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.
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.