Weiner Takes All
At certain moments the bodega on NW 21st Street near 20th Avenue looks deceptively still, a forgotten concrete low-rise next door to a men's underwear company, amid a scraggly topography of small warehouses, factories, and workshops just north of the Miami River. The sign above the bodega is straightforward:
Yaber Hot Dogs/Renta de Carros/hielo, sodas, hot dogs, pan, etc./Party Service
Inside, sheltered from the early-morning sun, three vendors are wiping down the metal sides of more than a dozen vending carts that stand in silent ranks along opposite walls. In the parking lot outside, another vendor is carrying on a conversation with a friend, a pale, skinny visitor. Everything appears calm. But as the thin man discovers, things change quickly at Yaber Hot Dogs. As his friend prattles on in broken English, a cart bursts from the bodega, rattling across the metal ramp in the doorway. The stranger scoots out of its path, and leans against the side of his friend's cart for safety. The cart lunges forward, launching the man into a clumsy Buster Keaton parody, a hard-knock reminder that a person must stay on his toes in this shifting landscape. Spinning, recovering, peering around the cart to see who pushed it, the man discovers the prime mover of this unstable ground: 72-year-old Amado Yaber.
In Yaber's bodega, nobody can stand still. Not the vendors who pay him to warehouse and transport their pushcarts, filled with the hot dogs and soft drinks they buy from him in bulk. Not Yaber's wife Nelly, who unfolds metal chairs for visitors and then snatches them back up without explanation. And certainly not Yaber himself, a six-foot-tall acceleration of white hair and whiskers sprouting from motley, dry skin, who begins traversing the property at 7:00 a.m. each day, seven days a week, a perpetual threat to flatten anyone in his way.
A Cuban American who speaks little English, Yaber is not eager to discuss the intricacies of the wiener-selling trade. "I don't want any publicity! I don't even want people to know I'm here! What I want to do is sell!" he shouts in an exclamation-pointed frenzy. He motions to two stout Nicaraguan women who are filling their carts with sodas. "They can tell about me," he declares. "Here, nobody can speak badly about me." The two women do not look up. Clearly they don't want to say anything at all about Yaber, even after he has charged away to prepare for one of several morning forays downtown.
In this manor of carts, umbrellas, and footstools, Amado Yaber is lord. "You see how hard I work?" he stops to ask on one of his tramps through the bodega. Obviously proud of his years of labor, he says he clears $4000 a month after taxes, on top of $600 in Social Security. As the shop's sign indicates, Yaber does rent hot dog carts, but he earns most of his money in other ways. Two years ago her husband owned more than 30 hot dog carts, says Nelly Yaber, a diminutive Guatemalan whose wide face is spanned by wire-rimmed glasses. He sold them to his former workers, many of whom now pay him six dollars a day for storage and transportation and loyally purchase from him their supplies of hot dogs, buns, condiments, and soft drinks.
"Get over here!" Yaber croaks to an assistant, his voice strangled by rage. He points to a hitch attachment for one of the carts. "Put this on! Let's get going!" The man sheepishly complies, latching the cart to another one, which is hooked to the rear of a trailer loaded with four more carts, which in turn is hitched to a beat-up Impala station wagon. With Yaber at the wheel, the jumble of vehicles clatters off the lot, water trailing from several carts, a flat tire on one of them thumping its rim violently against the macadam. Amado Yaber does not notice the noise. He is hell-bent on driving his gravy train all the way to downtown Miami.
The midmorning trickle of people exiting the parking garage on SW First Avenue at First Street isn't doing Cesar Mondrag centsn much good. Even those who cross to his corner walk right past the portly, bespectacled vendor. He hasn't sold his first hot dog of the day, but he will not sit. "No salesman who wants to succeed ever sits down," he pronounces. "Attention to the client is important, whether you're selling hardware or hot dogs." Mondrag centsn knows both trades, having worked for years in a hardware store in his native Nicaragua. He left in 1985, he says, because of "pressure from the Sandinistas," who he accuses of murdering his father, a security guard, shortly after the revolution. Undocumented and with limited options in Miami, he spent four years working in construction, saving his money and waiting for the day he could start his own business.
Mondrag centsn's smooth golden color and expansive waistline give him an air of leisured prosperity. But he labors long hours and bemoans how little it earns him. On an average day, he clears just over $30. "That pays for food and rent, no more," he says, shaking his head. "The other day I only made $20. I have to work six days a week just to get by. I should probably work Sundays. But on Sundays, I have to go to Mass, clean the cart, and buy supplies. I also like to spend some time with my wife and [four] children."
Although Mondrag buys some hot dogs and other supplies from Amado Yaber, he tends to shop at wholesalers, where prices are generally cheaper. He is lucky -- he owns a car and doesn't need to hire anyone to transport his cart for him. He is also the sort of vendor who will lend his competitors straws, napkins, even buns and hot dogs, should they run short. Others, he confides, are less cooperative. He mentions a man who began working the corner across First Street five months ago. "You really have to watch him," Mondrag centsn says in a low voice. "He's the most malicious of them all."
At first, he explains, the man tried to undercut his prices, charging 45 cents for a soda, compared to the 60 cents he gets. Later his competitor began snatching things from Mondrag's cart while he wasn't looking, and calling him maric centsn and other names in front of customers. "I think he wanted to provoke a fight so the police would come," the vendor remarks. "But the police would kick us both out of here. I tried to explain to him that even if we're not for the same cause, at least we have the same necessities. We should work together. But he didn't want to listen." Recently the man has calmed down a bit. "An evangelical has been speaking to him," Mondrag centsn says. "I think it's helped somewhat. But the problem is that there's something wrong with his head."
Another vendor's pestering is not enough to compel Mondrag to seek another spot. Though he does less business here than the vendors on Flagler Street, he has his moments, even in the morning. When a passing couple inquire in Spanish about the foot-long Garcia beef sausages browning on his top grill, Mondrag quotes them a price of $1.75 each. "Caro," says the man, staring at the glistening frank. "Okay," says Mondrag. "One-fifty."
With that, the vendor commences the routine. "Mustard?" he asks. Nods are answered by a good dousing. Heavy on the ketchup and the mayo. "Relish?" (which comes out "releesh?") is next. Finally his food trays yield the crowning touches: simmering onions and sauerkraut. Cans of the pineapple soft drink Jupina wash everything down.
Such are the moments vendors cherish. And the ones they've invested in, with more than sweat.
New carts can cost between $2500 and $9000, depending on quality and features. On top of that, food vendors must obtain two $300 licenses, one from the City of Miami and the other from the Florida Department of Business Regulation's Division of Hotels and Restaurants, as well as a $45 permit from Dade County.
Mondrag centsn says he paid $3500 for his used cart, which was worth more like $1500. The extra money, he was led to believe, guaranteed him the territory he occupies. "[The owner] gave me a letter of sale saying I had bought the cart located at this space. Only later did I discover that the space cannot be sold." There's no point trying to get even, says Mondrag centsn A the man who sold him the piece of sidewalk went back to Nicaragua, where he was killed in a shootout. "Fortunately, up to now," he adds, "I haven't had a problem with someone trying to take my spot."
Henry Johnson III steps across the soft carpet of his eighteenth-floor office at the Downtown Development Authority at One Biscayne Tower. Near his large desk, a wall of windows frames a panorama of the bay to the east. Johnson's job, on the other hand, draws him west, to the streets of downtown. As a DDA urban planner, he is the man who acts as the authority's liaison to street vendors. (Although the City of Miami's Department of Public Works has regulated downtown vending since 1984, a DDA-sponsored resolution passed two weeks ago by the Miami City Commission will transfer that authority to Johnson's office, provided the commission follows up the resolution with legislation.
"DDA has an interest in the area, so we feel that it's our responsibility to be on the forefront of the vending issue," Johnson asserts. "Even though PublicWorks has been in charge of enforcing the city's vending ordinance, we've played a vital role in making sure vendors meet the requirements and keep themselves up to par. We do that by spending a lot of time speaking to them on the street."
Indeed, earlier this year Johnson's agency produced the "Street Vendors Handbook," a bilingual guide to the bureaucratic side of fruit, flower, and hot dog hawking in the City of Miami. The handbook contains a map that depicts exactly 83 locations where vendors are permitted to operate downtown, as well as explanations of the city ordinance that governs vending and licensing procedures for cart owners.
The ordinance limits vending to certain areas. The sidewalk upon which a cart sits, for instance, must be at least six feet in width, and vendors are prohibited from setting up in certain locations -- within five feet of a building's entrance, for example. Most important from a vendor's perspective: by law the 83 pushcart locations are not assigned to individuals. Rather, the first person to arrive in a designated spot on any given day has the right to stay for the remainder of the day.
If a hot dog peddler manages to park in a busy location -- on Flagler Street, say -- the investment can pay a return of more than $100 a day. But competition is stiff: Henry Johnson acknowledges that on any given day, up to 90 percent of the designated vending locations are taken. The remainder are marginal spots, where a vendor might have trouble giving away his wieners. And despite Johnson's assertion that he tells peddlers the locations are all up for grabs on a first-come basis, every day of the week, he admits that the law isn't always obeyed, and he acknowledges that many vendors trying to survive in the no-man's-land between theory and practice often end up in turf battles with their competitors, regardless of what time of day they set up and open for business.
Amado Yaber bursts into his bodega, rattling off a dozen questions in less than a minute, demanding that a mechanic show him what exactly is wrong with one of his ice machines, and gruffly deflecting questions from a young Argentinian man in jeans and patent leather shoes who has come to pick up a used cart he bought the day before. The man is accompanied by his sister, whose intense blond hair and pink hot pants light up the bodega, and an older man in more subdued safari leisurewear and old tennis shoes. The Argentine wants to know how to light two old, rusted burners under the food trays. "You have to ask my wife about that," Yaber snaps, briskly waving the man off. "She's the one who knows about those things."
But Nelly Yaber is in back, answering a phone call. Unaware that his wife is on the extension, Yaber picks up the receiver from a wall phone and begins dialing. "Amado!" Nelly Yaber shouts, "I've got a call." Yaber stops pushing the buttons, and instead listens in on the conversation. A moment later, a series of loud bangs startles the bodega's inhabitants. Yaber is pounding the receiver against the wall mount, which somehow sustains the violent blows, angering him even more. He tears the entire apparatus out of the wall and throws it to the ground. With two hands, he grabs the cord and swings the phone into the air, bringing it down again and again against the concrete floor. Her phone call thus interrupted, Nelly Yaber laughs nervously.
"Go ahead and laugh!" Yaber screams as he strides toward her, past the mechanic, the startled Argentines, and a Brazilian vendor who rolls her eyes and turns away. "Laugh a lot!"
When he storms out, Nelly explains that the phone call had been from a vendor awaiting delivery of hot dogs downtown. "He called earlier, but I forgot to mention it to Amado," she says with a frown. "He's like that -- very explosive. He's very tired, not sleeping very well at night. We recently spent fifteen days in Guatemala. It was his first vacation in fourteen years."
Adds Yaber's assistant, as he hitches another cart to his boss's old Impala: "He's a tough guy. But this is an even tougher business."
Azucena, who won't give her last name, is parked on West Flagler Street near First Avenue. It's a prime spot, and she knows it. Yet even as she pulls a large wad of cash from her pocket, she refuses to say how much money she hauls in, working her mother's cart in exchange for 30 percent of the take. "What else do you want to know, what kind of underwear I have on?" she asks with a wink.
There is little time for conversation. Customer after customer steps forward from the steady stream of pedestrians. Azucena serves them all, shuffling her compact frame along a curved axis around the cart, and engaging in small talk with those who speak Spanish. The four-wheeled contraption itself is a triumph of form dictated by function A in this case efficient wiener preparation. A four-foot-high box of metal, it includes a small sink and water-heating unit, which are required by the Division of Hotels and Restaurants. A recess on top holds two gas burners, which warm a pair of food trays that hold hot dogs and sauerkraut and onions. To the left a sliding door opens over a large cooler packed with drinks and ice. To the right is a small grill. Above the metal top are glass-enclosed shelves packed with condiments and other tools of the trade -- napkins, metal tongs, and ruffled paper hot dog holders.
Location alone, Azucena maintains, does not guarantee success. "I've been here six years and worked very hard to get to know people," she says. "Somebody new comes, they have to start from scratch." Another trick of the trade: mind your own business. "I don't get involved with all the other people on Flagler," she explains. "I don't even know most of them." She points to another vendor crossing the street to gossip with a friend. "Just look at her," Azucena scoffs playfully. "You think she's going to sell anything? Hey! You think you're going to sell anything with your skirt billowing up like that?" The other woman turns and laughs.
Often the banter is less friendly. Azucena says that when someone tries to muscle in on her turf, she responds with a tabaquera tipo nicaragiense, a type of verbal assault perfected in her native land. "They've never heard anything like it before," she laughs, revealing massive amounts of dental gold. "Occasionally I have a problem, but most vendors know that this is my place."
Her friend Dominga Rivera, who sells hot dogs not far down First Avenue in front of the Claude D. Pepper federal building, agrees. "We figure that if someone has put up with rain and wind and blazing heat for years," Rivera says, "you have to respect their spot."
But for every old-timer such as Rivera or Azucena, there is a vulnerable newcomer like Cesar Mondrag centsn. Ignorant of the city's policy or aware that it goes largely unenforced, these vendors say they have paid, not only for their carts, but for the sidewalk they rest on. Just as often, a disillusioned vendor will attempt to recoup an investment through resale. One woman says that a year ago, when she first set up her cart on SE First Avenue, she was accosted by a vendor who claimed to have paid for the spot and who wanted to resell it for $2500. Rather than pony up the amount, the woman moved to another corner.
"You hear rumors of these transactions," confirms Wally Lee, an assistant city manager and the director of Public Works. "But so far we've never received any kind of official complaint. People will tell you that spots have been sold, but they will never get specific. They will never give names."
The DDA's Henry Johnson, too, laments all the abuses. But aside from claiming to spend a great deal of his time speaking with the vendors, he seems uninterested in investigating instances of possible fraud, and says he knows of no evidence against anyone in particular. "My personal feeling is that whoever is controlling this thing is taking advantage of folks who are ignorant of the laws," he says, pointing out that the vast majority of vendors are Central and South Americans, many of whom are undocumented workers. "They don't know it's illegal when someone says, 'I'll give you this spot for 5000 or 10,000 dollars.' Others prey off them, but because these are cash transactions, they are very hard to prove. The police can't do anything unless the people file formal charges. And people don't file formal charges because they don't know the process."
Both Johnson and Lee are looking to the Miami City Commission to solve the vending problems, and the city attorney's office will soon begin preparing a new ordinance for downtown. Similar to legislation being proposed for Coconut Grove, it will probably call for a bidding system to formalize competition for spots. Details of the plan are still being worked out, but Lee says the ordinance will set a maximum bid and a term for which a spot can be held (most likely one year). If two or more peddlers offer the same amount for a spot, the winner will be selected at random.
Joel E. Maxwell, the assistant city attorney responsible for drawing up the proposal, says it may also include a provision limiting each company or individual to only one spot. "The idea is to try to get as much as possible for use of the public right-of-way and at the same time avoid locking out the little guys because they don't have as many assets," says Maxwell.
Wally Lee expects the commission to vote by December. "I have heard about people selling spaces. But I'm not interested in what has happened in the past," Lee says. "I feel that if we can just pass the ordinance, all of that will disappear."
The paneled wall beside Waldo Faura's desk suffers from an extreme case of plaque buildup. Among the scores of items nailed to it are commendations from the Fraternal Order of Police and the Better Business Bureau, and a Certificate of Program Completion from the University of Miami School of Business Administration. The gaps are littered with everything from old calendars to coffee-stained memos and newspaper clippings. Shining like a pearl amid the detritus is a photograph of Faura shaking hands with President Clinton. As a leader of Dade County's Republicans for Clinton during the presidential campaign, Faura will proudly tell you, he was one of those Cuban Americans invited to the White House to celebrate Cuban Independence Day this past May 20.
In his cramped office not far from his friend Amado Yaber's bodega, Faura speaks enthusiastically about his efforts to help vendors and his role as president of the Miami-Dade Vendors Association. He notes that some 120 hot dog vendors have paid $50 apiece for membership in the association, which is working to improve service in all of Dade County. (The county is home to an estimated 1000 licensed food vendors, according to the Division of Hotels and Restaurants. Some 300 of those are hot dog vendors, and officials guess that at least 100 more unlicensed vendors operate in Dade.) Many of the carts downtown sport green and orange umbrellas that bear the association's name, and its work has not gone unnoticed at city hall. Faura shows off a letter from Commissioner Victor De Yurre, dated May 17, 1993, congratulating him and his association for their good work.
(One minor glitch: Records maintained by the Secretary of State's office in Tallahassee indicate the association was legally dissolved in 1989. Informed of that fact, Faura says he is in the process of re-registering. "I have been acting in the name of the association, trying to get things done for vendors," he says. "But we didn't start collecting dues until about six weeks ago. And believe me, they come in real slow.")
A female character in a Mexican soap opera screams melodramatically from a television set atop a filing cabinet, and Faura signals to his nephew Luis to turn down the volume. The silence lasts only a moment, whereupon Amado Yaber steps through the door, his bulk filling the remaining space in the tiny office. The two men begin a discussion that quickly grows heated.
"We can't have two carts in that area," Faura says. "No me jodas." Don't fuck with me.
"You've got to talk to her," Yaber insists.
"I already did. I told her I want her out of there. Just find her another place!"
Yaber whirls and departs, and Faura endeavors to decipher the conversation: These days Faura operates only one cart in downtown Miami, on Flagler Street. His company, Vend-Carts, sells and repairs carts. "I used to fight a lot downtown, but not any more," he says. Now he leaves the hard work in the area to his friend Yaber. "He deserves whatever money he makes," Faura laughs. "He's like a Cuban Jew."
Yaber, however, is storing and transporting the cart of a woman who has angered Faura by competing against him. "I've got a problem with a girl who's set up across the street from my cart," he says. "But she's going to be moved away from there."
And indeed, the very next day the spot outside the Dade County Public Library is empty, abandoned by Mitzy Reinoso and her husband Richard, who recently purchased their hot dog cart. Amado Yaber has helped them choose a new spot blocks away.
The Reinosos spent only a week in their first location. Faura, they say, came by on the first day and told them to move on. "He said we were taking business away from his cart across the street," Mitzy Reinoso recalls. "I tried to explain to him that we were in an official spot and that we had obtained all the necessary licenses. He began screaming at us, saying that if we didn't leave, we would regret it. He offered to sell me a spot in another place for $7000. I mentioned the map again, and he said, 'The map isn't going to help you because I helped make it.'"
Reinoso says Faura claimed to be a good friend of DDA planner Henry Johnson. "He said that he was going to go straight to DDA and that Henry Johnson would have us removed. Johnson showed up a week later and asked us to leave. He said the police didn't want us there."
Faura admits that he spoke to the Reinosos, but denies he screamed at them, told them to get lost, or offered to sell them another spot. "Henry Johnson asked her to leave," Faura maintains. "There are too many people downtown. [Johnson] decided to remove that spot. The map was already printed, so they couldn't take it off, but it no longer exists." He did not, he adds, assist in the creation of the DDA map, nor did he tell the Reinosos that he had. "I gave my opinion to Henry about some of the locations that I thought were bad, including the one across the street from my cart," Faura explains, "but I didn't have any role in deciding where to put them." Faura also denies that he told the Reinosos that Johnson was his friend.
Henry Johnson denies that he ever asked Reinoso and her husband to leave what he describes as a viable location. "I did speak to her," he says. "I asked her if she had a problem, but I did not tell her she had to go. As far as I'm concerned, whoever gets to the spot first each day can stay there. But she asked me about other spots and said she was going to check them out." He confirms that Faura asked him to talk to Reinoso and her husband, and says the city's map was created by his department and Public Works, with no input from Faura. "People ask me to mediate disputes all the time," he adds. "And people sometimes blame me for the problems. It doesn't bother me."
The Reinosos remain bitter about the incident. "This business is controlled by a group of people who have been here in downtown for years and will do whatever they have to to monopolize it," Mitzy Reinoso says. "This is a small Mafia."
Dominga Rivera, who worked one of Amado Yaber's carts for six years before going it alone last year, says that in the beginning Yaber paid her only twenty percent of her take. "You can't earn anything at that rate," she patters with a slight lisp. "I remember when I started, I was making an average of eight dollars a day. Amado knew I didn't have my [work] documents and that I wasn't going to complain. And if you did complain, he would scream at you."
Others, she says, have had similar experiences. "Nos sac cents la sangre, como decimos," she says. He drew blood from us, as we say. "When I think of all the poor people he has taken advantage of, it makes me sick. I watched him take over downtown." In order to ensure his dominance, Rivera says, Yaber harangued any peddler who dared to park a cart in one of "his" spots. "You would see him driving by and shouting at people, 'Hey you, get out of my spot! Hey, thief!' He'd tell them he was going to call the police. That will scare anyone without papers."
Rivera, who has since obtained her green card, says she paid for her cart by giving Yaber eighteen months of free work, chopping onions and doing other chores mornings and evenings at the bodega. (Yaber says he gave Rivera her cart as a reward for her years of service to him.) Until recently, she adds, she bought all her supplies from Yaber. "I guess I did it to show him respect after all the years I had worked for him," she muses. "I suppose I was also afraid."
Her tiny stature does not lessen the fierceness of her pose, arms thrown back and small fists pressing her Milano Girl jeans deeper into her soft waist. But the sternness disappears a moment later, and she breaks into a grin defined by gapped front teeth. "Hey Jose," she calls out to a well-dressed man. "How are you?" He stops to chat for a moment and buys a Coke. He is just one of dozens of customers, many of whom shell out $1.25 apiece for Rivera's Zion hot dogs. "Listen, I'm not afraid of Amado Yaber any more," she says during a lull. "I have lots of friends who will stand by me."
So does Amado Yaber. Though Yaber himself grew so incensed at being questioned about his business that he refused to listen to any allegations concerning harassment of other peddlers or the hiring of undocumented workers, many of his colleagues are quick to vouch for him personally. The majority of the people who deal with him praise him for his hard work, his colorful character, and most of all for his largess to those beneath him. One vendor, who will identify himself only as Danilo and who operates a cart near Jackson Memorial Hospital, has kind words about the hot dog honcho. Danilo says he worked for Yaber for six years before purchasing a cart from his boss for $2500 earlier this year. "He lent me the money with no interest," the vendor says. "There aren't many people in the world who would do that for you. I pay him back whatever I can at the end of each month. Sometimes $50, sometimes $100, sometimes $300, depending."
And Yaber does acknowledge his dependence on the vendors. "[They] helped me build up my capital," he says. "Without them, I would be nothing.
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