It smelled like sweat and diesel fumes.
Minutes before noon, outside the Design District's Buena Vista building, a giant yellow Blue Bird school bus sat idling at the curb, parked crookedly across three spaces. The sidewalk was clogged with 32 art nerds and civic enthusiasts who had all signed up for this first installment -- led by Miami-bred artist Adler Guerrier -- of the Bas Fisher Invitational's bus tour trilogy.
A couple of days ago, each respondent had received a confirmation email with a few cursory and cryptic instructions regarding meeting time (11:30 a.m.), cost ($16 per person), and a suggestion that everyone bring supplementary cash for booze and impulse buys. Otherwise, it was a blind enterprise. We were about to be shuttled to a string of secret destinations. And the only guarantee: It would be weird.
Fully loaded, the bus pulled into traffic and chugged south down NE 2nd Avenue, diverting west on 36th Street before winding north along NW 7th Avenue to the tour's first stop: a small corner shop called Wig's City. Run by an older guy named Robert L. Silas (AKA Pops), the place doesn't sell a ton of hairpieces these days. Instead, Wig's is filled with bald mannequins, bags of synthetic hair, soft-core porn mags, pickled eggs, pork rinds, candy, King Tut collectibles, and Martin Luther King t-shirts.
A half-hour later, our gang of hometown tourists staggered down the street and bumrushed Bom-Bo's backyard garden, a big hidden lot where spearmint, papaya, sage, lemongrass, and other wild things grow. People ate Bom-Bo's free watermelon chunks and sampled the herbs while he instructed everyone how to use soursop to kill a migraine. The approved method: Lay a leaf on your pillow, go to sleep, and you are cured.
It was time for a mid-afternoon food stop and our tour guide, Adler, picked Jumbo's Restaurant where the choices are soul food standards like pork chops, catfish fingers, and Bo-Peep's Homemade Sweet Potato Pie. While we waited for our orders, Greg, one of the Jumbo's managers, gave us a quick history lesson.
Back in the day, he said, Liberty City was a predominantly white neighborhood. So, when Isidor Flam first opened the place in 1955, Jumbo's was a fully segregated diner where only Caucasians were allowed to eat. It stayed that way for 12 years until Isidor's son, Bobby, took over day-to-day operations and hired Jumbo's first black waitress. Next he added a black cook. And, ever since, famous people have flooded the spot -- Greg himself has even served Warren Sapp, Mike Tyson, and the late, great Biggie Smalls.
Next we did a drive-by tour of NW 79th Street, cruising past the VIP Gentleman's Club, Jojo Auto Sales ("No Credit -- Bad Credit -- No Problem"), the Tropical Mobile Home trailer park, and the Northside Centre stripmall. It's a stretch that, Adler said, represents the "microeconomics of the neighborhood."
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Finally, we stopped at Flea Market USA where cameras are apparently forbidden. Security said: Snap a pic and your ass is out. Anyway, it's basically an enormous indoor trade center, loaded with barbershops, nail and tattoo joints, grub stalls, and everything stores selling royal ginseng jelly alongside Hot Latin Head on DVD and silver-plated testicle pendants. You want it, they got it. Just don't take a fucking photograph.
The next-to-last stop on Adler's tour was the Round Table Sports Bar & Lounge. There's no food except a small free buffet that consists of a crockpot and automatic hot dog roaster. But, really, if you're at the Round Table, you're not hungry. You are thirsty. A game of pool and three PBRs costs $6.50, plus tip. We tourists spent happy hour here.
Around 5 p.m., people started complaining about their bellies. It was quickly agreed that the solution was barbecue. So Adler fed the bus driver directions to the Shantel Lounge, a squat white building with a streetside grilling station. The regulars ate outside at sidewalk tables, but we took our action inside. There were ribs, a squirt of sauce, white bread, cheap fries, and cold beer. This was the last of Adler Guerrier's secret destinations. Everyone was happy. Everyone got fed. Everyone survived.
The Weird Miami Bus Tour returns with Kevin Arrow & Clifton Childree's "TBA" on August 15 and Christy Gast's "Ripe Riparian" on September 19. Reserve a spot by calling 305-879-6978 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.