From the South Florida Underground
by Elayne Keratsis
It's in the news again.
That two word phrase that strikes fear into the heart of
every single one of us who resides within it when it appears
in a national headline. South Florida.
It can only be bad news.
Florida is a state that thrives on three major businesses;
tourism, motion picture and television production (although
that multi-million dollar industry is virtually ignored by
the Governor and his underlings), and the Native American
casino gambling operations. Add into the mix citrus and produce
farming and a major cruise ship industry.
Florida is also a state known for being mentioned, if not
behind, every freakish national news story in recent years.
This never seemed to impact business, however, instead just
showcasing us as the butt of national jokes, as well as the
21st century's answer to the Wild, Wild West. Now we have
fallen on the hardest times ever.
The painful state of this particular state can no way be
compared to the massive loss of New York. We are infinitely
and guiltily grateful we have been spared what New York has
suffered. Yet in the city of the world, we are all family,
and we deeply grieve for the lost lives of our northern family
and stand up applauding and admiring the tenacity and strength
of the victims, families, cops, firefighters and the citizens
- heroes all. This missive is only offered up only as a short
history of South Florida and why we cannot seem to escape
the national news and how this tragedy has impacted us.
Long ago Miami and the surrounding areas were a sun washed
paradise proclaimed by the late, great Jackie Gleason to be
"the sun and fun capital of the world." The simple old fashioned
familial womb of that special dolphin Flipper was located
and shot in our own backyard. In another time and another
place tourists from all over the world flocked to the the
tip of the United States to soak up the balmy warmth and glittering
beaches. This was, of course, before we started picking them
off at isolated rest stops and deserted street corners.
The 1950's unfolded and South Florida was the unofficial
mecca and playground for organized crime figures to come on
down and get away from it all. The next decade afforded us
the honors of first televised view of The Beatles, a ringside
seat at the Bay of Pigs, and the first race riots which would
soon become a common Florida occurrence in years to come.
In the 80's, the decade opened with Fidel Castro sending
us the gift of 25,000 criminals and mental patients in his
Mariel Boat lift. "Miami Vice" hit the screen, and the world
of Art Deco buildings, brilliant tropical neon, and pastel
clothing set a national trend. The American Casablanca was
born. Sure we were showcasing boozy cops and glamorous drug
runners with the latest in unlicensed weaponry, but the rest
of the country loved it.
They weren't, of course, living it. But we went along for
And an even stranger element slowly began creeping its way
across our border. It flashed occasional warnings we did not
heed. Someone suggested since the state is shaped like firearm,
perhaps we should change the Florida's "See It Like A Native"
tourism campaign to feature a .357 magnum. Famed prosecutor
Vince Bugliosi once dryly commented, and I paraphrase, "When
you shake the tree of psychotics and serial killers the bad
apples eventually fall to Florida." And God knows we've had
them. Ted Bundy virtually set up shop here. "Unsolved Mysteries"
has shot so much footage in South Florida many of us were
surprised they didn't just open a satellite office. And crime
wasn't limited to our frequent visitors. The 1990s were here.
First there was Mayor Xavier Suarez, swept into power in
the late nineties by the sheer number of dead voters who apparently
could not rest easily in their graves until they cast a vote
for the man who soon became known nationally as "Mayor Loco."
Arrogant and unpredictable, he once appeared in the middle
of the night on the door step of an elderly constituent who
had written him an unfavorable letter, and was famous for
attempting to force Miami garbage workers to work overtime
for free in order to keep the city free of trash. Hizzoner's
antics awarded him, and us, the cover of Time Magazine.
Laugh if you want, we told the nation. This is Florida. Things
happen differently down here. Just watch us!
Eventually Miami grew tired of free floating trash and Mayor
Loco was dethroned. His successor "Crazy Joe" Carollo carried
the mantle of looniness on in true Florida fashion when a
small Cuban boy was found adrift of the Florida shores. The
phrase "Banana Republic" took on a whole new meaning.
The arrival of Elian after his mother drowned on an ill-fated
trip from Cuba to the U.S., ripped the southern part of the
state in half. The hoopla literally locking up traffic, tempers
and creating tirades through certain factions of the Cuban
exile community when it was suggested the child might be better
off with his father in Cuba than corralled in the small, weedy
Hialeah yard of his distant relatives, paraded daily for the
The first insidious incidents of the gagging of free speech
appeared. It was not long before any opinion diametrically
opposed to the reunion of the boy and his father was met not
just with angry opposition, but a response peppered with fists,
rocks and bottles. The city of cultural diversity showed the
rest of the nation just how diverse we were and while Los
Angeles, Boston, New York and others looked on with amusement,
ambulances and police could not get to their emergency calls
as angry residents took to the highways in a virtual lock
up of all major highways in protest. The opposition loaded
the steps of Carollo's City Hall with mounds of bananas.
Claims surface that the Virgin Mary herself has appeared
on the bathroom mirror at Elian's house prompting hundreds
of "religious visions." The federal government moved in and
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas (Miami has lots and lots
of mayors), once voted People Magazine's Sexy Mayor, announces
"We will not lend our respective resources ... to assist the
federal government in any way, shape or form to inappropriately
repatriate Elian Gonzalez to Cuba." It was noted he was considering
joining the GOP. Crazy Joe advocates his own police state
and screams "It is not the responsibility of the Miami Police
Department to snatch Elian Gonzalez from his Miami family
and be sent back to a Communist regime." And wacky Florida
International University director Lisandro Pérez decides "We
now have our own local foreign policy."
Do we ever!
"Miami" sniffed one Internet message board poster "should
be sealed off and deemed a foreign country."
The Latin Grammys took one long look at the mud wrestling
match that even Vince McMahon could not concoct and quickly
pulled up all stakes and fled back to the protective umbrella
of Los Angeles, taking million dollars of revenue with them.
Friends called in from other states, asking if we had seceded
from the union.
Hell, we didn't care (except for the production people).
We're Florida. The world is our audience. And the show must
Then there was that incident, I'm sure you may have heard
about it, the circus which became known as the 2000 Presidential
Election? the Greatest Show On Earth? I will never forget
watching the election returns and hearing that one frightening
word. Yep. Florida. Immediately my phone began to ring. "Did
you hear what they just said?" Oh yeah I heard it loud and
clear. And here we go again.
Saturday Night Live had a field day (or weeks actually).
Katherine Harris, Florida's Chanel-clad Secretary of State,
used her position to cackle out Bush's victory and the President's
younger sibling, our Governor, admitted to the press he had
promised his big bro a victory. There wasn't a paper in the
world omitting F-L-O-R-I-D-A from their headlines. For months.
Friends from LA and other outside cities called to laugh.
Bad chads, poll violations, and confusing ballots gave way
to fistfights and street brawls. Coffee shops became battlefields
and if you dared voice the popular majority vote choice, you
had to make sure you had some Teamsters backing you up.
It's Florida. It's our show. But we were getting a little
sick of all.....this.
It's all amusing albeit politically painful, and there is
some panache in being a resident of that one huge chunk of
waterfront property that refuses to conform to the regular
rules of society - like truth and justice and playing by the
Or at least there was.
The morning of September 11th, I was cruising through my
local Target when the first news reports flashed across thirty
television screens. I froze and wondered if I had momentarily
lost my mind. Sadly, I had not. I dropped my magazines and
pack of toilet paper and rushed to my car, listening to talk
radio until I was back at home. Soon friends gathered and
we continued to watch in horror. Crying, wondering if we should
take our kids out of school, what would happen next. I did
not leave the house for four days, catnapping on the couch,
monitoring the news, until I managed to get to the Red Cross
Soon we heard it. Again.
Terrorists living and plotting in our state. Training to
fly planes and inquiring about crop dusters. Renting apartments
and bellying up to the strip bars. Here.
You know the rest.
And our officials typically did not rise to the occasion,
instead angrily announcing victim one drank from a creek,
for God's sake, and this was an isolated incident. I grieved
for the loss of our old Governor, "Walking" Lawton Chiles
who would have been able to calm or fears. The President suggests
everyone should go to Disneyworld, and that brings up a very
sore subject I will address in a minute or so.
More letters, less anthrax, more anthrax.
Letters mailed from....Florida.
One Internet columnist actually suggested it may be time
for the federal government to close the US at Georgia and
cut the state of Florida free. Another said "I don't believe
in National I.D. cards, except for all those people down in...Florida."
What does it all mean? I don't know. I do know that the show
is no longer anything remotely amusing. The only question
that remains is how could this happen here?
I do know the state, the Guv says, is losing 20 million dollars
a day in lost revenue from the tourism drop off. Hospitality
workers are being laid off by the hundreds with no hope of
getting a new job. People are not traveling and hotels stand
empty. The sun-soaked beaches, already limping due to the
Summer of the Shark, are empty. It's brutal.
As is his custom, Governor Bush refuses to acknowledge the
entertainment business here and that may be due to the backlash
from Hollywood against his brother, most notably last year
when celebs such as Robert DeNiro, Ben Affleck, Glenn Close,
et al campaigned for Al Gore. That and the fact that most
of us belong to that Satanic cult usually called "organized
labor." I do notice, however, that the Feds have turned
toward studio big wigs and screenwriters to think-tank possible
terrorism scenarios to protect against in the future.
But we in film have been crippled and the additional millions
usually brought to the state by massive productions with hundreds
of crew members, booked hotel rooms, restaurant business,
car rentals, etc has come to a grinding halt. No producers
want to try and film here and no actors want to fly here.
I hear the Guv and his brother crowing about coming to Disneyworld
but neither ever says "Come down to Florida and shoot
a film! We have it all!" We have tax breaks for the studios,
experienced crew and actors, locations to thrill to and yet,
no one mentions it. I have written to the Govenor, but he
never replies. We get nary a mention in the state press. Displaced
workers wonder why not. At least that is what I hear in the
same coffee shops which once filled with talk of Elian, and
Gore and Bush.
The same coffee shops are divided along two new lines now.
Those who are deemed "patriotic" and those who dare question
the administration, either federal or state. A friend wonders
if spores of the DNA of Ol' Joe McCarthy have somehow been
introduced into our community as we watch the cops break up
a fight between a guy wearing and American flag around his
shoulders and another sporting a t-shirt announcing "People
say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." On the TV hanging
from the ceiling, a Red Cross warehouse has just been bombed.
The local post office is shut down, I have heard, due to an
FBI sweep. There are rumors of possible work, but they are
less likely to be heard than the rumors and new urban legends
of war. And the Summer of the Shark has morphed into Florida's
The Native American casinos continue to thrive and good for
them. The Indians, who did in fact secede from the state in
some form, working within their sovereign nations, building
up the casino gambling business despite vocal opposition,
are now making money and supporting their members. Instead
of sitting back and watching the weirdness unfold in the past
three decades, they concentrated on the business of taking
care of business. The casinos are supplemented by ecological
projects, agriculture, livestock, and other diversified interests.
And even though we took from them pretty much everything we
could, they are much too polite to turn and point as us now.
Even though its Florida.
So that's the news from the one-time American Casablanca.
We still love it, but we're scared. We now watch and wait
as we pray and grieve. We are the audience now, what little
control we had is gone. There is literally nothing else to
do but sit and wait for the next headline. I am reminded of
that way Jackie Gleason used to close his show every night.
"Miami Beach audiences are the greatest audiences in the
Right now, it certainly seems that way.