My first assignment for Tropic was given to me by the guys who were running the magazine in 1982, Kevin Hall and Gene Weingarten. Miami was going through a horrendous period: Crime and corruption were rampant; ethnic tensions ran high; local leaders were desperately seeking solutions to problems that threatened to destroy the city. So Kevin and Gene decided to bring in -- a humor columnist.
They flew me down here and sent me off in a rental car for several days. They gave me free rein to write about any aspect of Miami -- the people, the politics, the culture, anything. I wound up focusing on the toads. I had never before visited a major metropolitan area where you could kill yourself by licking a toad, and I devoted a large part of my story to this topic. This was perfectly OK with Kevin and Gene. Their main suggestion was that, to balance the story out, I should also address the issue of cockroach size.
That was when I began to perceive that Tropic did not follow the traditional patterns of journalism. I joined the staff a little over a year later, and over the next 15 years, because I worked there -- first under Kevin and Gene; then under Gene and Tom Shroder; then under Tom and Bill Rose -- I got to do a lot of stories that I would not have done had I worked for a magazine run by sane people.
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For example, I once did a Tropic cover story on the two islands in the Keys that are inhabited by thousands of monkeys being raised for medical research. Some Keys politicians had expressed concern about this; one warned that, if there was a hurricane, there could be ``monkeys all over the Keys.'' In an effort to find out how much of a problem that would be, I spent a day walking around downtown Key West wearing a monkey suit. My conclusion was that if monkeys came to Key West -- even really large monkeys -- nobody would pay much attention, as long as the bars stayed open.
Another Tropic story I did that involved a disguise was when I went undercover at Joe's Stone Crab, posing as a tourist, trying to find out the secret system for getting a table on a Saturday night without waiting for two hours. I came to the astonishing conclusion that the way to do this was -- prepare to be shocked -- to give money to the maitre d'. This may seem obvious to some of you, but when Tropic published the story, Miami reacted as though we had discovered that Fidel was living in Vizcaya. A lot of people were outraged, and this led to a sweeping, meaningful reform of the seating process at Joe's that, I am proud to report, lasted until maybe the following week.
Another Tropic story I did that got a large public response was when I investigated New York City. This was in 1987, when The New York Times Sunday magazine ran a cover story headlined, Can Miami Save Itself? The story went on for many words, but it boiled down to one: ``No.''
We at Tropic were, naturally, grateful to The Times for going to the trouble of coming here and discovering that our city had problems. In an effort to return the favor, we sent me and photographer Chuck Fadely up to New York on an objective fact-finding trip to see if New York was a rude, filthy, overpriced hellhole or what. We spent three objective days there, with the first and third days pretty much devoted to getting to the city from the airport and back. We ended up with a very objective story illustrated by a panoramic aerial photograph dramatically portraying the famous Long Island Garbage Barge, which at that time was the second most famous celebrity in New York, ranking right behind Donald Trump.
Another thing that made Tropic unusual, aside from the kinds of stories it did, was the way it was always involving its readers in various contests, schemes and projects. The best example of this is of course the Tropic Hunt, which was patterned after an event run every year in Kendall by Dave and Anna Harris and their friends Len and Adrianne Nabutovsky. The first Tropic Hunt, in 1984, was put together by Gene Weingarten and me. We'd never done anything like it -- nobody had, on that scale -- and we were very nervous. I remember going with Gene into the office of Kevin Hall a few days before the Hunt to brief him on our plans. He was very reassuring.
``People are going to get killed,'' he reassured us.
Fortunately, nobody did, and we've had eight more Hunts, the last six under the leadership of Tom Shroder, with Gene still flying down from Washington to help out. Thanks to the experience we've gained over the years, we still have no real idea what's going to happen. But it has always been wildly popular with our readers and fun for us. Unsettling, but fun.
That could be the motto for Tropic: ``Unsettling, But Fun.'' It has been a privilege for me to work there, under wonderful editors and alongside terrific writers such as John Dorschner, Meg Laughlin, Ana Veciana-Suarez and many more, and with a terrific office manager, Doris Mansour, keeping me on deadline. If there has been a better place to work in the newspaper business in the past couple of decades, I don't know where it is. I thank my co-workers, past and present -- an amazing cast of characters -- for putting on such an entertaining journalistic show, and I thank you readers for being such a smart, demanding and supportive audience. From now on, I'll be trying to amuse you from elsewhere in The Herald. But part of my heart will always be right here.
© 1998 Dave Barry
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