The Old Curiosity Shop
Evelyn Streiff is muttering something about her father, about the suicide he planned as a starving young lad on the Lower East Side and abandoned for a hitch with the cavalry in Kansas, back when Miami Beach was a soggy tongue of land full of critters and mangroves and, in other words, a whole lot of nothing. There is a punch line somewhere in her Niagara of Brooklynese, maybe even a moral, but that comforting tidbit, like almost everything that crosses the threshold of her storefront, is sucked into a maze for which there is no sure exit, only a dusty wait that ends, if at all, in the disappointed purchase of damaged goods.
"It's a funny thing about my dad," Streiff says, but a din intercedes before she can finish her thought. It's Bud, clowning in a beery haze, and the ugly Yugoslavian, too, both of them lurking behind a pack of tourists jabbering in some indeterminate tongue over decade-old Teen Beat magazines. Circling all of them, a toothless Haitian begs for someone to turn his $37 worth of sweaty food stamps into a dry twenty-dollar bill. "Rose!" Streiff bellows. "Rose! What's goin' on?" But Rose, unofficial floor manager and sloe-eyed dreamer of false harmony, is in no position to stem the squabbling, pinned as she is against a wall, beneath the murals of frolicking fruit, studiously measuring waistbands with a wooden ruler for a tiny gentleman who looks not unlike Ho Chi Minh, except for the sideburns.
All at once (and here it always seems to happen like this, all at once) the mob turns toward Streiff, as if catching the sudden whiff of a scapegoat, and advances, lodging simultaneous pleas to buy, sell, and haggle. Streiff glares back, her moist brown eyes tinged with angry blue, and for the umpteenth time this week launches into the speech. The one that begins: "Whatarya-people-blind-thatcha-can't-see-I'm-busy-here-talkin-to-a-man-...."
No matter. It's going on twenty years since Evelyn Streiff (pronounced, appropriately, strife) last finished a story straight through, start to finish, without the buzzing supplication of some customer or con man, which in her business might as well be the same thing. Streiff deals junk, or rather, what might to the untrained eye appear to be junk, huge, wall-eating, gravity-defying gobs of the stuff, all piled in the fluorescent-yellow cave that houses her shop at 1319 Washington Avenue in Miami Beach.
Don't let the name - Modern Fruit Shippers - fool you. Streiff did launch the biz as a registered sender of foodstuffs in what she daintily refers to as "the tradition of the Southern gift shops." But her establishment has since inherited a far grander fate: final resting place (whether in the sense of a museum or graveyard still isn't clear) of all South Beach once was. Which leaves Streiff to play both grumpy curator and queen of street-level commerce, one whose kingdom includes the castoffs, human and otherwise, of a barrio that has grown altogether too big for its britches. The money merchants can't gush enough about the Beach boom, the very mention of which sends a chill down their gentrified spines, straight to their mink-oiled wallets. But for those crippled by age, or booze, or both, for the dispossessed who wander the streets like amnesiacs, Modern Fruit is as close as they come to refuge. And somehow, Streiff bears with them. Growls. Sputters. Rants. Promises herself she'll write a book someday. But returns, always, to the old curiosity shop that is the heart of a strange and communal addiction.
"I got dolls. Meekey Mouse. You like, Missus Evelyn!" cries the Yugoslavian, pulling disfigured toys from his soiled pillowcase.
"What say, Ev, just a couple of bucks. I'll bring you back a soda," Bud whines.
"Ve haf much likink for zis!" shrieks the plumpest of the tourists, brandishing what appears to be a petrified rodent.
Streiff sighs deeply, putting aside, probably forever, any poetic closure her dad's life might have provoked. And one can't help but agree with the soft rock advice that oozes from the ancient radio wedged nearby: "Everybody needs a little time away..."
As if that were even a possibility in her line of work.
Items purchasable at Modern Fruit Shippers (List #1):
* Syphon chargers for soda water bottles
* A 3-D baseball card featuring Braves pitching legend Warren Spahn
* Guava jelly
* Robert E. Lee's letter of resignation from the United States Army
* A black lace bustier
* Jeep hubcaps (three)
It is wise here to recall that nuts lured white men to Miami Beach. The Tequesta Indians were the island's first settlers, of course, but by the time Henry B. Lum bought the beach in 1870, the hapless tribe was long gone, annihilated by bands of Creeks washed down from the north. For reasons still unclear to even the most tolerant horticulturists, Lum, a Pennsylvania farmboy turned fortune hunter, gazed at the mosquito-swamped sandbar and thought: "Coconuts." His plantation took three years to fail and was snapped up by land speculators posthaste.
While Carl Fisher and John Collins spent the Roaring Twenties transforming Miami Beach into an enclave of WASP exclusivity, the brothers Lummus, who purchased its southern fringe from Collins, adopted a more laissez-faire policy. The result was a prole's paradise free of hoity-toity pretense and eventually rife with Jews from the mainland. By 1970 the area was a veritable retirement shtetl, ruled by hoary Semites who packed meetings at the old city hall on Washington Avenue, held Yiddish amateur hours, and, according to press accounts of the era, diddled one another with alarming vigor.
It was in this setting, before the onslaught of the neon redevelopers, that Modern Fruit Shippers thrived. "The Fitzgeralds owned this place," Streiff recalls, "and before them, I think, the Kaplans. Fruit shippers was a big thing then. Everybody wanted a little Florida fruit. There was a few down south and two more up by 14th Street."
Seventy-six years old with no vainglorious gestures to the contrary, Streiff has a face creased like crumpled paper and a dumpy frame on which hangs, today, a velour pantsuit of faded aqua.
She navigates her shop's barely perceptible aisles half hobbling, a fanny pack stuffed with one-dollar bills looped around her belly, a few larger bills
stuffed conspicuously in her bosom. Her recollections are punctuated by clacking assaults on the onyx keys of a Royal De Luxe typewriter, employed to bang out her holiday fruit orders.
"My in-laws were practically like pioneers in Fort Lauderdale. They were one of the first families in Palm Beach. Very anti-Semitic back then. They called my father-in-law a kike. When he first arrived they tried to tell him he couldn't stay in a hotel 'cause it was, you know, restricted. So he bought the hotel. I moved down here with my husband during the Fifties. Boy did he love Miami Beach. No matter where we went, he was always raving about Miami Beach. He wouldn't even move to Miami, where his jewelry business was. Even when apartments got scarce here. `Look honey,' I said, `it's closer to your work.' He wouldn't hear any of it. I went into business close to twenty years ago, after he died. My father had a friend who was big into jellies, Lester White. He and his friends used to make up food baskets. We sold cards and souvenirs. You know, like a gift shop. This other stuff" - by which Streiff means the junk - "only started a couple of years ago."
Maybe so, but already her store serves as a working model of Jack Benny's famous closet, set to implode any second, with escape routes constricted by bogs of debris. To project order onto this muddle would be foolhardy, like trying to stitch together a coherent childhood memory from the random snatches that affix themselves to consciousness. A herd of vintage valises. Kitchenware strewn beneath a dais of dingy vases. Vast banks of highly inflammable clothing. Sharp mountains of furniture teetering overhead, receding into a dim back room. Bulbless lamps. Electronic dinosaurs. Shelves crowded with every imaginable relic of the past two decades - as if all the poor schleps displaced from Old Ageville had dumped the contents of their living quarters on Streiff. Which might not be far from what happened.
Still, obscured sediments of the shop's gift era persist. The bulky rack of greeting cards, for instance, laced with cobwebs but still full of aging salutations. Decorative boxes of plastic fruit, habitually stolen, Streiff notes, by hungry and careless thieves. The walls themselves are blanketed with scenes of citrus bacchanalia. Succulent oranges lay down bets at the race track. Lemons twirl suggestively on a bandstand. Scantily clad grapefruit ride a choo-choo train.
"I guess you heard how the Beach was back then, huh," Streiff remarks. "The streets were safe and all that. I used to leave a key to my house outside the door, so people could come and go. The people around here, they know me. So they protect me when I go out. But the older folks, they're scared. I mean, what's the use of making some place glamorous if the people are afraid to be on the streets? Last year the police called me at 2:00 a.m. to tell me my store had been robbed. I came down and the place was in a shambles," she adds, apparently unaware of her redundance. "So this guy comes up and offers to help me clean up the glass from the broken windows. Fine, I figure. So when I turn back, he's gone. Out the back of the store with my purse."
Muffled laughter filters from the sidewalk out front. "Hey Mom! Mom! What the hell's going on out front? They've taken your signs down," says a ragged-looking specimen, bounding into view.
"What're ya talking about? Get the hell outta here. Can't you see we're closed, you kibbitzer," Streiff shouts.
"Okay Evelyn, well listen," the man answers, shifting suddenly into a Liberace lisp. "The boys will be in on Monday to take care of the new curtains and the interior work, 'kay dear?" He swishes out.
"It's part of the new Art Deco thing," she murmurs, referring to the stripping of her ancient signage. "They'll probably charge us a tax for it."
* Engelbert Humperdinck's Golden Hits (eight-track tape)
* Box of Hoya de Oro Cuban cigars (seven left)
* Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn
* White Ninja, the novel
* Slime (green, oozing toy product)
* Pink, feathered Mardi gras mask
Bud is out front of Modern Fruit on a stormy Monday, sucking on a bagged can of his namesake beer and waiting for Streiff to arrive. A charming boozer with hooded blue eyes and leathery skin, he acts as Streiff's liaison to the street, and faithless court jester. "Ev's like one of my best friends on the beach," he explains. "I take care of her, but we fight like mother and son. I'll tell you, the rest of these people use the shit out of her." Bud burps thoughtfully, cigarette smoke ribboning through the gaps in his jagged teeth.
Arrested, by his own count, some fifteen times on open container charges, the part-time handyman brags that local judges have grown so sick of him they no longer want to see him in court. "Well, look who's gone Hollywood," he says as Streiff pulls up in the taxi that brings her to work from her home further up the beach. "Oh here, ma'am, let me take your bag. The photographers need a good angle."
Once inside, Bud fetches his latest court summons and, inevitably, hits up Streiff for money. "I don't have it," she shouts, turning away from his quivering paws. "I don't want to do this any more! No more! Who do you think I am, you and your friends?" Bud whispers another plea. Streiff continues ranting. And in the end, she reaches into her nylon pouch. "I should rip these bills up," she cries, as Bud flees.
"Give 'em to me before you do that!" he shoots back.
Watching the scene for perhaps the thousandth time, Rose Windlow silently scolds Bud for exploiting the misplaced maternalism of a childless widow. Windlow, Streiff's chief courtier, is a retired hotel clerk from Uruguay who buzzes around Modern Fruit tidying, fetching lunch, and regaling customers about the wisdom of their selections. A born salvager of lost hope, she wears the beatific mask of a woman forever cooing over a baby. Even a dirty doll - cast aside by Streiff after a quick spit-polish revealed it to be a worthless "made in China" model - elicits Rose's affections.
"Que liiiindo," she cries, swadling the toy in green fabric and topping it with a ribbon of black lace. "Look at my beautiful baby girl." She titters on in sing-song Spanish, speaking of her five children and her past, the endless moves from South America to Mexico to Europe. Saddled with the aristocratic nose, strong jaw, and fine white hair of the late Sir Laurence Olivier, Rose has done her best to jazz up the look, accenting her florid wardrobe with a pink, rhinestone-studded headband and eyeshadow the eerie hue of mother-of-pearl. As she prattles, tiny flakes of glitter wink from between her crow's-feet.
Rose, who settled in South Beach back in the Seventies, still heads down to the seaside in the morning for exercise classes. About noon she comes into Modern Fruit. While she frets over the parasites who leach off her employer, she is not long on grudges. By afternoon she and Bud are happily glued to a black-and-white TV set, having left Streiff to scream into her phone: "I'm not in any trouble, ma'am, I'm a bonded shipper! Yes, yes. The orders went out yesterday...."
Outside the palm trees are dancing the twist, the weather doing its best imitation of a lover's spat. "I read in the newspaper that she wants to have that operation to be a man," says Rose, nodding at Oprah's righteous flab.
"Yeah, Oprah was looking pretty fine there for a while," Bud observes. "Before she bloated up again."
A rare peace presides, interrupted by a crash from in back. "A goddamn toaster just fell on my hand!" Streiff wails, chasing two Latin women out of the closet used as an impromptu changing room. "That's it! That's it! Stacking! No more throwing in my store! From now on, we stack!"
Evelyn Streiff will buy anything, though never without a fight, a monumental railing against the incursions of her mutant vendors, whom she berates for cluttering her shop and her dignity and often ignores for minutes on end, hoping they will go away (which they never do) rather than stand before her desk like guilt-provoking statues. The Iranian woman who paints on velvet blouses. The screeching grandmother bound for Vegas in fat-hugging lame. The ex-matador with the rictus grin of a village idiot. The only rule that governs Streiff's purse strings is a widely known soft spot for "bric-a-brac," which, as far as anyone can tell, includes everything on earth with the exception of new or valuable items, shunned on the theory that they are probably stolen and she doesn't need the hassle, if you know what she means.
For regular suppliers, such as Thomas Brown, her abuse has become the expected toll en route to a sale. "Back here already?" Streiff raves as Brown scurries through her door. "What, I haven't seen you enough today? That's twice. C'mon now sir, I don't need anything more. Please get out." Like most suppliers, Brown, a wiry old black man with a yin-yang smile of perfectly opposed gum and teeth, scours Miami Beach's Dumpsters and abandoned buildings for his merchandise. Today's bounty includes a hair dryer, which he gleefully demonstrates has not one, but two speeds, a tube of aloe vera moisturizer, a Hustler magazine, and several of the world's ugliest earrings (none matching). "Three-fifty for everything," he says, waiting with Jobian patience as Streiff's protests dwindle and she digs into her money pouch.
A half-hour later, Charlie Srour comes scuttling in. "Something elegant for the lady," he says, drawing a macrame purse out of his cart. "Maybe a lovely doll." Perhaps because of persistence, or his smarmy pitches, or his startling homeliness, Srour never fails to incite Streiff. "Look, I don't want any of this. Get it out of here! No! I'm not buying today!" Srour pays her no mind, continuing to unload his pieces, as if the placement of goods on Streiff's property alone constitutes closure of a sale. Which, invariably, it does.
A Yugoslavian immigrant endowed with a huge, mottled schnoz and thick lips the color of raw liver, Srour came to the United States with high hopes five years ago. He's seen most of the country since then, working odd jobs from Alaska to New York and accumulating a profound disgust for Reagan's legacy. "I don't care if there's civil war in my country. Even civil war's better than here. In America you just waste your time following the garbage can," he grouses. "I just wait five more years, until I get Social Security, then I go back to my country."
None of this, of course, is of the least interest to Streiff, who rarely knows the names of her suppliers, let alone their maudlin biographies, only that they all share a confounding ability to reel her in, until she is left peering over their goods, her lips moving silently, adding up profits foretold. Who can say why she keeps buying? The quixotic hope that somehow, if you just wait long enough, everything will sell? Some hidden node of charity? Or maybe that she finds it easier to give the benefit of the doubt to a pair of boxer shorts than to the hangers-on who clog her world?
Whatever the case, and despite regular contributions to needy causes and a steady supply of shoplifters, her surplus mounts. Streiff, in other words, should be desperate for shoppers. And yet she tends to view them as somewhat annoying interruptions, not worthy of the ass-kissing favored in today's mall culture. Instead they are made to wait for service, their questions answered grudgingly, if at all. The idea is: You're the shopper. Go shop. If you want to make it more complicated, take it somewhere else.
Piquing this naturally bilious demeanor is the conduct of Streiff's poorest clients, who seem intent upon choking the last bits of consumerist pride out of every 50-cent acquisition, rascals who spend ten minutes choosing a Christmas card, or a half-hour torturing Streiff over a hat they have no intention of buying. There are the exceptions, of course, the occasional wealthy doctor's wife left to nervously order holiday pecan rolls amid urchins, or natty foreigners who mistake Modern Fruit's entropic jungle for quaint antiquity.
Most paying customers, however, are Social Security survivors whose scant luxury budgets leave them plucking through Streiff's ruins, folks like the elfin man in the straw fedora who wanders in looking for a coffee grinder and is handed instead a small white machine affixed with the name, "The Chopper." Ordered to plug the machine into an octopus outlet, he gazes blankly as it whirs to life. "What does it do?" he asks.
"I don't know. Why don't you stick your finger in and find out? Hey Ev, he wants to know what it does," Bud hoots. "Hey, why don't you bring it home to the missus. `Uh, here, honey. I got you a gift. I'm not sure what it does, exactly. But it makes a real pretty sound.'"
Slightly disoriented, the man hands over three dollars and waddles off with the Chopper.
Patrons can even goad a tongue-lashing by latching onto the wrong items, something the old biddy asking after coat hangers finds out the hard way. Rather than heeding Streiff's warning that no hangers remain in stock - a warning issued not once, but three times - she decides to wrestle a few out of the sport coats hanging along the fashion equivalent of murderers' row. "Ma'am, what're you doing over there? Don't take the hangers out of my clothing," Streiff thunders, catching her in midyank.
The woman looks up sheepishly and cautiously picks up a plastic fern from Streiff's desk. "Oh, isn't this lovely. How much for this?" she asks, hoping to mend ways.
"That's not for sale," Streiff snaps. "That was a gift."
The woman looks confused. "But ma'am," she says, in a moment of piercing naivete, "isn't everything in this
shop a gift?"
* Buckskin chair
* Colombian-made sitar (one string remaining)
* Plastic, sequined conquistador hat
"Hennalucent" henna conditioner (tawny blond)
* "It's not PMS...I'm always a bitch" pin. Six inches in diameter
* Coconut patties
* Hairy ape sculpture, carved from coconut
One of the few rules that holds steady within the loony confines of Modern Fruit Shippers: You don't mess with Susie. Four-feet-seven-inches of Bronx-bred fury, Susie is Streiff's Saturday helper, a hair-netted octogenarian prone to tailing costumers - all of whom she assumes to be shoplifters until proven otherwise - onto the sidewalk, if necessary. Oddly pugilistic, she derides the neighborhood's upscale devolution in blustery, finger-jabbing soliloquies. "Aw, forget it. The beach ain't for us any more. The people who come down, they don't care about the place. They want a nice day in the sun. They're throwing us out of our apartments. They widened the damn beach. They've sperled it. I'd go someplace else if I had any kids. We all would. I'd go back to how it used to be years ago. It was beautiful. Just bee-yoo-tee-full."
For Susie, the Saturday shift at Modern Fruit, for which she is compensated with lunch, serves as an ego-pumping respite from hours spent reading, cleaning, and, presumably, kvetching. Her style with customers? The phrase sales terrorism leaps to mind.
"Ohhhh, that'll fit!" she says, cornering a woman holding a circus-tentlike black skirt. "All right, so you get it taken in a bit. There's a place on the corner. Five bucks. Look lady, you don't want it, we got plenty of other customers."
A towering black teen-ager shuffles past. "Hiya big boy," she squeaks, then turns in time to nab a couple headed toward the back of the shop. "Hey! Hey! What're you doing? We got rules here," she yelps.
"It's okay Sue," Streiff says, with the rueful tenor of Dr. Frankenstein. "She's trying something on."
Susie begins folding clothes, mumbling apologies to her boss, whom she clearly views as right up there next to God in the scheme of things. The virtues of the Bronx's unsung beaches occupy her next few minutes, before a meek French woman totters accidentally into her orbit.
"Say, that's a nice shoit, lady," Susie offers.
"Yes, but I don't think it is large enough for my son," the woman answers, holding up what looks like a plaid dishrag.
"Sure it is. That's a large shoit. That'll fit him. I can tell you, lady," Susie says.
"No, I don't think you know my son," the customer says, tittering politely.
"Lady, I'm giving you a good price, 'cause that's a nice shoit. It's gonna fit, lady. Lady, I know."
"Okay, what size are these?" the woman asks, meekly moving on to a pair of plastic wingtips.
Susie responds in true form. "Get over here," she says to a college kid browsing nearby. "Is he about the same size as your son? Yes? Okay kiddo, try these on." She hands him the shoes and watches him squeeze painfully into them. "Poifect," she declares. "Okay. Let's look at a price for everything." She does some mental bean counting. "Thirteen dollars flat. No tax," she adds munificently.
"But I don't know," the woman wheedles.
"Lookit," Susie snarls. "I'm giving you a good price here. I should be charging twice that much. Lookit everything you're getting. Oh, that shoit. So nice. You don't want it, I may take it myself."
The woman stutters. She falters. She is a goner. "Okay Ev, thirteen outta twenty," Susie says, waving the bill like a majorette. "Let's get some change for the lady."
Evelyn Streiff hears the promise, or some mewling approximation, at least once every day. She could level a city with the weight of its deceit, dump an ocean into the hollow of its intent. If she had a nickel for every time she heard it? Forget it. You can't count that high. Hey Mom, they say, how 'bout I take this for now and bring you 50 cents change.
The latest appeal comes from a rundown character in crusty dungarees. "I'm sleeping out tonight, Ma. I need a blanket." Streiff wobbles over to an alp of bedding and picks up a brown cotton comforter. "Two dollars." The fellow pulls a lump of change from his pocket, along with a twenty-dollar bill. "I'd give you the whole thing, but I gotta buy colostomy bags for my buddy. The poor guy's got a hole in his stomach where all the shit comes out," he says, exhaling the yeasty reek of malt liquor.
"Why don't he go to the hospital?" Streiff asks.
"He doesn't wanna go. He's just like Dustin. Remember Dustin? Ratzo Rizzo? He says the VA don't do shit for you. I'll bring you the rest once I get change from the bags."
Streiff hands over the blanket and watches the man lurch into the dusk. "They tell me this one has AIDS," she sighs. "Always it's the crazies. Years back this guy came in, said he needed bus fare to Alaska. Said he was an Eskimo, which I don't know, he looked like an Eskimo. He showed me this big gash on his foot. I said, `Okay. You need money, why did you come to my shop?' He said, ~`God sent me to you.' This is the kind of character we get around here." Streiff cackles to the point of choking, clumps of Kleenex dangling from her waistband like the stuffing from a doll.
She falls silent for a time, whisking through the day's fruit orders. "I don't know why I stay here," she says, by way of announcing closing time. "I've been trying to sell this place for a year."
Before she can get her money pouch in order, the colostomy bag man re-enters. "Here you go, Mom," he says, plunking down two sweaty quarters.
Evelyn Streiff's face registers the closest thing to surprise that her circumstance allows. "Guess you never can tell," she says softly, though it's
clear from her tone that, far too
often, she can.
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