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Moncrief tailors his persona to fit the occasion, whether he's at Brown's Portofino condo or cruising the sidewalks of South Beach. Within weeks of obtaining the job at Doraku he'd enlisted volunteers from all strata of Beach life. "Lewis and I were standing in line at the bathroom at a club," says Lea Knowles, an event coordinator and vice president for Mother Nature's Kitchen. "He asked me what I was doing the next day. I said I was volunteering at Camillus House, and he said, 'No, no, I need your help.'" Knowles began working with Moncrief, collecting food from cooperating restaurants and distributing it to the homeless in Flamingo Park. "I think Lewis has the most confidence of anyone I've ever met," she offers. "Just going over there and feeding people myself has changed my personality. He's got an awesome vision. Now it's just a matter of raising money."
Lewis also signed up FIU student Tina Young. "We did a feeding in August at 73rd and Collins, and people just came out of the woodwork," Young says. "People are hungry out there, but the city puts up all this red tape, makes it hard to feed them. Lewis has the energy and determination to just go out and do it." Young became a mainstay of Moncrief's organization, helping with feedings but also acting as a chauffeur for the CEO rides and letting him use her cell phone.
Young and Knowles weren't the only people impressed by Moncrief's "awesome vision." Seghi, a 24-year-old Beach resident and aspiring stockbroker, was attracted to the ex-convict's inspiration for helping the needy. "I've been living in Miami Beach since I was a kid and I wanted to be a part of something real," Seghi says. "Miami Beach is such a superficial place. He's coming from someplace totally real. If this guy's doing that much work, what about a guy like me who's had everything? What should I be doing?"
Moncrief presented a reality Seghi had never seen, regaling him with tales about his past, conjuring up visions of a gangsta-rap fantasy come true. Between trips to Jim Brown's condo and pitching in at Mother Nature's Kitchen (Moncrief named him executive vice president), Seghi and Moncrief spent a lot of time together. "I can say that in the last eight or nine months, he's been my best friend," Seghi says. "I'm a popular guy, I have a lot of friends, but Lewis and I, even though we're from opposite worlds, we're much closer."
Rounding out the volunteers were two itinerant performance artists, Malik Shabazz and Tony Gee. Moncrief knew them from his time on the streets and finagled them a job doing landscaping work at his apartment building. "He helped me out, so I helped him out with his organization," says Shabazz, a spoken-word poet who emcees open-mike nights in Fort Lauderdale. Moncrief wasn't as enigmatic to Shabazz, a South Bronx native, as he may have been to Seghi or Young: "I know a little bit about the streets, where everybody has their own hustle. I had some questions about a lot of the assertions Lewis was making. I knew some of it was a hustle, but I decided to trust him. I mean, he talked a lot, but I also judged by his actions, and he was out there doing things, feeding people."
As Moncrief & Co. continued their Beach feedings in summer 2003, city hall began to take notice. "We got a report that this was going on and we were a little worried about health issues," says city spokeswoman Janet Lopez. "We tried to get him in touch with local organizations so maybe he could channel his efforts through them -- people like the Dade County Homeless Trust and Camillus House."
Moncrief was not impressed. "I'm trying to tell these people that we need a homeless shelter on the Beach and they think I'm crazy," he says with a laugh. "They keep getting their little money for their little organizations, but I don't see them out feeding people on the Beach. And it's not hard to do -- just ask some restaurants to donate some food and go give it to hungry people. They couldn't even do that."
Despite his success in mobilizing volunteers, things weren't moving quickly enough for Moncrief. He was scoping out Beach properties for a shelter, familiarizing himself with local zoning laws, and reading up on how to operate a nonprofit corporation, but he had little money. He and Seghi decided on a fundraiser, a musical performance and art auction that would raise tens of thousands of dollars and establish Mother Nature's Kitchen as a legitimate operation. Seghi would solicit willing artists (his father, Tom Seghi, is a well-known painter), and Moncrief, along with Tony Gee and Malik Shabazz, would round up musicians and performance artists.
As plans for the fundraiser intensified, Moncrief made two decisions: He quit his job at Doraku so he could channel his considerable energies toward Mother Nature's Kitchen, and he began living entirely on what he called "luck and friendship." He also decided that the Delano was the place for the fundraiser. It was a lofty goal; the hotel wanted $20,000 up front.