Publix Maximus

Crabby oldsters, cranky youngsters, exotic erotic pussycats, hormone-buzzed buff boys, and chitter-chattering checkers mix it up in the cultural Cuisinart that is the Publix supermarket on South Beach

"If I'm feeling really energetic, I'll go to the Publix in Miami Shores, where language isn't a problem. Or -- I know this sounds crazy -- I'll go to the one farther down Biscayne Boulevard, which is almost all black, which I'm used to."

The crowd at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday is in peak form. A buff boy wearing silk pajama-style pants and a sleeveless T-shirt steps out of his top-down Beemer. He had cruised the parking lot until he got the space closest to the door to make his strutting entrance. He made the same move, in the same clothes, at the same time, the previous day.

It's show time, the fashionable hour to shop and cruise the aisles. One of the busiest times to shop. "I know that a lot of gay men think that it's a good place to meet someone," says Randall Robinson. "It's well-lighted and you see people there that don't go to the usual socializing places -- bars and clubs."

Elsa Garcia tries to avoid the shopping crunch -- lunch hour, weekdays between 4:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., and weekends -- but hardly ever can. Home from her nursing job, she had to run to the store after realizing she had nothing for her children's dinner. She finally parks her minivan and then waits for a shopping cart, following one of the bag attendants, whom she knows, to a car and laying claim to the cart. Suddenly a young woman approaches her, screaming "This is my cart! Give me my cart!" The middle-age attendant settles the cart imbroglio in Garcia's favor, and he and Garcia watch, mouths agape, as the banshee scampers off, her long sandy mane bouncing on her back, and attacks a little old lady standing on the sidewalk with her Publix cart. Clawing at the paper sacks inside the cart and casting them aside on the ground, the crazed woman proceeds to push the cart toward the store entrance, leaving the elderly matron frozen in shock and three red apples spilling into the street.

After twenty years of shopping here, Garcia, a 36-year-old native Miamian of Cuban descent, says she's seen her share of eccentric behavior. She has witnessed local evolution from the Publix perspective, from small old snowbirds to tall young hot chicks. "Once -- I tell you no lie," she says, "she seemed to be one of those South Beach models, she had on a long black dress, like a house dress, and it was totally see-through -- totally! She had only a tonga, no bra. And nobody freaked out! Go to Southwest Dade and it would have been like the domino effect -- everybody turning their heads."

The transformation of South Beach from retirement Riviera to hipster playground has few resident detractors. Chris Heid is among those who enjoy the newer, younger, multicultural city, but he does hold a soft spot for the earlier era, those days of "really cute old Jewish ladies" who would jab the back of your ankles with their fold-up metal carts. "They'd always ask how much everything was, and since they were only four foot tall, they'd ask you to get it down for them. They'd hand you a list and you became an employee," Heid cracks. "'Ah, I can't read my Harry's writing, I think it says matzo balls, right?'"

Birgitta Hansson was not an amused shopper before the South Beach revival. She delights in the younger crowd. "It was worse before, with the little old ladies from Brooklyn with big blue hair and always rude in a New York kind of way," says the 36-year-old artist. "They were always, 'Get this, get that!' and running you over with the cart. We were here to serve them." Hansson, however, came armed with her Italian-from-Brooklyn husband, who seemed to relish a good conflict. He'd tell them off.

Nowadays she relies more on her husband's services as Spanish interpreter. Hansson moved here from Sweden fifteen years ago, and although her English is flawless, she doesn't know rudimentary Spanish -- a definite handicap in South Florida. While Publix's front-line personnel are mostly bilingual, many will speak Spanish while working. That, and the perception by some non-Spanish speakers that the Latin employees are less responsive to them, creates some animosity.

"Everybody behind the checkout counter seems to have a lobotomy," Hansson gripes. "They're like, 'Huh?' They don't care. I think everybody should learn English if they live here. I think it's rude to speak Spanish around non-Spanish speakers. What are we, chopped liver?"

Hansson inches forward in the checkout lane. Like others who have moved here, she recalls hometown grocery shopping as superior. The supermarkets in Sweden were bigger, cleaner, and more efficient, she remembers: "The cashiers would only look at the price stickers and it was much faster than with the scanner. They would help out all they could and do it fast."

With her two children by her side, Elsa Garcia has managed to fill a cart in about 45 minutes. The store is overcrowded and she thinks there should be one-way-only traffic in the aisles. "Pero bueno," she shrugs, "I've gotten used to it. I make it an event." After fifteen minutes in line, Garcia finally reaches the cashier and is sharing chismes. They're smiling.

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