“Standing on the Corner Watching all the Girls Go By”
MEMORIES OF GROWING UP IN MIAMI BEACH: THE 1950s
By Myron S. Lubell, Phd, CPA … former professor at Florida International University, columnist for The Miami Herald, and author of “The Sixth Borough”
The following memoir was submitted to Seth Bramson, noted South Florida historian, to be used in his new book “The History of Miami Beach High School”
For additional information about Seth and his Miami Beach history books please refer to his website:
April 1956, late in my final year at Miami Beach High School, I was suffering from a self-inflicted malaise commonly known as “senioritis.” Like many of my classmates I had recently received a letter of acceptance to college; grades were no longer uppermost in my mind. The only significant activity in my life was “hanging out” on Saturday mornings at the southwest corner of Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue. Naturally, like many of my friends, I was inspired by the popular new song, “Standing on the Corner Watching All the Girls Go By.” However, for those of us who occasionally looked beyond the pretty girls, this historic corner, which we regarded as our “Holy Retreat,” was the demographic, financial, entertainment, fashion, social, economic, and cultural Crossroads of our beautiful “island.”
In ancient times, Jerusalem was the crossroads of history, where various cultures meshed, merged, warred, and blended – where civilization matured and suffered through the growing pains of adolescence. In April 1956 the corner of Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue was the vibrant crossroads of Miami Beach, where a world comprised primarily of Jewish people met, shopped, ate, worked, went to the movies, strolled, browsed, and “kibitzed.” It was the corner where I experienced some of my own growing pains. Here is a personal description of the robust mélange of people who populated the crossroads of my Jewish island in the mid-1950s:
American-born Jews: Lincoln Road was comparable to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, or Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, with elegant stores and an endless selection of restaurants. It was “paradise found” for our parents, especially those who could afford to shop at Burdines or Saks Fifth Avenue… or dine at “Wolfies” where they could enjoy an overstuffed pastrami sandwich or a chopped liver platter with a slice of onion, a large kosher pickle, and maybe a little bit of “schmaltz” (chicken fat).
Elderly Jewish Immigrants: They came from the “old country” in the 1890s or the early part of the 20th century, and they worked and shopped on Washington Avenue but not on Lincoln Road. These were the “white-haired” people who fled from the Czar, the Cossacks, and the Russian Pogroms. Most of them had foreign accents and spoke Yiddish on the street; many of them were religious and shopped at the kosher bakeries and meat markets. And they liked to call each other “Litvaks” or “Galitsianers” (based on the region of their origin) and even though I did not speak Yiddish, it was obvious that those were not terms of endearment.
Recent Jewish Refugees: These were the survivors from the Nazi concentration camps and many of them had numbers branded on their arms and could be seen at all hours at Dubrows Cafeteria on Lincoln Road, famous for wonderful Jewish-style food, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night snacks. I often stared at the horrific Nazi “tattoos” despite being chastised by my father … “staring is rude.” However, I ignored his fatherly advice; the pain of these unfortunate people was overwhelming.
Cuban Jews: As European Jewry attempted to escape from Hitler and were denied entry into the United States, many settled in Cuba. After the war the United States relaxed its immigration laws and some of the Cuban Jews came to this country. However, the major influx of Cuban Jews took place in the early 1960s, when Castro came to power. Eventually a Cuban-Hebrew synagogue was built a few blocks north of Lincoln Road
Tourists: Hundreds of Jewish tourists strolled past the crossroads at a leisurely pace, without caring where they were going, as long as they didn’t miss one of their three daily meals and the late-night snack. You could easily identify the tourists; the men wore pink, yellow, or “lime green” gabardine slacks, or orange floral cabana suits with sandals; the women wore pastel sundresses, cork platform shoes, and wide-brim straw hats. And they all wore sunglasses, even on dark overcast days. The tourists didn’t stop and kibitz; they were just passing by the crossroads drinking freshly squeezed orange juice at open-air fruit stands or purchasing painted turtles or coconuts that were carved like the faces of monkeys. They shopped at Mal Marshall, a store that displayed 48 different colors of gabardine slacks, one for each state, and the world’s largest selection of Cuban-style Cubavera jackets (mine was royal blue).
I can only speak with authority about the southwest corner of the crossroads, the meeting place where many Beach High kids congregated every Saturday morning, sometimes wearing cardboard Polaroid glasses that we stole from a 3-D movie … and the boys were almost always dressed in cool Lacoste polo shirts with the little alligator, jeans with the cuffs rolled once (never twice), and very clean white buckskin shoes. The girls wore poodle skirts and carried white wicker basket purses. Some wore pedal-pushers (those were tight pants that went down past the knees, but not quite to the ankles), and a few of the more “liberated” girls were starting to wear “short shorts” … which eventually inspired a popular song: “Who Wore Short Shorts?”
The north side of Lincoln Road was not my world, neither was the east side of Washington Avenue. Sometimes I stood on my corner and watched the parade of adults on Lincoln Road, but I rarely talked to them. I could also see bearded butchers on Washington Avenue; they often stood on the sidewalk in blood-stained aprons, arguing with customers. In the final months of my senior year at Beach High, my world was mainly a collage of transplanted New York Jewish teenagers who would soon graduate from high school. My world was sometimes referred to as the “Sixth Borough” of New York City.
At the crossroads of ancient Jerusalem, the course of history was significantly changed by the Roman conquest, the dispersion of the Jews, the birth of Christianity, and the inspirational philosophy of several religious zealots. Correspondingly, at the crossroads of Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue, the hangout for Jewish teenagers, we also had a few zealots. Our infamous prophets of “gloom and doom” were Holy Joe and Silver Dollar Jake.
Holy Joe was a short, frail man. He wore a white shirt with suspenders, a bow tie, and a gray fedora. His “uniform” never changed, even on the sweltering days of summer. He rode an adult tricycle with pocket-size bibles in the basket. He was an evangelist, and every Saturday morning he stood on the southwest corner of Lincoln and Washington … Of course, he referred to our beloved corner as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” He often wore a sandwich board and looked passionately to the sky, hoping to convince the young Beach High “sinners” to see the way of the Lord. His sandwich boards often displayed frightening warnings of eternal damnation.
We liked to joke around with Holy Joe but not in a mean way. In fact, on hot days when he had to stand on the corner with his sandwich board, we always brought him water or orange juice. But, if he earned “salvation points” or some type of a bonus for converting Jews, he would have starved to death; no one took him seriously.
If Holy Joe was the harbinger of the Lord, the self-anointed incarnation of good, then Silver Dollar Jake was the embodiment of evil – the Antichrist. He was a middle-aged man dressed in a ship captain’s hat, white pants, and a blue blazer with brass buttons. He was always laughing at the world as he drove a red Cadillac convertible, cruising the crossroads of Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue, seated next to his companion, a full-size inflatable female doll, the mistress of temptation.
During World War II the Army used the island as a training location and the soldiers often crossed the causeway to Miami, to Bayfront Park, where dozens of prostitutes were selling their services. This kind but eccentric man passed out silver dollars to soldiers in uniform (that’s how he got his nickname). The money was used to purchase condoms (then known as “rubbers.”) By the 1950s the soldiers were gone; Miami Beach had become a “Jewish Island” and Silver Dollar Jake redirected his efforts. His new mission was to offer guidance to the young Jewish boys, to shelter them from the fire and brimstone preaching of Holy Joe and the apocalyptic prophecies of his sandwich boards.
Silver Dollar Jake shouted as he attempted to attract a Saturday morning audience at the crossroads … He was competing with Holy Joe for the attention of the Beach High teenagers. “Think for yourself … the world is your oyster.” (In 1956 we weren’t quite sure what he meant by that confusing observation.) Then he laughed and threw a handful of “rubbers” toward the outstretched arms of several dozen boys. Once he had gathered a large enough assemblage, he began his “sermon on the crossroads” … and his message varied from week to week, always colorful, insightful, and controversial. And when he finished his allegorical tale, we applauded and laughed and held out our hands … begging for more rubbers.
“Sorry boys …. That’s all for today. Look for me next Saturday … same time, same place, and say a special prayer for Holy Joe. Carpe Diem!” Silver Dollar Jake laughed as he drove north on Washington Avenue; the top was down on his red convertible, and he had one arm draped around his inflatable girlfriend … and we all waved goodbye and looked forward to his next visit … then we crowded around the counter in Liggett’s Drug Store for a quick cheeseburger and a cherry coke … the movies at the five Lincoln Road theaters would soon begin. My favorite theater was the Carib, where I could discuss current events with a multi-colored macaw perched high on a pole in the entryway to the lobby.
June 1956: We graduated from Beach Hi and went our separate ways …. to college, the Army, and elsewhere; it was time to begin our quest for the proverbial “oyster” – the elusive promise of Silver Dollar Jake. I remember 1956 fondly; it was a wonderful time in my life, in our lives, no worries, no problems, just standing on the corner watching all the girls go by and enjoying delicious cheeseburgers at the counter of Liggett’s drug store. In retrospect … I think we already found the oyster but it took a lifetime to figure out what Silver Dollar Jake was trying to tell us.