By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Michael E. Miller
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.
On this day the main topic is an old standby: the lack of action in what should be one of the busiest times of the year. Despite the seemingly unending clog of human traffic and the grinding clank of the loading machinery, Palmer can see from his numbers that demand is not what it should be. Moreover, he's hearing about it from unhappy vendors. "From last year to this year I've seen this market really, really struggle," he says, turning the corner into the dark, cavernous interior of the Florida Fruit warehouse. "I'd never seen people going out of business this time of year before, but this year three small guys did. And the summer killed quite a few people." Walking over to an antique-looking cash register to drop off a report, he greets a man in a Marlins cap. "What's up today, Ivan?" Palmer asks. "Strawberries?" The two sort out prices for honeydews, watermelons, oranges, and grapefruit. Underneath the scream of the machinery and the shouts of the men working, there's the incessant roar from the coolers, the great walk-in refrigerators that hold most of the fresh product. Workmen steering pallet jacks A battery-powered walk-behind cargo carriers A wear heavy coats and stocking caps to protect them from the cold and damp. Out in the heat of the loading dock they look absurd, but warm clothes are essential for anyone who spends much time in a produce warehouse's frigid zones.
Palmer, who wears a blue jacket that bears the name of his college soccer team, occasionally ducks into the coolers himself, checking the product. Produce people are known for being compulsively tactile, feeling, prodding, and squeezing the merchandise at every opportunity. The P. Tavilla coolers next door to Florida Fruit give Palmer a chance to indulge himself with first-class product. "They have oranges and stuff from California A Sunkist, which is A-number one," he says, opening a box and extracting a smooth, succulent-looking Valencia. "They're different from Florida's, much more expensive. Florida is producing mainly navels now." He replaces the orange and walks quickly through the twenty-foot-high coolers, ticking off brand names and showing off samples as he goes: "Trout is a good, good brand of apple, the best. Dole pineapple, Andy Boy broccoli, they're all premium brands. Tavilla carries a lot of stuff that other people don't have. You won't see California artichokes many places. You won't see anise many places." He turns and heads back out to the loading dock, looking for more prices. P. Tavilla's business is evidently holding up; its end of the dock is a madhouse, and Palmer has to wait his turn for what he calls "these big corporate guys," a joking reference to P. Tavilla's overseas owner, Britain's Albert Fischer Group.
Things are quieter across NW Thirteenth Avenue, in the office of Select Tomato. Select is a tomato repacker, one of two remaining Dade outfits that buy tomatoes by the truckload, grade them by color, and repack them for sale in smaller quantities. Its roots, like those of Florida Fruit, go back almost to the very beginning of the Miami market, to a time when the market itself was surrounded by tomato fields. Today a hand-tinted photo of Select founder Steve Danna hangs over the desk of his grandson and namesake. This morning the younger Danna, a heavyset, gray-bearded man of 50, ponders the vagaries of produce supply and demand between drags on a Salem. His attitude seems, if anything, cheerfully fatalistic.
"The hurricanes this year ruined us," he says. "The ones that hit the islands, like Grand Cayman, St. Thomas, Barbados, Martinique. We ship to all those points, and we lost 35, 38 percent of our export business this year because some of those islands were really devastated." The phone rings and Danna picks it up, stubbing out his cigarette in an almost-full ashtray: "Select Tomato." Down on the floor a paper bag begins moving around under what seems to be its own power, until a cat's head pops out and peers curiously around. Danna quickly completes a terse and arcane transaction and hangs up.
Palmer asks him what he's heard about the Florida tomato crop.
"From what I understand, the whole state's lighter in acreage this year," Danna says. "This NAFTA thing, they gotta do something. But we laugh, because all these American companies invest in Mexican farms. They're the guys that are screaming the loudest about the NAFTA situation, and they're fighting their own money."
"Why would they do that?"
"It doesn't make sense. Except a lot of people don't know. Maybe it makes 'em look good to the American public to make a lot of noise about it. But the NAFTA made no sense when they passed it and it makes no sense now. The whole thing amazes me. The labor cost is the whole issue. They can plant an acre of tomatoes on drip irrigation and plastic in Mexico for about $500 an acre, and here it costs $4600. It's all labor, it's not materials. You're talking a tremendous difference. They tell me labor costs in Mexico around twenty percent what it runs here."
Danna can afford a certain amused detachment about NAFTA; he can and will get tomatoes wherever he needs to, be it Florida, California, or Mexico. Still, it's clear that like almost everyone else in the Miami market, he's uncomfortable with the way things are going. In the face of competition and soft demand, the market seems to be stretching its dependence on credit to the breaking point. Payments from buyers A difficult for wholesalers to collect even in the best of times A come in later and later, or not at all. Wholesalers cut their customers more slack, hoping they'll stay in business and repay their debts. But as the margin for those buyers gets narrower and narrower, the chance that they might survive to pay again gets worse.
Steve Danna has a longer memory of the market than most. He can recall when it operated without real refrigeration, when the land under the shed belonged to the Dade Farmers' Cooperative and farmers brought fresh fruits and vegetables every day straight from the fields of Homestead, Immokalee, and Okeechobee and sold it right off their trucks. Together with a much higher volume of rail traffic, that was enough to carry most of South Florida in the Fifties. In those days the market prospered on trade from chain stores, as well as from a multitude of smaller independent grocers and restaurant purveyors.
Then everything changed. The growth of the new interstate highway system and improvements in refrigeration technology made long-distance trucking far easier. The big trucks could go places boxcars couldn't; they could unload at any number of different locations on one run; and they put the railroads' service record to shame. They also enabled the supermarket chains to build their own fresh-produce warehouses and ship in product directly A cutting the central market out of the loop. "The big change happened around the Sixties," Danna says. "It took a lot of business out of the market." Not only were the chains no longer buying in the market, they began killing off its smaller customers, the mom-and-pop groceries, roadside stands, and neighborhood peddlers of old South Florida.
The pattern repeated itself all over the U.S., strangling wholesale markets wherever supermarkets held sway. In Miami, though, the market managed to hang on, thanks in no small measure to Fidel Castro. For when the Cuban immigrant influx of the Sixties transformed Miami, it also transformed the market. Rather than shop at supermarkets where no one spoke Spanish and Latin specialties were unavailable, Cubans revived the neighborhood grocery and the whole system of middlemen that served it. They became restaurant purveyors, street peddlers, and wholesalers themselves, and adapted the produce market to their own needs. By so doing they kept it alive, but in a precarious condition, suspended from a thousand tiny threads.
At the same time, many of the market's vendors reached out into areas traditionally handled by other people. Wholesalers began getting into purveying in addition to selling to the peddlers who showed up at their docks in the mornings. Peddlers began looking for permanent locations with cold storage, competing in their own small way with the wholesalers. And some people started doing retail out of what had always been thought of as wholesale space. Today Miami's produce market is a mind-boggling blur of commercial categories, with wholesalers such as Enrique Produce, the Produce Connection, and the giant American Fruit and Produce doing restaurant deliveries and even exports; P. Tavilla concentrating on the high end but still selling to its lesser neighbors, guys in tiny stalls under the shed hawking lettuce by the head; and Sergio Felipe operating what amounts to a Latin American open-air market. The various enterprises have become extraordinarily interdependent, and also -- under pressure from outside competitors with deep pockets -- extraordinarily dependent on credit.
This question of credit comes up all the time in discussions of the health of the produce market. In a way it's like the federal budget deficit; everybody knows it's trouble, but almost nobody knows how to operate without it. "It's a circle: This guy owes that guy and that guy owes this guy," says Ralph Ramirez, who recently gave up his independent operation and went to work for P. Tavilla. "This guy's gotta wait to get paid by this guy before he pays, and you just keep going around and around the circle," explains Ramirez of his decision. "It's like a whirlpool; it just keeps going down, and everybody's in the same boat, from the biggest to the smallest."
Ramirez is only in his early thirties, but he possesses an experience of the market far out of proportion to his age. He practically grew up in the place; his father started taking him there when he was ten. "My dad used to sell dairy, ten, twenty years ago," Ramirez says. "I'm the one that introduced the produce part of it because everybody started getting more versatile and everything. Before, you know, the milkman sold milk, and the egg man sold eggs A now everything's shifted, everybody sells everything. That's the only way to survive in this market."
As a ten-year-old, Ramirez says, he felt perfectly safe in a produce market that was like a small town. Crack cocaine changed that; today crime comes with the territory. And just as the streets have gotten meaner, so too the produce trade has become edgier and ruthless. "What I see here, in like a two-year, three-year span, little by little the smaller companies are being compacted A and being ousted. The big companies, the Syscos, the Henry Lees, the Cheney Brothers and all. Before, my dad used to say, 'If I have a problem I go into the mom-and-pops, the small guys.' Those guys used to pay cash; you pick up five or six, seven of those, you make some money, no problem. Now there's almost no mom-and-pops, to begin with. And second, those big companies will go inside the mom-and-pops. So what's left over for the small companies like me? To close up and go work for a big company."
Enrique Gonzalez is Otto Garcia's father-in-law. He first came to the market in the early Seventies, moonlighting from his job waiting tables at the old Valenti's on NW Seventh Avenue. He got his foot in the door as a peddler, supplying restaurants and stores with fresh fruit and vegetables in an ancient Ford van with a balky clutch. In those days, before the rise of the large food-service companies, independent operators dominated the restaurant-supply business; the little guys left more room for a sufficiently hungry upstart to get in on the action. Gonzalez knew the schedule would be a killer: work at Valenti's until eleven, grab a few hours' sleep, buy at the market before sunrise, then rattle around making deliveries all morning. But he didn't want to be a waiter forever, and this looked like a good way to get out on his own. Gonzalez knew food A his father ran a restaurant -- and he had the Ford. How hard could it be?
He found out his first day at the market. Without really thinking about it, he went overboard buying cabbage. He bought so much cabbage, in fact, that he filled his little van with nothing but cabbage. By that afternoon, after a frustrating and largely futile trek from restaurant to restaurant and grocery store to grocery store, he knew he was in trouble. Most of the cabbage was still unsold, and without refrigeration it was about to start depreciating rapidly. Tortured by the thought of all that inventory rotting away in his van, Gonzalez racked his brain for an answer. There had to be somebody out there hungry for large amounts of cabbage. But who? Then it hit him.
Cole slaw. Cole slaw was made out of cabbage. And barbecue restaurants sold cole slaw by the barrel.
The next morning, Gonzalez hit every barbecue joint he could find, and he emptied his van. Along the way, he also picked up a core group of repeat customers. It seemed he had a natural talent for the produce business, and more than a little luck.
"I tell you, everything in life is how lucky you are," the proprietor of Enrique Produce says today, emphasizing his staccato English with abrupt gestures of his right hand. "Sometimes you know a lot, and it means nothing. Sometimes you gotta be lucky."
One of the luckiest things that happened to Gonzalez occurred shortly after the near-catastrophe with the cabbage. He met a wholesaler named Lenny Strom, "the man who showed me this business." Strom had been in the market for decades (he came to it as a hobo and worked his way up) and was famous for two things: his sweet potatoes, and his honesty. Sweet potatoes were Strom's specialty; he sold more than anyone else in Florida, because he supplied the Grand Union supermarket chain. Honesty was his trademark, and it set him apart in a business where corruption and fraud were just part of the game. It also made him a good person to know if you were a newcomer and needed someone you could trust to teach you the ropes.
That was something you needed badly if you wanted to stay in business. For while the modern market may seem to have more than its share of shadiness, by most accounts the old days were far worse. In fact, to hear the old-timers tell it, the place was a snake pit of dirty deals, bribes, and outright thievery. On top of the reptile pile was the man they called the Mayor of the Market, Frank Martin, who ran an empire of influence out of his gas station on the corner of NW 22nd Street and 12th Avenue. So smooth an operator was Martin that he transcended produce and went into politics, gaining notoriety for his role in the 1973 "Market Connection" case, in which he and then-Miami mayor David Kennedy were accused of conspiring to bribe Circuit Court judge Jack Turner. (All three beat the rap -- in large part because the prosecution couldn't prove its claims that their suspicious-sounding conversations, recorded from a tap on the phone at Martin's gas station, hid bribery negotiations behind produce code words like "crates" and "bushel baskets.")
Less prominent but far more prevalent than Martin's type were guys like the unfortunately named Eddie Munchie. He and Strom were "two opposites," according to Bruce Fishbein, owner of the Produce Connection. "You could put a million dollars on the counter in front of Lenny and walk away, and come back an hour later to find it still there. You could trust Lenny," Fishbein says. "You put a million dollars in front of Eddie, turn around and both he and the money would be gone. And he wouldn't have stolen your money A he'd owe it to you." Munchie was famous for his penchant for "making 24 out of 12" A the all-too-common practice of breaking down a dozen bunches of an item such as basil and repackaging them to fill a two-dozen-bunch order. It's said that after the end of the wholesaler's long and inglorious career, the people who cleaned out his cooler found boxes of twenty-year-old lettuce.
Vendors like Munchie did all right in the market of the mid-Seventies, partly because standards of service were lower. In the short run, you could make a lot of money operating that way. But Gonzalez wasn't in for the short run. Lenny Strom had taught him differently: "The old man, he always said to me, 'Listen, make sure the customer is happy with the package. And you be more happy than the customer. That customer will never leave you, will always come back and bring another customer.' And that's true."
It was also a good strategy for survival in the hard times ahead. When the behemoths like Sysco weighed in with lower prices and generous credit, a lot of little restaurant peddlers got squashed. Like the supermarket chains, the big food-service companies had their own warehouses outside the central market, and they could buy large volumes of produce directly from the source. With that kind of competition, playing games with the customer got you nowhere; keeping customers satisfied and loyal was hard enough without trying to take unfair advantage of them. Gonzalez's biggest customer at the time was the cruise ship Emerald Seas, an account he says he kept only because of his obsession with service. "When things got bad on the streets, when I got down, I said hell, I got the boat, and the boat buys a lot," he recalls. "I was concentrating on these people all the time, and they were very, very nice to me for many years. And nobody, nobody since I took that boat could take me out of that business. Many other companies offered these people very reasonable prices. But they said they preferred to pay me 50 cents more or 75 cents more for a package because I was dedicated to them, and they knew if something's wrong or something happened, I was there."
Gonzalez supplied the Emerald Seas for five years, until its owners sold the ship to Royal Caribbean. He was no longer waiting tables, but if anything he was pushing himself harder than ever. "I work very hard then, oh yeah, I swing," he remembers. "Nobody could swing in this market the way I swing by myself, alone. In the morning I came to the market at one o'clock and started to pick up everything for the boat. It was two trucks, two trucks and a half for the boat, and then I drive to the port, do a delivery early, come back and take a truck or van and do delivery with another fellow in the street." At the same time, he slowly but surely established himself, buying more and bigger trucks, leasing a rundown cooler to store his produce, saving his money and hunting for a place to call his own.
He found it eight years ago, a warehouse on NW 22nd Street with a leaky roof, lousy coolers, and substandard wiring. "I pass by one day here, I see this building here for sale, and I said, gee, that's a nice building," he recalls. What he saw were the possibilities of the place -- possibilities whose realization would cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of work, but would give him something he'd wanted as long as he could remember.
"I'm 59, and all the way I was dreaming to get my own business." He shifts in his chair and gazes out the window at the busy loading dock he pressure-cleans every weekend. Just outside his spotless white office, a middle-age woman is slicing onions for Planet Hollywood, and the smell drifting under the door is almost overpowering. "This is paradise, what I have now. This is the whole idea I had, what I have now. I have a good little place, I can count my money. A big company, I get burnout, I don't want it. You see American Fruit A" he waves toward the north, where giant American Fruit and Produce has an entire block of coolers and a fleet of trucks. "I don't wish them bad luck, I hope they make many million dollars. But if you're growing so fast -- they got twenty trucks on the street, they got exports, but they got so much business out and too much credit. And you have to pay. Employees you got to pay every week, gasoline you got to pay, you got to pay insurance, you got to pay the trucks, the bank, you have to pay the mechanic, you have to pay everybody. If you have no money, who does it? Hell no, I don't need it. I need the small people who pay and go. That's the way you keep going. You make a little bit, and you sell."
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."
That would have been Diane Nelms, whose charred body was found October 5 on a fire-blackened produce pallet. Two months earlier and a hundred yards away, another homeless woman in her early forties, Vida Hicks, had been killed and disposed of in the same way. Last month the burned body of a third woman known to frequent the market was found in the Miami City Cemetery. Other women have reported similar-sounding assaults, and rumors have circulated about a serial killer frequenting the market. One of the more lurid stories has him driving a truck decorated with a picture of the Devil and a burning woman in chains.
As scary as that sounds, people still go out to the tracks at night, and hookers still do business at the market. Rohlfing offers an example: "the pregnant Guatemalan chick" who wanders the neighborhood looking like a lost eleven-year-old. Barely five feet tall, no more than 100 pounds, with a gap-toothed grin and painfully thin legs. "You know that's gonna be a crack baby," Harraghy says. "It's a shame. It really is a shame."
Across NW Thirteenth at the Produce Connection, they know the Guatemalan prostitute, too; they call her Shorty. She's here this morning, in fact, sans infant, having given birth a few days ago. For a new mother, Shorty seems unnaturally frisky; judging by appearances she's entirely devoid of maternal qualities. She dodges around the busy dock like a little kid, her bony body hidden by a ragged leather jacket. She runs up to sales rep Dennis Young and makes a proposition. He looks disgusted for a moment, then grins and answers her in Spanish. "She wants a dollar," he says. "'Ay, papi, gimme a dollar.' I told her I'd give her a dollar if she grabbed that guy's dick over there. She did it!" Young gives her the dollar -- one-fifth the price of a rock -- and she disappears over the edge of the loading dock. He grimaces. "They all got a scam. I hate 'em all."
Young and Produce Connection owner Bruce Fishbein have no time for scams this morning. They're in crisis mode. "You heard what happened to our truck, right?" Fishbein asks. "We had a California load we booked that was coming here. The driver had a heart attack in Louisiana and wiped out not only himself but from what I understand six or eight cars. People died, produce everywhere."
The phone on the counter rings. He snatches it smoothly. "Hello, Produce. Well, pick 'em out yourself, you know what I'm saying? Bro, you know I love you, and I appreciate it, I'm just saying pick 'em out yourself and bag 'em for us. Big, big berries. The stems were nice, give me five more stems, okay? And try to get us an early delivery. Thank you, my brother." Five Jamaican importers on their regular weekly buying run -- two thin men and three large women -- stand in front of the counter shivering, hunched over in thick sweaters. Fishbein's getting by comfortably on adrenaline and a white, hooded Dolphins warmup. He grabs one more call, then leads the Jamaicans back to his office.
It's half past six and the eastern sky has gone all pink and orange. Out on Thirteenth Avenue a man shuffles by, bent over behind a heavily loaded shopping cart. At some point during the night, someone dumped a load of garbage fruit at the railroad crossing, and the wind wafts the smell back to the Produce Connection warehouse. No matter. The dock is full, and the forklifts are running as fast as they can.