In Miami, Oleander and Murder

The New York Times, Op-Ed page, April 25, 1990

In Miami, Oleander and Murder
Traffic Violation: an antitank rocket in a pickup.
By Paul Levine

Miami–At 9 a.m. on New Year’s Day, a husky man in a white shirt and tie appeared at our door. His plastic badge said “Metro Homicide,” and he asked whether I owned a high-powered rifle. For a moment, I thought he wanted to borrow one. Then he asked whether we had heard gunshots just before midnight.

Revelers that we are, my wife and I were reading in bed just before the dawn of the new decade. We heard firecrackers, I told the detective, and no, we don’t even own a BB gun.

We live in a quiet subdivision of Greater Miami, whimsically called Gables-by-the-Sea, a name invoking swaying palms and gentle surf. The pool decks sit flush against salt-water canals, some of which lead to Biscayne Bay, the Atlantic and the Bahamas beyond. The weekend homes of Stiltsville sit offshore, their pilings fragile as a heron’s matchstick legs.

To the north are the asymmetrical post-modern skyscrapers of downtown, gleaming in the sun. But Miami, a pastel haven for big-time dopers, shady bankers and crooked politicians is best viewed from a distance.

“They weren’t firecrackers,” the detective said. He gestured toward the street. “Did you see any strangers in the neighborhood last night?”

I shook my head. The streets lack sidewalks, so there are few strollers. No one sits on front stoops.

We lock out the city. The hot spots of the nightly news — Overtown, Liberty City, Little Havana — are a buffered dozen miles away. But in this great urban sprawl, where guns outnumber people, there is no escaping the ugliness of crime.

Our neighbors returned home one Friday night, opened the garage door with the remote control and, when they emerged from their car, were confronted by four men in ski masks carrying handguns. Cautious homeowners close the garage door before getting out of their cars, sometimes carrying weapons of their own.

We live in fear that burglars lurk behind the hibiscus hedge, that robbers crouch under the screen of pink oleander. The police suggest that houses be surrounded with crown of thorns or Spanish bayonet, anti-personnel plants. But expensive landscaping is a problem, too. Freshly sodded lawns and leafy liriopes often disappear in the dead of night, only to materialize at flea markets.

Traveling in the suburban neighborhoods takes on new dimensions. Our homeowner’s association circulated a flier warning of the proliferation of “bump” robbers, drivers who purposely bash into other cars on tranquil streets, then rob at gunpoint when the drivers emerge.

The detective pointed across the canal toward a two-story Spanish-style house with an orange-barrel tile roof. “Did you hear a party on the pool deck last night?”

I had.

“The shooter was on the canal bank,” he said. “A steel-jacketed bullet hit a Colombian woman in the back, exited her throat and struck a man at the bar.”

The 24-year-old woman was killed instantly, the man seriously wounded. Random violence or an assassination, the detective didn’t know.

Miami crime is too strange to be fiction. Recently, my editor questioned whether readers would believe a story where county officials name a street after a drug dealer. Maybe not, but it happened here.

And the police really did arrest two Nicaraguans with TOW missiles and an anti-tank rocket in their pickup truck, the Miami version of a traffic violation. A motel near the airport really did give “freedom fighter” discounts to mercenaries on their way to fight the Sandinistas.

During the height of the drug wars, the morgue really did run out of space, and bodies were stacked in a refrigerated truck borrowed from Burger King. And a drug enforcement agent really was knocked unconscious when hit in the head with a 200-pound bale of $20 bills tossed out of a window during a raid.

(How much money is there in 200 pounds of twenties? Exactly $1,818,181, say the Feds, who often weight the wads of confiscated cash because their counting machines jam and burn out.)

Such is life in the city. And the suburbs.

When last I saw him, the detective was on his hands and knees crawling in the bushes by the canal bank, searching for the spent shells of a high-powered rifle.