By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
A blithe middle-age white man on a red bicycle zooms across the intersection of NE 78th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. He is dressed in a pair of denim shorts, a black polo shirt, white Converse sneakers, and a black baseball cap. Tinted glasses conceal his wide, piercing blue eyes. The headphones around his cranium pump cacophonous hip-hop beats into his ears.
A leggy black prostitute in a red tube-top dress stands near the south end of 75th Street and yells at the nocturnal rider as he cruises past: "Yo, Santa Claus!" He removes the headphones, glances back, and hollers: "Whassup, mama!" At first blush the runty, bald cyclist does not evoke the traditional jolly old St. Nick, unless you can envision a crack-smoking, beer-guzzling, prostitute-loving, homeless Kris Kringle who shares his minimal wealth with those who show him empathy and respect, but who never lets his charity turn him into a punk. "Out here hustlers, dope fiends, and whores in the game know me as Santa Claus," he says. "That's because I give out presents. Sometimes they're good. Sometimes they're not so good."
Santa Claus is one of 827 people roaming City of Miami streets, according to the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust. He arrived in South Florida five years ago from Wilmington, Delaware, where he was a perennial inmate of the state corrections system. He uses several aliases, but Miami-Dade Criminal Court records identify him as Anthony Gregory. Many years have passed since he's answered to his real name, which actually is Nick. On the streets they call him Tony or Santa Claus.
These days Santa resides at a vacant, overgrown lot near Biscayne Boulevard. He leads an inert and somewhat solitary existence, except for the sporadic company provided by the transient souls who straggle into his open-air lair. His visitors include fellow homeless drunks, street hookers, and drug addicts too scared to venture west of the boulevard to cop crack. Tony is fearless about going alone on drug runs, and is rewarded for his efforts with free drugs and loot. An enterprising street hustler, Santa recently scored a color-screen cell phone that retails at $159 in exchange for two nickel bags of crack. He then "flipped" the phone for $40. He also earns cash from local merchants for performing odd jobs such as handing out flyers to passing motorists. From time to time Santa makes enough to pay the monthly service fee on a Metro PCS cell phone.
Tonight Santa pedals his bike south along Biscayne on a routine mission to one of the many places between NE Second Avenue and NW Seventh Avenue, from the Upper Eastside to Model City, where he can buy crack. Neon storefront signs and streetlights illuminate his path toward 71st Street, where he makes a right and heads west. Santa whizzes by the Popular Mini Mart convenience store on the corner of North Miami Avenue. He passes pastel housing projects and single family homes nestled in a dimly lighted neighborhood before parking his bicycle outside a chain-link fence.
A few minutes later he emerges from a wood-frame house and quickly rides off, watching vigilantly for Miami police cruisers and "them Jump Out Boys," the undercover vice cops rolling in unmarked rental cars. Within fifteen minutes Santa is back at the patch of land where he lives. On this particular jaunt Santa has copped four nickel bags to complement the six-pack of Schlitz Malt Liquor he purchased earlier. He sits on the green folding beach chair that serves as his bed. He takes a swig from a sixteen-ounce Schlitz in a brown paper bag and then packs a rock into one end of a slender, four-inch-long glass pipe. Santa lights the stem and takes a toke. He exhales a billow of white smoke. After another swig and another hit, he proceeds to repair the handlebars on one of the three other bicycles he owns.
Here in the darkness he explains why he finds comfort in this uncontrolled, uninhibited reality. "There is an element of excitement to it all. I like the thrill of the chase. Man, at three, four o'clock in the morning I'm the only fucking white guy riding on a bike through the hood, jamming to 99 Jamz or 103.5 the Beat on my headphones. Fucking Ray Charles could see me coming."
By the age of eighteen Santa had already experimented with heroin and cocaine. Drug abuse led to burglary, forgery, and petty theft, crimes mostly committed against the people closest to him. "I was a no good, thieving, lying, cheating idiot," Santa recalls over a cheeseburger at Jimmy's Eastside Diner. "I was in and out of the Delaware prison system for approximately fourteen years of my adult life. The last time, I got popped for burglarizing my ex-wife's house."
In January 1998 Santa was charged with two felony counts of burglary and faced the possibility of a life sentence as a habitual offender. He caught a break when he testified in 1999 against an affluent Wilmington attorney who was subsequently convicted of murdering his mistress, the scheduling secretary for Gov. Tom Carper, who is now a U.S. senator. Santa met the disgraced lawyer while the two were in protective custody.