Published: Sunday, August 19, 1990

Section: TROPIC


DAVE BARRY Herald Staff Writer

Probably the most striking characteristic of South Floridians, aside from the fact that so many of them apparently received their driver training from Roger Rabbit cartoons, is the way they're always asking each other how they like South Florida. I've lived here for four years, and when I meet people, they inevitably ask, "So, how do you like South Florida?" As if I just got here.

And I'm not alone. Everybody asks everybody this. People who've lived here for decades ask each other this. I'm confident that if Manuel Noriega ever takes the witness stand, the first question he'll be asked is how he likes South Florida.

This is not because of civic pride. It's not like in, for example, Texas, where people will say "How yew like Texas!" but what they clearly mean is "Hey, isn't Texas GREAT compared to whatever armpit of a place you come from?"

No, South Floridians ask with a cringe in their voices. They're insecure. They desperately want you to say that you like South Florida, because this reassures them that they're not total morons for living here. This is a suspicion that nags at South Floridians, especially when something bizarre happens, the kind of thing that seems to happen only down here, such as your second-grader casually mentions that one of her classmates brought a machine gun to Show and Tell; or you're late for work
because an alligator attacked the drawbridge operator; or your next-door neighbor stops by to ask if he can borrow a cup of ceremonial sheep testicles; or a former chairperson of the Chamber of Commerce -- this actually happened -- reports that somebody broke into her bedroom and stole her Uzi. These are the times when, as a Miamian, you ask yourself: "Do I really want to live here? Should I maybe move to Kansas?"

It's natural for us to feel these doubts. Why should we have a good image of ourselves, when nobody else does? Our public relations appear to have been handled by the same firm that represents Charles Manson. For years, the image of South Florida that was broadcast to the world was Miami Vice, which depicted this as a place infested with drugs, violence, corruption, homicidal psychotics and -- worst of all -- really stupid plots. People take this image seriously. When you travel to other cities, and you tell people you're from Miami, they will frequently stick up their hands. Every few weeks you see a newspaper item about how some organization has announced its annual list of the Ten Nicest Places, or the Ten Healthiest Places, or the Ten Easiest Places To Get A Haircut In While Playing The Trombone Naked During Lent, but whatever the category is, Miami is never in the top group. Miami is always something like No. 2,573, behind Cleveland and various maximum- security prisons.

So, OK, we have an image problem. But one thing you can say about this city: When the going gets tough and the game is on the line, we South Floridians have an amazing ability to suck in our guts, tighten our chin straps, and poke ourselves in the eyeball. Sometimes this is just plain bad luck, as when John Paul II attempted to hold an outdoor Mass here, and a lightning storm nearly turned him into Pope Kabob. But sometimes we have to put real effort into screwing up, as when we hosted the Super Bowl, and national media people, who had come here expecting to be pampered into a stupor, wound up sprinting through Overtown, their clothing singed by the flames from what once were their rental cars.

We also could probably present a friendlier face to our tourist visitors. You get off a plane in Orlando, and you're greeted by a spacious, clean, modern airport with futuristic monorails whisking people about. You get off a plane at the Miami International Airport And Regional Cocaine Distribution Center, and you half expect to be run over by goats. We are talking about a Third or possibly even Fourth World situation here, a seething, babbling mass of confusion that can be very scary if you just got off a plane from, say, Indianapolis. There you are, wearing your brand-new active sportswear, all set for a restful tropical vacation, and suddenly you find yourself in a dirty, ill-lit, confusing airport, trying to thread your way through surging hordes of people shouting and gesturing in numerous languages not including English; massive extended
families carrying an astounding variety of baggage, including tires, washing machines, giant radios, tractors, livestock, house parts, etc., and forming huge disorganized clots in front of counters representing dozens of tiny airlines you never heard of with names like Air Yemen, Air Anchovy, Air Apparent, and Air Buster A. Storkwhacker Jr. (proud motto: "If The Engine Don't Start, We Don't Fly!").

Here are some actual MIA airline names: Lacsa, TAN, Lac, Ladeco, Faucett, Saeta, Varig, Viasa. What bothers me about these airlines is, in all the times I've been to the airport, I've never seen any of their airplanes. I'm convinced that some of them don't HAVE any airplanes. The way they work is, they wait until they've sold a bunch of tickets, then go around to garage sales looking for aircraft in their price range. This causes lengthy schedule delays, sometimes resulting in the formation of whole refugee passenger villages in the main airport concourse, with primitive huts and oxen roasting over open fires. This is the scene that you, the Indianapolis tourist, must fight your way through in an effort to reach the Baggage Claim area, only to find it littered with mildewed inactive sportswear outfits containing the remains of former tourists who perished while waiting for their baggage to arrive, apparently from Alpha Centauri.

And if, miraculously, you do get your baggage, and you rent a car, you will find yourself out on Le Jeune Road, or God forbid the Palmetto Expressway, dealing with: South Florida traffic -- the nation's last true lawless frontier; a place where you're not even certain that the police are licensed drivers, a place where you are passed on the left, passed on the right, passed by cars driving right on top of your roof, cars that were last inspected during the French and Indian War, cars on which the only maintenance activity ever performed is that occasionally the owner slaps another layer of what appears to be black paint on the windows, cars with actual bullet holes in the doors, that seem to be going out of their way to hit you, which they probably are because, as a rental-car driver, you may well be the only person in all of South Florida who actually has insurance.

You think I'm exaggerating? You think it's not that bad?

You're right! Sometimes it's worse. My favorite Welcome-To- South-Florida story, which is absolutely true, concerns the arrival of the distinguished author Cleveland Amory, who was here to promote one of his books. Picking him up at the airport was a friend of mine, Penny Gardner, who operates a VIP hosting service called Miami Seen. Penny had rented a large car for Amory, and she was just getting into it when a man came sprinting up, grabbed her purse, and leaped into a getaway car, which started racing off, with Penny running after it. So far, of course, there is nothing unusual about this anecdote. It could have happened in front of a distinguished visiting author in any big city. But not what happened next. What happened next was a distinctly South Florida event, namely: A passing motorist, seeing what has happened, stops his car in the middle of the street, leaps out, pulls out a gun and starts shooting at the fleeing car. He fires four or five shots, all of which apparently miss, then, without saying a word to Penny, he hops back into his car and drives off. The Good Samaritan.

Penny, now seriously shaken, rushes over to the rental-car agency, whose employees, in true heartwarming we're-all-in-this-together South Florida fashion, are loudly informing her, through the glass door, that this incident did NOT occur on their property.

Meanwhile, distinguished author Cleveland Amory is lying down sideways on the car seat, possibly wondering if this is, in fact, the kind of community where people purchase a lot of books. Welcome to South Florida, sir! Anything else we can get for you? Bulletproof vest? Change of underwear?

Of course this does not happen to everybody. Most visitors spend their entire vacations here without once being exposed to gunfire. (Possible tourism slogan: "Visit South Florida! There's Not As Much Gunfire As You Think!") But most of us who live here are definitely aware of crime, if only because of the endless electronic yeeping of burglar alarms, the Official Noise of South Florida. Some of us can't sleep without it; when it's too quiet, we have to throw rocks through our neighbor's windows.

Sometimes it seems as if crime is the only thing we all have in common. We lived next door to a family for six months without ever seeing them, until finally the woman dropped by to tell us their house had been broken into. We had a real nice chat. I bet a lot of South Florida socializing occurs this way. ("Hi! We're the Smiths! We've lived next door for 14 years! Somebody just stole all our major appliances!" "Nice to meet you! We're the Johnsons! Louise here was recently mugged!")

That was the only time we ever talked to that particular neighbor, because of course the family moved, as people are constantly doing down here, to the point where pretty soon you're going to see homes built with permanent motel-style neon signs out front, so you'll be able to simply flip a switch to change your sign from "NOT FOR SALE" to "FOR SALE."
We haven't met our new neighbors yet, and we probably never will. They'll never be burglarized, because they have three irate German shepherds the size of UPS trucks. If we ever tried to go over and introduce ourselves, the coroner's office would need a rake to collect all our body fragments.

Everybody has dogs in our neighborhood, including us. My wife, after reading an article filled with Crimestopper Tips, recently put a typically friendly South-Florida-style welcome sign on our front door that says: "WARNING BAD DOG! !CUIDADO HAY PERRO!" (Our dogs, who are really not bad, just stupid, sometimes sniff the sign curiously, as if thinking, "?Cuidado?")

In our previous neighborhood there was a house occupied by
drug dealers. At least that's what we all thought, based on the fact that it was an expensive house occupied by a constantly changing group of highly secretive people with no apparent means of support other than washing their own cars. After a while we thought of it as just another neighborhood landmark -- the Liebman's house, the Williams' house, the Drug Dealer's house, etc. Our son would ask us if he could ride his bike, and we, being responsible South Florida parents, would say, "OK, but don't go beyond the Drug Dealer's House!"

Last summer I was having a beer at the bar of a small restaurant on Miami Beach, and a man recognized me from my picture in the newspaper. Here, without embellishment, is how our conversation went:
MAN: You the one who write for the newspaper?
ME: Yes.
MAN: You should write about Colombia! A lot of humor there! You ever been to Colombia?
ME: No.
MAN: Hah! I am from there. Let me be honest. I am a narcotics trafficker.

I swear that's what he said. There were two police officers eating dinner maybe 10 feet away, and he said "I am a narcotics trafficker" in the same open, friendly voice you might use to say "I am a claims adjuster." I half expected him to give me his business card.

At least he was polite. Politeness is something you learn not to automatically expect in South Florida. You learn, for example, that when you go to the movies here, you'll inevitably be sitting near people who are making important cellular-phone calls, or who, to judge from their noise level, are playing Charades.
You learn that, when you're in a store, and you attempt to make a purchase, the salesperson will often react in an irritated manner, as though this is a highly irregular breach of store procedure. "How am I supposed to get anything done," the salesperson is clearly thinking, "if I have to keep waiting on people?"

You learn that wherever you live and wherever you go, you'll be able to enjoy the musical tastes of some thoughtful person nearby with self-inflicted ear damage and a Led Zeppelin Model sound system cranked up to Stadium Mode.

You learn that if you're waiting in line for something, you'll begin to question your own existence because of the number of people who barge in front of you; or, if they're stuck behind you, as in the supermarket, they'll push their shopping carts into your rear-end, helpfully nudging you along, over and over, nudge nudge nudge NUDGE NUDGE until your brain fills with rage and you want to whirl around and crush their skulls with your frozen Butterball turkey but you don't dare, for the same reason that you don't dare flip the bird at morons in traffic any more, because you never know when somebody down here might be carrying an Uzi stolen from the former chairperson of the Chamber of Commerce.

Yes, there is definitely some hostility down here. Sometimes you can actually feel it hovering and festering in the air. Maybe Bob Soper should include a Hostility Level in his weather forecast ("Tomorrow will be continued hot with a 60 percent chance of somebody getting fatally shot over what will turn out to be a losing Lotto ticket").

Of course a certain amount of tension is inevitable when you have 274 distinct ethnic communities -- with new ones washing ashore every hour -- all attempting to co-exist in a relatively small, confined area that is also extremely popular with mosquitoes. Each of these ethnic communities has its own cherished customs and beliefs, with the MOST cherished belief being that everybody ELSE's culture is wrong. Top mathematicians using powerful computers have been unable to find a single issue on which all of South Florida's ethnic communities agree, including the issue of what time it is.

Fortunately, South Florida is blessed with many courageous political leaders who refuse to pander to petty ethnic prejudices; who are willing to speak up for fairness and reason and right, even though this might hurt their re-election chances.
Ha ha! I am of course making a hilarious joke here. South Florida's political leaders hold all kinds of national pandering records. Many of them would need major surgery to have their lips removed from their constituencies' butts. Some of them are attempting to perform the near-impossible feat of pandering to several conflicting constituencies simultaneously; these leaders remind you of those battery-operated toys that rush around randomly, changing direction whenever they hit a wall. BONK they hit the Anglo wall, so they change direction until BONK they hit the Cuban wall, which sends them rushing off into BONK the Haitian wall, which is not to be confused with BONK the native African-American wall, which sends them spinning into BONK the Jewish wall, and so on. This kind of bold leadership has needless to say created a tremendous sense of fellowship, as was demonstrated during the recent visit of Nelson Mandela, when the various ethnic communities displayed a generous spirit of mutual trust and understanding rarely seen outside of Beirut.

So let's sum up what we've got down here. We've got crime. We've got violence. We've got invertebrate political leadership tiptoeing nervously around on an ethnic mine field that explodes at the drop of a mango. We've got rampant rudeness and Gridlock-From-Hell traffic populated by frantic IQ-impaired revenge- crazed Motorists of Doom who don't even obey the laws of physics. Have I left anything out? The humidity? The crowding and overdevelopment and continued aggressive uglification of the landscape? The endless highway deconstruction? The corruption? The water shortage? The cockroaches large enough to be registered with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles? The fact that every minute you live here brings you one minute closer to the inevitable day when the major hurricane they've been warning us about for 20 years now -- the Big One, Hurricane Idi Amin -- finally arrives, and suddenly Sea Level is the same height as your refrigerator, and you find yourself crouching on your roof, surrounded by water, with every pit bull in the neighborhood swimming furiously your way?
These are just a few of the things that run through my mind when people ask me how I like South Florida.

And then they look at me, cringing.

And I always say: "I like it a LOT."

And this is the absolute truth. I'm not saying it to be polite. I really like South Florida. Sometimes I love South Florida. But it's not easy to explain why.

Oh, sure, there are the obvious reasons, the official tourism-industry reasons. I like the water. I like the weather (Northerners can have their Change of Seasons; for me, the Change of Seasons always wound up involving jumper cables). I like the sky; we get more great sunsets in a month here than I saw in 20 years in Philadelphia. I like being an hour from the Keys. I like the Miami skyline at night, even though I imagine that as a taxpayer I'm now helping to pay for illuminating the CenTrust Tower. I like hardly ever having to wear a tie to restaurants or even necessarily funerals. I like watching the cruise ships go out, loaded with happy Indianapolis people, and I like it when the ships come back and the passengers have to be unloaded via cranes because they've been eating 17 meals per day and their arms and legs have turned into small useless appendages. I like Bayside and the Grove and Tobacco Road at 1:30 a.m., which is what time it always is inside Tobacco Road, even on Monday afternoon. I like the Book Fair and the Columbus Day Totally Nude Regatta and of course the King Mango Strut, a wondrously demented event that each year proves the important and reassuring scientific law that there is no direct correlation between age and maturity. I even like the Orange Bowl Parade after a certain amount of rum. I like conch fritters. I like being represented by the baddest-ass college football team in the nation. I like being at a Heat game when the crowd is going nuts because we're down by only 15 points going into the fourth quarter and if the team plays really hard there's an outside chance that we can cut it to just 10 by the end of the game. I like South Beach on a Saturday night when the bars are busy and the bands are playing and the Beautiful People are strolling past beautiful yet somehow comical architecture and the world-famous Atlantic Ocean is right there.

I like all these things, and many more. But they're not what makes me sometimes love South Florida. What makes me sometimes love South Florida is this:

It's weird.

And when I say "weird," I do not mean merely "interesting." A LOT of places are interesting. Boston, for example, is a very interesting city with many interesting historic sites and cultural attractions that you can go to and be interested in. But did Boston ever name a street after a man who turned out to be a leading drug dealer? I sincerely doubt it. Here in Dade County, however, where our political leaders spend much of their time naming streets after semi-prominent citizens or close friends or business acquaintances or particularly loyal domestic animals, the Metro Commission named a street the "Leomar Parkway" after prominent developer Leonel Martinez, who later pleaded guilty to running a massive drug operation.

Of course you can just imagine how surprised our local political leaders were when they found out about this.

"I'm surprised because I never expected that to be the case," said Miami Commissioner Victor De Yurre, who was Martinez's real-estate attorney. "The whole thing to me was a shock from day one."

Metro Commissioner Larry Hawkins boldly proposed stripping Martinez's name from the street.

"I think it sends the wrong message, not only to kids in our community, but to drug dealers," he said.

You tell 'em, Larry! It's time we got tough! You drug dealers out there better get one thing straight: If you get caught in THIS town, we're going to strip your name from your street.

So Leomar Parkway is back to being plain old West 132 Avenue, at least until some commissioner decides to honor his proctologist. Meanwhile, U.S. Marshals have seized Martinez's $2.2 million house in Coral Gables' very exclusive Cocoplum area, and they've discovered that the basement contains an entire nightclub featuring a stage, a bar, room for 100 people and men's and women's bathrooms with three stalls each. When I read about this I had to snort in a hearty manner, because when I lived in Coral Gables ("Where Life Itself Is A Zoning Violation"), I once got a ticket for having my living room repainted without a permit. Really. I always had the feeling that if I'd attempted a major project, such as the installation of a sink, Coral Gables would have had me shot. I have met many Coral Gables residents who skulk around performing home repairs in the dead of night for fear of being apprehended by the Building Police. Yet here Mr. Prominent Drug Developer somehow managed to install a nightclub in his basement.

When this was discovered, a Coral Gables official told The Herald that having a nightclub in your basement is a "major violation" of the laws, and it "definitely will have to go."

Law and order, that's what we stand for here in South Florida.

In reviewing this incident I'm trying to make two points:
1. Abnormal events occur routinely down here.
2. When you probe beneath the surface of these abnormal events, you often find even more abnormality, whole unexpected basement nightclubs of abnormality.

There seems to be something in the steamy air here that causes events to spontaneously mutate, like some kind of fast-growing alien jungle vegetation, throbbing and roiling and sending out vines and tendrils in all directions and suddenly erupting into giant mysterious pods that burst open to reveal entirely new and possibly carnivorous life forms that immediately start mutating on their own. Before long some seemingly simple event that you thought you had understood completely has evolved into something completely different and usually far more bizarre. In the relatively short time I've lived here, I've seen this process occur over and over, to the point where I've given it a name: the DeSillers Effect.

This name comes, of course, from the tragicomic case of Maria DeSillers, a Miami woman whose son, Ronnie, fought a brave but losing battle against a liver disease, a battle that received nationwide attention and drew hundreds of thousands of
dollars in donations. It was a heart-rending story, and through the news media millions of us followed it to its very sad ending, and we all had a good cry and filed the whole thing away under Sad Memories and prepared to go on with our lives, and then . . .

. . . and then it mutated. It sat and festered in the South Florida heat until a new pod burst open and out popped the state attorney, informing us that Mrs. DeSillers, the grieving mom, had used some of the donation money for a BMW and a car phone and clothes and jewelry and furniture and a big wad of cash for her ex-boyfriend. Admit it: When you read about this in the newspaper, somewhere in the back of your mind there was a voice saying this could have happened only in South Florida.

This is not to say that fascinating events don't occur in other places; it's just that in other places, there's a kind of predictability to these events. For example, New York City has the ongoing Donald Trump saga, which is unquestionably fascinating. But we have all known for a long time that Trump is basically a greedy jerk, and the fascination lies mainly in watching him lumber directly into the various pitfalls that you would expect a greedy jerk to fall into. Likewise Washington, D.C., has Marion Barry, a major source of entertainment, but only because he turned out to be exactly the hypocrite that a lot of people suspected all along. You just know that if he'd been mayor of Miami, something unexpected would have happened during the undercover sting operation -- maybe the police would have come bursting out from hiding and they would have started smoking crack, too. Or maybe the videotape would have revealed, upon close examination, that the mayor was actually a woman. But something unexpected would have happened. The DeSillers Effect would have seen to this.

Here are some more flagrant examples of the DeSillers Effect in action:

* The Amazing Flight Of Thomas Root
Although this incident did not begin in South Florida, the significant fact is that it ended here. You remember: Last July, there were news bulletins about a pilot who had apparently blacked out in his single-engine plane, which was flying on autopilot, with Air Force jets trailing it down the Atlantic Coast as it gradually ran out of fuel. This was your classic Unfolding Drama, and the nation waited breathlessly as the little plane flew farther and farther until OH NO it crashed into Bahamian waters -- but somehow, miraculously, the pilot escaped, and he was dramatically rescued and everybody rejoiced as the lucky pilot was taken to Memorial Hospital in Hollywood, where ZAP powerful DeSillers Effect rays immediately started penetrating every facet of the story, and it was discovered that Root had a gunshot wound in his stomach that had been inflicted by his own gun, but he claimed to have no idea how this happened, and the press permanently attached the title Mystery Pilot in front of his name, and he turned out to be a communications attorney involved in some questionable broadcast-license deals, and he wound up pleading guilty to five federal felony charges and could go to jail, and don't even try to tell me this would have happened if he'd gone down off the coast of San Diego.

* The Stirring Escape Of Nadia Comaneci
You talk about a classic feel-good story: Here she is, little Nadia, the plucky 'n' perky 'n' petite doll of a gal who stole our hearts in the Olympics, escaping from Communist Tyranny, fleeing to Freedom here in . . . UH OH! Not South Florida, Nadia! Watch out for the DeSil . . . too late. Suddenly Nadia was not nearly as perky or petite as we remembered her; she was this vaguely sour woman who may or may not have been dating the evil son of the evil Romanian dictator, and who was hanging around with a "manager" who was actually a Hallandale roofer who abandoned his wife and four small children. We were disillusioned; it was as if the vice squad had picked up Tinkerbell on 79th Street for soliciting. But we should have expected it, here in the swirling vortex of the DeSillers Effect.

* The Tragic Tourist Murder Case
Maybe you remember this one, from 1987. It's nighttime in downtown Miami. Police find a rental car containing a West German tourist named Dieter Riechmann, appearing dazed and distraught, next to the body of his girlfriend, 31-year-old
Kersten Kischniok, who has a bullet in her brain.

The story in the next day's Herald is a gut-grabber and a half. Riechmann has told police that he and Kischniok had left Bayside, then got lost. He said he saw a pedestrian and drove over to ask for directions; the man said something Riechmann didn't understand, then shot Kischniok.

"He remembers his girlfriend wheezing as he sped through the dark streets in an alien city," the Herald story says. "He remembers feeling her blood on his hand."

Riechmann tells The Herald that Kischniok "loved Miami, you can see her smiling in the videotapes I made, so happy."

Here's how the story ends:
Riechmann and Kischniok were to return to Germany Wednesday.

Now Riechmann is going home alone, with a question:
"Why do I earn this, coming here?"

It tears your heart out, doesn't it? I mean, here you have these innocent, decent, fun-loving people from a place where nobody even litters, and they come here and ask somebody for directions and this poor woman gets murdered for God's sakes. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THIS TOWN?? That's what people were screaming on the talk-radio shows. WHY CAN'T WE DO SOMETHING?? WHEN ARE WE GOING TO GO AFTER THESE DAMNED CRIMINALS who ROAM THE STREETS and prey on LAW-ABIDING PEOPLE who . . .
ZAP! Turns out that poor old distraught Dieter Riechmann stood to make $1 million in insurance on the victim's life. Turns out, according to evidence presented in court, that the victim was a high-class call girl and poor old Dieter was her pimp.

Turns out that he got convicted for murder.

That's how things turn out down here.

* The Police Officer From Hell
This would be Metro police officer Alex Marrero, who was the chief defendant in the 1979 beating death of black businessman Arthur McDuffie. Marrero and three other officers were acquitted in 1980 by an all-white Tampa jury; this verdict touched off the 1980 Miami riots that left 18 dead. Marrero was fired from the force, and in a normal place the story would end here. Instead, Marrero was arrested in 1989 by federal agents on charges of conspiring to protect a cocaine shipment.
But wait, there's more. Hours after his arrest, a major fire broke out in the Everglades; investigators later discovered that the fire was caused by somebody igniting gasoline-soaked files belonging to: Alex Marrero. The fire destroyed 12,000 acres, spread thick, choking smoke over much of South Florida, required the federal government to bring in firefighting crews
from as far away as California, and forced the evacuation of 748 illegal immigrants from the Krome Avenue Detention Center to Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium (which a few months earlier had housed several hundred Nicaraguan refugees).

Other than that, it was a routine case.

* The Curse Of The Giant Christmas Trees
This is one of my favorite examples of the DeSillers Effect. It's November 1989, and there is holiday excitement in the air, because the World's Largest Christmas Tree is being erected in Bayfront Park. The World's Largest Christmas Tree always used to be in Lantana, home of The National Enquirer (of course The National Enquirer is in South Florida), but The Enquirer stopped doing the tree last year, so a businessman is bringing it to Miami and everyone is very proud.

And now ZAP it's December, and guess what? The businesman can't pay the contractors and the World's Largest Christmas Tree has filed for bankruptcy. Yes! Bankruptcy! A Christmas tree! Is that wonderful, or what? Could that possibly have happened in Cedar Rapids, or Macon, or Butte, or any place else back on the planet Earth? Of course not! It had to happen in South Florida. I'm surprised the contractors didn't retaliate by breaking the tree's limbs.

Miami is also the home of the World's Largest Flocked Christmas Tree, which appears each year in Tropical Park at Santa's Enchanted Forest, which has to be the World's Least Subdued Christmas Display. And last year we had another memorable holiday event at the extremely tasteful Fort Lauderdale Thunderbird Swap Shop, where a crowd including Fort Lauderdale Mayor Bob ("Free, White and an IQ of 21") Cox had gathered for the official lighting of the World's Largest Inflatable Christmas Tree, which actually looked like a 14-story-tall green tent. But just as the big moment arrived, ZAP, along came a gust of wind, which ripped a seam in the tree, which collapsed and sank to the ground.

"Certainly it's embarrassing when you get it inflated and it goes back down," stated Thunderbird Swap Shop owner Preston Henn, speaking for many of us.

Anyway, the DeSillers Effect appears to have a negative impact on giant Christmas trees, which makes you wonder what could happen in the upcoming holiday season:


Of course nobody knows where the DeSillers Effect will strike next. That's the fun of living here. But I do think the Manuel Noriega situation is already showing signs of being affected.

Theoretically this was a case about issues such as
drug dealing, human-rights abuses, U.S. foreign policy, etc., but when it came to South Florida, it mutated, under the DeSillers Effect rays, into a case almost totally about how the lawyers would get paid. For months now this issue has obsessed the legal system. The reason for this is that the Noriega case involves a great deal of "legal complexity," by which I mean "$20 million in various foreign bank accounts." Because of this complexity, Mr. Noriega has required a great deal of "due process," meaning "five lawyers making about $300 per lawyer per hour." It looks as if we're going to have due process for as long as the complexity holds out, which could be many years. God alone knows how the case will come out. It wouldn't surprise me if the final deal involves formally changing the name of West 132 Avenue to "Manuelnor Parkway."

You laugh, but there is no predicting what the South Florida legal community will do in any given situation. Remember The Case Of Claude The Sheep Dog? Here's what happened: One day an attorney named Frank Furci was walking his Doberman pinscher, Ginger, through his affluent Broward County neighborhood when he encountered a sheep dog named Claude.
Guess what happened next.

If you guessed that the dogs got into a fight and were separated by their owners and that was the end of it, then you are clearly not familiar with South Florida.

What happened was that Furci pulled out a .45-caliber handgun (of course!) and shot Claude in a fatal manner. He was charged with cruelty to animals and aggravated assault. But it just so happens that Furci's law partner is (of course!) famed local defense attorney Roy Black, who mounted a defense effort comparable in scope to the Normandy Invasion but probably more expensive. As Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen described it:
(Black) hired a private investigator. He got aerial photos of the crime scene. In 43 separate pleadings and motions, and 17 depositions, he and lawyer Mark Seiden hammered at the character of Claude the sheep dog.
They demanded records of his breeding, birth and pedigree; of any dog shows he'd won; of any previous bites or attacks. Claude's background, they asserted, was "of critical importance in formulating the accused's defense."

At one point -- I am not making this up -- Claude was thawed out and autopsied by Broward County's chief medical examiner.
Finally they worked out a deal whereby Furci pleaded no contest to animal cruelty, and the assault charge was dropped. The Herald story stated that Furci had to do some community service, and "has already spent 35 hours visiting nursing homes with puppies and kittens for the Humane Society's 'pet therapy' program." The story didn't say whether Mr. Furci took his .45 along to the nursing homes, in case one of the puppies got out of hand.

But that is not the point. The point is that this is a wondrous, classic South Florida story. I contend that there are more stories like this per square inch in South Florida than anywhere else in the United States. The key to enjoying yourself here is to accept this, to stop wishing it would be more like where you came from and start enjoying the fact that the entire region is one vast entertainment medium. Every day you should wake up and say, with pride in your voice: "I am fortunate enough to live in the weirdest area of the United States."

You should stop complaining about, for example, the quality of government here. Yes, we seem to have more than our share of political leaders with the ethical standards of toenail dirt. But look at how entertaining they can be. Surely you enjoyed watching Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud attempting to explain that there was nothing suspicious about his appearing before the Metro Commission in support of David Paul's dock. David Paul, of course, was the chairman of The CenTrust Savings And Loan And Real Nice Art Collection, and naturally a man of that stature could not have an ordinary little weenie of a dock. No, a man who is screwing up a multibillion-dollar operation needs a really big dock, a major dock, and Mayor Daoud was there to help him, but NOT because Daoud got $35,000 from companies controlled by Paul. No, he did it because it's a mayor's JOB to help make sure that his constituents, no matter who they may be, obtain the dock size of their choice, and as taxpayers we should all be glad he did because I think Mr. Paul's dock belongs to us now.

Mayor Daoud recently made the news again by obtaining several semi-automatic weapons from firms competing for a city contract. Once again we need to stress that there was nothing unusual about this. A LOT of political figures down here are armed. In 1987 Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez had his personal handgun stolen from his car. Politicians down here need to be packing heat, because they never know when gunfire might erupt during a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce.

Yes, they must be vigilant, our political leaders. Remember when Commissioner Victor De Yurre alertly spotted the Penis Carrots? That was a close one! What happened was, the City
Commission was looking at the Downtown Development Authority's latest promotional brochure, which featured, for some artistic reason, an arrangement of broccoli, peppers and carrots. When Victor saw this picture he got very upset because he thought the vegetables looked, as The Herald put it, "too much like lower male body parts."

"What the hell does this have to do with Miami?" De Yurre asked, showing a stunning lack of understanding of Miami.

"It's a marketing tool," stated Matthew Schwartz, executive director for the development authority, in a quote that I am not making up. I could go on and on, but you see my point, which is that we have, pound for pound, the most dependably comical politicians in the country down here. The trick is to stop viewing the government as a government, and start viewing it as an entertainment medium. Be thankful for the weirdness. Embrace the weirdness.

Even the nature here is weird. The other day I was reaching out my hand to open a door and YIKES there was a grasshopper sitting on the handle. Ordinarily I am not afraid of grasshoppers, but this was the biggest one I had ever seen, definitely large enough to prey on adult squirrels. I made scary noises at it, but it just sat there, totally unafraid of me, using contemptuous grasshopper body language to convey this message: "So, Mr. Suburban Homeowner, you THINK you live in a civilized metropolitan area, but as far as NATURE is concerned you live in a GIANT, EONS-OLD SUBTROPICAL SWAMP and you have NO IDEA what's living in here with you HAHAHAHAHAHA."

One time I was picking my son up from school, and suddenly the air was filled with dragonflies -- thousands of them, everywhere you looked. It was as though the finals of the Insect World Cup had just been held, and the dragonflies had won, and they had all left their little dragonfly TVs to rush outside and celebrate. Next day they were gone.

Of course everybody knows about the Giant Death Toads we have here, the kind where if you lick them you could die. "Never lick the toads" is the first piece of advice we always give to house guests.

And as if the native South Florida nature weren't strange enough, we have people bringing in all kinds of bizarre nonlocal nature. Earlier this year, for example, The Herald reported that Pompano Beach commissioners were considering an ordinance that would require residents to leash their bobcats, ocelots, etc.,
because "a cougar escaped from a private home and briefly chased a small boy."

A local painting contractor told me that one of his men was once chased out of a yard by an emu, which is a very large ostrichlike bird.

"He was on the radio, scared to death," the contractor said. "He was shouting, 'There's a GIANT CHICKEN in there!' "

Last year a man driving on the turnpike right around the Broward-Dade line had a head-on collision with a buffalo.

Really. There was a buffalo herd loose.

"Certainly Miami is not the place to have buffalo roaming up and down the highway," a state official said. But of course he was wrong. Miami is exactly the place for this.

It's also a magnet for giant snakes. It seems as though every two weeks you pick up the newspaper and read about some family whose children are just distraught because their 14-foot, 275-pound boa constrictor named Louise has escaped, and they're looking all over for her because they love her so much and she's so sweet and she hardly ever eats anybody. Sometimes you hear about these snakes being recaptured, but sometimes you don't, so I figure a lot of them are still out there.

You never know what's out there. We found this out at our house during the Falling Lizards Incident. I'm not talking about the cute friendly little lizards that you see constantly down here, sitting on your toothbrush, standing upside down on your ceiling, etc. I'm talking about a completely new brand of lizard that we discovered on our property last Christmas. This was during the Major Cold Wave when the temperature got down to a life-threatening 30 degrees and we were introduced to the "rolling blackout" by the folks at Florida Power & Light (Motto: "Our Motto Is Not In Service At This Time").

On Christmas morning we walked outside to find large, bright-green lizards falling out of our trees. I mean large lizards. I never even knew they were up there, and all of a sudden WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP they were raining all over the lawn, a lizard storm. They looked dead, but they weren't. I know this
because my son and I picked some of them up and put them in a box and brought them inside, and after a while I reached in to touch one and YIKES he suddenly opened his mouth really wide and hissed at me and I set a new world's record in the Leaping- Backward-While-Wetting-Your-Pants event.

When the weather warmed up we took them back outside and they disappeared. I imagine they're back up there in the trees, possibly with an escaped snake the size of Rhode Island, but I don't really know. All I know is that they helped make it a memorable holiday for us -- a time of gathering comatose lizards off the lawn; of waiting excitedly for the arrival of the "rolling blackout"; of listening for the festive discharge of firearms that accompanies all South Florida holidays including Arbor Day; and of imagining that, if we listened carefully, we could hear, faintly in the distance, the unmistakable holiday sound of a Christmas tree going bankrupt. In short, it was a classic South Florida experience, the kind you couldn't get anywhere else in the country.

So I say the hell with those official lists of the Ten Safest Places, or the Ten Quietest Places, or the Ten Places Where Strangers Are Least Likely To Flip You The Bird, whatever. If they had a list of the Ten Least Boring Places, Miami would have to be at the top. So don't be ashamed of living here. Don't apologize. The next time somebody from back on the planet Earth asks you how you like Miami, don't make excuses. Think about the good things, the weird things, and then look that person right in the eye, and answer, with pride in your voice: "Stick 'em up."

POSTSCRIPT: Right after I turned in this story, a Dade County grand jury indicted Leonel Martinez -- you remember, the
drug dealer and former leading citizen -- in connection with the murders of two men. Martinez had been a suspect in two drug- related murders, but these were NOT the ones he was indicted for. He was indicted for the 1978 murders of two kitchen- appliance salesmen. Tell me how this case could get weirder.
Never mind, I'll just wait around and find out.

© 1990 Dave Barry/The Miami Herald.
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