By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
In these last weeks, they all come to pay their respects to Mom: J.J. the Boxer, Tomato Man, Sapphire.
If Alan the Crazy Towel Vendor hasn't been by yet, it's only because he's still explaining to the authorities why he tried to visit the President of the United States with a rifle in tow.
"Didja hear about that, Ma?" asks Dennis the Celibate. "They caught him trying to walk into the Fontainebleau, where Clinton was. The cops told him to drop the gun, but he wouldn't. They shot at him. Almost hit the poor guy. It was on the news, twice."
Marion Peterson -- Mom -- nods. "He was a mental person. You can't blame him, he didn't know what he was doing," she says. "He used to sell us the nicest towels. So clean. They were still warm from the dryer."
Come October there will be no more towels, warm or otherwise, for Mom. After fifteen years as proprietor of Marion's Gift and Thrift, at 542 Washington Avenue on South Beach, she is being given the heave-ho September 30 to make room for a shop more in keeping with the block's gentrified aura.
"Going out sale," the sign in front reads. "Everything must go." The blue feather headband, the fur stoles that drip down one wall, the scratched 78 rpm records stacked in back, the musty volumes of Chaucer, the canoe paddle that juts from a hole in the wall, the bins of rusty silverware, the banks of soiled clothing and luggage and toaster ovens that hide Mom's ripped-plank floor. Everything.
With the closure last year of the Modern Fruit Shippers junk shop at 1319 Washington -- the subject of a January 1992 New Times cover story -- Marion's is the last of its species: an embassy for the homeless and luckless of Miami Beach, the ragged left-behinds set adrift amid the new SoBe chic. A place of empty sockets and cobwebbed lives, of unquestioned non sequiturs.
Marion, widowed, wheelchair-bound, and 82 as of this week, attends her wobbly clientele from the depths of a yellow vinyl throne while sipping daintily at a glass of beer, knee-high in lonely purchases.
"Mother, I need some aspirin," cries a drunk in greasy cutoffs, the victim of some bleary abduction, his eyebrows a ridge of swollen purple. "Look what I brought you, Mother. Easy to sell." He throws forward a pair of children's overalls.
"They're beautiful, darling, but I can't afford to buy nothing else," Marion apologizes. "As it is, I'm supporting almost the whole Beach. I gotta sell all this. You know that."
The drunk stands his ground. "Fifty cents, that's all."
Unable to shake her status as community chest of the disenfranchised, Marion digs out her change dish -- the one with the genuine pearls she'll sell you for a quarter -- and hands over the coins.
"Never seen her turn away a single soul," mutters Cecile Hasbruck, a former neighbor of the very famous Sophie Tucker, who's been helping Marion since she opened a church thrift store on Lenox Avenue 30 years ago.
"I tellya what we gotta do," says "Sapphire" Lynn Andrews. "We gotta find us a storefront church and open up a boutique for all this beautiful stuff." A once-voluptuous World War II pinup girl, Andrews is Marion's chief courtier these days, an unrepentant nudnik wearing wrinkles in her dollar-bill dreams.
"I called a shop at 16th and Collins and they wanted $6000 a month rent. Who's supposed to pay that?" sighs Marion, who can barely pay $500 for her hovel. "I've gotta call about getting an extension on moving out." Marion scans the sagging bookshelves and overrun counters with eyes the color of old nickels.
"I ain't gonna pack up all these boxes for Salvation Army, that's for sure," says Luigi LoCicero, unofficial store manager. "Who's got time?" A native of Italy, Luigi met Marion two years ago over a 60-cent stew pot. That was when he lived at the Henry Hotel, the flophouse next door. Nowadays he boards at Mom's West Avenue apartment, running errands and helping her get around. Were it not for an untreated hernia, Luigi swears, he'd be working. "No, when this place closes, Mom's going to leave all this for the homeless to take what they need. A humanitarian thing," he announces, before wandering off to do battle with the Social Security office.
"I've got a great idea," Sapphire chips in. "Maybe I'm nuts, but we could give all this stuff to South Dade. I'm sure one of those TV channels would take it down."
J.J. the Boxer enters, juking. A hulking man with muscles on his muscles, he munches on a cherry Danish. "They tell me you closin' down," he drawls. "Mom, tell me that ain't the truth." J.J., who sparred with champions across the street at the recently razed 5th Street Gym, shuffles in front of Marion, dodging imaginary blows, bits of glazed sugar falling from his cheeks.
"Hey Mom, you know I truly hate to ask you this," he says, his voice plunging to a whisper. "But I'm a little short these days. Could you loan J.J. a quick five?" Before Marion can answer, he throws a grin and laughs, the entreaty reduced to an inside joke. "Damn if you don't look like Marilyn Monroe today," he says to Sapphire, before lunging out the narrow doorway into the noonlight. Sapphire titters like a girl, touches her crown of matted white hair.