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Notes From the South Florida Underground
October 20, 2001
by Elayne Keratsis

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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 the ride.

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 worldwide media.

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 go on.

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 rules.

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 to volunteer.

Soon we heard it. Again.

Florida.

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.

Anthrax. Florida.

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 Fall.

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 world."

Right now, it certainly seems that way.

 
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