Miracle on 41st Street

At 8:33 on the night of December 9, the lights went out along Arthur Godfrey Road, between Alton and Collins. The windy rain was whipping the Beach like one of those Club Madonna dominas, and a power line just gasped and quit. The red and green traffic and matte white streetlights in front of the Union Planters Bank at 41st and Meridian, the corner where I live in the old Jewish commercial strip, went dark instantaneously. Only Yale Mortgage's grim red sign continued to glare down on the traffic entering and leaving Mid-Beach (it must have its own generator). Headlights. Eclipse. Wet smacking your face.

I thought I'd go and see what the First World would do without its power, because people in my building were already freaking out: "Lupe! Donde esta las velas [candles]?!" Right on my corner, under the tiny wing of Union Planters, a bedraggled family who'd just negotiated the Rio Grande of 41st Street (it swells like a river in heavy downpours), were enduring a minor tragedy: a Miami Beach Fire & Rescue truck, anxious to get where it was going but stopped by the steady roll of cars undivided by stoplights, had jumped the curb and crushed a plastic blue and yellow Donald Duck tricycle that the Camillo Reyes family had not been able to pull out of its way in time. Little German Reyes, four years old, could not accept this early example of the world's indifference and perfidy, and was shrilling like a banshee: "Mi Donaldo! Aiee!!" The Reyes were trucking in on foot from Hialeah in the storm to stay with a relative on South Beach, so that Camillo could start a dishwashing job on Wednesday. Mr. Reyes tried to bang on the door of the rescue truck, but it just roared off in the first traffic opening.

Across the little canal bridge three Beach strays were huddled in the recessed sidewalk space of the abandoned movie theater that used to be one of Howard Hughes's Miami Beach headquarters. Sally Hawthorne, overweight and soaked to the skin, had her arm around the neck of Omar something-or-other, sniffling about the loss of their little cardboard "house" under the boardwalk south of the Fontainebleau. The rain had come so hard that the packing crates they lived in just collapsed, and then the beach patrol had arrived and ordered them to clear out: "They didn't have to chase us, honey," Sally whined, trying to unstick her long blond bangs from her forehead. "Ain't nothin', bitch," Omar growled manfully. "I find us another box."

Their girlfriend, who said she was once a Tootsie's dancer called "Kim Klass," but who lost her job after a bar fight that cost her her front teeth and some eyebrow scar tissue, put her arm around my waist and began calling me "Thweety." Then she hit me for three bucks, which she divided evenly with the other two.

Down the street the Crystal Café was using candles, like the guy in my building, but with considerably more finesse. A waitress, out on the sidewalk for a smoke break, said: "Folks are gettin' positively romantic in there. Any excuse, right dear?"

The Shell station at Prairie appeared closed, but there seemed to be a lot of movement across the street at Arnie & Richie's Deli. From the outside, bodies could be seen swirling around, dramatically backlit -- once more by candlepower -- a scene from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (no nudes, though).

Then came the high point of the evening.

A group of Orthodox Jews, beards wet, black clothes shiny with water, were debating the power failure at 41st and Royal Palm. Their payos (sidecurls) were straightening under the shower-like downpour; their tzitzis (good-deed sashes) hung limp and forlorn; and they were peering at each other like cats:

"Dermer," began one senior, but was cut off --

"Do me a favor."

"Enough with Dermer! What does he know? Who are his friends?"

"The Mayor --" the old man began again, but was stopped.

"A shtark [enforcer]!" a red-haired, stocky fellow snapped.

"A pushtak [thug] for the real estate hondlers!" a younger man piped, but then looked sheepish. He was a boy compared with the others, and should have had more discretion than to enter their dispute.

The old man waved his finger: "Very good to his mother. Always with caring and respect . . ."

"Sure," laughed the redhead. "She's got the gelt [money]. She doles out carefully . . ."

The old man looked to heaven: "Such a mouth. Such idiocy. You expect that Mayor Dermer should be here to take care of the power lines? You think it's his fault the lights blew, too?"

"Shmuel," another elderly gentleman placated. "Don't get excited."

"What is the poor mayor, God? He should wave his wand and the lights go back on?" Shmuel waved his arms.

And the lights went back on.

The Jews stood hushed for a moment. Then they began laughing and slapping each other on the back.

"All right. You convinced me," said the redheaded man.

"Do we have time to go by Bagel Time on Alton?" someone asked.

"It's after nine."

"So we'll take a chance."

And they trooped off up the road.

Back at my place, every window was gleaming with light, and a little group had formed in the courtyard to talk over the enormity of the evening's events. The candle guy, in the apartment above mine, was so happy he was playing his merengue tapes at top volume, violating an agreement we'd worked out. I waited till 11, then jabbed the kitchen broom handle at the ceiling three times, our signal, and soon the noise abated . . .

On Tuesday, Florida Power & Light confirmed a line down for 33 minutes on a grid breaker. "A short inconvenience," the utility company woman reassured me. "I bet no one in your neighborhood even noticed."

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John Lombardi
Contact: John Lombardi

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