By Chuck Strouse
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But the restaurant owners have their own narrative of debt, ruination, and divorce the sort that happens when the family business gets shut down for code violations.
"My life changed totally," says Maria Fajardo, a native of Nicaragua whose cafeteria, La Poderosa, lost its license to operate in 2004 after repeated visits from the police. Fajardo is another of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the City of Miami. She was arrested once and the manager of her restaurant twice for serving beer without food. She describes being strip-searched in jail as "the greatest humiliation of [her] life." After losing her license, Fajardo found herself seeking employment with an arrest record. Now she cleans houses for minimum wage, and she wants the city to take some responsibility.
"They ruin lives! I had ten employees, people who had families. Not even in Cuba do people experience the persecution we have to live through. They should start listening to the poor instead of worrying about the rich. They should remember how they came to this country as immigrants, like we did."
Fajardo's opinion of Al Alvarez is venomous. "Es un perro," she says coldly. "He's a dog."
"These people hate me with a passion," Alvarez admits, then pauses. "But I've never arrested anyone who didn't need to be arrested. We're not here to crucify you, but ignorance of the law is no excuse. If you're not guilty, hire an attorney. If your only violation is not having a license, we won't arrest, just close the place, on the promise that you will appear in court." He snorts at the Union of Cafeteria Owners' self-characterization as beleaguered victims of injustice. "This is a little group of people making money and not paying taxes. So we revoke their license."
Despite its name, El Sol Superclub opens only after the sun goes down. A sign posted behind its barred windows reads "Cafeteria Lunches," but at lunchtime the pale orange building is padlocked and deserted, its parking lot empty. Deprived of black light, the Day-Glo tigers of the murals inside sleep during long afternoons. Its electronic gambling machines blink for no one. Chalk dust lies undisturbed on the felt of its pool tables.
But on Friday nights, the parking lot and surrounding streets are full. A gauntlet of security guards at the front door frisks patrons and checks purses. Inside, more than two dozen scantily clad women in midriff-baring halter-tops and miniskirts serve beer to the overwhelmingly male clientele, whose own wardrobes range from Kobe Bryant jerseys to cowboy hats. The language is Spanish, the music is bachata and cumbia.
Rotating blue spotlights hover over a fenced-in dance floor, where the same women who serve the beer dance with customers. In the back, men surround two pool tables. In the bathroom, a heavyset attendant in a T-shirt listens to God's word on headphones, a highlighted Bible open before her. A diligent servant of the Lord, she delivers her pamphlets in both Spanish and English. A painted sign hangs over her head: "No fighting. No drugs. Be brief."
El Sol squats dimly on the west side of NW 27th Avenue at 28th Street, just a few feet outside the Miami Police Department's jurisdiction, which ends at 27th Avenue. Indeed, only four lanes of traffic endow El Sol and its owners with a smug sense of impunity. Al Alvarez is a man with a zero-tolerance approach to smug impunity. He loathes El Sol, but only because it's a difficult reality to accept: Many of the bars the task force closes simply move to Hialeah, to unincorporated Miami-Dade, where they are free from Alvarez, Exposito, and any top-down definitions of life quality.
From 2002 to 2004, overall crime in Miami decreased by eight percent, and perhaps in correlation with the rise of the Quality of Life Task Force. But Mike Exposito says that the numbers, in the end, don't even matter. "Citizens aren't looking at stats in their mind. If they go to a place and it looks safe, then it's safe. If it looks bad, even if it's a safe area without much crime, they'll feel unsafe."
Alvarez mentions El Sol only to those who complain about the task force. The sergeant sends them to the club to see what sin looked like in the city before he banished it to the Tartarus of unincorporated Miami-Dade. "Those b-girls, that gambling machine not anymore; that was how it used to be," he hopes to one day tell them.