Anyone interested in a little conversation and a free cup of coffee can find both by strolling through South Pointe Park at the tip of Miami Beach. Here in the picnic area east of the band shell, the grass clings to the sandy earth along Government Cut, the ragged leaves on the trees rasp against each other in the sea breeze, and the red-tiled roofs of the wooden pavilions provide the only sure shade.
Once there, ask for the Coconut Kid, one of about fifteen people who live in the open-air picnic shelters. Within minutes you should be sitting comfortably at a table with a fresh cup of coffee in your hand and, if you're lucky, a hot plate of arroz con pollo or grilled fish in front of you.
Cynics who don't trust free food should listen to the Kid, a dark-skinned, 27-year-old man born in the South American country of Guyana, as he explains convincingly that the hospitality is offered to any stranger who shows up at South Pointe Park. Provided of course that the person does not use crack and is not too rowdy. "Basically, I'll help anyone that's going to help themselves and not cause trouble," says the Kid, standing in the afternoon sunshine. "I don't want to hear nothing from the law. Since I've been here, I've never had any problem. Most of the cops are pretty nice."
The Kid, whose real name is Mo, thinks, but for some reason is not sure, that his moniker refers to his ability to climb even the tallest trees and drop coconuts to friends. For the past four months, he has lived in one of the park's seven pavilions, having gravitated to Miami after spending most of the past eight years on the road. Since his arrival, he has been offering sleeping space on the hut's picnic tables to people who need help and look responsible. Now he shares the pavilion with Larry, Johnny, and Lisa in exchange for their help in keeping the area clean and organized.
Crowding the wooden crossbeams in the structure's roof are dozens of tightly wrapped bundles of clothing, plastic bags, and boxes filled with blankets, some pots and pans, and soap, toilet paper, and other personal items belonging to the four inhabitants. Mo and his crew found most of the stuff by combing the beach. Any pot or plate that comes down from the rafters is cleaned right after use and put back up. Everyone must wake up and help clean the shelter before the Miami Beach Police patrol makes its first morning round between 7:00 and 8:00. Especially on weekends, people rent this hut for picnics, and Mo follows police orders not to let anyone sleep on the tables during the day. The group counts on ten other "established" neighbors to obey the same rules so police will not bother any of them. But aside from that general understanding, the residents of each pavilion keep to themselves. "Basically," says Mo, using his customary sentence starter, "it's just like anywhere else. There are different cliques, and people do different things. We got the Latins over there by the bathrooms, for example. They're good neighbors to me. They don't scream and make noise except on the weekend. You've got to expect that on the weekend."
Since Larry landed in the park three weeks ago, shortly after his arrival in Miami from Los Angeles, he has become Mo's right-hand man, helping with the fishing, the organizing, and the cooking and cleaning. Dressed in clean jeans and a spotless white tank top, Larry looks more like a bronzed, carefree beach bum than a man weighed down by the new responsibilities of keeping house outdoors.
Larry, who is 32, says he learned about responsibility as a member of the U.S. Navy and later as a security worker for the Hyatt and Biltmore hotels in Los Angeles. Shortly after being laid off about a year ago, he was forced to hit the L.A. streets. Once in Miami, he spent several weeks with a more troubled crowd of homeless people near Miami Beach's South Shore Community Center on Sixth Street. He was introduced to Mo by a church worker named Nancy who provides food for the homeless once a week in South Pointe Park.
"Nancy come out one night and she was looking for one of the boys who needed his medication," Larry recounts, "but he was late and nobody knew where he was at. So rather than her goin' into bars by herself and stuff, I offered to walk her around, and I escorted her into the bars looking for him. She started talking to me and getting to know me. She knew I wasn't exactly the type to be hanging with the crowd at Sixth Street and she told me about the meal line. So I came down, and she introduced me to Mo here."
Lisa, a short, stout woman with cropped hair who lives on the street between visits to her stepfather's house, also spent her time on Sixth Street until she met Mo. She came to his pavilion less than three weeks ago, accompanied by another woman, a friend who smokes crack. Lisa never touches the drug, she stresses, and she was relieved when her friend moved on that same day. "I feel much safer here than in her hands," she says, "because she's a crackhead. Since I've been here, you know, Larry, John, and Coconut have been real good to me."
When he met Larry and Lisa, Mo was already living with Johnny, an older man who arrived on the beach several months ago after leaving downtown Miami, where he had been robbed four times in as many months. Downtown, Johnny could participate in nearby labor pools, from which unemployed people are driven to South Dade and given work for a day. "I was working in the labor pool, but in Miami you're just donating money because you come back downtown and somebody robs you," Johnny says. "I came over here to get away from that. But here I can't get any work."
Both Mo and Johnny use food stamps to buy provisions for the group. Mo and Larry also supplement the group's diet by fishing. Two old poles, discarded or lost long ago by some hapless angler, have been repaired and now lean against one of the hut's support beams. "We live on fish almost every day," Mo brags. "We catch blue runners, needle fish. Got some lizard fish yesterday."
"Man, they're real bony," offers Larry, absentmindedly touching his taut stomach muscles; obviously the meal did not go down as smoothly as today's arroz con pollo, bought with food stamps.
Mo and Larry. No Stooges jokes, please A these guys are so serious they have even started a cottage industry. After collecting coral and shells from the beach, they craft necklaces or glue them in careful arrangements onto small wooden blocks. The two men give the pieces to passersby in hope of generating some reciprocation. "We still got a lot of pride, you know," Larry says. "And it's hard to just walk up and ask for money and you got nothing to give. And you got nothin' to show you're decent, you're just in a bad place. This way we figure we put something together, we got something to offer."
Mo and his friends are shooting for the homeless version of stability, but they realize residents of South Pointe Park are never really established or safe. The recent police crackdown at the South Shore Community Center has sent many of those denizens scurrying to find new places to hang out during the day. Not surprisingly, four of them landed in South Pointe Park.
The new arrivals spend much of their days in a hut about 50 feet away from the one used by Mo's group. Between swigs of cheap wine and Magnum malt liquor, they complain about an April 18 Miami Herald "Neighbors" article describing problems on Sixth Street. They are infuriated by allegations that they smoked crack and had sex in front of children receiving help at the community center. "It's a bunch of goddamn lies!" shouts Chris, whose face is scarred and puffy. Rachel seconds her assessment, while Rick shouts that he wants to have sex with a bush monkey.
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It's clear that these people are interested neither in making coral sculpture nor in keeping quiet at night. Nor, for that matter, in following any rules set by their neighbors. Still, Larry and Mo are friendly, bringing over plates of arroz con pollo. Later the Coconut Kid explains his good-natured tolerance: "Basically, we haven't been able to sleep for two nights now because of their screaming and hollering. But the cops ran them off because of problems at the community center. They ain't got nowhere else to go and in their eyes they ain't doing nothin' wrong."
South Pointe Park, however, is like anywhere else A the goodwill of its established residents is finite. If enough pressure is placed on them by police, by newcomers, or by anyone, something is sure to snap. Mo makes that clear as he relates how one of the women from the new group threw a fit when he told her she couldn't sleep in his hut. Then he trails off, rubbing the back of his neck as if the rest of the story is too tiresome to be told.
He suddenly looks like a man with far too many headaches to be the friendly and obliging Coconut Kid. And the biggest headache of all is a lack of true control over his environment. "See, I really can't say nothing to these people," the Kid mutters, looking toward the next hut, "'cause this is a public place.