Sunday, February 24, 2013

After 42 years, John Dorschner says goodbye to the Miami Herald


In a way, it's like we appeared on a TV quiz show and won a Rolls-Royce. We were ecstatic, until we discovered that the maintenance costs -- insurance, gas, repairs -- are absolutely horrendous, and that we would have been better off with a Toyota, even if we had had to pay for the Toyota ourselves.

Metrorail is almost like that. But not exactly.

Because you could always sell the Rolls.

New York's subways are dirty and dangerous. You climb out of a grimy, unair-conditioned car, walk up greasy steps, sidestepping winos, nervously looking out for any Bernhard Goetz-types, and when you get out of the station, . . . you are right in the middle of the city. Times Square. Wall Street. Central Park.

That's why people take it. It deposits them right where they want to go.

With Metrorail , the stations are magnificently designed -- red-tile floors, translucent glass blocks, gleaming stainless steel -- but most of them give the casual visitor an odd sense that he is . . . well, no place.

-John Dorschner, Tropic Magazine, September 15, 1985


What follows is an email from Miami Herald editor Amy Driscoll to the Herald newsroom:


John Dorschner
John Dorschner is retiring from the Miami Herald after 42 years.

Hard words to write. Hard words to read. We’ll miss him in the newsroom, where he has set the standard for hard work, ethics, intelligent reporting and beautiful prose for decades. Readers will miss him even more.

We know him these days as the gimlet-eyed business reporter who has applied his considerable investigative talents and apparently endless stamina to the Gordian knot known as Jackson Health System.

But that John -- the one whose dogged pursuit of healthcare facts became so annoying that a Jackson board member threatened to throw him out a window --- is a relatively recent incarnation. John is also a legend for his work at Tropic magazine, a post that offered him a front row seat to some of Miami’s most wonderful and infamous moments.

Along the way, he has written stories from Haiti and Cuba, worked as a substitute teacher so he could write about the school system from within (deciding in the end that the kids would “eat me alive”) and scored a 5 ½ hour interview with Fidel Castro.

He co-authored a Cuba history book, The Winds of December. Three of his Herald articles have appeared in college textbooks on writing. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Romania in 2001. Won two National Headliner Awards, a Green Eyeshade Award and a host of others.

Pull up virtually any story he did for Tropic and you find it, that combination of qualities uniquely suited to Miami: vivid prose, deep reporting and skewed sense of humor. “The Blob” about the suburban sprawl of Broward. “Sky’s the Limit” about then-upstart firm Arquitectonica. “Metrofail,” an instant classic in 1982 [sic] about the “conspicuous failure” of Metrorail.

But to really appreciate John’s work, you have to read him. From his Arquitectonica story:
This is architecture at freeway speed. It pops into your vision as you speed down Interstate 95 south of Miami, a highrise topped by a huge red triangle. From the north, the building is all reflective glass. Glance in your rearview mirror: From the south, it’s a massive blue grid. And – if you look closely enough – you will see a hole in the center of the structure. A hole 12 stories off the ground, containing a red spiral staircase and a fully grown palm tree.

Meet Arquitectonica, a Miami architectural firm whose work dazzles the eye and sends the mind reeling. From the freeway, you can’t even see the whirlpool nestled in the building’s hole. Never mind. This is delirium in the tropics, fun in tourist town.

“Our buildings, says Laurinda Spear, “are meant to hold your attention at 55 mph.” That’s understating it. They don’t so much “hold” you as goose you.

It’s that final bit – funny, evocative, just right – that made him a destination reporter, a byline readers sought out, then and now, with the sure knowledge of excellence. And if you’ve never read “Welcome to Casablanca,” a story he wrote that helped define the city in its disco-ball-and-cocaine days of Miami Vice, go look it up.

Here’s a taste:
You are being watched.

It happens at large airports, in places like Los Angeles and New York. Local police and federal agents are stationed there, at the Miami gate, waiting for you, watching. You are marked for their attention by the MIA ticket you hold.

The authorities don't demand that you go through customs; they don't ask for passports. They can't, because Miami is still technically part of the United States. But the agents know it isn't, not really, not like Schenectady is part of New York. There is an invisible border between Miami and the rest of the country, and these men are the border patrol.

If you fit a certain "profile," you are one of the usual suspects: Young Latin male? Definitely bears watching. And that blue-rinsed lady who walks with a cane? An innocent grandma, or a money-laundering "smurf"? You never know. Old folks make the best smurfs.

The agents are looking for money, not drugs. Greenbacks. The proceeds of dope deals. It happens all the time. Robert Targ, a Miami defense attorney who frequently travels to Los Angeles, often sees federal agents -- agents he cross-examines in court -- at the Los Angeles airport, watching the people who board the Delta red-eye special for Miami. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney's Office acknowledge that Miami passengers are being watched, though they say it doesn't happen on every flight.

Herb Friedberg, an undercover operative for the Internal Revenue Service, tells about the time he and an IRS agent had just finished working a case in which they had seized $120,000. They were carrying the money back to Miami in an attache case. As the case moved through the X-ray machine at LaGuardia, Friedberg saw a security clerk nod to a man standing nearby, and they were asked to stand in another line. Ahead of them, police were already questioning a Colombian woman who had a satchel with $300,000 in cash and an American man who claimed he was a jeweler and was carrying $60,000 in cash to Miami to purchase some jewels.

That was one flight.

"The Casablanca of the Caribbean." That's what the world press is calling Miami.

Funny how images change.

Five years ago, Miami was "Paradise Lost," branded for all the nation to see, right there on the cover of Time Magazine. We had become the land of oppressive crime, runaway immigration, suffocating fear.

Look at us now. Awash in crime, still. Aswarm with immigrants. Aboil with fear. And we are . . . Casablanca. They call it exotic intrigue. Romance. Multicultural excitement. This town has become a movie. Or more precisely: a TV show.

John hates a fuss and, besides, there’s no note that could possibly do justice to such a career. We’ll be filling his job but that’s not a matter for this note. Let’s give him the last word - or words, because John was never known to write short -- from a bio he dashed off a year ago for a conference:

John Dorschner has been a staff writer for The Miami Herald for 41 years. Much of that time was with the Sunday magazine, Tropic, in which he led a pampered existence, spending weeks on a single story. Tropic once sent him to France to walk in the wine country for three days. When the magazine folded in 1998, he became a business writer. In 2002, he started writing about healthcare economics. Since 2009, he’s focused on the turmoil of the tax-payer financed Jackson Health System. He believes that the only reason he has kept at it for so long is that he has a screw loose.

With great affection, we wish him the best.

- Amy Driscoll and the editors

1 comment:

  1. Good journalist, and a good man. My working friend for years, from the cigar factories of Tampa to the jungles of Panama, and it was a pleasure and honor to work with him.


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