“Miami Beach has changed more in the last thirty years than just about any city in the United States.”
This comes from a man who has witnessed the transformation every step of the way. Walk to the Fifth Street lifeguard stand on South Beach at 5:15 pm any day. You will see a bearded, long-haired shirtless man wearing black shorts, one black glove, and a headband that’s black, too. People call him the “Raven,” and he’s been standing in front of that lifeguard stand at that time for the last thirty-seven years, getting ready for his eight-mile jog up and down the beach. That’s right—Raven has run eight miles on the sands of South Beach every day since 1975, through concussions, hurricanes, food poisoning, animal attacks, hail and high water. And he’s still going.
While Raven hasn’t ventured more than ten miles from the beach since he turned twenty-five, the world has come to him. Running with the Raven is like running with the best Podcast you have ever heard. Stories are live, true, and in first-person. As of now, you have to come to South Beach and trot next to him for eight miles to hear them. But in case you want to know the stories without the sand and sweat, you can help us complete this project.
Who is “Us?”
Raven has two young women chasing him down the beach. One carries a #2 pencil and a notebook. The other has a camera bouncing around her neck. Mary Beth (or, to the Raven runner, “Yellow Rose”) is a photographer from Texas. Laura Lee (“White Lightning”) is a writer from Georgia. Both of them want to tell the Raven’s story.
Raven announced that Mary Beth and I, Laura Lee, were going to be friends, and we followed instructions. “When I started running with the Raven,” said Mary Beth, “Miami started to feel like home. Raven’s running group is my family here.” That family contains all kinds of characters. We have run with doctors and salesmen, lifeguards and scientists, lawyers and policemen, bankers and firefighters, politicians and philanthropists, and CEOs and the homeless. Raven Runners are spread throughout the world.
“When will I meet this Firecracker that you tell stories about?” I asked him.
“Oh, she doesn’t get out of jail for another year,” explained Raven. “But just wait. You’ll see why she’s called Firecracker.” She is one of a half-dozen runners that have spent time behind bars. The Raven and running shoes tie the eclectic group together.
What We Will Do
If you help us fund this project, we promise to produce two items:
1. A book of stories from and about the Raven, profiling the most colorful characters of South Beach, and recording a local history through one man’s eyes who has traveled the same path every day.
2. A documentary about the Raven and the run. Words can’t always do stories justice, and Mary Beth is a master at capturing them through the lens. The movie will help you believe that this stuff is nonfiction.
How You Will Benefit
You will get to hear, see, and read compelling stories of South Beach. You will learn the history of Miami from the unique perspective of someone who knows tales from the grimiest and glitziest scenes. You will laugh. You will shake your head. You will cringe. You may cry. But we guarantee you’ll be entertained.
How You Can Help
1. Donate here.
2. Spread the word. (Do you write a blog where you could promote this project? Perhaps you could laugh really hard while watching the video in a public place to invite queries on what's so funny. Do you have media contacts? Are you friends with someone rich and famous? Please tell them about the project.)
110,000 – Miles Raven will have run on August 23rd, 2012.
13,723 – Straight days of running eight miles.
1,631 – People who have completed the eight miles with the Raven. (They appear on Raven’s master list, which he meticulously details every day post-run.)
572 – Trashcans hurdled by a Raven Runner.
103 – Degrees Fahrenheit on the hottest run.
86 – Mile-per-hour wind blowing on the day of Hurricane Irene.
70 – Different countries represented by Raven Runners.
57 – Man-of-war stings.
17 – Drowning swimmers that Raven has pulled out of the water.
2 - Doberman dog bites.
0 - Airplane rides for the Raven
Oh, One More Thing
Mary Beth and I are both 5’10” and clearly like long runs on the beach. Gentlemen, please consider the Big Kahuna Package. (If we respected emoticons, we would insert a winkey-face here. But we don’t, so just know we’re winking.) NB: This package is transferrable to children or grandchildren. And Ladies, remember the Raven will be there, too. But we’ll cook your dinner.
An excerpt from Laura Lee's (“White Lightning's”) essay about Raven:
The Raven defies Miami’s transience. He is the only person in my life that I know where he’ll be, every evening. There’s no calling to confirm, there’s no guessing—if he’s alive, he’ll be there, running. It’s comforting. When he tells stories, I waver between admiration, disbelief, and, sometimes, disgust. At the end of one story, I’ll want to hug him. Other times, I wonder if I should recruit an athletic psychiatrist to join us. (Later, I would learn that one of the four people banned from the Raven Run is a psychiatrist named Nutcracker. “It’s a long story,” said Raven, “But in the last five months, she’s been arrested four times and Baker-Acted twice.”)
After being in the same place for a year or two, I get stir crazy. I’ve traveled in Africa and South America and Europe. How does the Raven live his life, fulfilled, in a ten-mile radius? “Change ain’t always good,” he told me. “I don’t vote for change. I don’t believe in change. I like keeping everything the same.”
When new runners come along for the first time, they ask him, “Why do you do it?”
If he doesn’t care to have a long conversation, he’ll say something like, “So I don’t have to think about what I’m going to do every day. I know I have to be here.” There is truth in that. Raven is a creature of routine, habit, and control.
On one run, I stooped down mid-stride to grab a penny sticking out of the sand. “Wow, Raven,” I said, “This is the first time I found any money on the run. Can I donate this to your collection?”
“No, never—I can’t accept it,” he said. “That’s one of my things. I only keep the money that I pick up.”
“Oh. How much have you found over the years?”
“I’ll have to add this week to it, but it’s over $1500, all in jars at the apartment.”
Although I had heard bits and pieces of his upbringing, eight miles wasn’t enough time to hear the whole story when distractions creep up at every step. We arranged to meet at a Starbucks one rainy Friday evening. South Beach was astir—high heels clicked on the pavement, couples hugged under umbrellas, valets parked Maseratis. The Raven was waiting outside on the Starbucks porch. His non-running wardrobe consisted of black jeans and a partially-zipped leather jacket without an undershirt. His black chest hair matched his outfit and required no additional accessories. “White Lightning! I was worried about you,” he said. “Did you have trouble parking?”
“Yes, sorry I’m late,” I said, giving him a quick hug. He has never owned a cell phone, so I couldn’t call. He opened the door, and we walked towards an open booth.
“Did you bring your tape recorder?” he asked. I dug it out of my bag and placed it on the table. “So how do you want to start?”
“Maybe with when you were born, your real name—and go from there?”
“Sure,” he said. “My Mom named me Robert Kraft, and I was born on October 17, 1950.”
“So you’re sixty-two, or going to—”
“Now don’t make me any older than I am. I’m 61. I won’t be 62 until October.”
Robert Kraft was born in Virginia but spent his first years in Atlantic City. His parents split up when he was four. “One of the first memories I had was when I was three or four years old. My parents were screaming at each other. They were asking me, ‘Who do you want to live with?’ I was closer to my Mom because my father was working. I just ran up to her, grabbed her dress and held on. I didn’t know what else to do.”
His father went to LA, and his mother took him to South Beach a month before his fifth birthday. He was an only child, surrounded by old people. “It was a lonely upbringing in South Beach,” he recalled. He didn’t take to school, and his interests were limited to baseball and baseball cards. “I was always alone because my Mom was working,” he said. “I was what they called a latchkey child. If I had to say anything that my mother taught me, it was to always lock the door.”
He developed a paralyzing fear of abandonment. “I’d hear her high heels coming up the stairs, and I’d think, ‘Phew, I can live another day. She’s here.’” He and his mom shared a one-bedroom apartment. Robert slept on the couch. “South Beach was all poor or else very rich. There was no in between. And we were poor.” He had trouble making friends because he always felt like an outsider. One day, a boy named Richard Philips approached Robert in the cafeteria and invited him to join his table. “He was a loner, I was a loner, so we became friends,” said the Raven. “But he was real tough—he used to go to strip clubs when he was a kid.”
Robert palled around with Richard and four other “kinda bad guys” and tried to stay out of trouble. When Robert was nine, his mom started dating a guy with white hair and a big nose that would later earn him the nickname, “the Eagle.” Mrs. Craft waited on the Eagle hand and foot, and Robert felt that the man was using his Mom for her domestic conveniences. The Eagle would drink and smoke, and Robert found pictures of other women in his glove compartment. “I didn’t trust him,” said the Raven. “We’d have to go to bars looking for him. My Mom was afraid to go by herself, so she’d take me.”
Robert’s Mom asked him what he thought about her getting remarried to the Eagle. “No, I don’t want you to,” he answered. They scheduled the wedding on Robert’s fifteenth birthday. “You could see the changes. That’s when I started wearing black. I’d run away from home, I quit school. I was hanging out with shady characters.”
His real father came to visit him one time in Miami, when Robert was twelve years old. His dream had always been to play catch with his father. “I gave him a glove and said, ‘let’s play catch.’ He really didn’t want to, but he felt like he had to. We were on Lincoln Road, and we threw the ball for ten minutes. So I did have that, one time in my life.”
When Robert turned 17, he wanted to surprise his Dad with a visit. He had saved enough money working at a nursing home to buy a Greyhound bus ticket out to California. “I couldn’t wait—I was going to knock on his door, and he was going to be so happy to see me.” Seventy-five hours later, Robert was at his father’s house. The door opened. “What are you doing here?” asked his father. “You should be in school or working or something.” Robert tried to convince him to go to a baseball game. “I saved money Dad, let’s go to the stadium.” In response, his Dad turned on the television and fell asleep in his armchair mid-conversation. Robert quietly locked the door behind him and never saw his father again.
Robert met some friends in Las Vegas and got a job bussing tables at the Golden Nugget Casino to cover expenses. “In that club, my life changed,” said the Raven. “I heard Waylon Jennings for the first time, and I said, ‘Wow—I could write songs for this guy.’” Robert tried to ingratiate himself with the band, and they suggested learning to play the guitar. “I didn’t feel I was good enough to do that, but I felt like I could write the songs.”
He soon tired of Las Vegas and boarded another seventy-two Greyhound bus. Upon arrival in South Beach, he dreamed of his next adventure—getting to Nashville and becoming a famous songwriter. In February 1970, he was on another Greyhound to Nashville. He lucked out and met Johnny Cash and got invited backstage at his weekly show. “It was like a dream come true,” he said.
He met all his musical idols—Waylon Jennings, Ricky Nelson, Linda Ronstadt—and got inspired to write songs by reviewing the Wanted posters at the local post office. One night, when Johnny Cash was finishing the show, Robert approached him and asked if he’d take a look at some songs. Johnny Cash was writing his own material by then, but he handed the lyrics sheet to a man standing next to them. “I won’t name him,” said the Raven, “but he became really big. He’s still alive. He was looking at me [strange] because he was stoned, but he sticks my lyrics sheet in his pocket.” Robert didn’t have a phone, but he figured someone would track him down if his song struck a chord.
“Soon I realized everybody in Nashville is a songwriter—I was just one of thousands, and it was cold there.” He came back to South Beach. That was the last trip he took outside of Miami. He fell into his old routines of hanging around the park and playing baseball. “One afternoon, I was sitting on a ping-pong table, and I heard a song—and I thought, ‘I know those lyrics! I wrote those lyrics.’” He ran back to his mom’s house and dialed the radio station. “I asked who wrote the song. It was by Waylon Jennings, and he tells me the songwriter, and it wasn’t my name.” Robert asked around, wondering if he had any recourse. Everyone called him naïve for not getting the material copyrighted. He became disillusioned with everyone. “I felt like everybody was against me—from the time I grew up, school, my mother’s marriage—everything, life was against me. It was an angry time for me. I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Enter Bulldog and Killer, two boxers training at the famous Fifth Street Gym. They invited Robert to join them for roadwork. “They said we could run up to 10th street and meet some girls.” Robert immediately admired their confidence and their enthusiasm to approach any girl. “I was so shy. But I thought, ‘They don’t care about rejection—why should I?’ Those guys gave me confidence.” As he got into a running routine, he started feeling better about himself. He worked up his mileage—getting up to six was easy, but getting to seven and eight challenged him.
“I got to the point where I took a day off, and I never felt the same the next day. It was harder to come back. So I said, ‘I don’t want to take a day off.’” He went longer and longer without taking a break and set a goal: “I thought I could run a whole year without missing a day. I decided on eight miles every day, because that was really a challenge.” When he announced the plan to his old friends, Bulldog and Killer, they laughed in his face. But once they saw he was serious, they dubbed him, “The Raven,” chosen for his black wardrobe and loner tendencies, his nighttime schedule, and his admiration of Edgar Allen Poe. The name stuck.
“I had never gone through with a goal in my life except to get to Nashville and even that—everything fell apart.” This was his chance to prove himself. “It made me feel like I was doing something—I was invincible almost.” In December 1975, he extended the goal another year. He has done that thirty seven times, running over 107,000 miles on the sands of South Beach.
“Now,” he confides, “I feel like every day could be my last.”
- (41 days)