Soto’s Beach Towel and the Stuff of Miami Mythos
Image courtesy the author.
The sun was resplendent on Miami Beach this past Memorial Day as Domingo Castillo and Patricia Hernandez – of the nomadic gallery project the end/SPRING BREAK – descended from the boardwalk with a generator. They proceeded across the sand toward a baby blue and very soft 56 x 29 ft. terry cloth towel, upon which groups of beach goers had bloomed and shrank throughout the day in anticipation of live music. The gargantuan towel had a potent surrealism which, amplified by a diverse sea-side micro-nation of revelers, families, and passers-through, fueled a party vibe of tee-heeing and rum-drink-spilling.
Misael Soto, a Miami-based artist currently raising funds for an East Coast tour with the towel, stitched it together in just over thirty hours last November. It was his first time lending his hand to such a craft and, learning on the job with a sewing machine in his kitchen, he promptly filled his home with blue and white dust, fabric, and ultimately the gigantic towel itself.
Image courtesy the author.
Raised in South Florida, Soto uses his public performances to turn isolated activities into socially oriented events. In the past, he’s set up a television and watched movies on busy Wynwood sidewalks, offering a chair to anyone wanting to watch. Another piece, titled I can’t see you, but I can feel you, involved him and other performers turning their backs to crowds in different places, often facing light posts or the walls inside art galleries. Some of those in the crowd ended up standing next to him, or back-to-back, and would remain silent with Soto or another performer for minutes at a time. Others in the crowd were less positive, and decided instead to make fun of or angrily threaten them.
The Beach Towel is arguably Soto’s most harmlessly democratic piece to date, with its audience enjoying a carefree and sunny holiday. There was a disarming novelty, much like sitting in a comically oversized chair. Though diverse certain homogeneities made the crowd in many ways not so different. Many, for example were young and/or had some loose connection to the organizers. Then again, democracy is easy amongst those alike, especially when there’s a celebration (and a leviathanic towel) on Miami Beach.
South of the towel, another party was just coming to a close. For over a decade, Urban Beach Weekend has been a collection of parties and concerts geared towards a younger black crowd, many of whom travel from different parts of the country. Last year, and in previous years, there were instances of violence that brought stewing racial tensions to a rolling boil – often you’d hear references to the weekend as an invasion, tacked with dubious references to race as opposed to the individual acts of violence (which were perpetrated both by visitors and Miami Beach Police alike) – but this year there were smaller crowds and no high-profile incidents on South Beach itself.
Back on the towel, after the guitars, drums and associated gear had been lugged across the sand, This Heart Electric played a set reminiscent of 1960s-era beach bands, with a just-wholesome-enough groove that caused an outbreak of shimmying amongst the crowd. Maracas and tambourines fluttered in the air as a group of nearly fifteen percussionists played alongside them, all against a backdrop of an increasingly pink ocean firmament. After This Heart Electric, 90’s Teen played a hellacious set of distorted, off-kilter punk, in their typical shit-hits-the-fan fashion. Where This Heart Electric fit squarely against the streaks of hopeful, bright colors and fun-in-the-sun sentiment, 90’s Teen contrasted. They ripped between barking vocals, screeching feedback, and bad-acid surf-rock melodies.
I stood on the broad North side of the towel, watching their belligerent cover of Wipeout, when someone ran up to me and pushed a phone into my face, yelling “there’s pictures, there’s pictures!” Jarred, I struggled to focus in on the image, which looked like an exploded tomato, or ice cream drenched with strawberry syrup and cherries. Before I could say anything, they were off showing someone else. Then I realized I had just seen the horrifically mauled face of Ronald Poppo, the 65-year-old homeless man who was (as you probably know) attacked two days before by Rudy Eugene, aka the “Miami Zombie”.
It was a glaring summer morning that Saturday when police responded to a call about a fight on the ramp leading to the MacArthur Causeway. Witnesses reported that Eugene was attacking Poppo, with one 911 caller saying “He’s going to kill that man, I promise you.”[i] Eugene, a black man with a criminal history who had been living on the roof of the nearby Jungle Island parking garage, stripped off his clothes and started beating the gray-haired Poppo. After Poppo was on the ground, Eugene loomed over him and chewed off his face, the two men covered in blood. When a police officer arrived and ordered Eugene away, he reportedly stood up with pieces of flesh in his mouth and growled.[ii] It took four shots to kill Eugene, with the incident reportedly lasting 18 minutes.[iii] Surveillance cameras from the Miami Herald building partially captured the incident and their footage has been making its rounds on every imaginable media circuit. Poppo lost 75% of his face, including his forehead, nose, mouth, and an eye.[iv]
In the weeks since, the bevy of local and national reactions to the attack have ranged in tone from shock and outrage, to something resembling empathy; many have cracked a joke. Some of the coverage spoke to the concerns of a state that severely under-funds its mental health services, and the Florida legislature that continues to cut programs and budgets dedicated to such services.[v] As the narrative unfurls, it tells us a story about the tragedies of neglect and exclusion and paints an indelible picture of those chasms within people that can erupt into real-life nightmares in defiance of the efforts of Soto and his towel, yet evoking the same threads that hold individuals together (or not).
Eugene’s attack on Poppo is not any one thing on its own – it is at once hair-raising, revolting, fascinating, and yes, funny. But, do jokes about bath salts, “only-in-Florida” and zombie apocalypses bring us closer to Ronald Poppo, who was out on the street for forty years and stacking up hardships (the Ronald Poppo who is now facing permanent disfigurement and emotional trauma of the highest magnitude[vi])? Or whether Rudy Eugene during his uncontrollable actions had any moments of clarity in which to recognize the taste of his victim’s blood and flesh on the side of a sun bleached highway. We cannot know, but must ask. And if we do want to be funny, we should at least make a respectable effort.
Images courtesy the author.
But maybe we should consider the zombie metaphor a bit differently. As the Internet encourages our remote transmissions, we often do so alone, tending to what we’ve consciously decided to feast upon and catering to our indulgences, whatever they may be. These tendencies are reinforcing a desire for short-form responses and can make it easier for people to go unchallenged in their thinly veiled prejudices. Instead, perhaps, we can use the tools at our disposal to recognize Eugene and Poppo as very real people, entangled in a fiercely public and gruesomely intimate story usually reserved for the darker corners of the imagination, where humor, in fact, needs to reside if we are to remain mostly sane.
When I asked Misael why he was interested in activities that can be isolated and isolating, he said it related to his strict, Christian upbringing where he “couldn’t socialize with very many outside the church”. Also, that he “find[s] we are most truly present while in the company of others and immersed in what is new: new people, experiences, and ideas.” Rather than rehashing memes and catering to the obvious, Soto is creating things that get his audience out of their typical realms and involved with one another. He’s using his pieces to facilitate interaction rather than using them to command attention or worship. In a city whose art scene is criticized for focusing too much on the party it helps to remember the redeeming qualities of gathering. Coming together physically we are taken away from ourselves, even if temporarily, by those we either know or kind of know. At the very least, an opportunity to flesh out our fears – and perhaps even jokes about the undead to those more obviously living.
When 90’s Teen finished playing rain was clearly about to start in from the West. Some people rushed to help grab the equipment; others jumped in the water for one last dip or stumbled off with their bags and drinks. A group then surrounded the towel, five on one long side, five on the other, and picked it up to shake off the sand that had accumulated. It billowed slowly, undulating, it’s true size revealed, and people rushed under it like children, stoked to have a chance to pass through another temporary netherworld[.]
[i] Huffpost Miami, “Miami Face-Chewing: 911 Callers Report Fight Between Rudy Eugene and Ronald Poppo, (VIDEO, PHOTOS)”, June 2nd, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/miami-face-chewing-911-ca_n_1564322.html
[ii] Perez Hilton, “A Real Life Zombie Attack? Naked Miami Man Shot Dead By Police While Chewing THE FACE Off of Victim!” May 30th, 2012. This post was filed under the tags “Icky Icky Poo”, “Wacky, Tacky, and True”, and “Legal Matters”. http://perezhilton.com/2012-05-30-miami-zombie-attack
[iii] ABC News, “Miami Face-Eating Attack Lasted 18 Agonizing Minutes”, May 30th, 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/US/miami-face-eating-attack-lasted-18-agonizing-minutes/story?id=16458696#.T80RRxwaBwc
[iv] Huffington Post, “Ronald Poppo, Naked Cannibal Attack Victim, Faces Surgery and Long Recovery (VIDEO, PHOTOS)”. May 30th, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/30/ronald-poppo-facial-reconstruction-miami-attack-victim_n_1556843.html
[vi] CBS News. “Ronald Poppo, face-chewing victim, to have a long recovery”, May 31st, 2012. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57444202/ronald-poppo-face-chewing-victim-to-have-a-long-recovery/