Joe, a 46-year-old with a silver-flecked black 'fro and a mouth full of chicken, throws his head back, wipes greasy fingers on his torn blue sleeveless shirt, and busts out a raspy yet solid Jean Stapleton impression of the theme from All in the Family:
Boy, the way Glenn Miller played. Songs that made the Hit Parade.
It's about 2 p.m. on a Saturday and we're standing outside a convenience store at NW 14th Street and First Avenue on the eastern edge of Overtown. Large, rusted security grilles cover the store's windows, blocking the vast array of Cisco twist-cap wine. As chunks of lamp-baked poultry fly from Joe's lips, he finishes the tune:
Those were the days.
"I auditioned for American Idol last year, but they said I was too old," he says. "But what they don't understand is that yeah, I'm older, and yeah, I'm homeless, but I'm as talented as a motherfucker."
Joe grew up in Liberty City but moved here "for a change of scenery" after a prison stint for armed robbery. He gestures west along 14th Street with his chin. "See that block? All those buildings? Almost nothing about it has changed since 1989...."
I point out the lavish multiroom fantasyland down the street, and his big, brown, excitable eyes soften. "All I care about is KFC, cigarettes, pro wrestling, and Pepsi," he says. "I don't give a shit about that place."
But many people do give a shit about Karu & Y (71 NW 14th St., Miami), the recently resurrected, glittering, opulent, and pricey nightclub. Opening an exclusive spot such as this one in the heart of the inner city is a bold experiment and a study in contrasts. For decades, Miami has been in a quandary over what should happen with this part of town, and since the club started up in October 2006, it has drawn taunts from skeptics and raves from celebrities such as Quincy Jones and P. Diddy.
The original Karu & Y belonged to Elliot Monter, who invested $25 million in the epic 42,000-square-foot property. He blinged it up with a $1 million sound system; an exquisite, spiky Dale Chihuly chandelier; a wall of Italian Murano glass; and the trademark waterfalls — one of which flows over a red-lit bar.
Monter hoped to bring a high-end club and restaurant to a neighborhood that, with a budding art scene and sprouting condos along Biscayne Boulevard, seemed ready to blossom. Of course, that was before massive foreclosures, soaring gas prices, and a dwindling economy. When he couldn't make enough money to turn a profit, Monter decided to cut his losses and closed Karu & Y's doors this past June.
Enter Clive Seecomar, a British Guyana-born entrepreneur who made his fortune slinging cell phones. He was a regular at Karu & Y and quickly snatched up the property. For a cool $10 million, he bought the place and re-opened it this past September 25.
Seecomar, who has no prior nightclub experience, is charging less than his predecessor for drinks ($12 to $14) and entrance fees (standard will be $20, unless there's a special event). He also believes he can spend less than Monter to attract patrons because of the club's existing reputation. "Millions of dollars have been put into PR and marketing the name Karu & Y," Seecomar says. "It has an impact. The name means waterfalls, fine dining, and a sophisticated experience."
There's also the neighborhood. The night after my encounter with singin' Joe, I join Seecomar in Karu & Y's new Champagne Lounge, a chic, minimalist, quiet haven within the club's otherwise ear-bleeding, eye-candy ambiance. The new boss is a short, stocky, dark-skinned man sharply dressed in a gray pinstriped suit complemented by a lavender tie, diamond ring, and platinum watch. He has a smile suited to selling cell phones. "I feel that good service in Miami, for lack of a better word, is hard to find," he says. "I want to bring a Las Vegas-style club with the kind of excellent service that you can't find anywhere else in the city.
"I'm also the first to bring the Buddha to Miami," he adds. "Have you seen the new Buddha Gardens?"
I hadn't. So one of Seecomar's minions, a guy named Arvin who's a member of the security team, whisks me away to the new Buddha Gardens. "We think Buddha better represents the vibe of this area and is a symbol of what we feel is needed in Miami," Arvin says. There's no denying that this tranquil outdoor escape is beautiful with its zigzagging water flow, white tented cabanas, and lush greenery.
He gestures toward a karmic stone statue of an Asian man planted in the midst of a pretty chlorine river. "We imported that and all of the others like it from Malaysia," he says. "And some of the plants are from Malaysia too."
He leads me into the neighboring Buddha Club, a large, South Beach-inspired dance area. It has a Zen twist and a colossal disco ball. "We built a brand-new bar in here," he says, pointing to the addition that's under a row of flat-screen plasma TV sets. "We also elevated the DJ stand so they can have more of a presence."
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Arvin smiles as a group of attractive young ladies in tight, colorful dresses walk into the room and begin to dance. "Last night we broke all kinds of sales records. We made more money than this club has ever made before," he says proudly.
As I leave Karu & Y, it's difficult to ignore a man dressed all in black holding a walkie-talkie and sitting in a chair about a block east of the club. I ask him if he works for Karu & Y. (Seecomar also helped persuade the city to beef up police presence in the area.)
"Yes," the man says in broken English. "We are paid to make sure you are safe when going to the club."
And I appreciate it. During my first visit — when I ran into Joe at this very spot — I watched as a cop sprang from his squad car, bum-rushed a white man with an enormous potbelly, and slammed him against a wall. Seconds later the officer's partner, yelling and dangling a pair of handcuffs, bent the man over the hood.