The Sociology of Suds

Overtown gets clean at Mister Lee's

Just then Alexander Latortue walks in, looking for Mister Lee. He's supposed to fix one of the washing machines and he keeps his toolbox under the bench in the back. Alexander, who also lives upstairs, cobbles together a living with day labor construction jobs, freelance car maintenance -- and by giving his body to science. "That's Alexander," Mister Lee says. "We call him the guinea pig."

Alexander is a pleasant, well-spoken man of 35 years, with thick braids, neatly groomed facial hair, and an accent that marks him as a non-Miami native. He arrived in Overtown on a bus from South Carolina ten years ago, possessing one garbage bag of clothes and books and three dollars. He knocked around for awhile, homeless, jobless.

Then he heard about the medical research. Local labs that need human subjects to test the final phases of new drugs would pay cash money for swallowing pills and letting the doctors stick you a few times. It turned out to be good, if unstable, work. "The first study I did paid $1000 to stay in for ten days," Alexander recalls fondly. "You know that commercial with the old guy from Cocoon? Zantac 75? I did that study. They monitor you, draw blood, watch you for side effects. In a way it's kind of dangerous."

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

But Alexander tries to stick with testing the less risky medications, like for high blood pressure, asthma, upset stomachs. Some have paid as little as $100, others as high as $2100. "I figure I've made $26,000 to $28,000 on medical research over the years. I could actually buy a house with that amount." But since it comes in unpredictable lumps and trickles, he says the money mostly went for living expenses, and to pay for some courses he took at a local tech school to learn how to build diesel engines.

Until he makes it, Mister Lee's is a good place to be. "This is the one-stop shop for dirty laundry -- of all kinds," he jokes. "You can network and find out what's going on. Mister Lee's a very decent man and a lot of people respect him for who he is. There were many times I was in bad financial shape and he's given me leeway." Suddenly Alexander stops and looks out the window at a white pickup parked in a lot across the street. "Hold that thought," he says. "I've got work. This guy wants me to look at his engine." He grabs the toolbox from under the bench and trots across the street with it.

Near the back of the shop, a washing machine shudders to the end of its spin cycle. Its user is nowhere to be found. Mister Lee rises smoothly from his stool, walks over, and empties the washer. He shakes the wet clothes and carts them over to a dryer, digging one hand into a front pocket for a quarter. "When you own a little community business, you do a lot of extra things," he explains, striding back to his bench. "People depend on it."

A small boy waits by the bench, silently pleading for one more turn in the arcade.

"You can't have no more," Lee says firmly. "You done got 75 cents out of me already."

And this time, he means it.

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