Johnny Bev is looking for one last score. Only this time he swears he'll give some of it back to charity. In December Johnny will be 75. Last year he went into Mount Sinai for heart bypass surgery, but that doesn't appear to have slowed him down.

Today he's dressed in white linen. A rakish Panama hat is cocked on a full head of hair dyed a potent black, like a Colt .38. He's not the high roller he used to be, but as Bev happily relates, he still loves the ladies -- as long as they're younger than he is.

Over the course of his life, Johnny amassed and squandered a small fortune, a couple of million dollars, he estimates, much of it ill-gotten gains from the shady side of thoroughbred horseracing. For more than 35 years, he worked the tracks from Canada to Miami as a corrupt jockey and horse owner, mostly for the mob, or more accurately, the syndicate (multiethnic crime combinations).

"I was an international race fixer," Bev boasts proudly.

During his years in the high life, Bev drank Tom Collinses with Frank Sinatra; took Alan Ladd's costar in The Blue Dahlia, Veronica Lake, dancing at the Fontainebleau; ensured winners for famed wiseguy financier Meyer Lansky; and owned stakes in Miami eateries, an Italian restaurant in Hialeah and a steak house on Collins Avenue. He also claims to have shared an opal mine in Mexico with a Mexican Army general: "I was the only jockey in the world with a mink saddle, diamond-studded whip, and gold stirrups," he boasts.

Bev's heyday came in the late Forties and Fifties, when he estimates that about 75 percent of horseracing was fixed. Lots of people were getting a piece of the action, including Johnny: "Everybody is crooked," he philosophizes, in a nasal voice. "You give them $5000, they are going to kiss you."

He rigged the results of hundreds of races, or so he claims. (Checking verifies some of Johnny's story, but he operated in the predigital age, and in a field where vagueness was considered simple good manners, records are spotty.) He never spent more than a night or two in jail, but today his passion for the Sport of Kings is largely off-limits; he's persona non grata at local tracks like Calder Race Course on the Miami-Dade-Broward line, and Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, and he is totally banned in Canada.

Still, Johnny claims no regrets. No guilty conscience. No sins to atone for. "All that money we made went up in smoke, but we had a good time," he says. "Wine, women, and song -- show me a better game, and I'll follow you."

Some of the hard living and good times remain etched on his face in heavy furrows across his brow and deep crow's feet branching from his eyes. His hands are dark with liver spots. Bev's features seem slightly off-kilter on his slight five-foot-three frame: large ears, a beak nose, and, oddly for a small man, gangly arms and legs.

His home is a basic first-floor studio in North Beach. The shades are seldom cracked, and the old furniture looks beaten, victim of a thousand rough nights. His most cherished possessions are his fantastic and wonderful tales of a time of plenty and glamour, the youthful highlife of the Forties and Fifties, when Miami Beach's "beach-boy culture" -- Murph the Surf and Alan Dale Kuhn, the "movie star" jewel thieves and their molls -- held sway in places like Happy's Stork Bar on the 79th Street Causeway.

It's still morning, but he hopefully offers a drink. Then he makes his pitch. He's got an agent. If he can interest someone in his life story -- maybe a book and movie deal would follow. He's already done the figures, lovingly counting the millions that await him. In the movie, he'd prefer to be played by Al Pacino.

"There has never been a jockey who admitted he was a thief," he says. "A good title [for the book] would be I Confess, I Was a Crooked Jockey."

Johnny Bev came into the world as Angelo Bevelacqua, born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, on December 20, 1926, the child of Sicilian immigrants who owned a clothing and jewelry store. He discovered his calling when the family doctor hired him as a stable boy. He started racing at county fairs in Massachusetts around 1942.

That same year he Americanized his name to John Bev so it would fit on racing forms and took to peddling himself as a jockey from California. He needed to win 44 races in order to qualify as a full jockey, and so he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to ride at Pascoag Race Track. The Patriarca family, the Mafia lords of New England who operated out of Federal Hill in Providence, did business at the track. They approached Bev to fix races, but he refused for fear he'd lose his apprenticeship. Instead the gangsters bought off the other jockeys, who would "pull" their mounts (rein them in) and let Johnny win. [page]

It wasn't long after his 44th race that he started taking dives himself.

Running crooked races apparently took as much practice as riding them straight. In 1946 Johnny's horse, One Meatball, was supposed to come in dead last: "Try and make a horse be last," comments Bev dryly. "It's tough enough to get one to win!"

Pascoag's half-mile track had a sharp elbow to it. Not far out of the gate, Bev started to "pull" the reins on his horse to take him to the back. But as the pack galloped into the turn, the lead horse bolted out to the side, cutting off the rest of the riders and forcing them toward the outside rail. "The other horses had nowhere to go but the fence," says Bev. "Before you know it, I'm in the front."

He tried to pull his horse back but there was no way to stop his victory. The enraged owner, who had paid to fix the race, stormed into the winner's circle and punched Bev in the eye, knocking off his jockey cap. Out from Johnny's hat fell two hundred-dollar bills, his take for the fix, which were soon scooped up by laughing bettors.

"How do ya like that?" says Bev, sticking out his bony arms for the oft-told punch-line climax. "The guy beat the crap out of me for winning!"

In 1947 a chance meeting on an airplane gave him his first in to the upper echelons of national crime. On a flight from Miami to Chicago, a man noticed him reading the Racing Form. The gentleman introduced himself as a well-connected lawyer from Chicago named Abe Teitlebaum. He figured Bev for a jockey. When he learned Johnny would be riding in Chi, he offered to bet $200 for him. The horse won and a partnership began.

Teitlebaum had a Miami Beach Pine Tree Drive estate, but he did his lawyering in the Midwest, mostly for Al Capone. Five years later, along with Jimmy "Blue Eyes" Alo, Sam Giancana, Frank Sinatra, and Meyer Lansky, he would share a stake in the Sands Casino in Las Vegas.

Capone's lawyer proffered an introduction to Lansky for Bev. The "mob's accountant," as Lansky was known, hung out at the Singapore Hotel in Bal Harbour, and Bev would see him walking his Shih Tzu, Bruzzer, there: "He didn't look like a gangster, but he had a lot of power," remembers the jockey. "He was a little guy like me."

Lansky had fifteen horses in Tampa that he wanted Bev to ride and win -- every time.

"[Riding for Meyer] I broke more bookkeepers than you have hairs on your head," Bev remembers, laughing (because Lansky didn't lose).

Bev successfully fixed 25 races at Sunshine Park in Tampa in 1948.

He would go to the jockeys and hand out between $300 and $500 per rider from a candy box he carried. To a man, the jockeys would "pull" their horses.

"Eight horses in the race. Go to seven jockeys. Put mine in front," Bev explains pragmatically.

In order to signal the fix was on to Lansky's intermediary, Bev would come out on the veranda with a cigar. "No cigar," he says, "no go."

On the 26th race they fixed that season, Johnny's horse fell and broke its leg. Lansky's people demanded their $2000 bribe money back. But Bev, of course, had already spread it around, and the other jockeys had done their jobs.

"Lansky sent a message: I would look funny racing without legs," he says.

Bev paid Lansky out of his own pocket, but his troubles weren't over. One morning, two large individuals with guns, driving a big black car, came to see him. They were Augustine "Primo" Lazarra's men from nearby Ybor City. Apparently the boss, Big P, as Bev remembers him, had been betting and losing, without knowing about Lansky's fix.

Johnny remembers Big P as a "seven-footer."

"He gave me a slap and down I go," Bev recalls.

"You are fixing races in my back yard!" shouted Big P. "I didn't know I was betting on stiffs!

"You tell Lansky, you're working for me, not him," the mobster insisted.

Now Bev had a serious problem. "I couldn't work for both of them. I said to myself, “Let me get out, before they shoot me.'" [page]

Bev told his girlfriend not to bother to pack, and they split for Jamaica. When they came back a couple of months later, Bev went straight to Detroit, where he rode three winners in fixed races. Each time he gave notice to Lansky and Big P. "They left me alone after that," he says.

Since Miami was a hot spot for gambling, and horseracing in particular, Bev spent much of his time in South Florida. It was in the steam room at the Fontainebleau, trying to lose weight, that he got to know Frank Sinatra.

"He was thinner than me," remembers Johnny, "and bald."

Bev struggled constantly to keep his jockey weight down, taking laxatives and Benzedrine when he couldn't bribe the clerk of the scales at the track to let him pass.

Sinatra would front Bev to fix races at the now-defunct Tropical Park race track on Bird Road.

"He had a guy called Rocky who would give me money to fix the races," Bev claims.

After Sinatra's nightly show, they would drink at a bar Bev had a piece of on 71st and Collins, called unimaginatively "the 71st Street Bar." Sinatra even chartered a yacht at one point and took Bev along as cook. "He liked my stuffed artichokes," says the jockey.

Through Sinatra Bev met stars who frequented the track, like Jackie Gleason, Martha Ray, and Veronica Lake. The latter he claims to have dated in the early Fifties for a few months. "She was a honey," he recalls. The relationship ended because of Lake's boozing. "She wanted to drink morning, noon, and night, but as a jockey I had to get up at 4:30 in the morning," he says. The Hollywood starlet died an alcoholic barmaid in 1973.

Everybody likes a winner and Bev was uncommonly lucky. He touted races to celebrities and mobsters alike, which, of course, is against the rules.

"If I give you a tip on a horse and you bet $200 to 300 for me, they call that “touting' at a race track," he explains. "I call it a turf advisor."

In Detroit Johnny fixed races for Jimmy Hoffa. In Miami he knew Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole. Bev rode horses for Louis Prima the bandleader and Fred Astaire. After the races people would come to the clubs on the 79th Street Causeway where Hollywood and the mob mixed, like the Bonfire, the Black Magic and the Closed Door.

"All the movie stars used to hang out there," he recalls. "These mobsters were good with their money. They spread it around."

He befriended the actor George Raft, a nightclub hoofer-turned-movie gangster who costarred in the original Scarface. One time Raft gave Bev a Rolls-Royce; the jockey tried unsuccessfully for a couple of months to sell it, but when the FBI came around asking questions, he gave it back to Raft.

In 1958 Bev received a 60-day suspension in Tampa when a fellow jockey ratted him out for "an unsatisfactory ride," officialese for a noticeable lack of effort. Ruled off the race track, Bev went into business in Mexico, but eventually the lure of the track pulled him back. Unfortunately, his long run of good fortune had started to turn.

By 1960 Bev had gone back to Canada to ride and fix horses. That year three jockeys signed affidavits at Fort Erie, saying they had received money from Johnny to "pull." He denied it and blamed the charges on the fact that Canadians hated Americans. "Of course, I gave them the money," he admits today.

The Mounties came for Johnny, escorted him to the border, and ordered him never to return. So Bev traveled to Bermuda, where the rules weren't so strict. In Bermuda, it was easier to "hop horses," slang for drugging the animals to run faster. "They didn't take no tests at Bermuda Downs," he says. The King's Game in Bermuda was too gentlemanly. Once a hopped horse Bev was riding won the race and then did a second lap around the track before it could slow down.

Bev was also proficient with the battery, an electrical device installed at the end of the whip to shock the horse into speeding up.

But age and increased vigilance on the part of racing authorities were catching up with Johnny. "[Today] at the small tracks there is still a little hanky-panky," he believes, "but for the big races the purses are so large, they now have cameras that can tell if you sneeze on a horse."

He tried his hand at a variety of get-rich schemes, including selling jewelry and counterfeit perfume. For a while he bought and sold shares in racehorses out of an office in Bal Harbour. [page]

Then in 1974 Bev got someone to bet $200 for him on a race at Calder Race Course. The man won but refused to pay him, he says. "I told him I was going to Chicago to have dinner with the boys, and he better pay," recalls Bev. Instead the man went to the authorities and accused the former jockey of touting him.

That year Johnny went back to Calder and ended up in jail for a night because he wasn't supposed to be there. "I was arrested for trespassing, and I paid to get in!" he remarks.

On record at Calder, Bev is charged by the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering with consorting and touting on July 12, 1985. The following year he was charged with failing to get a license when he retained part ownership in a horse he sold.

Today he is banned from the business he knows best. He can't set foot in South Florida's two largest tracks, Calder and Gulfstream. (Hialeah, which is independently owned, allows him to attend.) Although his larceny has dulled with age, his avarice is still pumping: "Money," he says. "With it you're something, without it you're nothing."

Only this time when he makes his pile, Bev promises he's got plans to use the money for social betterment. In particular, he wants to build a home for retired jockeys.

It's not hard to see why movie stars and mobsters might have enjoyed Johnny Bev's company for more than just the guaranteed wins. He can be a charmer, and his optimism is remarkable.

He is on the phone in his apartment rounding up friends who can vouch for his crooked ways. One of them has come into some money recently, and wants to get back into racing as a trainer.

The man is understandably reluctant to talk about shady dealings for fear of jeopardizing his return, but Bev knows the powerful allure of the big score and just how to sell it:

"You'll get enough for horses from Maine to Spain," Johnny promises urgently. "We'll have girls with bikinis the size of Band-Aids!"

His friend protests on the other end.

"Well, if you don't like money," Bev says indignantly, "forget it!"

He cups the receiver and whispers confidentially: "He doesn't want to burn any bridges."

"I'm doing it with you or without you," he tells the friend.

"I'll be sure to invite you on my 150-foot yacht with the lovely señoritas that there is going to be. They are going to be a little old, like eighteen or nineteen. I know that would be too much for you."

Bev's cohort continues to resist.

"Come on! You don't want to train horses and get up at 5:00 a.m., do you? Believe me, you won't get into trouble. The statute of limitations is long passed!"

But the conversation ends with the friend still unconvinced, and Johnny Bev, Eternal Optimist, finally hangs up.

He turns unfazed, and confidently promises that the guy will spill his stories eventually, just as Bev has done. "He's a big talker like me," Bev explains.

Never mind her wheelchair, her bruised hip from a recent fall while doing laundry, or the 60-minute trip from her government-subsidized apartment down in Homestead -- 80-odd-year-old Margaret Weedman (she insists on "21-plus and holding") arrives fifteen minutes early for her committee meeting at the Human Services Coalition, 260 NE Seventeenth Terr.

Wearing ribbed, off-white leggings, Velcro sneakers, a pastel-checked shirt, and a hospital-ID bracelet (from a stay at Jackson Memorial Hospital earlier in the week), Weedman comes on slowly -- pushing herself along with one foot while controlling the wheelchair with bony hands.... She creaks down the long hall to the table in the committee room. Oversize plastic-frame glasses dominate her almost translucent face. She balances a large blue bag full of paperwork in her lap.

She painfully hauls herself up to a corner of the conference table, takes a thick, felt-tipped pen from her bulging bag, and begins to highlight the relevant portions of the morning's agenda for the Cross-Disability Transportation Issues Committee, a grassroots organization supported by the Human Services Coalition that was born about a year ago out of the concerns of passengers dissatisfied with the Special Transportation System (STS), the county's shared-ride, door-to-door mobile service for the disabled. Seemingly oblivious to the casual chatter around her, she purses her lips in concentration, carefully annotating the margins of the agenda in a neat, slanted hand.

"Something needs to be done," Weedman remarks, explaining what she sees as flaws in the current system of transporting disabled people. Drivers often don't speak English, ignore repeated requests to turn down their radios, and often are late. "If I want to go to a meeting, I have to sit for an hour and a half to wait for transportation. They may or may not come within the next hour. Then if they finally come, they may keep me onboard for another two and a half hours [while picking up other passengers] And ... then I'm late."

Margaret isn't in charge, nor is she the most vocal participant at this Saturday's transportation committee meeting. Instead she serves as a sort of watchdog, meticulously taking notes and trying to maintain proper parliamentary procedure. When a woman sitting across from her launches into a rambling personal narrative, Weedman speaks up for the first time. "Hush, dear. We need to stick to the agenda," she says firmly, following a strict personal protocol honed over 30 years of participation in Miami-Dade social-service agencies. (Currently she sits on eighteen separate committees.)

Her voice is distinctive and utterly without malice. She articulates quietly, placing equal stress on each syllable, with the faintest, lilting hint of a British accent -- and she only speaks when she has to, later expressing disdain for chatty people who talk out of "self-importance or [because they] love the sound of their own voices." Indeed she is rather reticent during the rest of the three-hour meeting, as fellow committee members (led by Human Services Coalition's Jonathan Fried) collaborate on a sort of wish list for a new transportation contract: It includes a smaller window of time to wait for rides, a more reliable system to log complaints, and a living wage for drivers.

The half-dozen committee members finally disband without any sort of resolution. Weedman is hoping the county will agree to assume a supervisory role in the transportation service, as opposed to letting a brokerage company called Advanced Transportation Solutions (which is made up of five service providers) do its own monitoring. She thinks they're doing an awful job.

"The county has to do what's right here," she says.

But after a recent county commission meeting, the last of the year, Weedman was sorely disappointed. The commission decided not to monitor the contract, saying it would not be able to arrange personnel before the April 26, 2002, date for the transfer of the contract to the new broker. Margaret complains she was not even given the opportunity to make her case. She says she would have described the county's contract for disability transportation in detail, arguing that local government has the legal responsibility to do the monitoring. "It shouldn't have gone like that," she says now. "The chair of the commission [Gwen Margolis] pulled a fast one. She cut me short and then closed [me off.] It was very unfair."

To make matters worse, one of Margaret's wheelchair tires has deflated, so she's feeling besieged. She has to borrow a fresh chair, somewhere.

Despite these frustrations and chronic bad health -- she's a diabetic, and was born with a hole in her heart -- Weedman continues to believe that her brand of quiet, dogged involvement, a kind of Depression-era perseverance and fortitude, can make a difference to those around her: "I'm like an English bulldog," she vows. "I get my teeth into something and I just can't let go. Sometimes I get the feeling I'm the only one [on these committees] to stop and see if people really mean what they say.... When you believe in what you're doing, you've just got to speak up." [page]

It's a philosophy she's followed since she moved to Homestead with her former husband from Groton, Connecticut, in 1971. Soon after settling in Florida, Weedman discovered he was cheating on her, secretly meeting girls at the Homestead Holiday Inn. "I was alone, and it was very painful," she recalls. "I had no family to protect me." Weedman had left her only real family -- the grandmother who had taught her "love of the Bible, the Golden Rule, and Rudyard Kipling's If" -- behind in England when she moved to the States at age twenty.

So left alone, Weedman found herself drawn to local government and an almost endless array of social-service agencies, as "substitutes," in a way. "I think that if I'd been born and educated in this country, as night follows day, I would've gone into law," she says, her soft voice tinged with a touch of regret. "I would've been an honest lawyer and pleaded for good things." Instead she lives in poverty on her Social Security income of $500 per month.

But despite her "English" mildness, Weedman is a tough battler. She is harshly critical of a health care system that does not respect the elderly, makes them wait days for medications they depend on, and -- in her own case --is indifferent to crucial problems, like her wheelchair breakdown.

"Some of what goes on is so bad it makes me sick," she complains.

So Weedman has poured her energy into trying to thwart, or at the very least monitor, the cheating and mismanagement of funds she perceives in social-service agencies and the politicians that surround them. This quality has won her both loyal friends and more than her fair share of enemies. "There are people who would like for me to fall and knock my head and lose my memory," she laughs, only half in jest.

She has collected half a century of stories that run the gamut from poignant to amusing. Adopting the air of an old prizefighter describing the glory days, she talks about agitating before county commissioners and through the Alliance for Aging.

Weedman reserves her toughest criticism for the Community Action Agency (CAA), a Miami-Dade nonprofit group that provides job training and meals for low-income families and elders. Over her tenure as a CAA board member from 1977 to 1988, she accused the agency of wasting state funds by ordering too many hot meals for their lunchrooms, then selling the excess meals for profit on the street ... but to no avail. "It's been long, long years of aggravation. I don't even want to talk about it anymore," she sighs.

When asked about Margaret, CAA's executive director Ophelia Brown laughs and then pauses before speaking. "She's a pain in the neck," she finally blurts out. "She's somebody who likes to critique everything. Every paper -- she checks and rechecks and checks again. Any i that isn't dotted or t that isn't crossed, she's sure to point it out ... again and again."

But Margaret's tireless agitation has resulted in a lasting legacy at CAA's 395 NW First St. home. Her years of campaigning for the building to be made handicap-accessible finally resulted in the installation of an elevator more than a decade ago. And a small plaque on the elevator reads, "Dedicated to Margaret Weedman: CAA Board Member 1977-1988."

"When she sees something she thinks is important, she is persistent," Brown admits.

One issue that was particularly important to Weedman called for better checks on legal guardians for people declared incompetent -- a campaign she credits to a woman called "Mama Dorsey." Margaret, who generally has an encyclopedic knowledge of names, addresses, and telephone numbers, can't remember her real name.

About five years ago, Margaret says Mama Dorsey lived in an apartment upstairs from her in Homestead and fell prey to a guardian who was taking her money and not caring for her properly. Dorsey, who was about 85 years old at the time, grew sicker and sicker, Margaret says.

"One day I went to visit her in the hospital she'd been transferred to, and they told me she had passed away early that morning. It was a real shock." According to Margaret, her friend would not have died had she been appointed an honest, diligent guardian. So she approached the Alliance for Aging and confronted them with what she knew and suspected. As a response the alliance created a task force for guardianship, but Margaret says nothing has really changed. [page]

"That's the way the world is, dear, and that's what I'm against," she says, her quavering voice growing stronger and more vehement. "There's a whole lot of people who are dying. A whole lot of people's homes are being taken from them. That's what makes me so angry, dear.

"People say one voice can't make a difference, but I do believe that the people who know me and have known me for a long time know that what I say is true," she says. She is proud, for example, that a group of blacks asked her help in ousting an unresponsive CAA advisory committee in Naranja as far back as the Seventies, and that she helped establish the Martin Luther King Clinic for farmworkers in the early Eighties in Florida City. And every time Weedman makes an allegation of carelessness, fraud, or mismanagement of funds, she says she has the documentation to prove it -- somewhere in her apartment.

Her apartment has become a literal filing cabinet. It contains 30 years' worth of minutes, agendas, initiatives, and mission statements to provide documentation for her many allegations -- a testament to her years of unyielding involvement in Miami-Dade County politics. She saves the paperwork, with her dutiful underlining and margin notes, for every meeting she has attended since her husband left her.

"A lot of elected officials shudder to think that one day someone might go in there and read that information," jokes John Stokesberry, the former executive director of the Alliance for Aging.

"This resource will be her legacy," observes friend Mike Hatcher, a fellow activist who often drives Margaret home from various committee meetings. "It's a great service she provides to the community."

But it's not without a weighty cost. For years Weedman has spent one-third of her monthly income (roughly $170) maintaining a U-Haul space where she keeps some of her papers and belongings. Just a month ago, she was threatened with eviction because her papers were declared a fire hazard. With her archives endangered, Weedman's friends rallied around her. A fleet from the Alliance for Aging filled 30 boxes with documents and stored them in a backroom at their own small offices on South Dadeland Boulevard -- waiting for Margaret to come and sort through them. Another friend offered her space in his storage facility.

For now, the threat of eviction seems to have been averted.

It was the least anyone could do for their "darling Margaret," says long-time friend Ginger Grossman, who serves with Weedman on the Alliance for Aging's board of directors.

"If anyone is ever feeling sorry for themselves, they should spend half an hour with Margaret and realize how precious life is. She's one feisty, amazing lady," Grossman says, praising Weedman's altruism and unfailing activism. She says she sees Margaret as the last in a sort of dying breed. "We could use many, many more Margaret Weedmans, and they've just thrown away that mold," she says.

"She has always taken up the challenge for the downtrodden, even when it wasn't fashionable. She sees wrongs and just wants to correct them," Hatcher agrees. "She always seems able to empathize and put the needs of others above her own. I've even heard stories of her missing meals to go to meetings.

"She should serve as an admonishment to people who don't take the time to get involved," he concludes.

Talking on the phone after the frustration of yet another inconclusive county commission meeting one recent afternoon, Margaret already was making back-up plans while warming up her lunch of frozen lasagna with meat sauce. (She buys these meals in packs of four, for five dollars apiece.) Perhaps in the end the county will never monitor the STS, but Weedman will continue pushing for a better contract, which is slated to come up for renegotiation in September 2002. As soon as her wheelchair is repaired, she promises, she'll resume traveling again. She'll go from meeting to meeting, armed with her sense of moral imperative, her bag of papers, and the business cards recently donated by a person she'll only describe as a "friend" in Mayor Alex Penelas's office.

"If I've gone through what I've gone through and I'm still breathing, then I think I'm going to live to be 600 years old at least," she says. "I'll be a female Methuselah."

It happened in the waning days of one of the greatest orgies of conspicuous consumption in American history, an era when investors threw millions at baby-faced dot-commers, where the stock market reached stratospheric heights, and boomers saw their retirement nests get supersized to Jurassic proportions. It happened with terrifying ease. Terrorists hijacked American and United commercial airliners and rammed them into our greatest city, destroying a central symbol of our economic might, of our engineering hubris, plummeting the stock market into free fall. And they did it in the middle of the Today show, while Katie Couric watched. "Horrific," she said as the south tower collapsed. "Incredible." The level of comment failed to rise for the next four days.

When President Bush first spoke of the atrocity from an elementary school in Sarasota at 9:24 a.m., his response was rational and measured, if flat: "I have spoken to the vice president, to the director of the FBI, and have ordered the full resources of the federal government ... to hunt down ..." etc. But by 8:30 p.m. Bush had assumed the role of emotional frontman. "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world," he said. Then he flipped on that beacon: "And no one can keep that light from shining."

By the next day Americans woke up with their emotions raw, sleep and television having worked their subliminal magic, and began grabbing for the red, white, and blue, in all its forms. Say anything about us you will, we know the value of packaging, of positioning the message for maximum whomp. Stores across the nation sold out their flags. Larry King sported a red, white, and blue ribbon on Larry King Live. Bruce Springsteen's signature anthem "Born in the U.S.A." opened Good Morning America. "Where do I sign up?" Diane Sawyer queried bravely. Sensing the market for schlock, three juveniles in Broward County were arrested with 49 flags they'd snatched from front porches and lawns for resale at flea markets.

As the days went by, the understandable reaction to the fact that the democracy we cherish had been horribly wounded, morphed into something creepy. The media colluded with the Bush administration in manipulating our natural sentiment, puffing it into a bellicose wave. In shock over the numbers lost at the World Trade Center, even veteran newscaster Dan Rather seemed ready to cleave to Dubya's dream of America rather than the complicated reality he had spent a career scrutinizing. The guy was a mess on The Late Show with David Letterman, breaking down twice. But his emotions took a familiar arc, which would be repeated en masse in a kind of inarticulate loyalty oath echoed by the public. "George Bush is the president," Rather said. "He makes the decisions, and, you know, [if] he wants me to line up, just tell me where."

In the great leveling of genuine feeling to sound bites and narcotic stupor that television accomplishes with chilling efficiency, the networks adopted slogans to market their message: "Attack on America," "America Rising," "America's New War," "America on Alert." Like other stations, local Fox affiliate WSVN-TV (Channel 7) wrapped itself in flags -- big and small, flapping and undulating, wrenching us from sorrow to fury. "There is another emotion surfacing in this country," a somber female announcer intoned: "PATRIOTISM."

It seemed like everybody felt obligated to pump up the fervor. First the U.S. Congress, then Cher, then the cast of the Days of Our Lives soap opera sang "God Bless America." The Weather Channel showed footage of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt while reporting that the skies in Norfolk were mostly sunny, though the mood wasn't. Misery loves accompaniment, so it wasn't long before listeners to South Florida's music radio stations were barraged by an ubiquitous musical montage. In one, sound bites from President Bush's statements were played over Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," and alternative rock station Zeta (WZTA-FM 94.9) was not about to be beaten. The opening page of the station's Website,, offered a digitized downloadable recording based on "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)." The Irving Burgie calypso classic made famous by Harry Belafonte was rewritten to mock Osama bin Laden. "Pay-o," it goes. "We say pay-o. Daylight come and we drop da bomb."

Information about the roots of bin Laden's radical hatred of the U.S., or even discussion of the difficulty of fighting this enemy, took a back seat to chest thumping. Appearing on C-SPAN, Lee Hamilton, who served on the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, cautioned that Operation Infinite Justice, as the military response had been tagged, might turn out to be as thorny as the "War on Drugs" or the "War on Cancer," since the enemy was kind of elusive. "Can you speculate when we might see military action?" he was asked, as though that was the only question the public had a mind for. [page]

President Bush prepared the ground for this blood lust through deft manipulation. "We are at war," he told a still-reeling nation. "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

After a strange absence on the day of the assault where he flew around the country on Air Force One, an understandably nervous Bush was at the Pentagon greeting rescue workers. The next day he was at the World Trade Center site, which had been given the nuclear name "Ground Zero." That weekend Bush appeared at Camp David, rattling more sabers, his simian expression grim with duty. All of his cabinet members -- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, FBI Director Robert X. Mueller -- wore military-style Bush jackets. Colin Powell wore leather.

The media, taking its cue from the administration (and the defense industry, which owns stock in some of the Big Three networks), were sending us visual war cues. CNN repeatedly aired Orwellian footage of a small group of Palestinians -- with one grandmotherly type standing out -- cheering as the second hijacked plane dipped its wings to take out two floors of the south tower. New Republic columnist Ann Coulter said we should bomb any country where people smiled at news of the disaster. "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity," she wrote. In one CNN poll, 78 percent of Americans said we should bomb Afghanistan because the country's ruling Taliban regime protected prime suspect Osama bin Laden. (CNN failed to ask respondees if they knew that the Taliban's mullahs were reportedly taking counsel from religious elders, who'd suggested that bin Laden be forced out of the country.)

Running parallel to such calls for Old Testament retribution were news reports of a new warm, fuzzy, and kind consciousness surfacing all around us. On the Today show last week, Katie Couric, flashing her fixed smile, waxed on like a Hallmark card about how people in New York subways were actually being nice to one another, helping pregnant mothers with big brown shopping bags. The Miami Herald ran an article on September 18 titled "Courtesy in Crisis," which described a paroxysm of etiquette that would make Abigail Van Buren proud. Business was down at Miami International Airport, but tips were up. People were saying "please" and "thank you." Motorists politely made room for one another, changing lanes discreetly on the Dolphin Expressway instead of playing murderous bumper cars as usual.

And suddenly we had heroes after decades where they all seemed to have gone the way of Joe DiMaggio -- 369 firefighters and cops who'd raced into the Twin Towers and lost their lives.

But during the Bush-Couric frenzy of congratulation-as-prelude-to-bombing-the-Afghanis-back-into-stone-mites, other citizens could see our newfound fervor as something ominous -- a kind of consumeroid fascism where you were either on America's team, or a secret raghead. Even while Dubya cautioned that neither Muslim Americans nor the Islamic religion were the enemy, Muslims suffered attacks. Mosques were defaced. A Sikh grocer from India, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was killed at his Chevron gas station in Mesa, Arizona. "I stand for America all the way," his murderer shouted when arrested. FedEx pulled advertising from Politically Incorrect after host Bill Maher said the terrorists couldn't exactly be called cowards since they committed suicide to attack us: "Say what you will, that's not cowardly." Maher went on to note that lobbing missiles from 2000 miles away, a reference to Desert Storm, was cowardly. He apologized but did so with a warning worth heeding: "Patriotism does not involve shutting up; it involves speaking out."

Closer to home, three black Miami-Dade firefighters felt the sting of being on the wrong side of the new orthodoxy when they removed an American flag from a fire truck while starting their shift on September 15. Channel 7 aired a story on September 18, confirmed by the fire department's public information office, that the firefighters refused to run calls if the flag was on the truck. They received death threats. People came by the Opa-locka fire station looking for them (they'd been relieved of their duties, with pay, pending an investigation). "We're lepers. We're villains. Our fellow firefighters hate our guts," says twenty-year veteran James Moore. "You have this atmosphere created by the atrocity. I have the deepest sympathy for those who lost their lives and loved ones. But because of what has been portrayed, it has created a war frenzy; it has created this nation that just wants blood." [page]

The worst, Moore says, is that the story overlooked the truth. Moore, who drives the fire truck, insists he'd only complained that the large flag the previous shift had hung on the cab obstructed his view of the rear of the vehicle. Later in the day, a group of his fellow firefighters talked it over. Some thought it was important to display a flag as a symbol of solidarity with those who'd lost their lives at the World Trade Center. Moore and Terry Williams, who is also African American, explained that the flag didn't have the same symbolic meaning for them. "As a black man in this country, because of what has happened [here] ... I do have reservations," Williams says. "It was only two weeks ago we were talking about the conspiracy within the Miami Police Department to assassinate black men. The mistreatment of blacks in America is still the same, and will be long after this crisis is over."

Williams says that on a shift the two had worked the day after the attack, there had been a small flag on the truck and they hadn't objected. It wasn't really a big deal to them. After the firehouse discussion, they thought the matter was resolved. Until the story aired on Channel 7. Then all hell broke loose, but both Moore and Williams said the TV station never interviewed them to get their side.

Channel 7 reporter Juan Carlos Fanjul claims he "tried to reach the firefighters" but was unsuccessful. (New Times found Moore by calling directory assistance.) Because he couldn't, Fanjul based his story on the fire department's version. That's where the "refused to ride in the truck" stuff came from. Fanjul argues that his reporting was fair because the following day he interviewed the third African-American firefighter from the station, William Clark, who explained why the flag is so problematic: "This is a country that has not said a simple “I'm sorry' for slavery in 400 years." To which Fanjul responded, pointing his microphone at Clark's face: "Do you have a problem with the flag?"

The whole ordeal makes Moore question all the "patriotism" in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. "They are talking about freedom and what it means to them. [But] what if you disagree with the status quo? We don't want to confront the ugly truth about ourselves. We love to hate people. In a couple of days, we have all of Dade and Broward hating our guts. We don't have bin Laden, but we have the next best thing -- three [black] firefighters."

New Times Broward-Palm Beach staff writer Amy Roe contributed to this report.

The lights go down and the puzzlement begins. Ensemble cast of superstars? Check. Loose remake of amusing curiosity? Check. Built-in, prefab sense of cool? Check. A little something for wistful fans of Dino and Sammy? Check. So ... wait a minute. Is this The Cannonball Run Redux?

With his ambitious but unnecessary remake of Ocean's Eleven, director Steven Soderbergh -- he of rousing crowd pleasers such as Out of Sight and self-consciously important movies such as Traffic -- takes a peculiar detour through star-studded mediocrity. Scripted by Ted Griffin, the project is most definitely a motion picture about people who team up to steal a lot of money. As such, it's not an unpleasant diversion, but neither is it much of a thrill, summoning, at best, a good-natured shrug.

The movie's hero is Danny Ocean, played in Lewis Milestone's 1960 film by a smarmily charming Frank Sinatra, succeeded here by an adequately charismatic George Clooney. Newly paroled, the determined Ocean decides he must return immediately to the life he knows best -- stealing stuff -- so sets about combing America to assemble a posse of criminal specialists. Among them are his right-hand man, the slumming Hollywood card sharp Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), the nimble Windy City pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), plus eight others, comprising the eponymous eleven.

A series of very tidy coincidences allows Ocean the opportunity to redeem his entire life, providing that he properly executes this one big score. It turns out that his ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), has run off to play art curator for the nasty megalomaniac Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), whose iron fist controls three of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas -- the Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand. It also happens that Benedict has angered aging high roller Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), who'd be happy to bankroll a mission against him, to avenge himself for being shoved out of his own Vegas hotel business. Unlike the original Ocean's 11, in which the masterminds' tools included phosphorescent paint, errant garbage cans, and friends' coffins, this operation does not want for the best available resources.

Joining Ocean for the job is a colorful cast of characters, most of whom seem to believe that exaggerated performances will cover their glaring lack of collective chemistry. There are fun moments to be had with the retired confidence man Saul Bloom (a very enjoyable Carl Reiner) and card-dealing "plant" Frank Catton (Bernie Mac, knowingly reversing the original film's stupid racist jokes), but otherwise it's a clunky ride. The group's munitions expert is played by Soderbergh regular Don Cheadle with an outrageously ill-advised cockney accent, and newcomer Shaobo Qin is allowed to show off his incredible acrobatics but not to interact much with the other boys. Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, and Eddie Jemison round out the gang with manic bemusement.

Once everyone is gathered at Tishkoff's, Ocean unveils his plan, spreading out before them documents apparently downloaded from The rotten Benedict stands atop a seemingly impregnable fortress, with all three hotel casinos filtering their cash into a single, underground vault, protected by complex alarms and armed security. As we see in a series of sarcastic, period-specific flashbacks, casino robberies always end in dismal failure. Even if the crew manages to dupe security, screw around with high-tech electronic doohickeys, descend into the pit, and neutralize the guards, it'll be impossible to escape with the loot. Ocean, of course, remains undaunted.

The rest of the movie plays out in a piecemeal but endurable fashion, with each of the experts plying their trade. Employing perfectly timed deceptions and manipulations, Ocean's Eleven strike when Benedict's coffers are at their fullest. Gone is the original's New Year's Eve scheme (and its amusing Godzilla-esque miniatures of electrical towers toppling). Instead the crew infiltrates during the middle of a boxing match between two contenders, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, who both hold doctorates. Since the Nevada Gaming Commission requires casinos to cover in cash every chip in play, the vault is estimated to contain about $150 million. If only the NGC also required that stealing it be consistently interesting.

Writer Griffin has streamlined everything about the project, transforming the original's five casinos into three, linking them together and excising almost all character development not related to specific skills. In Milestone's film -- an interesting time capsule but by no means a terrific movie -- we got Peter Lawford working out his mother issues and Sammy and Dean lip-synching their hearts out, occasionally a few frames off. Here, there's the odd groovy scene -- Pitt teaching Damon how to lie convincingly, Cheadle vainly shielding his scrotum from an enormous electromagnetic pulse -- but the characters simply aren't fleshed out enough to maintain interest through all the burglary rigmarole.

What really cripples the film, however, is the languidness of its love triangle. Never for a moment is Benedict revealed to be anything but a greedy, power-mad cad, so Tess's attraction to him makes no sense at all. There is one moment between Tess and Ocean that feels sort of genuine, when he asks if her new man makes her laugh, to which she hastily replies, "He doesn't make me cry." But in the 1960 film, despite a massive sexist undertow, Angie Dickinson and Patrice Wymore showed resolve and resentment, while Griffin and Soderbergh reduce Roberts's role to a boring princess who's locked herself in a sterile castle. To win her back, Ocean is willing to egg on Benedict, but one must wonder why he bothers.

Even though Ocean's Eleven is anchored by supposedly hip turns of phrase like "You do the math," its overall composition just doesn't add up. A suspense-free caper, it really does fit the director's own description of "a two-hour commercial for Las Vegas." Too bad it commits the crime of being so intensely average, because what could have been sensational turns out to be merely this week's heist movie.

How can you not be leery of a play staged in an attic? The ominous mahogany furniture, the curled yellowed pages of old newspapers and photo albums, and the inevitable sepia-tone photos hark back to a time only remarkable to the people who own the clutter. Most attic settings are a surefire ticket to a trip down memory lane, and if the play is a drama, the ride is sure to be a bumpy one. Fasten your seat belts. Arthur Miller's The Price is no exception. The ancient furniture that is too big to fit through streamlined contemporary doors is just one of the many oversize creatures from the past lurking in the far reaches of the Franzes' brownstone apartment.

This is the story: When his millionaire father lost his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash, son Victor (Dan Lauria) abandoned his studies in science to become a cop, so he would have a stable income to support the family. His brother, Walter (Walter Charles), cut himself off from his father and Victor and went on to become a wealthy and successful doctor. Decades later, in 1968, after their father has passed away and the old family brownstone is set to be leveled, the two brothers are to reunite to sell off its contents. After unsuccessfully trying to communicate with Walter, Victor takes it upon himself to bring in an antiques dealer, Gregory Solomon (Jack Klugman), who makes him an offer for the furniture. But when his brother finally does arrive, offering friendship and financial assistance after a long rift, Victor must make a decision.

The central metaphor of The Price represents one of the biggest struggles in contemporary American culture: family versus money. On a deeper level the play is an excavation of memory and an exploration into the cause-and-effect mechanism that human beings use to evaluate their lives. As Victor's wife, Esther (Ronnie Farer), points out: "The biggest decision is the one you don't know you're making until the results start coming in."

Walter, while living quite comfortably, had only sent a gratuitous five dollars per month to help the family. Victor attributes his lack of success in life to the fact that he had to take on the responsibility that his brother shunned. He claims Walter is trying to reconcile with him to absolve a guilty conscience. But Walter reveals that their father had some money left over after the crash and manipulated Victor so he wouldn't be abandoned. In a volley of arguments with their origins in Marxist and Freudian theories, we see the modern-day Cain and Abel destroying each other to vie for their deceased father's affection. Known for the sheer force of The Crucible and the lyricism of Death of a Salesman, Miller has less success with The Price, considered by many to be his most humorous play. The playwright himself said the play deals with the two things he knows best: money and family feuds. The energetic performance of Dan Lauria and the alchemy of Jack Klugman's quirky Solomon keep The Price engaging, but what is interesting becomes redundant in the play's slow and laborious pace.

This flaw is all too apparent in the first half: It is far too long, slow, and drawn out for the content. Aside from some clever dialogue between Solomon and Victor, the first half pretty much assembles the cast and sets the scene. Director Robert Kalfin might do well to reconsider the pacing here. We don't need much of a buildup to get to the inevitable meeting and the central conflict between the two brothers. The great length of time the play takes to get to that point is tedious and uninteresting. Another important directorial consideration should be the era. The Price takes place in 1968, but it's filled with references to the depression. While a good number of theatergoers can identify with that era, others think depression means Prozac, and the insider references to those times will be too obscure.

That the script itself contains these weaknesses is a challenge. The main conflict is one of values. Victor believes he did the right thing by sacrificing his career to help his father; Walter believes his father was manipulative and that Victor was a sucker to fall for it. The decidedly Freudian slant may have seemed fresh in 1968, but it's not original enough to hold today's audience for an evening.

As the brothers unravel their conflicting versions of the past, we find an intriguing dialogue surrounding the idea that each person's perception is his reality. But the play largely unveils this concept through discourse and a few plot shifts, while the central themes seem to be hashed out, rehashed, and then summarized, causing the energy onstage to become stagnant. At these times the actors seem more like orators than performers.

Lauria plays the role of Victor with a lot of heart. As his character emotionally crescendoes, Lauria is smart to delay unleashing the anger and frustration he's been holding in, so that when he does explode, the emotion feels authentic. He also has a keen sense of timing in his exchanges with Charles. He paces, listens, and argues. He picks up the money Solomon is offering him for the furniture and puts it back down, revealing his indecision. Lauria also has mastered the countenance of an all-around good guy, which makes his character convincing and moving when we see his lot in life. Whether viewed through his eyes or his brother's, it's a sad one.

Klugman pulls off the comic component of the show. The audience spends half the time trying to figure out if he's on the up-and-up in his role as antiques dealer, and the other half not caring because he's so endearing. He shuffles around shooting out wisecracks and speaking in non sequiturs that are quirky and wise. He is the seemingly harmless clown, like Shakespeare's Falstaff, with lines such as, "Jews have been acrobats since the beginning of the world." But he also is a King Solomon, offering wisdom and perspective on the fraternal conflict.

Charles is urbane and cool as Victor's successful brother. At times his lines feel a bit false, but when he confronts Victor for being a martyr, saying, "It's a fantasy that your father was penniless, your brother a son of a bitch, and you had nothing to do with it," the force of his character comes through.

As Esther, Ronnie Farer shows us both a purse-clutching alcoholic and a dedicated wife. Unfortunately the actress has not been given much with which to work. Indicative of the time, Esther is defined by the men in her life. Farer is capable but there is nothing particularly stellar about her presence. Her role ranges from stomping off to a mirror to "fix her face," throwing temper tantrums, or standing quietly off to the side while the men argue. She is, however, able to give some emotional depth to a certain line. When she tells Victor, "You're just afraid that he's a decent person," she makes it sound confrontational instead of simply whining.

At its best The Price delves into and accurately traces the origins of one brother's resentment and the other's guilt -- and for a good part of the second half, this is unraveled with dramatic energy. But if an itemized list of "It was like this" versus "No, it was like this" could be cut off at its most powerful point, The Price would be much more compelling.

It's not every day that a play about death resuscitates the English language. The word wit as a noun has all but vanished from the English language only to be replaced by the shallower derivative, the adjective witty -- a witty joke, a witty game show host, a witty comment at a cocktail party. Wit has not always meant humor. At one time the word encompassed both ingenuity and judgment. Aristotle distinguished wit as the inventive or imaginative faculty and in particular the ability to see similarity in disparities. Wit, then, is at the heart of paradox, the unfathomable union of radical contradictions.

It is this complex understanding of language that distinguishes Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing (Barbara Sloan), a professor of seventeenth-century literature whose well-ordered world is shattered when she discovers that she is in the last stages of advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. New Theatre's new, fully renovated, and significantly larger space on Laguna Street in Coral Gables is as welcoming as it is intimate, and artistic director Rafael de Acha has christened the theater's new home with a wonderful piece of drama.

The harsh contradictions that form this play's foundation transform it from a heart-wrenching drama to a mind-bending philosophical journey. The audience is propelled further and further into a world of contradictions crueler by turns. As a literary scholar specializing in the holy sonnets of metaphysical poet John Donne, Bearing has spent her life cloaked in the world of language and scholarship only to find herself stripped down to a thin hospital gown and a bright red baseball cap that covers her bald head. Bearing has agreed to eight months of aggressive and experimental treatment headed by two researchers: doctors Harvey Kelekian (Wayne E. Robinson, Jr.) and Jason Posner (Paul Wong), who also is a former student of Bearing. As Western medicine meets poetry, the audience becomes increasingly aware that Bearing's life has more value at the molecular level than at the human one, as she sardonically declares, "What we've come to think of as me has become just a specimen jar." Once a distinguished scholar, she is now valued for her intake of fluids and output of feces. In one disturbing scene, de Acha illustrates this reduced state by having Sloan get out of bed and walk around while the medical staff huddles around her bed examining, poking, prodding, and hypothesizing. This visual display is a haunting reminder of modern medicine's objectification of her body and her dissociation from it.

Wit essentially is a one-woman show, an interchange between a dying woman and the audience. The intellectually dense and dramatic material demands nothing less than a virtuoso performance, and Sloan delivers this consistently throughout the play's nonstop, 90-minute running time. This role gives Sloan, a regular face in the South Florida theater scene, the opportunity to pull out all the stops, revealing an intensity and stamina that her roles in previous New Theatre productions such as Far East and The Book of Ruth didn't allow.

Wit's dramatic structure unfolds around a series of flashbacks, which Bearing narrates, speaking directly to the audience. In these episodes we review her life. As a student she chose the library stacks over companionship, and as a professor she was exigent and unsympathetic toward her students. Sometimes she refers to a crucial moment in her past: "Now through a series of flashbacks, you will see how the professor denied her students what she now seeks." The danger in these flashbacks is that they could easily become sentimental retreats, but de Acha presents them evenly, without turning them into moralistic digressions.

Besides giving dimension to Bearing's character, Wit's shifting dramatic perspective is an excellent vehicle for the play's rich use of humor and irony. "I used to be the one who did all the talking. Now I'm the poem. It's much easier; I just sit here and look cancerous," Bearing explains to the audience. The role of being both narrator and protagonist creates a surprising amount of humor in a text that is fundamentally serious, exemplified in Bearing's penchant for pontificating even when she is bedridden and being rolled around. It's as if her voice is engaged in a dialogue with the audience whereas her body is undergoing cancer treatment.

One of the most notable aspects of Sloan's performance is her use of voice. She paces herself, showing more restraint than drama in her delivery. A skillful soliloquist, she works brilliantly with spaces of silence, transforming them into labyrinths and, yes, torture chambers where we as an audience are forced to hang on her every word. Sometimes her voice fills the entire stage and becomes a more potent tool than the image of her failing body.

Playwright Edson's acumen and organic use of Donne's poetry is impressive from beginning to end, and de Acha directs Wit from the point of view of someone who appreciates exquisite language. He carefully tempers the level of the protagonist's intensity, letting the clever language and Sloan's own ingenuity sink in. It is as much a play about the life of the mind as it is a play about death, and this is the best way to get the most out of a primarily conceptual text that grapples with abstract questions.

Although the stage time of the supporting cast is brief, it is essential to the play's success. Bearing's interactions with other human beings represent her relationship to the world and in a smaller way, to us. Both Wong as the younger researcher and Tara Vodihn Reid as Bearing's primary nurse seem stiff at the beginning and somewhat unsteady in their roles. This is perhaps most noticeable because Sloan's stage presence is so powerful. Wong looks the part of a young perfectionist medical researcher, but his delivery sometimes sounds rehearsed. Likewise Reid is uncharacteristically inconsistent in her portrayal of nurse Monahan. At times she seems sure in her role as the down-to-earth and deeply compassionate nurse who is oblivious to philosophical quandaries. At other times her delivery feels hollow. The scene in which she is supposed to share a Popsicle with Bearing is one of this production's biggest missed opportunities.

On the other hand, the more seasoned players hold their own and help create a compelling portrait of Bearing's past. Dr. Kelekian, the chief researcher, is as cold toward humans as he is passionate about human cells. Later the doctor turns his back to the audience, puts on a cardigan sweater, holds up a newspaper, and becomes Bearing's intellectually demanding and detached father.

Yolandi Hughes deserves credit for bringing one of the play's most poignant moments to the surface as Dr. E.M. Ashford, Bearing's mentor and only visitor. In Bearing's final moments, Ashford enters quietly and reads to her from a children's book. While the dramatic makeover to illustrate Ashford's old age seems overdone and unnecessary, it is again de Acha's decision to underplay a potentially dramatic scene that makes it so moving.

Even a brilliantly written play such as Wit apparently cannot escape the Hollywood happy-ending formula, so it is not surprising that the play doesn't end with the simple image of Bearing's motionless body. Having seen Judith Light practically do an arabesque into a glaring spotlight in last year's production of Wit at the Parker Playhouse, I can safely say that de Acha does a good job of not overdoing what is already overdone. Still, the combination of music, lights, and Sloan's final gesture create a religiosity that seems anticlimactic. As much as we may want to make it so, Wit is not a play about God but a fundamentally secular piece of fiction (hence its mass appeal from off-Broadway to HBO). For me the play ends in those final moments of silence that transform the audience members into mourners. At that point we experience the center of Wit's paradox: the inevitable void of death carved from the undeniable presence of life.

In the theater world as in society, a happy few are much more fortunate than the rest. Consider the prosperous and respected Florida Stage. Now entering its fifteenth season, the Stage is blessed with a lovely facility (a 250-seat thrust theater with excellent sightlines), critical acclaim (22 Carbonell nominations for the 2000-2001 season), a solid financial base (8200 Palm Beach subscribers), and an artistically ambitious mission (its entire production slate is focused on new plays). This year the Stage kicks off its season with Thief River, a new play by Lee Blessing, a playwright of national renown who has had a long association with Florida Stage producer/director Louis Tyrrell's company. By any measure the production is a significant theatrical event in South Florida.

It is not, however, a reason to celebrate. Thief River is a misfire. It bears all the trappings of what celebrated British director Peter Brook called "deadly theater." It's beautifully produced, with superb technical support. But at its weak heart are generalized acting and static direction, lots of crocodile tears, and very little passion or honesty.

Passion and honesty are precisely what Thief River requires. Blessing's saga is a gay melodrama, tracing the lifelong relationship between a troubled gay boy, Gil, and his best friend, Ray, who is confused about his sexuality. Their story begins in 1948, when both are teens in a repressive Minnesota farm community. When Gil shoots and kills another boy in a fit of jealousy, he flees to Ray for help. They hide in Ray's family's farmhouse only to be attacked by a homophobic drifter. The crisis forces Gil to flee town. By 1973 Gil has become an established travel writer living in New York with his flamboyant boy-toy lover. Ray has long since married and fathered a son, keeping his early gay dalliance a secret. But he continues to write Gil weekly. When Ray suddenly stops his correspondence on the eve of his son's marriage, Gil returns to their hometown to investigate, with his lover in tow. Gil wants Ray to come to terms with their love for each other and for the two of them to live together, but Ray balks. He won't leave his wife, his son, or their community. The visit ends badly when the lover gives one of Ray's letters to Ray's son, thus outing the father. In 2001 Gil again returns to the town, now alone long after his lover has died of AIDS. Ray has remained in the Minnesota town, a widowed outcast long estranged from his son. Once again the two childhood friends meet for what seemingly will be a final confrontation.

Thief River has the makings of a great gay play: one complicated relationship set against the awakening of contemporary gay culture. Blessing plays with narrative structure, telling his tale out of chronological sequence in bits and pieces, punctuated by the characters' narrations to the audience. This device, and several flashes of poetic language, recall Blessing's obvious model, Tennessee Williams, the godfather of contemporary gay theater, who, writing in a far less tolerant era, expressed many of his own thoughts and desires through his fantastic array of female characters. Blessing has more choices, but his personal, emotional dramas, his poetic realism, and his interest in Middle-American sensibilities echo Williams. Like Williams's work, Blessing's play is filled with dark and brooding touches. Teen Ray suffers from the trauma of his parents' deaths, a murder/suicide. Suddenly orphaned, Ray refuses to give up his family's farmhouse, keeping it for years as it molders, unoccupied. Each time Ray meets Gil, their encounters take place in the empty house, like ghosts dancing an endless minuet.

Among the play's flaws: There's a good deal of revisionist history. Young Ray terms gay Gil as "special," a PC attitude that's way wrong for 1948. The 1973 Gil and his lover are defiantly out, as was the case for Gay Priders of that era, but when he explains his sexuality to a farmer in coveralls, the latter gets some anachronistic yuks by claiming to be tolerant. Then there's the matter of that murder subplot, a hyperventilated sideshow that obscures rather than enlightens the central issue. A lot of the play focuses on this event and its aftermath, but the real issues here are Gil's longing and Ray's sexuality, not their potential criminal records. Blessing may be comparing the two issues to make a point about repression, but if so, he's sacrificing emotional focus to do it. It's one repression too many. And it almost feels like one play too many. The cornfields, the farmhouse, a murder, a secret grave -- it's as if Blessing's gay historical romance has been invaded by Sam Shepard's Buried Child.

Blessing's complex saga is a tough project to pull off onstage, requiring three sets of actors to portray Gil and Ray in three eras. The company of six must also portray all the others in the story. This not only requires exceptional emotional facility, but it demands that six actors agree on two characters. That takes a lot of work, a lot of agreement, and -- significantly -- much rehearsal time. But Tyrrell had his cast for only three and a half weeks. That's not nearly enough time to get to the heart of this play, and as a result, this cast looks significantly underrehearsed. The play requires a burning connection between Gil and Ray, but none of the three sets of performers manages to serve up much more than tepid friendship. In his floppy overalls and bare feet, young Gil is a sort of gay Huck Finn with Ray as his Tom Sawyer, more civilized and proper. As young Gil, Paul Whitthorne is a tearful nelly with very little variety or color. The same could be said for David McNamara, who plays young Ray as tongue-tied and befuddled rather than intensely conflicted. They share a kiss but little other physical contact and very little heat. And since the entire narrative rests on the premise that these two were made for each other, this connection should be apparent onstage. It isn't.

Michael MacCauley fares better as middle-age Gil. At least he has a clear objective: to get Ray to go away with him. He must also contend with his jealous young lover. But MacCauley doesn't get much further than sad-faced longing with Joseph Adams, who plays middle-age Ray. Like McNamara, Adams doesn't appear to be struggling with anything like passion. David Bailey, as the older Ray, suffers from the same thing. There's not much going on between Bailey and John Newton, who plays the older Gil. But Newton manages to explicate Gil's decades-old resentment, which is based on the fact that his life has been casually hurt by Ray's inability to make up his mind about their relationship. When Newton as old Gil lets old Ray have an earful, it rings true. But there is no more sign of heartache or lingering love for each other in these two grumpy old gay men than can be found in their younger counterparts.

It is significant that all six actors fare better when they are playing the supporting roles. This suggests the lack of strong directorial vision in creating these two characters; how could six actors pull off such a task if not for a strong guiding force? Sadly Tyrrell's direction manages to be both fussily choreographic and unimaginative. The director's hand can be seen in the dialogue, which is quick and carefully scored. But no characters seem to listen, and there's little life on the stage. Tyrrell's physical staging is repetitive and dull. Characters seem to gravitate to downstage center, staring out at the audience while turning their backs to whomever they are addressing. Everyone seems compelled to exit upstage right, only to stop and turn back in the doorway. The bare, wooden stage set by Paul Owen doesn't help. An upstage scrim reveals a cornfield panorama at times during the show, but this area pushes most of the action to a flat forestage. Neither the actors nor Tyrrell seem to know what to do in this Shakespearean-style space.

With so inert a production, the question of whether Thief River is a significant play remains unanswered. Certainly it offers wit, poetry, and at times considerable heart, and it deserves better than its current production. Florida Stage may yet offer a better production of Blessing's work. Its second show of the season, Blessing's Black Sheep, a world premiere, follows in December.

Lucinda and I reached the Santiago bus terminal at about six o'clock Sunday morning, December 17, San Lazaro's Day. The predawn darkness was moist and warm. We had walked the few miles from Lucinda's half-brother's house, wending our way downhill through narrow streets. At that still hour some store windows, bedecked with multicolor Christmas lights but displaying meager wares, glowed surreal amid the nearby dark façades. Like much of urban Cuba, Santiago's picturesque downtown seems frozen in the Fifties, its disintegrating colonial and Deco-style buildings dignified by darkness. We moved sleepily past the cafetería El Iris and a coffee/rum counter on a corner, through the pillared courtyards of Veterans Park, stepping around taxis and horse-drawn carriages, and finally through the open doorway of the terminal. The cavernous room was filling up, and murmurs of sleepy people mingled with the muted sales pitches of maní (peanut and candy) vendors. Other, sharper, voices reverberated off the dingy walls and dull masonry floor.

Waiting for us, seated side by side on one of the rows of wooden pews, were seven more members of my boyfriend Simon's family, which has become my family (Lucinda is his oldest sister). Simon was back in Miami, suffering the worst stages of homesickness. As a newly arrived immigrant to the United States who hasn't yet received his residency, he isn't permitted to travel outside the country.

Only a few hours earlier we had been dancing outside a little wooden house on a rocky hillside, where a bembé was in progress, one of hundreds, or thousands, throughout Cuba that night in honor of San Lazaro, or -- as he is known in the Santería tradition -- Babalu Aye. This santo once had been much like a typical Cuban male: a wanton womanizer and party animal. Until, that is, Elegguá tired of Babalu Aye's dissolution and afflicted him with leprosy and other deadly ills. This humbled him, and he became a great santo. Last night one montada (a person who is "mounted," or momentarily possessed, by a spirit) was whirling round and round, and when someone gave her a bottle of aguardiente, she took huge mouthfuls and sprayed the liquor out over us as the drummers drummed and we chanted and danced. Then the montada, a large woman in a simple hand-sewn white dress, thrust streams of aguardiente directly from the bottle in all directions as she whirled. Big drops landed on my forehead and chest.

We had slept for a while, but in the morning we had to catch the earliest bus to Chivirico and then to La Magdalena, a coastal settlement about 220 kilometers west of Santiago. There we'd gather at the house of the family's 75-year-old patriarch, Benjamin. (His name and all others in this story have been changed.) We would celebrate the holiday, and my visit, with a roast pig, rum, singing, and dancing.

Paulo, Simon's brother-in-law, a tall man in his midthirties with thick, straight black hair and a heavy mustache, shambled over to a counter along one wall of the terminal. He paid an attendant fifteen pesos to fill two empty plastic bottles with clear homemade aguardiente. Returning to our group, he took a swig from one bottle and handed it to his wife, Zulema. The other bottle he suggested I stash in my large shoulder bag. Zulema, one of Simon's three sisters, looks imperious and stern when her mouth is closed -- and lascivious and daring when she smiles or laughs. "Don't forget," she warned me with a playful grin. "It looks like water, but it's not. We're going to need it later, you know."

The bus for Chivirico was announced, and we joined a fast-moving line out a door next to the aguardiente counter. We boarded early enough to find seats; by the time the bus pulled out of the terminal, the aisle was crammed with passengers who would ride standing up for the next twenty miles or more. The highway, paved and narrow with occasional potholes, ran along Cuba's southern coast. Through curtains of sea grapes and lleraguana, we could glimpse a deep blue sea, waves breaking into massive rocks and rolling on to bands of dark sand. On the other side of the road, to the north, were rolling green fields where cattle grazed and goats gamboled, and where white busts of José Martí stood on pedestals before metal-roofed wooden cottages. Beyond the fields, on the lower slopes of the distant Sierra Maestra, white rocks formed messages to the masses, such as "Happy new millennium" and "Onward with the Revolution in 2001." White rocks marked graves, too, in the humble cemeteries we passed. Along this highway, locals informed me, lie at least fifteen such graveyards, hastily plotted during the revolution to bury those who died -- government loyalists as well as rebel soldiers and supporters -- in the heavy fighting in this region. Simon's best friend's grandfather, who hid Che Guevara for months at his farm, also rests in one of those cemeteries. [page]

We arrived at the seaside town of Chivirico at about 9:30. There we boarded a camioneta, a jitney of sorts, for La Plata, some 90 kilometers to the west. Camionetas are outfitted with roofs, usually of tarp, and rows of narrow metal grids that provide seating of a quality similar to a storm grating. Most of us were forced to stand anyway for the first ten kilometers, clinging to rebars while the truck bounced and lurched along, spewing great clouds of diesel smoke. It's always hot inside a camioneta. When we stepped down from the truck into a dusty courtyard at La Plata, it was 11:30, the sun was high, and I was tired, hungry, and craving water.

I thought Paulo was joking when he informed me that the only bus to La Magdalena was at five o'clock that evening, so we'd have to walk to Benjamin's house, twenty kilometers away. But Paulo wasn't joking. I knew enough about the metric system to understand that twenty kilometers is something like fifteen miles, a hike for which none of us was equipped: I would be walking in flip-flops that weren't comfortable even on trips from bedroom to bathroom. My left ankle and foot were wrapped with a cloth tenuously secured by a safety pin, after I'd twisted my ankle the day before in the town of El Cobre as I walked up the hill to the shrine of the Virgin de la Caridad.

Furthermore I'd given my Nikes to Lucinda, who was wearing them -- the only one in our party with shoes suitable for walking. Simon's mother, Luisa, had brought a small umbrella for the sun, which she bravely unfurled as we set out. Paulo took the heaviest bags and satchels.

The road out of La Plata was paved, but poorly, with wide dirt shoulders on either side. Under the blinding sun the sandy dirt burned a desert gold. After 100 yards we turned off the main road to make our way slightly uphill in what looked like a dry rock-strewn riverbed. About 50 yards to our left was the same deep-blue breaking sea we'd been tracking since leaving Santiago. For perhaps half a mile we picked our way along the dirt trail, shaded at intervals by clusters of trees. Then the steep terrain between us and the sea dropped off, and we emerged on to a path almost at the water's edge. We were the only humans for miles around as far as we could tell, overarched in that place by a profound silence. We heard the crashing of the breakers, the crunching of sand and gravel beneath our feet, our occasional terse exchanges, and the jabbering of Yulemis, the two-year-old niece of Marta, who is Simon's niece and who carried the toddler for most of our long march.

And it was only beginning. The path wound uphill again, and we came upon an underworldly stretch of black rocks and coarse black sand that glittered like mica, silver sparks under the intense sun. They must have been disgorged from below during one of the region's frequent earthquakes. The sun was much closer to the Earth here and turned the sky an iridescent azure; I remembered Havana as cold and dark by comparison. The water looked so blue, the whitecaps so foamy, that the temptation to climb down the jagged rocks and dive in became unbearable. But by then my ankle and foot were swollen, both feet were hurting, and I knew it would take all my strength just to negotiate the path.

After an hour or so, Paulo had pulled far ahead of the rest of us. We could see him disappearing down a hill or around a curve, then reappearing further away. When I looked into the distance, I saw no end of the trail, and I felt stunned and angry. I could feel my exposed skin baking and blisters forming between my toes and on my feet. The other women weren't complaining, but they were suffering, too. Luisa, a tiny white-haired woman with sharp, squinting green eyes and a stubborn set to her mouth, was striding alongside her granddaughter Angelica under the stinting shade of her umbrella. Luisa wore a sleeveless knee-length blue jersey dress adorned with ruffles at the neck and waist. Her shoes, black vinyl loafers with soft rubber soles, were brand-new, purchased two weeks earlier by Simon at a flea market in Miami. She was delighted with them.

Luisa has been divorced from Benjamin for more than 30 years, though they have remained close because of their six children and an abiding friendship. She lives with her current husband, Amadeo, in the green foothills north of Santiago, above the Port of Boniato and the Boniato prison. She has always lived in the country and has always been dirt poor; her parents, who immigrated from the Canary Islands, were farmers in the Oriente. She can neither read nor write. Before meeting her I thought she would be uncommunicative and a bit dull. But she's the opposite: Quick-witted and energetic at 67 years old, she has no trouble articulating her thoughts in trenchant Spanish. [page]

As the matriarch of what has become a large and somewhat politically diverse extended family, Luisa often serves as a go-between or peacemaker, and sometimes a good listener who enjoys a bit of gossip. There's been abundant familial intrigue over the years, much of which I am only beginning to learn, and not all the stuff of lighthearted chatter. Her own life has been affected by the refusal of some members of her family, especially Benjamin and Simon, to conform to Cuba's socialist system. Still, her concerns mostly center on everyday life in the rural reaches of a Third World nation, and not on the many political, social, and economic issues often debated in Havana and Miami. Her days are difficult and burdensome in a hundred ways most Americans never think about: cooking and bathing without running water, having to walk and ride in cramped bucking trucks for hours just to get from her house to town and back, no telephone. It's hard to tell if she's so used to living like that she doesn't realize how hard it is. There's no sense of struggle about her, and I got the impression she regards suffering as a waste of energy.

Luisa and Amadeo's two-bedroom house, where I spent my first night in the Oriente, sits at the end of a path of flat white rocks carefully laid out in the dirt. Their front porch is about 25 yards back from a hilly paved road that makes its way downhill to a shallow, narrow river -- really a creek now, after two years of drought throughout the Oriente -- where women wash clothes and young boys jump off rocky ledges into the clear water. Also along this road is a small plywood house, now a modest museum, where Fidel Castro and some of his men were sheltered in the earliest days of the rebellion against then-President Fulgencio Batista.

Like their neighbors for miles around, Luisa and Amadeo live with the constant threat of theft. Not of any household goods (they have nothing of value) but of their animals -- chickens, ducks, goats, pigs -- which provide sustenance. During the past five years, residents here have seen countless animals disappear. When one is stolen, the owner not only loses food, he can be fined by the government. "If someone steals your pig," Amadeo explained unhappily, "you are penalized but not the thief. The only way to keep your animals is literally to keep them inside your house at night." A few years ago Amadeo, with the help of Luisa and Benjamin's fifth child, Patricio, built a roofed enclosure on to the south side of their house where the bedrooms are. So Luisa and Amadeo now sleep on the other side of a gate from two hogs, two sows, and a litter of ten piglets; about twenty ducks and chickens; and a half-dozen goats.

Patricio, who is 38 years old and divorced from the mother of his two daughters, lives down a sloping pasture from his mother in a one-room shack. He owns a horse, a valuable commodity, and at night brings the animal inside to sleep in the same room. "I sleep with one eye closed and one eye on the horse," he said. "The thievery is that bad." He has chosen to live there in relative solitude to help his mother and stepfather. One of the hardest jobs is supplying water to the house. Until a month ago, Patricio and Amadeo had to carry buckets of water from the river a mile away. Patricio at least had a horse on which to balance the old-fashioned pole with bucket hanging at either end, while Amadeo carried a second pole on his shoulders. Then Simon sent them $25 to buy a cart, which the horse now pulls, to transport water.

Patricio hadn't been able to accompany us to La Magdalena that San Lazaro's Day, nor had the third-oldest sibling, Julieta, who lives in Santiago with her husband and four children. Several years ago Julieta became a dedicated Jehovah's Witness, the only one in her essentially nonreligious immediate family to actively embrace a faith. Most of the family members are Catholics en su manera, informally, and with strong Santería influences. [page]

After two hours I began to imagine the trek as a trite allegory. It was Hell in paradise, the way many Cubans describe life on their beautiful tropical island. Just when you convince yourself it's all about to change, that there is an end to Hell, you see the same road ahead. I flopped along, angry at myself, at Fidel, and finally even the Virgin de la Caridad, Cuba's patron saint to whom I am devoted, because she made me fall in love with Simon and come to this place of torment. The rocky seaside shortcut eventually led us back up to the highway, where we could make somewhat faster progress on the asphalt. There was no traffic at all. The sea was still tantalizingly close, sparkling on the other side of grassy ledges, at times obscured by high rocks. The mountains were closer and steeper, their flanks like green- and brown-shaded facets of a gem. Just once was the vast stillness broken by a Fiat speeding west in the direction of La Magdalena, the town that by now I was half-convinced did not exist.

Lucinda, the one wearing my Nikes, was lagging behind, sulking over an earlier perceived rudeness by her daughter and sister Zulema. She doesn't get along with her family in general, although that's rarely noticeable because they try to treat one another civilly. Lucinda is 49 years old, the oldest child of Benjamin and Luisa. She left Santiago as a teenager to go to school in Havana and never moved back. Her only child, Angelica, was born in 1976; the father, an engineer, has lived in Miami for several years but never writes or calls. Lucinda tilts her chin up a little, her round eyes narrowed and her wide mouth turned down in disapproval. Her hair is well maintained in a blunt shoulder-length cut. She has two closets of clothes in her third-floor walkup in Havana's Marianao district, where she lives with a man who is madly in love with her but whom she scorns. (Angelica and her husband of five years have an apartment in the nearby La Lisa neighborhood.)

In reality, Lucinda confides, out of earshot of her boyfriend, she is eternally in love with a man who deceived her many years ago. She talks elliptically about a past in the "diplomatic service," of foreign husbands, and Cuban men who have let her down. Now she devotes a good part of her time re-reading a book that has become a classic of new-age thought, a Spanish translation of You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise L. Hay. Lucinda talks about self-reliance and self-love, qualities she learned from the book. "I don't need a man to be happy," she insists. "I'm not going to look for a compañero, because if I am fortunate enough to go to Miami, I would just be leaving him behind."

She says she always wanted to be a writer but instead was encouraged to take education courses at the University of Havana. She hated teaching. Currently she works in a bakery not far from her house and hates that, too. Several months ago she was fired from a job at another bakery; she claims her boss got rid of her because she complained about him pocketing money from sales. Now she has a lawyer and has filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking a new hearing. It's no secret that vast numbers of Cuban employees steal from their workplaces, since salaries are laughably minuscule. Less well-known is the common (she claims) practice of aggrieved workers suing the government.

Lucinda lives much better than her relatives in Santiago. Still she can't escape the sense of having been stymied, by her own nation and her own people. She, like a million other Cubans, looks hopefully to the United States for her future. Now that her brother is settled in Miami, it will be easier for her to come. Simon, however, scoffs at the notion of Lucinda beginning a new life in the United States. "She hates to work," he asserts. "She doesn't understand that you have to work hard in this country. She'll get here and have to take a job mopping floors. She'll never be able to adjust."

The paved road cut through the rocky slopes; we were imperceptibly trudging uphill. The sun had passed its zenith and was blazing in the west but wouldn't cast a shadow from the roadside ridges for hours. It was after four o'clock, three and a half hours since we'd gotten off the bus at La Plata, when we spotted a figure sitting beneath a roadside shelter, a security checkpoint. The road continued past the checkpoint, but it was blocked by a chain stretched between posts on either side. Paulo was waiting for us, and I rushed to sit down beside him. "Tired?" he asked without irony. As I mumbled something about no one telling me we were embarking on a death march, I noticed a clipboard on the bench. I remember staring at it and wanting to leaf through the pages but being too miserable to move. Moments later, as the other women and child straggled in, a Ministry of the Interior guard appeared and picked up the clipboard. [page]

Everyone else (except the guard) started down a pebbly wash just north of the station. When I got up to follow, I discovered my feet and legs refused to move or bend in any coordinated way. The cloth around my ankle hung in useless rags. At the bottom of the wash, a glass-clear stream meandered over a bed of large rocks. Instead of crossing the stream over the rocks, I plowed through the delicious cool water, my flip-flops sinking into sand. I wanted to stand in the stream but I didn't; the group was moving ahead, and I couldn't fall too far behind. On the other bank we had to negotiate a muddy trail impressed with deep tire and horse tracks. Sugar cane grew all around, shoulder high. Then the cane opened on to a clearing in which a dozen young men and boys were playing volleyball under tall broad-limbed trees. Around the perimeter of the clearing, the terrain rose again, and houses sat at intervals among trees, behind wire fences. I caught up with the others standing outside the fence in front of one of these houses, a peach-color plaster square with a narrow concrete front porch. It was only then I realized we had reached the end of the road. We were at Benjamin's house. The gate was locked, so we climbed through a space in the fence, and someone went to a neighbor's to get a key to the front door.

Benjamin and Jairo, his oldest son, live there (with Jairo's wife and three children) when they're not tending to their crops high in the Sierra Maestra near Pico Turquino, the highest point on the island, 60 kilometers to the northeast and accessible only by horse and foot. They hadn't yet arrived from the Sierra when we showed up, so Luisa, Angelica, and Zulema went to work sweeping the floors and chairs, and washing dishes with the water stored in a barrel in the kitchen. Paulo walked to the nearby river to bring in pots full of clear, cold spring water. Luisa used it to make a sweet limonada. Lucinda had carried three loaves of crusty bread from Chivirico, and she cut slices and spread them with guayaba paste -- the most delicious food I've ever eaten. Then some of us -- Marta and Yulemis, Lucinda, and I -- simply collapsed on a bed covered with a coarse blue blanket. At the head rested a guitar wrapped in a heavy cloth that we didn't move.

The afternoon sky was dimming. While some of us washed ourselves in the outhouse (a plastic curtain divided the latrine from a cement-floored stall, where one dips a cup into a bucket to bathe), others rinsed off in the river.

A half-hour later Benjamin and Jairo arrived, along with Jairo's wife, Beti, and three little girls (their daughter and two of Beti's from her former marriage). Jairo, who is 47 years old, wore fatigues, boots, and a machete on his belt. He and all the other men in his family have wide, bony shoulders tapering to a narrow waist and hips. His eyes are greenish like his mother's and seem always narrowed, set behind prominent cheekbones. He has the sad, thoughtful look of a man who has labored very hard all his life and knows he's going to have to work like that until he dies. Still his sadness is nothing like the desperate fear of falling so often seen in American wage earners. After cleaning up and before repairing to the back yard to begin the slaughter, dressing, and roasting of a young pig, he sat in a rocking chair on the porch, fidgeting while Angelica, who works as a beautician in Havana, gave him a badly needed haircut. As puffs of gray-black hair collected on the cement, he watched his father grooming a horse tied to a tree a few feet away. The chosen pig was straining at a rope.

Jairo was a bit wild as a youth; he was into boxing and idling with his friends. He's had many women and has been in love with most of them. In his early twenties, he moved to Nicaro, a port on Cuba's Atlantic coast, about 140 kilometers due north of Santiago. There he learned several trades: bricklayer, cabinetmaker, electrician. He joined the Communist Party, which he believed lent order and unity to his community. He participated in party activities and still does today. [page]

About three years ago Jairo came back to live in the country. He remains loyal to the political system and structure, whose founders established their first stronghold in these same mountains. But though he describes himself as a militante, he doesn't fit the fanatical stereotype. He's a regular hard-working family man who adores his brother in Miami, despite the fact that Simon is a former political prisoner who has denounced Fidel on Radio Marí. But Jairo's esteem for his brother doesn't mean he has a great deal of sympathy for the suffering Simon endured at the hands of the state. "He brought it on himself," he said without condemnation. And it was true, even though Simon, like most politically defiant Cubans, probably would not have rebelled in the first place, had he any hope for his future.

Paulo and Zulema sat on the back stoop with big aluminum buckets of green plaintains, yuca, and ñame, a potatolike root, in front of them. As they peeled, they dropped each food in a separate pot of water to be boiled over a fire in a brick oven just outside the kitchen window. Benjamin and Jairo had brought sacks of roots and medicinal herbs with them from the mountains; they would be going back the following week to finish harvesting ñame, boniato, malanga, and yuca. "The government is telling me they want a certain amount [of each crop]," Benjamin said wearily, with slight irritation. "I have to turn most of the harvest over to the [government-run] cooperative, and they'll pay me. It's not enough, but there's nothing else to do."

A neighbor, Manuel, a wizened white man in a straw hat, came over to help Jairo roast the pig -- the macho, as Cubans call it. In the back yard the men set fire to a pile of logs in the large pit they'd finished digging. His face and arms illumined by the flames, Jairo expertly thrust a long knife into the pig's heart. After one squeal of terror, the pig lay breathing rapidly as its blood coursed on to the dirt. Even before it was dead, Jairo began shaving it, scraping the hide with a knife to expose the soft pink skin. Then he opened up the gut and extracted the organs and entrails. Zulema, who was standing nearby, took the liver on a plate to her mother to chop and cook. The sun had gone down, and soon the sky would grow black and teem with stars. The fire in the pit was turning to embers.

Manuel brought a long pole carved from a tree limb and sharpened on both ends. He held the pig while Jairo thrust the pole through its body. It took several minutes of thrusting and pushing to position the pig midway on the pole, but finally the men lifted the carcass, pierced perfectly, and placed either end of the pole between split stands, also carved from tree limbs, on either end of the pit.

Several young men had come to the house by then. One cradled a guitar in his arms. They pulled up chairs and sat in a semicircle at one wall, and the guitar player picked through a couple of songs, the others joining in when they knew the words. Wearing an undershirt, old black pants, and a worn-out fedora, Benjamin appeared with his guitar, the one that was wrapped in a cloth on the bed. The young men quickly sat him down at the head of the semicircle. He gently positioned the guitar, his old-man arms black and skinny but still muscled. He strapped a capo onto the neck and began to play a traditional son montuno. He sang with assurance, toying with the rhythm and the words. "Oye," he announced, nodding to the off-beat, his black-rimmed glasses reflecting the overhead light bulb. "Me voy pa la pachanga." He picked out a bluesy break and then threw his head back. "No me llores," he implored. "No me llores." The young men sang along, smiling and watching his guitar work.

Paulo brought out one of the bottles of aguardiente and passed it around. Zulema came in from boiling the yuca and ñame. "Come on!" she urged the little girls, now looking festive in lacy dresses and shiny little shoes. "Let's dance!" She took the oldest by the hands. The girl, seven or so, proved a precociously talented salsa dancer. Luisa had finished cooking the pig's liver, and she brought out a plateful. Cut into small pieces and well seasoned, it was perfect with the aguardiente. Zulema and I danced and sipped the liquor; a little went a long way. After a while I stood back near the kitchen entrance and surveyed the small cement-floor room, barely furnished with old wooden chairs, no television or radio, lit with a florescent fixture on one wall. The front window and door were now blocked with the faces and bodies of neighbors who never came in but just wanted to watch and listen. [page]

"Yo no sé qué me está pasando," Benjamin sang. "Que no dejo un momento de pensar en ti." I don't know what's happening to me; I can't stop thinking of you for a single moment.

Almost two years earlier, Benjamin and his second wife, Sofia, both became very ill with pneumonia. They were in the Sierra when they got sick, without a phone or car. Jairo came to get Luisa, and together they climbed up the mountain and persuaded the couple -- who had no intention of seeing a doctor -- to go to a hospital in Santiago. After they were released, Lucinda invited them to come to Havana and recover in her apartment. In Havana they consulted an orante, a kind of Santería seer. The orante, Benjamin now knows, predicted Sofia's subsequent death, though not in so many words. "He said it would come because of a child," Benjamin recalled.

He and Sofia eventually recovered and returned to the Sierra. But after several months, Sofia fell ill again. Benjamin took her to the hospital, where she died. She was much younger than he. "It was the heartbreak as much as any disease," Benjamin said. "She had problems with her son; he was in prison. Right before she got sick, he sent her a letter that upset her. This is what killed her."

Benjamin reflected for a moment and then added with certainty: "Everything he ever told me has come to pass."

And now he hints he is thinking about getting married again. His children are mystified; they don't know who the prospective bride is.

Benjamin says his grandparents on both sides came to the Sierra Maestra from Africa. He doesn't know which country, but he knows they spoke French because his parents spoke French. His parents, however, never taught the language to him or his eight brothers and sisters. "I did learn to read and write," he said with some pride. "I studied hard and got a good education. It turned out to be of no use at all."

Benjamin's only career option was to become a farmer like his parents. He and Luisa were married in 1950, and Lucinda was born the next year. For more than a decade they lived near Baconao, a coastal town southeast of Santiago. After the 1959 revolution, Benjamin acquired land (he is somewhat vague about the exact arrangement -- it might have been a government giveaway or reallocation) in El Caney, just outside Santiago, and built a house there. They happened to be the first black people to live in the area; other black families followed, some moving on to parcels of land Benjamin gave them. He says his own family, which already was living at subsistence level, didn't prosper under the economic reforms that came with the revolution. Desperate to improve his lot, he planted another crop: marijuana. He figures the plants he sold to brokers in the city were packaged and shipped out of Santiago Bay, no doubt to the United States. While this enterprise helped support his family, it also got him arrested and thrown into prison three times. When Luisa gave birth prematurely to their sixth child, Simon, in a midwife's house in the foothills, Benjamin had just begun his first prison term. In all he spent eighteen years in prison. Luisa divorced him after the second incarceration.

"I admit it was wrong to [grow marijuana]," he said. He rubbed his chin, where white stubble contrasted with the black-brown of his skin. "I lost my wife because of it. I lost years with my children. I'm not going to say I had no alternative. But no matter what you do, the government will end up taking it away anyway. I'm not going to fight anymore." Benjamin looks gaunt, largely because he can hardly eat anything that doesn't cause terrible indigestion. His knees are shot. But the thought of retiring doesn't seem to have occurred to him. He complains about being in pain but never expresses a desire to stop working.

Out in the back yard under the trees and the vast swirl of stars, the embers in the pit illuminated the roasting pig, which by ten o'clock was beginning to smell savory. From next door came the ruckus of Christian hymns, sung with great gusto. The neighbors recently had converted to some evangelical religion, Jairo explained, turning the spit. "They won't so much as lend you a cup of sugar now. They don't socialize at all anymore." [page]

As an appetizer for the hungry musicians and the rest of us, Luisa and Zulema piled plates with rice, yuca, ñame, and boiled plantains. "Ñame," Benjamin said affectionately, lifting a fork of the root. "I love ñame." In the back bedroom Angelica, Beti, and two of her daughters had arranged themselves like puzzle pieces on the single bed. After slaving for hours in the kitchen Luisa joined them. Lucinda, Marta, Yulemis, and another of Beti's daughters were sleeping in the other bedroom. I decided to take a nap on this bed. Zulema and Paulo, however, never abandoned the party.

Zulema's home on a rocky hillside in El Caney, next door to the house where her family had lived a few decades before, has floors of hard-packed dirt, electricity but no running water, no phone, and no bathroom. Her oldest child, a handsome 24-year-old man, is in prison for petty theft. So she enjoys her rum when she can get it, and a good pachanga.

I kept hearing a loud crashing sound during my nap. Finally I rose and peered into the main room. The musicians had stopped for the moment, anticipating the feast. It was past midnight, and Jairo had placed two or three slabs of pig meat on a narrow wooden table at one end of the room. He was bringing his machete down, over and over, chopping the pork into bite-size pieces. It was still hot and had been lightly salted. Women and children appeared at the table, and we picked up the morsels with our fingers, letting the fat slide down our throats. More aguardiente made the rounds. Zulema was laughing, hugging me, and quietly scoffing at a suggestion by Lucinda that she curtail her liquor consumption. "Why can't she stop complaining about everything?" Zulema asked in a conspiratorial stage whisper. "We're here to have fun!"

After a while the meat cooled. Our hands, lips, and faces were coated with shiny grease. It must have been around 2:00 a.m. when the musicians picked up where they'd left off. Benjamin had only been warming up, and now his voice was loose and harsh. He sang crazy songs, like "El Paralitico," in which a man wakes up paralyzed and then debates the mystical reasons for his misfortune. Apparently it wasn't a case of Elegguá striking him down but one of those surprises life doles out. "Bota la muleta y bastón/y podrá bailar el son," he concluded. Throw away that crutch and cane, and then you can dance the son.

I woke up at 6:00 a.m. on the bed where a half-dozen of us had curled up. The bus to La Plata left at 7:00, and we weren't going to miss it. We didn't eat breakfast, and no one offered a wake-up coffee because there wasn't any, even though this is a prime coffee-growing area and the harvest was now in progress. At 7:00 sharp, as the sky was lightening, a bus stopped just past the clearing where the boys had been playing volleyball. The driver would wait there for about fifteen minutes. We straggled out of the house. Zulema and Paulo both looked sick. I felt overwhelmed by the simple exertion of walking to the bus and climbing in. I was wearing the same dress I'd walked in the day before and suffering from oozing blisters on both feet. Luisa was having trouble walking with swollen feet, but she didn't let on. She carried a young chicken in a plastic bag -- a gift from Benjamin, an addition to her menagerie and an excellent future food source.

Benjamin planned to stay at La Magdalena for another day and then return to his harvest in the mountains. He and Jairo walked us to the bus. Jairo stood outside under a lightpost, talking with some of the men from town. They lit one another's cigarettes and gestured toward the cane fields. One, then another of the musicians from the night before joined the conversation. I recognized their shirts, the same ones they had worn at the party.

Benjamin sat with us in the bus until it was time to go. "We stopped when the liquor ran out," he reported happily. "I guess it was about five o'clock." To the east the sky turned pink, orange, and yellow, then a sliver of sun pushed through the tips of the cane stalks. When I told Benjamin what a great singer he was, he beamed for a few seconds and said that once someone had recorded him performing some favorite songs at home. "It didn't come out too well," he admitted. "It wasn't professional." [page]

And he bowed his head, musing. "I'm 75 years old," he said, rubbing the back of his sinewy neck under the faded fedora. The cuff of his pinstripe shirt was unbuttoned; the shirt was rumpled and threadbare at the seams. "Things haven't worked out for me." He didn't make excuses or try to put a spin on his troubles. He didn't say anything about growing up black and in extreme poverty, or about the revolution discouraging individual initiative. He also didn't say anything about hoping his children would succeed where he couldn't. "No," he concluded, shrugging slightly. "I haven't accomplished very much. I did what I could."

He's a cowboy. He's a construction worker. He's a sailor. And a leather man. Anatomically correct -- okay, he's hung like a horse -- and buff as a bodybuilder, he's Billy the gay doll. Dreamed up by designer John McKitterick and debuted in a limited edition for a 1994 AIDS benefit in London, Billy was such a huge hit he was soon produced in mass quantities, becoming a sort of Ken for the gay set. Distributed by Totem International, thirteen-inch-high Billy has a Website ( that details his background from birth (though he was conceived in England, he apparently is of Dutch extraction) to his current life in New York City with his Puerto Rican beau, Carlos (they met at a South Beach nightclub during one of his ubiquitous "coming out" parties). He has had top-drawer designers such as Calvin Klein and Alexander McQueen create outfits for him, been photographed by famed lensman Christopher Makos, and now, thanks to lighthearted author David Leddick, Billy, Carlos, and buddy Tyson (The World's First Out and Proud Best Friend, according to the Website) have been immortalized in a book, Big Fun with Billy.

The peripatetic Leddick, who divides his time between Miami Beach and Paris, is a photography collector and author of the novels My Worst Date, The Sex Squad (with a protagonist named Harry Potter!), and Never Eat In. Perhaps his greatest fame (or infamy to some), however, derives from his numerous nudie-guy photo compilations, including The Male Nude, Men in the Sun, Male Nude Now, and Naked Men, Too, which showcases some celebrities you'd love to see baring skin (Charlton Heston, Rupert Everett, and Burt Lancaster) and others who should have kept their clothes on, e.g., Andy Warhol (ick!).

Will photographer Dianora Niccolini's shots of Billy and company be nearly as provocative? Buy the book. Somewhere along the pages, Billy and Carlos might show off not just their spiffy outfits but the many tattoos they treated themselves to on what they called their "carefree, stress-free, fat-free vacation."

A few dollars goes a long way at the parade in Liberty City on Martin Luther King Day. At the intersection of NW 62nd Street and 32nd Avenue, torn-off cardboard signs direct traffic to crisp thirsty lawns where you can park for three to seven dollars. For another couple of bones, you can get a brown paper lunch bag seeping with oil and filled with homemade conch fritters and some tart lemonade to wash it down. Families on lawn chairs offer chewing gum, mini sweet-potato pies, and ice-cold beer out of yellowing Styrofoam coolers. Even if you don't have a dollar in your pocket, you still can get an earful of local talent at the 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1) stage.

Before the showcase begins, a young mother with fluorescent yellow hair and a floral spandex minidress bobs her baby up and down to the raspy howlings of Ja Rule. A young woman torturing herself with tight orange pants in a fat-ass version of Chinese foot binding passes a young man who shouts, "Show me what you working with!" Patches of preteens roller-skate, wearing "Keep the Dream Alive" T-shirts, while a proud black woman eating an ear of roasted corn mocks the recent voting debacle with a shirt that reads, "I think I voted." Near the ice cream truck parked next to the stage, a group of men and women sing "Get Fucked Up" to one another between popsicle licks.

The crowd gathers to share the musical dream of making it big. Their energy invokes the spirit of Harlem's Apollo Theater: When they boo the opening act off the stage, they send a wake-up call to homegrown R&B singer Grizz. The sultry voiced Supa Cindy from the 99 Jamz evening show gives the crestfallen singer some words of encouragement and scolds the audience: "Y'all ain't right." But even she works hard to hold back a chuckle.

3re tha Hardaway did not even have the chance to get booed. As the first dirty words came out of their mouths, the plug on their amplifier was pulled, and they were kicked off the stage. Radio personality Big Lip Bandit, host of the evening show, jumped in front of the retreating group yelling, "No niggaz on the stage." Then he apologized to the audience. During a break offstage, Big Lip later explained, "All the acts were advised beforehand that this was a kids' show, and no profanity was allowed, so the sound guy pulled them right away."

Watching the banishment of these earlier acts, a burly thick-voiced Jamaican named Rawlo gathered his group, the Rawlo Boys, in a huddle to remind them to keep it clean. This could be a big break for the year-old crew from a neighborhood in unincorporated Miami-Dade known as the Darkside. As CEO of House of Fire, the record label that released their debut CD, Rawlo does not want the boys to blow it.

Rawlo has reason for concern. Brought together by his little brother, rapper Lieutenant Lucky, the posse of four men in their late teens sport a style that might not fit everyone's idea of what it means to be "positive." Flashing a smile full of gold teeth with unusual cutouts that look almost like pavé diamonds, the Lieutenant smirks. "Those are my bar codes," he says. "No mark of the beast on my neck." Less apocalyptic but no less profane, the group's main writer and beat maker, Young Pimp (YP), breaks down his name with a smile that shows off twelve gold teeth of his own. "I just be after them," he says of the ladies. Seemingly more sacrilegious, a pendant hanging from the neck of eighteen-year-old rapper Tiny Head appears to be a gold Saint Lazarus religious scene but closer observation reveals a kneeling woman performing oral sex on a man while an amused Jesus figure watches overhead. "It just resembles what I do," says Tiny Head of the racy iconography. "What the ladies do," he continues, "I never thought about giving it back."

Even Chopper 1, a preacher's son, sees himself as a role model not in the mold of a slain civil-rights leader but of a slain gangsta rapper. "Everything I say really has a message behind it," Chop insists. "It could be bad; it could be good. I would like to get to a level in my life where I can be a role model like Tupac."

For young men brought up in the Southern rap tradition of explicit lyrics and boomin' booty bass, sex, Jesus, rap, and civil rights go together as naturally as conch fritters and lemonade on a sunny day. "He set a path for the rest of the black people of the world," says Tiny Head of the man commemorated by the parade. "Everyone, all races, respect Martin Luther King. So it's best to perform here and show Miami what we can really do. Everyone out here for a good cause."

With each member rhyming in a distinctive style, the Rawlo Boys offer the textural variation of ensemble powerhouses like Wu-Tang Clan. At the same time, they break out of the booty mold by telling stories from a local point of view. The group's CD Slaves to the Game has its share of hardcore edge and rogue nation thuggishness, but it also brings humor and urban romance to the landscape with interludes such as "Ghetto Love." On a conscious track called "Wade in the Water," Chop drops a Negro spiritual behind a recitation of violence against African Americans from Rodney King to Amadou Diallo to James Byrd, the man who was dragged behind a car in Texas. Chopper closes with the reflective line: "That what this about: improvement."

On the 99 Jamz stage, the four rappers fire up "I Got a Dollar," the catchy single written by Young Pimp. Rather than fill the stage with scantily clad hoochie-mamas, the Rawlo Boys bring up dozens of children wearing House of Fire T-shirts who throw matching water bottles and headbands featuring the label's logo into a frenzied audience. A fresh approach to the played-out topic of rappers' deep pockets, "I Got a Dollar" isn't about showing off your bank account but doing something with the opportunity and responsibility money brings. As the contagious chorus sung by the army of children has it: "I got a dollar, now I gotta do do/I got a dollar, now I gotta do do."

Best Of Miami®