The Old Curiosity Shop

Evelyn Streiff is muttering something about her father, about the suicide he planned as a starving young lad on the Lower East Side and abandoned for a hitch with the cavalry in Kansas, back when Miami Beach was a soggy tongue of land full of critters and mangroves and, in other words, a whole lot of nothing. There is a punch line somewhere in her Niagara of Brooklynese, maybe even a moral, but that comforting tidbit, like almost everything that crosses the threshold of her storefront, is sucked into a maze for which there is no sure exit, only a dusty wait that ends, if at all, in the disappointed purchase of damaged goods.

"It's a funny thing about my dad," Streiff says, but a din intercedes before she can finish her thought. It's Bud, clowning in a beery haze, and the ugly Yugoslavian, too, both of them lurking behind a pack of tourists jabbering in some indeterminate tongue over decade-old Teen Beat magazines. Circling all of them, a toothless Haitian begs for someone to turn his $37 worth of sweaty food stamps into a dry twenty-dollar bill. "Rose!" Streiff bellows. "Rose! What's goin' on?" But Rose, unofficial floor manager and sloe-eyed dreamer of false harmony, is in no position to stem the squabbling, pinned as she is against a wall, beneath the murals of frolicking fruit, studiously measuring waistbands with a wooden ruler for a tiny gentleman who looks not unlike Ho Chi Minh, except for the sideburns.

All at once (and here it always seems to happen like this, all at once) the mob turns toward Streiff, as if catching the sudden whiff of a scapegoat, and advances, lodging simultaneous pleas to buy, sell, and haggle. Streiff glares back, her moist brown eyes tinged with angry blue, and for the umpteenth time this week launches into the speech. The one that begins: "Whatarya-people-blind-thatcha-can't-see-I'm-busy-here-talkin-to-a-man-...."

No matter. It's going on twenty years since Evelyn Streiff (pronounced, appropriately, strife) last finished a story straight through, start to finish, without the buzzing supplication of some customer or con man, which in her business might as well be the same thing. Streiff deals junk, or rather, what might to the untrained eye appear to be junk, huge, wall-eating, gravity-defying gobs of the stuff, all piled in the fluorescent-yellow cave that houses her shop at 1319 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach.

Don't let the name - Modern Fruit Shippers - fool you. Streiff did launch the biz as a registered sender of foodstuffs in what she daintily refers to as "the tradition of the Southern gift shops." But her establishment has since inherited a far grander fate: final resting place (whether in the sense of a museum or graveyard still isn't clear) of all South Beach once was. Which leaves Streiff to play both grumpy curator and queen of street-level commerce, one whose kingdom includes the castoffs, human and otherwise, of a barrio that has grown altogether too big for its britches. The money merchants can't gush enough about the Beach boom, the very mention of which sends a chill down their gentrified spines, straight to their mink-oiled wallets. But for those crippled by age, or booze, or both, for the dispossessed who wander the streets like amnesiacs, Modern Fruit is as close as they come to refuge. And somehow, Streiff bears with them. Growls. Sputters. Rants. Promises herself she'll write a book someday. But returns, always, to the old curiosity shop that is the heart of a strange and communal addiction.

"I got dolls. Meekey Mouse. You like, Missus Evelyn!" cries the Yugoslavian, pulling disfigured toys from his soiled pillowcase.

"What say, Ev, just a couple of bucks. I'll bring you back a soda," Bud whines.

"Ve haf much likink for zis!" shrieks the plumpest of the tourists, brandishing what appears to be a petrified rodent.

Streiff sighs deeply, putting aside, probably forever, any poetic closure her dad's life might have provoked. And one can't help but agree with the soft rock advice that oozes from the ancient radio wedged nearby: "Everybody needs a little time away..."

As if that were even a possibility in her line of work.
Items purchasable at Modern Fruit Shippers (List #1):
* Syphon chargers for soda water bottles
* A 3-D baseball card featuring Braves pitching legend Warren Spahn
* Guava jelly
* Robert E. Lee's letter of resignation from the United States Army
* A black lace bustier
* Jeep hubcaps (three)

It is wise here to recall that nuts lured white men to Miami Beach. The Tequesta Indians were the island's first settlers, of course, but by the time Henry B. Lum bought the beach in 1870, the hapless tribe was long gone, annihilated by bands of Creeks washed down from the north. For reasons still unclear to even the most tolerant horticulturists, Lum, a Pennsylvania farmboy turned fortune hunter, gazed at the mosquito-swamped sandbar and thought: "Coconuts." His plantation took three years to fail and was snapped up by land speculators posthaste.

While Carl Fisher and John Collins spent the Roaring Twenties transforming Miami Beach into an enclave of WASP exclusivity, the brothers Lummus, who purchased its southern fringe from Collins, adopted a more laissez-faire policy. The result was a prole's paradise free of hoity-toity pretense and eventually rife with Jews from the mainland. By 1970 the area was a veritable retirement shtetl, ruled by hoary Semites who packed meetings at the old city hall on Washington Avenue, held Yiddish amateur hours, and, according to press accounts of the era, diddled one another with alarming vigor.

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