Take Me With You
Miami, like the human body, is mostly made up of water. Still, many of us never get further than the occasional dunk in a few yards of shark-infested surf. Simply put, none of the 53,290 boats currently registered with Miami-Dade County belong to my friends. Poor, boatless bastards like me make up the county's dry, bitter bones.
While we worm through soul-sucking gridlock, they troll, motor, and glide. They "weekend" in tiny Caribbean countries we've never heard of; they party in international waters. This week more than 100,000 people will be in town to ogle the gleaming schooners and yachts on offer at the Miami International Boat Show. Some may even plunk down the quarter-million dollars required to buy one, while we get to wait in line at drawbridges and watch as they floar merrily home.
Like the rest of us, I have yearned to boat since I arrived in Miami last spring. But the truth about boat owners is that you're probably not going to meet one on the street. They're too busy counting their money, massaging their boats, battling pirates.
But they do have to go home, eventually.
So I decided to put on a tie, part my hair, and canvas their neighborhoods for boat friends. Sure, I took some doors to the face. But I had a cleft in my chin and a dream in my heart: namely, friendship in exchange for some rich guy's water access.
One bright Sunday afternoon, I marched into the heart of the Venetian Islands.
Rich people created the quaint archipelago out of sand in the Twenties so they could have somewhere to go in their boats. Today, it remains a haven for the kind of people who would build an island for their own amusement.
I arrived at midday and began my journey on Rivo Alto Island. Outfitted with guard gates and cameras, many of the homes there threw up considerable obstacles to the door-to-door friend seeker.
An army of servants provided the islanders' last line of defense. Their instructions, I gather, are to answer the front door and maintain total confusion until you leave. Some even exhibited a chameleonlike ability to not speak whatever language in which I addressed them.
"Hello, do you have a boat?"
"Tiene un barco?"
Soon I came upon a normal house: a walkway, a front door, even a doorbell, which I eagerly rang. A gray-haired man with a strong chin popped his head out of a second-story window.
"Hello," I called up to him. "Do you have a boat?"
"Yes," he answered.
"Great," I said. "Will you be my boat friend?"
"What does a boat friend do?"
"I don't know," I answered. "I've never had one. Presumably they take you out in their boat."
A minute later, the front door opened to reveal the very picture of a boat man. He wore shorts and loafers and a blue Hawaiian shirt dotted with little sails. His even tan offset the glow of his shiny white teeth.
"How many houses have you solicited so far?" he asked as he dialed the number on my business card.
After confirming that I had a job, the man introduced himself as David Siegel. He told me to call him the next day.
The next hour or so yielded more gates and servants. Just as it was getting dark, however, I caught sight of a man putting up the robotic canopy on his Mercedes SL500. He bore several symptoms of boating: khaki shorts, receding hairline, the whiff of money.
His name was Neil Sandberg, and he agreed to be my boat friend without asking a single question.
"Great!" I replied. An awkward silence ensued. "When do you go out normally?"
"The weekend," he answered. More silence.
He handed me a card and asked me to call him early in the week. I couldn't believe my luck: two boat friends in the span of mere hours.
When I spoke to Siegel the next day, he added one condition to his offer of boat friendship: I would have to pass a boating safety course. He worried that he might suffer a stroke, heart attack, or aneurism on the water. Should I be left to control the boat without some kind of education, we agreed, it would mean certain doom for us both.
But as the days wore on, I decided I didn't want to take a boating safety course. I never heard from Siegel again.
Soon came an e-mail from Sandberg, my second potential boat buddy, who just days earlier had seemed so eager:
I do recollect making your acquaintance, but must confess that I did not quite understand what it was that you were requesting. Was it that you wanted to discuss boating issues, or alternatively (as it now appears) were you asking that I take you boating with me (candidly a prospect that I did not then fully appreciate)?
He added that his boat had "popped a strut" and probably wouldn't work for the next month or two.
I could take a hint; rejection is a big part of door-to-door boat friend seeking. But Sandberg's failure to grasp the meaning of the term "boat friend" is what upset me the most.
I'd thought it was obvious: The boat friend is selfless.
You can call on him anytime like an aquatic fireman.
When summoned, he will arrive in a boat full of women and, also, beer. And maybe even a few hot dogs. And some fishing poles. And one of those electronic fish-finders, so you don't have to putz around all afternoon like a pair of jerks.
The boat friend is not a new concept. It began in Miami-Dade County with a hard-working seventeenth century Tequesta Indian. While fellow tribesmen had a grand old time hunting and gathering, this guy (let's call him Frank) was off in a corner, fashioning a canoe out of mud and a tree trunk.
When Frank finally finished, he had a big party and announced that anyone in the tribe could borrow his boat, any time. The Tequestas were so pleased with Frank, they ritually sacrificed him.
Several months passed before I returned to the Venetian Islands with a new strategy. Dressed in a blue blazer (think nautical) and legitimate pants, I vowed to show potential friends I was serious. But the islanders would have none of it.
"What?" shouted one old man. "You want a boat?"
"No," his wife hollered to him as she unloaded groceries from the trunk of a large silver Cadillac. "He wants a friend."
"What?" he added.
I skulked across the lawns of San Marino Island, knocking here, ringing there. At one point, I came upon an Englishman hailing a taxi for some weekend guests. He said that he owned a boat but that he didn't think it would be big enough for my article.
"It's really just a little speedboat," he replied, ushering his guests away from me and into the waiting cab. "It's not a proper boat."
Neighborhood Watch signs and an increasing ratio of unanswered doors led me to wonder if I had set off a phone tree.
Then I found Dale Hightower. It was a fluke, a whim. By the time I wandered up to his towering, beige mansion, the sun had set, and hope seemed entirely lost.
His call box shrieked at the push of a button.
The massive gates opened wide onto a long, intricately paved driveway, which held a pair of Mercedes 500s, black and maroon, and a Ford Expedition.
A pretty Vietnamese woman, clutching a baby boy, opened the door. "Dale!" she shouted over her shoulder. "There's somebody here to talk about boats."
The ceilings hung fifteen feet above the black-and-white marble floors. A life-size, musket-wielding, plasticine pirate leered at me from the corner. Ernest Hemingway's image hung along the walls, on maps, and in homemade collages.
Dale Hightower wandered in looking like the mayor of Margaritaville: broad-shouldered, six feet two inches tall, bearded, and clad in a blousy pink Hawaiian shirt and sandals.
His trusty dog, Pete, stood watch from the steps behind him.
Dale made things simple. There were two types of people in the world, he said: boat people and land people.
"Land people are I don't want to say ömean' ..."
"Guarded?" I suggested.
"Exactly," he said, clapping his hands together.
Boat people will share their wine and food. They will yell hello from 30 feet away. They are the salt of the earth, Dale explained.
Unfortunately life had saddled him with a corporate law firm and millions of dollars. Some day, he just wanted to cut loose and set sail. The world had been good to him, he said, describing himself as a boat person trapped in a land person's body.
"It blows my fucking mind how we all live in this box, and boat people totally reject that. We're taught to go to college, get married, have two kids and that's it," he said. "You're in fucking prison. I can't tell you what it's like to live in a marina on your boat." Dale approximated the experience as "the opposite of prison."
Dale invited me to go on an aquatic bender with him to Boca Chita Key. I agreed and we parted with plans to meet the next morning.
Dale was up early, puttering around.
He didn't pack much. Some sandwich meat, half a dozen Coronas, and a small tangerine parrot named Mango, who had the unpleasant habit of shrieking, frequently. "He's been to the island, like, twenty times," Dale said, gingerly setting the small white cage on the deck of his shiny 30-foot Intrepid. On the last trip, Mango forgot his wings were clipped and nearly drowned trying to fly away.
Dale's boat boasted a pair of golden engines, smart vinyl couches, and small sleeping quarters that his wife dismissed as a "coffin."
Dale purchased The Son Also Rises to replace his beloved Hemingway a massive pleasure cruiser with a three-story fishing tower, living room, and huge bed that met its tragic end during Hurricane Wilma. He produced a photograph of him fishing in a coat and tie atop a corner of the wreck, shortly before divers blew it up and hauled the rubble away forever.
"The Hemingway well, it was like a big frat house," he sighed, as if describing a deceased relative. With that, he took the helm and fired up the engines. "Easy Skankin'" echoed off the water while Dale coasted gently out to sea. "Legend is the number one boat album," he shouted, as Bob Marley excused himself for having to light his spliff.
With surf and wind whipping through his beard, Dale seemed to descend into a folksy Zen state; the motion of his powerful engines across the water seemed to overtake him, like a massage chair in a crowded shopping mall.
We arrived, an hour later, at Boca Chita Key. The 32-acre island and national park boasts a lighthouse, a small concrete harbor, and beautiful mangrove beaches, just 16 miles south of Key Biscayne. The distant smoke stacks atop Turkey Point nuclear power plant and the silhouette of a colossal landfill offered the only signs of far-off Miami.
Dale swung into Boca Chita's harbor and dipped past the stumpy stone lighthouse teeming with day-trippers. We idled toward a long barrier peninsula where his friends waved and toasted our arrival from lawn chairs.
Dale's friends, an armada of yacht-owning Cuban-Americans, had besieged the island days ago, lining its inlet with 18 boats. After tying a line to a yacht, Dale and I wandered ashore and headed for the picnic.
A husband and wife were hacking a giant ham into chunks at the end of four contiguous picnic tables. Disco and salsa music blared, at equal volumes, from a pair of yachts. Two middle-aged men in windbreakers embroidered with the names of their boats grilled sausage on dueling camper stoves. In the distance, a circle of wives downed ceremonial shots of tequila and tried to convince their children to eat and put on clothes.
On the table, at the center of the action, stood a tall bottle of Johnny Walker Black and a jumbo stovetop espresso maker.
After twenty minutes of schmoozing, Dale returned to The Son Also Rises and sequestered himself in his cabin with Mango and a bottle of Bacardi Limon. He needed some downtime, his friends assured me, after defending Wendy's against a lawsuit filed by a woman who'd managed to lose her hand at a drive-through. (He'd talked a $2 million civil lawsuit down to a $200,000 settlement).
Even with Dale gone, the group of lawyers, process servers, and accountants quickly welcomed me into the fold. They called themselves "Amor y Verdad" and warmly regarded the yachts they'd packed into the inlet as a "mobile condo community." Strangers wishing to "tie on" were fiercely rebuffed. Several members claimed to have designs on buying Boca Chita from the park service.
Life on the island proved slow and delicious; the biggest challenge seemed to be drinking just enough to make it to the next feast.
After two hours of the sweet life, I needed a break. I spent a few hours rocking on the deck of Dale's boat under a sleeping bag, while the next generation of Amor y Verdad zipped around the harbor in their parents' dinghies.
I awoke to a rich aroma of wine, garlic, peppers, and fatty meat.
Three men had independently slaughtered a trio of goats in the days before their arrival. The cooks on the island had split into three factions; each cluster insisted on the supremacy of their combination of the same four ingredients.
After the feast, the still-standing members of the party adjourned to what was described as "a homemade yacht." The boat's owner, a small scraggle-toothed man, stood still on the hull, his face affixed in a permanent grin.
The two-story wonder was clapped together out of red plywood, a pair of outboard motors, and several tons of Christmas lights. The evening concluded with three hours of bawdy Spanish karaoke sung, predominantly, by a hurricane shutter salesman who had come to Miami, by raft, from Cuba in the early Eighties. By 3:00 a.m., I had been on more boats than I could count or would ever want to remember.
In the early morning hours, a pair of women fussed over where I would sleep most comfortably. I finally collapsed on the back of Dale's boat for a couple of hours. I awoke, at sunrise, to the sounds of engines cranking. Dale missed his wife, and we were off.
I never did find another boat friend like Dale, who later mailed me a T-shirt and coffee mug bearing his corporate logo: a marlin astride the scales of justice.
Life outside the world of Amor y Verdad proved harsh y cold. In a single day, as I made my rounds, I was rejected or ignored by every boat owner on Palm and Star islands.
"I'm sorry," one woman sang cruelly from within her enormous mansion on Palm Island. "This is not how you make friends."
A few doors down, another resident told me she kept her boats in "a boat yard," even as I saw them parked, in plain view, behind her electronic gate.
I staggered on to Star Island. The guard in the imposing kiosk let me right in after I told him I wanted to "canvass the place for friends." The residents, however, proved less amenable. Even the servants have servants, and no one is authorized to make friends. I left a pleasant written request to discuss boating in the mailbox at Shaquille O'Neal's ivy-encrusted front gate. He never replied.
Rich people, it seems, don't need more friends.
An appeal to middle-class boaters proved even rougher. A few days later I set up a card table on a boat launch on Key Biscayne and put out a large foam board sign: "TAKE ME WITH YOU." From their boats, legions of Cuban-American families eyed me with a steely combination of hatred and pity.
I abandoned the boat launch shortly after a fisherman named Angel asked me to join his party, only to speed away while I stowed my blazer in the trunk of my car.
The next morning, I set up shop on the front steps of the Dinner Key Marina office in Coconut Grove. I tried a new sign: "BE MY BOAT FRIEND." Just to make things official, I topped the card table with a stack of business cards and a bag of Wint-O-Green mints.
Three hours and 37 mints later, no progress had been made.
I decided to roam the gated docks, where boat after boat bobbed, silent and still. Charter captains who will be your boat friend for several hundred dollars a day did their dirty business in broad daylight.
The scene proved sad and boring. No one wanted to sneak into Cuba, hunt sharks, or search for treasure. So I wandered, dejected, back to my car. On the way, the world turned upside down.
A brief unguarded stretch of commercial slips presented a wild scene. Dogs ran amok along the quay, barking against a backdrop of dingy boats and nets peppered with rotting fish. Weathered old men and toothless women drank cheap beer and cackled big warm laughs. Oldies blared out of a pair of boom boxes.
"Hey there!" called a wiry man with a thick, bristly mustache and bulbous, gnomelike features. "You look like someone I know who was around here last week 'cept you got more weight on you."
"Um," I replied. "I don't think so."
I asked him what my alter ego had been up to.
"Fuckin' up," he said as he untangled a net on the rear deck of an old shrimp boat. "Too many drugs."
My new friend's name, for the purposes of this article, was "Captain Fritz." He lived on a houseboat moored in the bay and worked three nights a week as a shrimper. He had been doing it since he was fifteen years old. "You can come out and see," he said. "I just sit there and pull up bags of trash all night."
The required equipment, Captain Fritz advised, was a joint and a sandwich.
When I returned a few nights later, Captain Fritz was sitting on the rear deck of his boat, laughing as he mended holes in his nets with a spool of twine. He wore a red sleeveless shirt, a Gilligan hat, and a long silver crucifix.
The boat (let's call her Pegeen) looked like a faded white tug and couldn't have been longer than 30 feet. The rear deck held a pair of large aerated bins to sustain captured sea life. Nets and worn iron trolls jutted out of corroded scaffolding at the boat's center.
The tiny wheelhouse up front was bare-bones. A couple of plastic deck chairs sat behind the console. Technology consisted of a tape deck mounted to the roof, a truck radio behind the wheel, and a hand-held, battery-operated GPS device that Capt. Fritz "has no use for," which sat dead on the console. He navigated by the lights of nuclear power plants and the SunTrust building.
Also on board was the boat's owner, who did not want to be named. He lifted up a floorboard on the rear deck and climbed down into the room containing a massive diesel engine. As he lowered himself into the soot-lined pit, he muttered something about how he wished his father would hurry up and die so he could inherit his boats and sell them.
Captain Fritz's dog, Copper, stood guard, growling furiously at me until Fritz waved a finger, indicating I was okay.
The boat's owner shut the trap on the engine room and gave Captain Fritz his order. "Seventy-five," he said as he heaved himself back onto land.
Captain Fritz nodded and tossed him the docking ropes. We were off. The sunset burned rich pinks through dark blue clouds, which seemed to grow thicker and denser the farther we traveled from the shore.
Off in the distance, lone shrimpers waved hello. A figure bathed in pale blue light zoned out before a TV on the deck of a sailboat. Captain Fritz pointed out his houseboat amidst the shrinking cluster of vessels moored outside the marina. "Not that big one," he said. "The fucked-up one behind it." Copper curled up on the bow.
"The only way I can get into [this job] is to stay stoned," he said as we hit open water. "So, I dunno about you, but I'm gonna roll me a joint."
Captain Fritz headed into the open wheelhouse and pulled a wad of odorless dark reefer out of his pocket. He began to crumble it onto an orange Frisbee.
"Commercial weed," he said. "In this line of work, you can't be smoking that other stuff. You won't wanna do a goddamned thing." He emerged from the cabin and screwed a fat joint into the corner of his mouth.
Captain Fritz dropped his nets and began the troll at "walking speed," sucking up anything off the ocean floor that would fit between the one-inch gaps in the iron grates.
After fifteen minutes, he pulled the nets into the boat and emptied them into two tanks. "Look at all this goddamned trash," he said, shaking his head and stirring the fish, seaweed, and crustaceans with a big stick. ("Trash," according to Captain Fritz, meant anything that wasn't shrimp.)
He donned a white rubber apron and a pair of smelly canvas gloves. I did the same. He took the right bin; I took the left. Inside an aquatic stew of life awaited.
"Be careful," he called over his shoulder. "There's all kinda things in there that can fuck you up. Dogfish'll bite you. Portuguese man-of-war will sting you. Those robin fish have a barb like a reverse fishhook, and we'll have to cut you open if that gets a hold of you. If those scorpion fish get you, you'll have to sit down for a second. You'll lose your equilibrium and you're goanna have trouble breathin'. Cowfish too, if you get one of them horns in your finger, we'll have to get that out. Then there's the crabs; watch them crabs. And the stingrays. And the moray eels man, they'll really take a chunk out of you."
Captain Fritz untied the lash at the ass end of my net and began shoveling pile after pile of burgundy and emerald sea grass overboard. When the water in his bin looked relatively clear, he scooped a pile of "trash" onto a big tray that emptied out into the sea.
Furious crabs danced sideways along the perimeters. Shrimp, some as big as gorilla thumbs, bucked like rodeo bulls. Everything moved at once, kicking and fighting and suffocating together. Some creatures even chomped down on their neighbors as they struggled to breathe in the teeming maw. Others flipped and flopped over the ledge and into the waiting mouths of a flock of seagulls.
Capt. Fritz's gloved hands nimbly hurled shrimp into the tanks like a dealer flicking cards across a poker table. He sorted his entire pile before I'd even stuck a finger into my mess. "You gotta pick 'em," he urged. "It's called pickin' shrimp. You gotta work quick, before everything dies on you." He made quick work of my pile and left me to shovel the next one onto the tray.
After a while, the display came to resemble a morbid oceanic petting zoo. Sea life that might fetch high prices at an aquarium just sat there, waiting to be picked up and thrown overboard.
Despite having nothing, Captain Fritz was generous. And despite all of the menacing, dying sea creatures, he managed to make the most hateful kind of work fun, by sharing pork rinds, tall tales, and joint after joint of "commercial weed." He didn't expect much of me, and even suggested I take some time to lie on the cabin roof and nap under the stars. I agreed and conked out under a light drizzle for the rest of the evening.
At around 4:00 a.m., he guessed that we'd caught our order, 7500 shrimp. While the boat lurched back to the dock, we each had a beer and talked about where it was all going.
The live-aboards in the marina were trying to inch Captain Fritz and his kind out, replacing the shrimp boats with charter operations. What's more, Pegeen's owner wanted out. Even Captain Fritz wanted out. "Once I get my boat fixed up, I'd like to sail out to the islands with a nice little nest egg. Maybe take people out fishing with their kids."
It wasn't a love of the ocean that brought him to live on a boat in the middle of the bay, but disdain for everything else: bosses, traffic, thieves, ex-wives, customers, math teachers, the army, and, worst of all, yacht owners in the marina.
As the sun peeked above the pink horizon, we parted ways with a handshake.
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