It's Sunday night. The rains have begun, and the year's first named storm has passed without blowing away any football stadiums or even lawn ornaments. Still, the bullshit flies farther and faster than a garden gnome in a 120-mile-per-hour gale at Billy's Pub Too (732 NE 125th St., North Miami).
The catalyst for these gusts of gossip? One question: What's your best storm tale?
Peter Wissel, a trim, six-foot two-inch 24-year-old with short-cropped dark hair and a baby-faced grin, stands at the bar and lifts his pant leg to reveal a vicious scar wrapping around his calf. The gnarly sight is even more shocking than the price of my mug of Heineken: $2.50!
"I've got a hurricane story for you," he says. He waves me over to a booth next to the four pool tables that fill most of the smoke-filled room east of the bar. He goes on to explain how, in 1996, the cable company nearly killed him, and the Boy Scouts saved his life.
Before moving to South Florida six years ago, he lived in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I was watching Spaceballs, which was supposed to end at 1:15 a.m., but the cable cut out at 12:30, so I went upstairs to bed. I knew a hurricane was coming but didn't think too much about it since I'd already been through so many of them."
Fran hit at 1:00 a.m., he says, but he slept soundly through it. That is, until a 165-year-old oak tree on the corner of the property came crashing through the wall and into his bedroom. "I wake up and all I see is lightning flashing and rain pouring on my face. I look down because my leg feels strange."
The impact of the tree had knocked a two-by-four and parts of a stone chimney onto his lower leg. They smashed his tibia and fibula, leaving his lower leg hanging on by a mere flap of flesh, he says. "It should have been a fatal injury, but at the time I felt no pain. The first thing that came to mind was something I'd learned in Boy Scouts: Stop the arterial bleeding. So after I moved the stone and the wood off of me, I smashed my half-leg into the floor [to stop the blood from spurting out] and dragged myself to the corner of the room, where my dad and stepmom were standing."
He thanks the immediate attention of his father, who's a doctor, and six operations at Duke University Medical Center for his life. Now, Rampage observes, he even walks without a noticeable limp.
Manager Louis, a.k.a. "Digger," a big man with a Hulk Hogan-style handlebar mustache, soon chimes in with a story about Hurricane Donna, which hit in 1960. "As a kid in North Miami, my neighbor Jay asked me and my brother to tie him to a tree," he says, his eyes crinkling as he chuckles. "It was the eye of the storm, you know, in the middle when it's calm, but you know it's not over, and he says to my brother: 'Tony, do you think I could stay outside for this hurricane?' And we both say, 'Sure!' Jay was fourteen and I was twelve. So we went out and tied him up with some rope and waited."
While Digger and his brother were waiting for the fun to begin, Jay's father called to check on him, Digger says. "He marched out there and untied his son and dragged him into the house. No, we didn't get in trouble! Jay asked us to do it! [Jay's dad] knew his kid was retarded."
The storm rages furiously on at Mac's Club Deuce (222 Fourteenth St., Miami Beach) on a rainy Tuesday night. Someone has selected Blink 182's "All the Small Things" from the menu on the TouchTunes machine on the far wall. Colin, a wily-eyed 40-year-old blond bartender from England, offers this tidbit of Deuce trivia: "There's no lock on the outside of that door," he says, leaning over the bar and pointing to the entrance. "So every hurricane we've had a bouncer sleep in here on the pool table. We're open 21 hours a day; there's always got to be someone here, so there's no way to lock the door from the outside."
Colin says he was called in to sling drinks three days after Hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida in August 1992. The place was packed, a madhouse of people with nothing to do but drink, since there was no power and almost nothing open on the Beach. "Then around eight o'clock, after sundown, the National Guard came in with their M-16s strapped on them there were no clips on them," he says with a smirk, implying he was one of the few savvy enough to make this observation. "They shouted, öEveryone in this bar is in violation of curfew,' and I tell you, you've never seen so many people clear out of a place so fast. People left their money, wallets, purses, cell phones, right on the bar. We had a big box for them to come back the next day and get it all."
A bouncer named Trinidad, who has a hulking frame, a gentle smile, and dreadlocks that stretch far down his back (which tonight he's pulled into two loose pigtails that soften somewhat the threat of his imposing bulk), endured the brunt of Hurricane Wilma at a friend's house in Opa-locka. "Now this was in the hood, in a small complex near 134th [Street]. We were all standing there in the house when the hurricane came and then crash! a tree takes the whole roof off."
He gesticulates, sweeping his arms through the air to illustrate the force of the impact. "So we're standing in a room with no roof, and it's just windy and raining on us. One of the people that was in there he wouldn't like it if I mentioned his name got hit in the face with debris and had to go to the hospital. Two of the cars got flipped, including my friend's new 2005 S-class Benz. Not to mention they were barbecuing for three weeks while they waited for the power to come on. They had to move to a whole new complex. That place was destroyed."
Mark, a late-thirties blond guy with a cop haircut and a shy smile, sits at the bar beneath a neon sign that forms the pink silhouette of a shapely woman. Eve, a young, tan Polish beauty in a white polo shirt, sits to his left, chatting away. She rolls her eyes at key points as Mark describes how Hurricane Andrew, to him, will always be summed up by Cheez Whiz, Jim Beam, and rope. "My friends and I were going to tie ourselves to the roof of the Clevelander, but Tony K. [the owner at the time] said no. The rope we planned on using, I think we bought that at the liquor store."
He and his friends went to an acquaintance's house in Coconut Grove to ride out the storm. In the end, the house and its surroundings had suffered severe damage. "So we started doing shots of Jim Beam and Cheez Whiz."
"You mixed Cheez Whiz and Jim Beam in shot glasses?" Eve asks, clearly sickened.
"No," Mark says quietly. "I think it was more like we would do the shot of whiskey, then we'd chase it with a shot of the Cheez Whiz out of the can." Once the storm passed, he says, he and his friends got kicked out of the house, and since the chaos in the streets made driving nearly impossible, they decided to walk home to South Beach.
"We got to the Venetian Causeway, and the police were blocking us. But then finally one police officer shouted, 'Let the walkers go!' And so they did!"
He pauses, his blue eyes shining with nostalgia. "But you know what was the best part by far?"
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"Right there on Alton and Seventeenth there was a line of Central Cabs waiting to take us home."
After the twelve-mile walk, it would seem then, the final ten blocks spent nestled inside a cozy yellow taxi kept the experience from becoming unpleasant.
Well why not?