Weiner Takes All

Want to make a little easy money? Whatever you do, don't go into business hawking hot dogs on the street. It's a jungle out there.

At certain moments the bodega on NW 21st Street near 20th Avenue looks deceptively still, a forgotten concrete low-rise next door to a men's underwear company, amid a scraggly topography of small warehouses, factories, and workshops just north of the Miami River. The sign above the bodega is straightforward:

Yaber Hot Dogs/Renta de Carros/hielo, sodas, hot dogs, pan, etc./Party Service

Inside, sheltered from the early-morning sun, three vendors are wiping down the metal sides of more than a dozen vending carts that stand in silent ranks along opposite walls. In the parking lot outside, another vendor is carrying on a conversation with a friend, a pale, skinny visitor. Everything appears calm. But as the thin man discovers, things change quickly at Yaber Hot Dogs. As his friend prattles on in broken English, a cart bursts from the bodega, rattling across the metal ramp in the doorway. The stranger scoots out of its path, and leans against the side of his friend's cart for safety. The cart lunges forward, launching the man into a clumsy Buster Keaton parody, a hard-knock reminder that a person must stay on his toes in this shifting landscape. Spinning, recovering, peering around the cart to see who pushed it, the man discovers the prime mover of this unstable ground: 72-year-old Amado Yaber.

In Yaber's bodega, nobody can stand still. Not the vendors who pay him to warehouse and transport their pushcarts, filled with the hot dogs and soft drinks they buy from him in bulk. Not Yaber's wife Nelly, who unfolds metal chairs for visitors and then snatches them back up without explanation. And certainly not Yaber himself, a six-foot-tall acceleration of white hair and whiskers sprouting from motley, dry skin, who begins traversing the property at 7:00 a.m. each day, seven days a week, a perpetual threat to flatten anyone in his way.

A Cuban American who speaks little English, Yaber is not eager to discuss the intricacies of the wiener-selling trade. "I don't want any publicity! I don't even want people to know I'm here! What I want to do is sell!" he shouts in an exclamation-pointed frenzy. He motions to two stout Nicaraguan women who are filling their carts with sodas. "They can tell about me," he declares. "Here, nobody can speak badly about me." The two women do not look up. Clearly they don't want to say anything at all about Yaber, even after he has charged away to prepare for one of several morning forays downtown.

In this manor of carts, umbrellas, and footstools, Amado Yaber is lord. "You see how hard I work?" he stops to ask on one of his tramps through the bodega. Obviously proud of his years of labor, he says he clears $4000 a month after taxes, on top of $600 in Social Security. As the shop's sign indicates, Yaber does rent hot dog carts, but he earns most of his money in other ways. Two years ago her husband owned more than 30 hot dog carts, says Nelly Yaber, a diminutive Guatemalan whose wide face is spanned by wire-rimmed glasses. He sold them to his former workers, many of whom now pay him six dollars a day for storage and transportation and loyally purchase from him their supplies of hot dogs, buns, condiments, and soft drinks.

"Get over here!" Yaber croaks to an assistant, his voice strangled by rage. He points to a hitch attachment for one of the carts. "Put this on! Let's get going!" The man sheepishly complies, latching the cart to another one, which is hooked to the rear of a trailer loaded with four more carts, which in turn is hitched to a beat-up Impala station wagon. With Yaber at the wheel, the jumble of vehicles clatters off the lot, water trailing from several carts, a flat tire on one of them thumping its rim violently against the macadam. Amado Yaber does not notice the noise. He is hell-bent on driving his gravy train all the way to downtown Miami.

The midmorning trickle of people exiting the parking garage on SW First Avenue at First Street isn't doing Cesar Mondrag centsn much good. Even those who cross to his corner walk right past the portly, bespectacled vendor. He hasn't sold his first hot dog of the day, but he will not sit. "No salesman who wants to succeed ever sits down," he pronounces. "Attention to the client is important, whether you're selling hardware or hot dogs." Mondrag centsn knows both trades, having worked for years in a hardware store in his native Nicaragua. He left in 1985, he says, because of "pressure from the Sandinistas," who he accuses of murdering his father, a security guard, shortly after the revolution. Undocumented and with limited options in Miami, he spent four years working in construction, saving his money and waiting for the day he could start his own business.

Mondrag centsn's smooth golden color and expansive waistline give him an air of leisured prosperity. But he labors long hours and bemoans how little it earns him. On an average day, he clears just over $30. "That pays for food and rent, no more," he says, shaking his head. "The other day I only made $20. I have to work six days a week just to get by. I should probably work Sundays. But on Sundays, I have to go to Mass, clean the cart, and buy supplies. I also like to spend some time with my wife and [four] children."

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