Hey, who cares if you don't have the money for a ride if a Hollywood movie studio is sending a limousine your way? This past April 11, Lennie the limo guy stacked my mixed assortment of family and friends into his large, gleaming black Cadillac at the old-school Eden Roc hotel in Miami Beach. Realizing there was no room for me, he suggested I cruise next to him, in the front passenger seat.
Of course, sitting shotgun! Then Lennie — executive chauffeur, personal assistant, and security consultant — wheeled us to the opening night of an ancient dream.
I had been cursed with a vision for nearly 20 years. Don't believe me? Fuck you! Despite all signs, I was sure that someone, somewhere, some way, would feel compelled, yes, duty-bound, to make a big-ass silver-screen epic about "Pain & Gain," my masterful crime-time Miami comic thrill ride. I had penned this durable tale of Miami when I was backed into the corner — broke, jobless, and near bottom.
Now, Pain & Gain is a $25 million Michael Bay movie starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, and Ed Harris. It opens in theaters this Friday, April 26.
But before I get to that, let me take you back to when I was a kid growing up in El Portal, back in the '60s, when Miami was a very different place. My dad was pure Marine, First Division, Fifth Regiment, a machine gunner on Guadalcanal and other tropical atolls in the Pacific. One Father's Day, I scraped together nearly $10 so we could watch Patton together at the old Lincoln Road movie palace. "Not everyone can be a Marine, Pete," he explained.
My mom taught me to love movies too. She insisted the whole family drive down to Coral Gables on South Dixie Highway in 1963 to see It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, a comedy about a dozen-or-so motorists who see a traffic accident, rush to help the driver, and hear his dying words about a big pile of missing loot. They all begin a scramble for the buried treasure. It was Jonathan Winters' performance as Lennie Pike, an earnest lunkhead truck driver, that I remember best. He had a manic, gleeful, outsmarted-yet-never-outwitted nature. Kind of like me.
I grew up in Miami and got a job as a writer at Miami New Times in its early days. I lost that employ after urinating on my editor's car (that's another story) but continued writing. I penned some freelance stories for the Miami Herald — tales of the early '90s that were all over the place. There were three cover pieces for the newspaper's Tropic magazine — a string of jailhouse yarns about Miami's most prolific con men that had landed me on 60 Minutes, Dateline, and Day One.
Then came a simple Saturday-morning jog in 1996. The outing was intended as a brisk, stringent corrective to mark the beginning of what I could still do in those years — rein myself in from increasingly long stretches of debauchery and begin a health kick, then stick to it.
In short, more water, less vodka. Less bar blather with bored brunettes, more reading and writing. I washed my face; stripped down; put on the T-shirt, white cotton underwear, long Russell sweatpants; and took off with a loping stride. I worked south and east from NE Second Place, determined to make it to Biscayne Bay.
As I rounded Grand Concourse and NE Seventh Avenue, I came upon a friend named Ed Du Bois, who was outside his house washing a van. Du Bois (who's played by Ed Harris in Pain & Gain) was a big-deal Miami private eye. He had been the NFL's lead security guy in Florida. When I stopped running and started talking with him, a stream of vapor smelling suspiciously like Sterno escaped from my pores.
Du Bois asked if I was ready for a great crime story. I surprised myself when I said, "Nah, I'm leaving the trade." I was losing interest. Dishonest crooks bugged me.
It was always the same: Someone wants you to write a story because it makes them look good — or someone else look bad. Really, they're the same thing. You listen. You finance the whole research, reporting, and writing thing, based on a prayer of getting a publisher. Sometimes it works. Usually not. That's when you lie to your cousin, your landlord, about rent.
So I was finishing a graduate writing program at Florida International University and picturing a cushy college gig.
But when Du Bois asked me to drop by his office to hear the case he was involved in, I said, "Sure." Out of respect. Later that week, I let him prattle for a couple of minutes. He described a group of sadistic bodybuilders called the Sun Gym Gang, as well as some guy from Colombia who wasn't from Colombia and who could, it seemed, survive nuclear winter like a palmetto bug.