I had been told a lot of different things about Sylvia Worrell before I ever met her, and I still don't know after meeting her which ones are true. I've heard she is a celebrated teacher, a published author, a former nun ("That's just gossip," she protests), a native of Barbados, a Bajan. A character. And I've heard she obsessively picks up trash every morning in Overtown. We have a German woman in my neighborhood who sweeps the parking garage of her apartment building every day. That's weird. But Ms. Worrell's been threatened by drug dealers. Great story!
I put the word out. Give her my phone number if you see her. Tell her I want to talk. All I hear back is a big silence. Then one afternoon around 4:00 p.m., being the crackerjack reporter that I am, I get out the phone book and find a "Sylvia Worrell" listed in the white pages.
"Brrrriiiing, Brrrriiiing, Brrrriiiing, Brrriiiinng, Brrrriiiing."
A woman with a lilting Caribbean voice answers the phone. "Hello," she says gently but with the perfect enunciation of a most traditional English schooling. It is a hardness that I'll come to know too well, a steely will that can't be swayed, that wraps around syllables, saying them with precision and love and pride. Okay, so I didn't get all that from one hello. It's a technique called foreshadowing where I'm trying to clue the reader in to Ms. Worrell's character. But I can't really see deeply into another human being on the evidence of one "hello." That's someone else.
Yes, Ms. Worrell says, she has heard I am interested in writing about her. But it confounds her why anyone would want to write about someone who sweeps the sidewalk in front of her home. "In Barbados, this is nothing, this is normal," she says. I start to protest that she does more than sweep sidewalks. For Pete's sake, she's a one-woman street-cleaning crew!
She cuts me off midsentence, somewhere in the middle of "You do more tha...."
"But I have noticed that in the United States people make a big deal out of the smallest things. I don't know if you have noticed that, Susan. Well, you are American so you might not notice. But I'm telling you, people in the United States make a big deal out of nothing, nothing, nothing.
"It seems to be a national trait."
She calls the idea of a profile comical, hilarious, funny, and a few other things, including, at one point, disrespectful. She tells me she plans to e-mail her brother in Barbados and tell him how she is being pursued by a reporter because she sweeps the sidewalk. "He will have a good laugh about that," she says. "He will find that very funny,"
While I view her street-sweeping jones as an altruistic community service, Ms. Worrell explains it as self-interest.
Her Overtown apartment overlooked a lot littered with refuse. She wanted to improve the view. To do so Ms. Worrell had to remove the trash.
"I made that all nice and clean," she says. "And then I looked up." When she looked up, Sylvia saw more trash. "So I went across the street and picked that up too," she says.
That effort, however, did not put much of a dent in the visual obstruction. And so Sylvia, eager to make her environment more aesthetically satisfying, began a daily habit of cleaning up trash in her neighborhood. She didn't just leisurely pick up a few Styrofoam cups and errant newspaper advertising inserts blown her way by the wind. From 4:00 to 6:00 a.m., every day, she picked up.
She is surprised I ask why so early. "It's cooler then," she answers.
I see an opening, an opportunity to argue her story is unique. After all, how many people are out at that hour picking up trash?
"That shows you don't know anything about Overtown!" she exclaims, incredulous at my ignorance.
"This is a round-the-clock place," she says.
I like the way she says "round-the-clock." I draw the words out; my emphasis is the same on every word. She says the phrase in 3/4 time so that the words come out with a sprightly syncopation that sounds nice to my ears.
RoUND-the-clock. Sure, the drug dealers, the street thugs. Customers want product 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That's what had piqued my interest in Sylvia Worrell in the first place. I'd heard that drug dealers had threatened her because they thought her presence put a damper on the early-morning business. As I race through these thoughts, I realize she's making my point for me.
Why would anyone be out at that hour picking up trash?
"The construction men and women are leaving for their jobs," she continues, "with lunch pails and lunch bags.
"It's the most beautiful time of the day, really. It's quiet because there are no garbage trucks on the roads. The buses have stopped. It's a most peaceful time; it's my favorite time of the day."
As warm and engaging as she is, Sylvia's still cool to the idea of a story. "Where would you put me in New Times?" she asks. Since learning that I want to write about her, Sylvia very purposefully picked up a copy of the newspaper and looked through it. She's seen the serial Steve Shiver exposés. She's seen the investigative slant. Serious stuff. And she's noticed the half-naked women in the back.
She isn't swayed by those answers.
"My immediate response is no," she says.
I press for an explanation. Surely I can address it, reassure her, get the interview, write the story....
"New Times doesn't have a poetry page."
Okay, I'm stumped.
Sylvia promises to think about it some more. She is friendly and polite. She says 4:00 p.m. is usually a good time to catch her at home, but she warns that she usually only stops in for a few minutes. On subsequent days, through subsequent weeks, I call at 4:00 p.m., at 8:00 a.m., at noon, at 3:00 p.m., at 4:00 p.m., at 8:00 p.m., incessantly, repeatedly, over and over again. I'm wondering if she has caller ID and is sitting primly by the telephone waiting for me to go away. But she doesn't even have an answering machine, so I doubt she has the techno. Maybe I should have given up, but I'm hooked, I'm charmed.
Surely Irby McKnight, the loquacious chairman of the Overtown Advisory Board and the unofficial mayor of Overtown -- and, as Sylvia says, the community's "tribal chief" -- can put me in touch with her. They know each other. Worrell has a poem in the works about Irby titled "Who's on Third?" as in NW Third Avenue, the main thoroughfare through Overtown.
Sylvia says that when she first moved to Overtown five years ago, Irby puzzled her. She would see him sitting in a chair under a tree with a bunch of other men. Irby stuck out because he dressed so finely, often in a suit and tie. The scene, to Sylvia, was off-kilter. "You," she said to him, "don't belong here." That was before Ms. Worrell understood more about Irby, more about men who sit under trees and talk, more about Overtown. In this part of Miami, there are chairs set up wherever there is a bit of shade -- plastic deck chairs, beach loungers, down-at-the-seams living room furniture -- under trees, under overpasses, in vestibules. And wherever there are chairs, there are usually old men sitting in them talking.
If anyone would know where to find Sylvia Worrell, it would be Irby. Not only does he sit in Overtown, he gets around. His preferred mode is on foot. By these means, over the past 30 years, he has seen and heard most of what happens and what doesn't happen here.
Although he doesn't put me directly in touch with Sylvia, McKnight provides a map of her likely whereabouts. He is sitting in the unofficial mayor's office at the unofficial mayor's desk in the unofficial city hall, which is also known as the reception desk of the nonprofit New Washington Heights Development Corporation, located in an office at the Culmer-Overtown Neighborhood Center, 1600 NW Third Ave.
"Where have I seen Sylvia? Let's see," he says, drawing up his six-foot one-inch, 248-pound frame and then leaning back in his chair to ponder the question. When he was young, McKnight won oratory contests at Bethesda United Methodist Church in Lake City, South Carolina. In response to the simplest inquiry, he can make words thunder, shake, resonate or bellow like a bull depending on which way he wants to take a sentence, a stream of thought. When McKnight launches into a detailed catalogue of Sylvia sightings, it sounds as though he is a super-secret special agent who has been trailing her every move.
"You know where I've seen her lately?" he offers. "Walking up steps of the downtown library. I see her in the morning. She uses the Internet there. She's always on the Internet. I know that. She loves the Internet. She tutors children in reading at Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School. Where else? In the gardens. She sits in the garden of the Mount Bethel AME church, the St. Agnes garden, the gardens of all the churches around here, and in Dr. Dunn's garden. That's on NW Fourteenth Street and Third Avenue. She writes her poetry there. Oh yes she's a published poet."
A poem she wrote called "Doctor Dunn's Garden" appeared in the April/May issue of the Overtown Defender News.
It reads in part:
He planted a garden
without mazes or hiddenness
He laid it out with his own timeless hands,
oversaw it and raised each lovely flower
so that color by color, edge to edge
Overtown eased its weary eye, lifted its jaded soul
with every forward glance.
McKnight says that Sylvia lives on NW Eleventh Street near First Avenue, near the Florida East Coast railroad tracks, near the Ideal Liquor Store, next to the orange rooming house, but he doesn't know in exactly which apartment. There's a guy there -- Fred -- who she helps out; he's almost blind. She got him a turkey for Thanksgiving. And then McKnight is off on to other things in Overtown -- the summer jobs program, Art Teele, the gymnastics program he put together, the oratory contest. At one point, Jackie Bell walks by. She is the president of the New Washington Heights Development Corporation. "If I were you, I would sit there and listen to Irby, too," she says as she walks into her office. "I could listen to him all day long."
NW Eleventh Street near the railroad tracks. Sylvia's neighborhood. There beyond the empty lots, beyond the tracks, beyond the Interstate 395 overpass, beyond the Metrorail whose cars move so close by overhead that it feels like you could reach up and grab one, and the warehouses, the high-rises of downtown Miami loom up. From here, the skyline looks impressive. The Freedom Tower, the Wyndham Hotel, the Marriott, the Grand, the Miami Herald building ... the skyscrapers mark and ring the horizon. But here, too much is gone, too much is broken down, beaten up, boarded up, taped across to inspire. The Negritude Restaurant is closed. There are holes punched into the sides of the jaunty yellow façade and the casings of two air-conditioning units lay abandoned on the roof. Here too much has been reduced to chunk, to rubble, to junk to stir the heart. And what does thrive here is usually overgrown and weed-choked or just barely clinging to life. People are crammed into housing equivalents of a beehive, into big blocky tenement-style garden apartments. And everywhere there are fences barring people out and barring people in -- hurricane fences, chainlink, iron bars with spikes on top.
The heat of this sweltering afternoon draws people outdoors. Women are in the background, sitting on kitchenette chairs tethered psychologically to the doorways of their apartments, standing on landings and stoops, leading a passel of children to the little store nearby for a treat. But the streets are owned by men. Everything that passes moves through their gaze. Along Eleventh Street in front of a spiked fence, a line of guys standing shoulder to shoulder like a ragtag urban guard surveys the street. Up at the corner of Eleventh Street and Second Avenue, a group of men mill around in front of a convenience store talking and taking pulls from cold "40s" stuffed into paper bags. As I get out of my car, both groups follow my movements. I seem to be the only white person here. That is enough to make my presence notable. The attention makes me jumpy.
At one of the apartments, an elderly woman sits in the doorway peeling a boiled egg. She seems a safe bet to me. She is so frail, she looks like she might snap in two. The bones of her cheeks jut out, and her eyes are marked with circles as black as coal. I go through a spiel about how I'm looking for Sylvia Worrell, how she picks up trash, how I want to write about her. I hand the woman my business card. She peers at me quizzically. I repeat myself. Maybe she didn't understand. Maybe she doesn't know whether to answer my questions or not. Maybe she's suspicious. I start to repeat it all again a third time. Maybe she's wondering why this crazy white woman keeps saying the same thing over and over.
Finally I stop talking and after a while the woman speaks. She really doesn't know what's been going on in the neighborhood lately because she's just returned home from the hospital. She's had open-heart surgery. She's not sure she knows Sylvia Worrell, but she used to see a lady who fits her description. "I used to see a lady out here hauling around big green garbage bags," she offers. "Haven't seen her lately, though. She might have moved away."
I tell her that Sylvia was out picking up trash one morning, bending over to pick something up when she was attacked. A mentally ill woman who lived in the building picked up the rake that lay on the ground beside Sylvia and whacked her in the neck. Sylvia hasn't picked up trash since then, for a couple of months, while the muscles recover.
"I don't know if that's the lady you're look for or not. If it's the same lady, she lives across the way, in that apartment over there," the woman says. She points to a green cement building with a paved courtyard.
Behind a tall iron fence, on the blacktop of the courtyard of Sylvia's four-story apartment building, a boy tosses a small basketball into the air over and over again. By the staircase, a group of boys ranging in age from seven to ten practice a chant that makes them giggle with embarrassment each time they stop, no matter how bold they are when they sing it all together: "Sexy lady, drive me crazy, show me what you got!" An older boy conducts the chorus. "Okay, again," he says. A bouquet of girls clusters around a single plastic lawn chair in which the oldest one sits. She gazes out on the courtyard with a very serious, almost stern demeanor. She is modeling her behavior after a youngish mother who is sitting in an identical plastic chair on the other side of the courtyard, except that the adult wears her authority much more casually than the child. I approach the woman, since she is the only adult on the scene. She cracks a couple of roasted peanuts and pops them into her mouth. She stops me from handing her my business card so that she can wipe the shells off her hands. I tell her I want to write a story about Sylvia. "That would be good," she says. I ask where Sylvia lives. "I don't know if she's home," she says, "but she lives up there." She points toward the upper stories of the green building, cracks a couple more peanuts, tosses them into her mouth. I can feel her gaze as I climb the stairs.
In the window of one of the corner apartments, a swath of white cotton material fastened to the window as a makeshift curtain falls half over some knickknacks and a thick black book with the words "Holy Bible" embossed on it in gold letters. This must be it. I knock. I knock again.
"Can I help you?"
I am startled by an officious-sounding voice behind me. I whip around to face a sloe-eyed guy with a scraggly Afro who has materialized on the landing. "Can I help you?" he asks again. He is wearing tight black vinyl pants, a black vinyl vest, and no shirt, and he is sweating profusely. It's a little unsettling. I go into my monologue, which is getting kind of old now, and hand him my business card, too. He studies it wordlessly for a long, long time and then looks up at me sidelong with his eyes half closed, considering what I'm about. Finally he decides to trust me.
"Okay," he says. "She's not home." Vinyl Pants bends down and with some effort manages to shove the card under Sylvia's door. I ask him about Ms. Worrell. "She's a nice lady," he offers. "She takes out her trash and does her laundry." An elderly man seated on the landing a few doors down from Sylvia's place has been staring straight ahead while all this takes place, as though he is studying the horizon line. That must be Blind Fred. "I don't know," VP offers. "I call him Pop."
As I walk back to my car, I hear a woman's voice calling from the apartment across the street. I walk toward the sound. The guys behind the fence follow my movements.
"Pardon me?" I say, peering between the black iron bars.
"She in the hospital?" the elderly woman asks.
The women at Sylvia's complex are having a baby shower in the courtyard that Sunday. Three of the mothers who live there are pregnant. They've set up a tent with a green-striped awning and fastened pink and blue balloons around the courtyard. A hard rain has cleared the air, and the sun has come back out. From a bank of speakers as wide as three linebackers standing shoulder to shoulder, a disc jockey blasts a hip-hop version of the hokey-pokey. The music is loud enough to make your bones vibrate. A group of kids gamely follows the instructions slamming from the loud speakers, sliding side to side, hopping on one foot, and twirling around. People are hanging out on the balconies of the apartment, watching the scene. Among them is VP Sloe-Eye. He has a can of Bugle tobacco in his hand, and he laughs as the children act up for their audience.
The music is too much for Sylvia. "I'm getting old," she says. "I can't take all this noise." She had her door shut, but with the sun starting to fade, she opens it despite the mayhem. It's the time of day she likes, when the sun shifts in the sky and begins to descend and a breeze glides across the bay bringing waves of cool air with it. "Ohhhh," she says. "Did you feel that?"
Sylvia has a facility for transportability. "I think that was the first breeze of the evening, that breeze right there. I felt it move from my feet all the way up to my face," she exults.
The children here know Ms. Worrell as "Miss Lady." She keeps games for them in her closet. If her door is open, the children are allowed to come in, but they have to obey her rules. They have to tell their mothers where they are. And if their mother calls, they have to leave, no arguments. The children show her appreciation for the attention she gives them by bringing her stuff -- their mother's favorite vase, a ceramic figurine. "Run right back home with that," Sylvia tells them. "Go quickly." Sylvia explains that her relationship with the children in her apartment complex is nothing special; it is not because she feels any calling. It's not a kind of natural community service that responds to the needs around it. No. She does it for protection. "Otherwise they would drive me crazy," she protests in mock horror. "They would be climbing all over me."
When she lived in Barbados, Ms. Worrell hosted a children's show. It was very simple, she says. Nothing like children's shows in the United States. It would never succeed here. She would read a book to a group of children. That's it, she says. In Barbados, the show was very popular.
Now she tutors reading as a volunteer at Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School, 1801 NW First Pl. Frequently she sees her former students when she is walking around Overtown, going to one of her temporary clerical jobs or to the store to buy odds and ends. Her students, even if they are in high school now, make a point of saying hello, telling her how they are doing in school, of talking to her. "She cares about them," explains McKnight. "And a child can feel that." But Sylvia says her relationship to the children of Overtown pales before McKnight's. "If a child loses a tooth, he has to show Irby," she says. "I've never seen anything like it!"
She figures it is safe to open her door today because the children, all involved in the party below, won't find her simple board games enticing. From her doorway, Sylvia admires the view. As the sky darkens, the fuchsia lights of the MacArthur Causeway curve into the air. From her apartment, Sylvia sees panorama. "Look at that," she says. "I think I have the best view in all of Miami. I love it." And now, since she has worked with code enforcement officers from the Overtown Neighborhood Enhancement Team, the lot in front of her apartment has been cleared of debris down to the sand. All of it is poem stuff to Sylvia. She says she has learned not to wake by an alarm, but to wake up and lie in bed and wait for the first sound of nature. It might be a bird singing outside her window, the oak tree rustling its leaves, or a cloud slowly moving past overhead, appearing tangled in its limbs. She wakes up with inspiration. "If you wait for it, it is usually there," she says.
Her apartment resembles a monk's quarters. The living room furniture consists of a foam mattress covered with a flowered sheet and two white plastic lawn chairs that she moves from the bedroom into the living room depending on need. She says she keeps it clear of stuff so that she has space to do yoga. Her silverware drawer is equally spartan -- it contains nothing but two spaghetti forks and a raft of chopsticks. She started using the utensils in New York in the Sixties and decided she liked them. "Some things you have an interest in at different times of your life and then just stop, and some things stay with you," she says. Chopsticks stayed with Sylvia. She offers me a container of yogurt and a pair of chopsticks to eat it with. The only opulence in the whole apartment are the double rows of black vinyl three-ring binders that line two shelves in her bedroom. That is where she keeps her poetry. One volume is dedicated exclusively to poems she has written about Overtown:
How do you tell a people
they are beloved.
By cutting their village in half?
By passing them over for promotion?
By selling them the drink of their own destruction?
By wooing their souls into lust and degradation?
No, you plant a garden in their way!!!
from "Doctor Dunn's Garden"
But no matter what I say Sylvia still doesn't think I should write about her. Especially when there are so many more worthy subjects in Overtown, people whose families have been here for generations. She says she has to try to remind herself to stop listening and get on her way, there are so many stories in this place. Get caught in the rain while waiting for a bus, and I might find, like she did, that the man who offers me the protection of an umbrella is one of the first black police officers in Miami. Get into a conversation with a guy who is always rooting around in piles of trash and you might meet the celebrated outsider artist Purvis Young. In that company, Worrell asserts, she is nobody. She says no to a story in a hundred ways. "I don't know why you persist in this, Susan," she says. "I told you no, and I meant it. I said no. I said it very gently. I didn't scream. I didn't shout. But I meant no. People in the United States think they have to convince, they think they can argue and change someone's mind. I think it is a national trait."
But other people think I should write about her. People like Miranda Albury, the administrator of the city's neighborhood service center. Whenever the Overtown NET does a trash pickup in Overtown, Albury says she can count on Sylvia's help. She also stops by the NET office to alert Albury if she notices any illegal dumping. Over the years Overtown has become a place where people from other communities come to dump stuff. Sylvia, Albury says, is the kind of activist who is the backbone of her community. "She doesn't go around looking for pats on the back or to be in the forefront," Albury says. "She sees a problem and she tries to find an appropriate place to take that problem. And she is also willing to roll her sleeves up and assist."
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And no matter what Sylvia says about her outsider status in Overtown, McKnight says the community has claimed her as theirs.
"She's ours now," he says. "If she went back to Barbados, she would have to come back. She wouldn't have no sidewalks to sweep there. She'd miss us."
When I tell Sylvia what McKnight and Albury say about her, she isn't pleased.
"That's two people I'm going to have to strangle," she says. "Can you come to the funeral?"