The Sociology of Suds

Overtown gets clean at Mister Lee's

"Quite a few of them start out all right, but they just fade out," he remarks. "It's a shame about that. It's discipline, you see. They just haven't got that. There's a few still around doing well. Those that do well though, they usually leave." He thinks a moment. "There was one guy, Ben Hanks, who played official football with the Minnesota Vikings. He's back here now, teaching and coaching at Booker T. Washington." (Hanks was also a Gator linebacker from 1992-95 and the first Gator to wear a number eleven jersey after Steve Spurrier's playing days.)

He has no beef with officialdom generally, although he is fully appreciative of the ironies and hypocrisies that govern its interaction with people at the neighborhood level. Every election cycle, some local yahoo seeking a throne makes a pit stop, like a tourist on a sightseeing jaunt. "They all come in during the politician time," Mister Lee laughs. "You don't see 'em again, of course. They always be with someone who knows me. They'll get my attention and I'll come over and get introduced."

Every day, young cops roll by and say hello if they see him standing at the door. He's a fixture here, one of the few outsiders recognize in a place that seems to run by its own arcane rules, understood only by those who live here. "The young guys on the streets will say, 'Mister Lee, why the police holler out at you?' And I say, 'Cause I'm not a lawbreaker.'" If he has a complaint, it's that the cops assigned to patrol Overtown never stay long enough to really develop relationships with the folks. "They need to put them back on foot on the street, so they'd meet the real people and not just those that are messing up," Lee opines. "There's always a whole lot of talk around election times, but then you don't hear anything about it."

Jonathan Postal
At Mister Lee's place, the daily life of Overtown goes 
round and round like clothes in a dryer
Jonathan Postal
At Mister Lee's place, the daily life of Overtown goes round and round like clothes in a dryer

One of Mister Lee's customers is Irby McKnight, a community activist who lives down the street and is considered an unofficial official of the neighborhood. Last year McKnight led a controversial effort to recall city Commissioner Art Teele, whom he had previously supported. McKnight's beef was that, once elected, the politician focused his attention mostly on his own self-interests, ignoring needy constituents. In Miami? Shocking! McKnight and crew eventually dropped the matter when it looked like they might not get all the signatures they needed in the allotted time. Both sides declared victory and business resumed much as before. Lee's take on the matter is the conventional wisdom in Overtown. "People understand now it was a game, and both came out winners," he asserts. "See, we don't want Teele out of there because we'll never get another black commissioner in that seat. We just wanted him to wake up. He learned that, McKnight learned a few things along the way, and the neighborhood reaped the benefit. That's politics, you know. It's a dirty game."

The Frozen Cup Lady and the human guinea pig

One hot, lazy Saturday afternoon, the cooler of the Frozen Cup Lady is parked beside a washing machine near the front of the 'mat, but the lady herself is nowhere to be found. Shirley Hillary has taken a brief pause from hawking chilled fruit punch-flavored Kool-Aid in paper Dixie cups to walk down to the corner store with Lenita. They're after a couple of scratch-off lottery tickets, which they bring back and lay down on the nearest machine, scraping the silver off the numbers with the edge of a coin. Duds, both of them. Lenita frowns and then laughs, leaning forward on her arms, belly pressing against the machine. Shirley bends down to the cooler on its little trolley by her feet and scoops out a frozen cup, taking a quarter from a customer in return.

This is a typical afternoon, although business is usually more brisk when the kids at the elementary school across the street get out for the day. They know to come to Mister Lee's to find Shirley. A handwritten sign taped to the wall near the door advertises: "Frozen Cup Lady 25¢." Her little enterprise isn't exactly legal because she doesn't have a license. Once in a while the police warn her about it. But usually they've got more to worry about in this part of town than Kool-Aid. Shirley's a small woman, with close-cropped hair and a wily, sometimes erratic nature. Before the frozen cup gig, for instance, she'd just hang out to keep Lenita company, and pass the time trying to con the man who comes to empty the coins out of the video games. She'd tell him she'd lost quarters in the machines, and sometimes he'd make it up to her. "He on to me now, though," she remarks with sincere regret.

Outside, an older woman in big fluffy orange Garfield slippers sweeps the gutters in front of the shop. She lives upstairs and does this every day. A tall thin young woman named Stephanie, wearing dark blue shirt, shorts, and blue flip-flops, sits in a chair absently munching Funyuns while she does her boyfriend's laundry. "He don't know how to do laundry," she explains. "I tell him you gotta put bleach in with your whites. But he doesn't listen."

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