Basel's Odysseus

Overnight with an artist through the hurly-burly of the very rich.

A few minutes later, at NW Second Avenue and 28th Street, around the corner from Fountain Art Fair, Johnston comes upon five stray dogs she calls "Puerto Rican pot lickers." They're eating scraps tossed to them by the clients at La Boricua Café. Inside, a dozen men swig Budweiser beer and nurse greasy plates of chicharrones while taking turns dancing with a blonde in a green lamé dress.

Johnston stakes out a spot under a graffiti mural outside Fountain's entrance, where 19-year-old Ray Infante sidles up and tells her he's a street kid who was homeless for two years. While they are speaking, an elderly homeless man wearing pumpkin-orange pants and a scummy white T-shirt stumbles out of the riotous Fountain shindig clutching a shot of Pernod and OJ in his hand. "¡Wasanga! ¡Basel moronga!" he yells again and again before keeling over and smacking the concrete face-first.

Someone helps him to his feet, collects the old dude's dentures from the ground, and hands them over. He slips the teeth into his pants pocket and heads back to the open bar for another drink.

At midnight, a dozen artists wearing medical scrubs and pedaling mobile "Red Cross Installations," pull up. It's time to go. Johnston, Phluffy, and Pat Cox, who does body piercings at Babylon Tattoos in Broward and is joining Johnston for her trek to the Beach, head to the Shops at Midtown Miami to find a shopping cart.

They load their cardboard scraps, water bottles, and blankets into a cart, pee behind a Dumpster, and begin walking across the Julia Tuttle Causeway at 1:10 a.m.

It takes them nearly three hours to reach Miami Beach. They collect a broken umbrella, more cardboard for signs, and two more blankets on the causeway along their way.

They head toward the Holocaust Memorial at Dade Boulevard and Meridian Avenue, where they cover the cold ground next to the canal behind the memorial with cardboard and blankets to get some sleep. It's 6 a.m.

An hour later, Phluffy's barking startles them awake when a homeless woman appears, claiming they are squatting on her spot.

"The lady jumped out and said other people were sleeping there and started to get too close," Johnston says later. "Phluffy, who hadn't slept at all, lunged and snapped at her, and she left. We later saw her on her knees like she was praying or something."

After wandering Lincoln Road Mall, Johnston arrives at the Miami Beach Convention Center about 9 a.m. and parks her shopping cart near the Hall C entrance to the Art Basel Miami Beach fair. A Nicaraguan valet parker named Bosco asks why she would degrade herself by living on the street.

Johnston keeps quiet. A few minutes later, she makes two new signs for her cart. One asks, "What if art was worth as much as sex? Will trade art for change." The other announces, "Art not pretty. Will trade art for food."

As the moneyed collectors begin to arrive, Angel Vasquez, a Miami Beach Police major, approaches. "Okay, you guys have been here two hours and have to go now." It's 11:05.

When Johnston tries to explain she is an artist, he responds, "That's not art. That's a bunch of shit in a shopping cart, and you have to move."

Everyone is not so nasty. Passersby at the convention center give her eight dollars and a Tupperware container full of fruit.

Around noon, Johnston, Cox, and the dog limp to Pizza Rustica for some chow. By sunset Saturday, she has walked the length of South Beach and back. She has gathered $33, a loaf of bread, and a bag of oranges for her trouble. As she prepares to return home, two kids on bikes ride by and yell, "Look, it's a hobo!"

They circle around and read the signs on the shopping cart. One tells the other: "She's not a hobo; she's an artist."

By nightfall, Johnston's feet are covered in blisters and Phluffy's paws are raw. The vagabond masochist looks like shit and smells like roadkill but remains unfazed. "I have strong convictions. In the middle of all this ostentatious display, I found some meaning by actually putting myself in a situation to be laughed at," she murmurs.

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