The first World Aids Day was held in 1988, but we were hard into the epidemic during my time on Miami’s North Bayshore Drive.
From 1983 through 1987, I lived in an old mansion broken up into five apartments. The wood-burning fireplace in my bedroom, the kitchen large enough for a small restaurant, and my unobstructed bay view recalled the home’s former glory. The apartment on the north side boasted a grand staircase that dead ended in a drywall partition. The 12-foot-wide sleeping porch on the south side had been converted to an efficiency apartment, though its layout gave a lie to that name. The second story had been split the way Solomon would never have done the baby, and only the landlord benefited from that.
The house next door served as Mary’s house in the movie “There’s Something About Mary.”
When we moved in, the neighborhood proved so crime-ridden, we sat on the front stoop during friends’ visits to ensure no one stole their cars.
My house stood on the block’s northeast corner. The Cactus Bar & Grill anchored the block’s southwest corner. The Rough Guide to Florida recognized the Cactus as “one of the liveliest gay bars in the area,” which may explain neighborhood’s well-cruised vibe. Like most places with poor people, desire and desperation hung in the air like the humid edge of a storm. My neighbor in the inefficiency, dressed in soiled, skinny white jeans and black T-shirts, would bring working boys home and then refuse to pay. They would argue on the front stoop. He would say, “Who you gonna tell?” I didn’t like him then and still don’t.
My wife at the time, Brigid O’Hagan, and I were struggling to gain a foothold in Miami. Originally from Buffalo, we’d moved from Coconut Grove to North Bayshore Drive for cheap rent and that bay view, but the house brought other dividends.
On one of our first Sundays in the neighborhood, a white Cadillac stopped at the driveway’s end of Mary’s house. Two men dressed in white exited the front seats. The rear passenger side door opened and a woman, also in white, stepped out and began chanting — a slow rhythmic call — in Spanish or Yoruba, I couldn’t tell. It was answered by a voice from the house next door. Together, the three swayed and sang their way up the driveway, each call answered by a response from the house. The beauty of the moment brought tears to my eyes then as the memory does now.
The apartments directly above and beside ours were occupied by a variety of people who only seemed to exist in that narrow strip of land between Biscayne Boulevard and Biscayne Bay. Les Violins was a supper club on the boulevard modeled after Havana nightspot Tropicana. We’d never gone. One of the performers lived above us for a while — a short blonde woman from New York, with a compact Olympic gymnast’s body. She warmed up for her act by accompanying a recording of “New York, New York” with song and dance. She wore tap shoes and could belt it out with a voice like Ethel Merman. The racket she created with those shoes and that voice, while not the best thing in a neighbor, was certainly not the worst.
I can’t remember if she was upstairs before or after the ninjas. The ninjas were a couple, man and woman, who dressed like ninjas. They were a little chunkier than movie ninjas, but they pursued all the same rituals. The first time I saw them land on the front lawn, after leaping from the second-floor porch dressed all in black with only their eyes visible, rolling into crouches, short swords drawn and throwing stars and nunchucks at the ready, it was enough to make me spit my coffee. But after a month or two, their antics became as common as the tide.
Our time in that slice of paradise came to an end when a man attempting to kick heroin came to live with us. The man couldn’t kick it and he brought others into our place to get high. We were no longer beyond the neighborhood’s ills; we had become a part of them. We recognized the need to move on and we did.
That house on Bayshore is gone, replaced by a 47-story condo. The Cactus Bar and Grill exists only as a distant memory. But I imagine the spirits of those boys who tricked in that neighborhood hanging in the shadows of the new building, still waiting — hoping to get paid.