Alfonso Catasus never thought he’d live to see the day that his beloved would come back to him.
Early Thursday morning, the 90-year-old buckled himself in his bright red power scooter and headed to the Publix down the block from his home on Miller Drive, which was re-opened after one year of demolition and renovation.
Catasus insisted he’d be the first person to enter the “special store” that he says has been a “haven” for him for nearly 50 years.
At 7 a.m. sharp, Catasus got the green light to be the first customer to enter the Publix. He was surrounded by family and longtime friends who work at Publix.
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“I can now die happy,” Catasus said. “My Publix is back.”
Catasus and his wife Aida, 88, bought their home in 1968 after arriving from Cuba in 1961. One of the home’s perks was that it was “walking distance to Publix,” Aida said of the supermarket, which was built in 1965.
But a year ago, the retailer decided to demolish the Publix to make it bigger.
“We used to walk over every single day. This place had all we needed,” Aida said.
When they purchased their home, Aida and Alfonso also had their two mothers living with them.
“Alfonso started working at the 7-Eleven and Aida worked in the cafeteria in Baptist Hospital. By 1965, once it was clear that they would not be going back to Cuba anytime soon, they had saved enough money to buy their first and only home in exile, just off Miller Road,” said Natalie Catasus, their granddaughter, 25. “The biggest perk of their milestone purchase—that the abuelitas had their own rooms and could walk to Publix right around the corner.”
But the supermarket wasn’t just a place to buy fruits, vegetables and candy. Soon enough, Catusus said, the store became his getaway.
“That Publix has been a defining feature of my grandfather’s character,” Natalie said. “It’s always been a sort of hangout for him, an excuse to get out of the house every day after he had retired from Gancedo Lumber.’’
“I would come and disconnect here;it’s like a second home,” Catasus said. “It’s a tranquil place. But when it closed down last year, I thought I'd never live to see its reopening. This is so important to me. I’m like the only survivor.”
Said Aida, also on a power scooter: “I am the wife and he’s alive!”
When Catasus started to lose his vision, it became harder for him to drive or walk there. So his three sons decided to surprise him with a scooter one Christmas so that he could go to Publix whenever he wanted.
“They hid the scooter in the garage in preparation for Christmas Day. Little did we know, Alfonso had already discovered the gift in the early hours of the morning and took it for a secret joy ride to Publix. They were closed, of course, but he was eager to test the route,” Natalie said. “He sneaked it back into the garage before anyone in the family woke up, and he did a pretty good job acting surprised when they unveiled the scooter later that day.”
During the year of demolition, Catasus, who is legally blind, would take a service bus to the Publix on 87th Avenue and Coral Way in Westchester. Other times they would have to be content with what the Walgreen’s across the street had to offer.
“It was good but it just wasn’t the same,” he said. Meanwhile, almost every week, he and his son Juan, 59, would ride their power scooters to the construction site.
“It’s like we have a bikers’ club, but with no jackets,” Juan said. “Sometimes the site was fenced in, other times it wasn’t. One time we asked if we could step into the lobby while they were building it, and they said yes.”
During the store’s construction, the pair would sit and squint at the building, trying to guess “what was what” and “how it was going to look like at the end.”
“It’s special because we were a part of this process.”
The new Publix is 20,000 square feet larger and features a liquor store and a second-story parking garage. The store also has an expanded area for ethnic food, especially Hispanic and British foods.
“This is a special moment for us. We are fully aware that it’s more than just a supermarket, that we are part of our customers’ lives,” said Publix spokeswoman Nicole Krauss.
Although Catasus didn’t buy anything on Thursday, opening day, Catasus said it’s “not a worry” because he would be in Friday.
And the next day, and the next.