The Old Curiosity Shop

It was in this setting, before the onslaught of the neon redevelopers, that Modern Fruit Shippers thrived. "The Fitzgeralds owned this place," Streiff recalls, "and before them, I think, the Kaplans. Fruit shippers was a big thing then. Everybody wanted a little Florida fruit. There was a few down south and two more up by 14th Street."

Seventy-six years old with no vainglorious gestures to the contrary, Streiff has a face creased like crumpled paper and a dumpy frame on which hangs, today, a velour pantsuit of faded aqua.

She navigates her shop's barely perceptible aisles half hobbling, a fanny pack stuffed with one-dollar bills looped around her belly, a few larger bills

stuffed conspicuously in her bosom. Her recollections are punctuated by clacking assaults on the onyx keys of a Royal De Luxe typewriter, employed to bang out her holiday fruit orders.

"My in-laws were practically like pioneers in Fort Lauderdale. They were one of the first families in Palm Beach. Very anti-Semitic back then. They called my father-in-law a kike. When he first arrived they tried to tell him he couldn't stay in a hotel 'cause it was, you know, restricted. So he bought the hotel. I moved down here with my husband during the Fifties. Boy did he love Miami Beach. No matter where we went, he was always raving about Miami Beach. He wouldn't even move to Miami, where his jewelry business was. Even when apartments got scarce here. `Look honey,' I said, `it's closer to your work.' He wouldn't hear any of it. I went into business close to twenty years ago, after he died. My father had a friend who was big into jellies, Lester White. He and his friends used to make up food baskets. We sold cards and souvenirs. You know, like a gift shop. This other stuff" - by which Streiff means the junk - "only started a couple of years ago."

Maybe so, but already her store serves as a working model of Jack Benny's famous closet, set to implode any second, with escape routes constricted by bogs of debris. To project order onto this muddle would be foolhardy, like trying to stitch together a coherent childhood memory from the random snatches that affix themselves to consciousness. A herd of vintage valises. Kitchenware strewn beneath a dais of dingy vases. Vast banks of highly inflammable clothing. Sharp mountains of furniture teetering overhead, receding into a dim back room. Bulbless lamps. Electronic dinosaurs. Shelves crowded with every imaginable relic of the past two decades - as if all the poor schleps displaced from Old Ageville had dumped the contents of their living quarters on Streiff. Which might not be far from what happened.

Still, obscured sediments of the shop's gift era persist. The bulky rack of greeting cards, for instance, laced with cobwebs but still full of aging salutations. Decorative boxes of plastic fruit, habitually stolen, Streiff notes, by hungry and careless thieves. The walls themselves are blanketed with scenes of citrus bacchanalia. Succulent oranges lay down bets at the race track. Lemons twirl suggestively on a bandstand. Scantily clad grapefruit ride a choo-choo train.

"I guess you heard how the Beach was back then, huh," Streiff remarks. "The streets were safe and all that. I used to leave a key to my house outside the door, so people could come and go. The people around here, they know me. So they protect me when I go out. But the older folks, they're scared. I mean, what's the use of making some place glamorous if the people are afraid to be on the streets? Last year the police called me at 2:00 a.m. to tell me my store had been robbed. I came down and the place was in a shambles," she adds, apparently unaware of her redundance. "So this guy comes up and offers to help me clean up the glass from the broken windows. Fine, I figure. So when I turn back, he's gone. Out the back of the store with my purse."

Muffled laughter filters from the sidewalk out front. "Hey Mom! Mom! What the hell's going on out front? They've taken your signs down," says a ragged-looking specimen, bounding into view.

Part Two
"What're ya talking about? Get the hell outta here. Can't you see we're closed, you kibbitzer," Streiff shouts.

"Okay Evelyn, well listen," the man answers, shifting suddenly into a Liberace lisp. "The boys will be in on Monday to take care of the new curtains and the interior work, 'kay dear?" He swishes out.

"It's part of the new Art Deco thing," she murmurs, referring to the stripping of her ancient signage. "They'll probably charge us a tax for it."

List #2
* Engelbert Humperdinck's Golden Hits (eight-track tape)
* Box of Hoya de Oro Cuban cigars (seven left)
* Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn
* White Ninja, the novel
* Slime (green, oozing toy product)
* Pink, feathered Mardi gras mask

Bud is out front of Modern Fruit on a stormy Monday, sucking on a bagged can of his namesake beer and waiting for Streiff to arrive. A charming boozer with hooded blue eyes and leathery skin, he acts as Streiff's liaison to the street, and faithless court jester. "Ev's like one of my best friends on the beach," he explains. "I take care of her, but we fight like mother and son. I'll tell you, the rest of these people use the shit out of her." Bud burps thoughtfully, cigarette smoke ribboning through the gaps in his jagged teeth.

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