Car 19, Where Are You?

Wish the Metromover would just get up and move?

The "ghost trains" of Miami's failing Metrorail fascinated author Joan Didion twenty years ago. A "people mover" then in the works was meant to salvage a "mass transit system that did not effectively transport anyone," she wrote in her book Miami.

Today Didion would no doubt relish a ride on what we now know as the Metromover.

Twenty-nine trams putter amid downtown's towering concrete cadavers like dusty beetles. The little, rubber-wheeled cars look as if they were snatched off the drawing board of a Jetsons illustrator: angled glass windows, sliding floor-to-ceiling doors, and winding track.

The small, glassy trains bind Brickell's burgeoning urban luxury to Overtown's nomadic poor, and feed the curious traveler like rotating sushi boats.

And like so much else in town, it's a financial disaster. Miami-Dade Transit invests more than eight million dollars annually in the three miles of flaking steel and concrete rail. Right now the entire system is being repainted by just nine men, one of whom will retire in January.

The proposition vexes Renick Kailah, a 60-year-old MDT painter from Trinidad. So do construction dust, two overpaid supervisors, and a devilish teenage graffiti artist on a bicycle. "The little monster keeps spraying filthy, vulgar things all over the stations," Kailah cries, his voice echoing through the Tenth Street Station on the Brickell loop. White droplets dot his gray pants and the red baseball cap flipped back on his clipped white hair. As he speaks, his eyes bulge as if they might leap over his chubby cheeks and hunt down the hooligan themselves. He stabs at the air with a dried brush; a bold skull-and-crossbones tattoo peeks out from under his rolled-up sleeve. "We're doing a fine job — a grand job," he insists. "Tell them: We need more painters!"

Paint seems far from the mind of Angelo Santos. Clutching a manila envelope covered in doodles, the twenty-year-old legal intern brushes past Kailah. An iPod earpiece snakes up through the young man's blue polo shirt; long, thin sideburns stretch toward a wiry goatee. Decrepit Car 19, packed lightly with white and blue collars, rolls to a stop before him.

Santos enters, sits down on a hard plastic seat, and scowls. "It smells like shit all the time in here," he begins loudly. "I don't have nothing against homeless people — they need transportation too — but get some more cleaning people in here.

"Look at this," he cries, booting a McDonald's cup into a nearby woman's shin. "You know why people take advantage of this shit? Because there's no driver."

Just as Santos finishes his rant, a hefty blond named Betty plops into the seat next to him, dribbling ice cubes from her mouth. "Ish very convenient," Betty counters through toothless, icy gums. When the doors slide open at Government Center, Betty excuses herself: "I'd like to shay more, but I have to pick up my daughter."

Santos, sneering, shuffles out behind her.

Outside Car 19, the city teems like an industrial ant farm.

Construction workers weld and hammer. Their yellow hard hats flit through open building guts like termites in a mound. The narrow windows of the Miami Heraldbuilding reveal bustling reporters inside. Tourists unpack and stare at TV sets at the foots of their hotel beds in the Clarion Hotel and Suites. A fog of thin white dust sparkles as it floats through shafts of hot, gray sunlight. When the lunch hour concludes, riders thin to about a half-dozen between stops.

Car 19 looks as if it were maintained by a degenerate uncle. The brown frayed carpet is strewn with trash, cigarette butts, and mysterious black stains. A Frappuccino festers in the corner near one long window. The mechanical voice that once announced the stops is silent. Lights and ceiling panels hang broken or are missing. Water drips from the overhead A/C units. Of the 29 cars deteriorating on the line, 12 are slated for replacement. They have been known, on occasion, to freeze in the most awkward of places: in front of the Heraldbuilding or on a bridge, twenty feet above SW Third Street rush hour. Miami's riders, in sticky moments, have been known to pry open doors and walk along the thin elevated rails, much to the dismay of the Transit Department.

Around noon, Mario G. Garcia, MDT's chief of system development, shuffles onto the train with two smartly dressed Brazilian bureaucrats. "The system is very expensive," he concedes, "but for these kinds of high-density areas that you're looking to develop, you can't beat it. It practically pays for itself." The Brazilians nod and smile. (The Metromover has never paid for itself, even when it cost a quarter to ride. According to the county Website, taxpayers have spent $381 million on construction costs. Plans for a $300 million street car that will run roughly the same area are in the works.)

"This system is very important to the people of this town — the passionate peoples," surmises Alfredo de Freitas de Almeida, secretary of transportation in São Jose dos Campos — a small city in southeastern Brazil — after just ten minutes on the rail.

One such passionate person, 23-year-old Christopher "Superman" Reeves, relies on the Metromover only when necessary. At 3:00 p.m., Reeves joins the line of workers shuffling from the soon-to-be expensive condos to the Mover on the downtown loop, cradling empty lunch bags and boxes in their hats. "It's free," he begins, removing his dusty work boots.

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