The Old Curiosity Shop

A Yugoslavian immigrant endowed with a huge, mottled schnoz and thick lips the color of raw liver, Srour came to the United States with high hopes five years ago. He's seen most of the country since then, working odd jobs from Alaska to New York and accumulating a profound disgust for Reagan's legacy. "I don't care if there's civil war in my country. Even civil war's better than here. In America you just waste your time following the garbage can," he grouses. "I just wait five more years, until I get Social Security, then I go back to my country."

None of this, of course, is of the least interest to Streiff, who rarely knows the names of her suppliers, let alone their maudlin biographies, only that they all share a confounding ability to reel her in, until she is left peering over their goods, her lips moving silently, adding up profits foretold. Who can say why she keeps buying? The quixotic hope that somehow, if you just wait long enough, everything will sell? Some hidden node of charity? Or maybe that she finds it easier to give the benefit of the doubt to a pair of boxer shorts than to the hangers-on who clog her world?

Whatever the case, and despite regular contributions to needy causes and a steady supply of shoplifters, her surplus mounts. Streiff, in other words, should be desperate for shoppers. And yet she tends to view them as somewhat annoying interruptions, not worthy of the ass-kissing favored in today's mall culture. Instead they are made to wait for service, their questions answered grudgingly, if at all. The idea is: You're the shopper. Go shop. If you want to make it more complicated, take it somewhere else.

Piquing this naturally bilious demeanor is the conduct of Streiff's poorest clients, who seem intent upon choking the last bits of consumerist pride out of every 50-cent acquisition, rascals who spend ten minutes choosing a Christmas card, or a half-hour torturing Streiff over a hat they have no intention of buying. There are the exceptions, of course, the occasional wealthy doctor's wife left to nervously order holiday pecan rolls amid urchins, or natty foreigners who mistake Modern Fruit's entropic jungle for quaint antiquity.

Most paying customers, however, are Social Security survivors whose scant luxury budgets leave them plucking through Streiff's ruins, folks like the elfin man in the straw fedora who wanders in looking for a coffee grinder and is handed instead a small white machine affixed with the name, "The Chopper." Ordered to plug the machine into an octopus outlet, he gazes blankly as it whirs to life. "What does it do?" he asks.

"I don't know. Why don't you stick your finger in and find out? Hey Ev, he wants to know what it does," Bud hoots. "Hey, why don't you bring it home to the missus. `Uh, here, honey. I got you a gift. I'm not sure what it does, exactly. But it makes a real pretty sound.'"

Slightly disoriented, the man hands over three dollars and waddles off with the Chopper.

Part Three
Patrons can even goad a tongue-lashing by latching onto the wrong items, something the old biddy asking after coat hangers finds out the hard way. Rather than heeding Streiff's warning that no hangers remain in stock - a warning issued not once, but three times - she decides to wrestle a few out of the sport coats hanging along the fashion equivalent of murderers' row. "Ma'am, what're you doing over there? Don't take the hangers out of my clothing," Streiff thunders, catching her in midyank.

The woman looks up sheepishly and cautiously picks up a plastic fern from Streiff's desk. "Oh, isn't this lovely. How much for this?" she asks, hoping to mend ways.

"That's not for sale," Streiff snaps. "That was a gift."
The woman looks confused. "But ma'am," she says, in a moment of piercing naivete, "isn't everything in this

shop a gift?"

List #3
* Buckskin chair
* Colombian-made sitar (one string remaining)
* Plastic, sequined conquistador hat
"Hennalucent" henna conditioner (tawny blond)
* "It's not PMS...I'm always a bitch" pin. Six inches in diameter
* Coconut patties
* Hairy ape sculpture, carved from coconut

One of the few rules that holds steady within the loony confines of Modern Fruit Shippers: You don't mess with Susie. Four-feet-seven-inches of Bronx-bred fury, Susie is Streiff's Saturday helper, a hair-netted octogenarian prone to tailing costumers - all of whom she assumes to be shoplifters until proven otherwise - onto the sidewalk, if necessary. Oddly pugilistic, she derides the neighborhood's upscale devolution in blustery, finger-jabbing soliloquies. "Aw, forget it. The beach ain't for us any more. The people who come down, they don't care about the place. They want a nice day in the sun. They're throwing us out of our apartments. They widened the damn beach. They've sperled it. I'd go someplace else if I had any kids. We all would. I'd go back to how it used to be years ago. It was beautiful. Just bee-yoo-tee-full."

For Susie, the Saturday shift at Modern Fruit, for which she is compensated with lunch, serves as an ego-pumping respite from hours spent reading, cleaning, and, presumably, kvetching. Her style with customers? The phrase sales terrorism leaps to mind.

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