The Heart Goes for a Haircut
Ratman & Zarco
On the last stormy night of winter, a man with a flashlight went looking for the notorious Eby Loveland, the homeless "champion" who -- legend has it -- taught all the bums on South Beach how to use an ordinary Spam can key to open parking meters and liberate coins. Eby had worked for the City of Miami Beach as a meter man for ten years, and before that did eighteen years in the Coast Guard, but he'd always liked women and drinking inordinately, and toward the end of his municipal career, had been taken with the unfairness of the social order; so he'd begun getting loaded and using his master key to fill his pockets with quarters and dimes to buy his less fortunate drinking buddies beers. Naturally, when the law saw what was going on, it made short work of Eby's Robin Hood phase, confiscating his key and sentencing him to three months in Metro West. When he got out, someone -- "It wasn't me, for Chrissake!" he insists -- showed the bums the Spam can trick, eventually costing Miami Beach $90,000, and forcing the installation of hundreds of new parking meter heads, at another big bite to the poor taxpayer.
Since then, Eby has been literally lying low. On February 23, for instance, in one of those melodramatic paroxysms nature uses to remind us that weather still trumps BellSouth, the rainy wind was lashing the telephone wires like stagecoach reins, and it was hard to make phone calls, even by cell. So: the slick parking lot at the foot of the Helen Mar apartments; a soaking walk over the Indian Creek footbridge at 24th and Collins; a muddy slide down the bank on the far side . . . "Eby?" He lived under the bridge now. A 21st-century troll.
You couldn't see anything. Blueblackgrey, with some shiny shifts of light as the rain pissed against your glasses. Then, going forward, a darker black, dead center against the east wall. On the ground, a mound, moving as you approached it, an eerie skittering that raised the hair on your arms and legs, something really wrong, as if a werewolf waited . . .
Flashlight on the trouble spot. Wet moving fur. But atomized, surging in different directions, squeaking now, as 20 or 30 big rats rose off Eby's body, like the vault scene in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, disturbed in their slumber: "Who the fuck is that?" Eby said, grouchily.
"Eby, you all right?"
"Of course I'm all right, you pussy. Never seen a rat before? When it rains this hard, their holes fill up and they start to drown, so they haul ass up here and snuggle in around me to keep warm . . . Naw, they don't bite. They just tryin' to get dry . . ." He fished for a cigarette.
Loveland had been living under the bridge for two years, more easily at first than recently. That was because the tenants at the Helen Mar, an artsy group of writers, photographers, producers and performers, were so widely split on the tolerance issue. One lady, an English model beauty, would bring heaping platters of gourmet take-out down to Eby and his pals to cheer and fatten them up; others, like a policeman who doesn't want his name used, would drop $20s on them and slap hands as he galloped over the bridge on his morning run to the beach . . . but some, like Susan Rosler and her boyfriend David, or a media creature called Cyn Zarco, couldn't tolerate the scurf-troll funkiness, the skin pitted like lemon rind, the floormop hair, the sheer dirt of the homeless lifestyle, and would bring the cops down on the footbridge crowd a couple of times a week: "They're mangy!" Cyn hollered into the phone, trying for a sympathetic ear from New Times; she wanted help for her campaign to juice MIAB politicians into driving Eby out for good. She'd already had his mattresses, pillows, blankets and plastic water jugs confiscated through Officer Andy Kuncas, who'd busted Eby for drinking from an open container in public, the Beach's strange excuse-rule for arresting homeless types; but Loveland kept coming back, a fleshy boomerang: "That damp mud [under the bridge] ain't doin' me any good, I feel like shit, but I'm used to it there, it's like my home."
Told of this, and of the rat episode, Cyn snorted disdainfully: "He's drunk! He can't feel a thing down there! What are you, sorry for him? Whyn'cha take him home with you? We pay all this rent and have to see The Grapes of Wrath out there every day? Whyn'cha feel sorry for us? We can't even go to the pool in peace without these ugly fucks staring . . . I'm afraid to walk around naked in my apartment or to use my balcony because they're always looking . . . Whyn'cha get your priorities straight?"
Zarco, an enabler of fashion shoots, a sometime gossip columnist, aspiring photographer, would-be poet, intimate of club stars like Michael Tronn and Gerry Kelly, and of extreme exotics, like the gift shop help at the Delano, gofer/fan of megastars George Clooney and Danny Glover, despotic arbiter of "taste" for friends and less-than-friends alike -- in short, the sort of person that new Mayor David Dermer and the hotel and nightlife preciosi on the Beach would appear to prefer to see traipsing Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue -- simply can't bear the idea of the Eby Lovelands of Miami. Aesthetically, they just ruin the concept. If only Manolo or Georgio could design some velvet sea-going woodchipper to float them all out into the Shark Current and let them vaporize discreetly in the brine . . .
The Stumbling Horde
Camillus House on NW Fifth Street and First Avenue in Miami feeds from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m., and you can get good basic staples like chicken and hamburger, veggies and soup; Mission Rescue at Twentieth and Miami Avenue serves lunch at 12 and supper at 6, but there you've got to deal with "earbanging," which is what Bisente Martinez, the "Mayor of Watson Island," calls the religious instruction that Christian services require the homeless to endure before they're allowed to chow down; you can also eat at Lot 16 on the Miami River, a mobile unit for the Miami HAC (Homeless Assistance Center) at SW Third and the river -- Thursday nights are pasta, and you get authentic Italian stuff plus cake and "real" soda like Coke or Pepsi (instead of sugar water and off-brands); then there is St. Michael's Catholic Church at Flagler and 29th (chicken, homemade spaghetti); and there's always the Salvation Army's $10 nights (you can eat and sleep) at NW 22nd Avenue and 38th Street (first night free). "If you die of starvation in this town, you died of stupidity," Bisente, who will be remembered for his homeless advocacy following Hurricane Andrew, says, wolfishly.
But none of these places is on the Beach. MIAB virtually has no public help for the homeless (though it does have 190 "emergency" and "intermediary bed" referrals through Douglas Gardens, a private, Jewish charity aid organization on Lincoln Road, and from Miami Beach's Homeless Coordinator's office, headed by the very capable Olga Vasquez, Neighborhood Services director Vivian Guzman, and liaison Miami-Dade Homeless Trust executive director Hilda Fernandez); yet most homeless who need a place to crash are still dependent on Camillus House, or the Salvation Army -- or the code enforcement officers, who offer them a night at SA, and if turned down, bounce them into a van and dump them into holding pens at Eleventh and Washington, for transport to county jail at Thirteenth and Thirteenth. Even though Federal District Court Judge Clyde Atkins, in his landmark class-action case Pottinger Decision in 1994, ruled it unconstitutional for police to arrest vagrants for public eating, drinking and sleeping without offering them an available bed, and even though both municipalities have had to pay out a total of $600,000 in fines to homeless who've been summarily treated, cops have gone on rousting them relentlessly, sometimes more (under Mayor Dermer), sometimes less (under former Mayor Neisen Kasdin).
Since March 20th, it's been more. That's when Miami Beach augmented its "open container" law with an ordinance curled around the political hypocrisy of "public camping," a notion that would have cracked the stone-faced William Burroughs up: Central to this exercise in tautology is MIAB's new definition of "camping" -- a bum lying on the empty sand at, say, Fifth Street, is legally "sleeping" and can't be touched, but another one, ten yards away, with a rag covering his skinny shanks to keep the beach chiggers from biting, is "camping," and therefore in violation (the cover makes the difference). Similarly (but under another ordinance), a tramp snoring off a bottle of Vitalis Hair Tonic laced with Natural Ice beer (a homeless Valium substitute), up near Muscle Beach at Twelfth Street, is guilty of a felony if he allows his head to loll over on a bed of sea oats -- which some guys prefer to sleeping on the gritty sand. It's then that MIABPD zealots like Officer Kevin Graham, or the powerlifter with the wrap sunglasses sutured to his buzzcut -- the one they call "Rambo" -- will come along and winch you up by your belt loops with one hand while crackling to the transport van: "Got a skel here at Muscle destroying the natural vegetation at ONE TWO OCEAN. Request vehicle dispatch!" And shortly a red-white-and-blue will roll up and South Beach's sea oats beds will be as safe as the Governor's lawn again.
But, despite these inconveniences, some men and women don't want to leave the Beach. Take Bisente Martinez's pal Billy Budrow from New York, a rock-and-roll-looking individual whose youthful features can still pull the ladies who populate the Zone -- Fifth Street to Lincoln, Ocean Drive to Washington -- where all the choice target tourists concentrate. The Zone is where code enforcement concentrates, too, but if you cool it in Lummus Park (the palmy waterfront strip between Ocean Drive proper and the sand), covering your container, being relatively quiet, not carrying a big Stray Bag or pushing one of those chrome shopping carts with all your skanky underpants and spare socks hanging out that really buzz the cops' tolerance meters, you can operate a little. Billy will grab himself a can of breakfast beer from one of the friendly bar boys who work out of the hotel and restaurant employees' entrances in the alley behind Ocean Drive (the only designated safe passage through the Zone for the homeless, somewhat like the "by-pass" roads around Arab and Israeli settlements in the West Bank), scoot over to a shady spot in Lummus, select a likely palm tree, plunk down resolutely, and, back braced conscientiously, begin holding it up.
All kinds of things can happen during the day, while you sit there with your drinking pal from the suburbs, the one who brushes his eyebrows with a travel toothbrush and likes to talk politics: "Penelas is worse than Diaz, I'm tellin' ya! Diaz is an old-fashioned human corruption guy, but Alex is the corporate yuppie pervo type . . ."; Billy nodding, yawning, checking out the luminous legs of the sunbathers scissoring by and then -- as happened the first week in April -- a knockout stops in front of him in a nude silk criss-cross dress by Narciso Rodriguez, arms folded, abruptly waiting. He stands up, leaves his drink with Suburbs, and they take a cab to Twentieth and Collins. She's a hooker and this is some john's room, but he's been down in the bar drinking for hours and she's still itching, knows Billy's rep . . .
He wakes up with the cops around him and some 50-year-old from Ocala crying that he broke in. Nobody buys Billy's story, the girl is gone, but then nothing is missing either, so they hold him one night and the judge levels a $250 fine, which if Billy can't raise, will buy him another 20 days.
"Hey, he needed to get off the street," Bisente philosophizes later, "and anyway, you get three hots and a cot. Sometimes, like when La Copa Mundial is on TV, I'll go up to a cop car and piss on it. That gets me in for sure."
A Homeless Geography
Cherry and Tex are part of the Grunge Homeless, operating way west near 701 Lincoln Road (Douglas Gardens), between Euclid and Michigan. Tex is in and out of bands (mostly out now that he's an old man of 28 with a drug-and-alcohol problem), and Cherry, with red, yellow and blue stripes in her hair, used to hang around backstage. She still hangs around, with a squad of other late-teen runaways, and does what she must to support her boyfriend.
Officer Bobby Trinidad (name changed) says the punk homeless stick together, don't mix with the blacks in the north end of Lummus, or the Latino and Anglo strays who gather farther south, near the public restroom, or down at South Pointe. "They discriminate and sometimes fight among themselves. They're not the best-adjusted bunch you're gonna run into on the Beach." The really aged and mentally ill ones stay west of the Zone, around Jefferson or Meridian, and basically beg for their keep, like Mrs. Maupin, who also sells her art pieces near the Club Deuce on Fourteenth Street near Washington, or old Thomas Hunt from Kentucky, who's in a wheelchair down on Seventh now. Sometimes the criminal ones -- maybe ten percent of the estimated 600 homeless inhabiting the Beach -- will act in teams. Aside from just moving the ugly, dirty homeless out of tourists' paths, it's these guys the cops are really looking for.
On a night out with a predator, you can see why so many hoteliers and businesspeople have such low opinions of vagrants. One common scam is the "parking move": You drop your car off in front of one of the glamorous hotels or restaurants on Ocean Drive; a nice, clean-cut kid runs up, chewing gum industriously, takes your keys, shoots around the corner to a lot where he has a seamy-looking friend waiting; he wraps his gum in tape and sticks it in the lock-jamb, so that the door doesn't completely close, but the electronic beeper won't go off; a slice of tape protrudes; the friend, wearing kitchen gloves, yanks on it, opens the door, ransacks the car, then pulls off the tape and locks the door for real. Meanwhile the clean-cut kid has run back to Ocean and hung the car key on a wooden peg board in full view of everyone, often including the driver. When dinner or drinks are over, driver signals for his car, kid pelts to get the key, and gallops around the corner like a puppy, pulling up minutes later with the patron's auto, his tongue practically lolling. Driver beamingly gives big tip, usually doesn't discover the theft until later, and when he does, never suspects the hardworking kid, who he saw retrieve the key from the peg board! Kid and friend move their act frequently.
Then there is the "crab crawl," best used in the middle of the night, when the beach is closed to everyone for sleeping (12:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.). Romance is the fulcrum for this scam, salted with lust: Beautiful young couple have done the clubs by 3:00 a.m., are loaded and stoned, go for a walk at the water's edge, get the feeling, run back up the beach to drop their clothes, move into the sea and splash out to where the shelf starts dropping till they're in at least waist deep. Homeless, who aren't allowed to sleep, are creeping around Lummus, waiting their moment. When they see two figures sort of melding into one, they're on their bellies like infantry, flattened on the sand, taking advantage of a trick of the arc lights near the beach which create great cones of shadow-cover, so that if the amorous duo do look up, they'll see only black triangles against the lighter gray. The bums move in crablike, grab pants, wallets, pocketbooks, watches, and try to withdraw quietly, but if they're spotted, just take off up a side street, hooting like the Wild Bunch: "Aren't too many dudes who'll try to chase you past Ocean with their balls slappin' against their legs and everybody laughin'," chortles one New Times informant.
On Washington Avenue there are stores that sell what can only be described as "prison manufacture" products. A ladies' hairbrush, for example, in which the handle pulls out as a shank or icepick ($15); a bar of soap with a lever-catch that fires one .22 caliber bullet ($20 -- and the same ex-con who makes them also sells the popular faux radio antennae "liquor tubes" you see in use by homeless and students, too). Salespersons must know you, or you have to come accompanied by someone they trust, but the trade is old and established, selling to late-night waitresses, dancers, hookers, masseurs of both sexes or no sex, as well as to the common criminals whose culture has thrived on the Beach since the days of Murph the Surf, and before him, Al Capone.
Passing a small patch of empty grass outside a hotel near Eighth and Collins, New Times's guide to the demimonde announces: "That's where we take off the drunked-up college boys [like the kids who were just down for the Winter Music Conference]. They drink too much and lay down to sleep and we make orejas de conejo [rabbit ears] out of their pockets [by pulling them inside out]. Between 2:00 a.m. and sunup, you see white boys all over South Beach, sprawled out like X's on their asses, they arms spread out like Jesus . . ."
When the fuzz catches anyone for any of the crimes cited above, it's jail, arraignment, jail, trial, and usually jail again; if you're Bisente Martinez, or Billy Budrow, or Eby Loveland, however, the routine is more mundane: Cop decides you've broken some variation of the homeless ordinances; you're clapped into an enforcement code van and plasti-cuffed to one of a series of chrome poles inside; if you're unlucky, you're among the first on a shift, and may have to stand or sit for hours while the van ratchets around, seeking a full load. (MIABPD "harvests" 24 hours, but there are only two runs a day to Miami, so you often find yourself standing in the frozen "dump cell" at Eleventh and Washington, because the place is too crowded to sit.) The plastic cuffs in the van are meant to prevent fighting, and if you make a lot of noise and flail around anyway, the officers will "hog-tie" you with a series of metal cuffs, and fling you on the floor, where your fellow prisoners will laugh and spit at you for being a dumb prick . . . In the holding cell, the air-conditioning is kept at freezing because shivering, blanket-wearing homeless are more likely to be peaceful homeless . . . On the other hand, if the county jail at Thirteenth and Thirteenth is too crowded, you may get sprung after only a few hours and some misdemeanor coffee.
A bad part of the Beach for homeless is Twentieth and Collins, a heavy drug market and raggedy-assed hooker stroll. Ghetto vagrants from Miami fronting dope of various kinds will often get into it with Latino and Anglo tramps, and Officer Trinidad swears: "That location often makes me wonder where my head was at when I promised to 'protect and serve'" . . . But the worst scene, in terms of violence, hands down, is the old Carillon Hotel at 79th and Collins, once featured prominently every Friday night at 10 in the opening credits of Miami Vice, now a derelict building in the heart of Little Buenos Aires.
Today's Carillon is a kind of hotel without portfolio, purportedly empty, supposedly awaiting redevelopment. South Beach sources allege a rough crew hangs out there, dealing, and even renting rooms to "Aryan" customers for $5 a night. On the day New Times visited, a husky, battered fellow named Rigoberto from Chicago was sitting out front, picking at a sore on the underside of his foot, and pointing at the badly healed scar that split his right eyebrow and bisected his eyelashes: "I dunno why dey done me this way," he answered a question. "Four Anglos hitting with sticks and kicking!" A tall guard, adamant that there were no homeless living in the old hotel, and perhaps feeling guilty for lying, crooked his finger and strolled a short distance: "Señor," he said, "Rigoberto is crasy. There are a bunch of Anglo vagrants living under the bridges around here, Gulf War veterans, Vietnam veterans. Much dopa. Very angry men. You heard of the killing [in North Beach] last year? Too much traficante, you understand? This Rigoberto tells them he fucks their mothers. He is lucky he still breathes." He pointed toward the beach, where he said the bad Anglos gathered. "Cuidado," he warned.
But after a long trudge through the sand, New Times found no one willing to talk, or who looked particularly dangerous. Turning around, however, lines of laundry strung across the rear windows of the upper floors of the Carillon flapped in the sea breeze.
A chain fence meant to keep intruders out had been bent back, and flattened weeds showed a path to the rear of the building. Plywood had been tacked over doorways in several places. It appeared to have been pried open regularly.
Inside looked like a Blade Runner set. Surreal dissolution, shiny silt on all surfaces. Your footsteps echoed badly, and on the stairs between the second and third floors, black shadows preceded a delegation from the upper reaches of the Carillon:
"Where the fuck are you going?" growled a man holding what looked like a pry bar.
"I'm from New Times, the newspaper?"
"You better get the fuck out, shitbird!" yelled another angry voice.
"Writin' a story about the homeless . . ."
"Who's 'homeless,' dipstick? We're nomads! We're bums!"
"And Republicans!" the first guy roared. "Republican tramps!"
"We don't want no milky social worker jive!"
"Get your ass out!"
The first man flung the bar, but he missed.
The Poor Are Always with Us
What really bothers people about the homeless is their reflective quality: "There but for the grace of Visa go I." Every office has its weak links, and it's anthropologically wonderful how the strong links sense, isolate, and try to drive them out, as ruthlessly as any East African baboon troop. In Miami Beach, a community of strong links struggling to redefine itself in the afterglow of its post-fashion bonfire, and scared by a bad recession and the 9/11 fallout (though this winter's season recouped nicely), city government has been moving against the homeless "tactfully," in hopes of making the Beach attractive to -- if not Anna Wintour and Gwyneth Paltrow -- an upper-middle and middle-class visitor and taxpayer base. While retaining enough of a whiff of the pulsing Ingrid Casares/Chris Paciello glamour of its immediate past to keep things "provocative." Like Las Vegas, with its defanged "gangster" theme-park aura.
Thus, last year's campaign to rid Lincoln Road of its squalid performance artists, junk peddlers, and panhandlers, and this year's gradually accelerating moves to get the bums off the Beach (said to have been exacerbated by homeless mocking of early-morning exercise classes at the Tides Hotel). David Dermer, a lawyer and real estate manager as well as mayor, with long-time ties to the business community, is seen as subtly increasing pressure in response to undeclared campaign promises . . . Who needs all these hairy-bottomed people, for instance, squatting, lowering their drawers and straining in the dunes across from Il Villagio on Ocean Drive, where the hapless residents can only stare in horror from their pricey balconies?
"I think you're being unfair to Mayor Dermer," said City Commissioner Matti Herrera Bower recently. "He's not an over-regulator. Look at his record. It was Nancy Liebman who instigated the Lincoln Road measures. I think the mayor believes diversity is important . . . but look at Villagio! What can we do?"
Commissioner Richard Steinberg maintained that Miami Beach "spends about a half-million dollars a year on homeless help," more than communities of comparable size throughout the country. "The idea is to get these folks into the 'continuum of care'" (a social-welfare buzz phrase this year), which includes emergency bed intervention for extreme cases of mental or physical illness, stabilization, therapy, job training and "mainstreaming" -- reintegration into the job market and apartment-owning population. "But the mayor is just continuing a process started in previous administrations," Steinberg warned. "He's certainly not the bogeyman of this issue . . .
"However," he continued, "I would like to say that while offering all possible help to get these unfortunates up and running, we have to consider all our citizens' needs -- including businessmen, hotel and club owners. So [our help takes place] in Miami, not on the Beach, because the cost of beds on the Beach would undercut the amount of aid money available. In Las Vegas, where I was recently, I noticed there were no homeless visible. Now how did they accomplish that, I wonder?"
One solution, Steinberg suggested, are "no-panhandling zones," an innovation Key West is trying and that he is bringing before the commissioners: "Let's face it, there are some areas where that just isn't appropriate." (He declined to say where.)
But the thrust of Steinberg's suggestion certainly raises issues concerning the intent of the old Pottinger ruling on the matters of homeless and constitutional rights. According to Commissioner Saul Gross, the only MIAB politician to vote against the current ludicrous anti-camping ordinance, he's already had to knock down a clause in Anti-Camping that would have allowed the removal of homeless from certain areas "at the discretion of the commission." Gross, while admitting that homelessness poses economic, aesthetic and sometimes criminal problems wherever it crops up, felt this was legally indefensible (so the ordinance passed without the offensive codicil). He also said that selective enforcement of Anti-Camping, such as occurred during the recent Winter Music Conference, "was wrong, if it happened." (Abercrombie & Fitch-style high school and college kids in max-tech Northface tents had gamboled blithely on SoBe, unmolested, while sorry-assed individuals in street-colored rags were brusquely offered the Salvation Army or the slammer [the letter of the Pottinger law], then rousted into "bum vans," as soon as the ordinance passed.) New Times suggested that Anti-Camping used the language of Pottinger -- offering a bed and only busting on refusal -- to defeat Pottinger's spirit; but Gross, probably the smartest commissioner right now, was noncommittal. "Not going near that one," he laughed.
Mayor Dermer, sounding utterly reasonable on these issues, denied that he'd made any pre-election deals with businessmen or hoteliers, or had increased pressure in any way. "We're looking around for real solutions that any mayor might face. Why don't you talk to some other mayors? We have a wonderful and thoroughly professional team in place [a total of three in Homeless Coordination and Neighborhood Services], and we're looking for ways to enhance our homeless care through emergency, then intermediate, then permanent beds and housing, as we do presently . . . What's that? Yes, most of those facilities are across the bay in Miami. No, future help would be where it is now! We have no plans to change . . ."
Even Ben Waxman, an attorney active with the ACLU on homeless issues, and the force behind the Pottinger Decision -- though critical of Anti-Camping, calling it "laughable" -- said he found the related ordinance prohibiting sleeping on sea oats fine: "That's ecologically sound, meant to save our seashore vegetation. I'm for that, absolutely."
The Heart Goes for a Haircut
Eby Loveland looks a little like Walter Houston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Five-six, 120 lbs., with bright blue eyes and a mischievous optimism despite his hacking cough; a kind of classic American Jack London character as he gazes through the plate glass of a restaurant called simply "Pizza" at 23rd and Collins: "Look at this," he demanded recently, pointing at five men in yellow hardhats giving orders to a sixth, who was operating a Caterpillar, re-laying sewer pipes just installed last summer: "Got a two-year contract they could finish in three months! One guy workin', five farting around. And they call me a bum!"
Eby, 52, from Glens Falls, New York, was an electrician in the Coast Guard, where "if you didn't drink you were a pussy." He's now drunk so much that he has seizures without his daily alcohol fix. He has a son, "Eby, Jr., just like me!" out there somewhere, and five former wives, Rose, Patti, Cookie, Joan and one he can't remember. When he gets sick, as he does more and more frequently, he prefers Jackson Memorial to South Shore, the two hospitals where Beach homeless are most often directed. "At Jackson, they treat you like they know you; at South Shore, it's yore typic money factory . . . One night me and my buddy Terry was tryin' to carry a guy across the road and some broad hit us. Didn't have her lights on, I was first in line, so I got it worst . . . Cops come, they say 'It's just drunken Eby and Terry, hell, you can go.' Didn't even give her a ticket! Nice-lookin' tourist, out spendin' money! At South Shore, they give us an X-ray an' throw us out. Shoulder still hurts. If we'd had insurance, we'da been there a month!"
Another time, when he'd tackled a guy who'd snatched an old lady's purse, and held him for the prowl car, the cops just ran him off.
The worst part of homelessness is the sense that you're "already gone," that you've crossed so many lines that it no longer matters if you wake up again. When Eby first lost his job as a meter man, he decided he didn't want to go to Miami to participate in the "continuum of care." That left eating out of dumpsters, an idea so repellent he nearly starved, being then too proud to beg, and a non-thief, and only working occasionally for his friend Zack, who ran a boat rental place. Eventually, hunger overcame delicacy and Eby began to hit the Days Inn dumpster at 21st and Collins every morning at 11:30 for the leftover breakfasts (scrambled eggs and pancakes hold up best in the garbage). From there he progressed to the Publix dumpster at Twentieth and West Avenue, where "you can get slightly spoiled fruit and meat" that won't make you "too sick, you just gotta sorta not breathe while you're rummagin' around, ya know?" Dunkin' Donuts at Sixteenth and Alton puts a lot of day-old pastry out "if you're lookin' for a sugar fix." Sbarro's Pizza at Fifteenth and Washington "is real friendly, he puts fresh pies out separately, sometimes," and lays them on top of the dumpster, in the alley behind the store, "so you don't have to actually climb in" . . . Then there are "New York Spiders," the slim "heels" of booze found in the bottoms of bottles in black plastic trash bags in the dumpsters; these are often sloshed together randomly and drunk as "South Beach Punch."
Eby would rather use these means to stay alive now. And he likes his bridge home. In the Salvation Army and the other Miami "help" places, the men get crushed together, and the younger, tougher tramps push you around and take your stuff. And the social workers don't seem to understand -- some people are just loners; regimentation is bad for them.
"I know I'm the one that got me in trouble, but guys like us -- we're bums, not 'homeless.' Ever hear of the 'Wobblies' -- the IWW [International Workers of the World]? Back around 1910? They were guys -- Big Bill Hayward, Joe Hill -- they knew things weren't right. You got to change a lot of stuff . . ."
"Like the parking meters, Eby?"
"Aw," he said. "That wasn't even me. It was a guy named Rick. Big sonofabitch. He's dead now . . ." He looked at his hands.
"Naw, I can't be a electrician again," he answered a question. "I get the shakes too bad, and I got arthritis . . . Too many hot shots." His blue eyes flashed mischievously then, and he wondered facetiously if he got a ladder and climbed up to the balconies of those ladies who kept calling the cops on him at the Helen Mar, if one might maybe change her mind and take him in.
The idea made him feel better. "You know," he said, "there was a bunch of us when I was young who thought about Amurcan socialism . . . Now I wish I just had enough money to get a haircut. And buy a beer . . ."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.