Give to the Rich, Take from the Poor

After years of go-nowhere schemes, that's the plan for Watson Island

Aggravation. That's Marty Tritt's problem — too much aggravation. His body is in bad shape: He has hearing aids in both ears, and a disease of the spine has rendered his legs almost useless. His feet are ulcerous and swollen. Sometimes he can't feel them. "I don't know why not," he says. "Circulation?"

And the 74-year-old is aggravated by money troubles too. "I'm down to my last $50,000," he says. "I probably won't make it a year." He and his wife Gloria, who is 70 years old, will have to sell their Bay Harbor Islands condo, he says, unless they come across more money.

She won't accept it, he says, and that aggravates him. "But what really aggravates me is that in this market, with so many casinos ... my wife has a wonderful voice — she's not Gloria Estefan, but still — and she plays piano wonderfully, and she won't let me go out to the casinos and ask if they'll let her play once or twice a week. That money could save us!"

After 25 years in business, Marty Trittís fuel and fishing supply store was shut down to make way for megayachts

Location Info

Map

Watson Island

888 MacArthur Causeway
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Parks and Outdoors

Region: South Beach

The main sources of Tritt's woes are two overwhelming losses he suffered in 2003. First his eldest son, Barry, died suddenly, at age 43. Then a few months later the City of Miami forced him to shutter his 25-year-old fishing supply store — the single greatest achievement of his life — on Watson Island. "They were making money on my shop, and now look at what they have out there — nothing," Tritt says. "They're not stupid; they're corrupt. What it is, is the rich screwing the poor."

Watson Island's rich got a boost just a month ago, when the Miami City Commission passed a superquiet vote to help bail out Tritt's old neighbor, Jungle Island, the debt-ridden, privately owned for-profit park just north of the MacArthur Causeway. That vote came four years after Tritt and his shack were permanently evicted — though he had carefully paid off his own $30,000 debt to the city.

The 86-acre island was, and always had been, a dump — literally. It was formed in 1906 when construction crews digging out Government Cut piled their waste there. Chalk's airline began flying its signature planes in the 1920s from the island, and Cuban émigré Orlando Bosch took his famous pot shots at a Polish freighter from its weedy shore opposite the Port of Miami in 1964. His rationale: The Poles were commies, just like Castro.

It has also been a perennial home to failed, failing, and never-to-materialize business ventures. Over the years there have been endless proposals for the island, including, but not limited to, a space needle, a Pan-American exposition, a miniature railroad, a theme park, a blimp storage area, and a gargantuan statue of Christopher Columbus.

Perhaps the most well-known incident took place in 1986, eight years after Tritt opened his store, when then-Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo torpedoed a plan by a group that included Jorge Mas Canosa and UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick for a monstrous pink hotel and boat exposition. Mas challenged Carollo to a duel. Carollo suggested water pistols.

Tritt, who is Jewish, came to this storied chunk of land after taking over the lease for the island's only fuel station from a friend at Temple Beth Shalom in Miami Beach. "I got it cheap," he says, grinning. "I won't say how cheap."

The previous owners, Betty and Bert Thompson, had maintained little more than a tin shack with a pump outside, but in the true spirit of the place, Tritt thought big. He brought out a trailer, parked it next to the shack, and eventually knocked out the wall between them. Later he hired a carpenter to add a bathroom, shower, and storage room. An airbrush painter named Redbeard advertised the store's wares in giant letters that wrapped around it. "Bait," the letters said, "Beer."

Unlike his predecessor, who he says sold little more than potato chips, Tritt filled the store with fishing supplies, lobster traps, candy, souvenirs, and knickknacks. He called it Watson Island Fuel and Fishing Supply. "There wasn't anything he wouldn't sell," remembers Barbara Kiers, who worked for Tritt 16 years. "He would go to yard sales, closeout sales. He would sell tools, repair kits, everything, everything." In order to keep so much merchandise in plain sight, Kiers says, Tritt devised a scheme: "Marty had this belief that if you hung things from the ceiling on a string, people would bump into them and buy them."

Another attraction was brisket sandwiches. Sailors arriving from the other side of the world would ask if Tritt's wife Gloria had made brisket that day, Kiers says.

Some of the customers were the captains of boats in the neighboring marina. Others were adventurers, round-the-world sailors, and celebrities: Gloria Estefan came in to buy a lobster trap; Rosie O'Donnell stopped by a few times. Once Sylvester Stallone arrived, and Tritt pulled him aside and plied him with brisket sandwiches. And Tritt often gave odd jobs to the homeless, who lived in a shantytown on the island.

"Everybody thought of Marty as the mayor of Watson Island," Kiers says. "We had under-the-bridge dwellers all the way up to yacht owners — there aren't too many places in the world like it."

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