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Home Is Where You Build It

Morning on Watson Island. Commuters cruise along the MacArthur Causeway, just across the Intracoastal from downtown Miami. The turquoise water of Biscayne Bay ripples up on a narrow, rocky strip of sand on the north side of the island. Cleared of clouds by a brisk wind, the sky is still tinged with lavender. In a shady spot just west of the now-forlorn Japanese Gardens, smoke is rising through the feathery foliage of tall Australian pines. An old wood-hulled speedboat and two battered dinghies floating just offshore. Several hundred yards to the east, the wind plays hypnotic percussion with the masts and riggings of the sailboats docked at the Miami Yacht Club. Windows in the highrise condo across the bay are beginning to catch glints of sun.

The smoke is emanating from behind a charred wheelbarrow body turned on its side in front of Vince's house. Seated on a plastic crate, Vince is frying eggs and warming flour tortillas over a fire. As houses go in this town of about 25 residents, Vince's could be considered typical: a variation on a tent, constructed of colored plastic sheets draped over wooden stakes and roofed with scraps of plywood and particle board. Legally and literally, of course, this isn't a town. No indoor plumbing or wiring, no planning and zoning. Just a tiny parcel of land, one of scores of camps of all sizes and styles set up by homeless people in Dade County.

Vince doesn't look authoritative -- soiled dark blue guayabera, gray polyester pants, jogging shoes, thick black hair jutting in all directions and a freshly stitched gash on his forehead -- but a lot of his neighbors, not entirely in jest, call him the mayor of Watson Island. It's not just because he's been here longer than almost anyone else (more than a year) and can tell you the history of the island. It's because he's calm, and people listen to him. You could say he has quiet authority.

But lately Vince also has a problem. It seems to be a case of miscommunication, but not the kind that leads to divorce and angst in the suburbs. This problem could kill him. Last week he offended a couple of drug dealers, so they came back the next night, set fire to a tent, and swung a lead pipe into his face. "Obviously they want me to leave," Vince says with a voice that never seems to rise. "But I'm just not going to."

As Vince gathers twigs from an uprooted pine -- a legacy of Hurricane Andrew -- and rekindles his fire, Herman walks up holding two Bud longnecks, one of which he presents to Vince. "Regalo del capitan," says Herman Nival, an ebullient Dominican whose black hair and moustache spurt in short, erratic ringlets from his head. "A gift from the Captain."

And there's Captain Ivan, trudging through the sand in rubber sandals and blue coveralls with the legs rolled up but still wet. Ivan Charles Canterbury Fox, also called Foxy. He'll be 70 next year. It's his 51-year-old boat anchored out in the bay, Grizelda painted in gold script on the snubnose stern. The captain is carrying two barnacle-covered floodlights he salvaged from a wrecked boat. He has towed other valuable items to the camp -- boat windows and ladders, even a big red hull -- all of which have been built into houses. In turn, the men on Watson Island have helped Foxy navigate land matters such as food-stamp and social-security offices. He says he's anchored Grizelda here off and on for the past four years. Onboard there's a small shower and a .45 caliber pistol, and he can row out in a flash when there's trouble onshore.

Like the night Vince got hit. Foxy says when he saw Vince was injured, he began to call for help on his boat radio. But no one on shore wanted the police coming into the camp, so Foxy got directions to the VA hospital; Vince is a Vietnam vet. The police have always harassed the people here, they say, although relations have been better since November, when U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins ordered the City of Miami to stop confiscating homeless people's property and to establish "safe zones" where they can live like human beings.

"I've been coming through here 40 years," Foxy muses, rubbing a fine white beard growth. "Then I anchored here and I ran into all kinds of help. We made a family out of this deal. Of course, then they'll get unhappy with me every once in a while and I'll go away." He grins and chortles. Under the crooked brim of a mashed camouflage cap, the whites of the captain's algae-colored eyes are permanently shot with red.

 

"El vive a lo Fu Manchu," comments Herman, nodding enthusiastically. This strange untranslatable expression, to live "a lo Fu Manchu," is what the men of Watson Island do, Herman explains. (At present, only one woman is said to live at the camp, with her two children. Sometimes, such as right after Hurricane Andrew, entire families move in, according to Vince, but the place is clearly a man's world.)

"Fu Manchu es, 'Today you no like it, OK bye, I see you tomorrow,'" Herman explains, the tail of his worn plaid shirt rising and falling as he gestures. "It's nice, beautiful. Go everything half. I get a thousand dollars and it's $500 for you, $500 for me. Se vive a lo Fu Manchu. Nobody jealous. Marry too much problem." He brandishes a machete in one hand and a coconut from the palm tree above him in the other, expertly slashes the top from the coconut, and drinks the milk.

Herman says he has an ex-wife, a ten-year-old daughter, and a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old son in Houston. He says he lived in Chicago for the past 22 years but moved to Miami three months ago because Chicago is "mucho cold." He drove down in his 1975 Matador station wagon, still reliable transportation, which today is parked in the dirt alongside the clearing. A rooster and a hen, dubbed Pete and Repete by the men of Watson Island, moved with Herman. Repete provides a plentiful supply of eggs; Pete crows at all hours.

Food isn't a problem here. Besides eggs, there are plenty of fish in the bay, and city workers, community groups, and charitable organizations are always coming by with food. Taking care of other basic needs is a little more trouble. To use a bathroom, you have to go to the abandoned building 100 yards east; washing machines and two-dollar showers for splurgers are at the bait-and-tackle shop on the other side of the MacArthur Causeway.

Most people who live in the camp resort to temporary labor jobs to take care of expenses. You earn $24 a day at the labor pool. Some of the men work every day; some, like Vince and Herman, work only when they have to. It depends on your vice. Most afternoons when the men start coming back to the island, Vince warns, three drug dealers are waiting for them.

Vince, who declines to tell his last name or his age, has few illusions about himself or his neighbors. "We all have a problem," he says. Drugs, alcohol, lying, stealing. Something. Himself, he's drunk away a career and a romance. A native of San Antonio, Texas, Vince is a second-generation Mexican-American. His grandfather, who migrated from Mexico, taught him to play the guitar and sing old songs. He was the guitarist for more than a decade with a country-and-western band, the Noreste Boys. They toured dozens of states, he says, opening for singers such as Freddy Fender, Johnny Rodriguez, and Willie Nelson.

"After a while I started drinking in the first set," Vince recounts. "When you start forgetting songs and you gotta drink to remember ...." He doesn't finish the sentence. He looks up the hill to the causeway. There on the roadside are the two men he tangled with earlier, watching him. They're convinced he's collaborating with the cops. That's absurd, he says, but their minds are set.

Anyway, Vince continues, he moved to Florida when his high school sweetheart landed a government job in Miami. They were planning to give it another try. "She found out I didn't change," he says, "and guess what -- I ended up out here." He learned about the Watson Island camp from a man named Jose, whom he met at Camillus House. They built a house here together, and then Jose got a job and moved out. Vince doesn't really envy Jose his newfound stability. It means he has to go to work every day.

Ivan, a Bermuda native, tells of a life captaining sailboats. For 40 years he worked for a wealthy New England businessman named William Schnirring, he explains, unfolding worn photocopies of newspaper stories about his ex-boss. In one, Foxy sits grinning between Schnirring and his wife on one of their yachts. The article describes Foxy as a "sea-sage." Schnirring died a few years ago at the age of 93, the captain says. He's in line for a little money from the estate. He intends to fix up Grizelda and make a trip to the Dominican Republic to find a woman named Lula he's been missing. He'll bring Herman along as an interpreter. Meantime, there are barnacles to scrape off the floodlights.

A few yards away, a solitary white door complete with doorknob rests against a tree trunk. Felix, whose family still lives in Cuba, is going to put the door in the house he's building almost entirely out of fake wood paneling. From salvaged boat parts to illegally dumped construction materials and carpet remnants, the citizens of Watson Island find an abundance of raw materials with which to fashion their homes and furniture. There's a carpet on every floor.

 

The house closest to the water is Herman's. It's an engineering feat cradled in the branches of three intertwining trees; heavy posts lift it four feet off the sand to allow for rising tides. Herman ushers visitors up the solid wood steps to his porch, protected by a railing of boards covered with thick plastic sheeting. "Esa es la estufa," he announces diffidently. "That is the stove." It's a miniature wood grill. "Come on in to the house," he says in Spanish, almost shyly. "It's not much." The room is filled by a big bed covered by a worn brown bedspread. On one wall is a mirror. Boat windows on either side of the bed make the room seem larger. Below, on the beach, two lawn chairs sit atop copious carpet squares under a plastic-covered shelter facing the water.

As the afternoon wears on, men begin arriving home. Soon the smell of grilling chicken wafts invitingly from Herman's porch. A black cat stalks Pete, who crows every now and then. Vince paces silently down to the water and back up to his house, Bud longneck in hand. There's really no way to avoid another confrontation with those drug dealers who are convinced he's a snitch, he says. Either it'll be a short one and they'll leave, or it'll be a short one and he'll get hurt. Either way, he explains with an unmistakable undertone of fatalism, there's no reason to worry. "This isn't the UN. You don't have dialogue here," he says, squinting out over the bay. "They don't have to have a reason to do anything. It's really hard to explain how this kind of mind works."

Pete crows, and the captain, pulling his dinghy to shore, yells, "Shut up! It's daylight!" Across the water, close enough to see the people on board, a tour boat sweeps toward the east. Herman watches from his porch, nodding approval at the tour boat, the bay, the rooster, the cat, and the captain. "A lo Fu Manchu," he says. "No problema.


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