Nestled among the warehouses and auto body shops on a desolate stretch in Miami's inner city is a steel-plated door behind an iron gate. If you want to pass through that portal, don't even think of making contact with five knuckles. "No, no," says Red, a ghetto philosopher. "Don't knock. Ring." And he presses a buzzer. The door opens a crack, and a thick-necked guy in a white Kangol cap, gold necklace, and shades peers out. He takes a look at Red and his two friends, who are black, and me, a white guy, then nods okay. The gate opens. We proceed single file into the dark hallway, where the heavy pats us down for weapons.
It's 3:00 a.m. This bar doesn't have a name. If you want to enter the bunkerlike building, the man at the door must have seen you there before or someone has to vouch for you. This place couldn't be more discerning about its clientele if it carried a South Beach address and had pretty boys manning velvet ropes out front. But the reasons for tight security here are less abstract than South Beach's elusive code of entry (where clothes and attitude can get you turned away from the doors): This club sells cocaine behind the counter.
Otherwise it's a standard bar, the type you find in Liberty City and Overtown. It's funky and a little faded. One of the bartenders, a robust middle-age woman, is friendly. "First time here?" she asks, then delivers a round of drinks on the house. The bar is well-stocked with brand liquor and beer.
Red discovered this joint earlier this year and thought he had stepped back in time to a Prohibition-era speakeasy. It was a revelation, he says, because this country is at war with itself over drugs, and here's a place where people behave as if détente has been reached. He's right about that. If the street corner where fifteen-year-olds swap plastic Baggies for fistfuls of cash are the frontlines of the battle, then this joint is way behind enemy lines. It's a world not many see. Red, who doesn't snort or smoke (he prefers a strong drink), thinks it shows how established the drug culture has become. To him this place represents an alternative to armed dealers with beepers fouling the stoops of homes where hardworking people are too scared or too tired to shoo them away.
"It just seems so calm in this setting, while the hype in the media makes you feel like anyone doing drugs is a wild animal," he says. That's why he invited along his two friends who are visiting from up north -- Paco, an acid-jazz musician, and James, a computer consultant (not their real names) -- and me to see the place.
As we enter the bar's main room, Red nods toward a table on the left. A man in a rust-orange zoot suit and white Panama hat sits at a table, holding a drink. A small white plate, an orange-handled flour sifter, and a playing card lay in front of him. Nearly everyone present -- a mixture of fifteen to twenty blacks and Hispanics -- are sitting at tables with small plates in front of them. We make our way past a jukebox stuffed with soul and R&B standards by Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, among others. Behind the jukebox is a billiards room where a scuffed pool table, dusty with chalk, lists slightly to the left. On the walls over our heads are two TV monitors broadcasting images from security cameras outside. The cameras cover both front and rear entrances: safety measures in case of a police raid.
Given our culture's ambivalent attitude toward drugs and the current political blather during the presidential election, this place is suddenly, strangely relevant. George W. Bush has been backed into a corner, forced to make nondenials of youthful cocaine use, which might be considered at odds with tough drug laws he approved as governor of Texas. In September Michael Pollan pointed out an interesting hypocrisy in the New York Times Magazine: While Bush squirms, former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole stumps for Viagra, a sexual stimulant, in national magazine and TV ads. The social difference between the two drugs is stark; one is legal, one is not. The chemical distinction is less clear, as it can be argued that both are taken with pleasure in mind.
That's a theme New Mexico's Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, has been mining lately. He's been calling for legalization of drugs, or at least decriminalization, prompting a flurry of criticism (the state's public safety director resigned) and support (a state judge publicly championed the governor's stance). "I was somebody who smoked marijuana in college," Johnson was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. "I didn't experiment with marijuana; I smoked it. I made a bad choice, but even then it wasn't a choice that I felt should have landed me in jail.... I hate to say it, but most people use drugs responsibly."
But the politicians' hot air barely causes a breeze in the inner city. No one here waited for the political rhetoric to funnel down to them. They have created their own alternative safe zone for this indulgence, off the street and out of the alley. In a sense it's like Amsterdam's hash houses. While alcoholism, crack cocaine, and heroin have claimed a disproportionate number of lives in poor black America, the drug trade has also been a stopgap economic measure for people who don't have jobs. The risks, violent death and incarceration, are just the calculated cost of doing business.
At the bar, people are ordering powder from a bartender just as they might request more ice in their drinks. A bald, wiry man who sits in a thronelike wicker chair in a side room near the bar quietly attends to these orders. With ramrod-straight posture he walks to table after table bearing a plate with a sifter, plastic spoon, and a playing card. After collecting $25 he lays the plate down like a waiter, opens a small Ziploc bag, and wordlessly dumps cocaine into the flour sifter. Then he crushes the lumpy blocks of blow through the screen and onto the plate with the spoon. Using the corners of the card, patrons scoop up a pinch of the powder and take a bump.
The proprietors are strict about keeping order. At one point I wander out of the poolroom toting a cue stick. The eagle-eye bouncer is there in a flash. "Can't take the stick out of the room," he points out solemnly. It could be used as a weapon. This would be a bad place to cause trouble. It's off society's radar, therefore order has to be imposed from within. It's a sure bet that if something goes down, no one's going to call the cops. Because of that, everyone is warily respectful.
At the pool table, a lean-looking man with a shaved head, his olive-drab work shirt unbuttoned, explains this is his first day out of prison after fourteen years. The charges? "Drugs," he says. "Listen, I'm trying to get my shit together. I just need a little help. Do you want a little pussy? I can get it for you." Not all the people are so raw. One man in a beret introduces himself, says he's a musician, and chats amicably about the Florida Marlins.
In the main room, Red's friend Paco has struck up a conversation with a woman in a halter-top standing by the jukebox. She's friendly and high. She talks excitedly to him. She asks him to take her home. He declines. But he buys her a gin and tonic. "That chick was fucked up," Paco says later. "She was talking a mile a minute, telling me she was in nursing school and that she has a teenage son. She said she didn't come here that often."
Like Red, Paco doesn't do cocaine. He prefers to smoke reefer. He even has a joint on him, but declines to indulge. Something holds him back. "I know it would be cool to whip it out," he says looking around. "But it's not the vibe in this place."
Red, Paco, James, everyone agrees that the mood in the bar is nonthreatening. Two women dance softly to a Bob Marley tune. Men and women sit at tables, talking quietly. Yet Red remains alert. He warns Paco and the others not to ask stupid questions nor leave their drinks unattended. He keeps an eye on James, making sure his friend doesn't talk too much trash at the pool table.
At one point a trim Latino in khakis and a white dress shirt steps up to Red and shows him a snapshot of a smiling dark-haired woman. "This is Maya. Have you seen her?" he asks politely. No, Red replies. "We're looking for her," the man continues, pointing to a group of three other men, similarly well-dressed, standing at the bar. "She talked too much and got my cousin arrested." He smiles pleasantly. "But it's all right; we'll find her." Then he laughs.
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That encounter spoils the mood for Red. Perhaps it's the man's conspiratorial tone or the prospect that some real trouble might erupt if Maya indeed comes waltzing through the doors. Whatever the reason, Red decides it's time to go. He rounds up James and Paco, and we head out the door to the car. The pavement and worn-down apartment buildings glisten with rain. The sky is bleeding from night into dawn. This adventure on the surreptitious side of Miami has stunned us.
"That was like something out of a movie," Paco exclaims with awe. "That place had everything. The supplier, the dealer, the user, the addict -- everybody was in that room. It was a place where you can chill and do it. Basically a safe environment. Everybody there was down with the program."
"It is so normal in there," Red concurs. "Disturbingly normal."
Then as the car speeds east, Paco adds, "We were definitely in the heart of it, man."