By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Few actually know his last name anymore, or that it is one of the Bs of the laundromat's title. Everybody just calls him Mister Lee. Time was, there were eight laundries like Mister Lee's within a five-block radius -- back before crack cocaine and the I-95 overpass put O-town under. Now it's just him and two or three others. He's the last old-timer left, the granddaddy of suds around these parts. In 1968, he and a partner (Mister Brown, now deceased) plunked down $30,000 to buy the business from Mister Silverman, who got out of the business just when the civil rights movement began to wash through Miami.
Mister Lee is 71 years old now and wears pretty much the same outfit every day: gold-rimmed glasses, shiny black boots, blue jeans, and a guayabera with four pockets on the front, which he keeps full of quarters. He is the change machine, and also, when in a generous mood, the source of a stray 25-cent piece for the children constantly milling around the miniature arcade at the front of the laundromat. Mister Lee answers the pay phone when it rings, putters around with the machines, or dozes on the back bench next to the television. He also collects the rent for landlords of the apartments upstairs and behind the shop. Meanwhile half of Overtown flows in and out -- some to do laundry, others to leave or collect messages from other residents, who use the place the way lawyers and bankers a few blocks away on Brickell Avenue use e-mail and the power lunch.
By late afternoon or early evening, one-eyed Big Willie would come by in his green Miami Hurricanes shirt to collect a few dollars, which he used to buy lottery tickets at the corner store. (Since Big Willie passed away in November, Lee has had to make other arrangements.) The lottery is Mister Lee's main vice these days, although if you ask him how he's kept his health all these years, he's likely as not to reply with a hearty cackle: "A good steak, a good drink of liquor, and a goo-ood woman!" In truth, he figures his vigor is due to quitting his pack-a-day Viceroy habit twelve years ago, regular doctor visits, and working every day. Having watched his wife pass on a few years after retiring as a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Lee figures retirement is akin to a death sentence. "Retiring?" he jests. "What's that? I might start slowing up in another five years, but retiring? I'm going to leave here scratching and hollerin'."
Mister Lee's is also a reliable stop on the hand-shaking, baby-kissin' trail of countless would-be kings, as well as a succession of ambitious police chiefs doing the obligatory neighborhood walk-through before retreating to the safety of headquarters downtown. It's a place that has seen Overtown at its best and its absolute worst. Now a new transformation proceeds uneasily through the ruined streets outside Mister Lee's door. Entrepreneurs, speculators, dreamers, and swindlers, all attracted by the low cost of land just blocks from Biscayne Bay, are beginning to flood the neighborhood. Hip clubs like I/O and Space 34 (or whatever it's calling itself this week), focaccia sandwich shops like Gili's, these are pressing in at the edges of Overtown, promising a wave of urban renewal as profoundly altering as desegregation. A sign the city has tacked onto a lamppost across from the laundromat declaims: "Miami Has a New Face."
The slogan is unintentionally ironic and sad. For in 30 years of dumping cash and empty promises into Overtown, not one politician nor his attendant bureaucracy has managed to make a significant difference for the people left to rot there while the jobs disappeared, housing crumbled, and families disintegrated. The recent, well-publicized scandal in the city's Community Redevelopment Agency is only one example of how this occurred. Destitution in the inner city has paid out big time for Miami's bustling poverty industry, but not so much for the actual poor folk. So it is with a uniquely Miami blend of skepticism and hope that most long-time Overtown residents view the changes coming their way. "Since the Seventies, this is the first time I've had any indication they really want to do something," remarks Mister Lee, leaning back on his bench to stretch his long legs. "Every other time they'd do a good song and dance and get nothing done." That's the hope.
"The fear is that once it's developed it'll be too expensive for anybody here to live," he continues. "It's lousy, but it's progress. Progress never suit everybody. Never did."
Mister Lee drives in from his home in Liberty City every morning just before the 6:00 a.m. opening time. He parks his truck and walks across NW Third Avenue to unlock the metal gate in front of the door. Within minutes, the place is humming with electricity and the early risers saunter in with the first load of the day. Soon, Larry or Ringo, or sometimes Lenita, arrives with the coffee and a day's worth of gossip and bawdy jokes. "My favorite time is the mornings," Mister Lee confesses. "I like people around me doing things. Even if they not doing laundry, people stop in and leave messages for somebody else. I'm here all day long and they know I'll probably see 'em."
That's been the routine for a good fifteen years, at least right up until Larry, a retired probation officer, succumbed to cancer a couple of months ago. "He fought it a long time," Mister Lee shrugs painfully, his usual grin slipping right off his face. "We was worried about him, but he try to be a proud old bird. He always could talk more trash than a freight train." So now Mister Lee gets his own coffee, if he can't cajole longshoreman Elizah Mackey, a.k.a. Ringo, into it. Just before noon, Lenita (who has also taken over lottery duties from Big Willie) comes by to watch the place for a few hours while Mister Lee grabs lunch and a snooze. He's usually back by four in the afternoon, and locks up by about 8:30 p.m.
Lenita Gibbs is a short heavy woman of 60 years, with a broad open face that sports a few black and white chin hairs. She wears her hair in short salt and pepper braids unraveling at the ends. When she isn't scowling at the foolish antics of wayward children, she's laughing raucously, mouth gaping and wildly bereft of teeth. Lenita, who worked at a Steak and Ale for a long time, became part of the informal coffee club a few years ago. "We tried a couple of other ladies, but it never worked," Mister Lee explains. "Lenita just fit. She think we're funny and we like that."
Lenita fit in so well because she's a sucker for gossip, but she can also hold her own in man talk. "We talk about everything -- the mens, the womens -- just everything that go on," she says. "I wasn't even a coffee drinker really. My granddaddy used to say, 'Drinking coffee makes you black.'" Lenita rolls her eyes and laughs at her childhood gullibility. When Mister Lee decided the guy he used to have watch his place in the afternoons wasn't working out, he asked Lenita if she wanted the job. "She did," Mister Lee remembers, "and it was the best thing ever happened."
Lenita lives down the street with one of her three sons. In the mornings, she walks her granddaughter Briana to Frederick Douglass Elementary School, which is just catty-corner across NW Third Avenue from Mister Lee's. Then she'll wander about, get a few games of Tetris in on her son's PlayStation, and head down to the laundry. There, it is her mission to put right all that has gone wrong since the morning, when people began coming in to, in her opinion, take advantage of her old friend's good nature. "Mister Lee got all the people here spoiled rotten," she harrumphs affectionately. "He loan them money sometimes. He let them use the buckets in back and then they don't bring 'em back. So I have to go around the neighborhood and round 'em up."
Lenita continues her rant: "He one of the nicest people have a business in this area. The majority of the parents here, he helped across the street as children. These kids, he gives 'em money. Then when he gone, they look at me. And I say, 'I don't have no quarters for no games!'"
Mister Lee's laundry is a shrine to black pride. The walls are plastered with old posters and sports pennants, Dolphins, UM, Bethune-Cookman College. There's a black and white team photo of the 1955 Crispus Attucks High School basketball team in Indianapolis. "That was the first all-black team that won a state championship," Lee remarks proudly. There are several old calendars, either Great Queens of Africa or Great Kings. There's the obligatory portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. Also clipped to the walls are numerous community flyers and old news articles. The top of the April 2, 2002 edition of the Miami Times headlined "Black Oscar Winners" shows Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Sidney Poitier.
There's a framed portrait of a young and arrogant boxer, Everlast gloves held up. His handle is Electrifying Classius Ali (a.k.a. Wayne Blair). He's an Overtown kid, a long-time customer, and one of the boys who took boxing lessons with the Police Benevolent Association, going on to make a minor sensation of himself as a junior middleweight. "He got pretty good," Mister Lee offers. "But you know, the boxing business is rotten and he fell down. He still wash here, though."
The tiny arcade at the front consists of a pinball machine and three battered video games: Street Fighter Plus, Metal Slug, and the classic, Ms. Pac-Man. The pinball machine is called The Getaway, and features a red car with a hot blonde in the passenger seat and the license plate "Kingpin." Two brown-skinned adolescent boys enthusiastically hit the flipper to whack the little silver ball through the gates.
A younger boy of perhaps three or four years stands behind them for a moment, then toddles past a row of yellow and white washing machines, back to where Mister Lee is perched on a stool near his work bench. Tacked above the bench is a handwritten list of names of who owes rent, and a "hot list" of who owes back rent. A Jackson Memorial janitor comes in to pay his rent. He lays out $360 in four piles of twenties while Lee writes out a receipt and locks the money away for the landlord to collect later.
Mister Lee is expounding on his youth as one of six kids brought up on a farm in North Carolina. It's a well-worn tale about how he left the sweet potato fields and came to Miami in the late Fifties on vacation after getting out of the Army, and ended up with a job at a local dairy. Before long, he had a wife too, a nice girl from work who he had his eye on right from the start. "I was a mere 27 then," he sighs. "Some of the ladies at the dairy was going to a get-together one Sunday afternoon and they invited me. Well, of course I was going to go along!" He chortles richly. "And in that way we got to pair off. We got married in July of 1961."
The boy marches up to the old man on his stool.
"Let's see man, what you got? Let's see what you got?" Mister Lee teases.
The boy flashes empty palms and a blank look at him.
"What!" Mister Lee asks in mock surprise. "How you going to play the game with no money?"
The boy's face remains expressionless, his chubby short body swaying a little on bowed legs. Mister Lee tries to confound him.
Pause. Scowl. Pause. Grin.
It's no good. The boy's not cracking.
"Here," Mister Lee relents, pressing a quarter in the boy's hand. The boy turns to go.
"Thank you?" the elder reminds.
"Thank you," the boy repeats dutifully.
"All right then, okay," Mister Lee responds, adding, "Once in a while I get my lessons in."
Mister Lee looks at the boy again, this time wistfully. "See this boy, you know he's only 'bout three years old? A big boy, though, huh? I don't know what his name is. There was a time I would have. At one time people used to leave their children here. I'd have snacks for 'em. It were like a day care. They'd go to work early and drop their kid off here. The kid would go to Douglass and in the afternoon come back here. Before they started with school crossing guards, there were some kids that wouldn't cross the street. They'd call me --" he pantomimes a small boy hollering with both hands cupped around his mouth -- "Mister Lee! Mister Lee! I'd stop what I was doing and walk across the street. I did that for 30 years. They finally gave me a plaque for it in 1997.
"It's a shame," he continues. "I'm crazy about kids and they all seem to like me pretty good. But I kinda back up just a little bit now. It's not the same. But back in the Sixties and Seventies? Boy, I raised the kids. I would scold them. Matter of fact, there's guys in their forties, they tell me, 'We used to play hooky from school, we'd have to dodge you more than we'd dodge our parents. Cause if Mister Lee see you, he would take you by the ear!'" he laughs.
Good times and bad
Back in the 1940s, the building on Twelfth Street and Third Avenue that houses the laundry and the $75-a-week apartments above it was a sundry store run by the Barkley family, one of the successful merchant clans that built the neighborhood into a shining example of black prosperity. By 1961, when Mister Lee took on an extra part-time job working at the laundry, ownership had passed into white hands. Overtown was still a kicking place to live, but the decline was slowly coming.
Before he got hitched and moved with the rest of the black middle class of that era to Liberty City, Mister Lee enjoyed a few years living on NW Third Avenue, the heart of Harlem South. The blocks around Second and Third avenues in that day were packed with good restaurants, stores, swanky nightclubs and hotels. Black entertainers hired to sing and dance and fight on Miami Beach weren't allowed to party there, so they all headed to Overtown's entertainment district, where they lived it up to a degree that would put today's South Beach to shame. "Back then, people would get off work, go home to change, and be right back out for dinner," Mister Lee reminisces. "It wasn't nothing to see Cassius Clay or Joe Louis walk the street. It wasn't nothing. Flip Wilson, Sammy Davis, all of them. Soon as I get off of work, I would walk from 21st Street all the way down to 7th Street on the Avenue. By the time you'd make your way back home, it's one or two o'clock in the morning."
He pauses, then resumes, looking out at the street the same way he looked at the last boy who asked him for a quarter. "It's sad that a lot of young people will never know how it was back then," he laments. "There was a history, a meaning to it. They think it's just always been this way. No no no no! We had everything here."
In the late Sixties, the first rippling of a new era of social unrest began to bubble through Miami. The man who owned the Laundromat in Overtown and other black neighborhoods began talking about selling off the place. The Liberty City riots in 1968 during the Republican National Convention on Miami Beach clinched it. "He said, 'I'm going to pull out. You guys should have it.' I think we paid about $30,000." That seemed like a fortune at the time, but back then business was still booming. Lee Bethune and his partner (who died in 1971) had commercial clients as well as residential traffic. "It was a madhouse on weekends," he recalls. "With all the businesses here, people would just walk in. It was right in the neighborhood. Washing then was a quarter, or 35 cents for a double loader, and 10 cents for the dryer. I really enjoyed it then."
Across NW Third Avenue from Mister Lee's, where a park lies now, there used to be a pool room, a restaurant, a dime store, and another laundry. Behind them was the notorious Goodbread Alley, which stretched from Twelfth to Fourteenth streets and to about Fourth Avenue. "Right over there about where the library is now, that was the neighborhood," Mister Lee points. "People there were tight. The police didn't go in there too hard, unless they know somebody, cause they were close-knitted and would protect one another. If a kid from there would go out and do something, if he could make it back to the alley he was okay. He wouldn't go to jail. The old people in there, they was going to right you, you know."
Then the powers that were -- Mister Blue Eye, as Overtown artist Purvis Young might put it -- decided to build a couple of highways right through the neighborhood. Interstate 95 and the I-395 connection to Miami Beach effectively left Overtown drawn and quartered. A lot of folks lost homes and businesses that were never rebuilt. The end of segregation, the rise of public housing, and so-called urban renewal (or "Negro removal" as some residents bitterly call it) also played their parts in separating the black community into different economic classes. The middle and upper classes left the inner city, while the poorest stayed behind and gradually got poorer.
"When they started building the highway is when the whole thing started going to heck really," Mister Lee recounts. "They started tearing up houses for the right of way in the Seventies. In the Eighties, it was the building of the Metrorail sunk it even more, and it went downhill from that. People who had the money moved out."
Just as economic hard times swallowed Overtown, so did drugs; they hit the community like a sledgehammer striking a porcelain vase. "Back in the day you'd have a few alcoholics, a few crazy people, but a neighborhood just lives with those. When that crack hit the scene, it just turn everything into a tailspin. We had about ten rough years where this area did nothing but go down down down." Amazingly, Lee's place made it through all that without much more than a few broken windows. "I'm very lucky," he says. "I say luck because everybody know me, but they don't love me that much isn't why they haven't robbed me."
In the middle of the poverty and drugs of the Eighties came several riots, brought on by a legacy of police brutality and racism that exploded when black men were killed and the cops got away with it. "You'd see the kids getting into the black power thing," Mister Lee opines. "Their parents were struggling. They were frustrated. Then the police did something wrong and Boom!
"I was here during all the three riots and they broke the front windows," he adds. "I was right here open. I felt that I needed to be here, otherwise I be like everybody else. The cops threw tear gas in here and I ran and threw it back out. The boys would be on the street and run in to use the bathroom and wash out their eyes. As long as they just out there on the corner, not breaking the law, I'd let them do it. They live here, all the businesses closed, what else they going to do?"
Lee's basically a law-and-order small businessman, but he also sympathized with the people in the streets. He would have to sit through the blockade around Overtown for an hour until the police would let him in. "That gets you frustrated. Then people would come up to me and want to talk about what happened during the night. I'm trying to calm them down, but I'm frustrated. I'd go out there to a group of young people and try talking to them. And here comes a police car --boom -- and throws a gas bomb in the middle of us. It just makes it worse. People in my generation are the ones who should be frustrated because we saw how things used to be -- and how they went down. But we didn't go out there rioting. This generation did."
As the Eighties turned into the Nineties, the worst of the problems subsided. The riots stopped and a lot of the dealers and junkies either killed each other off, or went to jail or rehab. The bottom had been reached. "It didn't get no worse, but not much better until recently," Lee says. Drive around Overtown today, and you still see boys and men selling, women and children playing lookout, and apathetic cops barely bothering to get out of their patrol cars. Overtown is a pitiful place, full of survivors and the walking wounded. Mister Lee could have sold out to the Arabs who bought a bunch of places in the hood in the Nineties, but he declined. Here, just sticking around this long when you don't have to means something. It makes the handful of old men like Mister Lee, who by no means is trying for sainthood, special. "How'd I survive here?" he reflects. "Well, you just make it work. By working twelve, thirteen-hour days, you make it work.
"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."
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."
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."
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.