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

Last summer, during one of the many approaching hurricanes, Garcia waited two hours in the checkout line to purchase the requisite provisions of water, canned goods, and batteries. For some customers the wait in line that day was far more hassle than the eventual storm that never hit. But Garcia met someone in line and struck up a friendship, and she learned some tips about hurricane preparedness that could help her in the future. "I'm a very friendly person," she says. "I made the best of it. If you don't, you'll be miserable."

Swiftly walking past the homeless man at the front of the store drinking a Diet Pepsi and eating white bread, Dina Knapp aims directly for the three items she needs. After eighteen years, she and her husband Jeffrey, a poet and FIU professor, have switched to warehouse shopping at the Costco in North Miami Beach. Even though it is four times as far from their home as Publix, they'll only venture into the nearby market for immediate necessities.

The employees are fine, says Knapp, it's the shoppers she can do without. She calls the store the Black Hole of Calcutta. "It's sort of dingy-dirty, the aisles are small, everyone smells bad, they don't care how they look, they come from the beach or the gym or from work and it takes way too long to check out," complains the 49-year-old artist and bookstore clerk. "So it makes it an incredibly unpleasant experience. My husband likes the models, though, which you don't see too much at Costco.

"I really like the multiculturalism here," continues Knapp, who moved from New York City to Miami Beach with her husband in 1977. "What I don't like are the nasty people. There's a problem with a certain group of people who I won't name, but who speak the common language, who keep ignoring the handicapped parking signs. When you tell them about it, they want to kill you or just kind of run you over because the parking lot is so small. But I really like the fact that there's all sorts of people."

In another checkout lane, Janet Aptaker is now packing her own groceries into plastic bags she brought from home. Using your Publix bag over and over again is Aptaker's idea of recycling, not the method prescribed by Publix: Bring in your used Publix plastic bags and stuff them in the blue recycling bin in front of the store. "Typically, the bagger is completely mystified about my suggestion, if they even understand what I'm saying," Aptaker laments. "They suggest I put it in the recycling bin, but I insist that I am recycling. It's an ongoing battle. Then they stand there and they don't help bag the groceries. It's very frustrating. That's the feeling remaining with me as I walk out to the treacherous parking lot."

Over in frozen foods, a statuesque black woman glides gracefully through the aisle balancing a two-liter Coke atop her head and occasionally peering through one of the glass doors at the small flat boxes. "Charming," responds Teddy Fernandez to the balancing act. Another recent transplant from the Kendall hinterlands, Fernandez relishes the change: "This is what Miami Beach is all about, an eclectic group of people."

Compared to a long day at his real estate business, the checkout lane is a conga line to 30-year-old Fernandez: "I get a kick out of all the turmoil, all the people trying to snake in front of you in line. I think it's kind of fun. It's always good for a laugh -- to see how everybody gets so upset about everything, and I just go, 'Ha! This is fun.'"

What Dominic Enthoven finds interesting is "the guys with enviable bums, and the beautiful people; they're much more dour in England." What Enthoven, a Briton working here as a shipping-line representative, finds annoying is the lack of good old-fashioned double cream, full-fat butter, and other cholesterol excesses. "Somehow everything is very conventional," he sniffs. For variety, he insists, London supermarkets are far better. And the store's deli -- well, it really is rather unmentionable. "In London," he says, "you can get the tandoori chicken that is as good as it looks on the box it came in. All the stuff at this deli looks like airline food."

Except for the demise of some of his favorite brands of cookies, 84-year-old Bernard Lubschutz couldn't be more pleased with the selection at Publix. The retired stockbroker and lifelong bachelor has shopped here since the days when the Fontainebleau boasted Frank Sinatra live. Lubschutz maneuvers through the store in a perfectly tailored autumn-green Brooks Brothers blazer, a silver Shriner's pin on the lapel, tan trousers, and penny loafers. The brim of his cloth hat is snapped down in front. He came to Miami Beach in 1956 from Norfolk, Virginia.

"Excellent place to shop, though nothing is perfect," Lubschutz proclaims in a deliberate, genteel Southern drawl. "It's the same old story: When it's crowded, it's not comfortable. During Christmastime you're apt to get pushed around -- pushed around by older ladies."

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