The Main Drag
Late evening was bleeding into early night when we passed 140th Street and pulled off Biscayne Boulevard into the semicircular driveway of the Miami Moon Motel ("efficiencies, color TV, air conditioning") in scenic North Miami Beach. A hand-written sign on the front door of the office instructed visitors to knock at a side entrance. No one answered. From the look of things, people were staying here - maybe even living here - so we walked around the drive, past the dozen cottages, some of which were divided in half, all of them separated from one another by covered carports. A lanky middle-age man emerged from a cottage across the small courtyard, wielding a portable telephone and looking bleary.
"For the night?" he asked.
Yes, we said, for the night.
"My name is Smith," he ventured. Then as an afterthought he added, "That's my last name."
Smith showed us Room 3, which rented for $25 and consisted of a double bed, a dresser and a nightstand, a bathroom and a closet, an armchair, and a round table that was home base for a motel-size color TV set. A small bug scuttled across the white tile floor. The air conditioner was on and laboring mightily.
Still holding the phone, Smith was clearly warming up to us. "I'm not the owner," he said, leading us to another room, unlocking the jalousie-slatted door and swinging it open. "This room has a kitchen - it's five dollars more." If he were us, he said, he'd take Room 3; the only difference was the kitchen. A slightly bigger bug trundled across the floor. We told Smith we'd like to look around a little more, and maybe we'd be back.
Motels, invented as the automobile entrenched itself in American culture, are a fascinating phenomenon, romantic in their transient nature, and perhaps a little foreboding. The same, too, can be said of Biscayne Boulevard, although in the case of Miami's oldest north-south thoroughfare, which last year carried an average of 35,000 cars per day, people tend to put extra emphasis on the foreboding. Not coincidentally, about three dozen motels are open for business on Biscayne, from the Mardi Gras on 34th Street up to the Raffy K just beyond 163rd. During the past several decades, many of these establishments have developed a reputation - for the illicit at best, and at worst, for the illegal. To explore their range is to expose oneself to the underbelly of Miami's urban reality, to a multiethnic cross section of South Florida society and to xenophobics, to grime and garbage, cockroaches and boric acid, to cleanliness and chlorine, to a modicum of horticulture, to mildew in all its nose-crawling variations.
Back at 136th Street we rang the doorbell at the office of the Florida Villas, whose pastel-yellow units with their Swiss-cheeselike entryways were irresistible. Almost. The night clerk passed a key through a slot at the bottom of his Plexiglas window, and we went for a look. The room was drably carpeted, and smaller than a bigot's mind. At 139th Street we stopped in for a peek at the darkened cottages of the Ben's Court Motel. At first there was no sign of life whatsoever; but in the darkness around the side of the building, the dim glow of a TV set was visible through drawn curtains. I rang the office doorbell. No answer. Finally, after bell action punctuated by rigorous bouts of knocking, an inside door opened and the very top of a very small old woman's head appeared at the very bottom of the eye-level glass panel. She may have been wearing glasses. Whatever she said was impossible to hear.
"Do you have a room?" I hollered as amiably as I could.
Her reply got lost somewhere in the thickness of the front door, but the message conveyed by the shaking of the top of her head was unmistakable.
But what did it matter? There was always the Miami Moon, where we detoured around a police car and two freshly bashed-in autos out front and were intercepted by Smith as we parked.
He wasn't the manager, Smith told us, he'd just lived there longest. "The owner, Pete, moved here from Canada," he offered, and he even went so far as to dial up Pete on the portable phone. Pete wanted to know whether we were tourists and said we could leave a driver's license or a credit card for security, because Smith didn't know how to work the credit card machine.
"Come over if you need anything," Smith said. He pointed to his door across the way. "I'll be up pretty late, so don't worry. I'll probably be watching Letterman." And indeed, when a stop for a beer at the Frosted Mug across 140th Street entailed a trip back to borrow my driver's license, Smith was watching Letterman.
That night the air conditioner bellowed, the pillows were flat as manhole covers, and the fluorescent light in the courtyard directly opposite our room lit up the bed like a drive-in movie screen. In my opinion it was kind of romantic, but Karen - my new wife and companion on this minimalist honeymoon - said it was so bright it shone through her eyelids. The ceiling fan rattled, and at about five o'clock a train came through along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks across the boulevard. It must have been a very long train, because it didn't seem to stop coming through for the next three hours.
When we ventured outside in the morning, we met Pete, who was hosing down his foliage. Of middle-age and gray-haired, stout but not fat, Pete spoke with a heavy accent, decidedly un-Canadian. He said he was originally from Yugoslavia, and he volunteered to write out his last name to spare me the trouble of trying to spell it: Petkovich. He bought the Miami Moon several years ago, he said, from a man who had owned it since the late Fifties. The place was originally built around 1953 and served as housing when Opa-locka Airport was used as a military base. Single people were given the smaller rooms; families got the bigger units. Pete told us business is pretty good: "I have full all the time." He lives over on the beach, he said, in a $450,000 house he built for himself and his family. He unlocked his gold Mercedes and showed us color photos of the house, which he's trying to sell now that his daughter has moved out.
Tanya BeMent, who tends bar at the Frosted Mug and who had asked for ID the night before, is another semipermanent Miami Moon resident. She said she was born in Iowa and was working as a game operator for a carnival when she came to Miami on vacation. She had a baby here, and a breakup and she didn't leave. It was roommate trouble that brought her to the motel; she knew Pete from her job at the bar and he offered her a good weekly rate. "Right now I can't afford the money it takes to put down a deposit," she said. The Frosted Mug, incidentally, is a fine beer-and-wine establishment if ever there was one, with a decent, country-dominated jukebox, two pool tables, and a healthy assortment of regulars. Two additional features worthy of note: Tanya removed many of the drop-ceiling tiles, painted illustrations on them, and reinstalled them; and toward the back of the room, behind the bar, a crooked pool cue is mounted on the wall, in memory of Russ (1933-1990), who, according to reliable beer-drinking sources, was a pain in the ass but a great old pool-shooting man.
There are some gems on Biscayne - the Yahweh Motel at 74th Street and a tiny old place at 60th called Carl's "El Padre" Motel (so named because it was originally called the El Padre) are two of the boulevard's best kept - but dozens of the motels are a tribute to brash and kitschy signs, clashing interior color schemes, and the human mating ritual. Beneath this veil of interior and anthropological decoration is the strata of Miami's growth and decay.
Across from the Miami Moon, just west of Tarks seafood restaurant, are one or two thousand asphalted feet of history, one of the longest remaining stretches of the original Biscayne Boulevard, the oldest road in Dade County. That road, which connected Fort Lauderdale and Fort Dallas (now downtown Miami), was built in about 1855 by Abner Doubleday (of dubious baseball parentage). The boulevard as modern Miami has come to know it wasn't constructed until the end of the Twenties, when a wide swath was carved through private property, including Charles Deering's estate, where the upscale Bay Point subdivision has since walled itself off from the main drag. Even during the Depression, Biscayne was the grande dame of Miami streets, described in the 1939 WPA Guide to Florida as "Miami's show street...adorned with royal palms...a four-lane motorway for almost a dozen blocks where it parallels a landscaped park overlooking the bay." During the Forties and especially in the early Fifties, motels sprang up and did a booming tourist business; the boulevard was a prime street and a safe one, with lots of schlocky shops for tourists. Then, in the early Sixties, Interstate 95 opened and the inner city began to die. Despite enjoying a bit of a heyday as jazz lounge centers in the Seventies, without the drive-by tourist traffic, local motels experienced a drastic decline in business.
With 50 ("Ultramodern"!) rooms, the Mardi Gras is one of the biggest motels - and definitely the southernmost - on Biscayne's corridor. It's also been owned by the same family ever since it was built by Dr. Irving Gordon in 1953 - the same year the Fontainebleau Hotel was constructed in Miami Beach, according to 45-year-old Bruce Gordon, who runs the Mardi Gras with his brother Larry. While the motel has lost out on American tourist trade, it has managed to maintain a tenuous hold on commercial customers who conduct business downtown, thanks mostly to its location just south of I-195's Biscayne Boulevard exit. And there's the added attraction of the Cocorange, a "private" (free for motel guests; ten dollars for a one-year membership) club that has become a hangout for local media, especially TV news crews, and that is celebrating its eleventh anniversary.
A room at the Mardi Gras goes for $39 per night. Leslie Wilheim, a portly and pleasant-looking man who emigrated to the U.S. from Hungary via Paris in 1947, took a job behind the Mardi Gras's desk after retiring from a 27-year career in the textile business. "I had heart attack and the doctor advised me, `Cool it off,'" Wilheim explained when we came around on our motel tour. "I was like a working machine."
While there are still some foreign tourists - German, Swiss, French, and Italians - most Mardi Gras patrons are business people from the Caribbean. The guests find it convenient to do their shopping downtown and not have to pay higher room rates and tip hotel bellhops, Wilheim said, adding helpfully that he speaks Spanish and Creole, not to mention German, English, and of course Hungarian. "I don't say it's like the Omni," he confided, "but we give the clean rooms, the color TV, and the radio."
We told Wilheim we were going to have a look at rooms at other motels. "Don't go this way," he said, pointing north and shaking his balding head. "It's dumps. You go this way and you see nice dumps. I wouldn't stay there for million dollars."
Thanks, we said. Maybe we'll be back.
"I am here every night, Wednesday through Sunday," said Wilheim. "Monday and Tuesday I am somewhere else." Then, as we opened the door to leave, he added, "Hotel Vagabond is not a bad hotel."
Another of the boulevard's biggest, the Vagabond Sunshine Motel was built about the same time as the Mardi Gras, toward the north end of Biscayne's highest concentration of motels, at 74th Street. Its main claims to aesthetic fame are a swimming pool with a mermaid mosaic inset at the bottom, and a nearly life-size sculpture set into a niche at the north corner of the building - a trio of Venuses on a single half-shell, accompanied by a pair of dolphins, illuminated with lights below and a neon VAGABOND MOTEL sign above. The Vagabond's desk clerk is an Indian; part-owner David Lin, whose corporation bought the place about three years ago for $1.3 million, is Taiwanese. Lin lives with his family in a Vagabond room, and the $30 plus tax he charges guests is a few dollars more than the going rate along the street. Helps to keep out the riffraff.
"He's doing a good job, really working on fixing the place up," said James Hill, who has been staying at the motel for almost a year. "I like living in a place like this - I can leave if I want to, I can move to another room when I get tired of the one I'm in, or when too many people know where I am and come to bother me. And there's no rent deposit. I pay by the day."
Hill wore a moustache and sideburns, jeans, and a T-shirt with the logo, "Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown," and sported a fat gold ring that encompassed an entire index-finger knuckle. His life story tumbled forth in a perpetual exhalation through a missing-tooth gap in his lower jaw. He invited us into his room, told us he came to Miami from L.A. this past June and still hasn't left, told us about experiences driving cars cross-country for Auto Driveaway, about a job as a counselor at a high school in L.A., about racism, gangs, hookers, drugs, cops, the lack of black role models, and corporal punishment.
"One time this woman called the school about her son - one of the teachers had caught him ripping off a girl's purse," Hill said. "When they caught him, they broke a gold chain he had around his neck. His mother called up. Here was this spoiled kid ripping off something he didn't even need and all his mother could say was, `You broke his chain!' Another time I had a woman call me when her boy got in trouble and she said, `Can't you beat him?' She was a single mother, didn't have any idea about discipline. All she could say was, `Can't you beat him?' Can you believe it?"
We made a quick stop at the Bay Point near 36th Street ("Big-screen TV $57," "Enjoy Our Spa," "Kindly refrain from leaning over the balcony and excessive noise") and then pulled into the parking lot of the tiny, unprepossessing, and moderately grimy dozen-unit New Deal Motel at 5061 Biscayne. Darkness was falling. Through the dull bulletproof window of the office, separated from another room by a drawn curtain, I could make out stacks of papers, a couple of industrial-size bottles of boric acid, a VCR, and videos with titles such as Bi and Beyond and Wet & Wild. I pushed a button and a man appeared behind the glass, offering a room for $28. I don't know, I said. "How much could you pay?" the man asked.
Just then another couple pulled up, in a late-model Nissan. A well-dressed man got out of the passenger seat and came to the window. "Just a minute," said the man behind the glass, nodding to me, pushing thick fingers through the waves of his graying hair. He took the natty dresser to a $28 room in the corner of the little court and returned, then led us to a two-story edifice next door.
Beyond a doorway marked EXECUTIVE were two newly installed and still-unfinished doors, one of which the man opened, revealing a room barely big enough to hold a bed, a credenza, and a color TV set. The sheets looked white and crisp. There didn't seem to be any windows. "This used to be an accounting office," said the man, who introduced himself as Pedro Fuentes and spoke with a thick accent. "I am closing on it next week. And this," he announced, gesturing proudly toward a set of wicker-inset double doors, "is the room I am fixing for myself."
Back outside, as a mosquito took up residence and sucked lustily and unflinchingly on a prime corner of his forehead, Fuentes explained how he'd started four and one-half years ago as a security man here, then worked his way up to manager, then leased the little motel court. Now he had arranged a loan to purchase both buildings. The $4700 monthly mortgage payment, he said, would amount to only $1700 more than he'd been paying to lease the single, smaller property.
We leaned on the hood of Fuentes's red Toyota with his five-year-old daughter Sisiana, listening to the details of his life in Miami and his vision for a new New Deal. The girl's mother had complications resulting from her pregnancy, and for a time he had to seek care for her in a mental facility. Eventually she returned to her native Peru to be with her family, leaving him to care for Sisiana by himself.
He wants to take more advantage of the tourist trade, he told us, and he has hopes of fixing up rooms for longer-term, lower-income guests. "These rooms here are for the in-and-out," he said, oblivious to any punning possibilities. "I can rent rooms for $75-$80 a week for working people. And I going to put in a coffee shop after I get through with the rooms. I going to include the breakfast with the rent. Germanys, Brazilians - they like to have breakfast included."
Half an hour into the conversation, the well-dressed man and his female companion emerged from their room. The man returned the room key, climbed into the car, and buckled up as the woman pulled out of the lot. "See? That's how you make the money," Fuentes murmured. "I have good air conditioning and sex movies," he whispered with a smile. "They like the sex movies."
While his-and-hers condom vending machines ("Men's Shop," "Lady's Boutique") are part of the standard equipment down the street at the Gold Dust and other Biscayne motels, sex movies and other such amenities aren't part of the Yahweh Motel's $30 package. Despite their leader's pending trial (involving fourteen counts of stabbings, beheadings, and other such antisocial behavior), Yahweh Ben Yahweh's followers sure know how to run a motel. "Staying with us is `A Cultural Experience,'" reads the introductory brochure. "In ancient times, there was a prayer for the stranger within our gates. Because this motel is a human institution to serve people, and not solely a money-making organization, we hope that [Yahweh] will grant you peace and rest while you are under our roof. Shalom - Peace. We are all travelers. From birth till death, we travel between the eternities. May these days be pleasant for you, profitable for society, helpful for those you meet, and a joy to those who know and love you best."
Just about everything in the 74th Street motel (not to be confused with the Yahweh Economy Motel at 6320 Biscayne) is white - interior and exterior walls, staff uniforms and turbans. (Sect members, of course, are black; the carpet in our room was a very subtle shade of green.) The desk clerk, whose voice was as hushed as he was big, showed us to a room at the end of the first-floor corridor. A door at the opposite side of the room led out to the parking lot. "You can come and go through that door," he informed us. "The same key works in both doors."
But this particular pair of travelers between the eternities was a tired pair; it was late, and we weren't going anywhere. The clerk brought us a bucket of ice, we read our loaner copy of From Poverty to Riches: The Works of Yahweh Ben Yahweh (a cool $50 if you want to order one for your own home), watched a rerun of Saturday Night Live, and went to sleep in the pushed-together twin beds as the central air worked its rhythmic overtime.
At some ungodly and still quite dark hour of the night, an enormous herd of small children commenced shrieking, stamping, giggling, and slamming doors. There was more-violent crime on and around the boulevard that night, but all we heard was the occasional siren.
Biscayne's reputation as a battle zone is a hard-earned one, and motel owners bear the scars. One woman, a Yugoslavian-born emigre who'd been in business thirteen years, said that two years ago, her husband was beaten and robbed. She didn't want her name published for fear it might stir up trouble. "Just write something nice," she said. She and her husband hadn't known what they were getting into when they bought a motel here. The year after they took over, the McDuffie riots turned the neighborhood upside-down.
One afternoon a couple of years ago, a man came to the office and asked her husband about a room. The man took a bag out of his car, hit her husband thirteen times with "a hatchet, like they use in construction," robbed him, and escaped. "I was in the shower," she said. "The first time he called me, I didn't really hear him. The second time I know something is wrong. But by the time I got out to him, he was lying on the ground. I never saw so much blood. I almost had a nervous breakdown. They took him to the Jackson Hospital." Because they had the wrong insurance, they ended up with the bill. "Sixteen thousand," she said. "I still pay $200 every month." Police found the bag, but the assailant was never caught.
"Here's something for you," said motel owner Brian Patel. "When my family bought this place in 1984, almost every motel that was open had a name that started with S. I don't know why - maybe you can think of a reason." Indeed a succession of rooms at the Saturn, the Seven Seas, the Sun 'N Surf, the Stardust, and the South Pacific had led us to the Sinbad Motel and its small, dark, soft-spoken, 26-year-old proprietor.
The Sinbad's green-and-pink paint job didn't immediately recommend it as a peaceful haven for the local traveler in search of a flop. Its prominently advertised motto ("For a Night to Remember") and its prominently advertised water beds and ceiling mirrors promised little more than a mean once-over from a bulletproofed clerk, followed by yet another noseful of mildew.
Wrong. The Sinbad, at 62nd and Biscayne, has got the mirrors and the water beds, all right. It's also got a paint can beneath each room air conditioner to keep drips from clogging the walkways with algae; it's got a frangipani in full blossom out front; it's got planters upstairs on the balcony level; it's got a computer-printout sign behind the Plexiglas window of the office that says, "1. We do not rent rooms for the purpose of prostitution; 2. Neither do we rent rooms knowingly to pimps and drug dealers; 3. Neither do we allow gambling...."
Brian Patel, who holds associate's degrees in business administration, marketing management, and accounting from MDCC, showed me a room and told me the Sinbad is one of five motels on Biscayne that are owned and operated by Patels. None of them is related. The surname is Indian, he explained, and it's extremely common. So common that there's a South Florida association of Patels; some of them own motels, others grocery stores, appliance stores, et cetera.
Patel was the first motel manager who spoke openly about one prime source of business for boulevard motel owners: sex. "Mostly they bring a girlfriend, or maybe their wife," he volunteered. "The age range is mostly twenty to thirty and up, and mostly it's an overnight stay."
While he acknowledged that prostitution has been an ongoing problem, as have drugs, Patel insisted that he tries his best to keep the place free of lawbreakers. He argued further that motels like the ones on Biscayne serve a purpose. "I have traveled to many cities in the United States," he said. "All of them have places like this. In Miami we have three areas that have these motels: Eighth Street, Okeechobee Road, and Biscayne Boulevard. If you didn't have these motels, you would have a lot of people complaining about people in cars. People need a place to go, and these are the only places," he went on, elucidating a fundamental and historical truth about the nature of motels. "Why do people blame it on us? And it's not prostitutes."
The prostitutes, for the most part, live in apartments off the boulevard. Sometimes they manage to entrench themselves in a motel by having a client rent the room, then cadging the key and holding on to the room the rest of the day. "When that happens and we see that a room has a lot of traffic in and out, we just tell the woman to leave," said Patel. "We say, `Get the hell out.' Almost always they leave. If they want the money back for the room, we just give it to them. And if they killed all the prostitution on Biscayne, my business would be better."
As for the mirrors on the ceiling, Patel explained, "It's a part of the business. They were here when we came here, but they're an attraction. We used to have the adult films. I still have the VCR and the movies - if I wanted to, I could hook them up to a few rooms again. But a few years ago, the Miami Herald printed a story that said something bad about the movies in these motels, and all of a sudden the movies were bad. So we took them out. I'm not going to put them back. They want something, though, so we've got HBO. Another time a reporter came and rented a room here. He didn't say who he was, he just rented a room. And he went back and wrote about how the curtains didn't match the bedspread and the rug."
Patel said he and his brother take turns manning the night shift, answering the bell when a customer rings. Crime on Biscayne is a fact of life, he admitted, but they have learned to live with it. "We have to be careful," he said quietly. "My whole family lives here - my parents, my wife, my brother, his wife. I have a three-year-old nephew." He doesn't carry a gun; a portable telephone is enough. "If someone calls from a room and says there's a problem, my brother will go see about it and I'll stand outside with the telephone in case anything happens."
Only once did anything happen. A man hit his brother in the head with a baseball bat. "But this is the way things are," said Patel. "I'm not telling you I'm in a bad business. I like this business. I like Biscayne Boulevard. I live here."
City of Miami police concur with Brian Patel's assessment of the area that stretches roughly between 50th and 79th streets - up to a point. "There's a whole lot of good people in that neighborhood," says Lt. John Brooks of the department's Task Force/Street Narcotics Unit. "One of the things we try to do is to work with legitimate motels, and make sure that we're working with the community to make sure that they stay legal. We try to obtain owner or management compliance."
But prostitution and drugs persist, and the police are aware that some of the neighborhood's problems find their way into motel rooms. Sometimes, says Brooks, the cops will send a prostitute - or an undercover agent posing as a prostitute - to a motel. "We'll have them say certain things, and if the owner knowingly rents them a room," he says, "that's illegal."
Brooks believes that if motel owners actively work to rid their businesses of drugs and prostitution, it can only help them in the long run. "If a management puts out an attitude of not catering to drugs, prostitution, not condoning it, that attitude filters out," he says. "We've seen certain motels that have done real turnarounds."
Financial whiz Andrew Tobias, author of best-selling books including The Only Other Investment Guide You'll Ever Need and a business columnist for Time magazine, lives in the Bayside neighborhood east of Biscayne between 67th and 72nd streets, and owns property on the boulevard. In fact Tobias, his secretary confirms, owns Belle Meade Studios, a fourteen-unit studio apartment building on Biscayne, has invested in a lot of property both east and west of the boulevard, and is extremely hopeful about the future of the area some residents have taken to calling Miami's Upper East Side.
While the city's stretch of the street seems to hold some promise, the destiny of the Miami Moon and other upper-Biscayne motels looks bleak by comparison. This past November, when the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) announced its $1.1 billion, five-year plan for road improvements in Dade County, the area between 123rd and 163rd streets was slated for a $16.4 million widening project. Every structure on the east side of the boulevard within 30 feet of the current roadway will be demolished. Dade County's Historic Preservation Division, which can protect buildings more than 50 years old, cannot intervene in the DOT's plans to level significant parts of the Florida Villas, Ben's Court, and the Miami Moon. Like its late barfly, Russ (1933-1990), the Frosted Mug, too, which pretty much abuts the street, will be nothing more than a memory.
"They tear down four of the cottages," the Miami Moon's Pete Petkovich lamented, tracing with a sweep of his arm an imaginary 30-foot line that would obliterate, among other things, the motel's office. "And they won't let me improve now. I want to fix up more, put in new asphalt, but they say I can only patch. I have plan for swimming pool in back of office, where it is the perfect size. But they will not permit it.
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