Longform

Sandwich and a Hooker

It all begins with a touch on the forearm -- two fingers gently reminding me that I'm not alone tonight. Electricity shoots up my spine. She is a short, plump woman inching into her thirties. Her belly pushes out from beneath her red halter top. Chubby legs fill her skin-tight denim skirt. Part of a tooth is missing. But none of this matters. She is in control, and control makes her sexy on any night.

"Are you nervous?" she asks confidently in Spanish.

I am nervous. I am an Anglo venturing into a Latin subculture, looking for those places where you can get a sandwich and a hooker. So far I'm one for two.

"No, why?" I reply.

"Because you're rubbing your hands like this" -- she presses her palms together tightly and rotates them in half-circles, back and forth.

The place is necessarily dark. The only light comes from a jukebox in one corner and a small kitchen in an adjoining room. Occasionally someone slides a dollar bill into a metal slot to hear Los Tigres del Norte or Maná. A video-gambling machine sits idle near the entrance. A picture of the Virgin Mary hangs on one wall, a sampling of plastic beer logos on another. Several older men slump over the bar, mesmerized by sports highlights on a TV mounted above a refrigerated case stocked with beer. Behind the men is a row of booths where some couples drink and whisper quietly to one another. No one is in the kitchen, but pizza boxes are ready in case anyone wants a pie to go.

My suitor, who calls herself Maria, asks if I'll buy her a drink. I agree and she walks over to the case below the TV, slides open the metal door, and fetches herself a beer. Then she invites me to sit down with her in a booth. We inch into one side. The seats are covered with red vinyl; the tables are a little wobbly. Maria cuddles up and purrs, "You are beautiful." An obvious ploy but endearing nonetheless.

"You too are beautiful," I respond clumsily.

Over our beers, I find out Maria is from Nicaragua and has been in Miami for just a few months. She has three children -- thirteen, twelve, and four -- by two different men. There was no work in Nicaragua so she left for Miami, and this cafetería, Talisman Cubano at Flagler and 27th Avenue, is as good as it gets in Miami. She is paid twenty dollars per night to show up and mix with customers, plus five dollars for every beer guys like me buy her. Combined with the money one of her former lovers gives her, she has just enough to survive and feed her three children.

After two beers, Maria is anxious to move us toward a more lucrative venture. "Viénte-seis dólares," she tells me. She does the math for me: The cost of my beer is three dollars; hers costs ten. I give her the money. She pays an older woman behind the bar and returns with two more beers. Staring into my eyes, she tells me again that I'm beautiful. Unconsciously I start rubbing my palms together. Without altering her gaze she reaches for my leg. "Is everything on you so big?" she asks while squeezing my knee. I continue nervously rubbing my palms, trying to prepare myself for what I'm sure will come next. "Ohhhhh, tan grande," she repeats for the weak, lonely man inside of all of us. "Let's go to a motel," she murmurs. "I want to make love to you."


The cafetería subculture in Miami is a Latin American transplant. From Venezuela to Mexico, cantinas and restaurants serve food, drink, and sometimes women. They are places where a man can find a sandwich and cop a feel. He can also find his friends and neighbors to talk politics, sports, or just gossip. In Miami as elsewhere, cafeterías vary widely -- some are virtual brothels with pudgy prostitutes on offer, others are mom-and-pop joints for old-timers who want to complain about their wives and high taxes. They service everyone from the womanizers to the drunks, the politicians to the policemen.

According to police estimates, there are more than 100 registered cafeterías in the City of Miami. For years they were regulated by the same laws that apply to restaurants. A restaurant license was easier to acquire than a bar or nightclub license, and came with far fewer restrictions, though one stipulation stood out: Liquor was supposed to be "incidental" to food service. Most cafetería owners, however, simply ignored that.

Earlier this year Mayor Manny Diaz, who grew up in Miami, was prompted to take a fresh look at the cafeterías that have long been a part of the city's landscape. Police officials approached him seeking his support for a law that would close the "incidental" loophole. He agreed, and this past June, at Diaz's behest, the city commission unanimously passed a new law that officially distinguishes between cafeterías and restaurants. The definition of a restaurant goes on in minute detail for more than 200 words. This is the definition of a cafetería: "A place where food is obtained by self-service and may be eaten on the premises." Nuanced language, however, wasn't the issue. Liquor was the issue. The new law limits drinking hours in cafeterías from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays, and from noon to 10:00 p.m. on Sundays. In addition, cafeterías would now be required to maintain a 60/40 food-to-alcohol service ratio. The city also vowed to regularly inspect their books for food-alcohol compliance and their back rooms for any extracurricular activity.

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Steven Dudley
Contact: Steven Dudley