The beautiful people they are not. Outsiders wander in, look around, eye the regulars, and cringe. A man on the sidewalk lowers his sunglasses to take a peek: "Oooops, wrong bar." The place is avoided like the potholes that pock the street in front of it.
Definitely not on any visitor's map, the Cove Bar is an inconspicuous establishment for the forgotten ones in this corner of Miami Beach: local working poor, retirees, misfits, and dregs. No neon, no frills, no MTV, just the nitty-gritty: booze and beer, jukebox, and a little drugs and gambling on the side. The obverse of everything South Beach -- four Bud longnecks for six bucks, any time.
To its regulars, the Cove is a mecca, a place that breeds easy friendships and takes care of its own. Pretensions are shed and only one assumption holds; namely, nobody who's anybody spends time here. The feeling is down-homey. Way down.
"We're a hard-core neighborhood bar where everything can go to the limit -- as long as it's fun. We're like a community," declares Jaco, owner of the Cove. "A couple of shots of this and that, beer, playing pool, the slot machines -- whatever, whatever keeps them up. Play the music, dance a little bit. You know."
You won't find pretty, silk-clad men and women sitting around a magnum of champagne, with two phones on the table and a limo waiting outside. "Most guys here don't have a goddamn car!" exclaims Jaco, who always wears jeans and likes to go days at a time without shaving. "If they can buy a round a few times, they're a big shot. I'm not dealing with the brightest people around, but these are good guys. I love 'em. I think these people come into the bar just for social reasons. Most of them are really lonely people. They've found a secure place and people to talk to who can really open up."
(Because of the nature of the activities there, the name of the bar, its location, and the identities of the regulars have been changed.)
"Well, like the man says, it's two kinds of people in this world," begins a Harry Crews short story. "Us that wants a drink and them that don't want us to have one." The Cove is a beacon to the former.
Ten glass ashtrays, a foot or two apart, dot the worn wooden bar as customers belly up and sit on round swivel stools. The age of the patrons usually, for some reason, decreases as distance from the front door increases. Newspapers are scattered along the bar, although it's really too dark to read. The joint smells dank and beery. Promotional clutter hangs from the mirror that runs the length of the place.
Every twenty seconds Libby, the day bartender and human jukebox goes off: "Don't they know, it's the end of the worrrrld..."
"I know a lot of songs," squeaks Libby in her little-girl voice. She has spent most of her 45 years free-pouring liquor and listening to recorded music. "But I only know one line of each song."
The daytimers arrive as early as 8:00 a.m. and leave before dark. They pay no attention to the gambling and other shady occurrences in the back. Their sole pastime is boozing.
Grumpy old Sylvia drinks canned Schlitz poured into a glass (ice on the side) and talks trash about almost everyone who comes through the door. She can afford to talk down, the regulars say, because she lives comfortably in a high-rise on the beach. Not like some of the old folks here, who hardly make it from one Social Security check to the next. Still, the first week of every month, with Uncle Sam's check cashed, they pack the Cove. The retirees come in, play the oldies, and dance around like it's V-J Day.
Libby: "Fly me to the moooon, so I can play among the stars."
A half-dozen men and one woman are in the bar in the morning when Short-Hand Luke wobbles in asking the bartender for a drink. "I'm the only guy in the neighborhood who the police can't arrest," he says with gravel in his voice. He pauses three beats before extending his left arm. "They can't handcuff me -- I don't have a hand."
Luke has a friend who acts like a banker, cashing his monthly check and doling out a daily allowance for booze. There's nothing left over for shelter. Luke, who looks like a roughed-up troll, orders bourbon with a splash of water, then pours in a Goody Powder. After two full swallows his hand stops shaking.
"You got to take care of people," says Jaco. "You have to learn to listen to people and deal with them. You've got to be a giver. They show up every day, every single day. You feel obligated to keep this place open. I'm not selling flowers or hamburgers, I'm selling something they need desperately. Sometimes a drop of alcohol, just another shot, makes all the difference. Boom. It takes away the edge and they're a totally different person."
The cirrhosis-treatment guys have a routine. They enlist as guinea pigs whenever there's a research program needing subjects with liver problems. In exchange for drying out for several days, taking experimental drugs, and allowing doctors to test them, they're paid a couple of thousand dollars. Jaco says a man named Joey, who participates in the regimen, gets a haircut and a manicure and then triumphantly marches into the Cove with a couple of grand. Between the Cove and Dania Jai-Alai, it won't last him three days, according to Jaco.
Joey walks in, buys everybody in the bar a round, and tells the bartender to keep pouring until the tab hits $100. "My family owned three bars in New Jersey and I pissed them all away," discloses Joey, the high roller. "My mother gave me a bottle of vodka when I was six."
When these men return to the Cove relatively sober after their medical stints, Jaco faces a dilemma. "Sometimes you wonder," he muses, "are you hurting these people or are you helping them when you give them the booze?" He rationalizes that he's helping them. That's one reason he breaks the law and stays open around the clock.(The City of Miami Beach forbids establishments to sell liquor from 5:00 to 8:00 a.m.) "I keep them in so they don't do something stupid," he explains. "First of all, they'll find the booze somewhere else. Secondly, if they don't find it they'll do something stupid to get it -- like break a window."
Fights are less frequent than you might expect. The last one was midsummer, when a normally subdued man stood up to the neighborhood bully. "This guy always talked about how many guys he beat up, and how he calls his wife a bitch," says Jaco, setting up the bout. "And John is this small, quiet guy. His wife can beat him up. Well, the big construction guy threw John to the ground, and John bounced up like a ball and started swinging. He beat the shit out of him. Put cuts on his face and everything. Now I call him Mister John."
Jaco says it's these regulars, like John, who stay in the bar drinking and gambling after-hours. Their presence in the bar, he believes, protects him from robbery. "I throw out about 80 percent of the people and keep a few people in for security. It's better if you can keep the people you can trust. If I throw them out, they'll come back before eight o'clock, banging on the door, coming in the back door, climbing all over the place."
Near the front of the bar a couple leans into each other, making out. They're new in town, from Long Island. "If you're not living in New York, you're camping out," jokes Libby, and this pair looks like they've been camping out -- on the street. The woman's stringy gray hair is tangled and matted, her face grimy. The lovers look 60 to 70 years old. They smoke cigarettes and drink Scotch on the rocks.
Libby: "Scotch and soda, jigger of gin."
Other daytime regulars include Kentucky Bob, who sits in the back and drinks Miller High-Life. His passions are betting the horses and hating the Yankees. Mike is a golf caddy who loves gambling, any kind of gambling. George, a cheerful middle-age guy, buys drinks for everybody and drinks vodka and grapefruit himself -- three or four or more, before he passes out at the bar. And big brown Max, a mixed-breed dog, drinks Bud draft beside his owner. Then there's Harry, an octogenarian who comes in briefly in the afternoon and takes bets on his behind-the-back ice toss into a rocks glass. "I don't know where the road is any more," he cracks, "but I always have one for the road."
The Cove turns up a notch at night and on the weekend. Two young men standing at the far end of the bar fidget and talk incessantly, like they're jacked-up, draft beer and mixed drinks by their elbows. They stare through the front window to the street, check their beepers every few minutes, and make roundtrips to the pay phone. Within an hour five different young men enter the Cove, walk directly to the men's bathroom, and after a brief meeting with somebody casually walk out of the bar.
Getting high and high-fivin', a pack of men who can be found in the back of the bar most nights appear to be in their element. They're a close-knit group from the low-rent neighborhood; men who, once inside the Cove, start living large, getting their party cranked bigtime. Carlos, Rafael, Rick, John, and Frankie. "We're from UD," wisecracks Rafael, "The University of Descaro [Rude]." The camaraderie, drinks, and music on the juke pump them up: Marvin Gaye, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra; Madonna, Bob Marley, and Jim Morrison. Even Billie Holiday's sweetly depressing songs fit with this crowd.
At age 56, Carlos is the oldest of the group, and a big spender. "One of the older Cubans with class," Jaco pronounces. Carlos is very generous, buys drinks for everyone, and takes the women out.
Rafael works construction and Rick handles air cargo. They spend most of their nonworking hours at the Cove, gambling, horsing around. Rafael is a Boston Red Sox fanatic, always wearing the team's hat and jersey. His wife died recently and now he lives with his mother. He doesn't have a lot of friends but he's found a position on the Cove team.
"These guys work long shifts and take three days off and then they'll stay around for a day or two, talk trash -- you know, big mouths," Jaco says. "They love sports. They love to talk about this and that, love to bet on the games. Rafael knows pretty much everything about sports. When I look at a guy like that, he must be a good guy. He's not the kind of guy that will get trashed and hit somebody in the head. I don't think alcohol is really why he's here. It's the social life."
They're here during Monday Night Football and stay through daytime baseball, golf, and tennis. Many participate in the Friday marathon that stretches from right after work past the Ninja Turtles, looking all too real, on the tube Saturday morning. There is no last call.
Jaco comes in at 4:00 p.m. to relieve a bartender, and one of the first things he does is pull a spiral notebook from a shelf beneath the cash register. The slot-machine ledger lists the players and their credit points. Jaco translates those points into cash and counts out each person's winnings from the register. On one afternoon Jaco handed cash to four men seated around the bar.
Like the jukebox, Jaco leases the slot machines that are located in many bars and are legal when used for "amusement only," when winners don't get cash for points. Sal, a small-time slot player, bets no more than $20 a day. But from what he's seen at the Cove, he estimates that Jaco is raking in $3000, maybe $4000 a day on the three machines, which will accept five-, ten-, and twenty-dollar bills.
The bar owner laughs at the amount. "Yeah, $5000, $6000, $7000" he says, inflecting each number at a higher pitch. "If I was making that kind of money I'd be outta here in a heartbeat."
A couple of regulars are playing pool; two others play the slots. What Skinny Frank is missing in front teeth he makes up for with talent on the pool table. He hustles playing one-handed.
Mick has a clip of twenties in his trouser pocket and is feeding the slot machine every five minutes; he's been playing since 2:00 a.m. His life as an itinerant waiter is a rut: work, smoke pot, drink beer, snort coke, hook up with whores, gamble-gamble-gamble. Mick plays the slots for twelve- and sixteen-hour stretches, once a week. Nursing a draft beer, smoking Marlboros and tap-tap-tapping the four bet buttons on the box. He's played 30 to 40 times in the last nine months, since moving to the neighborhood, and he claims to have bet $2500. He's made back about $1000. Once at the Cove he scored 10,000 points on a cherry flush worth $500. "It's foolish, no doubt," says Mick, acknowledging that nobody can beat the house in the long run. "But it takes my mind off my personal and financial problems. And there's always a chance -- of course, very small -- that I'll win."
The occasional encounter with prostitutes and strippers at the Cove is another perk for some regulars. The licentious bartender who stripped on the bar last year is still fresh Cove lore. "I tell you, she had a perfect body," Jaco remembers, shaking his head slowly. "She mooned this guy right in his face and he dropped his beer bottle. Ah, it was beautiful. It was, well, it was the right thing to do. She'd do anything, whatever it takes to bring the guys here." The bodacious bartender was tipped $50 for that single performance. She made friends quickly, but she wasn't loyal.
"After work she was really down on those guys, kind of cold, and the guys got upset," says Jaco, explaining her demise. "She'd tell them, 'Look at you. What are you going to do, take me to McDonald's for dinner? You got nothing.'"
Sure, Jaco admits, there's the triangle of drugs-gambling-prostitution going on here, but, hey, that's part of the bar business. He swears he doesn't get a cut of the two-bit drug concession and that it's all done behind his back -- even though he's at the bar most of the day and has two hidden cameras monitoring the scene. Why would he condone drugs and prostitution? he asks. It's bad for business: If a guy walks in and buys cocaine, he'll probably not want to drink; if he does he'll buy a six-pack nearby and go home. Same with prostitutes. She takes a guy out of the bar, he loses a customer. "Drugs are cancer," Jaco proclaims. "The Miami Vice days are over. Nobody dresses like that any more."
Jaco portrays himself as a hard-working family man. Up at 4:30 a.m. and at the bar by 5:00 a.m. every day to restock and clean. That's another reason for staying open around the clock, he says -- companionship in the wee hours. "I bond with these guys easily," he says. "If you approach them as a big shot, they'll challenge you. But if you get dirty, they respect that. You always take care of the people that take care of you."
Jaco hastens to add there is another, even darker side of the business. He tells of run-ins with gangsters, grifters, and other street people. There was the teenager he scolded for loitering around the front door who lifted his T-shirt to reveal a large-barrel handgun and threatened to blow the bar owner's head off. And there was the new guy on the block who swaggered in and tried to impress him with his connections: "Let me use your phone -- I'll beep someone right now and then you'll know right here on the spot who you're dealing with." And the gimpy dope dealer who tried to muscle him, telling Jaco he had to go by his rules because he owned the street. He told the punk to get lost, and the wanna-be turf lord rode away on his bicycle.
"The sad part is that every time you call 911 it will go against your liquor license. That really bothers me," says Jaco. "But I'll step outside for a few minutes -- the cops are always in the neighborhood -- and I tell them this guy just hustled me."
And as far as the illegal activity in his bar, Jaco just shrugs. "The police had a problem once with staying open after five but nothing happened," he says. "And I disagreed with a police officer one time; he was trying to hustle me for this and that. But with time we understand each other. We're on the same page. There's a lot of trouble you can run into running a bar business. On a daily basis you probably break the law a million times."
Mild-mannered and orderly, Jaco tends carefully to his flock, his livelihood. He's a personable man who enjoys owning the Cove and running the show. "It's like a stage. And you have to be an actor," he says. "You think I like it when they tell me these ugly stories and breathe on me? I just woke up and I'm clean and I have to go in this smoky place and talk to a bunch of drunks at five in the morning. That's the hardest part, to be honest with you. I'd rather be in a clean environment."
That doesn't mean that he'd rather operate a fancier bar. He calls most other beach bars "phony"; he says the Cove and its regulars from the neighborhood are "real."
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In the middle of the bar a man relieves himself against a wall and the terrazzo floor. "I can't help it," the elderly man pleads. "I couldn't make it."
When a slightly younger man, Jersey Pete, groans at the spectacle, the pisser snaps, "I said I can't help it, goddamn it!"
Turning his back to the pisser, Jersey Pete swivels around to the bar and puts his right palm to his forehead.
"God help us," he says to no one in particular.
"You think I like it when they tell me these ugly stories and breathe on me?