Publix Maximus

A bodhisattva in a flimsy orange sari flowing from his nappy head to his crusty ankles fondles the pita bread in aisle nine.

Orthodox Jewish newlyweds, she with wide eyes Easter-egg blue, confer over Betty Crocker's strawberry and chocolate icing.

In the produce section: "?Hay malanga?"
A stocky Russian woman clutches a zucchini, her slender husband holding the plastic bag.

Muscle men in cutoffs bop around the gray-turquoise-salmon-colored store, while shirt-and-ties discreetly read in the magazine cove. A mini-clad, stroller-pushing mom drifts by exuding a perfume that settles sweetly on the Italian parsley and watercress. Sex -- an appetite as consuming as food -- packaged tightly, though clearly drawn behind the veneer of shopping, like a cellophane-wrapped papaya.

They come to the Miami Beach Publix on Dade Boulevard on foot and bicycle, and by bus, taxi, and car. Rolls-Royce and hunk-a-junk. To the store emblazoned with a Fifties' Cadillac-style hood ornament as marquee. There, under a big-top awning the color of lime jello, old men, hair oiled and neatly parted, wait shoulder to shoulder for bejeweled, big-haired grandmothers to finish shopping, the excited mumble of Cuban Spanish reverberating like a basso ostinato under the canvas canopy.

They come from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. every day, 4000 a day. A feeding frenzy in the world's busiest (per square foot) Publix.

Shopping at this store for some is an enriching experience. For others it's intolerable, an unavoidable public mingling with those they privately resent or envy -- all manner of people congregating in the same cramped space, all sharing the same impossibly crowded parking lot, all suffering the same interminable wait at the check-out counter. Revealed here is the collage of South Beach, the locus classicus of incompatible realities.

"Somehow things in Miami Beach have progressed faster than the rest of Dade County," notes Randall Robinson, Jr., preservation director for the Miami Beach Development Corporation and the Miami Design Preservation League. "I think people come to Miami Beach expecting diversity, and some looking for diversity, and some not afraid of diversity. We've got the international tourists, the huge Jewish population, gay people, and other beach types. South Beach knows no misfits.

"And Publix is where you really get to see what Miami Beach is all about," he continues. "Ocean Drive belongs to the world, and Lincoln Road to people in the region, but the supermarket is the only place in town where everyone has to go. And Publix is not a dull place to go."

Built in 1963, the food market is one of the smallest (21,000 square feet) in the 522-store Publix chain -- but one of the most profitable. The city has outgrown the store, which regularly runs out of even its own brands of basic products. And the 90-space parking lot is a continual source of comic frustration. Still, many shoppers prefer Publix to other South Beach supermarkets that provide even less space and selection.

"It's understandable that the people are a lot more irritable," says Assistant City Manager Mayra Diaz Buttacavoli, who two and a half years ago sought to alleviate the irritation by looking for a new site to build a larger supermarket. Adequate land was difficult to find, but a conversation with her neighbor, who worked at Florida Power & Light, led to a deal. Several months later the city paid the electric company $1.47 million for its building and two-acre lot on Twentieth Street and Bay Road. A purchase agreement between the city and Publix has been signed, with the net profit to the city expected to be $930,000.

The city's Design Review Board is scheduled on October 1 to review plans for the postmodern Art Deco building designed by maverick architect Carlos Zapata. Construction is expected to begin the first quarter of 1997 and should take nine to twelve months. The Publix on the Bay, as it's to be called (though it will not actually sit on the bayfront), will be 47,000 square feet, more than double the size of the Dade Boulevard market. The new store will include a 220-space, double-decker, rooftop parking garage, airportlike conveyor belts to move groceries to the parking lot, and escalators to transport people. Also slated is a deli with tables, a pharmacy, a flower shop, a video-rental counter, and possibly outdoor seating.

This will be the 41st Publix in Dade County. The company says it will keep open the Dade Boulevard Publix, less than half a mile from the new site.

A supermarket shouldn't be just a big box surrounded by an asphalt parking lot, says the 33-year-old Robinson, but rather it should be an attractive venue that serves as a community gathering place. He's stoked about the proposed Publix on the Bay, believing that the new design will enhance the most interesting component of the store -- the already dynamic character of its clientele.

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Ray Martinez