Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Car That Could

Everyone remembers and shares beloved stories about their first car. I paid tribute to my old blue 1982 Honda Accord  and what it meant to me in the short time (three months) that I owned it. And everyone has a favorite car, one that they wax nostalgic.

But what about your best car, the one that rarely let you down and hung in there with you in good and bad times.  For me, that was my college car, the 1990 Toyota Tercel EZ. I think it was called the EZ model because it was easy to buy: It barely came with anything except an AM/FM radio, A/C, stick shift, vinyl seats, one side passenger mirror and sunvisor. It was the brown paper bag or the most basic of Tercels and Toyotas for that matter. A silver hatchback with sharp angles, almost like a triangle on four wheels.

When I was 18 and starting college, I needed a newer and more reliable car than what I had, which was a first generation, cinnamon brown 1980 Toyota Tercel which was on its last wheel. This one had been a good workhorse for my sister and me at Miami Beach High but it was approaching 100,000 miles and I didn't think it was going to put up with commutes for college and my internship at The Miami Herald.

So my family and I headed to Expressway Toyota in Miami and looked at used cars that were slightly new. And there it was, the adorable little silver Tercel sitting amid a bunch of bigger Corollas and Camrys.  It was two years old and had a few thousand miles so it was almost new.  When I sat in side and test drove it, I knew this was my car. (And so did my mom who wanted it for herself.)

This third generation Tercel was great on gas, filling up with a handful of dollars. The A/C was ice cold. The car puttered along with its 1.5 liter carburetor engine. Although it didn't have a lot of horse power, it had Johnny power, thanks to my stick-shifting skills.

I drove the car everywhere, to Miami Dade College, and then between the two campuses of Florida International University at opposite sides of the county (about 80 to 90 miles a day). The car was perfect for reporting stories at The Miami Herald in Miami Beach and then the Hialeah and Miami Lakes office in west Miami-Dade. I could squeeze the Toyota into any spot. Despite its small size, it could easily store two bikes in the hatchback and about five people overall.

The car was the club mobile for my friends (Cindy, Karla) and me during our night outings in South Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The Toyota was there for a lot of first dates.  The Tercel also held up when I drove it up the East Coast to Boston for my first summer internship at The Boston Globe.  I felt pride driving through Harvard Square, the Globe parking lot and to the South Shore in this little car with the Florida license plate. And the car was a pro for trips to Key West even under relentless pounding rain.

The car never broke down. My cousin Pancho performed the oil changes and tune ups in front of our house. The only issue the car had were the brakes. I had to replace them almost every other year but I blame that on my rough driving. I treated the car like a wanna-be roadster.

When I graduated from FIU, I wanted to treat myself to a car that could actually reach 60 mph in less than 2 minutes. Growing up in Miami in the 1980s, I remember seeing the sleek Nissan (Datsun) 240.  I wanted one and there was a recent model out from Nissan.

"Johnny, think this through. Your Toyota can go another 100,000 miles. It's paid off. It's a good car,'' my dad kept advising me. But I insisted. I wanted to start my adult life in a new set of wheels. And my Tercel had about 115,000 miles and things were beginning to wear and tear and needed replacing.

I kept hearing my dad's voice in my head at the Nissan dealership. (He was also right next to me so that may have had something to with it.)  And so, I turned in the Tercel. I felt pangs of guilt for abandoning this little car that had been so good to me for almost five years. But a black Nissan 240 beckoned and called my name. Shortly after I got the Nissan, I would drive by the dealership, hoping I could see the Tercel on the used lot but it was gone. It probably went up to the big junkyard in the sky.

Once in a while, I see a red version of that Tercel driven by an elderly man in Little Havana. Before my dad died in May, we often talked about cars and my old Toyota often came up. And again, he'd say, "You should have kept that car."  I think he was right. It probably still would have been up to driving me to Key West, Boston or to help me report my news stories in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.






Tuesday, October 2, 2018

A Poem From the Heart

Writers write in all forms. Short stories. Books. Essays. Blog entries. Poems.  News articles. Although I mostly write daily stories for the Sun Sentinel about whatever is trending or what people are talking about on social media each morning, I really enjoy creative writing whether that's writing novels or poetry. 

My interest in poetry began in elementary school for school assignments but I found myself writing my own at home in a Trapper Keeper notebook.  I enjoyed writing poems that rhymed, experimented in the short form haiku. The challenge and fun for me was trying to compact what you wanted to say in a lyrical way (hey, that rhymed.)  That interest and curiosity continued in middle school, high school and college.  I saved all my poems in my journals. And every now and then, I pen a poem out of inspiration or for a special occasion. (again, another rhyme).

One of those special occasions was for my lovely goddaughter Jessica and her husband Billy. Four years ago, they asked if I could write something to read at their wedding on Cape Cod.  I was truly touched and honored. I knew they had read my Boston Globe articles over the years and maybe one of my books.  But a poem for a wedding? Where would I start? This was new to me and I'm no Richard Blanco. I thought, this is a really BIG responsibility and I had to get it just right (or write.) And what if they don't like it? Again, a huge creative assignment for a one time occasion. I couldn't mess this up. If I did, I would be permanently exiled from Massachusetts and perhaps New England...FOREVER!

So I did what I usually do when I start working on a story or a book, I did some research by interviewing them.  We set up a time after work and we chatted on speaker phone - they in Weymouth, MA and me in my little apartment in Coral Gables. I asked them how they met, what sparked their interested in one another, their first date, second date, their upbringings, the big proposal.  Some of it I knew from memory but I wanted to hear it in their words so I could incorporate that into the copy. They also didn't want me to share the poem with them ahead of time. They wanted to hear it for the first time in front of their guests.  More pressure!

After a few weeks of writing and rewriting in my notepad, I presented this to Jessica's mom Mari who is my godmother and first cousin (more like a fabulous and loving older sister to me.)  I emailed her the poem and she called me right back and said in her sweet Boston-Cuban accent, "It's perfect, Johnny. Don't change a thing. They are going to love it."

And with the huge vote of confidence, I rehearsed reading the poem out loud a couple of times at home and then in front of the mirror at the Hampton Inn Cape Cod the night before the wedding and the day of. (the selfie down below was taken in between my takes in front of the mirror before the wedding.)

When the big day came that May 30, this is what I read at the podium before the guests on a sunny breezy May afternoon by the water of Harwich, Massachusetts.  I was nervous, excited and honored all at the same time. It was a day I will never forget.  And I think I got some future requests as a wedding poet for hire. The poem starts on the jump page below. (A heads up as you read it, Mac and Cam refer to two English bulldogs and the Pats are the New England Patriots.)


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Catching up with Danny Pino of FX's 'Mayans M.C.'

FX's new biker drama 'Mayans M.C.' features Miami native and Cuban-American Danny Pino.

'Law and Order:SVU' fans may remember Danny as detective Nick Amaro who investigated sexually-based offenses for an elite squad in New York City.

In this new role, he plays drug lord Miguel Galindo who tries to balance his family life (husband and dad) with running the Galindo cartel on the California-Mexico border. The leather-clad Mayans Motorcycle Club chapter is under his control and the bikers carry out his orders on both sides of the border town.

I interviewed Danny about the layers of complexities that his character presented and how he was able to capture that on screen. For those of you unfamiliar with 'Mayans M.C.', it's the spin off of the network's popular series 'Sons of Anarchy' which ran from 2007-2014 and starred Charlie Hunnam.  Both series are like gritty soap operas for bikers. (photo above courtesy of James Minchin FX.)

In my interview, Danny also talked about his upcoming guest appearance on Netflix's reboot of 'One Day At A Time.'  In that series, he plays Rita Moreno's son Tito.  My Sun Sentinel interview with Danny is here which also includes a photo gallery of his most famous roles.

Below is a trailer for 'Mayans M.C.'








Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Kindness of strangers

  • After our Iberia flight in Malaga, Spain was delayed twice Sunday afternoon leading to a missed connecting Iberia flight from Madrid to the United States, I befriended two fellow stranded passengers, Yolie and Sarah, at the Madrid airport. 
  • I was already somewhat emotional after having said goodbye to my bestfriend Racso in Malaga (that goodbye at the security checkpoint seemed to unleash a dam of emotions from my father's recent passing).  I'm also a super nervous traveler.
  • I was doing my best to blink back the tears in Madrid and wondering what will happen next and how will I get home as I stood in line at the airport help desk with Sarah and Yoli in front of me in line. She noticed my sadness and would ask me every few minutes, "How are you holding up there?" which made me smile.
  • Frustations simmered as we waited and waited to find out that we weren't going to be able to fly home that night and we'd most likely have to travel the following day.  And one by one, emotions took over each of us at different times because when you have your heart set on going on home, you just want to get there and magically beam over somehow. Yet we bonded over our shared situation and made the most of it. 
  • We became a trio of travelers who comforted and listened to one another at the airport and then at the hotel that the airline offered us. I was proud that my Spanish came into good use in helping them deal with the airport and hotel clerks.
  • We all hung out at the hotel for dinner and then the following morning on the bus back to the airport. We stayed together until each of our individual flights (New York for Yoli and Houston for Sarah) departed the next day with mine being the last to Miami.
  • I want to say once again, thank you Yolie and Sarah for the laughs and comfort at the airport, hotel, the bus and then finally at the airport Starbucks where we exchanged bits about our lives in Miami (me a journalist dealing with some changes in the last year), Yolie (a skin consultant in Las Vegas desperately trying to get back to her cute dog) and Sarah (a new mom in Houston who had just attended her sister's bachelorette party.)  It's never easy being in a new city and feeling lost but when you have a fellow stranger become a friend, it makes all the difference. You both now have un amigo en Miami. Here's to new friendships born from frustrating situations.
  • (The selfie above was taken just before we left the hotel Monday morning back to the airport.  That's me on the left, Yolie in the middle and Sarah to the right.)

Saturday, July 7, 2018

5 reasons for Miami and Fort Lauderdale's high HIV rates

Miami and Fort Lauderdale have led the nation in new HIV infections over the years. It's no surprise to locals who see giant billboards along I-95, bus ads and public service announcements on TV urging folks to get tested and treated. We also have the AIDS walk and other fundraisers and social events that promote safe sex, HIV awareness and the importance of PrEP.

But why does South Florida lead the nation in HIV compared to other states?  I reached out to some medical experts and HIV advocates in the region and wrote up a story in the Sun Sentinel that listed five reasons why HIV is rampant here.

"Some people have been around others who are infected for so long that they realize the disease is chronic and not the death sentence it was in the '80s so they have lost their fear of getting infected,''s said Claudette Grant, director of clinical services for Broward Health Community Health Services in Fort Lauderdale.

"We have so much HIV here in South Florida that the odds are that much higher a partner would have HIV,'' said Dr. Stephen Fallon of Latinos Salud, a Wilton Manors-based nonprofit that works with Latino gay men. "And, much more critically, we have so many people living with HIV who are either not in care, or not taking their medicines as prescribed."

There are more reasons but the five that I mentioned in the story are the ones that came up the most during my interviews.




Monday, June 11, 2018

The rise of all woman-anchor teams

Roxanne Vargas and Sheli Muniz are NBC6's morning team.
I watch a lot of TV especially in the mornings because (super big yawn) I wake up at 6 to start my 7 a.m. shift.

And lately, I've noticed that most of the morning anchor teams in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale TV market are led by women. Even the morning the meteorologists are mostly women.

Is this a trend, a coincidence or a little of both?

I began looking into this and wrote a news feature about the trend for my paper, the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

From my story, "the local morning dominance of female broadcasters reflects an increase in the number of women studying communications and working in TV news across the country, media and marketing experts say."


WSVN-Ch. 7's morning anchor team.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

My dad 'Juanito'

My father Juan De Dios Diaz unexpectedly passed away May 29.He died peacefully in his sleep. He had a long good ride and lived to 84. 

If you dined at Puerto Sagua restaurant in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s in Miami Beach, you may have known him simply as Juanito, the fast moving, handsome counter waiter with the crisp white shirts and black pants who worked the late afternoon and night shift. 

People may also remember him as a hardworking exterminator who took pride in his work at Miami Beach and Little Havana homes, apartment buildings and hotels that he visited up until five years ago when his Parkinson’s progressed to another level. 

To my sister Cary and me, he was simply Papi or dad, always trying to solve our problems and willing to listen to anything we had to say.

To my late mother Milagros, he was the love of her life. He never left her side during her cancer ordeal five years ago at the hospital and during their 48 years of marriage. 

He was the reliable little brother to his five siblings. (His late brother Augustin worked the morning, midday and early afternoon shift at Puerto Sagua where people often confused them.) 

And my dad was a beloved Tio to my cousins on both sides of the family and the Florida straits. 

He lived for beisbol and enjoyed watching the Miami Marlins while listening to the play-by-play in Spanish on his small radio at his nursing home where he was like a celebrity or simply “Juan de Dios” or “Juancho.” 

He loved mangoes and avocados freshly plucked from people’s yards in Little Havana. 

And he never missed an opportunity to play his lucky numbers in Lotto on the weekends. 

He was also my biggest fan. During his Puerto Sagua days, he always had one of my recent Miami Herald articles behind his counter to show to his loyal customers. Whenever I had a book reading in Miami, he was the first to offer to attend with my mom. They'd sit in the back, watching and smiling. 

He also enjoyed boasting that my sister was a multilingual, high school teacher in Miami Beach and real estate broker. 

Most of all, my dad was a sensitive caballero, an unselfish man with a big heart, a Cuban class act. We miss you Papi. May you finally rest in peace.

In addition to this tribute, I also wrote an official obituary on the funeral home's website. It can be found here.


A collage of photos of my dad over the years. 
My parents at one of my Miami book readings at Books & Books.







Monday, May 14, 2018

Boston or Miami? Miami buildings that can pass for Boston

During my daily travels in Miami, I've spotted some buildings that remind me of Boston. I can't help but marvel their designs because they all have a red-brick facade which is rare in South Florida because of the heat.

These buildings would blend in perfectly in Boston but I think they stand out in Miami against the sleek, new towering office buildings that look like they were just unpacked from a box.

These boxy brick structures remind me of offices and labs you might find in Cambridge's Kendall Square or churches in Harvard Square or Newton.

It's as if they were plucked out of Boston and dropped in various Miami neighborhoods. Maybe their designers hailed from New England?

Here are some Boston-esque buildings that have caught my eye during my commutes and regular runs in the 305.
This complex which is known as the Grove Professional Building is located at 2950 SW 27th Ave. in Miami's leafy Coconut Grove neighborhood. Built in 1985, the building is home to Douglas Elliman Real Estate offices.

This one in particular reminds of the structures that dot Cambridge's Kendall Square and the CambridgeSide Galleria Mall.





Known as Allegra Continental Plaza, this building sits at 3250 Mary St. in Miami's Coconut Grove, not far from CocoWalk where I watch the latest blockbusters (Actually this particular building is a few blocks from the above.)

With its series of arcs, the building looks like something from Brookline's Coolidge Corner where there are shoulder-to-shoulder, low-rise brick buildings in crimson hues.

Below is another side view of the building where you can better see the arcs. Built in 1982, it's  home to Bendixen & Amandi, the research/polling company, HealthSun Health Plans and other offices.



It looks like a residential house but it's actually a house of worship. This is the Granada Presbyterian Church at 950 S. University Dr., in Coral Gables (which is like Miami's version of Newton, Massachusetts because it's an affluent suburb with good schools.) 

Whenever I drive by this church, I am mentally transported to Harvard Square, home to academic buildings and churches with steeples and exposed columns.

The photo below provides a side view of the church which was built in 1960. If you look closely, you can spot some palm trees, a dead giveaway that you're definitely not in Boston.