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Bike to the Stars
Bike to the Stars

Who's in Charge Here?

A natural disaster can give you profound, unwitting glimpses into the secret workings of Big Government. Wilma barreled into the Broward County School Board building last week, splattering much of its guts around downtown. Two days after the storm, Tailpipe sifted through the piles of insulation and dry leaves on 3rd Avenue to turn up a few dozen documents in the rubble, providing some lightning insights into the fifth largest school system in the country. The 'Pipe's conclusion? Despite all the dense, acronym-sprinkled prose and head-scratching Kremlin-like jargon, the school system reels chaotically from year to year while the folks in charge of the county's 270,000 school kids seem barely in control.

As the minutes to a September 15, 2005, staff meeting put it: "By January should have a matrix to determine what we are measuring." Good idea. They must be measuring something, no?

There were also these:

In October 1998, administrator Sallie Stevens requested an investigation into $14,000 unaccounted for in the Miramar Community School's afterschool care program. A previous investigation had led to the termination of a night bookkeeper there based on discrepancies in making deposits. (Asked about the whereabouts of the $2,187 in cash and seven checks, it was "as though Ms. H. had a flashback," remembering she was supposed to take it to a bank.)

There are reasons for not reducing middle-school class sizes, notes a strangely melancholy report about "staff development opportunities." Like, uh, school buildings that are too small and, let's face it, no funds.

School administrators are experimenting with new ideas, like "strategic management." Noting the dictionary definition of strategy as "the science and art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations," a report urges us not to overlook the military connection. "It's all-out war between competitors." The 'Pipe's 10-year-old pipette is now working out with fixed bayonet and full battlefield regalia.

Amphibian fossils date back 360 million years, according to a biology worksheet. At that time they had four strong limbs that had evolved from ancestral fish fins, and they breathed air with lungs. Tailpipe interprets this as a warning. You too can be turned into a frog, boys and girls.

A patient who printed her signature on a Jackson North Community Mental Health Center form was listed "in stable condition, denied suicidal ideation/thought" and was prescribed drugs that treat mania, bipolar disorders, and restlessness.

Troy was in the restroom when Jake entered. Now, the boys had a history — according to a document labeled "pre-referral observation summary," Jake claimed Troy had called him names in the lunchroom. On a mid-June day in 2002, in the boys' room, Troy told Jake, "Why are you in here? You should be in the girls' bathroom." Troy later said he didn't know why he said that to Jake. Jake, though, later said he was tired of Troy's teasing — which is why, according to the document, he went over and hit Troy in the face.

The veracity of the documents could not be confirmed at press time, but the 'Pipe stands by his findings.

Bike to the Stars

Like plenty of others, Tailpipe noticed that the dark skies that come with power outages offer an unusual show of stars and planets. That was Venus in the southwest setting early, and mighty Mars nearing closest approach rising in the east. (No truth to the report that Wilma blew the Big Dipper out of the sky.) It's nice to see the universe from the middle of a city again. But you can usually catch a glimpse of bright planetary beacons even in the most light-polluted skies. It was the Milky Way, the ghostly ribbon of light passing overhead in the early evening, that was the most welcome sight.

Ah, the pleasures of low-tech living.

Besides marveling at the constellations, there was another reason not to hate everything about last week's deprivations. Finally, those South Floridians who ride bicycles were kings of the fucking road. (The 'Pipe sheepishly confesses to being a temporary traitor to the auto nation.)

Normally, cyclers do best while two-wheeling to skip major thoroughfares like Federal Highway, which is usually packed with speeding autos determined to make the life of pedalers miserable. But post-Wilma, driving became a hassle. With gas scarce, fallen trees in the road, and darkened signals forcing drivers to stop at every intersection, a lot of motorists kept their cars in the garage. That left things to the self-power types, who not only didn't have to worry about fuel consumption, but who could also laugh as they bypassed annoying police checkpoints and mandatory turn lanes.

The 'Pipe's daily commute took him past the intersection of NE 4th Street and Federal Highway in downtown Fort Lauderdale where, on one corner, a long line of exhausted-looking folks holding gas containers waited for a few gallons of the stuff at a 7-Eleven outlet. Were the looks of exhaustion and frustration out of envy for the 'Pipe's non-petrol-burning freedom?

If anyone was tempted to follow this treasonous auto part's example, however, they might have had their work cut out for them. On the opposite corner, Downtown Bicycles was still shuttered tight. The bicycle merchant was missing an opportunity even more potentially lucrative than the sudden entrepreneurs hawking hot dogs, lemonade, and siphoned gas by the gallon.

Restrain the Crane

The mockingbird may be the official state bird of Florida, but to look around lately, you'd think it had been supplanted by another, taller creature: the construction crane. These spindly metallic spires have been the mascot of Broward's construction boom, dotting the skyline like one-armed scarecrows.

Unlike this trusty hunk of metal, however, these erector set refugees have been known to take a fall. Last week in the midst of Hurricane Wilma, a construction crane that stood at least 40 stories high snapped in half like a pretzel. The bright orange crane, formerly attached to an unfinished condominium, was located near the Westin Diplomat hotel in Hollywood and spent most of Monday and Tuesday blocking traffic on A1A. Meanwhile its sturdier half remained upright, though twisted and maimed from where the break occurred.

"This is unheard of anywhere... " an unidentified construction worker told the Herald. "Cranes just don't fall."

Well, that's not exactly true, especially around here. In early September, a crane fell onto the roof of a condo in Fort Lauderdale, crushing a balcony and scaring the bejesus out of residents. A week later, a crane toppled onto an outpatient building in Margate. In August of 2003, a 275-foot crane, also in downtown Fort Lauderdale, collapsed, crushing a number of cars and narrowly missing a row of apartment buildings. Back in November of 2000, a giant crane fell across Las Olas Boulevard in the middle of the lunch rush. As it fell, the crane broke into two pieces, narrowly missing a man who was stringing Christmas lights.

The reasons for a crane toppling are many, according to Andy Walker of Sunshine Crane Rental in Atlanta, Georgia. "I can't even describe to you all of the ways that a crane could topple," he said, though he cited "operator error and load shifting" as the main culprits.

"Cars don't just have wrecks. Neither do cranes."

The cost to contractors who rent the cranes for construction projects can be astronomical, anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 a month, according to Walker.

Though no one's been hurt by one of these errant behemoths, they operate in densely populated areas, often swinging loads well in excess of one ton. It seems almost a matter of time before injury, or worse, cranker occurs.

There's one way to stave off serious injury, OSHA spokesman Luis Santiago says. "If you don't have any cranes operating in this area, you won't have any failures."

City of Love

Say what you want about the folks who run Fort Lauderdale, but deep down they're just a bunch of dyed-in-the-wool romantics. Take the scene the 'Pipe stumbled upon while rolling through the broken glass littering downtown and amid the broken and bent trees along Riverwalk by the New River two days after Wilma hit. (Yes, yes, the authorities admonished everyone to stay home, but there's only so much Scrabble-playing and branch-clearing anyone can take.)

The big heartbreak for this sentimental old cylinder came at the city park in front of River House, that classy and classical restaurant renowned for its alfresco dining beneath lofty trees. Several trees had tipped in their entirety, their roots standing 15 feet high. Elephant trunk-sized branches blocked the bricked sidewalk. The Connie Hoffman Gazebo, in front of the restaurant, was a pile of rubble.

The Rotary Gazebo, however, located near the railroad tracks, was not only unaccosted by the storm but getting extra super-duper loving care by five employees of the city's park and rec department. Several were on their knees, delicately laying new salmon-colored tiles. One gentleman leaned against the rail and observed the men in a supervisor-ish way. How is it, the 'Pipe asked him, that amid so much damage, the city is devoting such manpower to this beautification project?

"Yeah, we've been shaking our heads over it too," the leaner confessed.

Mayor Jim Naugle concurred that the project seemed a bit out of step with the times. "I agree that we need to get the neighborhoods cleaned up first," he said, suggesting that parks director Phil Thornburg would have an explanation. In one word, he did: amore.

"We promised a lady before the hurricane that we'd have this done for her wedding," Thornburg explained. (The city pulls in a cool $132 for renting out the gazebo for two hours.) The parks department had tried to reach her after the storm to ask whether the countywide electrical loss, a gas shortage, and the airport shutdown had altered her nuptial plans. Alas, she was incommunicado — probably busily hand-sewing taffeta by candlelight for the big day. The city wasn't going to take any chances, though, and it threw some real municipal elbow grease into the job.

So let's hear it for Fort Lauderdale, the City of Love.

— As told to Edmund Newton

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