a Bob Marley tune. Men and women sit at tables, talking quietly. Yet Red remains alert. He warns Paco and the others not to ask stupid questions nor leave their drinks unattended. He keeps an eye on James, making sure his friend doesn't talk too much trash at the pool table.

At one point a trim Latino in khakis and a white dress shirt steps up to Red and shows him a snapshot of a smiling dark-haired woman. "This is Maya. Have you seen her?" he asks politely. No, Red replies. "We're looking for her," the man continues, pointing to a group of three other men, similarly well-dressed, standing at the bar. "She talked too much and got my cousin arrested." He smiles pleasantly. "But it's all right; we'll find her." Then he laughs.

That encounter spoils the mood for Red. Perhaps it's the man's conspiratorial tone or the prospect that some real trouble might erupt if Maya indeed comes waltzing through the doors. Whatever the reason, Red decides it's time to go. He rounds up James and Paco, and we head out the door to the car. The pavement and worn-down apartment buildings glisten with rain. The sky is bleeding from night into dawn. This adventure on the surreptitious side of Miami has stunned us.

"That was like something out of a movie," Paco exclaims with awe. "That place had everything. The supplier, the dealer, the user, the addict -- everybody was in that room. It was a place where you can chill and do it. Basically a safe environment. Everybody there was down with the program."

"It is so normal in there," Red concurs. "Disturbingly normal."

Then as the car speeds east, Paco adds, "We were definitely in the heart of it, man."

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