|Douglas Miller is the kind of guy who orders dessert first. During a recent lunch at Pepe’s Café, he dove into an order of butterscotch-chip cookie pie, with ice cream, while waiting for his fish sandwich.
“Oh, wow!” Miller exclaimed with childlike glee, spooning a big bite. Most everything he says begs for an exclamation point.
If you’ve ever seen Miller running along Roosevelt Boulevard and Truman Avenue at dawn or at dusk, shirtless in red shorts, adorned with several flashing reflectors and with his long hair tucked into a big, red, wide-brimmed hat, then you’re no doubt prepared to think of him doing the extravagant, and the unexpected.
“Top of the morning to you!” he will call. “Top of the evening!”
But Miller is even less what you’d expect than you might expect.
On the way to lunch, the owner of AmeriMortgage and AmeriRealty – “Making the American dream a reality!” the latter’s slogan goes – lit onto the subject of personal freedom. In particular, property rights. The subject, Miller said hotly, is not that important to most people, but it should be.
“If people’s civil rights were trampled over like [their] property rights, you’d have anarchy,” he said.
Miller is prone to speechifying on such topics. “I have this little box I drag around with me,” he joked.
He has “no use” for unions. They’re “awfully close to communism,” he said.
He doesn’t think there’s an affordable-housing shortage. “What we have is an income shortage,” he contended.
He thinks the homeless have one of the toughest jobs going. “God bless ’em,” he said. “But don’t ask me to feel sorry for ’em.”
At one point, he stopped the conversation to praise the voice on his minivan radio: Rush Limbaugh.
“He gets it,” Miller said of the right-wing gadfly.
“I am not a moderate,” he added. “Some of the hottest places in hell are for moderates – those who can’t make a decision. I’m a passionate person.”
But his anger, when it flares, is fleeting; his passion generally runs in the opposite direction. “I’m pretty much a touchy-feely type of person,” he said.
Miller is openly tenderhearted. Talk veers frequently to hugs, and to being nice to others. To civility – which he calls “the lubricant of society.” And to kindness.
Miller loves people, and loves telling them so. And more than anything, he admitted, he would love to be loved in return.
“If there’s a special woman that’s honest and single, I’d certainly be delighted to have dinner with her,” he said. “This is a very hard place to meet a special person.”
He mentions this several times before the Pepe’s lunch plates are cleared,
before it’s back to the office and a waiting client.
The main room of Miller’s office is decorated in soft, eclectic splendor, and includes an old claw-foot bathtub converted into a couch. Miller requests that you wipe your feet on a waiting mat before stepping on the plush rug in front of the sofa.
There is also a giant fiberglass rooster, which Miller has had for years.
As his business partner, Regina Corcoran – “the nuts and bolts of this place,” he said – talked with potential clients,
Miller gave an impromptu tour of the property, pointing out the palm trees he planted as nuts. There are giant pink flamingos painted in the parking lot, marking spaces. To one side of the building, a metal sculpture, his own, is a commentary, he said, on China and technology.
He stopped at a bike with bells on it, making it jingle. “I used to run on Christmas with bells [on me],” he said. But he had to quit: Large, angry dogs were incited by the noise.
Miller lives in a cozy apartment to the back of his office. In his laundry room, you’ll find his running gear: the notorious hat, the shorts, the blinkers and three pairs of shoes, their soles fitted with small, weathered strips of metal.
The metal keeps the sidewalks Miller runs on from wearing down his shoes as quickly, he said. Plus, he likes the sound – “like an old horse.”
Miller has a paradigm he follows in everything he does. He calls it “reward to risk.” You weigh the risk versus the reward it will bring. And everything carries a risk.
For instance, dressing like he does when he runs.
The hat draws “all kinds of different laughs,” Miller said. Some people take real joy in it. Others dismiss it sarcastically.
“I know the hat solicits that,” he said. “If I put it on, that’s what I get.”
There have even been times that he’s been threatened. “I’m an easy target,” he admitted.
So why does he do it?
“I really like the attention of people,” he said.
He likes saying “Top of the morning/top of the evening!” to people because people say it back – calling to him from across the street, or down from balconies, or out of car windows. They honk. They cheer. Sometimes, even the cops say hi over their PA systems.
“When somebody [says hi] back to me, it’s kind of like a cross between a daydream and a hug,” he enthused. “It’s exhilarating!”
He loves the feeling of being known, he said, like when your name’s called out in a restaurant.
Not long ago, a woman came up to him at the grocery store and said, “You’re Zorro.”
Miller was confused at first.
“You’re Zorro,” the woman said again. “The runner, Zorro.”
A brief history
“I don’t have much to say,” Miller joked. He treats his life, in fact, like an open book.
He is Douglas, not Doug, named after his father, Morris Douglas Miller, a hard-working mechanical engineer who placed award-winning photos in National Geographic and Life, and who worked on inventions until the day he died.
“He was an honest, decent, clean man,” Miller said.
Miller, who has lived in Key West for 16 years, hails from Kansas City, Kan. He used to visit the Southernmost City as a kid, to see his grandmother, who lived at 3711 Eagle Ave.
At 16, he drove from his hometown to Key West in a Karman Ghia. “I got to drive over the old bridges,” he said. “They were treacherously narrow.”
Not long after high school, he went into the Army National Guard. In basic training, he was graded an expert shot with a rifle, he said.
Miller got his real-estate license in 1963. He made $750 on his first sale – “a little, old, frumpy house” – enough
|money, he said, to hit the road for four-and-a-half months, with the National Guard’s blessing.
He hitchhiked from Kansas City to Norfolk, Va., heading to Europe by way of a German coal freighter, whose deck he would sit on at 3 a.m. to watch the stars and the ocean swells.
His travels ended in North Africa, where, he said, he lived in the streets.
“This was right after the French-Algerian war. The last bullet was just fired about the day I got there.”
It was really something for a kid from Kansas.
“I drank water out of old Mobile Oil cans and ate couscous cooked in the street,” he said.
“People don’t understand or appreciate the freedom of our country,” he added.
Upon returning stateside, he worked as a dental technician. He used to carve his initials inside the crowns he’d make.
When the Vietnam War hit, Miller was still in the service, but his unit was never called to active duty.
“I don’t regret not going to Vietnam,” he admitted. “I’m grateful to the people who served.”
He refers to combat service as “bellying up to the bar.”
“You know what’s tough?” he asked, answering himself. “Living with not bellying up to the bar.”
He has an athlete’s pulse, and enviable blood pressure.
“I’m 56,” he said, “but I’m very immature for my age.
“If any girl dates me,” he added, “at least she’ll be getting someone healthy. And that’s hard to find.”
Miller doesn’t drink – he is quite staunchly anti-alcohol. “It’s an insidious product,” he said.
He does no drugs. Smoking is out. His diet, he said, usually leans more toward nutritious than delicious. The Pepe’s lunch was a splurge – thus, the early dessert!
“Gandhi had a wilder life than I do,” he said.
Miller lost his brother, Jack, to diabetes not long ago. It made him think about his own health even more.
“You say, ‘God gave me this body, this pitiful little bag of flesh and blood and bones, and I’m going to do the best with it I can,’” he said. “In a five-day period, I run more hours than I sleep.”
When he’s running, he’s smiling – even his stride looks happy, as if Miller is bouncing on springs.
He starts off at his office, at Roosevelt Boulevard and Duck Avenue, and turns around at Denny’s on Duval Street. And when he makes his turn, he lets out a cry like a rooster. Really.
He began doing it because of all the chickens he’d see in the morning, he said. “I’d crow back to them. And now when I do it, people from all over go, ‘Er-er-er-er-er!’”
But it’s not all silliness and fun. The exercise also has a spiritual component for him.
After Miller has turned to head back home, he settles into himself, he said. “It’s a great time to pray. I say the Lord’s Prayer, and another prayer I’ve been saying since I was a little kid.
“The birds are out there, the sunrise [or sunset] is out there. I mean, how much more majestic do you have to get?”
Miller is a paradox, a bright blaze of seeming contradictions not unlike Key West itself. And like the town, just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, things change.
“I’m a work in progress,” Miller said. “Every morning I wake up, I reinvent myself.
“I know I’m weird,” he added, “and that puts me a step ahead. It’s the people who don’t know they’re weird that maybe have a problem.”
By FRANK RABEY
Citizen Features Editor