The Dull and Dreary Nightlife
Miami Beach City Hall never looked so good. Lots of hair gel, sleeveless T-shirts and exposed bellybuttons, everything but the velvet rope. And despite the heavy cloud cover and rain, no one forgot their sunglasses. This, of course, was at the big club industry protest last week. Nightclub owners, promoters, and their minions were congregating in square central to protest a proposed ordinance limiting outside entertainment.
It seems that the opulent condo owners who neighbored clubs south of Sixth Street wanted city hall also to enforce existing noise ordinances, and the jukejoint mob was panicked. The commission's chambers were a sea of black T-shirts bearing the message "i live, i work, i vote, i love the nightlife."
Somehow I couldn't get all teary-eyed for the millionaires who live part of the year in monstrosities that should have been illegal in the first place, i.e. Portofino Towers, and their whining about nightclubs that pre-existed them for years. By the same token, we can get attacked, go to war, shred our environment, and the only thing that will get these hipsters out of bed during daylight hours is a threat to the ever-present party. Call it a draw. I went home early.
I've always felt a little let down by the South Beach club scene. World-class money and talent, tons of youthful energy, and nothing more inspiring behind the doorman than the promise of sex and lucre. The video and spoken-word artists have decamped across the causeway. The thinkers and talent avoid the spots du moment like the plague. Creativity and originality are the first casualties when money and looks are the criteria. The pretty folk may be strolling Washington Avenue, but the gritty folk are slouching in some Miami warehouse, sneering at all the bloated decadence and narcissism across the bay. The problem is that to stay vital, the entrenched Beach scene is going to need those creative folks that it's done such a good job of alienating.
Where are the eccentric street mongrels who make the club scene not just a job, but a life?
There was a time when a wretch with style was as welcome at the bar as a Saudi prince; when utter crooks prowled the pavement in clean shoes and dirty thoughts and South Beach was better off for it. Like when John Hood was free to move about.
Some are going to call me a hypocrite. I certainly delighted in exposing the foul deeds of plenty of hooligan club owners. But my problem with them was that they were posing as something they weren't -- dignified businessmen. Hood never pretended to be anything he wasn't. He was a hopped-up cabaret gangster who, even when his brain was marinating in a chemical cocktail, tended to be wittier, brighter, and more searingly offensive than any ten people in clubland today. He was a scoundrel on skag as likely to cite William Blake as Iceberg Slim while he hatched some new scheme to propel past the mucks sleepwalking through town.
Don't get me wrong: John Hood was a liar, a junkie, and a thief. But, ah, the lad had verve.
He was the brains behind Fat Black Pussycat, the famous one-nighter that kick-started the South Beach scene back in the early 1990s, and remains to this day its longest-running party. He's been featured in at least one documentary and a nonfiction book, Alexander Stuart's Life on Mars, all flirting with the Beach's derelict past.
"While what's happening on the Beach right now is exciting, all the growth, I catch myself waxing nostalgic for the Hoods," says Rich Santelises, who handles nightlife accounts for slick-set bible Ocean Drive magazine. "These tragic, genius, brilliant characters, guys like Gary James and John Hood, that really made the Beach what it is today. We owe a lot to these guys." But in the same breath, Santelises acknowledges that vintage rogues couldn't make it in today's South Beach. "It would be like Bugsy Siegel going back to Las Vegas."
"I absolutely love the guy," gushes Kenny Smith, co-owner of one of the strip's alpha clubs, crobar. "He was the heart and soul of what South Beach was: a tragic creative genius."
Yes indeed, Hood was the real thing. And he tried not to harm anyone but himself, although that didn't always work.
I know this because for longer than he should have, Hood slept on my couch. With a beat-up valise, a porkpie hat, and some getup approximating a zoot suit, Hood wound up at my doorstep vowing it would only be a week or so, until this or that happened. It took six weeks to kick him out, and I didn't come out of it unscathed. But those were some six weeks.
I met Hood at New Times's Biscayne Boulevard offices in 1998. He was crafting an opus on his experience in the local stir that started: "Sometimes murderers turn out to be the nicest guys," and went on, "There are no innocent men in jail. Period. If you're on ice, you probably turned the thermostat down on yourself." Apparently he had bopped some guy on the head with a blackjack after he found the mope with his girlfriend.
We hit it off. I was bemused by this madman in his midthirties, roughly my age, who insisted on wearing hats and suits circa 1942, a black-and-white figure in a color world. The clothes, the music, even the pulp fiction he read went back at least five decades. He was a frenetic, skinny guy, with a hook nose, dirty blond hair, and desperado's slouch. He explained how he started Yale, decided it was not for him, took his tuition and plunked it down at NYC's Chelsea Hotel, then embarked on life as a lounge lizard. We went out for drinks. I bought. But the stories that poured from his mouth, enough to pop the eyes of any ink-stained wretch, were worth their weight in newsprint. He was recouping after the brig, and starting work at Fat Black again. Soon the invitations started coming in. This afterparty, that dinner gig. We were always scrambling down some alley, squeezing through some back door. It was fun.
So when, a couple of months into this, he asked if he could crash at my pad, I agreed. I should have known better. I was letting a manic motormouth fond of blunt instruments into my sanctuary. Truth is, the promise of a little frisson didn't seem like such a bad idea.
He didn't pay rent or buy groceries, but he did heist little things to improve the quality of life. Steak knives from a restaurant where some hot shot had taken him to dinner; a sugar dispenser from a diner where he sat while the sun rose and he crashed. You get the idea. Frankly, it was entertaining. At the time, he was working half a dozen gigs: An Italian restaurant owner wanted Hood to get his place onto the scene; he joined up with the team promoting the now-defunct Lola off 23rd and Collins. The most poignant was his lounge act at the old South Beach Brasserie. He kind of talk/sang, à la Leonard Cohen.
"Hey, wordsmith. Gimme a lift? Atta boy!" I was home reading the paper, and Hood had just come in from God knows where. I should have known something was up when he didn't mention a location. Turn here, turn there, next thing I know we're in some wooden shack in an Overtown back yard. A white woman and a black man. They could have been 40, they could have been 70. Heroin will do that to you. Nice folks. When the tinfoil and glass pipe came out they offered me some. I declined. I assumed it was crack, which I mentioned later, as in, "You lousy puss blister, what if I got busted with you while you smoked crack!" Hood shook his head disapprovingly. "That was heroin," he said. Then a pause. "You know, the problem with crack and cocaine is that it is not going to spawn any great literature. Where are the Burroughs and Coleridges for the cocaine set? They don't exist. And don't even mention Bret Easton Ellis." He was trying to divert my anger, it's true, but I hadn't exactly pondered that. Then he explained the nuances of being an addict. He didn't mind the addiction. He minded that society wouldn't let him be an addict. Thus he was forced to lie and hide. Worrying about arrest was a buzzkill.
The picture became clear then -- the guy had talent dripping off him, as a writer and thinker, conceptualizer of a life beyond the 9-to-5 world, but he was set on self-destruct. It was sad. Like the commercial says, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
At one point, the boys who own crobar took a fancy to Hood. They coined him authentic and gave him a steady paycheck to promote their nascent Miami Beach venture. When they noticed that he could use some time away from the Beach's vices, they shipped him off to Chicago, where they had another club, to dry out. "Yeah, we sent him up there to get away from the bad stuff, get him some regular money," recounts co-owner Cal Fortis. "We had a sincere affinity for that guy. You couldn't help it. He'd come in the office and say he needed $100, and we'd give it to him. He'd leave, come right back in and say, 'Actually I need $200.' You just had to laugh."
Hood was still in my pad when he started up at crobar. By the time he shipped off to Chi-town, as he called it, I found out he had forged two of my checks for $150. I was steaming. He fessed up over the phone, apologized, and blamed it on his need. I was less than sympathetic and vowed that if he didn't make it right I was stomping right over to the boys in blue. But I never made good on the threat. Truth is, he more than made up for a few measly bucks with the deluge of info he had on Beach dwellers.
The Windy City worked for a while. Then he slunk back into town, and in no time was up to his usual tricks. I declined to offer my couch.
One night he called, said it was important. Although I wasn't inclined to jump when he called these days, there was something in his voice I had never heard before, so I zipped over to a motel where he was laying low. He explained he had a little problem. Some people who did not have his best interests at heart were at that moment trying to ascertain his whereabouts. I knew of them, and decided for him that it was best if he just disappeared. The next morning I drove him to the train station and sent him to points north. It was the last time I saw him.
Oh, I got e-mails. New York City. Buffalo. And his last stopping-off point, Pennsylvania. Then the missives stopped. I found out from a friend his new address: the Bradford County jail.
"So good of you to write," Hood began after I sent him a note. "Where to begin? Buffalo was a bust. Voted the Most Popular Guy who Ever Slept In An Old Buick, which, while nothing to sneeze at was not my idea of upward mobility. The nickel & dime hustles I had to pull in order to feed my newfound habit didn't cut it either. I fled before the snows hit & my life became even more miserable. Over rivers & through woods & suffering not a few maladies I made it back to the mini-mountains of Pennsylvania, where I was about as welcome as a leper." One thing led to another, and he got popped for robbery -- bank robbery. Apparently on November 1, 2001, he went into a little state bank in pipsqueak PA and threatened to shoot a teller if she didn't fill a bag with cash. He was caught the next day checking himself into a rehab clinic. "All indications are he did not have a gun," says Bradford County DA Stephen Downs. "He just threatened to shoot. A sad case really. I felt sorry for the guy. He said he went to Yale and wrote for Rolling Stone magazine. Is that true?"
He pleaded guilty on May 21, 2002. I was proud he copped to what he had done. "As you well know, bad habits tend to do strange things to people," he wrote. These are the words he said he told the judge the day of his sentencing. "Yes, it was I & I alone who pulled the rug out from under myself & I'd be a fool to ask for a magic carpet as a replacement. Instead I request only a needle and some thread, the materials with which I can reconstruct my own peculiar tapestry."
The judge sentenced Hood to three and a half to ten years in prison. "For at me they threw the proverbial book ... I really was hoping for a much more slender volume.
"Am I afraid, not very. If anything I'm anxious to get myself outta this pipsqueak hellhole I got myself into & restart the engine. Well, I've always wanted to write & now I've a chance to do almost nothing but. In fact, you might consider this a kind of working sabbatical. A harrowing blessing in disguise.
"Well, that's it for now. Stay true. Your pal in the pokey, Hoodlum."
Right back at you, Hood.
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