Sleep- Walking

A somnolent beach maintenance crew picks up as many Z's as it does bags of trash

In her 1991 book The Overworked American, Harvard economist Juliet Schor documents the alarming fact that work hours for most people in the United States have steadily expanded since World War II. Thanks to demanding bosses and a consumerist culture, Americans work longer and harder chasing after material possessions they don't especially need or truly want. The end result is sore backs, weary minds, and less leisure time than before.

If you're reading this while you're supposed to be working, don't feel too bad. Get set to feel gratitude -- and considerable envy -- for members of Dade County's beach maintenance crew. Laboring in obscurity, these selfless souls have discovered the social equivalent of a cure for cancer: the stress-free job. Their achievement -- which includes sleeping during significant portions of the workday -- is a gift to all humankind, even though their efforts are subsidized by your tax dollars.

Since 1966, when Dade County's Department of Park and Recreation took over the task of grooming the coastline along Miami Beach, the job has grown to employ 60 full-time and contract workers and two million dollars' worth of heavy machinery. The county's Beach Operations District spends a whopping $1.5 million per year just keeping the sand shipshape, partly because there's a lot more sand. According to county officials, the amount of usable beach grew from 1.5 miles of coastline to 13.4 miles during the past three decades, owing to several sand renourishment projects.

It takes hardy folks to pick up after thousands of slobbish sunbathers day after day. Last Wednesday a crack New Times surveillance team spent eight hours observing one of two beach maintenance crews that work the strand south of 21st Street. The crew comprises one supervisor working for the county and four laborers hired by the county from Delad Security Corporation, a North Dade temp agency. (Starting pay for the supervisor's position -- Automotive Equipment Operator I -- is $8.99 per hour, with full retirement and health benefits. The county pays $7.54 per hour to Delad for each laborer.)

6:37 a.m.: The five-man crew meets on the beach near the 21st Street boardwalk. Frank, the supervisor, drives a two-ton Ford dump truck down to Twelfth Street and waits while the others amble south. The laborers wear orange vests and carry pointy sticks, which they use to poke at sandwich wrappers and cans. They pick up some of this flotsam and drop it into plastic bags. Total collected: about two bags per man.

8:22 a.m.: The crew arrives at the dump truck, throws the trash bags in the back, and climbs in. Much yawning. Frank drives north.

8:31 a.m.: The crew arrives at the Tropical Fruit Palace, an open-air cafeteria at 300 23rd Street, and dismounts. After ordering breakfast, they position one of the patio tables in the shade. A lively discussion ensues, plus eating and drinking. Louis, one of the laborers, buys a supply of mangoes.

9:01 a.m.: Time for a smoke. Three of the five crew members light up.

9:07 a.m.: The crew departs the Tropical Fruit Palace and spends the next ten minutes driving south to Fifth Street. Frank takes the truck and goes to South Pointe Park. The others begin strolling south through the dunes with their bags and poke sticks. Pat, another of the laborers, finds a broken Styrofoam surfboard and deposits it in a trash can on the beach. Occasionally one or another of the men picks up a piece of trash and puts it in a trash bag.

9:39 a.m.: Arrival time at South Pointe Park on the southern tip of Miami Beach. The crew members seat themselves at a picnic table under the shade of a pavilion.

10:20 a.m.: Frank gets up and walks to the dump truck, fetching a newspaper. Various sections of the newspaper are claimed by different crew members. A lively discussion of current events takes place.

10:48 a.m.: Nap time. Pat stretches out on top of the picnic table. Louis removes his shoes and snoozes on the bench.

11:14 a.m.: Louis gets a mango from the cab of the truck, washes it under a nearby faucet, and has a snack. He goes back to sleep.

11:33 a.m.: Frank and another crew member walk to the beach and look at the water. Then they watch a woman in a pink swimsuit rub suntan lotion on her thighs. After this the two men get in the truck and disappear for the next 40 minutes.

11:40 a.m.: Unaccountably, one of the three remaining crew members begins filling a plastic bag with some of the prodigious trash surrounding the pavilion. This stratagem makes sense when he lies down in the shade under the nearby boardwalk and uses the partially filled trash bag for a pillow.

11:45 a.m.: Two men wearing guayaberas and holding a bag of charcoal arrive at the pavilion and start cleaning old ashes out of the barbecue grill. They regard the sleeping laborers, one of whom is now snoring.

11:51 a.m.: A woman with a baby joins the would-be barbecuers under the pavilion. A look of consternation crosses her face.

11:58 a.m.: The laborer under the boardwalk wakes up and has a cigarette. He begins fashioning a turban out of his handkerchief.

12:03 p.m.: Louis wakes up Pat and suggests they move under the boardwalk to allow the barbecuers use of the pavilion. Pat is groggy and ticked off. The two men depart the pavilion and join their comrades under the boardwalk. Pat begins berating Louis for waking him up. ("Do I wake you up when you're sleeping? Hell, no! I respect a man when he's dreamin'!")

12:09 p.m.: Frank and the fifth crew member reappear in the dump truck. After Frank tops off the radiator with water from the public faucet, the five men clamber aboard. The radio is locked on gospel music. The truck heads north along the beach.

1:15 p.m.: After cruising up and down the beach for more than an hour, stopping occasionally to capture a fugitive Perrier bottle or a Bud can, the crew parks on the sand at 21st Street and takes up a position at the end of the boardwalk. Louis and another laborer lie down on a handy bench. Pat slouches against a public telephone.

1:30 p.m.: A second dump truck pulls up, and the group is joined by several other maintenance workers. The beach itself is crowded now, and everyone but Louis agrees that early afternoon is prime time for girl watching. Louis appears to be fast asleep.

2:07 p.m.: Another exhausting day is drawing to a close. The crew saddles up, three riding in the back of the truck, two in the cab. They barrel north along the beach.

2:25 p.m. The crew arrives at an equipment yard at North Shore State Recreation Area near 79th Street and Collins Avenue. They park the truck and bid one another farewell.

Like many innovators, the men of dump truck #19077 are not always appreciated or understood. When New Times described their contributions to a park department official, the reaction was unequivocally negative.

But spokesperson Beatriz Portela also points out that the amount of trash on the beach varies depending on the day -- Monday mornings, for example, find the sand littered with tons of refuse. She seems to take exception, however, to the crew's innovative time-management and stress-reduction techniques.

"If what you're telling me is true, it's totally unacceptable," Portela says. "We will definitely look into it. If there are too many people on the crew and not enough trash to pick up, then there's no reason to have them there. It would be a waste of taxpayers' money.

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