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The European gentleman, midforties, a slim, bespectacled fellow in a business suit, stands at the lip of the curb just outside the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort in Miami Beach on a gorgeous winter afternoon. He's just checked out of his room and asked a concierge to call him a cab to the airport. One soon pulls into the semicircular drive and glides to a stop in front of him. Inside the yolk-colored No. 829 is Javier Peña, proving a point.
This isn't his fare. But he feels justified in stealing it from the blue Checker Cab minivan two cars behind him because he knows that cab is stealing it from someone else, a driver who plays by the rules. "Here, look at this," Peña hisses, pointing to the valet stand, where a young man in a crisp white guayabera is speaking into a phone. "He's on the phone to the mafia." A devilish look flashes across his broad Dominican face and disappears into the thick bristle of black-and-white beard jutting wildly from his chin. He scrambles out of the taxi to steer the businessman into the back of his vehicle, hustling to get the job done before he's spotted and kicked out of the roundabout by hotel security. "Airport," the man directs, and Peña begins to zoom up Collins Avenue, cackling mysteriously into his rearview mirror.
Suddenly he swerves into the drive of the Loews Hotel, just a couple of dozen yards up the street. He jerks to a stop next to two taxi drivers languidly leaning against their vehicles. "You gotta get out," he mumbles to the confused and slightly alarmed passenger. To the bemused drivers, Peña tenders an unexpected boon, an easy $24 fare, no strings attached. "Here, take this guy," he offers. "He needs to go to the airport and I can't take him." The businessman clambers uncertainly out and into one of the other taxis.
Peña pulls back onto Collins, crosses it, and turns onto Sixteenth Street. "See that?" he crows. "I stole that guy's fare and I didn't pay the eight dollars he was going to pay for it." His mood quickly downshifts: "I was hoping that [Checker driver] would say something to me. I'd punch him out. That fucker's a door-buyer."
Peña is not the only cabbie who'd like a piece of that Checker driver, and the hundreds like him who routinely undercut honest drivers by paying an illicit kickback to the valets and hotel employees who direct the most profitable jobs to them. These employees have enormous control over who gets the fare because they usually make the cab-service call for customers leaving their front doors.
Taxi drivers call it "the buying of the doors," and the appellation "door buyer" is uttered like a curse by cabbies outside the ring. There has always been some of that kind of palm-greasing in the industry, but it's become much worse following the 9/11 tourism slump. And while it's most evident along the county's eastern edge, from Aventura to Key Biscayne, door-buying goes on all over Miami-Dade. Many drivers, however, claim that in this most lucrative stretch of the tourism corridor, 80 to 90 percent of hotels and condominiums are part of the conspiracy.
The informal groups of door-buyers and sellers, once divided almost exclusively into ethnic clusters, have become organized cartels spanning every nationality. Drivers in these cartels pay kickbacks of as much as 30 to 50 percent in return for a guaranteed fare. A $24 ride from South Beach to the airport, for instance, gets bitten down to $16 or $12 by the time the kickback is paid. Drivers who refuse to pay must subsist on the three- and five-dollar jobs hauling elderly ladies eight blocks to the grocery store, or the drunken club-hopper back to his nearby hotel. It's a $500 civil penalty if door-buyers are caught, but they seldom are. Just a few dozen have been hit in stings conducted by county code enforcement and Miami Beach police in recent months. Sometimes the galling inequity of it all provokes the more hot-headed drivers into fights outside hotels and in taxi lots, threatening to kill each other.
Boris Shvartsman, president of Central Cab, the dominant company operating in Miami Beach, says the once infrequent practice has grown like a metastasizing cancer. "An [honest] driver who work today can't make his living because the doors are all bought from First Street all the way to Golden Beach," he complains through a thick Russian accent. "From Sunny Isles they pay fifteen dollars for airport job now.
"This is good be doorman, no?" he continues, cocking his head to one side. "Good job. Easy money." He laughs.
Miami-Dade Taxi No. 829 cruises down Biscayne Boulevard, cuts right onto NE Eighth Street, past the Miami Arena, then jags south on NW Second Avenue. The destination: the Flagler Street offices of the Passenger Transportation Regulatory Division (PTRD), a little-known county agency that imposes a degree of order on the naturally unruly taxi industry. Javier Peña has a complaint to register. Again.
As he drives, keeping a discerning eye on the other taxis roaming the downtown streets, Peña recalls the incident almost two years ago that converted his basically entrepreneurial soul into that of a budding labor activist. "What it was, I had a [traffic] accident," he begins. "I was in a Yellow Cab. I wasn't cited. The other lady was cited."