By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
Jack Giralt hoped he'd have his mother's luck. She'd lived to be 84 without so much as a day's illness. But any chance of that evaporated one afternoon two years ago, when he came to the aid of a young woman in distress. On January 18, 1999, Giralt, then 70 years old, had just stepped out of his tiny Miami Beach apartment to run an errand. At the sound of wrenching sobs across the courtyard, he looked up and saw a girl slumped in a heap on the second-floor landing, "crying like there was no tomorrow." He was about to walk away -- "I've got my own problems," he figured -- but at that instant a man ran into the courtyard, saw the girl on the landing, raced up the steps, and began to beat her savagely.
Even though Giralt yelled up at the stranger, the blows continued. He threatened to call the cops, but the man kept punching. Shaking with rage and no small measure of fear, he hurried back inside his apartment, grabbed his pistol from a cabinet, and, as fast as he could manage, climbed the stairs. The beating had not let up. In desperation he aimed the gun through a railing and fired into the ground. At the sound of the blast, the attacker rose and fled. But while Giralt was imploring the girl to get to safety, her assailant reappeared on the landing, this time brandishing a crowbar. He leaned back and slammed the crowbar against Giralt's hip, knocking the elderly tenant to the concrete below.
Giralt spent a month in the hospital. Doctors set his shattered hip with pins and secured two fractures in his left thigh with metal plates. Nine days after the assault, police arrested 21-year-old Eliot Jacob Pita for the crime. The young man had been picked up while walking down a nearby street, in the company of the very girl Giralt had tried to save. "The same dame!" he says incredulously. "Some piece of cake she must have been."
Two years later Giralt must still use a walker whenever he goes out. It's a humbling form of navigation for a retired tour escort who used to lead groups throughout the United States, South America, and Spain, where he lived for a time as a youngster. At home he has developed a shuffling gait to make his way across the terrazzo floors. But the bad leg gives out if he doesn't step carefully, and he falls often. "He ruined me," he says. "I'm a cripple, that's what I am."
In part because he was able to return to familiar surroundings, Giralt maintains an independent life. Neighbors check in on him. They know when he's left for the store or gone to the doctor. With his walker he can make it down the block to Walgreens. The Korean War vet might have lived out his days in relative peace, albeit grumpily and in frequent pain. Instead he faces an uncertain future. His landlord is dropping out of Section 8, a voucher program run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that subsidizes rents for the poor, and has decided not to renew Giralt's lease. This summer, after 23 years at 650 Jefferson Ave., the prickly senior will have to find a new home. Long-time low-income renters like Giralt, it seems, are paying far less than what this superhot market will bear.
On a sunny mid-December morning, Giralt shambles past a cluttered dining table into his sitting area, where two armchairs face a television turned full blast to Court TV. He wears what the fashion-forward might call traditional attire for an endangered species of oldster in Miami Beach: a close-fitting brown polyester shirt, light-blue seersucker shorts, white ankle socks, and brown sandals. Moving slowly toward a low coffee table, he finally retrieves a pack of Dorals and his lighter, then notices the TV is far too loud for conversation. With an apology he inches over to the set and turns it off. He can't stop watching the murder trial of NFL star Rae Carruth, he confesses. Why he is obsessed with the case, he's not sure; perhaps it serves as a reminder that somewhere along the way the world has gone crazy.
"We've become a country of bums," he mutters.
His mother's touches remain throughout the apartment, though Henrietta died in 1990. A blue glass vase, a few milk-glass dishes, and other knickknacks line a shelf above the breakfast bar. Henrietta left New York City for Florida in 1977, a year after Jack did. He was 48 years old then, and newly divorced. His ex-wife had remarried and moved to Paris with their two daughters, and Giralt was fed up with a lot of things, including Northern winters. Ready for a fresh start, he packed his car and drove south, spending some time in Fort Lauderdale before settling in Miami Beach. Mother and son found this complex, a Fifties-era motel box, and stayed on, though they moved to a ground-floor unit after Henrietta hurt her spine in the early Eighties. Jack gave her the bedroom, and he slept in the living room. Over the couch that once served as his bed hangs a portrait of Henrietta commissioned from a visiting Cuban artist. Posed regally in a black gown, she gazes out at the viewer, her expression stern and proud. "I never really liked it," Giralt says of the painting. "That's where she hung it, so I left it."