For years, someone calling himself "The Weedmanhippy" has been wedging cryptic, self-promoting fliers into the front of New Times boxes across Miami Beach. At first, we were kind of annoyed. Then, earlier this week, we finally gave in and called him.
The Weedmanhippy is actually Billy Blank: part SoBe Socrates, part indigent pothead (hence the name), and part bizarre-o YouTube talk-show host. His videos are as varied as his criminal record, but his current cause celebre is the battle against "greedy people that suck."
"I know those Occupy Wall Street people did something here in Miami the other day," says Blank, who claims to have lost his savings in the stock market. "I am a casualty of their war."
For someone who leaves his cell phone number plastered around town, Weedmanhippy was remarkably surprised when we gave him a call.
"You are joking," Blank mumbled incredulously. "Talk to me. Dude. Jesus. Are you aware of my story?"
Blank grew up in Queens, New York, where his parents owned a Sukons furniture store on Liberty Avenue. But even then he was more interested in showbiz than selling chairs. From 1983-90 he hosted his own show on Manhattan public access television. He married and had a son.
When his parents passed away, he says he sold the family store and moved into a mansion. He also started trading stocks online.
Then he lost it all because of a crappy internet connection.
"One morning I bought 10,000 shares of a $40 stock," says Blank. "But when the market opened and I went to sell it on my computer that I had bought for trading - I had AOL dial up back in 2001 - the thing froze, man. I had to unplug the computer. By the time I saw the quote, I was down $200,000. It wasn't even 10 o'clock in the morning."
Weedmanhippy says he lost $600,000. And his family.
"My wife left me to die on the street," he says. She kept the mansion and his son, he claims. Broke, Blank moved to Miami.
He's lived on the streets of South Beach for the past decade. At first, Ocean Drive store owners would film him singing to beach bunnies, then upload the videos to YouTube. But Blank has also cultured his Weedmanhippy reputation, amassing a Facebook page, MySpace site, and international admirers.
"I have a girl in Scotland," he says. "The 'Conversations with Weedman' videos where I'm in a pink shirt, those were done by her with a $5,000 camera and Final Cut Pro editing software."
Now Weedmanhippy says he wants to help the Occupy Miami movement, of which he considers himself emblematic.
"I'm a real warrior in a war that these Occupy Wall Street people have begun," he says. "When I lost all my money, I found out that people suck and they are greedy. Things have to change in this country."
But isn't the Weedmanhippy gimmick just about webhits and making money?
"Noooooooooooo," Blank moans. "I want to change the world."
Michael E. Miller was the senior writer at the Miami New Times. For five years, he covered everything Florida could throw at him. He got an innocent man off of murder charges and got a bad cop suspended from duty. He flew in homemade airplanes, dove into the Atlantic in a tiny submarine, and skateboarded a marathon. He smoked stogies, interviewed strippers, and narrowly survived a cavity search in a Panamanian jungle prison — all in the name of journalism. His only regret is that one time he outed Colombian drug lords for sneaking strippers into Miami jail. For that, he says lo siento. He was only doing his job. Miller’s work for New Times won many national awards including back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He has also written for the New York Times, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Chicago Magazine, Village Voice, the New York Daily News, and VQR. He now covers foreign affairs for the Washington Post.