SEARCHING FOR THE REAL SOUTH BEACH
December 7, 2011
By David Arthur Walters
MIAMI BEACH—I landed in Ft. Lauderdale in 2004 and was intent on finding an apartment there when my plans were rudely interrupted by Hurricane Jeanne. The hotel I had booked cancelled my reservation because it had overbooked. I found myself huddling in a hot and dark room of a seedy motel on West Broward Boulevard while Jeanne blew over.
The motel was interesting to say the least. The property been purchased by Russians, who conveniently neglected to take the motel franchise signage down. The Russian “exchange students,” were exceedingly cute in their maid outfits, were the main attraction. I first saw them swimming nude in the scum-laden pool one night as the storm moved in. They were virtual prisoners at the motel, not allowed to go to the beach or anywhere else for that matter.
The motel was packed with refugees from the storm. Everyone had gotten illegally gouged at different rates, the maximum that could be haggled from each of them, despite the Florida law against gouging in emergencies.
Panhandlers were going from door to door asking for money and food. One woman from the hood, “Big Mama,” would barge into rooms unannounced and ask for a cigarette while casing the rooms for stuff.
I had nothing worth stealing: one suitcase of shabby clothes. I did have one donut left, and some water in the bathtub. Stores were closed due to the hurricane, and the promised free breakfast was not there.
My old friend Hanley ‘Doc’ Harding managed to get through the motel phone system to me; he insisted he was coming to bail me out of the dump whether I liked it or not. Doc, a former Navy SEAL and a perfect pal to have, always did what he said he was going to do. He had lost a leg in a motorcycle accident after coming home from a covert operation, He also had the cancer that would do him in, but he made the most of it, teaching at police department’s traffic school, transporting prisoners, selling chemical and nuclear warfare protective tents, and designing a new kind of anti-terrorism training facility.
I stayed overnight at his condo in Sunny Isles, where he lived with his mother. She had also lost a leg, and would soon lose the other and her life after her cat bit it and the wound got infected. Doc said she had been in the beauty business, and had been married to one of Meyer Lansky’s sons for awhile. And then took me down the hall and introduced me to a lady who had inherited some of Houdini’s stuff.
The next morning, Doc’s girlfriend came over. She told me I would be a fool to stay in Ft. Lauderdale, that Miami would be a better place for me to find work, the only drawback being that I did not speak Spanish. I had lived on the southern end of Miami Beach before it was branded South Beach. It was really run down but relaxing back then. I asked Doc to take me on down so I could find temporary quarters and see what was going on. I wound up at the Clay Hotel on Espanola Way and Washington Avenue, where I stayed nearly a month.
I shall always have fond memories of the Clay Hotel, which offers private rooms, rooms with shared baths, and hostel lodging. That hotel on Espanola and Washington was once Al Capone’s favorite hideout on the beach. The experience was quite exotic for me, what with all the world travelers around. My first little room was right on Washington Avenue, where there was a virtual rush hour when the clubs closed in the morning. I would hate that racket now, but I loved it when it was new to me.
When I am asked what it is like to live on South Beach in the thick of things, I am wont to say, “It’s great until you find out where you’re at, but that’s true of everywhere, and you may never find out if you’re not interested in the truth.”
Many of the employees at the shops around the hotel told me they would never live on South Beach, and it is frightening to work on Washington Avenue, but it was all right for me at the time, mainly because I love to be near a beach. Besides, people from out of town say they would give their right arm to live in South Beach.
No one bothered me at Clay Hotel except the stranger who kept calling: “Hello, honey, do you want to talk?” The desk clerk could do nothing about it, so I got another room, this one in the back building. The mosquitoes in the room were a hassle when I opened the only window; it was right over the garbage bins of a restaurant. I learned what “no abra la ventana” meant from the maid I when complained about the mosquitoes. She said she wanted to move back to Cuba now that her son was grown and out of college, because, she said, her back hurt like hell and American was only about money.
The walls were paper thin, so the screams from orgasms next door and heads banging on the wall woke me up for about a week. No problem, really, the whole affair was rather intriguing when fresh.
$50 a night was dirt cheap for a tourist, but not for me. I managed to rent a room for $550 month from David Muhlrad at the Plaza South Hotel. Muhlrad controls many apartment buildings on South Beach; most of them are occupied by Hispanic immigrants. He was not interested in knowing who I was when I signed the “Contract for Accommodations” on October 22, 2004, under the heading “The Plaza South, A Fully Licensed Adult Living Facility.” The contract would be returned to me signed by someone whose signature I could not make out. He gave me a calling card that read, “Ari Schuster, Managing Director, The Plaza South, The Only Deco A.L.F.”
The hotel (now the Gale-Regent Hotel) was in a sort of limbo, with only the ground floor currently devoted to assisted living. I was later informed by a member of the staff, who said she was the only one with practical nurse training and hence was resented by the Haitian caretakers in charge, whom she said were robbing their charges blind, that Mr. Schuster never came to the property, that the license on the wall was just borrowed. At no time during my tenancy ending December 2005 did I see anyone except Muhlrad in the little A.L.F. office.
As for the claim of stolen valuables, I would notice that the underpaid staff wore fine clothes and jewelry, and owned homes here and in Haiti. Yet appearances can be deceiving. I did not know if the practical nurse was credible inasmuch as she seemed disturbed, always paranoid about a tenant on the second floor, a cab driver whom everyone called “Sling Chain” because he had a long key chain that jangled when he walked: she said he was a crack addict, was stalking her, and was in the habit of picking up women and assaulted them in his cab. He was decrepit for his age, perhaps from crack abuse, which he admitted, and had a bizarre sense of humor.
I offered Mr. Muhlrad my references when I met him to rent a room, but he said to never mind, he knew people, and I “looked good.” He refused to take my check, stating that he only took “cash money, for obvious reasons.” Indeed, the low-income hotel aspect of the property was conducted on a cash basis only, no questions as to identity asked. If a regular Plaza South resident did not cough up the currency, their doors were “booted” i.e. they were locked out, in violation of state law, but what did they know of the law?
Mr. Muhlrad seemed nice enough as we chatted. I asked him how he liked the hotel business, mentioning I had managed several big discount tourist hotels in my day. He responded that one had to be crazy to manage the Plaza South. And he did behave crazily at times, screaming like a madman at elderly tenants who had complaints or who had not paid the rent, which I hear approached $2,000 a month including powdered eggs, macaroni, peanut butter or tuna sandwiches, and the like.
Although the elderly tenants were yelled at by Mr. Muhlrad, and perhaps had valuables stolen by the caretakers, I saw no evidence of physical abuse. Eventually the kitchen was shut down, and, some time before the hotel closed the old folks were hauled away, without adequate notice, to the related Hebrew Home, where I heard they were doubled up two to a room. One old man called the police, complaining he was being kidnapped or taken away illegally against his wishes, but he was written off as senile.
I still see one old lady around. I asked her how things were going at the Hebrew Home, and whether she had any regrets. “At my age it is not good to have regrets. I just keep going.”
Poor people cannot be choosy, and I was glad to land a cheap room in paradise, reasoning that a tourist would be glad to pay $100 night for it. Mr. Muhlrad was doing some painting at the time, and it looked like he was making a serious effort to spruce up the interior of the decrepit building. After that initial period, he was seldom around; he arrived in his vintage Cadillac from time to time, went in and picked up envelopes stuffed with cash, issued a few orders to staff, screamed at some little old lady who complained about something or the other, and took off.
So there I was, in room 211, directly under the room where two whores and their pimp plied their trade. And down one hall a Mexican drug dealer resided, as well as the black guy who wore suits and raged against white people i.e. “crackers.” An alcoholic-nosed photographer, who said he worked for the police department, also lived down that hall. He liked to go around and tell people there were warrants out for them. Down another hall was the formerly homeless, foul-breathed packrat with the goiter; his room was always filled with flies. Oh, there was a beautiful, charming woman who had a successful acting career until she got hooked on crack by her boyfriend, and turned to prostitution, with him as her pimp, serving only black guys—I liked her a lot but had learned my lesson after falling in love with a heroin addict out west.
And I must not forget the mentally ill guy who set fires in his room and in the stairwell by my room. The outside door to that stairwell was unsecured, by the way, so vagrants used the stairwell for a toilet, and sometimes vagrants got into the halls and slept.
Independent male and female prostitutes who could not afford rent were working inside the side entrances of the building, between the Plaza South and the adjacent hotel, or simply having sex in the unlocked path between the buildings. Muhlrad was asked to secure the area, which was also used for drug trafficking, but whatever locks he had placed were broken the same day. Two elderly tenants said they enjoyed watching the sexual encounters through their windows at night.
There were a few rather decent tenants: some young workers, and some people driven out of other buildings, conveniently condemned by the city and taken over by developers. These tenants did not know what was really going on with the property until everyone gathered in the lobby for a hurricane and exchanged notes; they were appalled, especially when a crack addict came into the lobby and said he was going to kill some “crackers” that night. Several of them moved out the next month.
Eventually we would all be kicked out of Plaza South with inadequate notice when it was sold to the Morgan Hotel Group in late 2005; off-duty cops kicked down the doors of the holdouts. The guy with the goiter threatened to set fire to the building. The carpenter who lived on the third floor and liked to talk tough all the time called the cops on the cops after his door was kicked in and his cat got loose.
As for me, I was a damn fool for moving out early: I ran into Sling Chain months later and he told me cash money was paid to some tenants to get lost. I could have pretended I was still in the room and collected the cash. One of the Haitian managers sold me the television in my room when I paid the balance of my rent, and delivered it to me with her car. She offered to sell me other furniture, but I had no way of moving it.
Mr. Muhlrad was merely managing the Plaza South for Russell Galbut, his relative by marriage, who owned the property until he sold it to the Morgan Hotel Group. Since then Plaza South was left vacant, a blight on the development around it, a terrible eyesore despite the fact that Morgan Hotel Group is spending large sums on renovating the Delano Hotel just across Collins Avenue. (It is now the upscale Gale-Regent Hotel managed by Menin Hospitality, in which Mr. Galbut has relatives and a major interest).
Mr. Galbut is powerful real estate developer with considerable influence on city officials to this day although he received some rotten press back in the good old days over his relationship with Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud, who was imprisoned for corruption in 1993. The Galbut law firm reportedly handled some of the dirty money. Daoud has alleged some of the dirty details in Sins of South Beach, a book wildly popular in Miami Beach.
The Galbut interests reportedly own a vast amount of real estate in Miami Beach via a web of companies, including considerable property in the now forgotten “CANDO” art district promoted by former Miami Beach mayor David Dermer, purportedly to curb gentrification. The promotion was actually intended to accelerate gentrification and cure the blighted nature of the area hence hundreds of “vulgar” people were evicted from their humble abodes to make way for the noble “gentry.”
Mr. Galbut has in the past refused to disclose just how much property his syndicate holds in the area. In April of 2005, his nephew, Keith Menin, at the grand opening of the Sanctuary, a former nursing home converted into a posh condotel a half-block from the Plaza South, bragged that an entire neighborhood would eventually go on the block.
I met Mr. Galbut once, at the Plaza South. The prostitutes working two beds in the room above me created a problem I could not ignore. I had gotten used to the sounds: the frequent slams of the door, the floor-creaking walks to the beds, the beds banging against the wall, and the groans. But the water from their bathroom was destroying the ceiling and walls in my bathroom, so I went upstairs and complained to the pimp, who was in the room with two of his girls. He did not care, he said, because his girls needed to wash themselves after doing their tricks, so he would not turn off the water, even though he knew a defective pipe was flooding everything below. The water eventually reached the first floor, soaking the ceiling and a wall of the old folk’s dining room. I was worried the ceiling would collapse on the aged people while they were eating their scrambled eggs or tuna sandwiches.
Mr. Muhlrad never responded to emergency calls on the Sabbath, so I went out of my way to find Mr. Galbut’s phone number and called him on a pay phone – I could not afford a cell phone, and there was no one on duty downstairs at night despite the fact that some of the elderly tenants might need help. I warned him that if the water continued to flow, the building would be damaged so badly it would have to be evacuated. He knocked at my door that evening with his boy Friday in tow. I advised him to survey the damage downstairs, and showed him the damage to my room—he was interested in the photos of high rises I had pasted on a wall to serve as self-suggestions to move up to better living conditions. Plumbers and carpenters were brought in the next day and they fixed the pipes and walls.
I did not receive nor did I expect any thanks from a kingpin like Russell Galbut, but since I had considerable experience as right hand man for real estate wheeler dealers and as a major tourist hotel manager, I went over to his building on the mainland with my resume, but he would not see me. That concluded the last dream I had of being brought in from the cold. “To hell with The Establishment,” I said.
I had several encounters with members of the Miami Beach Fire Department while at Plaza South because of the defective fire alarms. They went off frequently; tenants evacuated the building although we suspected we were hearing another false alarm.
Coincidentally, the alarms sometimes sounded on the Sabbath, when Muhlrad would refuse to answer even emergency calls from the Fire Department. I learned that he was once in charge of the city agency that enforces compliance with city codes. I learned that requests had been made but ignored by city officials due to his pull, to place security in the building at night to protect people from fire; that seemed to be a great idea to the old folks, not only for fire safety, but for any emergency—the room phones did not work.
I admired the fire fighters whom I met. For example, one night, during a downpour, anguished cries were coming from the area outside, waking everyone up. The cries resembled what a trapped cat might make. I got someone with a cell phone to call 911. The firemen came over and found a homeless man huddled under the air-conditioning duct, crying desperately in the rain. They spoke with him very kindly, and found shelter for him.
I also had my first encounter with the Miami Beach Police Department, which is getting a lot of bad flack in the press lately. Too many of us including myself tend to remember how bad things were, and ignore how much better things are at present. I recall that the Mexican drug dealer at Plaza South was dealing drugs openly on Collins Avenue in front of the South Plaza, and was also dealing up and down Washington Avenue, hustling his drugs to passersby. He was not the only one doing that, by the way; there were petty drug dealers everywhere. I warned him that everyone knew he was dealing, that he had been seen for months on the street handing off drugs for cash, and, one day the coppers were going to nail him.
“I’m protected. If anyone tells on me, they’re dead. I’ll have them killed or kill them myself.”
Well, I was right. A month later some officers came in ready for combat, taking not only him out but two others as well. He was back on the street a few months later, and then he disappeared, maybe transferred out by the cartel or busted again. Nowadays I am never approached by dealers on Washington Avenue, but I am never around that avenue after ten at night anymore if I can help it, because I know where I am. After all, this is South Beach.