I encountered a nicely dressed couple from Europe at the beautiful new Miami Beach library on 22nd Street. I was typing a chapter of my novel on the 15-minute guest computer. I struck up a conversation with the man next to me, who was printing out a pile of financial documents. His wife joined us and we stepped outside and chatted.
Jan and Eric are financial consultants. She hails from Poland, and he from Iceland. They were in Miami to buy a yacht and conduct other business, and would soon go on to Great Britain and Hong Kong to finalize a $ 1.5 billion foreign aid transaction for low-cost housing in Central America.
I feel a certain tour-guide duty towards visitors wherever I might be living for long: I have lived among visitors and strangers most of my life, and have even been in the hotel and tourist business. Jan and Eric wanted to stretch their legs and get some coffee and snacks, so I took them over to the filling station nearby to buy refreshments. Eric and I had cortaditos – short cups of strong coffee. We sat down on the bench in front of the Miami Ballet Center and chatted, more and more rapidly so as we sipped our coffee.
Our conversation turned to politics, and, of course, to the Bush Administration. President Bush is hated with a passion throughout the world, they said. As for Americans in general, they are not hated but are believed to be “morons” who are so interested in their selves that they are blinded to each other and to the rest of the world. The inside story on Bush, I was informed by Jan, is that he had fallen off the wagon in the worst way; his puffy eyes and stumbling speech is a dead giveaway, she observed, and said Mr. Blair had to practically carry him out of a reception.
The smarter Americans, she said, had gotten out of the United States with their money. Some of them, she noted, are part of an expatriate group in Latin America, called La Boca del Toro. After she and her husband winds up the foreign-aid aid deal, for which they will earn $ 3 million, she claimed, they will return to Miami to pay for, pick up the $750,000 yacht they bought and sail it to Panama and parts beyond.
A local resident drifted by as we were conversing – he was yelling incoherently and swinging a golf club over his head. Don’t worry, I said, there is a shelter for the formerly homeless and the mentally ill around the corner – but the residents are harmless. They have a place to live, a mess hall, and some pocket change as well; they are not known to panhandle or to steal. I am acquainted with several of them, I said, and the ones I know are nice people. One of them is a mystic and author who might make it big if things go well.
Oh, we are not worried, said the man from Iceland. It is a shame that so many people are desperately poor and sick, and sleeping in the streets, he noted, in this rich country. That would not be permitted in civilized places. Yes, I agreed, it is a shame, almost everybody talks about it but few do anything. Many Europeans have told me they won’t come back to South Beach again. But many will still come because it is a major sin city, where you can get plenty of drugs, sex, and booze, and party until you drop dead. As for me, I said, I am not into partying and coffee is my drug of choice, but I would rather be around people having fun. Besides, I love the beach itself: without it I would move away immediately.
“It is awful here, so much poverty and many crooks,” Jan said. “There are much nicer places in the world. You have a very nice library here, by the way.”
“Let’s take a walk in the park,” I suggested, and stood up.
“Good idea,” Eric remarked – we got up and strolled across the street.
“The library collection was previously located right there, in Collins Park,” I nodded towards the old structure.
“I was here before,” Eric said. “I remember it – there were many poor people inside with their belongings,” he said.
He was right: the facility had become a sort of Potemkin library or unofficial day center for dislocated and mentally ill persons on South Beach.
“They’re supposed to tear it down,” I said, “everything except the rotunda, the theatre on this end. The sculpted wall of the rotunda relates a symbolic drama, of human development. There’s the Egyptian sign of life over there, and you see a Pi here and there. Albert Vidra had concrete poured into the mold which he sculpted in the sand on the ground all around, then the walls were raised. The sculpture was titled ‘The Story of Man.’ I don’t know what they’re going to do with the remaining rotunda. A homeless activist thinks the whole building should be replaced with an official day center for the homeless.”
“That’s a good idea. Maybe those men laying around in front could go inside and get a shower, wash their things, eat some food, and do things,” the woman said softly, gazing at the dozen or so vagrants stretched out on sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, and dirty blankets along the front portico.
Portico, a covered porch, a great place for a cynic to live in a tub, I thought to myself, but somebody might steal it.
“No, they can’t turn it into a shelter. When Mr. Collins donated the land he put restrictions on its use. And even if he had not of done so, that sort of thing would not be allowed because it is contrary to the revitalization.”
“Condos?” Eric asked.
“Yeah. Look there – on the back end of the park – they are already putting up a $ 100-million condominium called Artécity. The area between 21st and 23rd Streets, in and around Collins Park, was named the Collins Park Cultural Center four years ago. As you can see, the area is kind of dilapidated.”
“Oh, yes. It needs to be, how do you say, gentrified.”
“You’ve got it – you’re English is excellent.”
“I need English for business.”
“They usually say ‘revitalized’, to be politically correct. The poor residents didn’t like the idea that their people were not gentry, or are ill bred because the state wanted to seize their property for rich people. The Collins Park Cultural Center, along with the ‘Art District’ of which is part”, I went on, indicating the surroundings with a sweeping right arm, “is being revitalized by real estate developers who are capitalizing on South Beach’s reputation for Art Deco architecture.”
“That makes sense,” said the man.
“Oh, no!” Jan suddenly exclaimed and put her hand over her eyes as we walked by the old library rotunda.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Oh, there’s somebody under the rotunda, doing it!”
“Doing it, you Americans call it screwing,” she said. Her husband chuckled.
Sure enough, the shy woman who lives in the crawl space under the library was being laid by her mate – they had a sheet around them, however, so the scene was not that obscene, even in broad daylight right on the luxurious tourist strip.
“She lives under there,” I said. “She keeps cats under there too – one just had a litter – so I suppose they keep the rats and roaches off. Maybe she should hang some curtains so people can’t look inside.”
“Lives there? There is no room!”
“Oh, it’s got to be a foot and a half, maybe two feet between the dirt and the flooring. She has lain cardboard down. She’s got canned food. She’s been there for a few years. They sealed it up once with concrete blocks, but she dug in elsewhere and set up house again.”
“Why doesn’t somebody help her?” asked my Polish acquaintance.
“Well, they did once. She’s about thirty-something, the ideal American age, plainly attractive, a bit mousy, but from what I hear she’s a mouse that roars. She drinks heavy sometimes. She used to open up the library door and yell for her mate like a shrew, so she got eighty-sixed from the library. But a decent place was found for her to live in. They threw her out for carrying on, so she came back home. People just let her be.
“Come on,” I gestured to the front entrance, “let’s take a look at the plaque on the front of the library here,” I gestured.
We walked around a few homeless men sprawled out near the entrance. The plaque indicated that the abandoned library had been dedicated on November 25, of 1962 during Mayor Kenneth Oka’s term. The dedication read:
The Library is the Mirror of the World
“They can say that again,” I declared.
“We’ve got to be off now,” Eric said.
“Where are you staying?”
“We were staying downtown, but we got angry at the crook that owns the hotel, so we came down to the beach.”
“Oh, well, I’d put you up at my place, but I live in a dumpy little room.” – I indicated my willingness to play host. To which I added, “As a matter of fact, if I don’t find some work very soon I might be sleeping on the porch with these homeless people. Maybe I’ll have to take up drugs and drinking to fit in.”
“Oh, we’re homeless, too, this weekend,” said his wife. “We’re going to sleep on North Beach behind a hotel we used to stay at when we vacationed here. It’s being converted into condos now. We’ll take a shower on the beach, eat something, sleep on the old pool chairs.”
“You’re homeless?” I was incredulous.
“Yes,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” her husband instructed. “Funds are being wired to us on Monday. We’ll have plenty of money. We just don’t want to be around that American hotel-jerk downtown.”
“We were very rich, but we had some bad luck right after 9/11,” Jan explained. “We know people and how to get money, and this deal is for sure. I am going to buy you something nice when we get our share, maybe a laptop so you don’t have to use those library computers.”
“That would be great. A local artist is giving me a computer I can use at home, when I get a home. And a laptop would be perfect for traveling around when I’m famous.”
Eric called me the next week. They were staying at a luxury hotel in Ft. Lauderdale and would soon fly out.
The main library structure in Collins Park has been demolished – the rotunda was retained for its historical significance – and we now enjoy the brand new library across the street. The new library, by the way, has had a positive effect on the attitudes of library patrons and employees.
Prior to the demolition of the old structure, I sent along a copy of my article to several public officials, including Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer and his City Manager, and Florida Governor Bush. I asked them to read my article and have someone reach out to the woman. I also submitted my article to the press, including the “alternative press” – the Miami New Times and the SunPost, and received no response from the editors.
I did not receive a reply from the public officials. I do not know if someone called on the woman to see what could be done about her plight. However, after the Collins Park demolition project was fenced off, I witnessed a police officer accosting her outside the fence. Apparently she was trying to retrieve her belongings and her cats from the crawl space. If she tried to return to the rotunda again, he yelled, he would have to arrest her for felonious trespass, and she would go to prison for a long time.
During the demolition period, the woman was sighted sleeping on the sidewalk around Bass Museum and in the doorways and alleys around the luxurious Lincoln Road Mall. Unsettled by the dislocation, she was apparently drinking heavily again, and was heard shrieking and cursing at no one in particular. She has not been seen for some time now.
Hopefully, the woman who lived in the Crawl Space has relocated to a better place than South Beach.
From the author: If any of you are photographers, your assistance with a special photo essay will be appreciated. I need photographs of homeless people who are living on the streets in South Beach – please pay them for the photos and get a signed release. We also need photographs of smiling, well dressed, prominent civic leaders, including public officials and real estate developers. The essay will be a montage of homeless people in humble circumstances at the feet of the civic leaders.