A Skid Row Sleepover

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The stretch of Biscayne Boulevard that slices through the Upper Eastside has long been Miami's version of skid row. Near hotels with bright neon signs that are totems of some bygone era of tourism -- the Seven Seas, Sinbad, Shalimar, Star Dust, Vagabond, and Sunshine Motel -- hookers ply their trade curbside. Pimps lurk nearby. And crack dealers whisper offers to passing pedestrians.

But in the past few years, the boulevard has, well, turned a corner. Real estate from downtown north to 79th Street has shot up in value and millions of dollars in construction is under way. Just north of Bayside, the Miami Heat is building a $165 million arena. A few blocks up, the county will soon commence construction on a $200-plus million performing arts center. Smaller projects line the boulevard to NE 55th Street, where a fashionable restaurant named for Miami's premier restaurateur, Mark Soyka, opened in May. A gourmet grocery has been operating next door since April and both a cinema and a new theater are planned for the neighborhood. Urban homesteading in Morningside, Belle Meade, and Buena Vista has both fueled and benefited from the boom.

The outlaw culture along Biscayne may or may not survive the yuppie onslaught, but one thing is clear: The place has a powerful draw. Both the humble and the mighty have been apprehended while pursuing sordid sex here. It was at NE 31st Street just off Biscayne, in 1992, that former-County Commissioner Joe Gersten was caught smoking crack with a hooker while thieves stole his Mercedes. In April 1998 Miami-Dade County Court Judge Reginald Richardson was charged with offering $50 to a prostitute at the corner of Biscayne and, coincidentally, NE 31st Street. And of course, this past January, on Super Bowl eve, Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson was popped by the cops at NE 22nd Street trying to pick up an undercover officer pretending to be a call girl. He offered $40 for a blowjob. Robinson agreed to counseling and the charges were dropped. Gersten took off for Australia. Richardson was acquitted after claiming he stopped to help a woman in distress.

Such a distinguished history.

And yet this era could be nearing an end. So in late August I resolved to see firsthand the motels and those who earn their livings at night. So, on a Thursday night I threw some shirts, pants, underwear, a bathing suit (ever the optimist), and a pewter flask containing some ten-year-old Haitian rum into a backpack and embarked from my South Beach apartment.

My first stop was just off the boulevard at the home of two friends who live in Morningside. The city is currently finishing a decadelong project to block access into the neighborhood from Biscayne (workers are placing barriers where NE 52nd Terrace through NE 57th Street meet the boulevard and two guard gates are going up), so I was forced to turn at NE 52nd Street. The reason for the construction is residents' desire to thwart prostitutes, drug dealers, and others from taking their clients down the quiet, tree-lined streets.

My friends, a photographer and a writer, rent a beautiful Thirties-era, two-bedroom, pale peach house. Its back yard includes two avocado trees and an aviary. After questioning my idea of a good time, one of them offers me some pillow cases. I decline. I don't want to dilute the experience. She then wraps a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in tinfoil. I accept. When I turn on to Biscayne, the quiet, banyan-lined streets vanish like a mirage.

My plan is to stay in the most rundown motel first and then upgrade. At 10:00 p.m. I pull into the parking lot of the Sinbad Motel on NE 61st Street. Almost as soon as I step from my car, I hear a husky voice to my left ask, "You need anything?" I turn and observe a young black man on the sidewalk. I quickly conclude he's not a motel employee. "No, no," I say. "I'm okay." Then I walk briskly to the office, a cashier's window with bulletproof glass, and ring the buzzer. An Indian man appears. A list of rules posted on a wall next to the window states in bold print: "There are no hourly rates!" I ask for a room. "Thirty-three dollars. You can't have any unregistered guests in your room, and no drug use," he warns sternly. That shouldn't be a problem, I tell him. I fork over the cash, along with a two-dollar key deposit. He gives me room number 24 on the second floor. On the way to my car to get my bag, I pass a scruffy man in a T-shirt and jeans. "Need anything? Need anything?" he asks quietly. "No, I'm good," I shake my head. As I turn back toward the motel, I note a friendly looking couple sitting on the stairs.

When I step into my room, I get a perverse thrill. It's delightfully seedy. There is one double bed, a dresser, a bedside table, and a TV mounted on a swinging arm that is attached to the wall. The strong scent of deodorizer fills the humid air. I turn on the air conditioner, which emits a frigid breeze. The blinds are drawn, but where some of the slats have broken, newspaper is taped to the window. I examine the bathroom. The fixtures are stained with rust and there is a nearly empty roll of toilet paper. I decide to leave my things in my dopp kit.

I open the drawer on my bedside table. Apparently no Bible-toting Gideons have visited recently. Stretched out and wrinkled is a used condom. When I stop laughing, I call my friend and tell her what I've found. "Ewww!" she gags. I don't complain to housekeeping. Instead I step outside with my flask of rum and two cups and meander over to the couple on the stairs. They introduce themselves as Dred and Tina. I offer some rum. Dred, who is in his forties, doesn't drink. Tina, a decade or two younger, accepts a small amount. I ask them what they're up to.

"Oh, we kind of night birds," Tina explains. "It's too hot during the day, so we sleep in." She explains that they've been living at the Sinbad for about four months. In exchange for a rent reduction, they clean up around the motel. I decide against mentioning the condom and ask about other places to stay. Dred says the rooms at the Shalimar across the street might be slightly bigger. Tina adds that they like the Sinbad better. "One good thing is that the owner is real strict," she says, referring to the man behind the glass. The proprietor is now picking up cans in the parking lot. He introduces himself as Brian and eyes me warily. I hide my flask.

Back upstairs I turn on the TV and flip through the channels. The selection includes basic cable, the local network affiliates, and a hard-core porn channel. At Holiday Inns and Marriotts you have to pay extra for adult movies. Wouldn't you know it? At the Sinbad they're free.

It's 2:00 a.m. I've been watching Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and resting. Now it's time to go for a walk.

The boulevard in the very early morning is transformed from the thoroughfare that commuters travel during the day. It becomes a bazaar catering to animal desire. As I cross NE 61st Street and head north, two or three people per block offer drugs. From the shadows spectral figures query, "You straight?" Men with 40-ounce beers sit on the hoods of cars parked on side streets. If I look directly at any one of them, he yells "Hey, hey, I got what you want." There is a presumption of intimacy. I'm stunned that no one appears concerned I might be a cop. Perhaps their customers, like me, are straitlaced-looking white guys.

"Hey, hey, wait a minute," a female voice pipes up as I pass the Amoco station on NE 69th Street.

I turn to see a tall black woman in a slinky dress. "What's up?" I ask.

"You are, I hope," she responds.

I laugh, and shake my head. "Sorry, honey, I'm not up for that. I'm just taking a walk."

"I really wish you would. I'll be honest, I just got out here, and I don't have nothing yet, nothing." She says her name is Smokey.

"How long does it usually take you?" I ask. "Like, twenty minutes?"

I realize too late it was an indelicate question. Smokey glares at me. "What?" Then she flashes her leg through the slit in her dress. "More like twenty, thirty seconds," she scoffs. I apologize and continue my walk.

A shirtless white guy wearing a white baseball cap yells at me from across the boulevard. "Hey! Hey!" He crosses over. "All the good shit's up on 71st Street," he offers. "Just taking a walk," I answer. He looks at me and smiles. I back away.

But my curiosity is piqued. Did he mean good hookers or drugs? I proceed to NE 71st Street. There's no one there so I turn around and walk south. I pass the white guy again. "Did you see anything?" he asks. "You want me to show you?" I tell him I don't have any money. That's the most effective thing I've said all night. It produces immediate results. "Oh," he says and turns away.

In my room at the Sinbad, I sniff the sheets before crawling into bed. They smell of bleach. It's a little after 3:00 a.m.

This is not the legacy Biscayne Boulevard's architects had in mind when they began construction in 1925. Roy Wright and Hugh Anderson, owners of the Shoreland Company, envisioned a grand, landscaped entrance into Miami. They wanted to supplant the other main artery into the city at the time, West Dixie Highway. As part of their plan, Wright and Anderson bought the Charles Deering estate, located on the bay north of 36th Street, then subdivided it into a high-class residential area known as Miami Plaza (and now known as Bay Point). Their new roadway merged with the federal highway at NE 55th Street and became part of U.S. 1.

Wright and Anderson's efforts coincided with the beginning of Miami's first big real estate boom, a notorious period in this city's history. In the early Twenties, greedy hucksters descended on Miami and began marketing subtropical acreage that was often swampland. The result was a land rush fueled by Wall Street's bull market. For thirteen months, according to Miami Millions, a 1936 account by Kenneth Ballinger, the Miami Herald bloated to five times its usual size.

In her book Biscayne Country, historian Thelma Peters cites a letter penned by developer Wright that recounts his company's 1924 land purchase on downtown's eastern fringe. "This created a lot of excitement and sales, and we really thought it had a lot to do with starting the boom. Then again we rang the curtain down on the boom, as we were still buying properties on the boulevard and had just put on the Deering estate when the boom died on us. These were the last large transactions of the boom."

Hit hard by the bust that came in 1926 (and the devastating hurricane that followed), Wright and Anderson accepted a loan from the J.S. Phipps estate of New York. When they defaulted that year, Phipps took control of the property and formed the Biscayne Boulevard Company to complete the project. According to Ballinger: "Like the anesthesia which prepares our nerves for the shock of the surgeon's knife, the creation of Biscayne boulevard [sic] kept Miami going during the summer of 1926 despite the discovery that $50,000 lots no longer could be sold for one-tenth of that amount, or that the 'summer tourist season' of 1925 was nothing but a delusion.

"The boulevard, therefore, is something more than just a wide strip of asphalt to South Florida. It is an institution whose bright flowering of today gives no hint of the bitter disappointments on which its roots first fed."

In the morning I reinspect the bathroom and decide not to shower. I throw on some clothes and saunter seven blocks south to Feinkost, the gourmet grocery. I have a coffee, a croissant, and a fresh orange juice while reading the Herald. The bill is four dollars. I might as well be on South Beach. Then I page to the story about Judge Richardson's acquittal on charges of soliciting a prostitute. Part of the reason for the jury's decision was testimony by Richardson's wife, Corinne. In open court she said the two have a healthy sex life, the article states.

After breakfast I begin searching for another motel. I inspect the nondescript rooms of Stephan's International on NE 63rd Street. They are less ragged than the Sinbad, but without the gritty character. Moreover the clerk demands $38 per night, five dollars more than his neighbor. Next I go to the Davis at NE 65th Street, where the cost is $40 per night. I decline. As I leave the office, I notice a machine that dispenses aspirin and condoms by the door.

I'm walking the same stretch of road as last night. Other than a few men lounging by the Amoco, the sunlight has for the most part forced the illicit trade into the shadows. I pass a group of Haitian women waiting for a bus with grocery bags. A woman in a fast-food-restaurant uniform briskly passes me.

I bump into the white guy I saw the night before. He's dressed in exactly the same garb: shorts, no shirt, and backward white baseball cap. "Hey," he says groggily. Feeling a little more secure in the daylight, I introduce myself and tell him I'm a writer. "Cool! What do you want to know? I can tell you some good shit," he offers. We arrange to meet later for lunch. "Great, I need some food," he says, adding that his name is Sonny.

I end up checking into the Shalimar, a once jazzy Fifties-style spot between NE 61st and 62nd streets. It only costs $33 per night. As a bonus the parking lot is protected by a gate. While exiting my car I see a pretty young white woman and three black men in a faded gold Honda. She flashes a lascivious grin. When I smile back, one of the men nudges her in the side.

After I deposit my bags in my room, I leave to look for Sonny. He's nowhere to be found, so I return to my room.

In 1994 the city's Nuisance Abatement Board temporarily closed the Shalimar after police documented ten instances of drug dealing and prostitution in its rooms during a six-month period. The board also determined the owners were unable "to abate the drug-related nuisance." It closed in December 1994. When it reopened six months later, the owners had installed four sets of security cameras, 175-watt lights, a motorized gate, and a beam sensor alarm.

At about 11:00 p.m. I go out for a stroll. One of the first people I see is the pretty girl I observed in the car at the motel. She is standing alone on a side street.

"Hi," she says. "I saw you at the Shalimar. Can I come to your room later?"

I'm thrown by her aggressiveness. "No," I stammer. "I'm just out for a walk."

She doesn't miss a beat. "I just want to come to your room and drink some beer, you know?" She says her name is Michelle. She has a tattoo of a tribal weave around her bicep. I retreat.

As I pass the Neighborhood Enhancement Team office on NE 66th Street, I notice a half-dozen Miami police cars are parked out front. I walk inside and find the place bustling. Two sergeants are seated at desks. Young men in jeans and black T-shirts that read "Police" are writing reports and checking their radios. Three saucily dressed, svelte young black women are lounging in the rear of the open white room. I assume the cops have arrested three hookers. I'm wrong. The women are undercover officers. They are preparing for a sting operation.

I give the sergeant, a clean-shaven man in a green polo shirt, my card and tell him I'm interested in observing. This is how it works, he tells me. The three female officers stand out on Biscayne within sight of at least two male cops, termed the "takedown squad." When cars approach, the women negotiate a price for their services. If drivers mention a dollar amount, officers request a meeting around the corner, where the beefy backups are waiting.

For the next two hours I wait in the station and watch as a parade of males wearing plastic handcuffs are written up, then released. There's an endless supply. Biscayne is a river for depraved desire. Most of the johns react dispassionately when they learn their cars are being towed and that they will be charged with soliciting a prostitute, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail for a first offender. Under a one-year-old city program, the johns will have to pay $1000 to get their cars back.

One of the first arrestees is Miguel, a 33-year-old, mustachioed, one-legged man in shorts and no shirt. He enters the station on crutches after a blond, baby-faced cop solicitously opens the door. Despite his disability Miguel is healthy and almost boyish in appearance. He jokes with the officers in English and Spanish. When the paperwork is complete, they allow him to step outside and smoke a cigarette. He agrees to talk with me as long as I don't use his last name.

"I pulled up to this corner and this lady came up to me, and, you know, she said, 'How much you got?' and I said, 'Hey, I just bought this beer, I got about eighteen dollars,'" he recounts. "She says, 'Eighteen bucks sounds pretty good to me. Meet me around the corner.'" Miguel laughs. "I've lived in Miami too long. Here's a beautiful young thing, straight out of Playboy, and she's willing to go with me for eighteen bucks? I said to her 'You smell like 'trol [as in 'patrol']. She's like, 'No, no, I ain't no cop.' I didn't go where she wanted me to go, but they pulled me over anyway."

Miguel takes a long drag from his cigarette, and leans heavily on his crutches. "Let 'em arrest me." He winks and gestures to his stump. He says he lost his leg owing to clogged arteries, which he describes as "old man's disease." "They can't do anything worse to me than that. I tell you what: I'm going to go home and I'll get another car and I'll pick up another prostitute tonight most likely. You can't keep me down."

In five hours police net nineteen alleged johns. Among them is a Spaniard dressed in a pressed blue shirt, gray slacks, and black dress shoes. There's also a heavyset sixteen-year-old kid who tells the officers he was on his way home from a football game when friends dared him to talk to a woman they assumed was a hooker. The arrest report states he offered five dollars for a blowjob.

Across the street at the Davis Motel, Adela is watching the activity from the balcony. She is from the Bahamas and comes to Miami once a month to shop for supplies she can't find in Nassau, she explains. A travel agent booked her in the Davis because it is near the office of a doctor whom a friend is seeing. Motel managers and the police tell me that many of the legitimate guests at the motels are from the Caribbean islands.

I explain to Adela why the police cars and handcuffed men are there. "This is frightening, mon" she says with an island lilt. "Why are the men doing this? Are they here in this motel?" she asks. "Do you think there are prostitutes in this motel?"

Even during the Great Depression, the boulevard was a source of pride for the city, according to a 1939 Work Projects Administration Guide to Florida. The publication describes Biscayne as "Miami's show street ... adorned with royal palms." After World War II, when the United States started its love affair with the automobile, motels sprang up on the boulevard in a cluster. They catered to tourists on their way to the Keys and families who couldn't afford pricier inns on Miami Beach. The new structures were modest, affordable, and clean. There were few architectural flourishes; they were geared more toward convenience than style. The signs, swirls of neon, accented by flashing light bulbs, were the sole flamboyant touches.

Stores such as Burdines and Jordan Marsh, restaurants like the Red Coach Grill, and movie theaters sprang up on Biscayne. All along the boulevard restaurants and shops opened. "This was just a grand area," recalls historian Paul George, who grew up in Miami. "This was a wholesome street, very safe."

The construction of I-95 in the early Sixties put an end to this boom. Once the highway was complete (the link from downtown to NE 95th Street was finished in 1962) travelers bypassed Biscayne on their way to points south. That strangled the life from the motels. Other forces were at work on the boulevard: the racial strife of the Sixties, which prompted white flight from the inner city; the subsequent rise in crime; and the crack epidemic. It became outlaw heaven.

The first motel owners, mostly white, sold their establishments mostly to Indians and Koreans, relatively new immigrant groups that have a history of operating businesses in the inner city. During the late Eighties the Yahwehs, an African-American religious sect, bought a motel at NE 74th Street, cleaned it up, and drove off drug dealers and hookers. The arrest and conviction of six members of the group and its leader, Yahweh Ben Yahweh, for conspiracy to commit murder, put an end to that effort.

But the stately homes east of the boulevard never abandoned their aristocratic heritage. The modern history of Biscayne is replete with instances of homeowners refusing to surrender to the dealers and hookers. In 1989 several Morningside residents, fed up with the boulevard's flesh market, took to the streets chanting anti-prostitution slogans and carrying signs reading "No hookers," "Jail that tail," and "Does your wife know?" In 1990 then-Miami Police Chief Perry Anderson created a special squad to target the prostitution and drug dealing on the boulevard and in the motels. In its first month the squad arrested ten people, all employees of Biscayne Boulevard motels. They were charged with abetting prostitution.

In 1992 the city formed the Nuisance Abatement Board. Since then the NAB has forced seven Biscayne motels to close for between three and nine months because of drug and prostitution activity. The Best Value, Seven Seas, Star Dust, the Metro (now the Camelot), the Bay Point, the Laurel, and the Shalimar all were disciplined. The Laurel never reopened.

Joyce Schuller, a manager of the Seven Seas Motel at NE 59th and Biscayne, after finding out the board was investigating her establishment, told the Miami Herald: "We are always asking for security. We call [police]. We write up people who are hanging out. We tolerate no traffic after 11:00 p.m. We really try hard ... but it's a losing battle."

The Vagabond is easily the most visually pleasing motel on this stretch of Biscayne. Its façade is vintage Fifties, complete with a statue of cavorting nymphs. It boasts the only pool I've spotted so far. Alas, it's raining. The room is like all the others: tired. A roach crawls across the floor when I enter and I crush it. There's a small refrigerator in the corner. It is unplugged and its doors are open. The TV has HBO and the requisite hard-core porn channel. Through a locked door that connects to the room next to mine, I hear a couple arguing. I can't make out the words. I lie back on the bed and try to imagine decades ago, when dad in his porkpie hat and mom in her beehive would have parked the Chevy station wagon and booked the kids into the neighboring room. The image disintegrates when I imagine them turning on the TV and seeing The Erotic Network's current offering, which involves a closeup of the intersection of three people's genitalia.

In the morning as I head to my car, I notice a young white couple loading up a vehicle. I approach and introduce myself. They are Michael Mayer and Christine Huber, Austrian tourists on their way to the Keys. "It was the first [hotel] we looked at and it was cheap," Christine says. Then, with a serious look on her face, she adds, "I think it's not the finest, how do you say, quarter of Miami."

That may be, but Miami Police Ofcr. Gregory Bavonese, who was assigned to the Biscayne beat fifteen years ago, has witnessed immense change on the boulevard. "In 1984 there were ten hookers per intersection. The sidewalk was lined with guys drinking, pimping, doing whatever from bus benches. And that was in the daytime!" he recounts. "This is Disney World compared to then."

Robbery and burglary arrests in the area are down from years past, Bavonese asserts. During the first six months of 1993 there was a shooting a month on the boulevard. Now there are far fewer. And police run about two prostitution stings per week. On average the cops arrest between fifteen and twenty johns in about five hours.

Several nights later, I return to track down Sonny. I find him in front of the Amoco station at NE 69th Street. "Wow, I was so drunk that day I saw you, that after you left, I fell asleep behind the gas station," he explains, apologizing for our missed lunch appointment. He's ready to talk now. We find a secluded spot and sit down. Sonny, 30 years old with dirty blond hair, nurses a can of Budweiser. He holds a six-pack on his lap. During our conversation he downs three beers.

"I started hanging out on the boulevard about ten years ago, when my addiction hit bad," he starts. "Crack. Then the alcohol hit worse. As soon as I started hanging out on the boulevard -- I was twenty at the time -- guys started hitting me up. And I'm straight. I remember the first time was like after a couple of days. Some white guy tried to give me ten dollars [for oral sex] and I said, 'Hell no,' because I had never done that before. I told him it was going to be at least $100. He said I was in the wrong place for that, so I got out of the car."

Soon, though, he caved to market forces. Clients paid $10 to $20 for sex. "There's a lot of guys out here, but it's not as lucrative [as the female trade]. With the women a guy can be on his way to work or dinner or wherever, and see something he likes and whoa! he pulls over. But gay males, as a rule, plan when they're going to go out and get a trick. The guys want to take you home, they want to love and caress and be with somebody."

Sonny says he's worked as a waiter, a cruise-line reservationist, and a bar back. He has repeatedly lost jobs because of his problems with drugs and booze, ending up back on the boulevard like driftwood thrown into the ocean. At times he has paid for sex. He also services jittery suburbanites who pull over and give him money to buy crack. His latest gig is a "houseboy job" (his term) for two gay men, he says. He cleans the house and has sex with them for $100 per week plus room and board.

He looks at me, trying to discern what I'm thinking. "I'm telling you, I'm straight. I like pussy. In fact I just broke up with the hottest chick out there, a three-year relationship, and I'm heartbroken."

Then he stands up. I say goodbye and he walks off toward the Amoco. He waves to a slender, white woman in a purple dress. Then he disappears around the corner.

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