"Don't come in, he's just exposed himself," yelled Steve Hollabaugh, rake in hand, speaking from inside Merrimac House, a low-income boarding establishment at 189 NE 26th St. Merrimac is home to fifteen mostly male residents. Some tenants are formerly homeless and trying to get it together. Others are substance abusers who work dead-end jobs and make enough to pay the weekly rent. A few suffer from some form of mental illness. Hollabaugh, who lives there, cut through the beautifully landscaped front yard of the two-story house and came to Merrimac's green wooden gate.
He'd called New Times to complain about his new next-door neighbor, Oakwood Cremation Services. While making references to the Holocaust, he asserted that the presence of a crematorium causes him psychological and emotional distress. (Hollabaugh says he has Jewish blood.) "I have nightmares," he muttered morbidly, his eyes crossed. "Especially when the wind comes from the northwest, there's a strong sulfur smell. And in the daytime, when I hear the hum of the exhaust fans operating, it bothers me."
Before renting a room at Merrimac this past April, the 46-year-old Hollabaugh was one of countless homeless men from out of state living on the streets of Miami. "I left Lansing [Michigan] because I saw a lot of things behind the scenes," Hollabaugh confided in a robotic tone. "Next time you buy an American-made car, think about what culture you're buying into," he warned. ("Steve, uh, has been in a lot of places," politely remarked Judy Garchow, a neighbor who knew him back home. "He's been calling my husband, a former high school teacher of his, for ten years....")
Glenn Williams, a black Merrimac resident whom Hollabaugh has accused of flashing, followed Steve outside. They began arguing, and then Manny Watson, resident manager of the boarding house, arrived on the scene. Williams went back inside. "Get rid of him Manny," Hollabaugh whined, clinging to his rake. "He's bad news."
"I will, I will. Just let me handle it, okay?" Watson urged. "You stay out of it."
Robert Steele, owner of Oakwood Cremation Services at 167 NE 26th St., bought the property next to Merrimac last year from Javier Acevedo. (Acevedo also owned a crematorium on the lot called Mortuary Care Center.) In March 2000 Steele obtained a certificate of use from the City of Miami, but at least since Acevedo's proprietorship, in 1998, the facility has been licensed to incinerate the dead in the neighborhood. Steele, who lives in Broward County, employs three workers to run Oakwood and has an answering service that takes business calls. His crematorium, he said, is set up to burn 24 hours a day. On a typical schedule, an average of twenty bodies are incinerated at about 2200 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Steele, between 25 and 40 private and corporate funeral homes supply the corpses. And Steele, who declined a request to tour Oakwood "out of respect for the families," isn't bothered by the ramblings of his neighbors.
"I don't really care to know who they are or what they're saying," he said defensively. "Are you trying to slam me? Because if you are, it's not going to work. Yesterday the City of Miami came by to inspect us. I'm sure you had something to do with that, but anyway, we passed [inspection] with flying colors."
But not according to José Ferras, the acting building agent for the City of Miami who did the inspection. "All windows on the east side of the building may have to go," he said. "In my opinion those windows should be blocked. The laws that apply to incinerations affect [those openings]. If they have a fire inside there, we don't want it to spread."
Tony Lugo, a homeowner who lives next door to Oakwood Cremation Services, related that before 1998, the rectangular, warehouselike structure was nothing but an abandoned dump, used by crackheads as a motel. Indeed, according to Juan Gonzalez, zoning administrator for the City of Miami, there are no records for the property from 1981 to 1997. Back in 1973 it operated as a wholesale furniture store; in 1980 it was a distribution warehouse for wire hangers.
"When they moved in [both crematoriums], in a way it was like a plus," Lugo commented while standing barefoot on the cement of his carport-covered driveway. Behind him his tidy yellow cottage sported newly installed, tightly-sealed windows. His two-year-old son was by his side, wearing diapers.
"More creepy than having a crematorium next door is having live people in there, smoking crack and doing God knows what," Lugo said.
Still he acknowledged the frustrations of other residents in the Edgewater neighborhood, a mix of single-family homes, boarding houses, and small businesses: "I'll be honest with you, the crematorium doesn't affect me. You're asking someone who's insulated. But I know everybody can't afford to put in these kinds of windows. I know a lot of people around here sleep with their windows open, with a fan on, and I know the smell must get them." One thing Lugo added, which predisposes him to be friendly about the situation, is that Oakwood employees have agreed not to burn bodies during the barbecues or birthday parties he holds in his back yard. "They're trying to be good neighbors," he noted.
Lugo is an exception, however. Most others who live near the facility are turned off by the thought of bodies roasting nearby. Jacqueline Galarza, the property manager of another boarding home on the same street, across from Oakwood, didn't even know there was a crematorium operating so closely. "Get out of town!" the Puerto Rican Galarza blurted upon learning that. "We see the smoke from the stacks all the time on 28th Street, but I didn't know they were quemando los muertos!"
Fernando Diaz, a Nicaraguan mechanic who lives a few houses down, west of Oakwood, is sickened by what he claims is a fallout of ashes that accompanies the smoke during incinerations. Wiping his brow with a white washcloth on a hot day, Diaz said firefighters have responded to four calls in the two years he's been living there. "The first time I called," he recounted, "thick black smoke [was] belching out of the stacks."
"Eso suelta unos humasos (That thing lets out huge clouds of smoke)," he protested, while sitting inside his humble home, holding open the front door. Inside it felt like an oven, the sweltering heat intensifying the acid smell lingering in the houses of neighbors, many of which lacked air conditioners.
Then there was Norma Mollinedo, a cashier for more than twenty years at an art-supply store called The Palette. The shop, on 125 NE 26th St., is hurting, economically speaking. She worries the crematorium might scare away the few customers it retains. "It's not the right place for it," she opined. "I don't know where it should be, but not here."
Sitting at a wooden bench in the back yard of Merrimac House, Earl Don Smith, a former helicopter gunner during the Vietnam War, downed a beer and pontificated on what it's like living next to a crematorium. Smith, who claims he worked at Oakwood temporarily as an electrician, apparently has been fueling the imaginations of Merrimac residents. His talk of coolers, the sound of grinding bones, the degrees of heat it takes to burn bodies, his allegation that Oakwood owner Robert Steele "recruits" homeless to do cremations because "nobody else wants the job" left Steve Hollabaugh captivated.
"We barbecue quite a bit out here, believe it or not," Smith laughed. "Like last night, I was eating stew out here, right? This is a weird place to eat stew, and [Oakwood is] burning. I'm surprised they ain't burning now," he continued, squinting across the way. "You want to smell? Come on, take a deep breath." Oakwood is just a few inches away, close enough to where Smith can reach over a fence and flip open the aluminum blinds of the crematorium's two ventilation windows. "Go on, smell! You smell that?" He shook his head in silence. "It's the smell of ashes!"
On Oakwood's roof, above each window, are a pair of smokestacks. Inside the building, two retorts are just a few feet away. Merrimac residents call them "microwaves," "furnaces," or "vaults."
Suddenly Manny Watson, the manager at Merrimac, made a whirlwind appearance, after which a confrontation between him and Hollabaugh ensued. "I want to talk to you," Watson said urgently to the red-faced Hollabaugh.
"He's going to paint; he's going to paint!" Watson yelled, referring to a resident known as Big Red.
"Don't interfere with his job. Do you hear me?" Watson commanded.
"I'm not gonna listen to you," Hollabaugh snapped. "You don't open people's doors without knocking."
"You opened the door yourself. What is wrong with you?" Watson screamed. "Don't be so paranoid. Relax!"
"It takes about three hours to burn a body," Smith continued, ignoring the shouting match. "If you and me go have a cocktail at a restaurant or whatever, I can get into more detail. Have you ever seen them furnaces burning? Let me tell you something. When you do, it's gonna change your life. Because it don't matter if you're black, white, or brown skin like you, señorita. When you're dead, everyone's toes are the same color: gray!"
"It don't bother me," Big Red interjected, lumbering up and referring to the crematorium. "I can lean up against that building and drink a beer and it don't phase me."
After having cooled down from the argument, Watson expressed a different view. "We joke about it, especially when we have barbecues; we'll laugh when we ask someone if they want their meat rare or well-done. But really, I think [Oakwood] should be in a different area. This is not healthy."
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"This is the ultimate not in my back yard story,'" Hollabaugh added.
Later that day, June 6, Steve Hollabaugh made a surprise visit to the New Times offices. He claimed some folks at Merrimac had attacked him. "I need legal help," he pleaded.
But upon investigating, it turned out it was Hollabaugh who, for unknown reasons, pulled a knife and a scissors on Big Red. Hollabaugh was arrested and charged with aggravated assault. He was still sitting in jail, unable to make the $5000 bond, at press time.
And Oakwood's smoke was still blowing in the wind.