By Michael E. Miller
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It's a Friday morning, and Danny's pushing a shopping cart along the sidewalk of the Gateway Shopping Center. The cart is loaded with cardboard boxes of food and a plastic freezer box containing cheese. His face is grimy and sunbaked from his living on the streets. Danny stops in front of the Malibu East and takes one of the cardboard boxes inside. A few minutes later he emerges emptyhanded.
"Judy bought about $10 worth of stuff," Danny says, as he continues down the sidewalk. Her purchases: packaged lettuce and green-apple gummi rings. Danny is in a hurry to find a safe place for his cheese before it goes bad in the late-morning sun. He says that he gets the food from Winn-Dixie in return for helping to unload trucks. (A spokesperson for the closest Winn-Dixie store will later deny that such an arrangement exists or that anyone there even knows Danny.) But the assumption among many business owners at the Gateway, as Danny's not-so-flattering moniker suggests, is that he pulls the food out of area dumpsters.
Godfrey concurs. He says that, while he was working at Malibu East, DeForest and Rogers constantly bought items from people who came into the restaurant with wares to hawk. Their purchases ranged from jewelry and clothing to eggs and meat. "Every day they were showing up, selling more and more and more shit," he says, adding that he'd warn customers away from menu selections containing ingredients of dubious origin.
Joseph Dixey, owner of the Gateway Barber/Hairstylist, says that, for a couple of years, he suggested to customers that they visit the diner while waiting to get haircuts. "I'd say, 'Why don't you go have a cup of coffee next door at the Malibu? It's like stepping back in the century.'"
Nowadays, though, Dixey himself won't enter the Malibu East. He says that, while the rest of the merchants in the Gateway attempt to rid the area of people selling stolen merchandise, the diner has thwarted their efforts by providing a market for such goods. He recalls eating breakfast in the diner one morning when a man known to deal in stolen merchandise entered and was welcomed by Rogers. "I picked up my food, and I went to the other counter, and I finished eating and I walked out," Dixey recalls. "Harry looked at me. He said, 'Whatsa matter?' If I have to tell him whatsa matter, it doesn't make no sense."
DeForest emphatically denies serving food bought off the streets. She does indeed purchase food from people who stop by the restaurant, but she says it is solely for consumption by animals -- the 14 iguanas at her house and the pigeons for which she and Rogers used to buy. "If they're saying I'm buying food off the street to serve in the restaurant, they're out of their minds," DeForest says. "I don't do that."
Sgt. Frank Miller, head of the Fort Lauderdale community policing unit that covers the Gateway Shopping Center, says that he is not aware of any problem with people dealing in stolen goods there.
The diner has also drawn complaints about its less-than-rigorous commitment to cleanliness. One neighboring storeowner half-jokingly advises diners to "take your penicillin" before eating at the Malibu East.
The gripes about hygiene are backed up, to some degree, by reports from the state Division of Hotels and Restaurants (DHR), which inspects restaurants for health-code violations at least three times each year. The Malibu East has been consistently cited for problems over the last three years -- as far back as records are available. The violations range from the mundane (storing milk in the ice chest) to the grotesque (live roaches in the cupboards). The restaurant has been repeatedly reprimanded for failing to degrease the stovetop and for storing foods at potentially dangerous temperatures.
An official with the DHR says some health-code violations are inevitable -- especially in restaurants such as the Malibu East, where most food is prepared on the premises. "It's the nature of the beast," says Lee Cornman, technical coordinator for the agency. Even a roach problem, she says, should not necessarily scare off diners. "We are in Florida," Cornman notes. "The more food you're cooking, and the more ingredients you're using, the more likely it is that you'll have a vermin problem."
Bruce Godfrey says bugs will not be a problem in his Malibu East -- if it ever opens. Since mid-May, when the revenue agents arrived and the diner was temporarily shut down, Godfrey has been without full-time work. He's applied for jobs at dozens of businesses (approaching 150 by his count) but without much luck. He currently works part-time as a security guard at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport at $5.50 an hour. Godfrey's credit card bills total more than $8000, he receives $125 in food stamps each month, and he's planning to move out of his Victoria Park apartment to find someplace cheaper. "I'm below the bottom right now," Godfrey says.
Yet he is still determined to run a restaurant called the Malibu East -- either at the diner's present location or elsewhere. He considered a lot in Wilton Manors now occupied by Legends Café (and previously by the Malibu Ritz Coffee Shop). But Godfrey is most intrigued by the possibility of opening up shop in the Gateway Shopping Center, just yards from the present Malibu East. A vacant store, where Dandy's Café used to be, is for rent. His plan raises the surreal possibility of two Malibu Easts operating in the same strip mall.