Elian Nation

Scenes from a splintered city

"I'm ashamed to be an American, I'll tell you that," he says, as the barber wraps a cape around his neck. "This is like Berlin in 1939, the Kristalnacht or whatever you call it. The government storming into a home to steal a six-year-old boy! Well, what can you expect when you have a draft-dodging flag-burner in the White House?"

Thin white hairs are slicked down with bottled water. Scissors slice off little tufts, which flutter to the ground. "Those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it," he says, launching down a well-worn path. "Go out and stop any car on the street. Take any twenty-year-old from the car. Ask him if he graduated from high school. He'll say yes. Ask if he went to college, he'll say yes. Then ask him who killed Abraham Lincoln. He won't be able to tell you. I'm serious! Six out of ten people won't be able to tell you, or something like that. What happened on December 7, 1941? They don't know. It's despicable!"

The clippers are out now, shearing stubble from the man's neck. "Anyway, I'm disgusted to be an American today. I'd be out there rioting, too, if I were Cuban. Damn right I'd be rioting. Clinton! Reno! Dealing with them is like dealing with Neville Chamberlain. Remember him, holding up that piece of paper? Ha! Ronald Reagan is probably turning over in his grave."

Playboy raises an eyebrow.

"I mean, if he were dead," the man says, correcting himself.

Outside the shop's glass front door, an elderly civil servant scribbles notes on a small yellow legal pad. His polo shirt identifies him as a Surfside zoning-compliance officer. He is frowning.

"Aw, what's he looking at?" asks the barber, peering out the door. "Probably my awning. Look at that awning! I just repainted it except for that one little strip where there's a leak. That's what he's probably writing up."

The barber shuffles back to his post. "The government," he says, shaking his head.

About 11:00 a.m., a block from the Little Havana home where Elian spent 150 days, Antonio Albanes is performing. As street protests explode on nearby Flagler Street, Albanes stands on a platform at the base of an eight-foot-high cross, his arms splayed outward in the style of Christ's crucifixion. He wears a frayed straw hat. Tacked to the wooden crucifix is an upside-down American flag, which presumably signals the disgust Albanes says he feels over the U.S. government's actions. He speaks into a microphone attached to his shirt and hooked up to two speakers mounted on a gray Volkswagen Passat he drove to Miami from his Key Largo home. "I left behind my daughter, my son, my wife to come here," he wails. "I come to give you a message. I am just a simple man." After pausing to take a drink of water, he repeats his lament: "I left my wife...."

"This is nothing compared to L.A.," explains 45-year-old Steven Hollaeaugh. "I was living in Hollywood during the L.A. riots. The difference here is that I'm not afraid for my life." As he talks a cluster of teenagers wearing bandannas over their faces drags a Dumpster 40 feet into the middle of NW Seventeenth Avenue. They flip it over and set fire to the trash that spills out. A bare-chested man with a can of beer in one hand and a Cuban flag in the other stands nearby, loudly egging them on; a swarm of cars and trucks blocking the intersection at Flagler Street honks its approval. Passengers lean out their windows, smiling, screaming, vigorously waving more flags. No police are in sight. The mood is that of a block party.

Before the INS raid, Hollaeaugh (now a Little Havana resident) favored returning Elian to his father. After viewing vivid photos of the troops storming in, however, he changed his mind. For him Waco is no longer a far-fetched comparison, and Attorney General Janet Reno's explanations aren't convincing. "I'm part Indian," Hollaeaugh says, "so I've been lied to so many times by the government I can't believe anything they say."

Ten minutes pass before a fire engine and several police cruisers arrive. As a fireman turns a water hose on the flaming Dumpster, both the crowd and the mass of stopped cars move on. A middle-age man sidles over. "That's my Dumpster out there," he says, shaking his head, then pointing back to his nearby business. "These people are crazy. What are these fires going to help?" Of more immediate concern is who will pay for the damage. "Who's gonna drag it back?" he asks with exasperation. The suggestion that he approach the firemen for some help doesn't go over well. "I ain't saying anything to anybody," he declares. As for the Dumpster: "I'm going to have to go back and read my contract and see who's responsible in case of a riot."

Capitalism thrives amid the tear gas, tire fires, and rock throwing. At a Shell station on NW Seventeenth Avenue and Seventh Street, across from the Orange Bowl, a man who identifies himself only as Vernon unloads a stash of Elian T-shirts and flags left over from the Calle Ocho street festival in March.

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