Thursday, March 21, 2019

Looking back at 'Queer Miami'

Before visiting the new "Queer Miami" exhibit, I thought I knew my local LGBTQ history. I assumed the exhibit would focus on Miami's first gay Pride event in 1978, lead up to the 1980s AIDS crisis and then highlight the more recent legalization of same-sex marriage.

Boy, was I wrong.

The exhibit was so much more comprehensive than I had anticipated. It looks back at more than 100 years of LGBTQ history in Miami and Miami Beach from the early Florida ordinances that criminalized homosexual and transgender behavior to the impact of gay/lesbian immigration in the Magic City.

I recently wrote a Sun Sentinel article about the HistoryMiami Museum exhibit which was curated by University of Massachusetts Amherst history professor and Miami native Julio Capo Jr.  Housed in a sprawling 5,000-square-foot gallery in the downtown Miami museum, the exhibit uses a mix of historical records, news articles, video testimonials and memorabilia to tell the story of gay Miami.

While I'm too young to remember some of the things that were pre-1980, there were a couple of displays that really jumped out at me and transported me back to my childhood and college days.

One section centered on the police raids of early Miami Beach clubs and bars that catered to gay and lesbians.  In this part, there was black and white surveillance film of 21st street beach at Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. The footage showed throngs of men sunbathing and lounging.  An enlarged photo captured two men hugging on the beach by the lifeguard stand. 

Growing up on the beach, I remember my parents warning me about this area because of the maricones (fags in Spanish) when I'd go bike riding after school and on weekends.
In middle school and then high school, I was a regular at the  Miami Beach Public Library which was located across from this beach. I remember seeing men strolling up and down the street and meeting up with one another. Although I didn't make the immediate connection then, I knew this was their spot.

Venturing deeper into the exhibit, I rounded a corner and my eyes landed on a familiar face -  the late Cuban-American AIDS educator Pedro Zamora. A photo of him smiling with his arm around his father bedecked the top of a display case about Florida's AIDS crisis. Below the photo was The Miami Herald's front page obituary about Pedro's legacy in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.

I've written some blog posts about Pedro over the years because I saw a lot of myself in him. We were born around the same time and we grew up as gay men in conservative Cuban families in South Florida. So this part of the display was sweet and sad at the same time, like a seeing a long lost old friend.
Another display celebrated The White Party fundraiser. T-shirts, programs, fliers and passes to the HIV/AIDS fundraiser for Care Resource filled the glass case. The memorabilia whisked me back to my first White Party in 1998 at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami. For the occasion,  I bought white jeans to match my white long-sleeved shirt.

I had heard so much buzz about the annual gala that I wanted to experience it. When I walked into the historic home and explored the manicured maze of lush gardens, I was struck by how everything from the guests' fashion to the elegant table decorations and chairs was awash in white. Everyone was in a celebratory mood, sipping wine and drinking to a good cause. 

A vibrant installation of ribbons in rainbow hues awaits visitors at the end of the exhibit. Visitors here are asked to share their own story on a card and to then post it on the wall.

I was only at the exhibit for an hour (I got there at 4 p.m. and they were closing at 5 p.m. so I was rushing somewhat.) But I plan to return to soak up more of the history.

The exhibit is up through Sept. 1, 2019 at HistoryMiami Museum, 101 W. Flagler St.  To read more about the exhibit, visit my Sun Sentinel article here.









Monday, March 11, 2019

Revisiting the Art Deco Blockbuster in South Beach

In an early scene in the Marvel movie "Captain Marvel," the super heroine drops out of the sky and crashes into a closed Blockbuster Video store on Earth (or Planet C-53). She lands between the "Family" and "Drama" sections, not far from a poster for the movie "True Lies."

After she gets back on her feet, Captain Marvel, out of curiosity, picks up a copy of "The Right Stuff" tape before she steps outside and discovers its 1995.

After watching the movie this weekend and reading news reports about the one and only remaining store on Earth, I was flooded with a rush of Blockbuster memories. Once upon a time, I was a Blockbuster Video employee.

From the ages of 19 to 22, I worked at Blockbuster. At the time, I was a part-time college intern at The Miami Herald where the pay was okay but not enough for my expenses. The additional income from Blockbuster helped me purchase books for college (Miami Dade College and FIU), supplemented my nights out clubbing in South Beach (Warsaw, Score and Twist) and helped with my car payments (my little Toyota Tercel.)

I started working at the Art Deco Blockbuster store in 1992 not long after it opened in South Beach. The store's outdoor sign had that "Miami Vice'' font and the exterior lights glowed pastel pink and blue which also matched the interior walls and carpeting. I also worked briefly at a Hialeah store when one of my favorite managers was promoted there. But I spent the most of my time working in Miami Beach.

Three times a week for my 8 p.m. to midnight shift, I donned a blue long-sleeved chambray shirt (or Polo) and khaki pants, the designated work uniform.  My duties mostly consisted of sitting at the return box and catching tapes that customers popped into the box. Then I’d scan them, stack them in a tall neat pile and carefully returned each box to its “ New Release” shelf.  
My first day reporting to work at Blockbuster.

It was a process I repeated several times during my shift. I also had to create new membership cards for new customers. When we closed the store to customers, we had an hour to vacuum the carpet, mop the tiles around the registers, clean the bathroom and make sure that every movie was neatly placed behind its cover box on the shelf where it belonged. Oh, and there was the tedious task of counting all the candy and restocking them. 

Despite my duties, I had a lot of fun on the job with my wing girl Cindy. Near the register, there was a microphone. Every once in awhile, we'd get on it and make the Ch Ch Ch Ah Ah Ah sound from the Friday the 13th movies which made us giggle. Our manager Chris also liked to get on the microphone to bark like a dog to confuse customers which also made me laugh.

I think the reason I know so much about movies today was because I was surrounded by so many of them back then. Whether they were old or new, I knew their titles, year of release and their shelf categories by heart. One small perk of the job: we got to take home the movie posters once the new release was old. (For me, that was the poster for Julia Roberts' "Dying Young" with Campbell Scott.)

Working at this store, which was in the heart of South Beach at 15th Street and Alton Road, allowed for fun celebrity spotting. We tried not to make it obvious (but we did) when Jim Carrey and Courtney Cox stopped by in 1992 (on break from shooting “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" in Miami Beach.) One of us (it wasn't me) got on the microphone and sang the intro to "In Living Color" the Fox sketch comedy show that he was known for at the time.

Gloria Estefan and Chayenne were regulars at the store, too. And I got to see many of my former high school classmates who walked in searching for blockbusters like "Jurassic Park" and "Alien 3."

Years later when I moved to Boston to be a reporter at The Boston Globe, I continued my treks to a Blockbuster in my Dorchester neighborhood. (I also went to Hollywood Video in Quincy.)  As the chains began to fade, I reported on their closings for a Business feature

When I moved back to Miami Beach after 10 years in Boston, I often visited my old Miami Beach Blockbuster for the nostalgic thrill of strolling along the tall, white shelves to find the latest DVD. When the store and others in Miami and around the country closed in 2013, it was the end of an era and a movie rental tradition that really began for me at the Art Deco Blockbuster.





Saturday, February 2, 2019

The rainbow police car

Wilton Manors is known as South Florida's LGBT capital and the second gayest city in the US. The island city next to Fort Lauderdale has a large population of gays and lesbians who walk hand in hand along Wilton Drive or while dining out along the strip. Whenever I visit a close friend there and pull into the city limits,  it's as if there is a giant rainbow hovering over this part of Broward county. The rainbow flag sails mightily in front of storefronts, bars and people's homes.

So it's not a complete surprise to learn that the Wilton Manors Police Department has resdesigned one of its patrol cars to reflect the large LGBT community it serves. It's the police department's way of showing its pride with this new ride.

I wrote a story about the patrol car, decorated with large rainbows on each side, for the Sun Sentinel. The rear of the car reads "Policing with Pride."

The car is a 2013 Ford Interceptor and officers will feature it at community events such as Pride Fort Lauderdale and the annual Wilton Manors Stonewall Parade and Street Festival.  There has been a spirited debate on Facebook among people celebrating the police department's community outreach with the colorful car while others wondering whether this was a good use of funds. Below is a photo of the car featured in the Sun Sentinel.

Miami Beach also has a patrol car with "POLICE" decorated in rainbow hues. The Ford Crown Victoria is used at community events such as the annual Miami Beach Pride festivities on Ocean Drive.. (Photo below from Miami Beach PD)

And three years ago, the Orlando Police Department also unveiled a police car with a rainbow-hued heart to honor the 49 people who were fatally shot during the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. The police car was called No. 49. The names were listed on the back window and hood. Photo below from Orlando Sentinel.



Tuesday, January 22, 2019

My Breakfast Club at Starbucks

For the past year or so, a little Starbucks in Coral Gables has become my unofficial hang out spot. When I became a member of the Sun Sentinel's Audience Engagement team, my shift changed to a school teacher's schedule, essentially, working 6:45 a.m. to 3 p.m.ish. That meant I had to get up at least by 5:45 a.m.  And the first thing I do is schlep two blocks in the predawn darkness under the Metrorail line to my neighborhood Starbucks at 475 S. Dixie Highway.
But what made my mornings easier was the staff here. I quickly befriended them and whenever I walked in, they greeted me with a cheery "HI JOHNNY!" or "JOHNNY's HERE!" even though my eyes were half closed. Over time, I got to know a little about each of the hardworking and super friendly baristas such as their families (a sick father in the hospital),  their interests (running, Mini Coopers, etc) , their other jobs (sea lion trainer) and whatever is on their mind that day. I'm also friends with one of them (Nat) on Instagram now (second to right of Alex below.)

Each morning as I scanned the headlines, my Twitter feed, Google alerts and other channels that I use to find out whatever is trending or what people should be talking about when they start their day, I was starting my day at this Starbucks which became a pseudo office for me when I lose my wireless connection. When the store closed for two weeks last November for a makeover, I found myself cheating and driving to other nearby Starbucks. And yet the vibe was different. The warmth and camaraderie  I had come to know at my Starbucks wasn't entirely replicated in these nearby stores. The menu, coffee and food was the same but not the people, the experience.

A few months ago, I posted a Google review about this particular Starbucks shop and the staffers thanked me and told me that they have it pinned up on their wall by the drive thru window I also learned that two of the former and current employees (Neff and Alex) have also used it as a reference for other jobs which really moved me. The review was my thank you to them and their coworkers for their great service and I was pleasantly surprised that the review has done some good for them. (I was also pleasantly surprised when I spotted actor Christian Slater wearing a baseball cap stopping by one day last year to pick up his coffee from the mobile pick up area but that's another blog post for another day.)
Below is the Google review that I posted.  Here's to my peeps at Starbucks in Coral Gables. And see
you tomorrow morning.

This Starbucks has become my other home. I start my day here in the predawn hours when the staff is always smiling and friendly even though it's dark outside. They know me by name and they know what I always order (butter croissant, doppio with one Monk stevia). They whip it up right away. It's always a treat to come here (which is daily). A big thank you to the wonderful, cheery and professional staff that I have gotten to know in the past year since I began coming here. I'm looking at you Nef, Elias, Alex, Kyle, Steven, Nico, Bri, Brenes, Nat, Ena, Roy, Mike, Chris, Josiah, Julie. (I know I am forgetting some names which means I need to get me some more espresso but I appreciate your hard work.)

PS. New faces have joined the shop since the review so thank you to Eli, Hannah for also brightening my mornings.



Saturday, November 24, 2018

Running with Johnny

I did it again. On Thursday morning, I completed my second Turkey Trot in Miami. For years especially when I lived in Boston, I remember my cousins and friends talking about the Turkey Trot, an annual run/walk that takes place Thanksgiving morning so you can build up an appetite for the big dinner.  Getting up at 6 a.m. to run a few miles at 7 a.m. with throngs of people in Boston's brrr weather never appealed to me.  Hiking weekend and holiday afternoons in the Blue Hills was more my speed.

Four years ago,  I rediscovered a love of running. It was something I began doing my junior and senior year of high school but then stopped as I got older.  That all changed in April 2014 when I had  to pick up my sister's car at Mercy Hospital from my father's condo in Brickell. I decided, why not run it? It's only 2 miles or so. I remember feeling so energized and full of life (and extremely sweaty) after I ran it. Something clicked and reignited in me. From then on, I continued running every other day.  First, I'd run to Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez remixes on Pandora radio.  But after attending an Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra meditation session at the AmericanAirlines Arena a few months later, I discovered their 21-day meditations. For some reason, I began running to the meditations. I still do. It makes 21 minutes or 42 minutes (if I do two back to back) fly by. My mind is centered, focused on the mantra and thought of the day even though my cardiovascular system is pumping fast and hard on all cylinders. I've been so relaxed in this meditative zone that I have gotten lost. (I have fallen a few times as a result.)  There is a freedom to running that makes you want to keep going and going. All my stresses seem to melt away during those 20 to 30 minutes. And whatever issue was bothering me before the run seems so distant, smaller, and clearer after my body begins to cool down.

Last year, mostly out of curiosity,  I decided to take on the Turkey Trot's 5K.  I loved everything about it. The building anticipation as the crowds gathered before the race.  Everyone jamming to the boom boom boom music and blaring sirens from the deejay at the starting line. And then finally taking off, bolting across the paths and trails of Tropical Park with a stampede of people of all ages.

I ran to one of the Oprah-Chopra meditations that first time but their cool, calm voices didn't seem to gel with the frenetic energy from the pack of people all around me and the sounds of their feet pounding against the dirt and pavement. Still, when I reached the final leg of the run on the track, the FINISH banner beckoned ahead. Really nice strangers cheered all the runners from the sidelines. I smiled and pumped my legs harder and crossed the finish line. Everyone seemed to walk around in the feel-good after glow of the race. It was a group high. Then it was time to cool off and eat a banana.

The race gave me such a good feeling of accomplishment that I decided to do it again this year. But instead of running to an Oprah-Chopra meditation, I played some up beat music (ABBA's Dancing Queen, Super Trouper, a Cuban dance song called Quimbombo and Prince's You Got The Look.)  Since I knew the route this time around, I ran it faster, weaving in between the other runners. I stayed on the outer edges of the crowds so I could have a clear path.  I felt like I was flying.  Whoosh! And once again, when I reached the track, I knew the end was near. All this good energy coursed through my body and fueling me to the finish line. Maybe it was the change in music or that I am now a better runner, but I surprisingly shaved off 2:20 minutes from my time last year. I plan to do the Turkey Trot each year from now on and perhaps some other runs. I'm learning that it can be fun to run with a group of strangers who all have the same goal, crossing the finish line.

Below are the photos from this year's run. I'm the one on the right :)



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.'