Don't you just love those precious moments that put the South in South Florida? Like anytime any white person looks for an apartment or house down here and some rental agent offers such helpful as gems as, "Oh, you don't want to live in that neighborhood" or "I could tell you what's wrong with that area, but the Justice Department won't let me." After hearing enough of that, it's easy to discern why Fort Lauderdale remains depressingly segregated. But when Bandwidth walked around Himmarshee Village one night, only to tumble headlong into the vast chasm of late-night race relations in this town, well, it hit a little close to home.
Our story begins the morning of Monday, December 17, when Duncan Cameron woke up pissed off. The night before, he'd been drinking a beer at his favorite downtown watering hole, the Poor House, when he got a taste of some behavior bordering on the offensive. So late that night, he sent an e-mail to his bandmates in Hashbrown and a few local reporters (including Bandwidth) detailing his gripe.
"For those of you who do not get out on Sunday nights, the Chili Pepper holds a hip-hop/bass music night that draws a significant Black audience to downtown," Cameron wrote. "Now some people, which I found out last night, may be offended by just that alone. I find the parade of fancy tricked out cars and big booties and hair entertaining. Unfortunately many do not share my opinion.... The people at the Poor House are my friends. I know most of them personally and work there from time to time. I understand that as a bar or restaurant owner the large scale influx of African-Americans may be daunting or even scary. Are they going to wreck my place? Will they tip? Will there be gun-play? These are all possibilities. WITH EVERYONE."
Cameron was also upset that the Poor House's outdoor patio was off-limits and that police were blocking off a section between the Poor House and the Chili Pepper with caution tape, in effect creating a "no standing" section. (The police were city cops working security detail for the Chili Pepper.) As Cameron noticed, "I can't seem to remember that happening on a Friday or Saturday night when there are three to four times the amount of people out. I guess the reason I'm venting is because I was hurt by what seemed to be thinly veiled racism from people that I like. When my bartender started playing the pronoun game ("these" people, "them" etc.) I wondered if she remembered that, even though I'm light-skinned and speak correct English, I'm still Black."
By mid-December, the Sunday-night hip-hop night at the Chili Pepper had been going strong for months, attracting hundreds of predominantly black patrons but in the process alienating many of the other establishments on the block -- in particular the Poor House, only a few yards south. And not without good reason: Labor Day weekend, a young woman was shot on the way to her parked car, the victim of gunfire originating from brawling Chili Pepper attendees. Other violent incidents (including at least one stabbing) in the adjacent parking lot or street made employees and customers understandably nervous, says Poor House manager Bob Pignone, who relates a story from a few Sundays ago when police pulled over a cruising SUV in front of his bar.
"I had seven cops standing on my patio with their guns drawn," he complains. "What does that do for my business?"
Apparently, it hasn't helped. Pignone understands that the Chili Pepper's ongoing tussle with the city's ban on under-21 clubgoers cost the club money, and it's making up for lost ducats. "So they're recouping, but it's to the detriment of the rest of the neighborhood," charges Pignone. "I used to do between $1500 to $2000 on a Sunday night. Last Sunday, we did $235. It's serious. That's $6000 to $8000 a month. Am I not supposed to be upset? I'm losing a ton of business over it."
Numerous calls to Chili Pepper management about these complaints were not returned by press time. For his part, Pignone seems to have a legitimate beef -- but does it excuse the "pronoun game" remaining part of the Sunday-night entertainment at the Poor House?
On the night of January 13, Bandwidth's stealth Escort creeps downtown to find it nearly deserted at 11:30 on a Sunday, with perhaps six patrons seated in and outside the Poor House. A uniformed officer strolls in and out, sucking on a cup of ice water. Pretty slow around here, Bandwidth remarks.
"Sunday nights have been dead ever since they started ghetto night next door," our bartender says cheerfully as Cameron's e-mail comes to life and a convertible Cadillac with black occupants saunters up the street. She mentions the shootings and stabbings as the reason the formerly busy night now sees customers voicing their insecurity with their feet. But is it the threat of violence or simply the presence of a black crowd that has the white folks so wary?
"In a half-hour, this whole street will be crawling with brothers," she continues as she pours another Shipyard Ale. "More brothers than a Tarzan movie," interjects a musclebound man on the other side of the bar. His expression indicates precisely what word would have replaced "brothers" had this conversation been taking place a couple of decades ago.
"They've got some DJs there that only they know about," our bartender adds. Has she ever visited on a Sunday night? we inquire. Just once, she replies, when she had to go find the manager. "I was like a white speck in there."
Sean John tank tops and gold teeth surround us as we line up for the metal-detector gauntlet before entering the Chili Pepper just before midnight. Only about 150 or so hip-hop fans are milling about, and the trio of DJs aren't playing anything exactly groundbreaking. One can hear Outkast's "So Fresh So Clean" interrupted by chatter just as loudly on 90.9 FM, and it doesn't cost $30, which is what patrons pay to enter the Chili Pepper on Sundays.
After an hour of not being shot or stabbed (and being the only white specks inside), we leave the scent of puffing blunts behind, push past the phalanx of stocky security men, and walk past Voodoo Lounge, which looks to have a slightly smaller, all-Caucasian crowd and a conspicuous absence of police officers. At the corner of Himmarshee and SW Second Avenue, a knot of awfully young-looking white kids stands bored at the bar. In the middle of the block, the Pin-Ups and then the drunken Donkey Punch are entertaining about two dozen punks at Tavern 213. There's a mohawk in here! And a GG Allin shirt! Beer spilled all over the floor! But not a cop in sight.
Yes, the color and flavor of Sunday nights has changed downtown since the hip-hop night began about six months ago. Bandwidth recalls an instance one Sunday when a black couple sat pouring drinks from a bottle of cognac on the Poor House patio. And on a recent Monday morning, the parking lot across the street was littered with Remy Martin bottles and plastic cups. Exactly the behavior, Pignone relates, that has him calling for the Chili Pepper to end the hip-hop night.
"What am I supposed to do, have my one doorman go up to 20 of 'em and tell 'em they gotta leave? They get very indignant. What are you gonna do? Half of 'em are carrying. It's not a good crowd. I've made no secret -- I want 'em gone!" he shouts. "Not because they're black but because it's hurting my business!"
Having just endured the city's scrutiny (Fort Lauderdale is looking to roll back the four a.m. drinking now allowed within town, a change that would likely doom the Poor House, which is generally empty until midnight), Pignone is in no mood to see anything about trouble downtown appear anywhere in print. But on Tuesday, January 25, when Cameron showed Pignone the e-mail he had sent to members of the press, saying he wanted the bar owner to read it before it appeared in print, Pignone decided to attempt some preemptive damage control.
"Hopefully nothing comes of this," he says. "If you're pointing a finger at my place and it comes out wrong, I'll definitely have a lawsuit. Because one, it's definitely not true, and two, because no one called me. No one has called me. No one has made an effort to get in touch with me!" yells Pignone, somehow oblivious to the fact that at this very moment, he is on the phone with Bandwidth, clearly identified as a reporter from New Times in the act of returning his call. That very afternoon, Pignone had contacted Bandwidth's boss requesting to comment in any story written about his establishment. But somehow, he has failed to make this connection and evidently believes that yours truly, not among his favorite scribes in town (see Letters to the Editor, July 12, 2001), is simply paying him a social call.
"This is me talking to you," Pignone says. "If there's some story going on, let me know. If they paint me as prejudiced, I'm gonna sue 'em, 'cause that's slanderous right there, and that'll hurt my business for no other reason than for me being next to a place that does hip-hop!" He also defends his staff, particularly his Sunday-night barmaid and any untoward comments she may have made.
"What'd she do, call 'em "these people'? Maybe she should've said "the hip-hoppers.' Whether she said it or not, I don't know. If she did, I don't think she meant it in a derogatory way. She's talking about the hip-hoppers out there, "those people,' the people that come down every Sunday, the people who shoot at people, the people who are stabbing people, the people who are getting arrested! Those people, that crowd, is what she's talking about. That crowd, that particular crowd, not every black person who walks down there. That crowd that's been causing all the mayhem that's been going on. That's what she's talking about. It's not a racist thing."
Then Pignone focuses his frustration on Cameron.
"I'm just keeping this between me and him," explains Pignone. "And if nothing comes out in the paper, then no one has to know what happened. If I go and tell my partner and the other bartenders who know Duncan and they feel that Duncan betrayed them, then it's not good for Duncan. He's on a fine line of losing a lot of friends. I'm sure a lot of people are going to be pissed at him for taking this view.
"Something's going to come out, and then it's not a black thing; it's a personal thing, 'cause everyone knows Duncan," Pignone continues, composure lost. "So if I don't let [Hashbrown] play there anymore, does that mean I'm the asshole? Am I a bad guy because I'm next door to a hip-hop night and it killed the neighborhood?"
No one has said Pignone is a bad guy. Running a bar downtown that creates a dimly-lit oasis of cool where the norm resembles a frat-and-sorority rush held at a Saks Fifth Avenue clearance sale is probably a lot harder than it looks. But the pressure of the crowd next door and Cameron's letter has started to unravel him.
"Why am I being doubly penalized? First, I'm being penalized by the hip-hop, and I gotta keep my mouth shut on that," Pignone shouts, quickly ignoring his own advice. "Because to tell you the truth, if I wanted it stopped, all I gotta do is call up the ABT [the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco] and say, "Listen, I think there's drugs going on next door.' They'd shut the place down. That's all I'd have to do. I wouldn't want it done to me, but that's all it would take. I wouldn't do that, but that's all it would take. I just wanted to protect my patrons and employees. I don't think that's prejudiced. I have an obligation to make sure they don't get hurt. What do I do, close my business?"
Finally, Pignone declares the press responsible for the tension and bares his fangs at Bandwidth.
"Why aren't you writing about people getting shot or stabbed down there on Sunday? That's the story, but no one wants to touch it because it's a black thing. You gotta write something, so why not look like heroes in front of the black people? But the story is the other way around, and you guys won't touch it, and that's not fair. The thing is, they're a menace. You know it, your publisher knows it, the cops know it, the city knows it, the Chili Pepper knows it, Duncan knows it. And no one wants to touch that side of the story. It's that simple. A girl got shot down there! And no one wants to touch that? Why? What crowd did it? Well, you know what crowd did it! But there's no story about that."
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He mentions that he has one question to ask Cameron, whose girlfriend happens to be white.
"Ask him, "Would you want her to go in there by herself?' I'd love to see what he says."
"[Pignone] asked me that, too," Cameron says later. "I told him that she probably knows what goes on inside and what to expect. But I told him that to be honest, I would be worried about her."
Depending on how events pan out, Pignone's precarious relationship with Cameron may jeopardize the chances that Hashbrown, one of the Poor House's most popular live draws, will play the room again. Cameron states that he doesn't want to lose his favored status there but notes sadly, "I had to say what I had to say. I'm glad I didn't censor myself. I tried to make Bobby see that I did not have a beef with him, just some actions by his staff and detail cops. I'll still go down there -- I don't want to hide."