A Ventriloquist Becomes Watchdog
Edwin H. Garson is girded for battle. With sun visor pulled low and bullhorn held high, the wiry, leathery-skinned 70-year-old wails his slogans at the procession of well-dressed visitors easing their cars up to the entrance of the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach.
"Shame!" he hollers, his nasal voice grating. "Shame on the Miami Beach Commission on the Status of Women for honoring principal Rosa Borgen! Shame on Rosa Borgen for squandering taxpayer dollars! Shame!" A public-address speaker blaring Caribbean pop music drowns him out for the most part, though an occasional "Shame!" reaches the hotel's front door. On Garson's back a cardboard placard reads: "The book 'TAXPAYER RAPE' exposes Mia-Dade County Public Schools, Illegally Squandering Millions of Dollars!"
Inside the Eden Roc, the commission on the status of women, chaired by City Commissioner Susan Gottlieb, is indeed preparing to honor Borgen, principal of the Fienberg-Fisher Adult and Community Education Center, at a dinner titled "Women Worth Knowing." Also there to be honored: Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, and Jennifer Valoppi, anchor for WTVJ-TV (Channel 6).
Such a feel-good event seems an odd target for a protest, but Garson is not alone. Eight other demonstrators stand on the Collins Avenue sidewalk in front of the Eden Roc as the sun sets on March 25. They are wearing sandwich boards that echo Garson's barking. All decline a reporter's request for their names. When asked about their motivation for attending, they point to Garson. "Talk to him," says a middle-age man wearing a baseball cap. "Have you read his book?"
The arriving guests, in suits and cocktail dresses, mostly eye Garson with puzzlement. A few snap pictures of him. One party guest, Kenneth Boos, a teacher who works for Borgen, strides up to Garson and demands, "Who are you? What the fuck are you talking about? Do you even know Rosa Borgen?"
"I'm a taxpayer, and she's squandering my money," Garson says, turning the bullhorn to face Boos. The irate educator grabs the megaphone and jerks it to the side. "Officer!" Garson says to the put-upon-looking Miami Beach cop assigned to keep peace during the protest. "Officer! Arrest this man!" The cop ushers away Boos as Garson and Boos continue shouting at each other. "Why don't you get a life?" Boos suggests as he walks toward the hotel entrance.
Garson turns off his bullhorn and chuckles, then breaks into a broad, crooked smile. "I hope he sues me," he says. "Then it'll all be out in the open."
Ask Ed Garson who the hell he is and what the hell he's ranting about, and he'll reply, "It's all in the book." What book? A photocopied, 70-odd-page screed with plastic spiral binding and the provocative title, Taxpayer Rape. According to the black text printed on the yellow cover, it purports to be a "true, explosive expose" about waste and mismanagement in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
It doesn't live up to the title. Garson quotes various Miami Herald and New Times stories critical of the school system, cites a 1997 audit that questions some of the district's accounting practices, and goes into excruciatingly minute detail about how Rosa Borgen allegedly hired an Argentine woman as a part-time employee. The woman, who was also a student at Fienberg-Fisher, wasn't taking the number of classes required to maintain a valid student visa, Garson charges.
Borgen dismisses this accusation, stating that teachers and counselors closely monitor foreign students' class hours. She also wonders why Garson would demonstrate against her. "It didn't affect me, but it bothered my thirteen-year-old daughter and my mother, who's in her seventies," she says. "Why he has a beef with me, I don't know."
Although his book proves nothing, and raises questions either laughably petty or impossibly broad, he's proud of it. And he has no qualms about asking $14.95 per volume. (After an interview he presented New Times with a complimentary copy. He would not reveal how many he has sold.)
That his opening performance as a school-system hell raiser was so well orchestrated is no surprise given Garson's background. Unlike the two or three usual board watchers, who attend meetings and speak about most agenda items, Garson has taken his crusade to the streets. "I'm in the entertainment business," Garson explains in his Bensonhurst, Brooklyn accent. "I'm a writer, producer, director, performer, you name it."
His bread-and-butter schtick, though, is ventriloquism. On the walls of his modest, cluttered bungalow on Miami Beach's secluded Stillwater Drive, hang pictures of Garson and/or his puppet Chico-Chico, mugging with Jeanette MacDonald, Bob Hope, Marlene Dietrich. One shows him onstage with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra.
He and his dummy have delivered mirth to audiences all over the world, including a one-year run at Miami Beach's Fontainebleau, and two years at the Eden Roc back in the Fifties and Sixties.
These days his show-biz profile is lower. Way lower. In the past two decades he has written and produced musicals and comedies, including a show called Condominium, which played in (of course) a handful of condos. He still performs with Chico-Chico at synagogues and condominiums.
Now he's added guerrilla theater to his repertoire. His March 25 performance actually grew out of a two-person musical he wrote two years ago. Garson remembers trying out the material in front of some acquaintances. The male character, he explains, was a crooked politician named Honest John Bull. In describing the guy and singing his signature song, "I'm the Best that Money Can Buy," Garson says he elicited an unexpectedly strong reaction from his friends, who worked in the school system.
"They said, 'You are an angel sent from God,'" he declares. They went on to describe what Garson calls "illegal abuse" taking place within the school system. They complained they could do nothing about it because they feared losing their jobs, he says.
Garson took up their cause with gusto, writing letters, interviewing, and gathering documents from anonymous sources. And, after two years, he came up with no conclusive proof that his prime target, Rosa Borgen, did anything wrong. Nor does he document any misspending by the school district, though the articles and audits he cites do show examples of a vast school system beset by bureaucratic inefficiency, political influence, sexual misconduct, and downright incompetence.
Garson rails against the accounting of funds in a college scholarship program, needles board members for naming schools for themselves ("What audacity!" he writes), and berates the federal government for not auditing the district ("Who's watching the store? ... NOBODY!").
His summation: "It is obvious we have a situation here that is completely out of control. Massive fraud. A runaway horse, running wild." But what Garson offers as proof are, at best, the beginnings of a line of inquiry. At worst they are colossal leaps into an abyss of speculation.
Nevertheless he's using the book not only as a potential source of supplemental income, but to fuel his fiery rhetoric. In trying to convince Rabbi Pomerantz not to break bread with Borgen, Garson spoke to the president of Temple Beth Sholom's congregation, comparing the principal's affronts to those of "a Nazi killer of Jews." He plans more protests in front of Fienberg-Fisher and the district administration building in Miami.
Should make for great theater. "Eventually I could see Steven Spielberg making Taxpayer Rape as a film," Garson muses. "With Glenn Close playing the part of Rosa Borgen."
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