Browning: 1948-2006

A Great One

I can't go another minute without a word about Michael Browning, a South Florida journalism giant -- both literally and figuratively -- who died on December 30 of liver failure at the age of 58. I enjoyed reading Browning, who was a stalwart of the Miami Herald's Golden Age and reporter-laureate at the Palm Beach Post for the past decade, but I never met him. Carl Hiaasen did and here's what he wrote about Browning in the Palm Beach Post-linked guestbook.

"Michael was a giant talent, with a soul to match. All of us who were lucky enough to work with him were enriched by his warmth and humor, and awestruck by his magic with words. He was truly one of a kind."

Dave Barry wrote: "I was lucky enough to work with Michael at the Herald's Tropic Magazine. There were some pretty good writers there, but he was the best."

From Frank Cerabino: "Some 20 years ago, back when Michael worked for the Miami Herald, he used to sneak out around lunchtime to read in his car. To do this, he'd drive into Overtown and park under some highway overpass. It wasn't a neighborhood known for its readers. And on one afternoon, he ended up getting stabbed (or was it shot?)by a

guy trying to rob him. The police didn't believe his story: That he comes to this drug-infested neighborhood a few blocks away from the newspaper so he can read in his car. Detectives assumed he was the victim of drug deal gone bad. Of course, anybody who knew Michael, knew that he was most certainly reading."

A South Florida journalist e-mailed me the day before Browning died, writing: "He was a genuine character and as close to a poet as this pyramid-formula culture can produce. I don't think it is a stretch to consider him the Dylan Thomas of hackdom, a writer deliriously and gloriously drunk on words, words that nobody had heard of before but were perfect nonetheless. You read Browning with a dictionary and he was routinely so damn good you actually enjoyed looking things up."

The journalist, who asked not to be named, wanted me to write something about the great writer prior to his death so that Browning could see what he meant to so many reporters and readers. I don't think I even checked my e-mail in time, but it would have been too late anyway. Thankfully, the Bills at the Palm Beach Post (Rose and Greer) collected e-mails and notes from staff to give to Browning before his death and several Washington Post boys who worked with Browning at the Herald sent letters to his deathbed as well. According to an internal PBP memo, Browning contributed to his own obit, which was written by Scott Eyman. I'd like to know what lines Browning offered in Eyman's heartfelt and revealing piece.

The Miami Herald, in what I'm told was a controversial move, didn't write a separate obit -- just edited and added to Eyman's piece. I like that whoever did that put in this example of Browning's beautiful writing, post-Hurricane Andrew:

There is simply too much sky.

A fortnight after the attack of Hurricane Andrew, the southern arc of Florida lies luminous and shadowless in an extraordinary wash of daylight, despoiled, naked, hammered by the sun and open to every random rain.

The locust-winds of this tremendous storm, now sped and gone, have fretted every green leaf, stripped tree bark and twig down to the last tendril. Through these shadeless boughs a blank heaven shines, filled with wandering clouds -- clouds that float unconcerned, white, serene and neutral over a scene of devastation unwitnessed in this peninsula for over half a century.

There it is -- beautiful writing in its natural state. And Browning apparently did it all the time, every time he wrote anything from a casual e-mail to a grocery list. There's plenty more if you care to find it, and you should. The Post put up several of his greatest hits during his time Palm Beach. I suggest the Herald do the same and link it to the obit and repost the thing prominently on the homepage. As for me, I'll end this little tribute with a lede of a Tropic story Browning wrote in China just before he ended a stint as bureau chief there in 1988 (yeah, the Herald had a bureau in China -- ain't that a kick?). Thanks to former Tropic editor Tom Shroder for sharing it in the guestbook:

"Skyscrapers have sprung up along Chang An Avenue, Beijing's central thoroughfare, glassy monsters 30 and 40-stories tall. But at their feet is still the 19th Century, with horse-drawn night soil carts creaking by, slaughtered pigs exposed on the sidewalk, chickens and tomatoes bing raised in tiny plots and bottle collectors passing with musical cries down alleyways of clay brick under red wooden lintels flecked with gold. There is a magic here amid the chaos, far and strange, a sparky quartzy-bright ice-crackle in winter, in summer, a shady, cicada-buzzing watermelon ripeness. The sunsets are fiercely beautiful, fiantly posionous, glowing through tons of floating coal dust . . ."

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