homeless in miami, guilt, and the reality of coral gables

I work, as I’ve mentioned, at a nice-ish restaurant in a bougie part of town, Coral Gables, and when I spend my day there, talking with that kind of educated, older, upper-class white/Latinx crowd, I get to talking about politics, about books and money, about issues of the day. 

Refined shit. 

People are well-dressed and, save for the casual cruelty that lesser folks will sometimes practice toward service workers, everyone at my bar behaves in a refined way. They’re friendly, and it’s a kind of solicitous friendliness that signifies their status. I think the 60-year-old lawyer earning $700k likes to lean forward on a bar and drink a Stella and talk with a bearded thirtysomething like, “Marilyn Monroe, yeah she was incredibly good-looking, but her sex appeal had something else to it…” or, conversely, “Yeah there’ve been movies in the past few years that made me laugh, but when I was a teenager was when you had Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, real culture-defining comedy…”

That’s how and where I spent 13 hours on Saturday. It was slow in the first half of my shift and busy in the second. I made $143 in tips, $65 in wage earnings, and a trickle of small-denomination bills that I haven’t counted yet, maybe another $25. 

I got home and ate some pizza, went to bed at midnight, and set an alarm for 7 a.m. 

Then another alarm for 7:15 and another for 7:30 and another for 7:45.

Didn’t open my eyes until 9. 

This happens, and I’ve resigned myself to it. I’d like to spend my free day at the coffee shop, get there bright and early, spend a full morning and afternoon just reading and writing. 

But, after a thirteen-hour shift on my feet, the body refuses. It plants me down for nine hours and I’ve got no say in the matter. It’s like a separate entity. Jung was right. Whitman too. Multitudes, etc. 

So I woke up in a slight funk about oversleeping, and then my Sunday morning got darker from there.

I rise at nine, poop and shower and dress, then grab a slice of cold pizza and I’m out the door by 9:30, walking to the coffee shop, and on my way to the coffee shop I see homeless people asleep on the sidewalk, curled around whatever they were drinking the night before. It does seem that homeless people get a little more fucked up on the weekends than during the week, same as everyone else, and I suspect it’s because there’s a party-like vibe in the air, liquor stores are open later, and maybe, as partiers walk tipsily out of bars, feeling generous, they hand out a bit more cash than usual. 

This means that, sometimes, I’ll see someone unconscious in a compromising position. Half of their body on the curb and half of it on the street in a curbside parking spot. Not far from traffic. Sometimes I’ll go and say something to the person, try to wake them, but mostly I don’t. Maybe that’s a flaw. (I’m on the fence about how to regard the functional apathy I’ve cultivated, after three years in this neighborhood, with respect to the things I see on the sidewalk every day. I know it’s a good thing, for instance, that I no longer clutch my pearls and gasp when I see someone hooking their fingers into a chainlink fence for support while they squat outside McDonald’s and defecate under peaky 9 a.m. sunlight, but maybe that cullus becomes inhuman in moments like these, where I leave the endangered drunk to himself.)

As I kept on walking I saw someone pissing on one of the pillars underneath the overpass, then I saw a young guy, maybe my age, sitting barefoot and discheveled in the parking lot outside CVS drinking a magnum-sized Heineken out of a brown paper bag. On bus stop benches, despite the ridged partitions dividing butt-space, I see homeless men unconscious and gaping and looking a bit like the dead soldiers strewn in Civil War photos.

I see the tall guy who lives under the overpass and dresses himself only in a bedsheet. He’s very kind and meek and in three years of walking past him almost every single morning he’s never spoken to me, nor I to him, but I was once standing behind him in line at a gas station, he was trying to buy a Gatorade, but something happened, he became aware of something, put the Gatorade down and backed slowly out of the store with his eyes wide and unblinking. Walked in long backward strides across the parking lot and street.

I think he’s schizophrenic.

He’s always holding the bedsheet closed with one hand and carrying an object in the other. Sometimes it’s a playstation remote, sometimes it’s a hair brush, but recently it’s been a remarkably nice-looking cigar box. He holds it out in a priestly way and talks gibberish like a sermon. I saw him again this morning too. Entertained a fantasy I’ve told you about before: what if, to everyone’s surprise, he one day opens that little cigar box and out comes the golden light from Pulp Fiction, something celestial inside it, Ark of the Covenant, ten more commandments, why not. 

I saw these people and I know it’s constructive to bear witness to their circumstances because it reminds me that this is the stuff of life. The homelessness on display in Little Havana is a vast reality to which I think most people remain blind. And, if one pays attention, I think it’s got the ability to broaden you, on the inside, and sharpen your empathy.

Although maybe that’s just as crude as ignoring these people: treating them like some moral whetstone for sharpening your compassion.

But there’s a part of me, frankly, that’s been tempered, this morning, from the thirteen hours I spent in Coral Gables yesterday, among the educated well-to-do, and yes I entertained their company in a servile capacity, I don’t suppose more than a third of them regarded me as a man worth speaking to outside the bar, but I nonetheless kinda fancied myself One of Them for the day. 

Nonetheless, here is an ugly truth:

I would like to not see these things that I see every morning in Little Havana. 

Not because they’re inherently sad or because they render a poignant reflection of the failures in local government (I’ll refer you here to my recent epiphany about the indifference of local government, thanks to the office of District 5 Commissioner Eileen Higgins), mental health, education–a million institutional failings. 

Homeless, by Alexander Carletti

I grapple with the fact that what I felt this morning, and what I sometimes feel on other mornings, is that I don’t wanna look at these things because they’re unsightly. They’re so sad that I’ve cultivated this reflexive disdain, and I find them not sad but frustrating. Every breeze carries a flutter of scratch-offs warbling leaf-like over my ankles. They’re all over the place.

This endless tide of failed scratch-offs is heartbreaking, if you’re in a compassionate or astute mood.

It’s also fucking annoying and littersome and ugly. Garbage in the street, everywhere.

parking in miami dade county, its effect on the poor, and the silence of leadersI want to live in a place like Coral Gables but, as I’m realizing with my whole parking ticket ordeal, Coral Gables is a fantasy. With hourly parking rates of $3 and $4, and tickets amounting to $36 simply for overstaying your time at a meter, Coral Gables is an area that is actively trying to keep out not only poor people, but working class people; the cleanliness of the streets, the repose of its restaurants’ patrons, shows that Coral Gables is, and would like to remain, the stomping ground of the well-to-do. 

It isn’t real.

Even the sweatpants on joggers look expensive. 

So I went to my mom for context.

My mom’s a counselor who, for a long time, worked in addiction recovery but now works with clients suffering “pervasive mental illness,” meaning paranoid schizophrenia and other such conditions that are unrelenting and around which a person has to manage their life. 

So these things I’m talking about: she’s seen it too. Even rougher: she counsels the people who’ve lived like this, on the streets, she hears their backstories. 

And I was telling her recently that there are mornings like today where I look around at the poverty and I’m just annoyed by it rather than moved by it, where the sight doesn’t make me pointedly angry at the systems that’ve engineered it (as I tell myself a good citizen oughta be) but just annoys me.

She listened and she was patient but then she said finally, “That’s not reality.”

I said, “Yeah, it is.” And then I went on a spiel like the one I just voiced: “I go to Coral Gables and everyone’s in this fantasy land where the sidewalks are clean and nobody’s ambling around asking for change cuz their life fell apart. But that’s life. Things fall apart and people end up destitute. It’s pervasive. The price of healthcare is outta control and the average Miami resident needs to spend half of their income on rent–”

And she interrupted cuz she’s known me a long time and she sees that the pebble is rolling into an avalanche and she said, “Yeah most people aren’t as wealthy as the average person in Coral Gables–but the average person’s not homeless, either. The average person isn’t slumped unconscious on a curb in Little Havana. There are different ‘realities,’ if you wanna call it that, and an average person exists somewhere in between poverty and wealth. And you can go find that affordable in-between place and live there.”

Which makes sense.

Still, I feel guilty to look at a homeless person and think, “Stop burdening my eyesight with your destitution.” Those aren’t the words that come to mind, obviously, it’s more like just a deep internal scoff, but we all know what that scoff means. 

I hear it every day in Coral Gables.

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