A Portable Feast

The day begins early at Hialeah Distributors. The sun has risen a half-hour ago, casting the sky in pastels, while the breeze below smells of cinnamon and fried chicken and rot. The men gathered in the parking lot are luncheros. They drive the lunch trucks known affectionately as "roach coaches," more than 30 of which are currently lined up along the warehouse's façade. The dull oceanic drone of engines accelerating and decelerating fills the air and mingles with the sound of dogs yapping from nearby kennels.

The clay-color warehouse extends east to west along the length of the block, forming an assembly line of suppliers to serve these mobile restaurateurs. The drivers carry gray plastic trays of ice to be dumped into the storage holds of their trucks, which already are packed with soft drinks, juices, and milk. A lunchero grabs at prepackaged sandwiches from a four-tiered cart on wheels. His fingers express an odd mixture of grace and carelessness, like the legs of a tipsy ballerina. Onto the rear oven shelves of his vehicle he tosses chicken croquettes, breakfast tortillas bursting with bacon strips, and medianoche sandwiches bathed in garlic.

Other drivers stock up on candy bars, cupcakes, and chips. Some stop at the next outlet along the row of businesses supplying luncheros, Mis-Postres Bakery, for flan, arroz con leche, and pasteles de guayaba, or continue east, entering Los Viñalesos Catering, where 130 different kinds of sandwiches await. At the eastern end of the warehouse building is G.A. Catering Repair and Sales, specializing in the repair of the road-battered coaches.

Here in the lunchero capital of the world, the morning bullshit session occurs exclusively in Spanish, and the tenor of the talk is machista. Selin Aguada, who has been driving a lunch truck for nearly half his 36 years, pulls up alongside three compadres. Aguada's blue-green eyes are set off by his skin, which shows the leathery effects of many days spent outdoors. His hair is brown, combed back, and neatly trimmed. He wears gray shorts and a short-sleeve work shirt with his first name stitched over the heart. Aguada swings down from his truck to exchange gruff pleasantries. One of his fellow drivers produces snapshots from a recent trip to Cuba: two nude and seminude island prostitutes. The packet of pictures travels from hand to hand as Aguada and his friends rate the girls. The photos finally disappear back into a white envelope, and the banter begins to die down as the men make their final preparations before heading out.

Aguada pats down the ice in the side compartment of his truck. Using a damp rag, he wipes the Plexiglas oven windows and steel countertops. A few yards away, the outbreak of a minor argument disturbs the feel of communal labor. A heavy-set driver with a crew cut tells another about a new stop he is investigating. The other, taller and wearing an identical haircut, claims a prior association with the company that owns the site. "Cabrón, I better not find you there!" yells the departing driver.

"Now you're seeing how luncheros fight," Aguada notes.

His tone is light, but life as a lunchero is no joke. The hours are long, the work is arduous, and the competition brutal. With an increasing number of trucks vying for customers, turf wars are a fact of life, as are robberies. Here on the fringes of the food-and-beverage industry, life has something of a frontier quality: unregulated, wild, self-made. And it's this edge, along with the promise of untold (and untaxed) riches, that draws men like Aguada into the fold. "It's a lot of work, but you're your own boss and you live all right," he says, swinging into the cab and firing up his roach coach.

There are two basic types of roach coaches. California-style trucks, named for the state in which they initially flourished, consist of a pickup truck whose bed has been fitted with a special shell, usually covered with a shiny skin of quilted aluminum, which stores prepared food. The second variety are larger, UPS-type trucks or converted buses, equipped with full kitchens.

According to state figures, 430 licensed California coaches and about 200 other modified food-vending vehicles are on the road in Miami-Dade County. Add hot dog carts and ice cream trucks to the list, and the number of food-on-wheels operations more than doubles. But providing a more precise estimate of mobile food vendors is impossible, because hundreds skirt state health inspectors and yearly licensing fees.

While the State of Florida has three departments overseeing mobile food units, it does not have the manpower to keep tabs on every entrepreneurial genius who decides the trunk of his Toyota was specifically designed to house an eatery. Trucks can go anywhere their drivers take them, so inspectors must rely on legal operators ratting out illegal ones, or wait for the rare complaint from a patron before attempting to track down an offender. The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has only twenty inspectors overseeing hundreds of California trucks in Miami-Dade County, not to mention the dozens of commissaries from which they buy food.

Unless a lunchero obtains special (and expensive) permits, his vehicle is only supposed to serve foods prepackaged in "single-service containers," a rule most drivers break. Instead they go out of their way to buy trays filled with marinated chicken, Chinese fried rice, mashed potatoes, and more. When a truck shows up at an office park or a construction site, patrons are invited to serve themselves, buffet style. These meals generally are far tastier than the prepackaged versions. And because the lunchero's survival depends on the popularity of his fare, most drivers serve hot food buffet style -- never mind the law. (The food on these trucks, if not always the most savory, appears to be safely edible. Last year, for example, only two complaints were filed with state officials concerning food purchased from California trucks.)

So how does one become a lunchero? First you need a truck. You can buy a restored California truck for $17,000 (or rent one for $250 per week) from San Francisco Motors at 26th Street and West Second Avenue in Hialeah. Next you obtain the minimum required licenses: state, county, and occupational. Now you need a route. And here's the rub.

A route is a series of stops at which you can dependably sell your food. How does one build a route? Pretty simple. You can go to any office building, warehouse, farm, business center, or school and simply park outside and wait. As long as the owner or manager doesn't mind, you're fine.

But if you actually want to sell the food on your truck, you're going to have to figure out when the workers or students are on break. And in order to have a route that generates money, you're going to have to coordinate the workers' breaks at one stop with the rest of your stops. This means you have to develop a relationship with the owners or managers of all the businesses you intend to serve.

Only one problem. You might be hard-pressed to find a single virgin stop in Miami-Dade County. Most likely another lunchero has already laid claim to it. And if you are looking to create an entire route, you're really going to have to search hard. Your competition: second-generation luncheros with nearly 30 years of experience and contacts. And if you show up at a business where another fellow is peddling his taquitos, you're more than likely going to be asked -- or told in no uncertain terms -- to leave.

Just ask former lunchero Luis Lopez, owner of Rainbow Catering, a prominent Hialeah food supplier for the lunch trucks. Lopez says he has been in the business since 1975, when he bought his first route for $5000. That's right, bought his first route. In the mobile catering business, you don't just buy a truck, you buy the route that comes with it. That is, of course, if you are working within the established code of honor, which forbids challenging an already established relationship between a lunchero and his client.

According to Lopez entrepreneurs have been creating routes and developing contacts with businesses, farms, and contractors since the Seventies, when Cuban drivers began securing a foothold in the industry. Before then luncheros tended to be Anglo, and getting someone to drive a lunch truck was difficult. No one wanted to do it. The rapid growth of Hialeah and the influx of Cubans and other immigrants changed all of that, Lopez says. Now nearly all lunch truck operators in Miami-Dade are Hispanic. They hail from virtually every Latin-American and Caribbean country, though most are Cuban.

Rather than buying a truck and trying to start a route cold, most luncheros gain entry through someone already in the business. This usually means renting a truck, for up to $500 per week, with an already established route. After a month or two of training, a driver is ready to purchase the route and go out on his own, or continue renting it if the owner does not want to sell. A driver can always build his route by keeping an eye out for new and better stops, which open with time.

The cost of a route is usually comparable to a little less than what it grosses annually. A cheap route might run $20,000 and net between $21,000 and $24,000 per year. The best routes have market values as high as $100,000. With the possibility of reaching six figures selling sandwiches, it comes as little surprise that there are internal tensions in the mobile catering business. Independent drivers sometimes get into disputes with one another; others complain that bigger operators, who own several trucks, try to bully smaller players. With more money to spend, a larger operator can provide financial incentives to a foreman or a business owner or a contractor. Codes of honor have a funny way of bowing to cash.

Shortly after 8:00 in the morning, Selin Aguada heads northwest on Okeechobee Road, then north toward his first destination, a carpet outlet on West 64th Street in Hialeah, hard by the Palmetto Expressway. He bounces with the rhythm of the road and accelerates quickly at intersections. As a result of the photo-viewing session, he is running about ten minutes behind -- serious time when your schedule revolves around a chain of famished workers on fifteen-minute breaks. If Aguada arrives late to one of these locales, the workers do not eat, and he risks losing their business for good.

He still smells soapy clean, but he has 36 stops and a long day in the sun ahead. Elbow resting on the windowsill, arm outstretched into the wind, he holds the morning's first cigarette as he drives. The vehicle's rear compartment, stacked with merchandise and ice, lists slightly to one side. Water trickles from beneath the truck like sand in an hourglass.

After a ten-minute drive, he turns into the rear parking lot of Mary's Carpet & Tile. His horn blares as if it were the world's loudest three-note harmonica. Aguada dismounts, change belt clanking. He has the build of a middleweight boxer whose stomach has gone a little soft, solid and stocky with plenty of reach, and quick, powerful legs.

He begins by propping open the truck's wings, which create faux awnings, as well as shade, for his customers. Lifting the side door of the food compartment, he unveils a miniwarehouse packed with merchandise. From the compartment's ceiling a Latin love ballad spills out on to the lot. Aguada has rigged a car speaker above a shelf of potato chips. The storage space is about eleven feet long and three feet deep. At the base is a refreshment cooler stocked with chilled cans of Arizona iced tea, cartons of chocolate milk, bottles of Gatorade and Pepsi, as well as apples, oranges, and tangerines. Above, on three shelves that run the length of the side compartment, are assorted snacks: plastic-wrapped wedges of pound cake, bags of plantain chips, Snickers bars, ham and cheese sandwiches, Ritz crackers, muffins, bread pudding, dulce de leche. To the left, the condiments: ketchup, hot sauce, mustard, mayonnaise, relish.

Aguada opens the rear compartment door to reveal food warmed by the truck's propane-fueled oven. Behind Plexiglas windows are assorted hot foods on several shelves: tender grilled chicken coated with barbecue sauce, chicken croquettes, prewrapped fried thigh-and-leg combos, hot dogs, hamburgers, steak sandwiches, medianoches, French toast, a Milanese sandwich of veal and sauce and mozzarella, chicharrónes, two trays of rice. To the right of the chow is a giant silver coffeemaker, self-serve.

Workers swoop down on the rear and right side of the vehicle, shouting greetings, grabbing hot food from the back and juices from the side. A carpetlayer heaps portions of rice, potatoes, and roasted chicken onto a heavy-duty cardboard plate; another eschews a plate and grabs directly at a taquito, the oil dripping down his fingers. A third hands Aguada a five-dollar bill. "Did you see the Heat?" he asks the lunchero.

"No, I went to sleep early last night," says Aguada, pumping the pistons of his change maker.

"Here we talk about everything," jokes outlet manager Armando Dominguez. "Politics, baseball, and faggots."

With fourteen years of experience on this route, Aguada has learned the special preferences of his customers. He stocks up in the morning on hot food from Los Viñalesos and on desserts from Mis-Postres. His daily choices have become second nature. In all there is about $500 worth of merchandise on the truck, of which he will sell between $400 and $450. At the end the day he'll discard the unsold entrées and restock packaged foods for the next day. In the morning he'll buy a new batch of meals. On a good day he'll have cleared $150 in profit.

As self-employed businessmen, drivers pay taxes on their income every three months. But not all luncheros are as forthcoming as Aguada about their earnings. This being an all-cash business, fudging on tax forms is a common practice. "You know how it is. Everybody reaches in and takes a little; not everything you make is reported," says another driver, who declined to give his name.

Now and again Aguada grabs a frayed and food-stained spiral-bound notebook. In its light-green pages he scrawls updates of customer tabs. These credit accounts are paid off twice monthly, in accordance with the workers' pay schedule. He knows nearly every customer by name.

Oscar Rodriguez, a carpet installer with a yen for pork sandwiches, says he amasses $15 to $20 of expenses per week on credit. He's typical of the lunchero crowd: a blue-collar laborer without much time to eat, and limited funds. A typical construction worker, for example, has a break of about fifteen minutes to eat lunch, hardly enough time to dash out for fast food, assuming he has a car. Besides, the quality and variety proffered by your average lunchero puts Mickey D's to shame. And when was the last time Ronald McDonald let you eat on layaway?

Aguada has been servicing Mary's as long as he has held this route. He secured the venue in an informal meeting with Mary's owner. While many drivers complain about having to offer kickbacks and/or free food to owners and foremen to secure permission to stop at a business, Aguada says no money changed hands to get this account. The owner has been pleased with his service to this day. So, does Armando Dominguez, the manager, get free food? "Are you kidding?" Dominguez bellows cheerily. "He charges me more!"

After the last of three groups of employees make their purchases, Aguada rearranges the drinks encased in ice. He pats down the cubes, wipes off the rear counter, lowers the doors, and takes off again.

Although his next stop is a forklift warehouse, Aguada's route is chiefly construction. Sixteen of the eighteen sites he visits twice daily are run by contractor José Fano. "I worked this site when they were building [the Citgo station]," says Aguada, stopping for gas on West 60th Street. "The attendant inside used to drive a lunch truck. I know him." He points across the street to a pair of six-story apartment buildings and an office complex. "I worked those too," he says. "I've worked the entirety of Hialeah." But Aguada's route has flourished with the growth of Fano's business, which has moved beyond Hialeah projects. Now that Fano is working bigger projects in Broward County, so is Aguada.

At Melrose Homes, a new project in Miramar, Aguada makes fifteen stops, zigzagging a trail of dust through a development that stretches over several square miles. Aguada spends a little more than five minutes at each, making small talk, keeping tabs on his accounts, and smiling, always smiling.

At a stop on the fringes of the site, a truckload of workers calls out to Aguada, who is already on his way to the next stop: "Where're you going? Don't let us starve!" Aguada, ever courteous, stops along the road, and opens his truck for five more quick sales. The bills he holds in his left hand have grown an inch thick, yet he shuffles them deftly and rapidly in and out of the wad while greeting workers, holding several light conversations at once and monitoring the hands rapidly despoiling the contents of his truck.

For all the smiling, the anxiety of reaching his next stop is never far from his mind. And there are other, darker concerns as well. Two months ago, he says, a foreman working this site invited another lunchero. Aguada did not take kindly to this. He personally asked the driver to leave, but that didn't work. The new guy said he had received permission. So Aguada turned to his old friend Fano. The errant vendor was sent packing, as was the foreman not long afterward. "I haven't had too many problems in my work, just a few instances," he says.

But turning to Fano was not the last alternative. Aguada had at least one more option for dealing with this stubborn interloper: " A piñasos!" he declares. With blows!

Luis Lopez is a man of slight build and enormous perseverance. He has graying hair and brown eyes that manage to be penetrating despite his tinted bifocals. A strain of humility and patience leavens his voice, lending him something of the common touch. But beneath his generous nature -- legendary among luncheros -- there is tremendous drive.

Lopez is the founder of Rainbow Catering, one of the most prominent suppliers on the roach-coach circuit. Some 250 trucks are registered to pick up food at the commissary. A former lunchero himself, the 62-year-old Lopez has come to represent the pinnacle of this particular career path: prosperous business owner. Purchased in 1984 with $35,500 apiece anted up by Lopez and two partners (as well as four lunch trucks thrown in to meet the asking price), Rainbow is a booming concern today. About a dozen employees work there, serving clients $18,000 to $20,000 worth of merchandise per day in a business that is still growing.

Before arriving in the United States in 1968, Lopez lost his left arm in a traffic accident in Cuba. This did nothing to quell his entrepreneurial spirit. He sold jewelry on the sidewalks of Los Angeles until an earthquake scared him into moving to Miami. He then moved to Chicago for a brief time, but the Windy City winter sent him scurrying back to South Florida with a newly purchased $400 ice cream truck. In that very vehicle, he loaded his wife, nine-year-old son, and his furniture, and headed south. What better place to sell frozen sweets, he figured, than Miami? "I hit the road not knowing anything about selling ice cream," says Lopez. "After having the truck painted and filling it with supplies, I had $50 left in my pocket."

Lopez bought his first lunch truck in 1975, along with a route that has since been demolished by the construction of I-95. He would rise at 2:00 a.m. and work till 2:00 p.m., then head back on the ice cream truck in the afternoon. This routine he kept up for nine months before selling the ice cream truck and devoting himself exclusively to operating a roach coach. Soon he bought another lunch truck for $9000 and began renting the first truck. Then he sold both trucks and tried a brief stint in the landscaping business. But the 1980 Mariel boatlift, along with a construction boom, lured Lopez back to mobile vending. He saw an increase in those willing to drive the trucks and a growing market as well. Lopez began buying battered trucks, repairing them, forging routes for them, and selling the trucks along with the routes. By 1984 he was ready to try his hand at the wholesale end of the business.

Rainbow offers almost everything you need for a lunch truck except hot foods and fresh-baked pastry items: propane gas tanks for refueling the rear warmers, packaged sweets, drinks. But the most impressive feature of Rainbow is its gargantuan ice plant. Installed a year ago, the gray-steel structure rises four stories high, adjacent to the eastern façade of the Rainbow building. A fat plastic tube winds down from the roof of the bin, delivering thousands of pounds of ice per day to luncheros. At peak production the plant produces 200,000 pounds per day of the white gold, which literally makes the business possible. It is cold items -- cans of soda beaded with condensation, apple juice so frigid it lowers your body temperature -- that make the lunchero an oasis in a desert of possibility.

Every day beginning at 3:30 a.m., luncheros flock to Rainbow, filling up and moving out, cramming its parking lot with up to 60 vehicles. Lopez's road to success, however, is more difficult to navigate today, in an area saturated with lunch-truck drivers. "When I got started," he recalls, "there were 200, maybe 300 trucks. Now there are over 1000 drivers." With newly arriving immigrants searching for a job that offers if not instant riches, then at least a measure of independence, more and more people are willing to vie for a place in this competitive market. The result is conflict and increased danger.

Whether it's drivers buying from warehouses or clients buying from luncheros, cash fuels the business, making it a natural target for robbers. Rainbow suffered three burglaries in 1998. In that same year, 29-year-old Ivan Edgar and 16-year-old William Lleo went on a robbery binge, logging seven lunchero holdups and one jewelry-store heist in a two-month period before skipping to Mexico. A 1992 robbery attempt at Rainbow was thwarted when Victor "Hugo" M. Candelario, a partner in the business, shot and wounded one of four bandits who snatched a briefcase full of money from Lopez. Candelario got the briefcase back, and the robbers fled the scene. "Life is always dangerous," Lopez shrugs. "You can be assaulted in whatever kind of work you do; it's all the same."

And then there are the internecine dangers. Miguel Angel, a Cuban-American driver who stocks up at Rainbow, says the two groups that typically attempt to cut into his business are Anglo, Italian, and Colombian drivers who stock up in Broward; and pesky young Cuban drivers. Angel says they do so by either showing up at one of his stops or attempting to court the owners of a business he has a history of servicing: "You think they are your partner, then you find out they're trying to find out where your route is." Weeks ago, Angel recounts, he got into a dispute with a rival lunch-truck operator regarding a sprawling Lennar Corp. housing development in Broward. "That's 1500 houses going up," he says, "a six-year project, a lot of money." According to Angel the rival lunchero learned of the site and showed up, ignoring Angel's relationship with the construction company overseeing the development. The matter nearly came to blows before the other lunchero backed off. How would Angel have responded had the offending driver not blinked first? "With everything I have," he growls. "That's the way it is out here."

Like many independent luncheros, Angel complains that bigger players, operators who own several trucks, often go after established routes by buying off management.

"What is a route?" asks Alain De La Torre. "It is nothing firm, nothing sure. It is an artificial thing." One of the dominant players on the roach-coach circuit, 48-year-old De La Torre has blue eyes and black hair combed neatly back. He wears spotless white running shoes, jeans, and a polo shirt. With his son, Guido, De La Torre owns and operates La Caridad Catering, a stable of California lunch trucks they rent out to willing drivers. The elder De La Torre first took the wheel of a truck thirteen years ago. By all accounts he and his son have had a meteoric rise in the business. They are a frequent presence at Rainbow, keeping an eye on their investments.

Ask any of the 250 luncheros who load up at Rainbow how many trucks De La Torre owns and you'll likely hear a figure of about twenty. During a recent telephone interview, De La Torre himself claimed to own nineteen trucks. A day later he claimed the number was closer to a half-dozen. His caginess may have something to do with claims of his aggressive tactics. Among luncheros he is often accused of stepping on the little guy and encouraging the men who work for him to usurp the stops of other drivers.

State records indicate that La Caridad presently owns seven lunch trucks, five or six more than most drivers who work out of Miami-Dade County. De La Torre says he is selling his trucks in order to invest in other business ventures, though he declines to elaborate. So how does he manage to be so successful? "I am a santero," he says, revealing a necklace of blue, green, and white beads. "My religion forbids me to talk about my personal life...." He hesitates almost imperceptibly then adds, "and my, uh, business affairs."

How did he start in the business? "I wasn't happy with the work I was doing [delivering furniture]. A lunchero where I was working told me: 'I think you have the blood for this kind of work. You have to have a way with the people.'" What does it take to survive in this fiercely competitive environment? Everyone survives on the roach-coach circuit, he insists, adding, "This is not a business you're going to get rich in."

How, then, to explain Victor Candelario, Jr., son of Candelario Sr. and godson of Luis Lopez? According to state records, the 39-year-old Cuban American, doing business under the name Victor Catering, is the only operator in Miami-Dade who owns more trucks than De La Torre. Looking like an improbable cross between Dom DeLuise and Don Johnson, the mustachioed Candelario cuts a larger-than-life figure in dress pants and polo shirt. He arrives at San Francisco Motors -- an auto shop that also rents, repairs, and sells lunch trucks -- driving an immaculate black 300SD Mercedes-Benz, not exactly the stereotypical image of a sandwich-peddling immigrant. Two associates accompany him. All three men wear sunglasses.

"I've built 25 routes from the ground up," Candelario boasts. "The last one I just finished two weeks ago in Pompano." But he refuses to speak in anything but the vaguest terms about how exactly he builds routes. "There's a way to do everything," he says, "selling lunch-truck food or creating a route. It's not just a matter of showing up somewhere with your truck."

Unlike most luncheros Candelario speaks fluent English. He is one of those plump men so full of energy they seem to defy their weight and age. When he speaks his body and head have a way of turning in different directions, as if he suspects he is being followed. His routes are said to be some of the best in South Florida. Candelario won't reveal how much they are worth or precisely where they are located, but neither does he underplay their value. These routes are so valuable he is not interested in selling any of them. "Let's put it this way," he hints, "I got my degrees in business and computers, but I'm making more with my lunch trucks."

Growing up with a father and a godfather in the business didn't hurt his chances at developing those choice routes. He learned the trade when there was still room to create routes without getting into turf wars. The secret to his success, he says, is "keeping your eyes open."

While Candelario is cryptic about his strategies, independent operator Miguel Angel is not. Angel claims Candelario has been keeping his eyes on some of his own sites. For example he claims Candelario made a play for a lucrative construction site he services in Broward. According to Angel an operator like Candelario will pay up to $5000 per year or spend $100 per month to keep a particularly hot account. "He was out there hanging around with the owners, seeing what he could do," Angel recalls.

Candelario agrees he is always on the lookout for new routes, but maintains that his methods are honest. "It's those drivers out there that are paying general contractors $2000, $4000, up to $8000 to do business at their sites who are ruining the business," he protests.

At a construction site just south of the Dade-Broward county line, a roach coach arrives amid a cloud of dust. The horn screams, " La cucaracha! La cucaracha!" The red truck, with its gleaming silver rims, is the only thing that seems to resist the dust, which settles on everything, including the workers. Because of the vehicle's heavily tinted windows and the lunar feel of the site, when Roger Peraza exits his vehicle he looks something like an astronaut emerging from a spaceship. His mirrored sunglasses add to the impression, until the white dust begins to settle on him, too. Peraza the astronaut rapidly metamorphoses into Peraza the street-savvy hawker of grub in an open marketplace.

He wears black jeans, a black T-shirt with a Nike logo, and black hiking boots. At age 48 he's logged sixteen years on the roach-coach circuit. True, he is one of De La Torre's drivers, a storm trooper, so to speak. His boss may have the cash and muscle to secure a competitive site if he has to. But a little time with Peraza on the job and one can see the crucial ingredients to his success: hard work, tasty vittles, a little bit of style, and a .38 in the glove compartment -- just in case.

Peraza swings open the rear oven doors, revealing a bounty that includes hot dogs, hamburgers, five different chicken dishes, ground-beef taquitos, three kinds of rice, mashed potatoes, and yuca.

An entourage of cementlayers quickly clusters around. Other men abandon the rooftops on which they were working, or dismount from Pavex cement mixers. A hard-hatted man buys a fish sandwich, then haggles with Peraza over the price of a soda. "What, are you a communist?" retorts Peraza without missing a beat.

Deeper into the site, Peraza serves a group of men who build walls in the development, and with all the joking along his sales routine, it's easy to miss the fact that he is speaking Creole to a Haitian construction worker. "Yes, I know the words that matter most, food and money things," he says. A group of Guatemalans start toward the truck, then think better of it. The reason becomes apparent immediately. "I'll never give you credit again!" Peraza shouts. "That's $20, $30 lost!"

Finally the foreman of the site drives up in a forklift. If you doubt that the lunch-truck business is a little like the Wild West, one look at Carlos Perez will change that. The 48-year-old construction boss wears a ten-gallon cowboy hat as he rides the wide open spaces, aloft in his tractor. Peraza simply yells: " La pinga!" The man!

After twelve more hours of frantic salesmanship, Peraza arrives back at Rainbow to discard unsold food and restock ice and soft drinks for the next day. The father of six has been up since 3:00 a.m., a typical schedule.

At first there seems to be a carelessness about the way Peraza flings his unsold goods into a Dumpster. But then it becomes apparent these are subtle movements, a mixture of extreme fatigue and years of experience. "It's all about sacrifice," he notes. "There's no vacation. If you don't show up, nobody eats. You can't go running off to Cancún for two or three months."

Peraza should know. Three years ago an illness forced him to sell his own route. When he returned competition was so fierce he was forced to sign on with De La Torre. "But also I am my own boss. I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder telling me what to do," Peraza says, echoing the spirit of independence that is as much a part of the lunchero lifestyle as the greasy food. "It's a job for a slave," Peraza admits. Then, with a grin, he adds, "if you're good at it."

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