Buddha and the Beach
At water's edge in Miami Beach, early in the morning, a large black man with a shaved head begins to dance. As his sleek head moves from side to side, his belly -- about the size of a medium Butterball turkey -- rolls in perfect counterpoint. Facing the rising sun, he steps forward first with one foot and then the other, his arms pumping like a slow-motion fighter working low on a body bag. The music comes from his boom box in the sand. Behind him is the stack of lounge chairs he'll soon drag into position in anticipation of the beachgoers who will head for the concession at Eighteenth Street.
As the music thumps the cool air, retirees from nearby apartments and condos begin crossing the sand for their morning swim. Some will even join the dance. Most of these elderly folks don't know Freddie Wayne Gatlin by name. Neither do the tourists, who come during the week, or the locals, who appear as regularly as the sun on weekends. But they have found it easy to become one of his friends. First they watched Freddie, then they listened to him espouse his philosophy of the simple life, and now they trust him.
He picks up the old people when their unsteady legs give way in the surf. They know they can call for him from the water "if something bites you," as one of the morning regulars puts it. The tourists send him letters from Berlin and Texas thanking him for his restaurant recommendations and his warnings about what parts of Miami to avoid. On Sundays the doctors, lawyers, and other South Beach cognoscenti gather round to hear his political discourses, delivered with the rhythmic cadence of a Baptist preacher.
None of them knows much about Freddie or where he came from, but they all sense the implicit message conveyed by this Buddha of South Beach, and it makes them wistful. Sometimes it makes them question decisions they've made about their own lives. "To me Freddie doesn't have a care in the world," says Bill Noonan, a morning regular who is two years shy of retirement from the U.S. Postal Service. Noonan and the others envy Freddie's life on the beach because they think he has achieved that illusory freedom Americans constantly talk about, that dream of autonomy and independence usually delayed until old age.
Freddie's employer, Dawn Becerra, likes to think her family is living that dream, too. She and her husband, Pedro, own the concession, which consists of the stack of beach chairs, canvas cabanas and umbrellas, and the yellow-and-white trailer that serves as a snack shack. From morning until evening (except when it rains), their business keeps them on the beach. Many of the sunbathers who go "chairing" with them have become their friends, and their three children have grown up on the sand, meeting people from around the world. "The beach," Dawn says, "gives us freedom."
But at night and when it rains, the Becerras go home like their customers. Freddie, on the other hand, stays day and night, rain or shine, because he is convinced it is his destiny. Somehow he has found his divinely appointed spot in the sand. Even Dawn, who says Freddie has become one of the family, doesn't know what led him to this exact place at the precise moment he was needed. He just appeared on the shore, as if by magic. "I never saw Freddie until the day I got here and I was crying because no one was here to help me," Dawn recalls with a smile and a nod to a fond memory. It was early one Sunday morning this past April; she had arrived to find that her hired help had not shown up for work. Pedro was visiting his family in Mexico, leaving Dawn alone with her three small children on the busiest day of the week during one of the busiest months of the year. By 9:00 a.m. beachgoers would be looking for lounge chairs. Unstacking and arranging 50 to 100 of the chaise lounges is heavy work; so is the added task of twisting umbrellas into the sand and setting up canvas cabanas. Dawn approached Freddie, the only person sitting on the beach that early, and made a desperate plea for help. He saved the damsel from distress. And when Dawn invited him to stay on, as it turned out, he also saved himself.
The manmade sand dune at the western edge of the beach, with its vegetation and footbridges, has become Freddie's demilitarized zone between the responsibilities and regulations of a life he has forsaken and the one he has embraced, in which time is marked by the cruise ships entering and leaving Government Cut. "Once you crest that berm you are in a whole new world without car horns and traffic lights," he says. "Here you can sit and create whatever world you want."
In fact, Freddie rarely leaves the beach these days, except to take a bus to an occasional movie. He spends his nights on the beach providing security for the concession's equipment, and his home is one of the crescent-shaped cabanas that covers a lounge chair. A second cabana, which overlays the first, is spring-loaded by a bungee cord, closing against the rain and opening for the full moon above the water, like some giant clam beached on the sand.
Freddie pops out of his shell every morning at 6:00 a.m., in time for a quick dip in the water before the early-risers arrive for their swim. Then he rinses off at the outdoor shower of a nearby hotel. If he wants a sink, he goes to the public bathroom at the end of Seventeenth Street, ignores the gay men who often hang in the shadows, covers his head and face with shaving cream, and scrapes himself clean. He sets up the chairs in four rows, trudging through the sand at a slow but steady pace, dragging one chair at a time. Lugging the chairs in the morning and at night gives him "two good sweats a day," which dropped his weight from 283 pounds when he started six months ago to 253 today. Next he sets out flags from the countries of the world, establishing a three-sided perimeter around the concession's territory -- Freddie's turf.
Finally he arranges a cabana in the last row for himself, which is his post as the chairs fill up. He stands there, arms akimbo, looking for predators: a petty thief stealthily dropping a towel over someone's bag, a man competing with Pedro's foodstand by selling drinks from a cooler, or an idle pervert who specializes in surreptitiously photographing topless women sunbathers. He runs them out with a stare or a few polite words: "Excuse me, did you know this is a private concession?" -- cabana and two chairs will cost you ten dollars for the day, but Freddie has been known to deal late in the afternoon. "I'll put the chair wherever you want it, turn it around when you want it," he patters like a gadget salesman. "If you want to stay and watch the stars, you can. We don't ask anyone to leave." The rest of the job is this: "I sit, I read, I look at the pretty girls -- and hope one of them will like a fat guy." Freddie beams, revealing a gap-toothed smile.
Meanwhile the world comes to the Buddha: sunbathers from Europe and South America, old people from the condos, professionals with their Sunday papers and briefcases. If you're a regular, Freddie's shiny black pate is the beacon that guides you to a place on the landing strip of white sand and white skin. "People say, 'You're already black, you don't need a tan,'" Freddie chuckles. "I say, 'You drink orange juice. Do you want to be orange?'" Indeed, he is virtually alone as a black man on this part of the beach. Local blacks tend to favor Virginia Key or Haulover, he says. Only two black couples, one from Ethiopia, the other from New Jersey, have rented lounge chairs from him. The New Jersey couple tried to give him a tip, but Freddie uncharacteristically refused the cash as a gesture toward his race. But that is about as far as he goes in terms of allegiance to any group. He scoffs at putting an "Afro" in front of the word for what he really is -- an American. "I went to school, I went to war, and I stayed out of jail," Freddie says with a tinge of resentment. "I have done everything America has asked me to do, so I feel I can be anywhere I want to be."
He has always considered himself something of a rebel since growing up in Cairo, Georgia, the youngest of sixteen brothers and sisters (two sets of twins died in infancy). He says he took after his brother James, whom they called "Rover" because he was only home for a few days at a time between wanderings. Freddie admired James because he seemed to know how to make himself happy, and when he wanted to go, he went. "That's livin'," Freddie says.
If he admired the rover, he adored his mother. After his father left when Freddie was just five years old, his mother took charge of the family and instilled in the children her strongly held values: fairness and compassion for everyone, black or white; and hard work and shared responsibility, the antithesis of contemporary inner-city welfare families, Freddie adds. "She said, 'I want you to know how to read, write, and especially count your money, or the white people will cheat you,'" Freddie recalls with a laugh. Her instruction prepared him for family and home, nearly the opposite of his life today on the magical beach he calls paradise.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Buddha tunes his radio to a Dolphins game and chooses a title from plastic bags full of books his "chair people" leave for him. Those who prefer his part of the beach tend to be readers, he notes. "There is no aggressiveness here, so what do you do?" he asks. "You either sleep, read, or look at all the pretty girls." By now Freddie is accustomed to the sight of women doffing their bathing-suit tops as the sand begins shimmering with heat. He can admire them discreetly, though not everyone is so accepting. A proper woman from New York once took chairs near the water with her boyfriend, only to have another woman sit down next to them and bare her considerable chest. "She tells her boyfriend, 'We're moving to the back row,'" Freddie recalls. As soon as they sat down again, two regulars who work at the strip clubs on Collins Avenue settled in beside them, and the boyfriend got a preview of the topless part of their act. The New York woman sent her boyfriend jogging and then complained to Freddie: "She says to me, 'Do you allow this?' and I say, 'Just like you are offended by them, they are offended when they get a beautiful tan and -- bang! -- there's a tan line right across the middle of it.'"
The sun runs his customers' lives on the beach just as the clock does on the other side of the sand dune. And when either malfunctions, there's usually trouble. Freddie shrugs as he describes those chair customers who demand their money back when the onshore winds suddenly shift and the clouds begin to boil out of the Everglades, casting the sand in shadows. Sunsets offer another dramatic contrast to the usual brilliant light of day. At that hour, though, the chairs are virtually empty. Freddie doesn't charge for the select group of stragglers who grab a seat for one of those great moments. Just the other day, Freddie says, he witnessed a dazzler: "The clouds were so beautiful, like red puffs of cotton you threw in the air."
Nighttime offers a completely different experience, especially during the full moon, and Freddie touts it as if the concession were still open for business after dark. "People say, 'I want to come out at night but I'm afraid,'" he notes. "I say, 'Don't be afraid. I'm here and it's so beautiful.'" The lovers come in droves, and Freddie is forced to listen to them from inside his cabana shell. "Girls make love with each other who don't know I'm here. Guys make love who don't give a damn I'm here," Freddie laughs. "And I've had people makin' love who know I'm here."
Even those who come to be alone seem to find him, and he talks to them all: a chef from a nearby hotel in a new job and a strange city, a beautiful blond woman from Hialeah suffering from family problems, a homeless man soaked from the rain. "I could have told them to get the hell away from me," Freddie says, "but I had a sister-in-law who committed suicide. Everyone thought she was just talking -- and then she took a gun and blew her brains out."
One of his chair people, a vacationing lawyer from Boston, came over to the Buddha's cabana recently just to let Freddie know how good he really has it. Every evening in Boston the lawyer drops by his local hangout just as a rerun of Bay Watch comes on the television above the bar. The lawyer and his cronies, he told Freddie, vowed to give their right arms for the beach life of the show's lifeguard protagonists. Freddie holds his head, rolls his eyes, and his great belly shakes with laughter as he tells the story. "Most people are in law because of the money and the glamour," he remarks. "Whether they're miserable or not, they've got to do what their fathers did. Here I'm not making shit, but this is what everyone wants to do."
Despite their envy of the beach lifestyle, those Boston bar buddies probably have not pondered the meaning of homelessness the way Freddie has. Homelessness, he contends, is merely a state of mind. "A lot of 'homeless' people have jobs, work, and pay their taxes," he says. "But they don't want to be in a job where all they can afford is to pay rent and buy a six-pack. In Miami you can work and live outdoors." If he can manage without a traditional house, he can just as easily forgo a checking account. "Society wants you to have a bank account so you can get that plastic money," Freddie asserts. He gets by on cash from tips and a small salary from the concession's owners. "Another one of society's rules: You got to have a car," he continues. "There is nowhere in Dade County I can't take a bus and be there on time."
Freddie turns from the ocean and briefly looks back toward the dune that marks the edge of the beach. "I'll let you keep what's on the other side, you're more than welcome to it," he says. "The whole world out there is rushing to get nowhere." As he speaks, his attention is drawn to a flotilla of powerboats racing offshore, followed overhead by a squadron of chase helicopters with cameramen hanging out the doors. People rushing. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to go faster and faster. "They want a sense of flirting with death," Freddie observes. "When death was around me, I was not flirting with it. Death is final."
In 1966, after he graduated from high school in Cairo, Freddie had a full scholarship to Carver Bible College in Atlanta. His loftiest ambition was to become a minister, which would make his mother happy and would help him avoid becoming a sharecropper like his father, or like his sisters, ending up at the W.B. Roddenberry Company, canning pickles and peanut butter. But girls and John Wayne intervened. Joining the army was the way to get girls, Hollywood's GI movies assured him. But instead of girls, he got a trip to Vietnam, a place he had never heard of before enlisting.
Once you stopped thinking about dying in combat, living in Vietnam was more comfortable than Cairo, according to Freddie. For one thing, there were fewer racial incidents. And there were good friends bound by a simple code: Trust each other absolutely but depend on yourself for survival. After his initial tour, he signed up for two more, and in the course of those years he lost 30 comrades. One of them, his best friend in his platoon, bled to death in his arms A not in the jungle, but after being shot in a village tavern by another GI. (During the war, Freddie's only visit home was prompted by another death. His oldest brother had been killed by a wayward bullet while in his own bathroom in Liberty City, where most of his family, including his mother, had moved after his enlistment.)
In Vietnam he says he developed a simple method for coping with the daily possibility of being shot: Know where death lurks. He might be in a cramped foxhole right next to the chaotic din of a firefight, but he could fall asleep because he knew the shots were not aimed at him. Silence, however, was different. He feared silence. "When it gets quiet," he says with foreboding, "you don't know what they're doing."
Out on the sand in the bright sunshine, a noisy, crowded beach juxtaposed with the empty ocean helps maintain a delicate equilibrium Freddie has been building since 'Nam. "I like to be around people but not necessarily with people," he explains. "That's one of those weird things from the war. The beach people are here, but they're not with me."
Freddie turned 46 years old a few weeks ago, and Dawn Becerra tried to lure him off the beach for a party at her Miami house. But he spent the evening on the sand as usual. The next day, Sunday, he was at his post, standing in front of his cabana, looking at the ocean. "These people have gotten to be like family. We're becoming too close," he says of the Becerras. "I love being out here but I don't want a family, because if I want to move on, I want to be able to go."
When he got out of the army in 1973, Freddie came home to his mother in Liberty City. ("After the war," he says, "you want to go to the one who loves you most.") Like many veterans, the most important things Freddie brought back from Vietnam were a distrust of government and a belief in self-sufficiency. The death of his mother two years later severely tested the latter. For a time he lived on the streets and contemplated suicide. Then he wandered into a "little ol' raggedy church" and came out the Buddha of South Beach. The message of the minister's sermon was simple: You can't love anyone or anything until you love yourself. "When I left there," he recalls, "I knew I didn't have to have a car, an apartment, or all the other things society says you got to have. I had to learn to love me just the way I am. It still took some years."
He took temporary jobs at a blood bank, as a day laborer, and standing in lines for a concert ticket broker. But for three or four months each year he would move to the beach. Twice he married and divorced. His second wife, Chelsea, called his beach-living an art. "The key is you got to have toilet articles and a change of clothes," Freddie says with enthusiasm. "That separates you from the rest of the people the police consider homeless. I also have maintained apartments enough of the time so that I am a resident, not a transient."
For Chelsea's sake he did try one full-time job so they could live a conventional life. But she used to say he would get a certain look in his eye and she knew he was going back to the beach. "It began to be miserable," Freddie recalls with a sigh. "I had to get up, rush to the beach for the sunrise, and then rush to work. In the evening I had to rush home and change and get to South Pointe Park for the sunset. And I wasn't looking for shells any more."
As another Sunday afternoon moves toward sunset at Eighteenth Street, Freddie is about to begin restacking his chairs. He stops and points out a little girl whose parents are watching her from the water. In a fresh breeze, she is struggling to lay out her towel neatly, and Freddie laughs as the wind wraps the towel around her. Finally she wrestles the towel to the ground, smoothes out the edges, and then carefully places her shoes at one end. "'I don't need anybody!'" Freddie shouts, imagining the little girl's triumphant thoughts. "Ha! To her that's like climbing a mountain. And that's how it is for me after I set out my chairs, put up my flags, and turn around for a look and say, 'Yes!'
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