By Michael E. Miller
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Walking north along NW Thirteenth Avenue, Fernando Palmer sums up recent stories of hard-won market success: "Enrique is expanding, Pepe has been growing, American is growing, Tavilla says they've maintained, Caribe maintained." Off to the right is the old farmers' shed, full of little guys trying to reach that level of security. The space between buildings A an irregular labyrinth of asphalt and dirty concrete occasionally festooned with rolls of razor wire A swarms with cars and trucks and strange thatch-roofed hut-vehicle hybrids. From the other end of the block gigawatt dancehall reggae booms out of a black van whose wild paint job proclaims it "The King of Fruits"; Palmer does a double-take as a shock-sprung station wagon with its hood covered in oranges and its roof loaded with watermelons lurches by, Creole talk-radio crackling from its open windows. Jamaicans and Haitians have carved out their own niches in the market, following the example set by their Cuban predecessors. Other less obvious ingredients of the melting pot turn up too. On Mondays and Tuesdays one vendor under the shed gets business from Chinese people out of South Carolina, independent restaurant suppliers looking for deals on papayas, avocados, onions, and garlic. Every now and then, he says, he even gets a Chinese-restaurant supply run out of New York, two guys driving a big van straight through to clean up at Miami prices.
Off to the left is something entirely different: a sidewalk full of people who are seemingly beyond cleaning up. Crashed out against a blue-painted wall, they huddle under ragged blankets and plastic trash bags, warming themselves in the bright early-morning sun. In an hour or so some of them will be up and moving around, setting up shop on street corners to offer cut-rate prices on whatever overripe produce they've been able to scavenge from the wholesalers' garbage. Not far away, down on the corner by Tavilla, is what amounts to a permanent campsite for lumpers -- men who get by from "lumping," unloading trucks. Gathered around a fire in a 55-gallon drum fueled with broken-up produce pallets, they're waiting for a semi to come in and cooking breakfast on a makeshift grill.
These are the men and women -- men mostly -- who make up the produce market's more or less permanent population of lost souls. Drug-hungry, down-and-out, mentally disturbed, some have managed to last for years on the street, and Palmer can run through their names, too A Red Cap, Juice, Robert, Pineapple Man, Jerome. Sometimes working, more often subsisting on whatever they can scrounge or steal, they have their own standard of success: scraping together enough to buy a crack rock or a bottle of booze, and surviving long enough to enjoy it. Their numbers vary with the seasons and pressure from the police; one guess puts the current number of squatters at about 80. That sounds pretty bad, but it's well down from the several hundred who occupied the area about a year ago, according to Fred Harraghy of Jet Fresh Produce. "It was like Egypt. I don't know if you've ever been to Egypt, but outside Cairo they have about three million people living in a dump," Harraghy says. "That was what this place was getting to be like."
The Jet Fresh warehouse stands a few yards south of where a railroad siding crosses NW Thirteenth Avenue. From where Harraghy and Jet Fresh owner Fred Rohlfing sit filling out orders for edible flowers and other specialty items, they can see their cars, parked near the tracks in a three-sided concrete enclosure. It's a good idea to keep an eye on your car down here; vehicles and their removable parts -- batteries, phones, radios, even sparkplugs -- are favorite targets for local bandits. People get hit, too: Rohlfing has been held up at gunpoint twice in the fourteen years he's worked in the neighborhood.
The tracks are a kind of no man's land, a place where people do things they don't want seen: illegal dumping, prostitution, smoking crack. Last year, Harraghy remembers, the police swept down the railroad right-of-way and flushed nearly a hundred people from hiding places in the high weeds and piled-up garbage. Before that a trackside shantytown had grown out of what they called the "Jet Fresh Motel," a seldom-used side loading dock homesteaded by vagrants. "There used to be 25, 30 people living there at one time, until the landlord came and kicked 'em all out," Rohlfing says. "They were there for about a year. They put up shanties, used cardboard and pallets and wood, nailed things together. Some of 'em lasted through Hurricane Andrew. All these little shanties out here, and it was amazing to have to work around them. They were using the water down there, the water faucet, taking baths down there. There was an electrical outlet in our cooler - they ran an extension cord under the door and had a little hot plate there, and they were cooking food on it."
"They had pictures hung up, framed pictures," Palmer recalls.
"They had regular homes back there," Harraghy says.
Today only a few people actually live near the tracks. Looking east from Jet Fresh just after dawn, you can see the occasional nestlike piles of debris they've built up around their beds and make out human figures moving around. Harraghy turns and points to the west. "That's where they burned up those girls, those two prostitutes," he says, indicating the deserted stretch of track a block past the busy loading dock at the Produce Connection. "They think they hit 'em over the head and threw gasoline on 'em and burned 'em. One girl was on the market for over twenty years."