Cocaine and Me: A Memoir

The summer of 1977 I was seventeen years old and working a pay-by-day gig on a construction site in the Grove, jackhammering concrete slabs at a shoddily laid duplex. The pay was crap ($40 a day), the work murderous, and my girlfriend Maritza, who was several years older and had a taste for the nightlife, throttled me ragged about money.

Orly, a buddy I often smoked weed and water-skied with, called to say the Mutiny Hotel in the Grove was hiring. "Caballo," he said, "we should shoot for a job there." Maritza, who had lived for a time with Rudy Rodriguez, a nefarious Miami coke tycoon and a Mutiny regular, squeezed me to apply for work at the hotel. "Baby, you won't have to kill yourself, and the money must be fabulous," she baited.

Snaring a steady job at the Mutiny seemed like a fantasy at the time. The 138-room hotel, located at 2951 S. Bayshore Dr., had opened in 1968 and by the late Seventies was reveling in its reputation as a raucous playground for Miami's drug-addled elite. The hotel was famous for magnificent, one-of-a-kind theme rooms with mirrors over the beds, Roman tubs, and opulent furnishings. It had become a pit of profane luxury and the eye of the cocaine storm buffeting Miami.

My friends talked excitedly of entering the exotic, members-only Mutiny Club. It was the most exclusive place in town, and we'd heard some wild stories about the club's "hostesses," reportedly all gorgeous models with loose morals. They were definitely the club's star attraction.

We all dreamed of becoming members and flashing the brass membership card with its eye-patched pirate logo, but we settled for stealing the snazzy Mutiny Club membership tags off parked cars to spruce up our own jalopies.

The position the Mutiny offered was "houseman" during the night shift. The other construction workers chided me about taking the job, predicting I'd end up a glorified gofer humping for the rich and rowdy. "Turkey, that's minimum wage and measly tips," they joked. But it beat working under the glaring sun and, as it turned out, the tips at the Mutiny landed me on easy street.

When I went to the hotel to fill out an application, I wore a crisply starched shirt, pleated slacks, and my best shoes. I remember feeling nervous and awed by the surroundings while waiting to meet a supervisor in the plush lobby. I noticed a bearded, older man in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals walking around and playing with the light bulbs in their fixtures. Waving his arms about and squinting, he left some bright and others dim. I pointed out his weird behavior to an employee at the front desk, who told me it was the Mutiny's owner, Burton Goldberg. "He likes to keep the lighting dark because it makes our older female guests' wrinkles less noticeable," she explained. I recall being impressed the owner would think of that.

I was hired at minimum wage plus tips and wondered if I'd exchanged one dead-end job for another. But my first night at the Mutiny I walked out with $200 in my pocket. What really surprised me about that night was the front desk sending me up to a room where a guest wanted me to get him some pot. I naively responded that I was on duty, then regained my composure and offered to return with some nickel bags at the end of my shift.

The guest, a pasty-skinned gringo from Chicago named Gus, who appeared to be a businessman in his early thirties, placed his hand on my shoulder, winked at me, and insisted he wanted "a lid — now." I didn't know if this was standard procedure but figured if I could make some extra cash on the sly, I was game.

"I'll be back in half," I promised and snagged his hundred-dollar bill. When I returned with twenty small manila envelopes stuffed with weed and rubber-stamped "Graveyard" (a street dealer's trademark identifying his spot a few blocks away), Gus chuckled and invited me into his room. He tipped me two of the nickel bags and a folded twenty-dollar bill full of cocaine, commending me on my honesty.

I worked the four-to-midnight shift. Maritza moaned about the hours, but I got used to them, and besides, the cash was better at night. I quickly became popular with the regulars who relied on me for errands; some even trusted me with their money. Gus, for example, happened to be a frequent visitor who often had me pick up cash transfers from a Western Union office in Little Havana and deliver to his room bags of cheap weed and boxes of pastelitos for the munchies. He always took care of me and never complained that the pot I would bring him consisted mostly of stems and seeds. It surprised me that a classy rich guy would settle for street dope when he could obviously afford top-of-the-line stuff.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus