Everything Must Go

Marion's Gift and Thrift gets the heave-ho, and the gentrification of South Beach steamrolls on

The Tomato Man, a Coconut Grove fixture, stops in a few minutes later, dropping off a bag of Tennessee's finest vine-ripened for Marion. "It's almost like a Damon Runyon story in here, huh? With all these characters," offers Cecile. The characters roll in all afternoon, a few buying, most commiserating with Mom. Sapphire, Dennis the Celibate, and Cecile nibble sandwiches from a cooler and swap prescriptions for the world.

The problem, they seem to feel, derives from several sources: ungrateful immigrants who don't bother to count their blessings, greedheads bent on expelling the area's senior citizens, and carefree youths whose Rollerblades should be registered as deadly weapons. Marion listens, mostly. Sips at her brew. Releases a muffled chuckle when called for, as the trio recite Mishnah on their decay. Occasionally, they'll ask Mom to tell a favorite story.

"When I first opened up, I used to get robbed about every month," Marion says finally, without a trace of anger. "They'd cart off all the valuables and the police would call me in the middle of the night. They busted the windows enough that I stopped fixing them. Just boarded over. I used to know all the guys in jail. They'd hear about me from friends and come buy an outfit when they got out. A nice bargain. One time this black man, must have been seven feet tall, came in here and laid down a hundred-dollar bill. Didn't take a thing. Guess he heard about me in there. My son, he's a policeman, took it to the bank. He was sure it was counterfeit. I get lots of counterfeit. But he called me back an hour later. 'That's real money,' he says."

Marion hands a bag of crayons and a framed painting to a tourist in a ponytail. "That'll be a quarter, plus 75 cents," she says.

"Well Mom, in these next few weeks you're going to find out who your real friends are," concludes Dennis, a chubby man pinched into spandex bicycle shorts. "I've sat in my room half-drunk and asked myself over and over what you're going to do. It's driving me crazy, Mom. Where are we going to go?" His drunk curdling, he looks up. "Mom, call me a taxi," he pleads.

Toward the end of the day Ted Moscovitz, a retired real estate man from New Jersey, stops in to say hello. "This lady saved a lot of poor people, people on relief," remarks Moscovitz, essaying a curtsy, porkpie hat in hand. "They got nothing else available to them, and she helped. I've always admired how she handled people. Not always good people. But she kept them from doing the wrong thing. Almost like a psychologist."

Marion hides in her change box, reddening at the eulogy. "I'm really going to miss this place," Moscovitz adds, through the heat and dust. "Look, a potato masher!" He holds up the utensil. "I lost my old potato masher and here's another -- for 25 cents. Do they even sell these any more?"

As Moscovitz teeters out, a tiny old Cuban woman slips in. She heads toward the back, talking to herself, but loud enough to be heard. Slowly it becomes apparent that she, too, is talking about Marion. "We could say she is some kind of symbol," the woman decides. A broken fluorescent tube flickers over her like lightning, as her mind unravels a skein of unanswerable questions. "But tell me, why can't she buy some newer things? Can't she keep this place in better order? Where will all this junk go when she is gone?"

"Hey, let's look for a miracle," Sapphire retorts, arms flapping. "You never know what could happen, Mama."

"We could give you a wonderful story about what the Beach was, what it used to be," Cecile says. "Oh, with all the slot machines in every story and the Clover Club on Biscayne Boulevard."

Some cord of indignation inside Sapphire snaps. "Lemme tell ya what we oughta do," she shrills. "We oughta get rid of that nut from Italy who wants to tear down the Revere and build a private house. You can't do that! All these kids want to have such a good time. It doesn't matter. It's a passing thing. They'll never have the memories we have. This place will be a ghost town. A ghost town. I lived in the Clay Hotel back in 1945, during World War II. Brings a tear to my eye to think about it." (It does.) "Those were real people back then, real memories. You don't know the half of it, Mom."

"Yeah I do," Marion says, gently marrying her fate. "I do.

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