Main Street Florida

 

Originally published in Tropic Magazine Sunday, March 17, 1985

I set off, armed only with a photographer named Bruce, to see what adventures awaited me along Interstate 95, that vast, undulating ribbon of concrete that stretches down the East Coast, like some kind of vast undulating ribbon or something, connecting Maine with the Rickenbacker Causeway. What tales of human drama, we wondered, did it have to tell? What magic would we find, what mystery, along its 1,727-mile length? This was what we set out to discover, only we decided that, seeing as how it was already 10 a.m., we would skip the part from Maine to Route 84 in Broward County, and just do the part below that.

What we found, Bruce and I, is a self-contained little world, a world that has spawned life forms and behavior patterns and small businesses that exist nowhere else on Earth, thank God. Yet we also discovered that this unique world is seriously threatened by powerful destructive forces that even now, as you read these words, are encroaching upon the delicate I-95 ecosystem. If you'd stop chewing your Danish for a moment, you could probably hear them.

Oh, I know what you cynical South Florida motorists are saying. You're saying: "What? I-95 is threatened with destruction? What can I do? To help destroy it, I mean."

Go ahead, South Florida motorists. Have your cheap laughs. You'll be sorry, someday. For, as has been said many times, usually by your mother, you never appreciate what you have until it's gone. Take the bison. There was a time when gigantic herds of bison roamed the Great Plains, and nobody really appreciated them. Or if anybody did, he never said anything to me about it.

Then along came the White Man, who has made a regular career out of barging into all these peaceful and harmonious ecosystems and displaying as much sensitivity toward them as Moe and Larry display toward Curly, and practically the first thing he did was slay almost all the bison via carbine so as to make room for Oklahoma, etc.

Bison are absurdly easy to slay. If you've ever examined a picture of one, you've probably noticed that all the weight is in the front. So the bison were always taking one step forward, in an effort to roam, and then pitching right over on their faces. As far as the eye could see, there would be bison butts, aimed toward the skies, which were of course not cloudy all day, and the White Man basically couldn't discharge his carbine without hitting one.

Which is no excuse for what he did. There is never any excuse for anything the White Man does, and I include professional ice hockey in that statement. Because today we have only, what, maybe a couple dozen bison left, behind a giant electrified fence I hope.

My point, obviously, is that the same thing could happen to I-95. Not the exact same thing, of course: You fire a carbine at I-95 in South Florida, and the only noticeable effect would be that maybe two-thirds of the passing motorists would fire back.

But I-95 is indeed threatened. It is threatened on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, which is gradually eating its way through a protective barrier of unattractive hotels that was hastily erected in the 1950s. And it is threatened on the west by the Everglades, which until fairly recently were recognized for what it is, which is to say a swamp, but which of late has come to be viewed as a Vital Resource, as if there is some kind of grave threat to the world muck supply. So you have various lunatic fringe groups such as the Florida Legislature proposing plans to make the Everglades bigger, and there is no place for them to go except toward I-95.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, I-95 is threatened by cars and trucks. Every day, many people drive cars and trucks on I-95, a use to which any fool can see it was never intended to be put.

Most of us cannot imagine what life in Miami would be like without I-95. I mean, it has always been there, except of course for the time before it was built; it is as much a part of the South Florida landscape as the beaches, and the palm trees, and the sun-dappled waters, and the Dadeland Mall. It soars over the city, seeming almost to float in the air, supported only by concrete posts the size of grain silos. Beneath its vast form, protected from the sun and the rain, are areas where people from all walks of life gather together to park their cars or commit minor felonies.

And yet all of this, as I said, is threatened.

In an effort to determine what can be done about this, I talked to Dr. Jack Parker, who is director of the Environmental Studies Program at Florida International University, at least until this article is published. Here is what he said:

"One way to reduce the traffic damage to I-95 would be to make the exit ramps very high, so that the cars would actually shoot off into space, say 80 feet up. This would not only cut your maintenance costs, but it would enhance the completeness of the I-95 experience. It would make driving on I-95 a once-in- a- lifetime thrill. Perhaps the exit ramps could be located over Alice Wainwright Park, so the cars would go off into the bay, where they would form a reef, which would attract lobsters."

I swear that is what Dr. Parker said, and furthermore, here is an actual statement from U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell:

"This is an extremely critical situation which demands immediate action. I plan to introduce legislation calling on a special commission to conduct a study of the problem."

OK, you say. So I-95 is threatened. So what? Why should I care? What makes I-95 so special? To understand the answers to these questions, you need some historical background.

Basically, I-95 was the idea of Dwight Eisenhower. This is the same person who came up with the concept of Vice President Nixon.

As Eisenhower conceived of it back in the '50s, the interstate highway system was going to be mainly for National Defense. The idea was that in the event of a serious war, all these war-related objects and personnel could be whizzed around the nation on this vast network of high-speed roads with utmost efficiency. This would go on for approximately 35 minutes, after which your various incoming missiles would of course have destroyed all traces of the interstate system except the growths in the men's room at the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Nevertheless, Eisenhower's idea was immediately hailed as a stroke of genius by a broad-based, across-the-board coalition of persons connected with the concrete industry, and before long, construction of the interstate system was under way. Today it is very nearly complete, although if you look on a map you'll notice there's a gap in it just above Palm Beach. There's a very practical reason for this gap, namely that the prevailing opinion of your powerful political interests in Northern Florida has long been that what South Florida really needs in the way of public works is a good tidal wave. This is why Miami, a world- famous sophisticated cosmopolitan urban center, has yet to be fully connected, whereas in Northern Florida there are a number of spacious modern complete interstate highways whisking people directly to all these dirtbag rural towns where the highest form of cultural achievement is remembering to roll down the car window before you spit.

The fact that I-95 is not directly connected with the rest of the interstate system is highly significant, as you know if you are familiar with the biological development of species in Australia. Australia is separated from the normal continents by large quantities of water, the result being that it has developed life forms -- the koala bear, the platypus, the boomerang -- that are unlike anything else in the world. This is basically what has happened to the drivers on I-95. They are different.

Outsiders, when they first drive on I-95, notice this fact right away, and remark on it. "Those people are CRAZY!" they remark, after the various intensive care tubes have been removed from their noses. "Those people must be on DRUGS!"

Granted, but the real problem is that these drivers have spent too much time festering in this fetid interstate backwater, unreplenished by the freshening flow of through traffic behaving in predictable fashion, and thus they have mutated. To make matters worse, most of them had bizarre driving habits to begin with. This is because many of them are (name of ethnic or age group that you do not belong to). I discovered this fact when I was researching this story. I would ask each person I met: "Why do people drive the way they do on I-95?" And the person would always answer: "Well, you got a lot of (name of ethnic or age group the person speaking did not belong to), and you also got a lot of (name of another ethnic or age group the person did not belong to). Those people do NOT know how to drive." EVERYBODY I talked to agreed on this.

Another, even more important, factor is the design of the road itself.

What I believe happened was, the road designers just got bored. I mean, here they had designed this road all the way down from Maine, and the whole distance, over 1,700 miles, they had used the traditional, stuffy old limited-access highway design, which is that you have people pass on the left, and exit on the right. And these highway designers were just sick of it. They felt that if they saw one more exit off to the right, they were going to throw up right on their blueprints.

So they thought: Here is Miami, here is a town that is receptive to new ideas -- the kind of wide-open

town where someday a person who is not even a United States citizen could very well come in and put giant sheets of plastic colored Bazooka Bubble Gum Pink around a totally innocent batch of islands -- and he wouldn't even be detained for questioning. They thought: Let's have some fun here.

So they came up with the concept of the Exit Going Off To The Left. And then (Why not? Why the hell not?) they came up with the Exit Going Off The Middle. And then -- this was a night they still talk about whenever highway designers get together -- they came up with the concept of the Golden Glades Interchange, where, if you are approaching it from the south, it looks as though there is nothing ahead except exits, and no way whatsoever to get back to a normal state, such as Maryland.

Which would be fine if the bulk of motorists were well- rested professional racing-car drivers with excellent memories, but unfortunately we are talking about the aforementioned mutated ethnic and age groups. And so we now have a situation where a large percentage of people drive in the left lane at a speed normally associated with the Drive-Thru Window at Burger King, because they are concerned that their exit might suddenly appear there, over on the left. Even if it wasn't there yesterday, it might be there today. You never know.

Or maybe these people simply wish to avoid the right side of the highway, because that side is often so BUSY, with people getting ON, people getting OFF, people getting MUGGED, and so on, whereas the left side is fairly quiet except for the occasional surprise exit.

So if you want to pass these people, which you pretty much have to do if you want to get anywhere before nightfall, then you must either get behind them and honk, in which case they will turn their heads all the way around -- I am talking about the drivers -- and look at you for several seconds with a look of GREAT puzzlement on their faces, the same look that Albert Einstein would have been given if he had tried to explain the General Theory of Relativity to the Root People of the central Amazon jungle; or you can attempt to pass these drivers on the right, in which case all will go well until you are directly alongside, at which time they will suddenly receive a signal from a distant galaxy, a faint signal, but a clear signal nonetheless, ordering them to IMMEDIATELY swerve to the right, and the accident will of course be ruled your fault, because you (you brigand!) were passing on the right, which is Against the Law.

And of course you have other people who are in a great hurry, who must drive at a minimum of 87 miles per hour, because they are driving very old cars, cars that are rapidly being eaten through by rust, so that they could well disappear altogether in the next few minutes, just vaporize in a reddish- brown cloud, leaving the driver skidding down the highway on his butt, where he would be easy prey for motorists who were not members of his particular ethnic or age group.

You ask: What about the police? Can't they do anything about all this? No. Oh, I suppose they could arrest the highway designers and imprison them for life without trial, but that would be a classic case of Too Little, Too Late. The only other option would be to attempt to stop motorists who are violating the traffic laws, but how? Tactical nuclear weapons? What if one were to go astray, and slam into a Metrorail train at rush hour, possibly injuring its rider? We cannot take the risk.

So that's the situation on I-95, but what about next to it? Next time you're completely stopped in traffic for upwards of an hour so that the 163,500 drivers ahead of you can slow down to one mile an hour and take a really close look at the scene of a minor accident, of which all traces have been removed except a smudged spot where the state trooper put the emergency flare, you should take a look at what has developed alongside I-95. A whole fascinating little world has sprung up, with fascinating little businesses. As part of our research, the photographer named Bruce and I decided to explore this world. We had no idea, as we set out, what we would find; all we knew was that Bruce would take the pictures, and I would write the words, and we would try to be back by 5 p.m. because Bruce had some kind of appointment.

So what we did was, we drove up and down I-95, and whenever we saw a sign that looked interesting, we got off 95 and checked it out. We got to eight businesses, and here they are, with none left out:

THE SHOWBOAT MEN'S CLUB

Actually, we didn't see the sign for the Showboat Men's Club at first. What lured us off I-95 was a sign near the Route 84 exit that said:

LEATHER IMAGE OF FT. LAUDERDALE
HOME OF THE DEMOLITION JUICERS

Unfortunately, this store was empty, so we wandered across the parking lot to the Showboat Men's Club ("ALL FEMALE STAFF"). To get in, you go into this foyer and press a buzzer under a one-way mirror, and then they buzz you into this waiting room where part of the all-female staff was watching daytime television. There also was a nonfemale staff person who clearly had been selected on the basis of arm size. The room smelled the way Woolworth's would smell if somebody came in and machine- gunned every single bottle of perfume and toilet water. We were greeted by a friendly person named Judy Howell, who is the day manager. "What kind of business is this?" I asked. "It's a men's club, " she explained. She also explained that the female staff did not wish to have Bruce take any photographs of them, and we all agreed that this was just fine. On to Resurrection Drums.

RESURRECTION DRUMS

Resurrection Drums is right up the road from the Showboat Men's Club. The owner, John Becker, is a "born-again" Christian, but not the kind who can't finish a sentence without suggesting that you get yourself Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, which is good because he's unusually large and you would have to take his suggestions seriously. He got saved 12 years ago when he was a prematurely balding professional rock drummer, and now he sells new drums and renovates old ones. "Resurrection is a term that comes from the Bible, " he says. "It means to be raised again, to have a new life. We do that with drums." He also appears sometimes on Miami Vice. "They were looking for big fat ugly bald-looking guys, and hey, here I am. I'm just an extra, but they've given me some pretty good shots, I think because of my head."

AMERICAN BIDET

This business, at the Sheridan Street exit, used to be called Mr. Bidet, but owner Arnold Cohen changed the name a while back because a lot of people thought it was a product for men. This just goes to show how little we Americans know about this particular product, a situation that Arnold Cohen is out to change. "We are an emerging growth company, " he says. "This product is truly the miracle product and sleeper of the century." What it is, is an extremely personal electrically powered hygiene product that Arnold Cohen invented, which you mount right on your existing toilet, after which you start realizing all these amazing medical benefits that, if you drop in for a demonstration, Arnold Cohen will tell you about in all the detail you would ever want. More, in fact. "Once you've used it, " he reports, "that's it -- when you're alone, that moment of truth, when you feel this. After you've used this product for a few days, you will find yourself, when you're using a bathroom outside your home, you're going to reach back, and the switch isn't going to be there, and that's when you're going to miss it the most, and you're going to plan your day around going to the bathroom the American Bidet way."

JANITORS CLOSET

This is a large building at the Hallandale Beach Boulevard exit where they sell things mainly to industrial cleaners, although the public is also invited to come and shop for its janitorial supplies, such as Scientifically New Odor Rid Bow Wow and Meow Rug and Upholstery Shampoo. Also, they have a box of Tide large enough to repair aircraft in. I asked Morrie Courtney, the president and owner, if he had any tips on cleaning, and he said:

"A lot of women buy those toilet-bowl products, you know, that make the water turn blue. Well, a lot of those products just make the water turn blue."

WATERBED OUTLET

The manager of this store, which is also off the Hallandale Beach Boulevard exit, wears python-skin boots and sells waterbeds under the name of Nick Danger. He says his real name is Warren Appleton, but he came to be known as Nick Danger because a few years back he was with military intelligence in Europe, and he still uses that name in the waterbed business. I asked him to compare the two occupations, spying and waterbed sales. "The two worlds are totally different, " he said. "I'm not going to get a Medal of Honor selling waterbeds. But I love it. You're dealing with the most personal item in people's lives. Their bed. So the doors are open already. And you're helping them when you sell them a waterbed. It's the best possible surface for sleeping on that we've found up to this time." Nick Danger, Waterbed Salesman.

P. LAFER ENTERPRISES INC.

You know those elaborate Christmas displays they have at big shopping malls, with the elves and the reindeer nodding their heads and waving their arms in slow motion, over and over and over and over? Somebody has to make those displays, right? P. Lafer Enterprises makes them, right at the

Miami Gardens Drive exit. They have elves up the gazoo in there, and the public is invited. They can supply all your elf and motorized reindeer needs. P. Lafer is Philip Lafer, former starving hippie San Francisco street artist, now owner of a very successful business in a great big building with his name and picture on it. He looks like a guru who plays a lot of tennis. He has developed a new licensed character, a Christmas- oriented unicorn character called (get ready!) -- the Yule- Icorn. (He's holding two prototype Yule-Icorns, Holly and Jolly, in the picture.) "It was introduced at King's Plaza Mall in Brooklyn last Christmas with a great deal of success, " he confides.

MICHELSON'S TROPHIES

You talk about spirit, you talk about enthusiasm, and you're talking about the guys at Michelson's Trophies, near the 119th Street exit. They wear matching polo shirts that say "We Recognize Excellence, " and they are always looking you in the eye and saying: "We deal only with winners here!" They feel very strongly that you should not judge a trophy by its size. "Small trophies serve a very useful purpose, " says President Jim Michelson. "They're like training trophies. You can't give a kid this big (he gestures down) a trophy that big (he gestures up) because it screws up their values. So they win little trophies, and then when they get a little older they win middle-sized trophies, and when they get to be big they win big trophies, and they hang their recognition on the wall in the form of plaques."

Michelson's Trophies is renovating a trophy brought in by a woman who works at a nearby bowling alley. Her father won it. It says:

AWARDED TO
LYSTON RENTFRO
ST LOUIS' HANDSOMEST ICEMAN
FOX THEATRE
AUGUST 22, 1940

LUXURY APARTMENTS

You have probably seen these, near the 62nd Street exit. These are probably the most yellow rental units in the history of the world. These are not the yellow of the pale pastel dresses that bridesmaids are sometimes compelled to purchase; these are the yellow of the flame that comes out of the howitzer going KABLAAAAAAM!! in war comics. This is because the owner, Froilan Maya, who is 81, likes yellow. He used to be a semibig time bandleader who played in the Miami Beach nightclubs with his 18-piece orchestra. He has photocopies of a column in which Walter Winchell mentions him in the first item. And now he is 81, and he has a lot of memories, and he can paint his luxury apartments any damn color he wants.

Of course, these are not the only businesses along I-95. There are many, many more, including, I am sure, quite a few that sell waterbeds, trophies and janitorial supplies just as nice as those described here, whose owners will call us first thing tomorrow morning informing us that they advertise regularly in The Miami Herald and inquiring as to why exactly the hell Bruce and I didn't drop by to take attractive color photographs of THEM.

But we never intended this to be an exhaustive directory of the businesses along I-95. We intended it to be a shoddy, poorly researched and sensationalistic article that would get you, the public, so needlessly alarmed that you would actually be moved to get off your behinds and DO something. Specifically, we urge you to exercise the right that the Founding Fathers, in their vast wisdom and foresight, guaranteed you in the Constitution: The right to bear bumper stickers. I want each of you, right now, to send a business-sized, self-addressed, stamped envelope to:

SAVE I-95
TROPIC MAGAZINE
THE MIAMI HERALD
ONE HERALD PLAZA
MIAMI FL, 33101

We will send you back, absolutely free, a "SAVE I-95" bumper sticker that will be very attractive, although to be honest I haven't seen it yet because I just came up with the idea about a sentence ago.

I think if enough of us put these attractive stickers on our bumpers, we could very well start the kind of grass-roots ecology movement that gets national attention and winds up drawing big-time environmental celebrities such as Robert Redford coming to town to show concern, perhaps by standing next to one of the median guardrails and frowning, after which we could have a giant benefit concert and a reception with hot and cold hors d'oeuvres. We will have ticket prices soon.

(Ed. Note: This column was published in Tropic 25 years ago. Tropic no longer exists, stamps no longer cost 22 cents, and we have no idea where the aforementioned bumper stickers might be, if they ever were even made. Please do not send us a self-addressed, stamped envelope or the research dept. (aka the stealth bloggerette) may fill it with pictures of naked men, or random trash.)

(c) 2010, Dave Barry This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at http://www.miamiherald.com may be posted or distributed without written permission.

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