Cocaine and Me: A Memoir
The summer of 1977 I was seventeen years old and working a pay-by-day gig on a construction site in the Grove, jackhammering concrete slabs at a shoddily laid duplex. The pay was crap ($40 a day), the work murderous, and my girlfriend Maritza, who was several years older and had a taste for the nightlife, throttled me ragged about money.
Orly, a buddy I often smoked weed and water-skied with, called to say the Mutiny Hotel in the Grove was hiring. "Caballo," he said, "we should shoot for a job there." Maritza, who had lived for a time with Rudy Rodriguez, a nefarious Miami coke tycoon and a Mutiny regular, squeezed me to apply for work at the hotel. "Baby, you won't have to kill yourself, and the money must be fabulous," she baited.
Snaring a steady job at the Mutiny seemed like a fantasy at the time. The 138-room hotel, located at 2951 S. Bayshore Dr., had opened in 1968 and by the late Seventies was reveling in its reputation as a raucous playground for Miami's drug-addled elite. The hotel was famous for magnificent, one-of-a-kind theme rooms with mirrors over the beds, Roman tubs, and opulent furnishings. It had become a pit of profane luxury and the eye of the cocaine storm buffeting Miami.
My friends talked excitedly of entering the exotic, members-only Mutiny Club. It was the most exclusive place in town, and we'd heard some wild stories about the club's "hostesses," reportedly all gorgeous models with loose morals. They were definitely the club's star attraction.
We all dreamed of becoming members and flashing the brass membership card with its eye-patched pirate logo, but we settled for stealing the snazzy Mutiny Club membership tags off parked cars to spruce up our own jalopies.
The position the Mutiny offered was "houseman" during the night shift. The other construction workers chided me about taking the job, predicting I'd end up a glorified gofer humping for the rich and rowdy. "Turkey, that's minimum wage and measly tips," they joked. But it beat working under the glaring sun and, as it turned out, the tips at the Mutiny landed me on easy street.
When I went to the hotel to fill out an application, I wore a crisply starched shirt, pleated slacks, and my best shoes. I remember feeling nervous and awed by the surroundings while waiting to meet a supervisor in the plush lobby. I noticed a bearded, older man in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals walking around and playing with the light bulbs in their fixtures. Waving his arms about and squinting, he left some bright and others dim. I pointed out his weird behavior to an employee at the front desk, who told me it was the Mutiny's owner, Burton Goldberg. "He likes to keep the lighting dark because it makes our older female guests' wrinkles less noticeable," she explained. I recall being impressed the owner would think of that.
I was hired at minimum wage plus tips and wondered if I'd exchanged one dead-end job for another. But my first night at the Mutiny I walked out with $200 in my pocket. What really surprised me about that night was the front desk sending me up to a room where a guest wanted me to get him some pot. I naively responded that I was on duty, then regained my composure and offered to return with some nickel bags at the end of my shift.
The guest, a pasty-skinned gringo from Chicago named Gus, who appeared to be a businessman in his early thirties, placed his hand on my shoulder, winked at me, and insisted he wanted "a lid now." I didn't know if this was standard procedure but figured if I could make some extra cash on the sly, I was game.
"I'll be back in half," I promised and snagged his hundred-dollar bill. When I returned with twenty small manila envelopes stuffed with weed and rubber-stamped "Graveyard" (a street dealer's trademark identifying his spot a few blocks away), Gus chuckled and invited me into his room. He tipped me two of the nickel bags and a folded twenty-dollar bill full of cocaine, commending me on my honesty.
I worked the four-to-midnight shift. Maritza moaned about the hours, but I got used to them, and besides, the cash was better at night. I quickly became popular with the regulars who relied on me for errands; some even trusted me with their money. Gus, for example, happened to be a frequent visitor who often had me pick up cash transfers from a Western Union office in Little Havana and deliver to his room bags of cheap weed and boxes of pastelitos for the munchies. He always took care of me and never complained that the pot I would bring him consisted mostly of stems and seeds. It surprised me that a classy rich guy would settle for street dope when he could obviously afford top-of-the-line stuff.
I was amazed. All I did was deliver citrus-scented Vita Bath and extra towels to rich stoners fucking in the Jacuzzis, or make small-time drug runs for big shots in a hurry, yet I was banking more than I ever had.
An older Cuban guy named Sammy, a "retired piano player" living permanently in the $180-a-night Egyptian room, tapped me regularly to bring him quacks (Quaaludes) since he suffered "a sleep allergy" from all the cocaine he ingested. Everyone knew that Sammy was a close associate of Rudy Rodriguez's and that the dealer was covering his bills. (Cops would later identify Sammy as Rodriguez's personal, in-house pianist.) Sammy was a stringy-haired, strung-out eccentric who draped himself in satin bathrobes and wore a jeweler's loupe on a frayed cord around his neck to make sure he wasn't getting gypped on quality. I once saw him eyeing a mound of coke on a table through the loupe, mentioning that the stuff was "pinkish" and flaked with iridescent escamas (fish scales). "You can tell this is excellent coke," he pointed out.
Sammy didn't show the same fastidiousness when it came to his living arrangements or his personal hygiene. He never let the maids into his room, which was a pigsty, but no one dared say a word. Sammy looked like a fossil and smelled like a mixture of mold, mothballs, and stale sweat. He might have been in his fifties, and even though he was toothpick skinny, the flesh on his face was puffy and drooped like a pelican's. He appeared closer to seventy.
"The best cure for a Peruvian flake hangover," he told me, was to pour four fingers of vodka into a blender with three Quaaludes. "It's the best, kid! Try this," he cackled, spraying the foul bromide everywhere from a whirring, crusty Osterizer.
Several nights a week I drove to an Overtown spot off NW Eighth Street and I-95 called "Precinct" to buy bootleg Quaaludes for Sammy, who made me swear to keep quiet about his vodka-and-quack nightcaps. "If Rudy finds out I'm eating so many, he's going to be furious," Sammy warned me. "We have to be careful, Carlitos." Suddenly finding myself a co-conspirator in his taboo consumption, and not wanting to provoke the wrath of his drug-baron buddy, I obliged.
I didn't own a private membership and couldn't get into the Mutiny Club after work because they were very strict about checking. Instead I'd party at Honey for the Bears up the road, where the doorman knew Maritza. Even though I was underage, I was never carded at any of the clubs (Scaramouche at the Omni was another favorite) since my thick mustache made me look older and Maritza was obviously in her twenties.
Honey, on SW 27th Avenue a few blocks south of U.S. 1 in the Grove, was always jumping and stayed as frosted as an Aspen ski slope, everyone brazenly tooting away. Barry White, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and Al Green kept the dance floor packed. People did lines on tables and shared a hit from their little coke bottles while waiting for drinks at the bar. Wherever you turned, someone offered you a spoonful of cariño (love) out of politeness. It was the new etiquette, and few declined. Mirrored disco balls, a blaring sound system, and kaleidoscopic lights made your head twirl.
In the bathrooms, men and women mingled, passing around joints. It was considered rude to smoke outside since the place could get raided if you lit up in the parking lot. If you didn't have blow, you could often score un gramito from industrious restroom attendants. But most of us were aware that if you sprung for some rounds at the bar, you could end up snorting for free.
It was common at such nightclubs in those days for a group of swaggering cocaine cowboys and their side chicks to walk in, flash wads of cash, order the bar closed for the rest of the night, and cover the tab for everyone inside. It was also common to see a loaded, hotheaded jerk whip out a pistol from under his jacket and yell to a rival dealer: "I'm going to plant you right here!" Cries of terror would clear out the joint faster than a raid.
But the Mutiny was hands-down the Taj Mahal of debauchery. And as it happened, much of what I'd heard about the Mutiny Club hostesses was true. They were young, stunningly beautiful, and gorgeously attired. They also were required to wear outlandish hats while on duty; owner Goldberg had a fetish about it. Most looked like elegant centerfold models before undressing for a photo shoot.
Officially they were hired to infuse the club with a cosmopolitan, jet-set vibe while serving cocktails and mingling with patrons. Many seemed innocent enough and didn't linger around the hotel after work, but I soon discovered that some of the hostesses were depraved.
After a couple of months at the hotel, I met Bernie, a balding, middle-age Cuban guy who twirled up what was left of his hair like a Dairy Queen soft cone. Bernie loved the red, white, and black "Hollywood" room on the hotel's fourth floor, where one night he was partying with hostesses Tania and Maria. The girls called me to bring them some double coladas.
They turned out to be quintessential Miami sucias (dirty girls), who were douching with the cafecito because it drove Bernie wild. The guy insisted I stay and watch. One of the girls promised me a "nasty blowjob" if I would. "Kid, things are gonna heat up now," Bernie murmured. I bolted when he leaned toward me as if he were going to kiss me.
Tania and Maria later kept me dizzy bringing them coffee, tubes of lubricant, sundry toiletries, and tawdry gossip about hotel customers. They occasionally rewarded me with a clinic on how blowjobs should be properly administered. One of the wildest things they taught me: Take a common rubber glove, fill it with water, tie the end closed, and freeze it overnight. "When rock solid, break off the fingers and insert the ice in your girlfriend's pussy after sex," they urged me. "Ay que rico," they cooed, swearing it kept them tingling on the sultriest nights.
On another evening, I was called to a room where I'd already delivered Vita Bath to the occupants three times. The hotel guest was a pickled Latin porker in his autumn of self-destruction. He wore a gold coke spoon on a choker and had been splashing around in the Jacuzzi with two scrawny girls who looked like they might still be in high school. He was trying to "get the bubbles right."
When I knocked on the door with more bubble bath and towels, I was fuming because the guy had been giving me attitude and hadn't tipped me. One of the girls opened the door, naked and dripping wet, and signaled toward the tub.
"I dropped my gun in the water. Can you get it for me?" the man pleaded.
"Climb out of the tub and I'll use a wire hanger to try," I responded.
He wouldn't cooperate. "No, the bubbles are good now. We're stayin' inside."
I stripped to my underwear and went bobbing for his Beretta while the guy and his girlfriends leaned back in the sprawling Jacuzzi and jabbered like coked-up parrots. I was expecting a royal tip when I finally came up with his piece, but they waved me off with an offer of some warm Dom Perignon from a nearly empty bottle.
Most of the truly big-time dealers back then struck me as being insanely generous. They commonly doled out hundred-dollar tips to the valets, waitresses, and housekeeping staff. I would sometimes net more in tips on a given week than my entire month's salary. Employees fawned over the popular big spenders, or magnates as they were called.
A childhood friend named Celia was dating one of the city's rising dealers. His name was Manolito and he was a ruthless thug who'd been the leader of a local street gang, the Utes, and had a reputation for being trigger-happy. He once fired a shotgun into a crowd of Hialeah rivals during a quince party in Miami Beach.
Manolito, who was in his early twenties, was working for an uncle in the "shrimping business" and apparently had been involved in major trafficking. Suddenly the guy was driving a new Corvette and picking up tabs all over town. Celia showed off a shiny new Volvo and diamond tennis bracelet he'd given her for her birthday.
One night at his house, while Maritza and Celia cooked dinner, he asked me to take a drive with him. When I climbed into the car, Manolito pulled a 9mm handgun from under the seat and passed it to me. I felt my heart begin to pound and wondered what was about to happen.
We stopped at a Chinese restaurant in Westchester, and as he got out with a taped paper bag the size of a football, which I assumed was a kilo of coke, he said, "Carlos, don't sweat it. Just start firing if I signal you." I nearly soiled the front seat but didn't utter a peep when he came out of the place grinning.
Manolito behaved as if it were perfectly natural to invite someone along to a transaction where gunfire might break out. But I wasn't comfortable with weapons and was appalled he expected me to be the one doing the shooting. My knees turned to Jello when I realized the restaurant was full of unsuspecting families having dinner and that his casual deal could have resulted in a bunch of people wounded or killed. I didn't want Manolito to think I was some wimp, though, and he thanked me for watching his back. After our meal at his home, he threw his arm around my shoulder and gave me a big bouche of blow for my trouble.
Not long after that, Celia invited us to a first-communion celebration for one of Manolito's nephews. Maritza and I were dazed by the garish opulence. It was a steak-and-lobster deal at the Sonesta Beach Resort, with bottles of Dom Perignon and Chivas Regal on every table.
We had to enter through a gazebo covered in flowers, and all the women were met by the lad-of-honor's mother, who pinned orchids on lapels. The men received gift-wrapped silver Zippos engraved with the six-year-old's initials and the date of his communion.
A gaudy carousel circled inside the banquet hall while professionally coifed and made-up children dressed in tuxes and gowns rode on it, screeching giddily. A private suite for the men was stocked with a full bar, a porcelain soup tureen full of cocaine, and a gaggle of escorts hired to keep everyone entertained. Rooms had been reserved for most of the kids and their families. I heard that the bill ran into the tens of thousands, and I remember thinking Manolito's boat had definitely come in.
Around town the lure of easy cash was leading friends to dabble in the drug trade's quick-strike opportunities. Guys I knew who were perennially broke and literally stealing food from the backs of parked Holsum bread trucks weeks earlier would drop by my job in brand-new BMWs, waving their Rolexes in the air. Some had been driving coke shipments to New York or Chicago for their employers, others had been unloading boats by moonlight. It was remarkable how they shrugged off the risks and bragged only of the money.
While visiting my father in California, the winter before I began working at the Mutiny, I'd been in a car accident and sustained a back injury. When the insurance settlement came through, Maritza and I decided to get married and throw a fancy party to celebrate with our friends and show off our sudden wealth. The money from the accident didn't compare to some of the scores our friends were making as part-time dopers, but we stupidly pulled out the stops to make an impression.
My shoes alone, a pair of custom-fit, burgundy-toned Martegani's I bought at Eppy & Eppy's on Miracle Mile, set me back 300 bucks. We rented the Presidential Suite at the Four Ambassadors and were informed by the concierge that Richard Nixon had signed some laws on the same desk where we were going to fill out our marriage papers. "Damn, that's really outta sight," remarked Pupi, our lesbian notary.
Everyone got so ripped that when we woke up the next morning, we found about twenty friends passed out on couches and in the suite's other rooms. Once everybody was awake, we were starving and decided to scrape up the leftover booze and headgear and caravan it over to the McDonald's on SW 32nd Avenue and Coral Way for a postnuptial brunch. While waiting for their Egg McMuffins, friends snatched up the small plastic coffee spoons from the counter because they made such sweet snort scoops.
We had done it up big and still had enough drugs to cap the bash at home with the hard-core stragglers we knew wouldn't disappear until the coke had dried up. When I went to the photographer to pick up the wedding pictures, he confessed he'd been so lit he shot eight rolls of film without taking off the camera's lens cap. Ay, Dios mio, I thought. The only cash left was the $150 deposit the photographer returned. As far as wedding swag, it amounted to one crystal ashtray a cousin gave us. All of our friends had shown up with dope, and we mowed through it instead of saving a stash. Over the weekend, we'd blown $5000. We never had a honeymoon.
Soured on the crazy scene, I left the Mutiny after nine months and ended up driving an ambulance for Randle Eastern. The company had been on a hiring binge, advertising "career opportunities in the emergency healthcare field" and accepting applications from people with no experience. I remember thinking it would provide a wonderful chance to learn a vocation and maybe go on to become a firefighter or a paramedic.
Since the rigorous emergency-medical-technician training and certification was not necessary for employment, Randle simply offered six-week crash courses taught by one of its administrators. The company buttressed our training by sending us on "hot experience" clinicals, consisting of three ride-alongs with the Metro paramedics. We still needed to be licensed but could work while the certification process went through the channels.
My kid brother Iggy and I signed up. The classes were a breeze, and before long we were vested members of the emergency-response community, earning minimum wage with a promise of all the overtime hours we could handle at time-and-a-half pay as an incentive.
I was twenty years old, Iggy still in his teens, and we soon found that with the exception of some grizzled, vacant-eyed old-timers, the road crew was mostly a frat pack of quick-buck, in-and-out punks, which accounted for the company's turnstile turnover.
The work environment tilted toward the seedy; you couldn't leave anything lying around in the wagons or the station house without the stuff getting kiped. Fights broke out between ambulance partners all the time, and most of the veteranos were packing weapons. It was a haven for street-smart operators with the sense to stay out of trouble, but it could get pretty ugly for the rookies. Igs and I received valuable counsel from some of the elders: If you greased the dispatchers, you could spend most of the shift sleeping while the rookies were run ragged handling the bulk of the nonemergency calls.
We were supposed to work an eleven-hour shift and then take a day off, work a 24-hour shift and then take two days off in a patterned schedule, but the attraction for many was the option to stay on the clock for months at a time. A lot of guys did just that to buy a car or scrape together enough cash to get out of Dodge. You could eat gratis at the hospital cafeterias, and there were company crash pads and hospital rooms all across town where you could sleep rent-free.
This was the fall of 1980, shortly before Miami was tagged the murder capital of America, chalking up more than 600 homicides in a year eleven on one day. The Medical Examiner's Office, located next to Jackson Memorial's ER, had to borrow refrigerated meat trucks from Burger King, where they kept the bodies stacked like cordwood. A stench of incinerated body parts drifted from the ME's chimneys over the parking lot where we waited for emergency calls, tossing Frisbees or hitting a bong.
Almost everybody at work was using drugs in some form or another, and if brass was aware, they didn't act on it. It was a price they paid to keep the wagons rolling. I recall being astonished how coke seemed to permeate everything. It was the rare hospital where I didn't party with orderlies, nurses, or interns on duty. It was everywhere.
I still had some contacts from my Mutiny days and knew buddies who were making some side cash dealing. One of them pointed out that I had a bullet-proof cover. "What are you waiting for?" he marveled. "If you're already getting high with those guys, here's a chance for you to snort free and coat your pockets, imbecil. "
So I began supplying some of the crew and developed a radio code so they'd know when I was holding. I'd chant over the radio: "Tengo la turka," signaling the other units I was open for business. All summer I was raking it in, but then people began getting too loose on the job and we had some close calls. On one occasion, Iggy and his partner Joey, today a local cop, responded to a cardiac arrest at a bowling alley. They took the man to Jackson with his daughter in tow. En route they learned she was a stripper. Joey laid his rap on her, offering her a bump. After making the drop at the hospital, they headed back to her place to party while still on duty. Her roommate, also a peeler, said she would sign over her ratty Chevelle if they could get her a hundred Quaaludes.
Iggy called a bud of ours. Chumley lived with his grandmother at a trailer park behind the Aquarius Lounge on Le Jeune and SW Eighth Street, and helped supplement her Social Security and food stamps by dealing Quaaludes and nickel bags of weed.
A couple hours later my partner Frank and I were summoned to bail them out of trouble because their impromptu soiree had spiraled out of control. "One of the strippers," Joey mumbled over the phone, was "bleeding from the rectum and we're too fucked up to drive her to a hospital."
We hauled it over there and nearly ended up in a brawl with the assholes who were too stoned to walk and had placed us in jeopardy of losing our jobs. They had been eating the ludes, tooting up, and banging the dancers silly. Apparently Chumley had been blowing coke pellets up one of the strippers' butts, using a straw like some deranged Amazon headhunter. The poor girl had been on the verge of passing out after swallowing a bunch of the quacks, then began bleeding from her ass from the pummeling. It appeared she might need stitches.
My steady partner Frank, a 31-year-old seasoned veteran who smoked weed but stayed off the "hard stuff," was furious. I was ashamed. We hustled the stripper into our ambulance and took her to Jackson, where the triage nurse, Ed, a Bellevue retread who kept the peace with a Louisville Slugger hidden behind the counter, gave us a shit-storm of grief when he heard the story. After recognizing that the stripper was the same girl who had checked her father into the ER earlier, he lost it laughing. I had been supplying coke to Ed, one of my regulars, so he cut me some slack but took me aside and warned me that some of the drivers were "bringing the heat down, stumbling around here like zombies."
Eventually I had to cut off some of the less discreet idiots when the cops began sniffing around. The good thing was that when they did show up, you could see them coming a mile away. One of these goofy narcs we ended up baptizing "Inspector Sea Monkey." He was a bottom feeder whose idea of working undercover was sporting a mullet, a leather biker's vest, jeans, white socks, and shiny new Topsiders. "Do you know where I can score some doob?" he'd ask. Sure, campión! Still, the cops were getting wise and I didn't want to get pinched, so we chilled, especially after a driver who was wasted out of his gourd plowed through a red light with his sirens blaring and killed an old lady a few blocks from North Shore Hospital.
Near the end of my EMT career, a dispatcher sent me out on a call he promised would be "sweet." He flagged me to pick up a patient in a body cast who'd arrived on a private jet at Miami International Airport. We were supposed to take the patient to Cedars Medical Center, next to the criminal courts building, and there would be a big tip in it for us, according to the dispatcher.
On the way to the hospital I was diverted to a warehouse on the Miami River, where two brutes wearing 9mm pieces in Bianchi shoulder holsters met us at the door. "Adentro," one of them ordered, pointing toward a dimly lit interior, where I saw another guy standing near a large table. Reckoning that the dispatcher had communicated with these people, I didn't foul myself right there, but I did want to finish this quickly.
After we laid the "patient" on the table, the guy who had been waiting inside began cutting open the cast with a Stryker saw and removing bags of coke from the cavity. An extractor sucked up the plaster dust the saw kicked up, but bits still flew into my eyes. I was shaking. A fourth guy gave us an envelope for the dispatcher, promising more business. Later I told the dispatcher to stuff it his kind of action was just too dangerous.
I didn't have the stones to continue risking jail time or worse, and I had a newborn at home. So I called it quits in the summer of 1982 and went back to school.
Carlos Suarez De Jesus went on to study journalism in college and then worked in local government as a writer for Dade County Mayor Steve Clark, commission chairman Art Teele, and Mayor Alex Penelas.
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