From the book
In the early 1980s, when I was still going steady with Jim Beam straight-up and a beer back, I became part of an exchange program between NOPD and a training academy for police cadets in Dade County, Florida. That meant I did a limited amount of work in a Homicide unit at the Miami P.D. and taught a class in criminal justice at a community college way up on N.W. 27th Avenue, not far from a place called Opa-Locka.
Opa-Locka was a gigantic pink stucco-and-plaster nightmare designed to look like a complex of Arabian mosques. In the early a.m., fog from either the ocean or the Glades, mixed with dust and carbon monoxide, clung like strips of dirty cotton to the decrepit minarets and cracked walls of the buildings. At night the streets were lit by vapor lamps that glowed inside the fog with the dirty iridescence that you associate with security lighting in prison compounds. The palms on the avenues were blighted by disease, the fronds clacking dryly in the fouled air. The yards in the neighborhoods contained more gray sand than grass. Homes that could contain little of value were protected by bars on the windows and razor wire on the fences. Lowrider gangbangers, the broken mufflers of their gas-guzzlers throbbing against the asphalt, smashed liquor bottles on the sidewalks and no one said a word.
For me, it was a place where I didn't have to make comparisons and where each dawn took on the watery hue of a tequila sunrise. If I found myself at first light in Opa-Locka, my choices were usually uncomplicated: I either continued drinking or entered an altered state known as delirium tremens.
Four or five nights a week I deconstructed myself in a bar where people had neither histories nor common geographic origins. Their friendships with one another began and ended at the front door. Most of them drank with a self-deprecating resignation and long ago had given up rationalizing the lives they led, I suspect allowing themselves a certain degree of peace. I never saw any indication they either knew or cared that I was a police officer. In fact, as I write these words today, I'm sure they recognized me as one of their own -- a man who of his own volition had consigned himself to Dante's ninth circle, his hand clasped confidently around a mug of draft with a submerged jigger of whiskey coiling up from the bottom.
But there was one visitor to the bar whom I did call friend. His name was Dallas Klein, a kid who in late '71 had flown a slick through a blistering curtain of RPG and automatic weapons fire to pick up a bunch of stranded LURPs on the Cambodian border. He brought home two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a nervous tic in his face that made you think a bee was buzzing around his left eye.
Like me, he loved Gulf Stream Race Track and the jai alai fronton up the road in Broward County. He also loved the craps table at a private club in Hollywood, a floating poker game in Little Havana, the dogs at Flagler, the trotters at Pompano, the Florida Derby at Hialeah, the rows of gleaming slot machines clanging with a downpour of coins on a cruise to Jamaica.
But he was a good kid, not a drunk, not mean-spirited or resentful yet about the addiction that had already cost him a fiancée and a two-bedroom stucco house on a canal in Fort Lauderdale. He grinned at his losses, his eyes wrinkling at the corners, as though a humorous acknowledgment of his problem made it less than it was. On Saturdays he ate an early lunch of a hamburger and glass of milk at the bar while he studied the Morning Telegraph, his ink-black hair cut short, his face always good-natured. By one o'clock he and I would be out at the track together,...