One Man's Quest to Find a $1 Beer in South Florida
Illustration by Craig LaRotonda
It was me this time, but it just as easily could've been you.
The week had been an emotional bruiser. Deadlines, bosses, landlords, bank tellers, traffic, lady friend — each had their go, catching me with one unexpected kaboom after another until my nerves were breached and my patience was in hospice care. And it was only Wednesday.
I needed a beer. A draft, ice-cold. Not the memory wipe of a dusk-to-dawn bender. Just one. Something to pull a temporary curtain over all the noise. A breather before the next round.
So I popped into Abbey Brewing Co. in South Beach. The last gulp of an IPA splashed in my glass as I hooked my head around to take in the happy-hour crowd. A couple nuzzled in a booth. A lonely tourist locked on SportsCenter. It was a clean, poorly lighted place, to twist the line from Hemingway. The quintessential American rest stop for the battered soul: the bar.
The guy manning the counter slipped me the bill. My wallet was out before I scoped the charge: $4.50. That's with a $2 discount for happy hour.
Suddenly, my easy-earned peace was rubble. A whole hosanna choir of fat ladies began screaming in my head: "Too fucking expensive."
"Hey, man," I said to the bartender, papering over my annoyance with a buddy-buddy vibe, "how do you guys decide how much to charge for a beer?"
"I guess it's just what the owner decides he needs to charge to brew the beer," the guy said.
"Because this," I say, pushing a finger at the $6.50 on the menu, "is pricey."
Everything in South Florida is getting too fucking expensive. True, this place has always been wrapped in an haute couture image, the drop-top destination for global elites. But Maybach Miami is more mask than reality, and underneath, this region has working-class guts. Unfortunately, as the country stumbles out of the Great Recession, it's the normal folks who are getting sidelined and screwed.
Start with the land. Real estate prices are in upswing. I'll bet you a case of Ice House your rent has gone up in the past three months. It's been jacked for me and everyone else I know. And with land, so goes the price of everything else: fuel (10 cents higher than the national average), natural gas prices (more than 50 percent higher), and food. They just keep slapping meretricious layers of cost over the region like paint jobs on a stolen Camaro.
That's why those wallet-busting bar tabs sting. I'm from the Rust Belt, where we fight crippling winters and postindustrial blues with feeding tubes of cut-rate beer. I've stanched my own worst hours with soul-boosting trips to cheap dives, where amber waves flow easily, the American spirit in 16 ounces. And let's face it: If you're on the losing end of a boom economy, cheap drinks are the only consolation prize.
But South Florida is becoming a 1-percenter playpen. The succor of the working stiff is hard to find. So, like a postrecession Aeneas skiffing over a Mediterranean of booze, looking for a homeland that might exist no more, I set off on a quest for the greatest beer deal of them all — the dollar draft.
I lay out some ground rules for my search. (1) Draft beer only. (2) No one-night-a-week deals; any bar that satisfies my quest has to offer a daily special. (3) No chain restaurants. (4) No Googling — word-of-mouth suggestions only. On a random Tuesday night in November, I set out into the belly of the boom economy, the blingy Oz of silicone beach bods and glass condo towers: South Beach.
Lesson number one from the field: It's hard to fit a fat roll of cash in your pocket if you're wearing skinny jeans. Put it in your back pocket: hard to sit. Front pocket: porny bulge. Still, I break two Andrew Jacksons down to 40 Washingtons and pocket that rubber-band bank.
If any place has a dollar draft, I figure, it's got to be the VFW Post 3559 — an open secret tucked into a condo building on West Avenue, with buzzer access. Marlboro smoke veils the small room looking out onto Biscayne Bay. By 5 p.m., regulars are hunkered down on stools, each new arrival heralded by backslaps and handshakes.
But there's no dollar beer here. Bud Light comes in the bottle for $2.25. I load up on two.
"The days of the dollar draft on the Beach are dead," one patron grumbles. A lady who overhears that I'm a New Times writer looking for cheap drinks shakes her head solemnly. "They don't pay you too much over there, do they?"
I plot a course northeast. Quickly, my bulging bank of singles crash-diets down to a slim roll. At Lost Weekend on Española Way, a Fat Tire is $5.02. I skip over to Finnegan's Way on Ocean ($5). The Whitelaw Hotel and Bar ($7.62). FL Cafe ($7.56). Tomorrow, I'll find a Post-it that says "beech place draf $5.24."
On the north end of Washington and 13th, I'm struggling to get my roll of ones comfortably into my jeans pocket when I lock eyes on two women who are sandblasted with makeup and tilting on club heels.
"Hey there," one yells to me. "You got a light?"
My hands fumble around my pockets. "Where you ladies going tonight?"
"That Irish bar," she says. "Why don't you buy us a drink?"
"OK, but let me ask you something. Do you know where I can get a dollar draft beer?"
With no other word, they're zipping off without me. A couple of minutes later, a grown man shrink-wrapped in a child-sized red T-shirt walks up wanting a cigarette. I hit him with the familiar refrain.
"No," he says, shaking his head. "No way. You need to go to the liquor store, get you something there."
"But I want to go to a bar."
"No way. Just go to the liquor store, man."
At a gas station, I score a Bud Light tallboy ($1.68), prophylactic that sucker in a bag, and slurp it on the corner of Collins and 12th. There, brownbagging under the art deco shadows, I ingest South Beach and its particular fauna: Russian billionaire types accessorized with runway-model gal pals. Tommy Bahama'd tourists. The twitchy homeless. And bros — a sea of bros — all spring-loaded with machismo and Red Bull. Nobody looks at me. I'm wallpaper.
"Don't listen to all these other fuckers out here trying to sell you stuff," a guy is soon telling me between Ocean and Collins. "You want, I can get my guy out here with some good shit."
"And I appreciate that," I tell him. "What I am really trying to do is find a place with dollar beers."
He looks me over, his face morphing from friendly banter to concern. "No, bro," he says politely. "You should probably go home."
But I'm not done. No. It's now around 11 p.m. I'm just rounding into that part of the evening when my blood alcohol content is sufficient ego helium that my every idea seems Mensa-grade. I'm already failing to blend into the South Beach environs, so it might be time to go undercover. As a tourist. From Sweden.
Pasty and generally clueless? Check. I comb my hair over into a perfect Ken doll helmet, stuff my button-up into my pants. My posture straightens; I meet every look with smiling eyes. I Yoda-ize my sentences, sparkling every utterance with heapings of "please" and "thank you." And I go where confused and sensory-blitzed tourists go: the Clevelander.
Colored lights flash against the hotel's white walls. A dance floor of white people two-steps awkwardly like at a high-school mixer. I barely squeeze in at the outdoor bar. Bass humps from the stereo. "Beer for one dollar, you have it, right?" I ask one of the sports-bra-ed bartenders. She flicks me a dead look and then shouts over the music: "What kind of beer?"
"Please, one-dollar Miller Lite, yes?"
She hands me a beer. The single in my hand flutters in my fingers like a ticket for a ride. The bass bumps. The bartendress' eyes are unamused pools.
"One-dollar beer. Yes?"
"No, this is America," she says, nonchalantly snapping the elastic strap of her bra while the bass Richters up a notch. "Nothing costs a dollar."
Among beer deals, the dollar draft is boss. Two-for-ones? Fine if you plan on going the distance on the barstool. Half-offs are usually a bar's tricky way to get you hooked on higher-end product. And penny drafts? Those are just a gimmick that frat boys use to conquer coed nether parts.
No, nothing beats the neat and easy economics of the dollar draft. Not only do ten singles alone pack enough kinetic pop for a one-way trip to a buzzy, calm headspace but the dollar draft is the great equalizer. In the bar serving the one-buck beer, nobody's priced out; the bricklayer and the longshoreman, the Russian gazillionaire and the Gucci bro drink together. Many are the times I've squinted into a bar's gloom to behold some working stiff leaning over the counter, singles spread over the wood, a temporary Big Timer throwing his weight. It's democratic, making every man a baller.
But unfortunately, beer prices are continuously bolting skyward. Each of your major brands — Miller, Budweiser, Coors — licenses to a single distributor in each region. Here in South Florida, just two companies — Brown Distributing and Gold Coast Beverage Distributors — have a lock on the territory. Those two distributors compete only with each other and keep their prices about the same. When one tweaks the price of a keg, so does the other. Wholesale buyers are at their mercy.
"The costs of brewing go up constantly," says Peter Greenstein, owner of King's Lounge and its adjacent liquor store in Lake Worth. "Their cost of gasoline for transportation goes up constantly. Their employee wages and benefits go up. I'm not blaming them; I'm recognizing that it is the way it has to be."
According to Greenstein, the last spasm hit the market in October, when the price of a keg of domestic crawled up around $7 to $105. "[The distributors] raised their prices the exact same amount, with no notice to any of the little guys," he says.
Each keg holds 1,984 ounces of beer. If none spills on the floor, that can fill 124 16-ounce pints. Sell 'em for a buck apiece and a bar owner will recoup his cost and have just $19 left over — but that disappears when you factor in the cost of paying a bartender. Even charging $2 a beer, a bar still stands to barely scrape any profit from the arrangement. Econ 101-wise, the only way cheap beer helps the bottom line is if you pour ultrahigh volume or use such a deal as a loss leader to get a consumer through the door, where he'll shell out full price for other products.
In other words, "the cost of a lot of beer now at wholesale prohibits any sane person from selling that for a dollar," says Adam Gersten, owner of hipster watering hole Gramps in Wynwood. "If people are coming in to drink a dollar beer for three hours during happy hour and then leaving, you never really make any money."
Besides being a bar owner, the 37-year-old Miami native is PhD-level when it comes to Miami's drinking scene, with insider info on everything from where you can get a Sierra Nevada bottle for two bucks (Mike's) to $1 happy-hour oysters (Monty's). Still, when I quiz him about dollar drafts, he blanks.
"The only places that would be able to do it are places that own their own building," Gersten muses, "have everything paid off, and that have been doing a dollar beer since the '80s."
He joins me on a night of my quest. We figure our best bet in mainland Miami-Dade would be the bars clinging to the University of Miami. With a New Times intern manning the wheel, we safari at happy hour, first hitting Barracuda Bar & Grill on Fuller Street — where the special is $2 for a Coors Light. (Wednesday special: $2 pitchers).
Around the corner, Sand Bar is known to have an infamous panty-dropping penny beer night on Wednesdays. Just shy of 7 p.m., the bar fills with happy hour's first responders — middle-aged men with oven-baked faces and red-starburst eyes, liquor-loud and back-slappy.
I hit the tube-topped, college-aged waitress with my question. She bounces back with what I'll soon get to know as The Look.
Field Lesson Number Two: When you ask someone for a dollar draft, their service-industry smile deflates, and they eye you like you've busted through a loose seam in space-time. "No."
"A dollar beer is like a magical number that people have in their minds as this great deal," Gersten consoles me eventually. "But it's unrealistic in this day and age, like a loaf of bread that's 15 cents."
Over the next few weeks, I worry he might be right. I discover that the high churches of Miami's dive bar scene — from Club Deuce to Mike's to Off the Wagon to the Happy Stork — don't have The Draft. What's worse, that short list is losing members quick. Lush, on 12th Street and Washington in South Beach, had a regular dollar deal until it closed this summer after the landlord raised the rent. The Ukulele Bar up on Biscayne Boulevard near Miami Shores didn't have The Draft, but you could hardly pass happy hour without the bartender slipping you a freebie. It closed in December so the building can be knocked down for a Fiat dealership.
I sink into despair, imaging a future 305 scrubbed clean not only of The Draft but of all dive bars. Now, at each bar I visit, I just ask what I can get for a dollar. It's just me and Mr. Washington, fencing with The Look. Nada. Zip. Nothing.
And then, I hit. One afternoon, the bartender at Lester's in Wynwood gives me a Narragansett tallboy, usually tagged at $2 at happy hour, for a buck.
But it's bittersweet. Turns out, Lester's shutters the next day, another consumer-friendly outlet nuked off the map by the cost of doing business. Almost hopeless now, I ask the bartender if he knows anywhere I could get a dollar draft.
"I have no idea," he answers. "I'm guessing somewhere in Broward."
The Lamp Post Lounge — a two-story building trimmed in evergreen paint — sits in Hollywood, just north of the Miami-Dade/Broward County line, on a run of Federal Highway where you can get your engine cylinders cleaned for $20 and still bang a hooker with the change. Looks like the kind of place I might find The Draft.
Inside, a Jesse Ventura look-alike in a Detroit Lions jersey, fresh from Michigan, is shaking his huge head. "But isn't Fort Lauderdale the same thing as Miami? It's just a few miles away."
"Nononononono," the lady corrects, waving her Budweiser bottle and cigarette in the air. She's plowing into the middle of her 50s, with hair the color, consistency, and shape of a dried-out Christmas tree. "They are not the same," she spits. "It's completely different. This is not Miami. Every morning, we get up to hear about who just got shot last night in Miami on the news. That's Miami. It's a different country."
This is a special type of South Florida watering hole: landing pad for snowbirds. Up and down the kidney-shaped bar, the faces all have that pink look from the first kiss of sun. On an NFL Sunday like today, the jerseys are from all over the place: Detroit, New York, San Diego. Women pass cooking tips that are unmistakably Midwestern. ("I always say just throw everything into a Crock-Pot.")
But a draft Bud Light at the Lamp Post rings up at $2.25. Behind the counter, the bartender, Michael, just shakes his head with awe when I ask my now-standard question. "A dollar beer?" he muses. "It's 25 bucks just for a case of beer now."
Michael hasn't worn long pants since relocating from Connecticut three years back. The burly barkeep can't really even remember the last time he saw a dollar deal. "Somewhere up north."
"It's sad," I offer. "Things are just getting so expensive everywhere."
"Especially in Miami," he says. "Miami. Holy shit. I had two friends that went to some place there on the beach. They had these big monster drinks, they each got one, got a backup. It was $100 for four frozen drinks. They paid for ice basically. Can you imagine that? One hundred dollars?" Before darting down the bar to fill an order, Michael turns back my way. "If you want to be a fucking baller, go to Miami."
I crawl north through Broward. Walsh's Irish Sports Bar is about five minutes up Federal Highway. I'm not inside for 15 minutes before the owner, Teri Walsh, has me by the hand heading for the back, where framed photos cover the wall. In a group shot of an '80s softball team, the entire boy-girl squad wears green jerseys printed with "McGowan's." Squatting down front is a man beaming through a Magnum P.I. 'stache. Something's poking from his short-shorts.
"There's his balls there," Walsh tells me. "That's why this picture is famous."
A middle-aged woman with wild, curly blond hair, she takes in the grainy shot. "He's dead, he's dead, he's dead, he's dead," she says, slapping at people in the picture. The drinkers here have introduced one another to future spouses, raised kids together, and — inevitably — buried the ones who've passed. There's a mournful sag in the good times when she mentions the bar's late handyman, Biff — "He never married, never had a family," says Walsh, who considered Biff a second father for 30 years. "We were his extended family.
"A bar is just like a church," she says. "It's not four walls; it's the people."
In just a minute of breathing the mentholated air during happy hour, I can tell Walsh's isn't so much a beer joint as a lineage. Back in the '80s, a crew of drinkers attached themselves to McGowan's, a bar at Hollywood Boulevard and A1A. Eddie McGowan, the fun-loving, accordion-playing owner, kept the party going. Walsh was his manager. "I basically grew up there," the Long Island native says. "I was a teenager when I started there."
When McGowan died in 2003, the bar slipped to new ownership. Changes came. To preserve the bar's good-time DNA, Walsh opened her own place, first the Dry Dock in 2003, then Walsh's in 2007. The crowd followed.
But sadly, Walsh's doesn't have The Draft. The closest is a $2.50 happy-hour pint. "I'm sitting here between Cracktown and Hookerville," Walsh cries defensively. "Do you know what kind of people would show up if I had dollar drafts?"
From Walsh's, my hunt takes me north to Grady's in downtown Fort Lauderdale. At midafternoon, nearly every barstool is filled with guffawing regulars. Classic rock blurts from the speakers. But again, nothing flows from the tap for a buck — and it hasn't since the mid-'90s, when the bar last had a dollar beer special.
"Do people ever come around asking for dollar drafts?"
"No," the lady working the tap tells me. "That's like saying, 'Can I have 1995's prices today?'"
"It's kind of bumming me out I can't find any," I confess to the old guy sitting one stool over. Casper-haired and bespectacled, he looks me over, opens his mouth, and begins declaiming in a rich British accent. "Well, I come from Europe, so I've had a one-euro beer. It's just one or two places. But you can get a pint."
"That's a long fucking way to go to get a dollar beer!" chortles a bearded neighbor in a Green Bay Packers hat. "I don't think you are going to save a lot of money going over there."
Packers rummages around his memory banks. "Growing up in Milwaukee, I remember this place on Connecticut Avenue where beer was 15 cents. There's a place."
Judging by the wear and tear on Green Bay's face, he's talking about sometime in the Kennedy administration. Right about now, all my hopes for this project are pretty much in the trash can. If the golden deal is not to be found in a place sporting the All-American bona fides of Grady's, does it exist at all?
Peggy manages to take my spirits off life support. She has no idea where I might find a dollar draft ("If you find some, come back"), but she's like the Mother Hen at Grady's. "I made the broccoli cauliflower cheddar soup," she tells me proudly.
Peggy has worked there 14 years. She's the assistant manager. She pours drinks one shift a week, but today she's on the other side of the counter, fueling up on a few afternoon pops herself.
She oozes full-bore love for the place. "It's a great bar," she explains. "It's your local neighborhood dive. People just want to go into a bar and hang out with their friends they've known for years."
She mentions a couple of regulars who've passed on. There's a tree out back where a portion of their ashes have been scattered. "And we have a plaque there with their names on it."
"Damn," I said, meaning it.
"Do you want a beer?" she asks solicitously.
"I actually have to go to a meeting for work. Sorry, can't guzzle one with you."
"This is your work? Researching beer deals? And you can't have one?"
"Not right now." Peggy looked a little sad for me. "And I've already had a few, to be honest."
"We've got mints."
Word-of-mouth recommendations all turn out to be dead ends. I hit up storefront crawfish joints in Sunrise. Dead pool halls in Plantation. Nothing. I burn whole rush hours inching up clogged streets. I prowl Broward's Monopoly-board wasteland of strip mall and housing developments, only to find the bar I'm looking for is now a Thai place. I seek. I come up empty. I seek again.
So it's with a bruised soul and hemorrhaging hope that I wash up on Fort Lauderdale Beach, the anything-goes, gap-toothed, skanky cousin to South Beach's haughty Euro glamour.
The Tropic Cay is tucked into the hotel of the same name, a three-story discount bin of efficiencies on Atlantic Avenue. When I pull in, a storm is letting loose against the beachfront. Sheets of rain knock against the bar's rust-colored roof and sputter in through the place's open sides. Tending bar is a pretty girl in her 20s, walking-dead thin and stuffed into a pair of cut-off shorts. She beams big anime eyes on me.
"What's cheap here?"
"Everything's cheap here," she says. "It's the cheapest place on the beach."
"What will a dollar get me?" I try, eyebrows doing a little hurried dance.
I order a $4 Bud Light bottle then. Maybe because of the nasty black night churning beyond, the crowd is thin tonight. The lighting is gloomy and mellow like in the belly of a wooden ship at sea. Near the Ping-Pong table, a couple are grinding their lower halves to Jack Johnson, two wet logs rubbing to catch a spark that ain't coming.
"Heeeeey there, Senator," a voice announces behind me.
He's old, 70s probably, wrapped up in a windbreaker, topped with a baseball cap. He doesn't exactly look homeless. He does walk in with his own juice glass topped with vodka from home. The old-timer nods to everyone in the room, a regular making his rounds, then parks down next to me.
"You know what's wrong with pussy?" he creaks.
"The women have all of it."
"You know what's wrong with fucking a goat?"
"You mean you don't know?"
"Then why don't you stop?"
When we get around to introductions, he tells me to call him "Mr. Crazy."
"What do you do, Mr. Crazy?"
"I cut corners for the government," he says.
"How long you been in Florida?"
"Oh," he says, putting his shaking hands six inches apart. "About this long."
We Abbott-and-Costello our way through some more banter, Mr. Crazy handing out these bathroom wall koans, me mumbling. Pretty soon I'm buying him a beer. He gets around to telling me about sailing ships near Ibiza and chasing Spanish women. Mr. Crazy could never waltz into some holier-than-thou craft-beer palace slinging these gutter one-liners and clutching a drink from home. Nope, this guy is meant to be here and only here. I silently toast him, hoping he survives the Guccification
"So what do you do?" Mr. Crazy asks me. "Besides fuck sheep?"
Nobody can tell me exactly where to find the Wayside Inn. The intel is spotty: It's a bar. It's in Dania Beach off Federal Highway. And it might have a dollar draft at happy hour. I prowl past storefronts. A gas-station attendant shrugs, then Googles it on his phone. Nothing. I'm just about to spin off for home when I pull down a side street off Dania Beach Boulevard and catch an orange stain of neon in my periphery. Sure enough, the sign fixed to the single-story building says "BAR," at 38 NE First Ave. Pouring from the open doors is the familiar sonic salad of sportscasts, music, and the throaty laughs of men fresh off the job. I walk in, take a stool, and fire away. "Do you have one-dollar beer specials for happy hour?"
Fireworks blast across the sky! Brass bands blow! Sure, not a full pint, but a 12-ounce mug is enough! I slap that dollar down on the counter, my inner choir of fat ladies now blaring hallelujahs. Suddenly, it's all OK. America's safe from inflation, the war on the working class, $10 craft beer, and bros! We're going to make it.
Two mugs in, I'm sitting next to Debbie Meklas. She owns the place with her sister. A short auburn-haired woman drinking a Corona, she's still in her dress clothes from a full day as a secretary at Broward General, where she's worked for 20 years. I'm babbling about her dollar-draft deal.
"We're not looking for the kill, you know what I mean?" she says evenly. "We have a lot of people that have been coming here forever, and we're trying to keep the deal going."
For Meklas, barkeeping is a matter of blood. Her grandparents owned a place in Somerville, just north of Boston. When her own mom and dad fled the cold for South Florida 43 years ago, they bought the Dania Beach spot. Meklas' father ran the show, holding court daily at a table near the side door.
"It was a working man's bar," Meklas explains. When he died in 2004, Meklas' mother jumped in and ran the place until her own death in 2010. Then it fell to the daughters.
"We had offers, but it's my family's; it's our business," Meklas says, pausing to pull from her beer. "I like it. That's why I fought to keep it."
The Wayside has added some 21st-century bells and whistles. Flat-screen TVs are now mounted on the walls. The tap handles for Magic Hat and 312 now join Budweiser and Bud Light — to the grumbles of some regulars. The bar recently won a community redevelopment grant from the city that will pay for new paint, awnings, and windows in January. Otherwise, Meklas is pretty committed to keeping the status quo hammered in place. For now, that includes the dollar beers.
Finally, after weeks of watching barkeeps laugh off my Washingtons, here I've crossed the finish line. But honestly, I'm pretty beat from the mileage I've logged on the quest.
They say the more time you spend in dive bars, the more you start looking like someone who spends time in dive bars. Field Lesson Number Three: This is true. Cigarettes — you start smoking them, if only to have something to do. The skin on your face seems to hang off your skull more than usual. A sticky feeling settles between your fingers, impervious to all scrubbing. And you realize, after knocking off enough beers in enough bars, that this whole drinking lifestyle is slowly circling the drain.
I'm the youngest guy here — by around 20 years. That's how it's been at every dive I've crawled into. People just don't drink like they did. The cold one after work isn't routine; it's the exception.
Blame it on the tectonic shifts of The Way We Live Now. Bar culture is beelining away from cheap drinks to big-budget cocktails and craft brews. Younger generations prefer Molly and club beats. A cold funeral wind seems to blow off the dives still standing. These places, and the people inside — once they go, they're gone. Which is a real downer, because South Florida's dive-bar scene is about as unique a culture as the region's ever birthed.
I'm visited with a terrifying vision of the future: Eventually, marauding armies of steroid-bulky, real-estate-hungry Miami bros will sack places like the Lamp Light, the Deuce, Grady's. Russian Mafiosos will pave over the land for small foreign-car dealerships. The $12 Appletini will become an acceptable order. Any remaining of us working folk will be forced to drink Ice House alone at home, shut away like slave labor in Metropolis.
I imagine myself, 60 years hence, dandling towheaded great-grandkids on my knee, spinning tales of The Draft, musty dives, and a home away from home... and then the children turn and say: "But we want dollar drafts, Grandpappy. We want them too." And I'll weep.
But this wasn't the time to blow funeral taps for cheap drinking. It was the time to have another beer — while we can. As I order another, Meklas hints that the clock may be running out even on the Wayside's dollar-beer special.
"[The distributors] went up on the kegs, just in the last couple of weeks." But that holy dollar draft, she says, "we're trying to keep it."
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