Sell It or Smell It

Potatoes are plentiful, but green beans are scarce. Okra abounds, and tomatoes are holding their own. If it weren't for Allapattah's terminal market, Miamians would have no food for thought.

Three hours shy of sunrise on a frigid winter morning, Otto Garcia has green beans on the brain.

Green beans are what everybody backing a truck into Enrique Produce's loading dock wants today. Green beans are what they're working their cell phones overtime trying to find. Green beans are what they're quizzing each other about while they wait for Otto's people to fill their orders.

And green beans are Otto's favorite subject right now, because he saw the shortage coming and jacked up the price just in time.

"I sold 'em for $30, got 'em for $19," he says, grinning mischievously and downing a cafecito. "That's good. You make more money when there's less merchandise. When it costs you more, you're able to jack it up more. When everything's cheaper, nobody makes money."

There's money to be made all down the line this morning. What will later be dubbed the Blizzard of '96 is about to bury the East Coast, and the produce market hears it coming. The word's out all across the half-dozen or so blocks of Allapattah that supply South Florida with wholesale produce. Broccoli prices are up, green onions are tight, yellow squash is hard to find. And green beans are going fast. In two blinks Otto's bought out and fending off buyers who think he has some stashed away for favored customers. "Oye, no hay," he protests, satisfaction turning to irritation. "­No hay, no hay, no hay!" There aren't any! Waving his hands like a bear swatting bees, he retreats into the safety of the warehouse cooler, only to barrel out half a minute later behind the wheel of a forklift. A red Peterbilt semi that beat the storm out of Boston 27 hours ago is backing up to the dock. Enough with the green beans already; Otto has potatoes to unload.

And the market needs them. The market can't wait. All over South Florida, grocery stores and restaurants and cruise ships and roadside vendors are hungry for potatoes like those the Peterbilt helped carry from Canada's Prince Edward Island, and for all the other good fresh things the interstate highway system and air freight deliver so quickly: carrots and lettuce and cauliflower from California, tomatoes from Homestead and northern Mexico, honeydew melons from Arizona, apples from Washington, bananas and cantaloupes and leeks from Guatemala, mangoes from Brazil, turnips from New Jersey. The list goes on and the buyers keep coming, north from Key Largo, south from West Palm, east across the Everglades from Marco Island. Six days a week, under cover of predawn darkness, they all converge on this grimy rectangle of warehouses just north of Jackson Memorial Hospital.

In the parlance of produce, this place is known as a "terminal market." Like Hunts Point in New York City, the South Water Market in Chicago, and Philadelphia's vast Produce Center, Miami's market is a meeting place for middlemen and merchandise, an area where perishable commodities are stockpiled while buyer and seller come to an agreement about their worth. Compared with the aforementioned monuments to the grocery gods, Miami's 60-year-old produce center seems a makeshift affair, a few dozen wholesalers packed tightly between NW 20th and 23rd streets and 12th and 17th avenues. But those few blocks constitute a world unto itself, one rarely glimpsed by the people who consume the fruits of its labor. Lighted loading docks that are busy islands in a sea of darkness. Forklifts dodging sleeping crack addicts on darkened sidewalks. Half-drunk homeless men chasing big semis, hollering after a few hours' work. Truck drivers pulling in off 30-hour runs. Food purveyors heading out before sunrise on their errands, clumping over the railroad tracks where two homeless women were beaten to death and set on fire last fall.

This is the grungy, crazy twilight zone that's hidden underneath white restaurant tablecloths all over Miami. It's a world built on the brutal economics of fresh fruits and vegetables ("You sell it or you smell it," produce people say), and on relationships that can go from love to hate and back again within a few hours. It's a world where you speak Spanish or you don't eat, where watching your back is a full-time occupation, where one morning's gemstones can be another morning's garbage and vice versa A and where survival means being more awake at 4:00 a.m. than most people are at high noon.

Every Monday and Thursday morning at about eight o'clock, Fernando Palmer takes a clipboard and a stack of price reports and crosses the dock that fronts Florida Mushroom Co., Florida Fruit, and P. Tavilla Co., Inc. Around then the market usually backs off a few notches from its peak of intensity. Forklift and pallet-jack traffic on the docks eases up to where it's almost safe for pedestrians, workers slow down enough to grab what for them is a late lunch (gut-burning hot dogs from a snack truck, homemade empanadas from a vendor) and A most important for Palmer A people have a moment to give him prices for his clipboard. Five years ago, when he first started compiling data for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's news service, he tried conducting his surveys at 5:00 a.m., and found out that nobody had time for him. Now that he sleeps in and hits the market later, people talk to him A not just to pick up a copy of the current published report and provide price data for the next one, but also because Palmer is a likable, intelligent guy who happens to be tapped in to most of the gossip. Not that he goes looking for rumors. It's just that in a place built on personal relationships, people are always trading personal information, and doing his job right means being, well, personable.

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