The history of 55 SW Miami Avenue Road befits its singular location. In the past century it has been a gas station and a restaurant -- for a while it was both at the same time. It has been the scene of a burial and a stomping ground of Native Americans laden with coontie starch and egret plumes. For a piece of property that seems an afterthought, a leftover crumb of real estate, it has attracted some of Miami's more free-spirited souls.
Most people who know this part of the river were introduced to it by Thomas Orren Sykes, a plump, impish fellow who fancied socks dyed purple, cut-off overalls, and Connie Chung. Sykes -- commonly known as "Tommy" or "T.O." -- was proprietor of the Big Fish restaurant, an open-air dive at 55 SW Miami Avenue Road that, in its short life during the late Eighties and early Nineties, became something of a Miami institution.
An Ohioan by birth, Sykes moved with his wife and three daughters to Key Biscayne in the Fifties. After a divorce, he lived in a small guest cottage in the Spring Garden neighborhood, north of the river. He spent most of his life as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company. But in 1982, after his retirement, he took over a corner of a liquor store on Eighth Street and began serving up his soon-to-be-famous grouper sandwiches. About four years later he sublet half of Bud Dawson's service station at 55 SW Miami Avenue Road. The restaurateur converted one of Dawson Marine Service's mechanic's bays into a kitchen and jerrybuilt a lean-to roof with corrugated metal to create an outdoor terrace. Patricia Sykes, his youngest daughter, confides that her father made all these improvements without the proper permits.
Big Fish was T.O. Sykes's Monticello, an achingly faithful reflection of his character. He painted the freezer turquoise, the refrigerator purple. He fashioned tables out of barrels (also painted purple), topped them with circular planks of plywood, and called them "rooms," giving each a name -- the Connie Chung Room (he had a fierce crush on the newscaster), the Casey Room (after a dog who lolled about next door), the Fazenda Room (in honor of Louise Fazenda, a performer in Max Sennett's silent movies). The walls were bedecked with cards scrawled with aphorisms -- "Architecture: The art of how to waste space"; "May your future be filled with lawyers"; "If he can't say anything good about anybody, seat him next to me." And the music was as eclectic as the decor -- a Brandenburg Concerto one moment, Bob Marley the next, Shirley Temple seguing into the Gipsy Kings.
It all cost Sykes next to nothing. "He went about 'liberating' things," his daughter explains. "Liberating was one of his big words. Not stealing, liberating. You wouldn't believe what followed him home."
At the vortex of this frivolity and madness was Sykes himself. Seemingly discombobulated, he moved comfortably among the heterogeneous clientele -- longshoremen shoulder to shoulder with bankers, attorneys next to artists -- cracking jokes, singing along with the stereo, and nattering on to no one in particular. His social graces were all his own: Spotting a 60 Minutes correspondent taking a seat, he hustled over and exclaimed, "You're Bill Bradley!" And when several federal judges arrived to celebrate a colleague's birthday, he whipped out sparklers and had them tracing their names in the air and humming along with Bing Crosby. At its best Big Fish felt like a secret that everybody knew, but one that was still a secret. It was a club to which anyone could belong: The right to enter was granted merely because you were able to find the place.
Sykes's twilight-years absurdities were not an absolute surprise. On Key Biscayne he'd established himself as one of its more inventive characters, helping to found both the annual Fourth of July Parade and the volunteer fire department. Patricia Sykes, now 44 years old, remembers her father as never being quite like the others. "He taught us to toilet-paper houses the right way. How to ditch cars," she recalls admiringly. "Once I was out baby-sitting and he helped my friends toilet-paper our own house. He was so into capers. When the pope came to town, he spraypainted Anglican fish symbols down the middle of SE Fifth Street. He started at Brickell Avenue and painted a fish every two and a half feet 'cause he wanted the pope to come to Big Fish. Why Anglican fish? I don't know -- that was just Dad." The mission was all the more brazen in that it was conducted in the middle of the afternoon. "Everything I ever did with him was in broad daylight!" she exclaims. (Some of the Sykes graffiti legacy still remains: Look for the words Big Fish on the wall at the corner of SW First Avenue and SW Miami Avenue Road.)