I travel for two reasons: To see new places and escape old ones. Since graduating from the University of Virginia, I haven’t lived in one place for more than two years. People or cities I don’t like, I tend to leave behind. Taking my physical past with me has to be a conscious decision. I pack it in a box or else it gets thrown away.
For Raven, every street is a stroll down memory lane. Every block triggers a scene. “I never walk down that side of the street,” Raven told me one afternoon. “That’s where my friend Bruiser got in a fight, and I get bad vibes.” Familiar faces are everywhere. Raven will tell you he feels like a fugitive, like he’s always running from something, but he’s been running in the same place. How can you shake the past if it surrounds you?
Yesterday, Raven and I went on a bike ride through South Beach. “I want to show you exactly where things happened,” he had told me during our interviews. It’s one thing when the Raven says, “My three best friends from elementary school lived in the housing projects.” It’s another when we are facing the Bay, looking at three gorgeous, luxurious high rises, and he points to the one on the left, now called the Apogee. “That used to be the projects,” said Raven. “Seven three-story buildings. That one there, on the right, the Yacht Club—that used to be the city dump.” In his lifetime, the city dump had become million-dollar condos.
Before we’d taken one pedal from his driveway, Raven announced, “Remember I told you about the two killers from In Cold Blood? They stayed there.” He pointed across the street, to 335 Ocean Drive. “It used to be called the Somerset Hotel. My Mom and I would go next door to pay our rent, so we must’ve passed by when they were there.” Raven was nine-years-old during the Christmas of 1959 when Richard Hickock and Perry Smith hid out in Miami Beach. A few days after their South Beach vacation, the two were arrested in Las Vegas and sentenced to death by hanging for murdering a family of four in Kansas.
“And that building next to it, 329 Ocean,” the Raven continued, “That’s where George P. Leonard took the famous cowboy actor Lash LaRue to Alcoholics Anonymous.” George P. Leonard was an old beach character who looked like Ernest Hemmingway with a bushy white beard and a notebook in hand. George swore he wrote better than Hemmingway, but nobody had discovered him. Raven actually kept George’s writings, which went something like this:
7:23 – Sitting at McDonald’s, oh I gotta pee.
7:27 – The eggs are no good, I’m going to return them.
Around George’s waist, a rope held up his pants and functioned as a beer holster. Homeless, George would often get arrested for public drunkenness. Upon his release, he penned protest letters to the courts. “Dear Screwed-Up, Incompetent Judge Jones,” began one. Raven had told me the story about George and Lash LaRue, but I’d forgotten where they met.
“They met at the Playhouse Bar, and George invited him to the AA Meeting,” answered Raven, without acknowledging any irony. “You ready, White Lightning?” said Raven. “Let’s get started.”
Our first stop was the park on Ocean between Second and Third Street, named after the environmentalist, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, whom we have to thank for the Everglades National Park. In 1989, Douglas gathered with other influential community members like Barbara Capitman, the founder of the Miami Design Preservation League, and Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud to save the park from turning into a parking lot. Raven was asked to read a poem, but he had to go first in order to make the run that afternoon. Shirtless with his one black glove, he had leapt from the stage as soon as he finished and shouted dramatically, “Now I gotta run.”
Raven was recounting the story to me when a man stopped him on the bike. “How you doing, Raven?” he said. “When are you running today?” The man, Jesse, was a boat captain who grew up in Miami Beach in the 1970s. He looked at me.
“This is White Lightning,” said Raven. “She’s doing a story on me.”
“Oh that’s great,” he said. “Boy this place has really changed. I would’ve never dreamed it could turn into what it is today. Back then it was just like a small surfing community, where everyone knew each other. Then, it went from a retirement community to a crime zone overnight.” He was referring to 1980 and the Mariel Boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans came to the shores of the United States between April and October. Amongst the hundreds and thousands of good, hardworking Cuban refugees, Castro had tucked in undesirable or useless members of his society, including thieves, killers, rapists, and the insane. Escoria—scum—he called them, came from Cuban prisons and asylums to Miami. Many of these criminals took refuge in the rundown buildings south of Sixth Street.
“No way you would’ve lived in South Beach then,” Raven told me. “It was way too dangerous.” We waved goodbye to Jesse and made our way south. Raven narrated the tour along the way. “This is where the old band shell used to be. My grandmother would come here for the old people dances. They’d play music from the old country, like the Waltz. It was a quarter to get in the turnstile, but I’d sneak in and watch sometimes.” Now, electronic music thumped out of the speakers above our heads. If you want to get a drink at Nikki Beach Club, be ready to lay out $20 for a vodka soda.
Our tour continued. “That was the old pier where I’d write songs, and I met Bulldog and Killer. Over there was the dog track.” We pedaled towards the beach and went south, to Government Cut, at the end of the island. “Fisher Island didn’t exist. That was all trees. Even here, by the rocks, this area was lined with Australian Pines. I used to take girls here on dates. It was really romantic.” His bike slowed. “Uh-oh,” he said, “Here’s an old-timer.” He nodded towards a barefoot man wearing khaki cargo pants and standing on a bench. He looked like the actor Martin Short. Raven introduced us. “White Lightning, meet Dave the Wave. Dave used to hang out with Goliath.” Goliath was another beach character, a bodybuilder from Coney Island, who once appeared on the Dean Martin Variety Show with his hand-balancing partner, David. At sunset, Goliath and his girlfriend, Suzanne, would strut down the beach wearing long purple robes. When they got to the rocks at the end, they dropped the robes. Their naked bodies absorbed the final rays of sun. Dave the Wave often joined them.
“Yeah,” said Dave the Wave. “We’d just sit on the rocks and smoke herb and talk to people about Jesus, totally naked. We’d say Jesus died for our sins so we could be free and guilt doesn’t exist.” Dave the Wave had just come from dropping his mom off at work. “She’s 89,” he said, “And still working. We got the blessings of Abraham—health, wealth, and happiness.”
“You got any stories about Skindiver Don?” asked Raven. “I told her about him.”
“Aw man, this will blow your shit, Bob,” said Dave. He launched into a story about the legendary spear gun fisherman who, in one breath, got two beautiful red snapper. “When he gets to the surface, he had a six-pound red snapper in one hand and another beauty on the spear, holding it straight up in the air. In one dive he got both of them. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Remember when he went to jail in his Speedo for robbing lobsters?” said Raven.
“Oh yeah,” said Dave the Wave. They shuffled through a few other characters like Holy Joe, who preached and handed out Bibles every Sunday on South Beach. “Nothing would stop Holy Joe. People would be throwing dead fish at him, or seaweed, but he’d just keep going. I saw some kids toss him in the ocean once. He’d come right out, saying I forgive you and reading from the Gospel.” Dave looked at me. “You know the Gospel?”
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s the Good News,” he said. Dave took over Holy Joe’s mission for a few moments before he told me about the times when enormous bails of marijuana would float ashore in Miami Beach. “I knew this one guy who was trying to become a lifeguard, and he used to drive an ’88 Oldsmobile. A week later, I see him driving a real nice Chevy Conversion van. I knew there had to be a story there.” His friend had found five bails of dry marijuana and sold it for $30,000. He took the money to the Chevy dealership and bought the van in cash.
I had to check my Decobike back into the system, so Raven and I parted ways with Dave the Wave. Riding to the bike stand, a white pickup truck with a surfboard in the back pulled up next to us. “Raven!” said an older man. “You still running?”
“Yes I am,” said Raven. “You still surfing?”
“Trying to,” he said. “You gotta keep active because it’s harder to hit a moving target, you know?”
“I know,” said Raven.
We finished the day’s tour on the corner of Fifth Street and Washington, where the old, famous Fifth Street Gym once stood. Raven’s Mom had worked across the street at a 24-hour drugstore. One of her customers was a young fighter by the name of Cassius Clay, who most people would come to know as three-time World Heavyweight Champion, Mohammad Ali. One time, a year after Clay had won the Gold Medal at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Cassius Clay brought his own mother into the drug store. He pointed to Mary, Raven’s Mom, at the cash register. “This is the lady that takes all my money,” Clay said to his mom.
Mary shook her head and joked with Cassius. “Well, I wouldn’t take all his money if he didn’t come in here and treat all his friends.” Today, a Wells Fargo Bank stands where the gym once churned out champion after boxing champion.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get to everything today,” said Raven. “But you saw some of the sites, so that’s good.” We rode back to his house to watch a video I checked out from the library. It was about Miami Beach founder Carl Fisher, and Raven is the only person I know with a VCR. On the way, people stared at the two of us. “They’re trying to figure out how an old guy like me is with a pretty young woman like you,” observed Raven. “They probably think I have a lot of money or something,” he said.
The plastic grocery bag covering his ripped bicycle seat crinkled in the wind, and the tire wobbled from side to side as he gripped the rusty handlebars. His chest hair poked out of his black button-down shirt, tucked into his shoelace belt. I smiled. “You’re probably right.”