The Old Curiosity Shop

Arrested, by his own count, some fifteen times on open container charges, the part-time handyman brags that local judges have grown so sick of him they no longer want to see him in court. "Well, look who's gone Hollywood," he says as Streiff pulls up in the taxi that brings her to work from her home further up the beach. "Oh here, ma'am, let me take your bag. The photographers need a good angle."

Once inside, Bud fetches his latest court summons and, inevitably, hits up Streiff for money. "I don't have it," she shouts, turning away from his quivering paws. "I don't want to do this any more! No more! Who do you think I am, you and your friends?" Bud whispers another plea. Streiff continues ranting. And in the end, she reaches into her nylon pouch. "I should rip these bills up," she cries, as Bud flees.

"Give 'em to me before you do that!" he shoots back.
Watching the scene for perhaps the thousandth time, Rose Windlow silently scolds Bud for exploiting the misplaced maternalism of a childless widow. Windlow, Streiff's chief courtier, is a retired hotel clerk from Uruguay who buzzes around Modern Fruit tidying, fetching lunch, and regaling customers about the wisdom of their selections. A born salvager of lost hope, she wears the beatific mask of a woman forever cooing over a baby. Even a dirty doll - cast aside by Streiff after a quick spit-polish revealed it to be a worthless "made in China" model - elicits Rose's affections.

"Que liiiindo," she cries, swadling the toy in green fabric and topping it with a ribbon of black lace. "Look at my beautiful baby girl." She titters on in sing-song Spanish, speaking of her five children and her past, the endless moves from South America to Mexico to Europe. Saddled with the aristocratic nose, strong jaw, and fine white hair of the late Sir Laurence Olivier, Rose has done her best to jazz up the look, accenting her florid wardrobe with a pink, rhinestone-studded headband and eyeshadow the eerie hue of mother-of-pearl. As she prattles, tiny flakes of glitter wink from between her crow's-feet.

Rose, who settled in South Beach back in the Seventies, still heads down to the seaside in the morning for exercise classes. About noon she comes into Modern Fruit. While she frets over the parasites who leach off her employer, she is not long on grudges. By afternoon she and Bud are happily glued to a black-and-white TV set, having left Streiff to scream into her phone: "I'm not in any trouble, ma'am, I'm a bonded shipper! Yes, yes. The orders went out yesterday...."

Outside the palm trees are dancing the twist, the weather doing its best imitation of a lover's spat. "I read in the newspaper that she wants to have that operation to be a man," says Rose, nodding at Oprah's righteous flab.

"Yeah, Oprah was looking pretty fine there for a while," Bud observes. "Before she bloated up again."

A rare peace presides, interrupted by a crash from in back. "A goddamn toaster just fell on my hand!" Streiff wails, chasing two Latin women out of the closet used as an impromptu changing room. "That's it! That's it! Stacking! No more throwing in my store! From now on, we stack!"

Evelyn Streiff will buy anything, though never without a fight, a monumental railing against the incursions of her mutant vendors, whom she berates for cluttering her shop and her dignity and often ignores for minutes on end, hoping they will go away (which they never do) rather than stand before her desk like guilt-provoking statues. The Iranian woman who paints on velvet blouses. The screeching grandmother bound for Vegas in fat-hugging lame. The ex-matador with the rictus grin of a village idiot. The only rule that governs Streiff's purse strings is a widely known soft spot for "bric-a-brac," which, as far as anyone can tell, includes everything on earth with the exception of new or valuable items, shunned on the theory that they are probably stolen and she doesn't need the hassle, if you know what she means.

For regular suppliers, such as Thomas Brown, her abuse has become the expected toll en route to a sale. "Back here already?" Streiff raves as Brown scurries through her door. "What, I haven't seen you enough today? That's twice. C'mon now sir, I don't need anything more. Please get out." Like most suppliers, Brown, a wiry old black man with a yin-yang smile of perfectly opposed gum and teeth, scours Miami Beach's Dumpsters and abandoned buildings for his merchandise. Today's bounty includes a hair dryer, which he gleefully demonstrates has not one, but two speeds, a tube of aloe vera moisturizer, a Hustler magazine, and several of the world's ugliest earrings (none matching). "Three-fifty for everything," he says, waiting with Jobian patience as Streiff's protests dwindle and she digs into her money pouch.

A half-hour later, Charlie Srour comes scuttling in. "Something elegant for the lady," he says, drawing a macrame purse out of his cart. "Maybe a lovely doll." Perhaps because of persistence, or his smarmy pitches, or his startling homeliness, Srour never fails to incite Streiff. "Look, I don't want any of this. Get it out of here! No! I'm not buying today!" Srour pays her no mind, continuing to unload his pieces, as if the placement of goods on Streiff's property alone constitutes closure of a sale. Which, invariably, it does.

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