A wiry man with tufts of gray hair hanging over his glasses shuffles into the Pirate Republic Bar late one warm Thursday night carrying a cigar box full of worn-down crayons and a stack of ruffled papers. A few of the newer bar patrons wonder aloud if he is yet another Fort Lauderdale vagrant looking for change. But the regulars light up.
Mickey Clean's leather shoes are worn out, his khaki shorts are dirty, and his wrinkled white button-up shirt hangs loosely off his narrow shoulders. He wears a faint cologne of stale beer and cigarette smoke. He has a gentle, Bojangles smile. Some people say he's the happiest man at the beach. Mickey is something of a local legend, a threadbare gypsy soul who's a fixture in the barrooms and drinkeries in this area.
"He's the crayon man," says Chrys, the chatty Brazilian woman behind the bar. "The guy who drew all these." She points to the walls, to the dozens of colorful drawings taped up in every direction.
The Pirate Bar is tucked into the side of an alley just off of A1A, Fort Lauderdale's beachfront strip. It's a cramped, open-air, sand-on-the-floor tavern, a throwback to the old spring break era, when this area earned the nickname "Fort Liquordale." There's a flow of heavy metal in the speakers, dirty limericks scribbled in the bathroom, and pirate skulls painted on the walls. The locals sport tattoos, the tourists sunburns.
Mickey sways as he walks — he's rather drunk by this time of night — but he never drops his box of crayons or his sunny disposition. He approaches three vacationers from New Jersey. They're in their 20s, drinking a bucket of domestics by the dartboards. "Caricature?" he says to air in front of them. "You guys want a crayon caricature? Only a buck a person. And you get a free story."
"A story?" one of the women asks.
"Yeah, yeah, a story," Mickey says. "I've got hundreds of 'em." There's a pause. "And they're all true!" he adds through a grin that's shy a few teeth.
Mickey sets down his box and his papers and gets to work. With a black marker, he outlines three faces. With the nub of a fat brown crayon, he colors in the brunet's hair.
His eyes still fixed on the paper, he begins, "So, uh, here's my story," he says. "I was a rock star once."
The tourists laugh politely. "Oh yeah?"
"Oh yeah," he says. "I'm just doing this to pay my property taxes and feed my cats."
As Mickey tells his tales, his hands work at lightning speed: shading, coloring, switching crayons. By the time he's done, every inch of the paper is covered with bursts of color: the shaded peach sunburns, the green and brown palm trees, a flicker of blue sky, and splashes of at least a dozen other colors.
"Voilà," he says, as he adds his final touches.
"Holy shit," says the man with the Jersey accent, sincerely impressed. "How fucking cool is this? We should frame that shit!" They'll tip him a few bucks.
One of the women looks at other drawings taped up on every wall. "Did you do all of these?"
"Yeah, I'm Mickey Clean," he says, slurring slightly through his smile. "You never heard of me? I'm famous."
There have been Mickey Clean sightings all along Fort Lauderdale beach, from as far north as Commercial Boulevard to as far south as the 17th Street Causeway, but he spends most of his time in the mile-long stretch between Las Olas and Sunrise Boulevards, in the old bars made famous in spring break movies like Where the Boys Are. Here, college kids drink in flip-flops alongside old souls trying to forget about life's troubles. Here, sand and grime, spilled beer and cocaine residue all collect around the bathroom sinks, the way people collect around the places they know.
Nowadays, these time-honored dive bars, populated predominantly by locals, brush up against shiny new ultraluxurious hotels and resorts that have been built over the past decade and attract wealthy, discriminating tourists. The result: a humid, neon-tinged socioeconomic melting pot at the edge of the ocean.
The setting is home to a kaleidoscope of colorful characters. There's the self-monikered "Coatman," who runs up and down the beach in a full-length coat, training for marathons and explaining to anyone who'll listen that he is, in fact, an extraterrestrial who doesn't age. There's the chubby, bearded man who wears a thong bikini and dances along the sidewalk in roller skates. There's a hairy guy who sleeps in a van and preaches that he is the "Living Martyr." There's the 400-pound black guy who passes his days sitting across the street from Beach Place, periodically stops traffic on A1A, and has been known to throw feces at police officers.