Thursday, March 15, 2012

On the closing of Jimbo's

"The Powers That Be will never allow this old slice of Miami [from] back in the Day to survive. Tear it down, pave it over, gentrify it until every single thing from the past is gone forever. Just like the stupid pavers installed on the bay front beaches recently - it all has to be gussied up. Not everybody in town wants South Beach on every single corner. Some of us like it Rustic." -"YQue," in a comment left on a Miami Herald story on the closing of Jimbo's.

Jimbo's is closing.

If you've been keeping up with the news, you're probably aware that by the end of the month this piece of old Miami will be gone. Forever.

An out-of-the-way dive on Virginia Key, Jimbo's ain't very easy on the eyes and it doesn't have an address. For years, people just referred to it as that place out by the sewage plant.

Jimbo's doesn't have valet parking, velvet ropes or a doorman.

But, for decades it's been a magnet that attracted European fashion models, New York photographers, L.A. movie actors and film crews and writers and tourists.

But mostly, it was a haven for locals who knew that there was a place - a tattered remnant of a simpler time in Miami - just a short, 5 or 10 minute ride from downtown Miami or Brickell Avenue, where one could get lost for a few hours.

For some of us, the demise of Jimbo's - if it happens - will be just as tragic and heartbreaking as the razing of the Orange Bowl or the death of Neil Rogers.

Esquire magazine once described Jimbo's like this: "Tucked among mangrove trees beside a lagoon on an island in the middle of Biscayne Bay, it's not just in Miami but of it."

So, what are we losing?

The Miami Herald's Elinor Brecher captured the essence of Jimbo's in a beautifully-written piece that ran in the paper on July 29, 1993.

by Elinor J. Brecher, Herald Staff Writer

He's young. He's bare-chested. And he's in my face.

"You put in the newspaper how to find this place," he snarls, all beer breath and hostility, "and I'll track you down and kill you."

Well! I'd heard that the regulars at the "World Famous" Jimbo's Bait on Virginia Key -- bait shop, bar and bocce field, all in one -- harbored an unusual loyalty to their favorite hangout, but this was a bit more ardent than I'd expected.

"Don't write about it!" pleads another Jimbo's habitue. "It'll be overrun with tourists and yuppies!"

Relax, guys. The likelihood that tourists and yuppies will descend en masse on your little waterside haven and despoil it with their annoyingly bourgeois standards of attire, ambiance and plumbing, is about as likely as the bait-house shrimp rising from their tanks and whistling Moon Over Miami.

For starters, there are no tables, just a small cluster of exhausted armchairs and sofas on the bait-house porch, and wooden benches along the bocce court that face a midden of garbage bags swollen with empty beer cans.

There is no air conditioning.

There is no thoughtfully chosen list of California chardonnays.

There are a great many hungry mosquitos, curious raccoons and lingering hurricane damage (as well as manatees that swim right up to the dock for fresh water and handouts, and a squadron of resident black-crowned night herons).

As for service, Jimbo's daughter-in-law, Rebecca Luznar, will ask if you'd like a beer. If you do, she'll step into the bait house -- with its corrugate tin roof -- flip the lid off a picnic cooler on the floor, and grab one for you (75 cents and $1, for premium brands). Or if you like, you can grab one yourself. Or a canned soda.

There is nothing to eat except Jimbo's famous smoked fish ($5 a pound; the marlin is sublime). There are the shrimp, too -- $8 a pound -- but they're still quite alive and swimming.

Sure, the funny little pastel shacks of the permanent Virginia Key movie set provide an amusing background, but then there's that nearby sewer plant. . .

So, a tourist and/or yuppie might reasonably wonder: What exactly inspires such fiercely protective impulses? Why do Key Biscayners rumble up in their Caddys and Mark IVs, and downtown business types zip all the way across the Rickenbacker in their Beemers for a liquid lunch alongside a bunch of guys with tattoos and no teeth who smell like fish?

"No matter what you accomplish in life, you gotta get back to your roots," explains Dario Navarro, an executive with Digital Matrix, a downtown Miami software company, who drove over one recent lunch hour with a colleague. "I haven't been here in 20 years."

Jimbo's, which has been around since 1954, is a shrine to the good old days. The Miam-uh days, before the Miami Herald building pushed all the two-legged river rats off the docks at the west end of MacArthur Causeway.

That's where Jimbo Luznar -- a native Marylander and son of a Yugoslavian miner, No. 14 of 17 children -- kept his shrimp boats before he relocated to Virginia Key.

Jimbo, 66, is a bandy-legged, leathery sort with arms and hands about four sizes too big for the rest of him. He wears a Steve-Clark-for-Mayor ball cap, and chain-gnaws stogies the approximate size of kielbasa, which he buys in bulk from a tobacconist in Hialeah.

"I don't inhale," he explains. "I just chew and spit."

Jimbo is the kind of guy who, if you ask him how to catch shrimp, will tell you how to build a shrimp boat.

Rebecca, who is married to son Jim and lives on a houseboat tied to the bait-shop dock, recently found a matchbook printed with, "If bull---- were dynamite, you'd blow this place apart."

"Look!" she says. "I got this for Papa!"

He'll tell you about the filming of Flipper behind the bait shop, or part of Gentle Ben, or all those episodes of Miami Vice.

And about serving in the Merchant Marine in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico during World War II, and how he met Ruby, his wife, on a blind date in 1947, how he drove her and her sister and his buddy around that night in the 1941 Chevy that cost him $200.

Ruby comes to the bait shop from their North Miami Beach home only for his public birthday bash every April, and "major holidays."

She told him, "If you get rid of the cruddy old chairs out here, I'll come more often."

He didn't, and she doesn't.

Jimbo will gladly relate how he got into the shrimping business through a relative in New Smyrna, Fla., how he retired from the boats 15 years ago and let sons Jim and Bobby take over. (Son David is a Miami Beach corporate lawyer -- Jimbo calls him the black sheep of the family. Daughter Gail Araujo is a North Miami Beach homemaker; daughter Marilyn Doyle works for a Miami eye surgeon. There are seven grandkids.)

Jimbo will also tell you how he got his beer license when construction began on the luxury homes of nearby Fisher Island: No one there wanted the workers hanging around drinking.

But it's the bocce as much as the beer that attracts many of the faithful to Jimbo's. It's a game that resembles bowling -- except there are no pins. It involves red and green grapefruit-size balls and a wood-framed rectangular pit about 10 by 60 feet.

The games at Jimbo's go on all day -- hour after hour, beer after beer -- hatching odd partnerships and friendships among the eclectic clientele.

"It takes a lot of finesse and concentration," says Jimbo, who has been playing since childhood and is hopelessly addicted. "It's better than baseball."

Jimbo's bocce court is such a powerful draw that T.J. Lynch, who provides nautical decorations to restaurants, drives all the way down from Tamarac every weekend to play.

"I like the people and the tropical atmosphere and the bocce," he says. "You gotta love it."

"This is called male bonding," adds Jack Kiffner, who is about to open a restaurant on Miami Beach. "If we can bond with the women, that's even better."

Miami Herald photographer Chuck Fadely shot this video a couple of years ago.

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