They Got Sammy

He was a street philosopher, a crusader, a gambler, and the unofficial mayor of Hialeah's black ghetto. Now he's gone to prison, and he's not coming back.

From the porch of Toby's Market, Sweetcakes can all but see his neighborhood vanish like the swampland it once was. "That house right there," he says pointing across a small municipal park. "A black family owned it for like 40 years. Now a Spanish couple's buying it. This is going on all the time. This community's disappearing. This is a struggle, big-time."

Sweetcakes is mourning Seminola, the traditionally black neighborhood in the middle of Hialeah. From its origins as an outpost for escaped slaves and fugitive Seminole Indians to its history in the segregated South, Seminola's legacy has been one of struggle. Seminolans have struggled with racism, the police, unemployment, drugs, and one another. And now, to hear Sweetcakes tell it, they strive not to disappear.

On good days the place can be as easygoing as the country crossroads it once was. "Like a hick town with a little store in it," one resident observes, though it is no town and it's far from hicksville.

The "little store" he refers to is Toby's, a dog-eared building sitting on a worn bit of sidewalk across from a grassy athletic field on West Fifth Avenue. Toby's serves as the unofficial neighborhood center. The blue paint on its walls is chipped. The front porch lists to the left. A couple of 55-gallon drums turned into barbecues rest in back. On a recent afternoon groups of men sit on the porch and cluster on the sidewalk. One man in dusty jeans leans against a pickup truck, chatting with a stocky fellow whose deep brown skin, as impenetrably dark as coal, is offset by his white T-shirt. "At the canal they catchin' specs," the big man says, the gold teeth in his mouth glinting like sparks. Two rigged fishing rods lie in the bed of his truck. Holding up his hands, he adds: "This big."

Toby's is where the men of Seminola have always come to learn valuable things: news and sports tips, which horses are running fast at nearby Hialeah Park, where to get a cheap muffler. They learn which couples are breaking up and where the jobs are. They also hear who has just been arrested, who has just been sentenced, and who is looking for a little action.

By most accounts the brightest man to step off the porch in a long time is the store's former owner, Sammy Wilson. Slim, with salt-and-pepper hair and a short beard like a used Brillo pad, Wilson grew up in Seminola and lived there until he bought himself a little condo in Carol City. But he visited the porch almost every day of his adult life. He'd park his red Honda Civic by the curb, unfold the newspaper on the steering wheel, and pore over the events of the past day with a critical eye, itching to challenge the implied conclusions contained in the pages.

"Sammy, he's one of the brightest black guys to come up in Seminola," says his cousin Bobby. "He had what we call book sense and street sense."

"He always enjoyed a good brain fight," says his friend Sweetcakes. "He knew the law, and when people in the neighborhood got wronged he'd step up for them."

With a near photographic memory and an aptitude for math, Wilson's innate talents might have lifted him off the raggedy porch if his life had been different. But it's unlikely. He felt too comfortable here. In an odd way, Wilson cared too much about Seminola to leave. He cared about it not in a rah-rah civic sense but in an us-against-them, we-may-be-dirt-poor-but-fuck-with-us-and-you'll-see-what-we're-made-of way. So instead of getting a job, Wilson visited the porch. And eventually he made a name for himself.

Wilson became a sort of patron saint for the fallen. He set out to defend the rights of drug dealers and convicts. He was famous for filing brutality and harassment complaints against the Hialeah Police Department. He brought in the American Civil Liberties Union to stave off what he said were indiscriminate police searches and attacked mismanagement of a government program set up to provide jobs for the unemployed. And he became a one-man relief effort for his buddies in the system. He racked up thousands of dollars in phone bills taking calls from inmates who needed help, and he sent money and care packages to them and their families.

But Wilson was an unrepentant drug dealer himself. Ever since he was a kid in a segregated Dade County hustling dollar joints, the narcotics marketplace was the one constant in the ghetto's uncertain economy. "I've got to tell you, Sammy Wilson is one of the most likable people I've ever met," recounts Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. "He was a very smart guy. He could have been anything he wanted. But he was there to do wrong to the community."

Wrong or right, it beat trying to find work in the white world. But such employment is unstable. Now there's an empty spot on the porch at Toby's Market.

"They got me this time." Sammy Wilson says it matter-of-factly after ordering lunch at Joe's Seafood on the Miami River late last year. His shoulders are slightly rounded, like a boxer with bad posture. Wilson is sporting a red and blue tracksuit and one of his floppy knit caps that, he notes, a lady in prison makes for him in a variety of colors. He talks in a quick rasp. The "they" to whom he refers are the police. Wilson was caught with two kilos of cocaine in his house. The admission comes just as a waiter arrives with crackers and fish spread. Wilson continues, explaining that he brokered a deal between a friend and someone else. The friend, he says, set him up. Because of prior convictions, Wilson is facing 30 years in prison. He is 49 years old, has prostate cancer and degenerative eye disease, no health insurance, and $30,000 in credit-card debt. What goes unsaid is that he figures he'll die behind bars. "I'm going to fight it," he declares. "What else can I do? Even if they offer me 15 years, it's still as bad as 30."

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