On Miami Beach, especially South Beach, where just about anything goes, the exotic and outlandish usually elicit only yawns.
But Elliot Offen A the runner who makes a nightly eighteen-mile trek wearing skimpy, ruffled women's lingerie, pantyhose, white makeup, red lipstick, and Reeboks A causes heads to turn.
"I have seen it all in South Florida, but he is something different," says a member of the Miami Beach Police Department who asked not to be named. "He is right up there with Halley's Comet. He's something New Orleans doesn't have."
By any standard, Offen is unique. An Orthodox Jew who goes to synagogue three times a day and does not run on Friday night or Saturday, Offen worked as a male exotic dancer and later as a female impersonator in New York City in the late Sixties. Since March 1992 the 41-year-old New York native, whose dark curls reach down to his broad shoulders, has been running in women's clothes, not only to satisfy what he describes as an urge to "dress as a chick," but to show off his athletic prowess and "statuesque" body. The five-eleven Offen weighed a whopping 265 pounds in his twenties, but has slimmed down to 160.
"I have showcased myself. I've made myself stand out to this whole community," says Offen, who moved to South Florida from New York in 1979. "I thrive on public attention, probably because I had no attention throughout my entire childhood."
But public display for its own sake is not his only goal. An inveterate reader of medical books in spite of his second-grade education, and a runner who claims to have participated in the Boston and New York marathons in 1986 and 1987 (finishing in the top 50 in both races) A a claim refuted by officials of both events A Offen hopes to launch his own business as an exercise and nutrition counselor. His nightly negligee-enhanced routine, he believes, will serve to attract customers for his new venture.
Offen says the experience he gained selling costume jewelry and souvenirs with his father in Times Square for ten years in the Seventies has served him well. "One thing I did learn if nothing else was that in a schlock operation, the most integral part of any business is advertisement."
Although Offen learned retailing from his father, it was his now-81-year-old uncle, Murray Offen, who inspired him to study medicine and nutrition. The elder Offen, a veteran of the theater business, "knows more about endocrinology than an endocrinologist and more about gastroenterology than a gastroenterologist," says the proud nephew. "He is my greatest personal idol. Uncle Murray was on a health-kick kind of lifestyle when no one knew how to live a disease-free life without contamination."
Offen is especially concerned with germs. In fact, his preoccupation has led to his inability to work, and he's been collecting Social Security disability payments for the last two years. He says he inherited his "deadly, dreaded fear of germs and disease" from his mother. "If somebody sneezed on 51st Street in Manhattan and I was standing on 43rd Street, she took me home to sterilize me." Despite this germ fixation, Offen believes he can put his medical knowledge to good use if he can promote himself effectively.
During the past month Offen has advertised his service via 300 flyers distributed on Miami Beach. "If you're overweight and out of shape," the flyers read, "then call physical fitness expert Elliot Offen or runner Elliot Offen." Offen says the price for his services is "infinitesimal" -- only $95, which will entitle clients to "unlimited telephonic or personal instruction in terms of diet and exercise."
Among other things, Offen is selling the notion, now recognized by many nutritionists, that a diet made up of 92 percent unrefined carbohydrates is the ticket to good health and a "voluptuous, rock-hard body" such as the one he parades through the streets of Miami Beach each night.
Offen believes people will ask themselves, "'Why should I chose Elliot Offen's school of dieting and exercise against Pritikin or Jenny Craig or against any one of these?'" The answer: "These people see Elliot with their own eyes running painlessly and effortlessly for two hours nonstop. They are spellbound and mesmerized. [They think] 'There's this man in 90-degree heat. How is he able to do this every single day?' So I'm the living proof."
So far Offen says he's received only ten to twelve phone calls in response to his flyers, and no one has signed up for his services yet. He attributes the limited response to a lack of motivation on the part of his potential clients. "Regardless of my great knowledge of human anatomy," he says, "it will take a supreme effort on their parts to change their lives. They need to sacrifice all the foods they're accustomed to eating and their nonproductive lifestyles."
Although Offen has attracted no clients, he has garnered some unwanted attention from hecklers and others. He says during his nightly runs he has been pelted with everything from batteries to banana peels. And at least one member of the Miami Beach Police Department has warned him that his habit of running in the bus lane on Collins Avenue could be hazardous not only to himself but to the buses as well.
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In fact, Offen himself thinks that at least one bus driver on Collins Avenue is out to get him. Although he doesn't know the driver's name, he describes him as a pockmarked, sloppily dressed, 40-year-old black man, adding that the driver has threatened him on more than one occasion. According to a Miami Beach Police Criminal Investigation Division supplemental report dated November 20, 1993, the "victim feels that because of his dress attire, a Metro bus driver attempted to strike him with a large 'missile,' meaning a bus, as he pulled out of the service road in the area of 54th Street and Collins Avenue as he was running southbound."
Although the writer of the report, Miami Beach Police Det. Laurie Wander, indicated that the near collision between the bus and Offen did not appear to be deliberate on the part of the driver, Offen is convinced that the man is a would-be assassin. On May 2, Offen claims, he boarded a bus numbered 8024 on Route T at 5:00 p.m., dressed in men's clothes. (He says he wears women's clothes only when he runs but that he's certain the bus driver recognized him.) Five minutes after he climbed aboard, Offen says, he was verbally attacked by the driver.
"He said that he wished he had a knife to kill me," contends Offen, who keeps a daily diary that allows him to recall not only the time when the incident occurred, but that he was sitting in the first passenger seat on the bus, which was filled at the time. As if the verbal abuse were not enough, Offen says that when he was leaving the bus at 67th and Collins Avenue about a half-hour later, the driver tried to close the door on him.
The only thing that saved him from being injured, asserts Offen, was his excellent physical condition and the fact that the doors are lined with rubber. "Fortunately, Elliot has a rock-hard physique," offers Offen, referring to himself. "If I had been a frail person, [it] would have knocked me down and into the street." As of yet no charges have been brought against the bus driver, and according to Detective Wander, the investigation of Offen's charges is inactive.