"Miamians are savages." I'll never forget those words, uttered to me by a Hialeah Metrorail station janitor. How a city handles public transit says a lot about its culture. I’m referring to not only the agency that runs transit — surely, that can’t be easy — but also the riders themselves.
A recent op-ed published in the Miami Herald, in which a former transit employee is quoted saying, "Miamians are pigs," reminded me of a curious episode in my experience as a hardened Miami-Dade public transit commuter.
Over the course of some months schlepping all over the county on buses and trains, I began to document the intriguing way an agency that had spent $376 million on a fleet of shiny new trains couldn’t get its shit together when it came to toilet paper. Before we blame the agency, let’s take a look at what I witnessed day to day.
In Hialeah, toilet paper always hung from the grab bar by a plastic bag wound into a loop. At Dadeland South, it hung from a heavy metal chain bolted with a key lock. At the Palmetto station, a similar contraption was used for paper towels on a stall door.
The day I spoke with the janitor in Hialeah, he was handing out torn pieces of brown paper towel — the coarse, industrial kind he used to clean the stalls — in lieu of toilet paper to irate passengers. Someone had stolen the toilet paper holder, for reasons that escaped me because I had never actually seen toilet paper inside the holder. What was the point?
All the poor janitor could do was tell riders to call 311, Miami-Dade’s community hotline, to complain.
I asked him why he didn’t just use the usual plastic bag loop that day, as well as why he had to use the rig instead of just putting toilet paper in its secure stainless-steel holder. Wouldn't it be easier to steal toilet paper just by ripping the plastic bag off the grab bar? Surely, a pair of portable scissors, versus the cumbersome bolt cutter required for a successful heist at the Dadeland South station, would easily do the trick.
I got an answer only for the first question. He said transit wouldn’t allow him to put toilet paper in the stall until it had a proper toilet paper holder. “I’ll get fired,” he said. “Please don’t use my name.” The rest he chalked up to "only in Miami."
It was the hamster wheel of bureaucracy at its finest, with poop-stained bums and pee-moistened panties all over Hialeah as a result.
The janitor explained further that such vandalism wasn’t unusual and that some passengers smeared shit all over the stalls at inner-city stations, seemingly out of spite. The middle-aged Cuban immigrant was perplexed.
I was and still am just as baffled. Miami sells itself as a world-class city. The orange Metrorail line carries countless international visitors from the airport to destinations throughout Miami-Dade. One can only scratch one’s head in disbelief that such "savage" behavior exists in the Magic City.
While this story falls under the “you can’t make this shit up” category, it’s underscored by a collective identity of shame. A seemingly comical moment borders on the horrific. In this space of the abject, the thin veneer of civilization is just one two-ply sheet away from vanishing. If a city is really a mirror of its people, what does this bizarre tale say of the desperation of Miami’s residents? That we are so poor we need to steal toilet paper? That we are so drugged-out, confused, and hopeless we smear our own feces on the walls? That we are so angry we kick the shit out of a toilet paper holder to vent our rage?
And then there's the other Miami that never rides Metrorail. That mecca for real-estate investors hoarding gleaming glass and steel condos has a huge civic blind spot. Perhaps millions should be spent on improving quality of life for the folks who do the grind, but shiny new trains, although probably needed to replace the old clunkers, won't help the insidious undercurrent of urban misery that drives residents to savage behavior.
But don't get too down in the dumps. Lest you think all Miamians are savages, take heart. While I waited in line, a bro standing in front of me was courteous enough to let me cut ahead as he handed me an extra sheet of the rough stuff. “I gotta take a dump,” he said. “You better go first.”
“Gracias,” I replied.
I took comfort in that gesture. At least I knew that chivalry was alive and well in Hialeah, even if he just wanted to gawk at my booty.
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