The Bitch

The Bell Tolls For Spree

The beckoning of a pay phone ringing on a derelict downtown corner, in front of a seedy convenience store, or better yet, in the arid lobby of an office building, offers the thrill of random human contact, or at least the opportunity to generate good prank karma by helping the person on the other end play some sort of joke.

There is to be sure a cult of the pay phone, founded and nurtured at first by phone phreaks (like hackers only the jacking is done via touch-tone) who exchanged ideas in the magazine 2600 at first, on CompuServe BBSs, and later of course on the Internet. Kraftwerk wrote a song about making long-distance calls unpaid for by dollars or deutschemarks, and AT&T and BellSouth enthusiasts waxed pensive over COCOT (customer-owned coin-operated telephone) interlopers and the evils of ANI (automatic number identification). As pay phones become obsolete in the face of affordable, ubiquitous cellular service, nostalgists and even antique dealers have latched onto booths and wallmounts.

In Miami, though, quarter-feds never really went out of style. Drug deals, escort services, illicit gambling ventures, and certain complicated romantic arrangements have always needed them, and so do people phoning family members in Quito, Barranquilla, or Milan, who use prepaid phone cards because of their transcontinental functionality.

The Bitch has noticed banks of pay phones in surprising places; trendy bar/restaurant the District has a couple; there's an appropriately Eastern Bloc-looking kiosk in the North Beach block shared by Favela Chic and Ouzo's Greek restaurant. Theoretically, everyone in the world -- everyone with Internet access, anyway, is able to know about these phones, thanks to Jeff Foote's Website directory of more than 50,000 numbers.

Foote, who refers to himself as "El Jefe" on his site, is a technology hobbyist who started jotting down pay phone numbers as a teenager. In 1996 he posted his collection (which then numbered about 1000) on the Internet, and began seeking submissions to the site (www.payphone-directory.org) from all over.

The Bitch's submissions to the Website range from the lone booth at El Guajiro, a dive-y and strange little pool hall/cervezaria on NE Second Avenue, to more mundane contributions, such as the double-header at Milam's supermarket in Coconut Grove. Check out the site and submit your own listings.

Foote wouldn't talk to The Bitch (even by phone!) and in fact gives very few interviews; he told a Chicago paper on one of these rare instances that he wasn't "a very talkative person."

But The Bitch is -- talkative anyway, if not a person -- and she performed the following sociological study by calling the pay phone across the street from her office whenever somebody walked by it. Over the course of about ten days and approximately 50 attempted calls, respondents were few. Many passersby not only did not answer the phone, some didn't even look at it, as if a telephone suddenly squawking into life the second they walked by was the most normal thing in the world. Those who did answer proved to be fairly unaccomplished conversationalists, asking for money and when the next number 3 bus was coming by. The experiment ended when one man, dressed in a suit and clutching a Subway sandwich as if it were a fidgeting Pomeranian, snatched up the receiver and angrily demanded to speak with The Bitch's parents.

Bad Cop, Bad Judgment

It looks as if storied ethical reformer Jimmy Morales will do whatever it takes to become county mayor on November 2 -- even enlist the services of a former Miami-Dade cop with a notorious past. This past week the Morales campaign, in preparation for the runoff against frontrunner and former county police director Carlos Alvarez, announced the hiring of four local veteran political operatives: Fred Balsera, Al Lorenzo, Nick Inamdar, and Dante Starks.

Starks, an aide to Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, was booted from the Miami-Dade Police Department in 1997 after being investigated in a case involving the rape of a South Florida woman the year before. The inquiry was dropped when the accuser failed a polygraph test. Starks admitted he had sex with the woman while he was on duty as an officer; this was the official reason he was fired. During his career, according to public records, the department found that he exhibited "hostile and offensive behavior" toward five female officers (see "Dante's Inferno," New Times, April 13, 1995). In 1999 Starks was hired by Rolle, where he makes $50,000 a year as a commission aide.

As Rolle's aide, Starks was a central figure in a 2002 County Ethics Commission investigation in which charges were leveled that Rolle had exploited his official position by getting the county to pay for more than $20,000 in police expenses for the Bob Marley Caribbean Festival that would otherwise have been paid by the James E. Scott Community Association, where Rolle earns $130,000 a year as president and CEO. According to the accounts of several county and city bureaucrats involved in the situation, Starks orchestrated much of the county's largesse for the benefit of JESCA.

Starks is currently on leave from his county job to work with Morales, who could not be reached for comment.

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