By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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It's 3:00 p.m. on a weekday, peak passenger time, and Elucien Cheridor is driving Miami Mini Bus number 29 with about $60 in singles stuffed inside the jitney's ashtray and four people onboard. On the fourth round of a not so profitable day, Cheridor departs downtown Miami indignant. "This is no business, baby," he blurts out.
Cheridor works ten-hour shifts darting back and forth along NE Second Avenue -- between The Mall at 163rd Street (Miami Mini Bus's terminal) and downtown Miami. Sometimes at the end of a ride he'll hang out out at the mall for a few minutes to chat with fellow Haitian bus drivers. Every day the men stand in a circle and smoke under one of a few trees that sprout from this desolate expanse of parking lot. The conversations are lively, and there's a lot of laughter. Their jitneys are parked nearby in a row.
Cheridor has been driving number 29 for more than a year now. He's married and has three children. The oldest is 21 years old, the smallest is four years, a late addition to the family that came as a surprise. "My wife," he sighs. "She's crazy." He became a jitney driver when he was laid off from his job at a construction company, where he had worked for thirteen years. Already, he says, the monotony of being constantly on the road is starting to wear him down. On occasion he stares blankly at the streets before him while he drives and becomes entranced by the mantra of Haitian talk radio crackling in the background.
But usually Cheridor remains alert. On NW 62nd Street, when two adolescents board the jitney, he becomes suspicious, though he continues to drive for about half a block. The skinny black teenagers in question attempt to squeeze between passengers who are now sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. (In jitney etiquette, drivers allow passengers to settle before paying.)
Cheridor looks at the teenagers through his rear-view mirror and suddenly takes his foot off of the accelerator after they've sat down. "Money?" he eagerly inquires in English, a language Cheridor seldom uses when interacting with mostly Haitian passengers. The two boys ignore him. "Come on, money, money," Cheridor impatiently repeats. But there's no response, only the sound of crunching pebbles, pulverized by the vehicle's rolling tires as Cheridor pulls off to the side of the road.
The boy closest to Cheridor nervously looks at his friend, who is sitting in the back of the minibus. In almost a whisper he tells him to pay the two-dollar tab. But the friend does nothing. Cheridor stops the jitney, turns around, and looks the young men in the eyes. "Money," he roars. The boys get up, grumble about the lack of space and air conditioning, and leap out of the jitney.
A few blocks down a man and a woman are arguing on the street corner. She hails a different jitney and leaves the man, who then flags down Cheridor. As he enters jitney number 29 hoping to catch up with his mate, Cheridor, who witnessed the spat from a distance, banters with his newest customer in Kreyol. Other passengers join in and a few people laugh. The man tells Cheridor he wants out. He starts to exit the jitney seemingly more depressed than when he stepped in. In the confusion he almost forgets to pay. But Cheridor is quick to remind him. "Ou te peye (Have you paid)?" he asks. Embarrassed, the man quickly hands him a dollar. "Hallelujah," Cheridor exclaims, shaking his head.
In light of the incident that has just taken place, three female passengers begin to talk about their role in a male-dominated Haitian society. Soon almost everyone in the jitney is engaged in the discussion. Cheridor pronounces the only English words throughout the debate when at one point he shouts -- in reference to who shoulders the responsibility in a relationship -- "Fifty-fifty, baby. Fifty-fifty." At this, everyone breaks into laughter, even the few people who have remained quiet, including a fourteen-year-old girl returning home from baton practice, a Cuban on his way to visit some friends in Miami Shores, and a woman wearing a royal-blue vest that reads "Welcome to our thrift store," who just got off work.
The journey has come to an end. The handful of passengers still onboard are on their way to the mall. Once Cheridor arrives at the shopping center's parking lot, Eddy Nelson writes in a notebook that number 29 is back. Nelson, a former driver, stands here all day, under the sun, recording the comings and goings of Miami Mini Bus jitneys. He shows Cheridor a Polaroid mug shot of a passenger who threw a rock at jitney number eighteen's window that morning, shattering it completely. But Cheridor doesn't really want to hear about it. He assumes his position under the tree. In a few minutes he'll be headed back to downtown Miami for the fifth time today.
Of the thirteen jitney companies throughout the county, only a few are thriving despite rocky times in mass transit. There are a number of reasons why some jitney drivers are hanging up their keys. They say mounting insurance costs, rising gasoline prices, and county meddling are forcing them to shut down their engines. A bad rap from the county has hurt the industry as well, says Rene Gil, president of Conchita Transit Express, the only jitney service making rounds in Hialeah. And they lack political clout, especially in comparison to the strong arm that supports the county's bus drivers, the Transport Workers Union, which has effectively fought tooth and nail to protect its members' turf.