By Jasmine Kripalani
As a young journalist working at the Miami Herald during the 2000 presidential election, I was tasked with this bizarre assignment: call voters and inform them that they were dead.
Yes, as in, “Hello, Mr. Smith. I’m Jasmine Kripalani with the Miami Herald. We’re investigating voter fraud and public records show that you’re dead.”
Mr. Smith who was in his late 80s offered the strangest and funniest reply by far: “I’m not deeeaaaad,” he said. “But I feeeeeel dead.”
Well, it turns out Social Security doesn’t keep perfect records about us, contrary to what most conspiracy theorists might have you believe.
In fact, they kill people off by mistake. Many then have to prove they’re alive, a process that one woman told me, took her more than a year.
Since then, South Florida hasn’t disappointed me. The bizarre stories have continued to wash ashore — from the numerous Cuban and Haitian migrants who make sporadic beachside landings to the dumb criminal who gets trapped in the grates of a Hialeah cafeteria’s vent while attempting to break in. What happens next is poetic justice – the grease coats him and his legs dangle above an industrial oven. The half-baked plan causes him to spend the next seven hours screaming for help. An early morning jogger finally hears his cries and calls police. Lucky for him, the oven wasn’t on. Needless to say, he surrendered — trading the greasy vent shaft for a jail cell. Well, at least the jail cell is roomier.
Journalists often say South Florida is fertile ground for news – the stories so bizarre that, indeed, even a fiction writer would have a hard time concocting the real-life, twisted plots the Sunshine State has to offer.
Often heard in South Florida newsrooms, nearly everyday: “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Consider this recent one: A shipwrecked baby grand piano appears in the middle of a sandbar along Biscayne Bay causing a media frenzy and massive speculation. How did it get there? Who put it there? Theories ranged from a production company that abandoned it after shooting a music video to the possibility that it was thrown overboard from a cruise ship.
Aspiring fiction writers take notes. The culprit, it turns out, was a teenage boy who wanted to impress college recruiters. In hopes of standing out from the crowd, he planned to photograph himself playing the piano as it burned by the bay. What he got instead was a stern warning from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission who threatened to fine him and charge felony charges against him if he didn’t remove the piano within 24 hours.
I now work for a local television station where part of my duties is to cover the events at the Miami-Dade criminal courthouse. Notice, I say events, not trials. Nearly every case has its cast of colorful characters. There’s the unforgettable trial of a Cuban drifter who stabbed another man with a spear on South Beach. The charge: First-degree murder. His attorney: Himself. Yes, the drifter thought no one else could best represent him. He had fired his previously two-court appointed attorneys. He didn’t let the fact that he couldn’t speak English stop him. He used an interpreter to cross-examine witnesses. The state brought in a black dummy to illustrate how the spear had penetrated the victim’s body. Throughout the trial, ahem, I mean event, the drifter referred to that dummy as Chucky.
Well, he didn’t learn English during his decades in South Florida, but at least he knew enough cultural references to keep the court clerks snickering. It took a jury less than an hour to return with a verdict – guilty.
In this town, there’s never a shortage of pornography. Sure, South Beach, strip clubs might be obvious locations for viewing X-rated material. But down here, it’s also not uncommon for pornography to be aired during the opening statements of trial. Yes, this one is also true. A former police officer was recently on trial for forcing his ex-wife to perform oral sex on him. The defense attorneys argued that the couple, despite being separated, continued to send graphic videos to each other. As soon as the jurors took their seats, they were subjected to two porn clips, each five, uncomfortable, excruciatingly long minutes featuring the full-blown sex act with the two actors moaning and groaning in delight. The judge kept the palms of her hands to her face.
Well, the porno playback tactic worked for the defense. Their client was acquitted.
At a time when our news industry is suffering, our stories are only getting richer: death by social security, half-baked, dangling and dumb criminals, baby grand pianos surfacing on the bay and pornography in court.
So next time you get a call from a reporter informing you that you’re dead, remember this is South Florida where the impossible is possible.