Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Lunch with Rick Bragg

My friend Rick Bragg stopped off in Miami last week for a few days.

He was in town to do research for a magazine piece he's writing.

I met Rick almost 20 years ago, in 1990, when he came to Miami as the St. Petersburg Times South Florida bureau chief.

Back then the Times bureau was in an actual office in a building on Coral Way and 22nd Ave.

There was a reception area with a desk for a receptionist that was never used.

Rick's office adjoined the reception area. There was a desk and a chair that sat in the middle of the room that was devoid of any other kind of decor; not a picture or a plant.

A coat hanger hung on the back of Rick's office door. On the hanger Rick kept a wrinkled sport coat and a tie for the times when he needed to dress up for an assignment.

When the phone rang Rick would answer it in his Alabama drawl: "Newsroom, this is Rick."

I became friends with Rick and together we covered many stories for the St. Pete Times during his almost two years in Miami.

When we weren't covering stories we were having lunch at a Morrison's Cafeteria in a shopping center west of the airport which Rick believed was the only place in Miami that served decent food that came anyhwere close to the southern cooking that he loves so much.

Back then the St Pete Times was considered - and still is - one of the best newspapers in America.

Rick was born in 1959 in Alabama and came to the St Pete Times after working at a succession of small papers in his home state. Eventually his writing was noticed by the editors at the Times. They hired him, Rick says, because he had won "a pick-up truck full of writin' awards."

He covered stories in St Petersburg before being transferred to Miami. Once here he wrote stories about everyday people; stories that other journalists missed or didn't care about. Rick was drawn to people who had experienced pain and suffering.

Read the lede to his celebrated story of "Dirty Red," a six-year-old boy wrongly accused of rape in a Ft. Lauderdale housing project:
The neighborhood has low rent and no trees, a leaky bucket of a place where dreams seem to run right on through. Dirty Red's mother pries the boy's fingers from the hem of her dress and tells him a hundredth time: "Baby, it's okay to play."

Dirty Red knows if he goes outside children will call him names and punch and pinch him, like the day before and the day before that. To please his mother he walks outside, but instead of going to play he doubles back up the stairs and sits just outside the closed door.

Dirty Red can't face the neighborhood, not today. He curls up in a ball on the concrete steps and sticks a thumb in his mouth. People step over him like litter.

"They don't like me," he said.

But Rick can also write stories that make you smile. Here in a May 1991 story he gives some no-so politically correct advice to Queen Elizabeth who was about to visit Miami.
The queen's 'do is wrong for Miami.

Her hair just lies there on her head, like some gray cat that crawled under her crown and went to sleep just above her eyebrows. It needs character, it needs dash, it needs . . . it needs . . .

"Wispy bangs," said Miami hair stylist Ricardo Felices, whose last name in Spanish means "happiness."

"And maybe," he said, "a nice platinum color."

Queen Elizabeth II is not just another rich woman coming here for a few days of sunburn and Seminole bingo. She is royalty, and deserves the best Miami can offer when she flies in Friday and takes up residence on her royal yacht.

But the nagging question is:

No, not how many times she will be the victim of a smash-and-grab robber. But:

Can she fit in?

She's got no Porsche. She's got no narcotics arrest record. She's got no fish-net pantyhose (that we know of). She has a limp 'do.

Miami needs a queen, if only for a day or so to show its elected officials they only think they're royalty. Most people here would prefer it was the Queen of Spain, yes. But here you take whatever queen that washes up.

And here in a May 1992 story he takes on some of the pretentiousness that is South Beach:
He swaggers down the sidewalk in jeans so tight he couldn't fish a quarter out of his back pocket for a bus ride to heaven.

His tan is terrific, his pecs are proud, his glutei are granite. A lock of coal-black hair droops insolently over one eye, as if to say:

"See, I am beautiful. And I do not even try."

By his side is a woman who would make a preacher lay his Bible down. Her hair is like sunrise, her eyes are jade, her legs are longer than Man o' War's. She says she would, like, really love to chat, but she is, like, on her way to a really, REALLY big shoot.

Together, they glide down Ocean Drive in South Beach as the adoring eyes of less beautiful people track them like so many hungry hounds.

"Models," guesses a tourist, guessing right.

"God," says a fat man as he reels in his tongue and cranks shut his jaw.

"Mmm-mmm-mmmmmmmm," says a woman, trying not to drool.

"God," the fat man says again.

It is a Saturday afternoon on South Beach, and the beautiful people do not sashay by just every now and then. This is a parade, an endless procession of flawless skin and rippling muscles. This is The Scene on South Beach, the new world capital of high fashion modeling.

"It is," said Richard Pavitt, art director for an advertising agency in Great Britain, "a poser's paradise."

These are the faces and bodies in Cosmo, Vogue, Elle - and, yes, in JCPenney catalogs and Sears circulars. These are the people who show the rest of us how we should dress, how we should look.

"The most beautiful in the world," said a New York fashion photographer, whose name really is Kit De Fever.
Rick left Miami right around the time of Hurricane Andrew and went to Harvard for a year on a Nieman, returned to St Pete and eventually ended up at the NY Times and in 1996 won a Pulitzer for his feature writing.

A few years later he returned to Miami as the NY Times Miami bureau chief where once again we got to work on some stories but this time they were played on page one of the Times.

Rick left the Times a few years ago and now teaches writing at the University of Alabama.

Last week when he came to Miami our first stop was at the Versailles. (see photo above)

As much as Rick loves southern cooking he also loves Cuban cuisine and he tells me it's pretty much impossible to find good ham croquetas, black beans and Cuban sandwiches in Tuscaloosa.

For those of you who know of Rick and enjoy his writing you'll be happy to know that his latest book is due to be released next month and he tells me that he'll probably be doing a signing at Books and Books at some point.

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