Adapted for the stage by TG Cooper, the late founder of the M Ensemble Company, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Live! is a tribute to the black comedienne who broke the color lines and paved the way for other artists. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in the 1890s, Mabley is often called the female Redd Foxx, but she actually opened the doors to mainstream show biz not only for Foxx and other black performers but for women as well. Mabley was the first solo comedienne to tour the Playboy Club circuit in the United States and overseas. This legendary vaudeville star was a gifted storyteller whose tall tales and saucy anecdotes offered a continuity that was new to comedy.

A pioneer in social satire, she was known for her ribald humor and outrageous commentary, which cut across racial, class, and gender lines. She performed on the chitlin circuit, a mostly Southern string of small black nightclubs, alongside Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin, among others, and strongly influenced later black comedians like Richard Pryor and Whoopi Goldberg. While traveling the circuit, Moms experienced overt racism, which she cleverly began to address in her acts. Despite the critical content of her message, her popularity soared among blacks and whites. Shirley Richardson, executive director of the M Ensemble, speculates: "Moms was the right combination of things. She had a white promoter, and her act was unusual." As was her appearance: Her raggedy dresses and nappy hair looked outrageous, but her guise as a harmless granny disarmed and charmed her audiences.

The set for Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Live! depicts a stage in the legendary Apollo Theater, with a silver sign boasting the name of the venue overhead, a piano sitting stage left, and a small table with a pitcher of water to the right. A Forties-style microphone stands at the center of the empty stage. Although this is essentially a one-woman show, the peripheral characters -- Luther the accompanist (Ronald Smith), the Apollo stage manager (Genero Velez), and the announcer (Doran Cooper) -- combine to add a level of verisimilitude to the performance. Luther is a subtle presence on the stage. Dressed in all black, he, like the piano, is a nearly invisible yet crucial part of the act. When the announcer's baritone fills the air with "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Apollo, New York's liveliest nightspot right in the heart of Harlem," the audience feels very much a part of the nightclub scene.

The actress Bukanla, in the title role, utterly captures Moms's colorful and complex humor. At the beginning of the show, she swaggers on stage wearing a white floppy hat with a sunflower pinned to it, a faded floral-print housedress, argyle knee socks, and black Converse sneakers. Her top teeth are missing. She moves slowly, gets a glass of water, looks up at the audience as if she has just noticed us, and confides, "You know, I'm a lucky lady. I got a cigarette lighter and a man, and they both work." It's this sense of presence and timing that elevate Bukanla's performance from the mere retelling of someone else's jokes to dramatic interpretation.

Moms's comic delivery was as idiosyncratic as her stories and jokes themselves; Bukanla nails every nuance. In her gravelly voice, she affectionately calls her audience members "children." Her voice is slow and deliberate, as she moans characteristic phrases like, "Oh, honey," "Look here," and "I'll tell you." She shuffles, scoots, stands, and sits with her legs spread an unladylike distance. She often stops, pulls a hanky out of her housecoat pocket, and wipes her upper lip. These consistent gestures give the show cohesion, sustaining what otherwise would be a mere intermingling of songs, punch lines, and stories.

Bukanla manipulates the distance between herself and her "children" effectively. Sometimes she seems to be talking to no one in particular. At other moments she shamelessly flirts with the men in the crowd, winking at the rest of the audience members. Not only does her way of relating to the audience reinforce the Apollo mood, it provides a platform for Moms's astute social commentary. Between the winks and "You so ugly" jokes that have been a staple in black comedy from Redd Foxx and his character's purse-slinging sister-in-law Esther in Sanford and Son to In Living Color ("His wife was so ugly he had to take her to work with him to keep from kissing her goodbye"), Moms takes digs at segregation, busing, and the untruths of nursery rhymes, among other issues.

One of the ingenious ways Moms did this was through song, taking the lyrics of popular tunes and twisting them into bitingly satirical ditties. An example that appears in this show is the song "School Days," in which she swaps the nostalgia of the "good old Golden Rule days" for a few words on segregation: "They don't study science and history/They study hate and bigotry." A revised "Home on the Range" deals with the racial hatred rampant in the South: "Oh give me a home/Where I can roam/Where the dark and white folks can play (together, that is)."

Bukanla chooses not to sing these tunes in key. These songs are delivered as half statements and sour melodies, as if she were singing in the shower or to the radio -- until belting out the closing number, "At the End of the Road," which leaves no doubt that the sister can sing. Choices like this keep her portrayal entrenched in reality. The emotion at the play's end is real and makes for a moving finale, but Moms was not a song-and-dance woman. She was a black woman who set out to entertain in a different way from her upbeat, grinning, shoulder-shimmying vaudeville counterparts. Her storytelling style delivers even poignant tales with a punch line. Referring to her forced marriage to an old man when she was only fourteen years old, she grouses, "His shadow weighed more than he did! The only thing an old man can do for me is bring me a message from a young one."

Thanks to Bukanla's wonderful portrayal and Jerry Maple, Jr.'s cohesive, lively direction, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Live! is a funny and touching piece of stand-up comedy. But as a theatrical work, it's a bit disappointing. It feels like a missed opportunity: Here is a figure vital to today's popular and entertainment culture, and most people have little or no idea who she was. Based on the performance alone, we learn that she was hilarious and are able to locate her in time, but confining the performance to the stage at the Apollo precludes any discussion of Moms's offstage life. Without the show's program, one wouldn't be able to appreciate Moms's true stature as a political, historical, and social force.

The flyers for the 2000 Rasin Festival boasted a Boukan Ginen "reunion concert." The Haitian roots band appeared to have broken up after performing in the first annual rasin festival in 1996, when bass player Richard Laguerre stayed behind while his mates returned to the island. Boukan Ginen has not released an album since Laguerre's exile and had not played together on the same stage until the festival at Bayfront Park this past November 4. Nevertheless the group insists the claim that this concert is a reunion is a case of false advertising.

With a name that means "fire from Africa" in Kreyol, the socially conscious Boukan Ginen was feeling the heat under each of Haiti's successive leaders throughout the Nineties. An important force in the popular vodou-inspired movement that brought Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas Party to power, the group vigorously protested the dictatorship that ousted the popular president in 1991. Then Boukan Ginen turned around and protested the restored Lavalas government for failing to make good on it promises. When Laguerre fled to Miami, he joined thousands of his compatriots eager to hear roots music in their newly adopted land.

"We talked about getting [Boukan Ginen] together [so that] maybe we can show them how good they are and how powerful they are," said rasin festival director Raymond Exume in the hours leading up to the concert. Speaking both for fans and for the Center for Haitian Studies, which sponsored the event, he added: "Maybe if we showed [Boukan Ginen] how much they are loved and how much we missed them, maybe we can get them back together again."

The festivalgoers showed Boukan Ginen much love indeed. As though struggling to recognize an old friend, the audience was taken aback for a moment as the singers filed on to the stage, chattering in confusion until frontman Eddy Francois spoke. "I know you remember us," the towering, white-turbaned singer boomed. "Now we've come to rock the roots party." Crossing the stage, a dancer wearing the poof-sleeved dress of the flirty congo dance raised her arms in offering to the vodou gods, the lwa. On her signal Francois intoned the first notes of "Kouman N'ap Fe?" ("What Can We Do?"), a call to political action that had been a Boukan Ginen anthem in Haiti. Hearing the familiar words, the rasin fans erupted into a sing-along that grew louder and louder until the din threatened to flatten the amphitheater.

Typical of the fusion of rebellious rock riffs with the revolutionary rhythms of vodou in Haitian roots music, Boukan Ginen laid an American drum set over the traditional vodou drumming that serves as a call to the gods. Guitars thrust through the traditional percussion lines and across the chanting of the background singers and the melody wailed by Francois. Beside the band a troupe of dancers invited every note into its swaying arms.

The lyrics triggered memories of the troubled times that brought many in the audience to the United States. Two enormous speaker towers cut off the sightlines from the sides of the amphitheater, forcing those who wanted to see the performance into a tightly packed mass directly in front of the stage. The music grew so intense that some of the spectators fainted, and others even went so far as to pran lwa, becoming possessed by one of the gods of vodou. The concert became a ceremony.

Backstage after the performance, Boukan Ginen's fatigue surfaced. Many of the musicians had been camping at the site since 10:00 that morning. The festival lineup changed several times throughout the day, setting up a cycle of mental preparation and letdown as the time for the band's set was postponed again and again. Just before the group finally went on, Francois was so busy handing out business cards and posters touting his solo album due out next January that he misplaced his wallet. The singer was still searching for his belongings when New Times approached and asked the group for a photo. After the shutter clicked, most of the musicians scrambled to catch their next gig in Boston or say goodbye to the other bands.

Standing next to the dreadlocked Laguerre, Francois seemed unsettled by questions about the Boukan Ginen reunion. The frontman removed his glasses and wiped the sweat from his eyes. "It's not like that," he answered, mixing up Kreyol and English in his frustration. "We have always been together," he insisted, raising his voice. "Not two months go by that I don't see Richard or Richard doesn't see Eddy."

Taking a religious turn, the singer continued, "In spirit we are always strong. Ginen found us." For roots musicians "Ginen" means not only Africa but Africa as the heaven where the descendents of slaves will one day return. Contemporary roots musicians view Ginen as the goal of a political struggle that will deliver the Haitian people from the legacy of slavery and colonialism. Much as Jamaican Rastafarians chant down the white-man's Babylon, Haitian rasin groups sing for a return to the African paradise Ginen. "We are children of God," concluded Francois, stabbing his glasses in the air. "We are the children that Haiti made, and we represent the Ginen music. Nobody reunited us. We reunited ourselves, because we are rasin."

The singer walked away abruptly, leaving Laguerre as the spokesman for the band. Smiling wearily, the bass player tried to hide his own agitation. "I heard that this was supposed to be a reunion performance, and that is not true," he clarified. Instead he attributed Boukan Ginen's so-called separation to outside interests that ranged over the years from musical side projects to marriage to his own exile.

Regardless of whether the band is back together or has never been apart, Laguerre admitted that the reception at Rasin 2000 finally inspired the members to discuss plans for a new album. "By being here tonight," said Laguerre, "I see that there's a calling. The people need leadership." Just as certain members of the audience caught the spirit of the Haitian lwa when Boukan Ginen played, the band caught its own spirit from the audience. "We have something to do," declared Laguerre. "It's like the spirits get us to do their work. That is something that we can't stop doing."

Swooping back into the conversation from across the room, Francois agreed. "Whether we do something together or apart it always represents Boukan," he explained, "because Boukan is us. It is within us."

Brazilian filmmakers have enjoyed a reputation for being some of the most prestigious and talented in Latin-American cinema. From early works, such as O Cangaceiro by Lima Barreto (1953), one of the most emblematic Brazilian films, to Black God, White Devil (1964) by Glauber Rocha, to Vidas Secas (1963 ) by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Brazilians have helped pioneer New Wave cinema in this hemisphere. Always steeped in the enchanted world of magical realism, these films are deeply rooted in Brazilian culture and traditions, where the creators of literature, poetry, and painting have always found their inspiration.

The Call of the Oboe (O Toque do Oboe), the opening film at this year's Brazilian Film Festival, begins with a melancholic sequence that shows a sleepy Latin-American town where nothing ever happens but burials and where the sole member in the funeral cortege is the gravedigger. But everything begins to change when Augusto, a famous but sickly Brazilian musician, arrives in the small village. Augusto plays his oboe evocatively and magically, attracting villagers and even making a dead man rise from his coffin in curiosity. Augusto's arrival stirs the air, stimulating new love affairs and passions in the once quiet town. Aurora, the chief of police's mistress, for example, finds in the musician an opportunity to reopen her father's cinema. Closed because there was no one to perform the soundtracks for the silent films, the movie house soon becomes the home for Augusto's oboe performances, eventually drawing in crowds of villagers. There, through the silent films, the young ones discover the meaning of love while the older ones recall their lost youth. Day by day the musical notes from the oboe begin to revive the village.

Claudio MacDowell's film is tender and imaginative, his greatest achievement being a gallery of bizarre characters, including a switchboard operator who manages to talk to God through the telephone, and the town prostitute, a 70-year-old woman who reopens her brothel to please an old admirer. The film's narrative structure is simple, though not tight and clean. It combines, with questionable success, the central plot with segments from silent movies, some sad and hopeless, others with a touch of black humor. The cinematography by Toca Seabra is interesting, lending a special feel to outdoor textures and enhancing the look of decay and forlornness to the village.

For decades Brazilian cinema was infused with political themes, reflecting the turmoil on the continent. In the Seventies Rocha formulated his "Aesthetic of Hunger" theory, which expressed the concern about social stagnation and violence in Third World nations in highly politicized films such as The Age of Earth (1980). Although a less radical current could be found in movies like Macunaima (1970), a metaphoric representation of Brazilian idiosyncrasies by Joaquin Pedro de Andrade, Brazilian cinema suffered for years from the stigma of its own ideological weight. Today the Brazilian film industry struggles with a new identity crisis, created by new market-driven values that at times competes with those traditional cultural and aesthetic values.

The Call of the Oboe is a good modern piece of Brazilian-inflected magical realism, though its slow pace conspires against its proposed satirical style. Perhaps with a better command of the narrative structure Oboe would have achieved the gracefulness of a Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Bruno Barreto's 1976 film that interlaced the lives of its characters in a more ironical and noninhibited way.

Nilo Cruz's A Park in Our House is a record of the human spirit when the human body exists in a totalitarian state and survives on a continuum not of belief but of disbelief. The romantic, the idealist, the realist, the repressed, the rebel, and the messiah -- these are the characters (however stunted) in this drama that tells the story of a Cuban family in 1970, when the island was the equivalent of a Soviet satellite state. The play becomes a poignant portrait of politics. (It also is the inauguration of several plays to come this season by one of the nation's most noteworthy young playwrights, who was born in Cuba and raised in Miami.) With their mouths the characters of A Park in Our House speak of the revolution. With their hands they amend what their mouths cannot say. With their eyes they defend both their hands and their mouths. And with their bodies they seek freedom, or at least temporary exile. When a young Russian scientist, Dimitri Yefimovich Khruschov (Javier Suit), visits a small unnamed Cuban town through an international exchange program, he affects the lives of his host family irrevocably. Each character must negotiate between reality and dream, hope and despair, to survive the oppressive political system in which he or she lives.

Despite the political content of the play, Cruz's characters are so well drawn that the drama never appears to be thinly veiled rhetoric. His language is rich with humor, sarcasm, and the veracity of daily life. Combined with director Teresa Maria Rojas's choice of dynamic actors, this creates a stage experience that feels very organic. Ofelina (Patricia Azan-Clavelo) is the realist, the den mother -- a long-suffering strong woman with a wry sense of humor who is always solving problems. Hilario, Ofelina's husband (Alfonso DiLuca), is the idealist. He also is a sellout in that he must be a part of the system, holding out hope that perhaps it just might work. The metaphor for his waxing and waning faith is his dream of using his government job as a way to get a park built in the town. Fifo (Alain Mora) is the artist and the rebel. Once a photographer whose work was censored, he is now condemned to the cane fields to prove he is part of the system. Camilo (José Santisteban) is mute, having lost his voice in a traumatic event that is only alluded to.

Ofelina's niece, Pilar (Diry Cantillo), is the romantic. By glorifying and romanticizing Russia, she gives meaning to her own nation and to her role as a communist. She even goes so far as to eroticize communism, counting Dimitri's fingers and naming his body parts Red Square, the Kremlin, Stalin, Lenin, and other Soviet icons. Cantillo plays the role with the necessary degree of self-awareness, because on a more pragmatic level, Pilar hopes Dimitri will fall in love with her and take her back to Russia with him. In Pilar we find the seeds of jineteria (a form of prostitution by Cubans who want to escape the island that arose with the arrival of tourism in the late Eighties). Her body is a vehicle for survival.

Dimitri represents communism for each member of the family, and it is through him that each character grapples with the meaning of that ideology and the role Cuba has played in the world. In a particularly gripping scene, Hilario goes on a tirade about the reputation Cuba has earned as the whore of the Americas: "What has the Caribbean been to the world? These islands? These specks? We've been whores. We've been beds and pillows for some tired ships." Ironically the Russian is a reluctant messiah at best. He turns out to be equally disillusioned and unhappy with the system and life in his country.

Ofelina is the one character who interacts intimately with all the others. Clavelo's energy and theatrical range are commendable. She delivers her lines passionately, without falling into the hysterical-female stereotype. She has a survivalist's humor that helps offset the harsh reality of a life where everything -- such as trading a radio for a lean pig to put meat on the table -- must be done in a clandestine manner. Ofelina exclaims, "I'm not going to jail for a skinny pig," while wrestling comically with the carcass, underscoring the Cuban tendency to laugh at misery. When Dimitri says his great-grandparents used to drink cow urine for medicinal uses, Ofelina comments, "I wouldn't drink cow urine to live to 100. I'll drink cow milk and live to be 50." She speaks with ever-vigilant practicality; she's no dreamer.

Numerous scene changes make this play seem like several vignettes that ask multiple dramatic questions: Will Pilar seduce Dimitri and find a way off the island? Will Camilo get his voice back? Can each character find hope where there seems to be none? The changes also create a sense of the inexactitude of time and space. This is particularly apparent in the more lyrical scenes. But at other times, the many scene changes break up the dramatic action, giving the piece a disjointed feel, creating more chaos than suspense, and interrupting the dramatic action instead of enhancing it.

A sleepwalking scene and an invisible character, the espiritista (spiritual advisor), balance the realism of the play with more magical elements. When Ofelina seeks the advice of an espiritista to help Camilo regain his voice, she is told to take him to the ocean. In a powerful scene in which the sounds of water and the color blue wash over them, Ofelina and Camilo bow down to the sea and she shouts to the Afro-Cuban deity Yemalla: "This is your son! Give him his voice back!" The visuals in the sleepwalking scene are very enigmatic and reminiscent of Beckett as Ofelina and Hilario weave around each other, exiting and entering the stage. "I have a dream that my hair won't stop growing. That I am growing a beard," Ofelina laments. As in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fictional Macondo, Cruz's unnamed town is the site for harsh human realities and miraculous surreal moments, moments that dramatize the characters' inabilities to live, think, and dream freely within the boundaries of their society.

A Park in Our House is a first on many fronts. It's the first performance in the Promethean Players' new space, which is warm and intimate. It is appropriate that they chose one of Cruz's plays to christen their stage. The playwright was a student and actor with the group from 1984 to 1986. What is not so clear is why his works are just now being performed in Miami after receiving critical acclaim on both coasts. Last year the lauded A Bicycle Country made its South Florida debut at Florida Stage in Manalapan, but this is the first time one of Cruz's works has been put on for a Miami audience. A Park in Our House also has been performed by Florida Stage, as well as in Princeton, San Francisco, and New York. Some speculate that Cruz is the prodigal son for Miami theater, honing his craft before bringing it home. Others have implied that the political content of his works might make producers and/or theatergoers uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, Miami-based venues are making up for lost time. This season alone A Bicycle Country will run through January 28, 2001, at The Coconut Grove Playhouse. New Theatre will produce the world premiere of Hortencia and the Museum of Dreams in conjunction with Teatro Avante, which also will produce Two Sisters and a Piano.

City of Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele insists it is news to him that he owes $6100 to Miami-Dade taxpayers. Back in 1996, during his failed bid to become county mayor, Teele submitted campaign spending forms 207 days late. As a result the elections department fined the former county commission chairman and Reagan administration official $10,500. Although the Florida Elections Commission (FEC) reduced the sum by almost half in February 1998, county records indicate it was never collected.

Teele, who has had significant personal financial problems, acknowledges he's uncertain whether a check was sent. He referred New Times to his lawyer, Wilson Jerry Foster, who is equally unsure. “I have no knowledge on the payment ... and I haven't been involved since [the appeal],” says Foster.

In an effort to ferret out the truth, New Times on Friday, June 30, turned to the county's assistant supervisor of elections Gisela Salas, who reviewed the record. Turns out that after the FEC decision, the county never contacted Teele to demand payment. The following Monday, after New Times came knocking, Salas sent out a notice. The commissioner was given 30 days to pay up.

Teele is not the only politician who county bureaucrats have apparently allowed to slide. Public documents show dozens of other office seekers and several political action committees (PACs) owe the county more than $50,000. New Times made the discovery while rummaging through hundreds of county election records over six days. Indeed New Times found the county's election department to be disorganized, overworked, understaffed, and timid in its pursuit of violators. Candidates who have outstanding fines often are not notified. Those who do pay sometimes are not credited. In a few cases, penalties have even been incorrectly assessed.

After New Times presented its findings to Salas, the county sent out reminder letters for unpaid penalties to eleven candidates, including County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, County Court Judge Wendell Graham, and school board member Betsy Kaplan. And Salas changed some of her division's practices. Henceforth, she says, the department will no longer send two or three courtesy letters asking for payment. Now one letter is all they'll send out.

Why do campaign laws matter? For starters incomplete disclosure can give those who don't play by the rules an unfair advantage. And improper uses of campaign money (like fraud and cash payments to voters, both staples of Miami politics) are more difficult to detect if candidates report their finances inaccurately or late. Perhaps most important, lackadaisical enforcement confirms the widely held perception that Miami-Dade County's politicians serve lobbyists and special interests rather than the public.

The rules for submitting campaign documents are fairly straightforward. Reports are filed quarterly. In most cases three must be submitted before election day and one afterward. Most fines owed to the county are the result of late reports. According to county law, for the first three days a report is late, the candidate or PAC is assessed a penalty of $50 per day. Salas or someone from her staff is required to mail a certified letter informing candidates of the oversight. After three days if a report still is not filed, the fine increases to $500 per day. (The penalty cannot exceed 25 percent of total contributions or expenditures.) If the report in question is the last one before election day, fines begin at $500 per day.

The penalties can be appealed to the nine-member FEC. If the fine is upheld, the county must collect. “If [candidates] don't pay, it is up to the [county] to track down and find [them],” says Malcolm Chellman, commission business manager.

Miami-Dade is one of the FEC's most active regions, Chellman says. At press time the county election department was trying to keep track of 75 declared candidates for 90 positions. (Qualifying deadlines in July likely increased the number.) By election day there probably will be thousands of pages of contributions and spending to review.

Generally the election department is two years behind in auditing campaign reports, Salas admits. Files are disorganized. Just five people, including a secretary and a temporary worker, are available to review the papers. It's not easy for them to find time; they must also supply information to the public, compile election statistics, update procedure manuals, maintain the department's Website, process candidate financial-disclosure forms (which number more than 3000), and assemble and train pollworkers. On a cubicle wall, a sign sums up their predicament. “God put me on Earth to accomplish a certain number of things,” it reads. “Right now I am so far behind I will never die.”

The department also has experienced technical and logistical problems. Currently it has no real idea of the status of previous years' reports by PACs. The computer program that held the information has crashed three times, most recently last year. Much of the data have been lost. “I thank God it was just political action committees and not the candidates,” remarks Salas.

There are other problems. A computer error with dates caused at least two candidates who filed on time to receive erroneous notifications of fines. Salas contends her staff gets no technical support from the Miami-Dade County Information and Technology Department.

“If we don't follow up with the fines, it renders the whole disclosure process meaningless,” elections supervisor David Leahy admits. Department staff approach their work like triage. “You are dealing with what is in front of you,” Leahy says. “Not what happened yesterday.” What Leahy doesn't say is that it's in the interest of incumbents, like the commissioners, to ignore the problem. They generally raise far more money from special interests and therefore must submit more complicated reports than challengers.

Most of the fines owed to the department are in the range of $50 to $100, but some numbers are far higher. Among the candidates who currently owe larger sums are County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle ($3,039.89), County Court Judge Wendell Graham ($3,511.00), Westchester community councilman Carlos Valderrama ($3,039.89), and school board member Betsy Kaplan ($650.00). Most of them claim they were unaware of the debts. County records show some received notice, but most did not.

“I didn't know anything about it,” laughs Rolle, who submitted a campaign finance report 57 days late for his commission race in 1998. “When I receive an official notice, I will be happy to pay it promptly.”

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I owed something,” says Graham, who insists he did not ignore his fine. The judge says his campaign treasurer made a mistake on a filing date. Once he received notification, his treasurer submitted the report. Graham assumed the matter was resolved. Two years later, in March 2000, he received a notice of fine, so he complained. “We responded with a letter saying, “Hey what are you guys doing? This isn't right,'” he says. The county failed to answer until New Times inquired. After receiving a second notice by mail, Graham filed an appeal with the FEC.

Kaplan also was notified by the county after New Times pointed out her past-due problem. She too is filing an appeal with the FEC.

Assistant election supervisor Gisela Salas insists the situation is improving. This year's campaign reports have all been audited, she asserts. Recently her office sent letters to Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss and Mayor Alex Penelas informing them they submitted incomplete reports. Yet upon review New Times discovered errors in the reports turned in at the beginning of the year by candidates Barbara Carey, Betty Ferguson, and Natacha Millan. Salas acknowledges her staff could have missed them. “There is just not enough of me to ascertain the correctness of the files,” she admits. “It is possible there could be others.”

There is hope on the horizon. Commissioner Jimmy Morales has pushed an aggressive campaign-reform agenda through the commission. Although his efforts to criminalize violations of reporting laws failed, he convinced his colleagues to approve a more moderate measure. Beginning in 2002 candidates must submit campaign reports on diskette, so they can be easily posted on the Internet. (One additional person will likely be hired to do this.) This should help make the process easier to manage. Yet Morales does admit it might all be for naught if the election department doesn't have the staff to enforce the measure. “We have been focusing so much on the laws,” he notes. “Maybe we should [also] be focusing on the infrastructure.”

It was while sitting at home, watching the presidential debate on TV, that I suddenly found myself seized by an insatiable craving for jerk chicken. Go figure. So I headed to Jerk Machine, located in North Miami (other locations include Sunrise, Opa-locka, Coral Springs, and Hollywood), a place whose motto is, “We don't joke, we jerk!” And jerk they do -- specifically chicken, pork, shrimp, crab, and fish (usually tilapia).

Jerk is derived from the patois word juk, meaning to poke with a sharp implement, which is just what's done to the meat so that a fiery paste of Scotch bonnet chilies, scallions, wild cinnamon, allspice berries, thyme, nutmeg, ginger, brown sugar, and a whole lot of other ingredients is more readily absorbed. Boston Beach in northern Jamaica is home of the jerk, the streets there perfumed with plumes of pungent smoke emanating from open pits where chicken and pork darken over smoldering green pimiento (allspice) twigs. Jerk refers to this centuries-old method of Jamaican barbecue, to the spice mix, and to the cooked product, which used to be limited to wild boar.

Jerk Machine originated in Jamaica, but it didn't bring much island ambiance with it in its move north: The décor is strictly fast food, a bright, dispassionate take-out place with tables and booths and a counter at which you order your meal. For obvious reasons Jerk Machine also left the smoke pit behind, and the heat's been turned down a notch as well. Still, a pleasant burning sensation will stimulate the back of your mouth a few seconds after taking that first bite of jerk chicken, half a grilled bird chopped into pieces with the quick herky-jerky motion of a counter person's cleaver. Same goes for the tender cubes of marinated slow-cooked pork. Both dishes offer enough kick for most diners, but serious heat-seekers might want to douse their meal with the jar of hot jerk sauce that sits by the cash register.

Opt for oxtail if you'd rather not play with fire, or ruggedly flavorful chunks of goat in an invigorating but not hot curry sauce, or brown stewed chicken with a straightforward and savory gravy gracing the wings, thighs, and breasts. All main courses come with white rice or delectable cinnamon-enhanced rice and peas, as well as a choice of plantains, fritters, dumplings (none of which benefit from sitting under heat lamps on the counter line), a mostly lettuce salad, or vibrantly steamed cabbage and carrots, which are more conducive to steam-table service and were, in fact, delicious. Jamaican beef patties were tasty, too, and while I didn't try soup of the day (cow's foot), we can assume it's better than it sounds.

No wine or brews served here, but sweet-scented ginger beer convincingly cuts through the food's assertive seasonings. A jerked palate also dictates a staunch dessert, and the intense rum-soaked fruit cake fits that bill nicely.

Speaking of bills, the one you get at Jerk Machine will be quite affordable. Small dinners cost $5.65, large dinners are $6.99, with fish and shellfish items a bit pricier. Now that's the sort of pork-barrel spending I could vote for.

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. [page]

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.

Most jitney drivers are owner-operators. They own their vans and keep 100 percent of the passenger fare. But they must pay jitney companies a fee to operate under, say, the Miami Mini Bus moniker. Most owner-operators must also purchase insurance and the operating license required by the county. Any expenses incurred at the pump or on the road come out of their pockets as well. On a good day a jitney driver can make up to $150. When the opportunity presents itself, most drivers will stop for more passengers than they can seat.

There are large companies such as Miami Mini Bus, which boasts 58 registered jitneys, and smaller operations, like American Jitney, Inc., with only two jitneys on the road. Each company runs its buses along one authorized route. In theory jitneys exist to service areas that are neglected by other forms of transportation. But a few of the minibuses covering the downtown circuit as well as Conchita Transit Express in Hialeah vie with Miami-Dade County's bus service, or Metrobus, for some of the same passengers. Competition, however, is limited.

The passenger transportation regulatory division, part of the Miami-Dade County Consumer Services Department, sets buffer zones to curtail competition between jitneys and Metrobuses. It prohibits jitneys from duplicating Metrobus routes by more than 30 percent -- a rule with which many in the jitney industry are dissatisfied. Some protest that prescribed routes contribute to a dwindling supply of riders. But Steven Oxenhandler, director of the passenger transportation regulatory division, which also licenses and inspects jitneys, asserts that the county hasn't encroached on all routes. "There are a lot of routes that are not operated by the county because they're just not profitable for MDTA [Miami Dade Transit Agency]," Oxenhandler explains. "They could be developed by jitneys."

The only problem, says Pierre Francisque, the owner of a one-man operation called Florida Jitney Transportation, is that it costs at least $3000 to put a jitney on the road. In order to get someone to invest that kind of money on a minivan, those streets need some gold in them. "You have to put in an emergency door; you have to pay for the license, insurance. It's a lot of money," Francisque asserts. "Then they can't catch nobody to ride." A few years ago, one by one, all fourteen Florida Jitney Transportation drivers began dropping out of Francisque's company. His county-approved route, which runs from The Mall at 163rd Street to 36th Street, was dry. He began asking the county to let him change it, but his proposals, including one for moving into Biscayne Boulevard, have been struck down. "It's never been steady work for me," Francisque says. "I've tried but I've never been able to make it work properly."

In fact the very concept that the county should monopolize money-making routes seems askew, according to Franklin D. Kreutzer, a long-time attorney who has represented various players in the jitney industry. "The government should use subsidies to run on routes that are not profitable," Kreutzer argues. "There are subsidized buses running on profitable routes and yet there are some routes that are not serviced. That's what subsidies should be used for. Profitable routes should be given to the private companies that are prepared to give service. The private sector will do a good job. If they don't, they'll simply be replaced. That should be the concept behind mass transit."

It wasn't always this way. The county didn't get into the bus business until 1960, when Metro-Dade bought out private operators and consolidated the city bus system. Jitneys were born about 30 years earlier, and they were monitored by the city. Back then, up until the early 1960s, jitneys were usually seven-passenger Buicks, Packards, Plymouths, and Cadillacs.

In 1946 Ernest Johnson, now owner of Sun Jitney and part-owner of Liberty City Jitney, which dates back to the 1930s and is still chugging along, came out of the Army and formed Miami Beach Jitney Service. He found reliable patrons among black women who needed rides across the causeway to work in the homes and hotels of whites in Miami Beach. Back then buffer zones were construed on color lines, Johnson says. His jitney service could only pick up blacks who had special identification cards allowing them to set foot on Miami Beach. Washington Avenue, Collins Avenue, and Ocean Drive were off-limits. "We could only travel up and down Meridian Avenue," Johnson recalls. [page]

In 1955 Johnson invested in Liberty City Jitney. While he says he still has a minority interest in the company, he thinks it's in its final death throes. "It's not hauling any people," Johnson notes. He then created Sun Jitney in 1982, which also serves parts of Liberty City. Today he's the proud father of nineteen jitneys equipped with closed-circuit radios. But Johnson is weary of this concern as well. Jitneys are up against the Goliath of public transportation and sooner or later, Johnson asserts, jitneys will no longer exist: "The county buses, it seems, want to put jitneys out of business."

The hard times started when the reign of alternative-transportation guru Ziggy Zilber ended.

During the late Eighties and early Nineties, Miami-Dade County was awash in unbridled jitneys, thanks to a vague law passed by the state legislature in 1981 that made it illegal for counties to regulate "intercity" bus travel. The law was designed to keep counties from overseeing bus routes between cities. But Zilber, who once owned a cab company and later Metro Minibus jitney company, came up with his own interpretation and concluded that the county lacked regulatory power over jitneys. Zilber himself came to dominate the industry.

By 1991 the county estimated it was losing nearly $400,000 per month in Metrobus fares to the vans. By way of political connections and ruthless business tactics, Zilber all but emptied many a cabby's coffer as well. Cab drivers even sent lobbyists to Tallahassee to fight a statewide bill spearheaded by Zilber that would have explicitly terminated Miami-Dade's power to regulate jitneys. But the bill passed. Zilber's power eventually waned when former Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed his jitney bill in June 1991.

Thereafter Miami-Dade began to crack down on the minibuses. The county pulled more than 170 unlicensed jitneys off the streets. "Passengers were sitting on crates," maintains Manny Palmero, marketing services manager of the MDTA. "Miami-Dade police would start pulling jitneys over at seven in the morning. Passengers were deboarded and were given Metrobus transfers."

The owner of Conchita Transit Express, a legal operation during the massive jitney roundup, claims the company was caught in the crossfire. "Our vehicles were towed; some of our drivers were arrested; we were called outlaws," comments Rene Gil, Conchita's president. "We still haven't been able to recover from the jitney crackdown. The county tarnished our image, and it's hurt our business ever since. How many people would be willing to invest in a company that's been portrayed as illegal and unsafe? Not many. We don't even like to use the word jitney anymore."

The county continues to impound illegal jitneys for being unlicensed and to yank decrepit licensed ones off the roads. (So far this year code enforcers have busted six illegal jitneys.) Indeed some jitneys are in such a state of disrepair that getting out without harm to limb or life looks like top priority. Even efficient Conchita Transit Express buses can be packed with passengers suffering through a non-air-conditioned ride. Because of high gasoline prices, Gil says, sometimes his drivers can't afford to make repairs immediately.

Yet for thousands of people from Florida City to Hialeah, minibuses remain the transportation mode of choice. People from all walks of life ride jitneys: from college students and elementary school kids to elderly folks who can't drive any more and people who can't afford to.

When New Times asked a dozen jitney travelers why they chose the private shuttle over the county's Metrobuses, they all answered that it was faster. "Time means a lot for everybody these days," Sun Jitney owner Johnson says. There's no doubt independent jitney networks help to fill a void in local transportation needs. But according to those who drive them, unless jitneys are allowed to expand their routes, passengers may soon be left with even fewer alternative-transit options.

Across from the Opa-Locka-Hialeah Flea Market, on NW 42nd Avenue and 127th Street, four Hispanic men look out for Golden Glades-bound Metrobus number 42. In the twenty minutes they've been waiting, at least three Conchita Transit Express jitneys have passed. There's no bench to sit on, so Juan Morales joins a fellow commuter who is crouched on the sidewalk. "I wouldn't be sitting here if I was going Conchita's way," muses Morales as another sky-blue shuttle enters the pulguero's (flea market) parking lot. Passengers pour out of the minibus. Flea market shoppers carrying nylon bags rush on to the bus after a day of trolling through a maze of five-dollar T-shirts and cheap lingerie. But over at number 42's stop, a man silently leans against a chain-link fence with his arms crossed. Another stands on the avenue's edge. They gaze beyond the horizon like hitchhikers anticipating a ride. Cars are zooming by and the sun's rays on this Sunday afternoon are piercing through the low-lying clouds of an overcast sky. [page]

Of the approximately 600 county-owned buses, number 42 is the only one that transports weekend passengers to the flea market at hourly intervals. For the same fare of $1.25, a jitney from Conchita's fifteen-member fleet pulls over every fourteen minutes, wherever there are passengers along its zigzag course between Hialeah and Miami Lakes.

In Hialeah, Conchita Transit Express is considered a model form of neighborhood transportation. Its history goes back to 1986 when Concepcion Gil -- the original Conchita -- and her husband, Conrado Gil, founded the jitney company. They heard the county was accepting bids for private minibus providers to act as a feeder service for Metrorail. Before Conchita Transit Express, the couple owned a school bus company. But in 1994 Concepcion Gil faced legal troubles for her role in a Medicare-fraud scheme. Later the Gils divorced, and until he died last year Conrado Gil was left to run the company with their son, Rene Gil.

All in all Conchita is highly regarded and quite successful. Recently the MDTA even began running similar shuttles along Conchita's route during the week to compete for the same passengers. During last year's penny-tax debate, politicians placed Conchita on a pedestal. Even Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez was inspired. He revisited an idea he proposed during his 1997 re-election campaign: the creation of the Hialeah Circulator Service, a privately owned shuttle operation managed by the city.

Conchita, a stimulus for the proposal and an obvious contender, was not selected as a candidate. The likely choice for the new Hialeah service will be a fleet of 25 passenger buses with wheelchair capacity. Gil's minibuses can hold up to fifteen passengers and aren't wheelchair friendly. Yet Gil still dreams of a lucrative city deal. "Ever since I started in this business we've wanted a government contract, but we haven't been able to get there," Gil complains. He would happily expand Conchita to include bigger buses, but there are no willing investors, he says. "There's money to be made, but people don't want to join the operation because they think that sooner or later the county is going to put us out of business."

(In the past jitney companies and the MDTA have discussed forming partnerships. But the county has purchased its own minibuses instead and is starting to gain ground again on routes where it had been losing business. Still, jitneys serve a purpose, the MDTA's Palmero asserts. "But," he adds, "MDTA has no plans to subcontract them." So far the only collaboration between the two is that jitneys and Metrobuses accept each other's transfer passes.)

Despite Conchita's inability to tap into public coffers, the company is doing fairly well, thanks to a healthy crop of weekday workers and weekend flea market shoppers ripe for the riding. But Conchita can't travel beyond Miami Lakes. The county forbids it from doing so. Last year, Gil applied for a route modification to include the west side of the Palmetto Expressway. It hasn't been approved by the county yet.

So Gil is focused on his drivers and passengers. Conchita will flourish if they are content, he says. Unlike other jitney companies, Conchita provides insurance and legal coverage for its operators. The company consults them on maintenance and allows them to hire their own part-time drivers for relief during workdays that average fifteen hours. "If you're able to take people to work on a daily basis without failing them, they will be working for years and so will we," Gil says. "Once you start not being reliable then you lose the ridership. They go away for a very long time until you can prove yourself again."

On this day a Conchita Transit Express jitney is traveling east on José Martí Boulevard. An elderly Cuban man sitting in the back of the van shouts to the driver, "Oye, aqui mismo en esta esquina (Hey, right on this corner)." The driver begins to slow down as the senior citizen, clad in a long-sleeve, peach-color guayabera, rises from his seat. The viejito's well-groomed head of cotton-white hair sways from side to side to the Spanish version of "I Love You, Baby," playing on oldies radio station Clasica 92 (WCMQ-FM 92.3) as he slides down the aisle using the railings above. Unlike Metrobuses, jitneys stop on demand. This Conchita driver doesn't even bother to pull over. He lets the man out at a red stoplight in the middle of traffic. [page]

Beverly Walker, owner of King Jitney, Inc., wants to get rid of the twenty-year-old business she inherited from her father ten years ago when he suffered a stroke. "Back then business was good," she asserts. King Jitney, which travels from NW 79th Street and 27th Avenue to downtown, had twenty drivers. But Walker fired most of them when they stopped paying the $100 per week fee she charged them for driving under her company's flag. "They were poor payers," she complains. "Now I only have two drivers. I'm not making any money." She says drivers constantly complain to her about high gasoline prices and insurance costs ($500 per month).

Unaffordable auto insurance is one of the reasons Loreta Ferrer left the business. "The $4000 a year I paid in insurance was killing me," she says. Ferrer, a driver of thirteen years and part-owner of American Jitney, Inc., says she won't be driving the jitney parked outside her house anytime soon. She shared driving responsibilities with her husband of 36 years. When he died in February she began to face more difficulties as a solo driver. "No es facil (It's not easy)," comments Ferrer.

In addition to the daily tension of dealing with the public, the fact that she's a woman sometimes put her at a disadvantage, she claims. Furthermore the upkeep of a jitney was too much for her to handle alone. In the end there was little compensation; American Jitney picks up too few commuters along its MDTA-approved route (from NW 67th Avenue and 25th Street to the Orange Bowl). "They don't let us traffic in downtown," Ferrer complains. "They don't give us places that are rich in passengers."

Business may not be booming for Daniel Fils-Aime, owner of Miami Mini Bus, but it is steady. With 58 registered jitneys, he maintains his is the largest alternative-transportation provider in the county. But while it may be profitable for Fils-Aime to run close to 60 buses on the same line, the people who drive under his company flag say they must struggle to stay afloat. It points out the precarious nature of the enterprise. "They have too many vehicles on that route," contends Steven Oxenhandler, director of the county's passenger transportation regulatory division. "It's impossible for drivers on that route to make a decent living when they're competing for the same passengers."

Two Metrobuses also travel part of that route, as does Pierre Francisque, though these days not very often. There's little money in it, but the driver of the only minivan still in circulation for Florida Jitney Transportation does occasionally make the rounds near 163rd Street, "just to make the people see that my jitney still exists," he says.

It's always a letdown when the waiter in a quaint picture-perfect café hands out a slipshod piece of paper that passes as a menu. First thing most of us do is turn it over to see if there's anything else written on the other side. Artichoke's is the antithesis: The 50-seat restaurant is homey but homely, while the menu is a picturesque spiral notebook, four laminated pages with vivid colorful photos of red peppers, black cherries, yellow lemons, and green mint leaves. Of greater consequence the contents within offer a similarly bright mix of healthful foods cooked fresh to order -- 105 of them to be exact, none of which contains red meat.

The room may be nothing to look at, but there's a lot to look at in the room. From the ceiling hang large model airplanes and a Plexiglas shelf lined with souvenir knickknacks, like a tacky little Eiffel Tower and flag-holding statuettes -- gifts given to owner Dick Suscart Eng (who learned a thing or two about the benefits of a healthy diet while working in the nutrition unit of Jackson Memorial Hospital). Under the glass tops that lay over linen tablecloths are index cards with handwritten sayings too trite to repeat -- if you're lucky, that is. Cards on other tables are marked with “Children's Letters to God”; the one in front of me is from a Seymour with wobbly penmanship asking, “How come you used to perform so many miracles but now you don't do them anymore?” The walls are mostly covered with landscape paintings of the type found in the waiting rooms of dentists. Yet the overall ambiance is warm and welcoming, and the space manages to charm in an innocent manner.

So do the waiters, a young, earnest, eager-to-please crew whose swiftness and amiability make up for their lack of polish. Food isn't exactly refined either, but it is nutritionally sound, a global mix of chicken, fish, vegetables, and salads. Chicken entrées range from Hawaiian pineapple to Hong Kong noodle to Cajun to curry to schnitzel to au poivre. There also are hot-and-spicy selections such as garlic pepper chicken, a not-very-piquant Oriental stir-fry of crunchy red pepper strips and soft nuggets of chicken breast with mushrooms, onions, and sprightly green peas. Part of Artichoke's appeal is that you can indulge in foods that are thoroughly satiating, or in a light dinner of plainly grilled chicken breast with steamed vegetables.

For a place that touts itself as a “natural food restaurant,” there are just a handful of dishes with those health/diet stalwarts: tofu and tempeh. One of them, tofu dumplings, is simply superb, thin noodle wrappings plumped with a ricotta-textured filling of tofu, matzo meal, sour cream, and horseradish. Two white porcelain cups come on the side, one with low-sodium soy, the other with very hot, very red chili sauce. Another recommended appetizer is the savory spinach-and-breadcrumb-stuffed whole artichoke with a tangy honey mustard dip for the leaves. This particular choke had a lot of heart, one of the meatiest I've ever encountered.

Meals are very well priced, from $9.95 to $14.95, and include a crisp house salad with miso dressing or salt-and-oil-free soup of the day; on one occasion the featured soup was white bean with a robust tomato-vegetable-based broth. Starch is served on a side plate, too, be it brown rice, baked potato (sweet potatoes on Mondays), or pasta. Let's hope little Seymour didn't pick the last, sticky linguini with a middling marinara sauce, as that would only have burdened him with yet another disappointment to ponder. Brighten up, kid -- Artichoke's is no miracle but the freshness, healthfulness, and affordability of its food can make you feel pretty good just the same.

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. [page]

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. [page]

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. [page]

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. [page]

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." [page]

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." [page]

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." [page]

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"A Grande Arrest"
By Tristram Korten

Madfish House
Key Biscayne and Virginia Key boast breathtaking views of sunsets over the bay and of Miami's skyline as it transforms first into dusky silhouette, then into glittering lights as night falls. Naturally there are seafood restaurants eager to take advantage of such snapshot vistas, the Rusty Pelican probably being the best known. The same initial left turn off of the Rickenbacker Causeway that leads to the landmark establishment will bring your car past another seafood joint first, one with big red letters splashed across the roof: Madfish House. This spot used to host the SouthFork Bar & Grill, which obviously didn't make it (not to brag, but I predicted as much to my wife after witnessing their cheesy promos with Stephanie Sayfie on her old cable TV show).

Just up the dusty road from Madfish's entrance is a food stand where José, from Colombia, grills big, flavorful chicken, pork, and beef skewers -- your pick, with potatoes, bread, and a choice of about a dozen salads and garnishes -- for $3.50. He sets up at about 10:00 p.m. and serves till 4:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings. So if after finishing this review you're not convinced Madfish House is a viable place to go for sunset drinks, and if I can't persuade you to overlook the nominal ambiance, lackluster (but friendly) service, and at times misconstrued menu to enjoy what happens to be freshly prepared food, well, at least the tip about José might make the read worthwhile.

I like Madfish's informality and lack of pretension; on the other hand, the place is decorated like a personality-less pancake house (with a bar). Outdoor seating, far more desirable, is defined by funkiness and fun: a bunch of bare tables with marina bay views at one end, a large tiki-hut bar at the other. Colored light bulbs are strung in rows across the patio, and party tunes like "Livin' La Vida Loca" play a little too loudly over outdoor speakers; on weekends there's live music. Like a grungier Bolero, this bar and grill really wants to be a bar.

Still, the food was surprisingly gratifying. A combo-appetizer platter of fried calamari, conch fritters, grouper fingers, and Buffalo wings ($15.95) was faultlessly prepared, each component crisp and clean. A steamer pot of clams also was deftly done, the tender bivalves interspersed with chunks of carrot, celery, and potato in a broth aromatic with peppercorns and cloves ($9.95 for a dozen, $14.95 for two dozen, $19.95 for three dozen; combo of clams, mussels, and oysters). A starter of six "Oysters Rockefeller" ($8.50) baked with spinach, garlic, and Parmesan were tasty too, although the only thing they had in common with classic bacon-and-pimiento Rockefeller was the oysters. More menu mislabelings: "Maui" club sandwich featuring "Cajun-spiced chicken," and a decidedly untropical main course of "Caribbean seafood" ($16.95) with shrimp, mahi-mahi, mussels, peppers, zucchini, onions, and spinach -- over linguini. Other pastas are also available as entrées, as are steaks, brick-oven pizzas, and various types of seafood -- grilled, fried, and sautéed.

If all you want is some food with a view, or brew with a view, an outdoor table at Madfish House will work just fine; it's actually an ideal spot for lunch or late-afternoon cocktails with a pot of steamers. For more serious seafood dining and real restaurant ambiance, however, you'll have to keep driving up that dusty road. Then again I suspect a whole lotta skewers, salads, and beverages from José, and a late-night seat on one of the public knolls by the bay might make for the most memorable meal of the three.

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