If Armando Valdez had shelled out ten bucks to have his fortune told this summer, he might have planned a vacation for the fall. A long vacation. As it is, Valdez, a mild-mannered senior planner for the City of Miami Beach, has been the unwitting referee in a bizarre cat fight involving angry Gypsies, and enough alleged back stabbing and mud slinging to set Geraldo's pulse atwitter. At the heart of the fray is a trio of psychics who have been battling the city - and each other - for the right to do business on tourist-infested Ocean Drive.
The minidrama began about a year ago, Valdez recalls, when palmist and tarot card reader Fatima Miller applied for a license to work at Cafe Des Arts, 918 Ocean Dr. Her application - and her $375 license fee - was rejected because the site failed to meet the city's code, which restricts fortunetellers on the strip to commercial buildings of two stories or fewer. Soon after, Valdez, who determines whether occupational-license applications pass muster with the planning department, began receiving strange phone calls. Some callers claimed Miller was still doing business on the sidewalk, others that she was operating out of her apartment over the cafe. By summer, the calls took a turn for the surreal. At one point an unidentified female told Valdez that Miller was a Gypsy from Chicago whose family had a long history of friction with her own.
Great, Valdez thought, of all the bureaucrats employed by Miami Beach, I'm the one who lands in the middle of feuding clans. But Valdez was not alone. Code enforcement officials also received a rash of phone tips, leading police to cite Miller, after numerous warnings, for conducting business on public property. But in June Miller applied for and received a license to practice at Mango's Tropical Cafe, 900 Ocean Dr. Valdez figured the move would put an end to the brouhaha. He figured wrong.
The decision infuriated Robert Cook, a self-proclaimed Gypsy who has long sought a beachfront location for his fortunetelling wife Sally. In August the Cooks came forward to admit they were behind many of the complaints about Miller and stepped up their lobbying efforts with the beleaguered Valdez.
"They call all the time, sometimes two or three days in a row. It's a constant thing. They want to know how Fatima Miller got a license and they can't. They say she's still out on the sidewalk. They seem to think, wrongly, that we have the power to revoke licenses," says Valdez, with a hint of anguish.
Two weeks ago the bemused planner sent Cook to speak with Assistant Zoning Director Prospero Cabrera. The meeting was a cordial one, recalls Cabrera: "I referred him to the relevant zoning codes and that seemed to mollify him." But Cook - who says he has spent $500 documenting Miller's shady past, and who has taken to haunting Miami Beach City Hall with a folder that reads, "Fatima Miller Fraud Investigation" - is anything but mollified. "They say you have to find a place that is mixed-use and less than two stories, but when I ask to see this law in black and white, it's like asking to see the president of the United States," he insists. The part-time auto-body repairman says he has sought a niche for his wife at several addresses on Ocean Drive, but none have met the city's criteria. He says the Millers don't want his wife working on their turf.
"Nonsense," counters Miller, whose candlelit table sits just inside the entrance to Mango's Tropical Cafe, in plain view of passing foot traffic. "It's not my fault that I applied in a place that allows fortunetelling. I'm lucky and he isn't." Miller's brother Thomas is less diplomatic: "The Cooks are crying over spilled soup. They're unreputable people. They're Gypsies and they're full of shit, if you'll excuse my language," he says, adding that neither he nor Fatima is a Gypsy.
"This has nothing to do with Gypsies," Cook maintains. "This has to do with why she has the right to work and my wife doesn't. The law states you can't work on the sidewalk and I guarantee you she does. I've told the [code] inspectors, `Whatever the overtime costs - $200, $300 - I'll pay. How about a VCR tape? They say, `We'll get out there when we get out there.' I wouldn't be surprised if somebody's taking a little bit on the side from Fatima." The Millers, along with Valdez, say this allegation is ridiculous.
Rochelle Kaye disagrees. Kaye, better known to South Beachniks as the flamboyant astrologer Starlady, claims she was displaced by the Millers, who paid Mango's owner David Wallach hundreds of dollars for the spot she once occupied in his eatery. Kaye, who can be seen bicycling around the Beach in gaudy, flowing costumes, claims she was run off the premises in August despite an oral agreement that she could stay until October. Though she has a license to ply her trade at Mango's, Starlady has been unable to transfer it to another location that meets city standards. She says she now plans to leave town, a move likely to be applauded by the city officials whom she has peppered with indignant queries.
Wallach, in turn, portrays Kaye as a tenant-turned-tyrant. He says he was being charitable when he allowed the plump fashion plate to set up a table on his property and claims he never made her any promises. "When the Millers asked to rent space for Fatima's business, I gave Starlady the first option of matching the offer," says Wallach, who opened his operation earlier this year. "Renting space is my business. That's how I pay my mortgage."
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Wallach says the root of the controversy is the city's strict regulation of Ocean Drive, an issue hardly limited to the flakier-than-baklava world of psychics. With the phenomenal growth of South Beach, says the restaurateur, business owners have pressured city fathers to keep tourist-inhibiting hawkers off the area's neon flagship. "This is not limited to fortunetellers. The city's cracking down on vendors, period. It's gotten to be too much. The other night I ran into ten flower salesmen in an hour," he says.
Stuart Rogel, assistant city manager, confirms that mounting concern from the Ocean Drive Association has prompted the city to boost enforcement of the
law prohibiting vending on public property. "We're just beginning a more concerted effort to clean up that sort of carnival atmosphere that exists on Ocean," Rogel explains.
"That strip is one of the last places where fortunetelling is still allowed," laments Cook, still convinced an Ocean Drive gig for his wife is in the cards. "We're just trying to make a few bucks. It just goes to show, if you're a rich man, you can do anything you want. If you're poor, they'll stop you at every turn.