Longform

Miami street signs that promise to change your life

One recent afternoon, while waiting for the light to turn green on NE 36th Street at Second Avenue, I am transfixed by a yellow homemade-looking sign stuck to a railroad crossing pole near the train tracks that snake underneath Interstate 195.

The placard heralds a message, written in schizophrenic letters with black Sharpie ink, aimed at married women: "Fix wut your husband destroyed!" accompanied by a phone number.

Just below that one, a second scribbled notice proclaims, "I'll buy your house CASH," and lists a different number.

I begin noticing similar roadside signs throughout Miami-Dade — in medians, at key intersections and major thoroughfares, near expressway exit ramps, even on a manicured lawn.

One crumpled white posterboard offers a "handyman special 3/1 corner lot $45,000 CASH ONLY BUYER." A sticker advertises a Spanish-speaking online dating service called EchatePaca. Another label hawks a gym membership for $50 a month. And a professional-looking red-and-white sign declares in Spanish: "Speak English in six months, excellent results," while another just below it promotes tarot card readings for $10.

All the signs promise quick and easy solutions to problems facing local inhabitants. I jot down each phone number, with a clear objective:

By the time this article is published, I will know how to speak English using a hokey teaching method developed by a 32-year-old Little Havana language academy; unload a house despite having an upside-down mortgage; get buff; start a thriving career flipping foreclosed properties; run a handyman referral service; and make a love connection on the Interwebs.

A burly man with short, curly hair and a thin goatee sits on the black leather sofa in my living room. He is dressed in a dark polo shirt and dark-brown slacks. His name is Juan Carlos Medina, a 38-year-old Colombian who is there to pitch a foolproof system to learn English. It's June 29 shortly past 8 p.m., about six hours after he returned my call inquiring about his services. During the phone conversation, I didn't reveal I was a reporter or that I fluently spoke the language of this country's forefathers.

In Spanish, I told him my country of origin: Nicaragua. I also claimed to know only some words in English. "Well, I can tell you with our method, you will be conversing in English within a month," Juan Carlos attested. "You will be able to go into a restaurant without requesting a server who speaks Spanish."

When we meet that evening, Juan Carlos doesn't notice the framed Miami New Times covers bearing my byline or the bookcase lined with the works of James Ellroy, Ernest Hemingway, Chuck Palahniuk, George Pelecanos, Ray Bradbury, and my other favorite authors. He unzips a black duffel bag and pulls out three gray binder-size DVD cases stamped with a circular logo with the words Hablando Inglés. He opens the cases, each containing four DVDs and an exercise book. He places his wares, along with a set of 12 CDs, on my glass-top coffee table.

Then he launches into his spiel in Spanish. "I'm not just selling you a bunch of DVDs and CDs and leaving you on your own," Juan Carlos says. "You are going to have our professors and our academy at your disposal. We start you out learning 35 words a week. By the fourth week, you'll be stringing together entire sentences in English."

I would learn the new language, Juan Carlos informs me, by pronouncing English words using Spanish phonetics. He opens one of the instructional books to a page that contains the following sentence in English: "The girl is beautiful." Next to the sentence is the Spanish pronunciation: "De guerl is biutiful." Juan Carlos reads it aloud. Then I do so as well. "See how easy it is?" he beams. "But it's also how much time and effort you put into the program."

He moves on to the next lesson: "De guerl is mor biutiful dan An." Translation: "The girl is more beautiful than Ann." Juan Carlos notes that Shakira used a similar audio-visual language instruction course to sing in Japanese during a concert in Tokyo. I will also have access to one-on-one instructional sessions with Hablando Inglés professors at the Miami academy located in Little Havana, Juan Carlos promises. If I can't get to the school, no problem, he adds.

He grabs his cell phone and dials a number listed on the front of the exercise book. He hands me the phone. A man with a thick Cuban accent answers in Spanish: "It is my pleasure to speak with you. My name is Rodolfo, and I am one of the teachers at the academy. You can call in from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and we are at your service."

The DVDs, CDs, books, and academy access — along with a pair of headphones, an MP3 player, and a dictionary — can all be mine for a down payment of $250 and the low price of $67 a month over four years, the salesman offers. He even throws in a contraption with a speaker that I'm supposed to attach to the inside of my elbow when I go to sleep so that my subconscious can learn English while I'm knocked out.