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.
Miami street signs
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.
"Is that a deal or what?" Juan Carlos quizzes me. "And the best part is that once you're paid off, you can use our products and services for the rest of your life."
I tell him I'll get back to him. There is a romantic flair to the phonetic pronunciations that could come in very handy if I find my soul mate on echatepaca.com.
The following day, I call Juan Carlos and take a pass on Hablando Inglés by speaking to him in perfect English. He is quite surprised how quickly I have mastered the language. That's when I tell him I've been speaking English for 31 years. "Well now I feel like a pendejo," he says, bursting out laughing.
Next, I call the number on the "Handyman Special." It leads me to a two-bedroom, one-bath, single-story residence at 1210 NW 125th St. in North Miami. The house could use a fresh coat of exterior paint to replace the drab light-pink color scheme. Tall weeds and overgrown bushes have devoured the front yard. The roof looks like it needs work. And the windows are boarded up. But for $48,500 it's a steal, Dean gushes when he answers the phone. He tells me I don't necessarily need all the cash to buy the house. "If you can come up with 40 percent and closing costs, we can get you a hard-money loan," Dean explains. "But to be honest, $5,000 to $10,000 is not going to be enough."
Dean claims to be a real estate investor residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but buying and selling properties in Miami-Dade. He is among dozens of land hustlers whose roadside signs troll for customers. All of them are looking to capitalize on the recession. Some act as middlemen for banks hoping to unload their housing inventory from the record rash of foreclosures in Miami-Dade.
Dean, who declines to provide his surname, boasts he earns $10,000 to $15,000 on each of his real estate transactions. He asks me if I am looking to buy the North Miami abode as an investment. "You may want to do a mentorship program with me," Dean suggests. "I can teach you. Making one deal will pay back your investment. And you can do it from anywhere in the world. All you need is a phone and a computer."
Basically, he would generate sales leads for me and give me access to his hard-money lenders to start closing deals. "You have access to my information and my connections," Dean offers. "You have access to my inventory. If I have seven, eight properties to show investors, so do you."
Essentially, Dean tries to sell recently foreclosed properties owned by banks and lenders to real estate investors looking to buy houses at drastically reduced prices. In the case of the North Miami home, it used to be owned by a man named Jean Carlo Adrasse, who took out a $210,000 mortgage to buy the property in 2007. He stopped making payments a year later. In 2009, his lender, Countrywide Home Loans Service, filed a lawsuit against Adrasse to foreclose on the residence. According to court documents, Adrasse owed $210,000 plus late charges and attorney fees.
When the house was sold at auction last September 28, Countrywide bought it back for just $20,300. Dean is now marketing the property at more than double the bank's purchase price. And that's how the real estate cycle renews itself over and over.
"This is a great time to be selling to investors," he brags. "You can make $8,000 on one deal. Do three or four a month, and you're doing pretty good. I've even made $30,000 on just one deal."
A graduate of Miami Beach High, Dean says he moved to New Mexico a few years ago when his wife landed a job with the government. He doesn't specify which agency. "I enjoy teaching people my business," he says. "I taught my uncle, who is still in Miami. He was literally broke. Now he's making close to $150,000 a year."
A six-figure salary would certainly increase my chances of finding a date on echatepaca.com, I ponder. I had set up a profile on the dating service two weeks ago and still hadn't met any women. In fact, I couldn't even get a conversation started in the chatroom. No one understood the English Juan Carlos taught me.
Dean assures me his business model would get me laid and rich at the same time.
He gives me another phone number, his private line, to call him back if I decide to take him up on his apprenticeship offer.
I meet Samuel Pichardo at a table outside the Starbucks on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 135th Street. The 23-year-old North Bay Village resident, with his oval-framed eyeglasses and skinny body, resembles an Xbox champ rather than a shrewd businessman with a plan to conquer the handyman market within the tri-county region one roadside sign at a time. "Road signs have an extremely high return call rate," Pichardo says authoritatively. "It costs me $1.50 per sign, which generates five to ten calls. The key is placing the signs in high-density places."
Pichardo is the mastermind behind the "Fix wut your husband destroyed" sign. His number leads to the handyman referral business he started more than a year ago with his 31-year-old girlfriend, Ena Devi, while they were chilling inside a Barnes & Noble bookstore. She is with Pichardo when we meet at the Starbucks. "Signs work for anything and everything," Devi attests. "I told Sam it would be nice to have one number to get ten handymen to call you back."
They took the idea, got the number, and began putting up signs. Their first office was the back of a hair salon in North Miami Beach. "I met our first customer at a Pollo Tropical," Pichardo recalls. "He gave me $20. From then on, we just kept growing and growing."
Today, Pichardo claims, he has 18 handymen on his rotation. "Ten of them are paying between $300 and $900 a month to let us find them leads. The other eight are on the $80 trial period. We guarantee you at least four leads to start, but we don't promise you will get hired for a job."
After a few minutes, Pichardo and Devi take me to the company office. Earlier this year, they upgraded to a penthouse suite in an office building just a couple of blocks north of the Starbucks, overlooking Biscayne Boulevard. Pichardo employs four people who work strictly on commission. He also has a website that features a Vimeo video of Pichardo sitting at his desk while wearing a hard hat and an unbuttoned dress shirt that shows off part of his bird chest. "It seems I found the magic formula to find that work," Pichardo says in the footage. "I want to extend to you the opportunity to reap the benefits and rewards from what I have to offer."
Pichardo says he places 50 to 100 signs a day at least three times a week from Homestead to West Palm Beach. "Code enforcement officers take down our signs all the time. But the signs are so cheap that we can afford to keep putting up more. So not only are we keeping handymen employed, we are also making sure code enforcement workers still have a job."
(North Miami Code Enforcement director Alan P. Graham, whose city is plastered with road signs, says his department takes down 20 to 30 signs a day. Even though the signs are considered litter, Graham says, the city has no way of enforcing tickets against sign-posters. "The citations are meaningless to them," he says. "We've tried to call people in the past to tell them not to do it, but the next day their signs are back up.")
The son of Dominican and Jamaican parents, Pichardo graduated from Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in 2006. His entrepreneurial streak took hold as a kid playing computer civilization and strategy games such as Command & Conquer and Sim City. "Those games teach you how to build and strategize for life and building a business," Pichardo says. "Whether it's a game or running a real company or managing your personal life, you have to know how to pool your resources if you want to get ahead."
He attended Miami Dade College for a couple of semesters but dropped out to work for Nouveau Riche, a multilevel marketing company that teaches people how to buy and sell real estate. "I was 18 years old when I made my first real estate deal," Pichardo recalls. "I made $42,000." The transaction involved a Miami Beach condo at 1226 Marseille Dr. in which Pichardo owned an interest.
His mentors at Nouveau Riche also taught him about road-sign marketing. "That is how we primarily got our clientele," Pichardo says. "Two of my employees now were recruited by me to work for Nouveau Riche." During the first two years with the company, business was good, the aspiring mogul says. "I accrued a lot of cash, so I started giving people hard-money loans up to $40,000. I still do that, as well as buy and sell real estate at wholesale prices."
By the end of the year, Pichardo wants to have 50 handymen onboard, as well as bases in Broward and Palm Beach counties. He also wants to meet with British aviation and media impresario Richard Branson to share another one of his grand business ideas. Pichardo is very familiar with Branson's grandiose scheme for commercial space travel. "I want to talk to him about developing the first orbital hotel," Pichardo says. "I'm rather disappointed we haven't built one yet."
I ask him if he knows of any roadside signs advertising a dating service, since my chances of finding a woman on echatepaca.com are about as good as Pichardo and Branson in astronaut suits hobnobbing around a space station. Pichardo gives me a quizzical look. "No, haven't seen any of those. But it's a good idea."
On a muggy July evening, more than two dozen people congregate at the lobby bar inside the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Dressed in a dark dress shirt with a black tie, black vest, and black slacks, Angel Taipale makes his way to the front entrance of the hotel's Arkadia nightclub to talk to me. The 25-year-old Cuban-American works six nights a week as a floor supervisor for Arkadia so that he can dedicate some daytime hours to his fledgling enterprise — buying and selling real estate at wholesale prices to investors. You'll find his number stamped on signs advertising cash for houses. He's also Pichardo's roommate and onetime Nouveau Riche employee. The pair lives in a luxurious two-bedroom condo in North Bay Village.
"I met Sam four years ago at a real estate class he was holding," Taipale says. "He is a really bright kid. He can flip anything. I started off doing leg work on some of Sam's deals." Two years later, he has been doing real estate transactions on his own, as well as partnering with his roommate to buy properties. "I sometimes use his capital to close deals," Taipale admits. "I've already done six transactions on my own this past year. That was my learning curve."
When Taipale gets calls from people wanting to sell a property, he puts them through a screening process to determine how serious they are about quickly consummating a deal. "You have to gauge their motivation to sell first," Taipale says. "So I will ask them a series of questions, like how much they owe the bank and what condition the property is in."
His goal is to buy single-family houses at 50 to 60 percent lower than the assessed market value and then flip the assets to wholesale investors within 30 days. Using Sam's handyman referral service, Taipale fixes up any properties that need work.
On his most recent deal, a three-bedroom house in Miami Gardens, Taipale claims he made a $5,000 profit. "Last year I cleared about $25,000," he says. "I'm also starting to do deals on multihousing units. Right now I have a building with six apartments I'm trying to let go."
Road signs have been his most effective marketing tool, he says. "It generates a high volume of calls while saving me a ton of money on advertising. As a business owner just getting started," he says, "you gotta work with what you got."
The oldest of five siblings, Taipale took a job as a pool attendant after he graduated from Miami Beach Senior High in 2004. Like Pichardo, Taipale also dropped out of Miami Dade College. "I went for about a month," Taipale explains. "But the classes were too slow for me, and I always wanted to be my own boss."
Working at Arkadia, he meets a lot of successful businessmen who provide him with inspiration and leads, Taipale notes. "I've met guys who have money that they don't know what to do with," he says. "These dudes who come to Arkadia can do whatever they want. All they do now is oversee their money. That's something I want."
I feel Taipale's go-getter enthusiasm rubbing off on me. I admire his moxie. He convinces me that I can start my own global empire teaching immigrants English, flipping real estate in the hood, and finding jobs for handymen. But, I think to myself, I still need to get in tip-top physical shape. Not just to prepare myself for my next hustle, but to impress the debutante I might eventually meet via a sign post.
On a late Tuesday afternoon, I come across a road sign promising a buff body in six weeks at Xtreme Gym at 230 71st St. in Miami Beach. Alas, the phone number listed on the cardboard is disconnected. I locate a former gym member named Juan, who informs me Xtreme closed one month after he signed up for a membership. "Luckily I was paying month-to-month," Juan says. "So I only lost the 45 bucks I paid for the first month."
I drive a few blocks north on Collins Avenue when I'm distracted by the marquee of a former movie theater that was built in 1931 on 74th Street. Bold red and black letters read, "Condesa Gym: Drama classes, zumba, tai chi, cardio boxing, belly dance."
I have stumbled on the perfect spot to get fit and learn some acting, which could come in handy in my nascent second career as a road sign entrepreneur. After all, a good salesman has to know when to turn on the charm even if he doesn't have any.
Inside the theater, the scent of stale sweat hits my nostrils like a left hook to the face. Thumping techno music echoes throughout the cavernous auditorium where gym equipment, barbells, and a parquet dance floor have replaced the rows of theater seats. The movie screen is still intact.
Condesa Gym owner Ricardo Brito lounges in a leather chair in the lobby. A salt-and-pepper-haired, muscular man wearing blue jeans and a body-hugging navy polo, Brito explains I can opt for a three-month membership for $100, but for an extra $50, I can also take the classes he offers. The acting component is taught by his Cuban-born wife, who graduated from Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte. "In the fall, we are going to put on local productions on Friday and Saturday evenings," Brito says. "We'll be allowing our students to play roles alongside professional actors."
But that's not all, Brito continues. "We're a dance school too. We teach tango and salsa Tuesday and Thursday evenings." I was set.
By the time I meet my dream woman, I'll be a dashing, hip-swaying real estate mogul with a chiseled body and an ultramagnetic command of the English language.
On a Thursday morning in early August, I park in the semicircular driveway of a single-story blue house on the corner of Sheridan Street and 58th Avenue in Hollywood. Nearly a month after learning English by pronouncing words in Spanish and finding out how I can make money buying and selling real estate using road signs, I still have had no luck getting a date on echatepaca.com. And my mission to track down a dating service on a sign post has hit a dead end. So I called the tarot card reader whose number I saw on a post and now find myself in front of her house. I need some spiritual guidance. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place.
A sandy-blond, middle-aged woman with thick-framed spectacles answers the glass front door. Her name is Valentina, a Catholic woman whose father is from Yugoslavia and mother is from Argentina. She leads me to a room where the deck of tarot cards rests on a table.
"Guen was de las taym ju had a riden?" Valentina asks. I inform her it is my first tarot card reading. "O, berri guut," she replies. "I layk furs-taymars."
She instructs me to cut the deck three times. Then she grabs the cards and begins to lay each one down face-up. "I guill tel ju de trood," Valentina explains. "De guut and de bad."
According to the cards, she says, I need to look after my health. "En six mons, ju mae haf problems wid jur blud," Valentina says. "Et cuud be hai colesterol or hai blud preshur. Ju nid tu exersaese mor."
I would also start something new in my career, she adds. Well, becoming a road sign entrepreneur is definitely on my horizon, I tell her. "Ah," she says. "Guell, de cards sae in tu jers, ju will maek moni. Bot not naow."
I inquire: What about my future lady friend? "I sens daubt," Valentina concedes.
She points to a card depicting a woman under the pale moonlight. "Der es a guman," Valentina asserts. "But shi es duen blak majeek on ju. Shi dun't guant ju tu sockcid. Only fale, fale."
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Who is Teresa Guzman ("Der es a guman")? And why would she want me to fail ("fale, fale"), or was it fall?
I was dumbfounded. Here I was searching for a woman, and she had already found me. And it wasn't good.
Valentina instructs me to surround myself with only positive people and energy. Before I leave, she offers her assistance: "I kan halp ju. I kan du a klensin — una limpieza — for ju. But et es goin tu caost ju sum moni."
One hundred fifty dollars to be exact.