At 6 a.m., a rickety white van with a single working taillight sputters up to Broward Boulevard and Federal Highway. Jerry, a slight middle-aged guy with ratty gray hair matted under a bright-pink Sun-Sentinel cap only slightly darker than the sunburn he's sporting, pops out of the back. He's arrived to hawk newspapers. After brief instructions from the driver, he strides toward an island on the south side of the intersection.
"You've got to do inserts," shouts another hawker nicknamed "Sentinel Rick" from his post beside four tall stacks of Sunday newspapers on the intersection's east side. When Jerry gives Rick a puzzled look, the hawker says it again, pointing to the median where Jerry is headed. "Your inserts. You'll find them over there." It's Mother's Day, and there are numerous advertising supplements that Jerry must slip inside the Sentinel before he settles into selling it.
For the next two hours, Jerry cradles the newspaper limply in his arm with the headline "A Failure to Communicate" facing cars that race out of the Henry E. Kinney Tunnel. He wears an orange safety vest over a white T-shirt, a pink Sun-Sentinel cap that identifies him as a hawker, and a bemused expression. This is his fifth day selling the newspaper to motorists on Fort Lauderdale's streets. Today's headline, over a story about the proliferation of languages spoken across South Florida, seems an apt description of Jerry's failure as a hawker. He just doesn't have the go-out-and-get-the-sale personality for the job. So far, he's peddled ten Sunday papers at $1 each and raked in a measly $3.50 in profit. (He earns 35 cents per sale.) That's only $1.75 an hour.
Still, he's doing better than Saturday, when he made $2.50 after working six hours in the sweltering sun at State Road 84 and Federal Highway -- 42 cents an hour. Mostly, he just took home that sunburn. "I'll tell you," he confides grimly, "I'd much rather be hanging Sheetrock or dry wall."
"I don't plan on making a career out of it," he says dismissively. And the following week, Jerry wasn't at Federal and Broward.
Not only does the pay stink but selling newspapers in South Florida is the most dangerous job in the business. The hawkers' workplace, the area's streets, has repeatedly been named some of the most hazardous real estate for pedestrians in the United States. In the past 15 years, at least 29 vendors have been injured on the job and at least 14 more have died, according to newspaper accounts and a review of medical examiner reports. Many of those deaths happened when a hawker was standing in the median or on the side of the street.
Dodging into traffic to make a sale and scampering back before the light turns green requires alertness. In 1993, James Richard Truitt stood in traffic at State Road 7 and Oakland Park Boulevard selling papers for the Sentinel at 6:20 a.m. when former heavyweight champion Michael Dokes swung too wide as he tried to turn onto Oakland Park Boulevard. Dokes, who admitted he had been drinking before the accident, hit Truitt and slammed him to the pavement. The hawker suffered minor injuries.
Newspaper vendor Sally Strohacker was trying to cross six lanes of traffic at Copans Road before the light changed on January 9, 1997. She made it to the other side, but a semi waiting to turn south onto Powerline Road struck her when the light changed. The driver didn't see the 58-year-old walking in front of his truck. Strohacker was hospitalized after she was run over by the truck's front and rear tires.
And even if one is plying newspapers from a traffic island, accidents happen. Lee Young sat on a milk crate in the median of NW 27th Avenue and 103rd Street in Miami-Dade County on July 31, 1993, when a van ran a traffic light and crashed into another car that hit Young, according to newspaper accounts. He was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital in critical condition.
"We're like jackrabbits out here," said Ken, a hawker with a salt-and-pepper beard that covers the bottom half of his face and then sprays out onto his chest. When he spoke to New Times, Ken was trying to unload one last Sun-Sentinel newspaper beside a Dunkin' Donuts on Federal Highway near Sunrise Boulevard. Like the other hawkers quoted in this article, Ken, who has sold the Sentinel off and on for the past 12 years, asked that only his first name be used.
Although hawkers wear the gear and sell the product, they are basically on their own on the street. They don't enjoy the protections accorded Sentinel and Herald employees. Indeed, they aren't the companies' employees. They are independent contractors employed by distributors. And they are paid mostly in cash by these middlemen. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay $5.15 an hour. But vendors aren't protected by the act because they are defined as outside sales people.
In March, Hollywood said it was trying to protect vendors when it began enforcing a state statute that says street vendors cannot solicit business while in the street. Any hawker who entered traffic to hunt for sales was ticketed. Other smaller cities have banned vendors outright or restricted where they can sell papers. But this time, the Herald and the Sun-Sentinel sued. The newspapers say Hollywood has violated their right to freedom of speech by limiting their ability to distribute their newspapers.
The nine vendors interviewed by New Times all want to be on the street, no matter the danger or the pay. Hawking newspapers provides a quick means to earn hard cash. Whether you are desperate to eat, down a beer, or pay the weekly rent on a cheap motel room, there aren't many jobs around that provide ready money, especially when you're middle-aged and not able to snatch the plum construction work at the labor pools. And for the vendors who work good intersections and build a clientele, the money is almost acceptable. But it's nevertheless clear that the newspapers exploit the desperate and the down-and-out by offering them an opportunity to sell their product in a harrowingly dangerous environment, then take little responsibility:
Jorge Gallego didn't have a chance on the morning of August 7, 2002. The blue-eyed 41-year-old had been on the job selling the Miami Herald for about eight months when 87-year-old Paul Caminiti lost control of his car at 10:01 a.m. and, traveling at 45 mph, smashed into a Mercedes Benz, a Ford pickup, and a Ford Expedition. Gallego, who was selling papers on the side of the street at Stirling Road and U.S. 441, was hit by the Buick and the Expedition and pushed under a mini-school bus.
When paramedics rushed Gallego to Memorial Regional Hospital, he wasn't breathing and had no pulse. The hospital pronounced him dead at 10:31 a.m. of multiple blunt-trauma injuries. Caminiti, who wore a pacemaker and may have suffered a heart attack, was taken to the hospital, where he remained in critical condition until he died September 14. An autopsy showed no drugs present in Gallego's blood, except for nicotine, and no alcohol. It also noted that Gallego wore the bright-green shirt that the Herald gives to its vendors to make them more visible in traffic.
Other fatalities reported in newspaper accounts and in Broward County Medical Examiner records were equally tragic. And equally haphazard:
A cup of coffee killed Michael McNamara. On his birthday, May 23, 2002, the 52-year-old stood on the median at Federal Highway and Stirling Road at 7:48 a.m. selling the Miami Herald. He was wearing a black T-shirt and jean shorts. A 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass making a left turn struck him and dragged him 40 feet before coming to a halt. The car had to be lifted to extract McNamara from the rear axle. He was pronounced dead at the scene of blunt head and chest trauma. His blood-alcohol level was .08, which means he might have had a beer but wasn't drunk. The driver said he spilled coffee in his lap and was trying to grab the container. He looked up just as he rammed McNamara.
Scott King, age 29, knelt to pick something up off the ground in front of a semi stopped at Sheridan Street and University Drive. When the light turned green, the truck moved forward, striking King and killing him instantly. The driver said he didn't see the Sun-Sentinel vendor.
Donald Norman Ross, age 47, was wearing the Sun-Sentinel's bright-pink T-shirt on the day he died, according to a newspaper account. While Ross knelt on the median stuffing inserts into papers on Copans Road on May 11, 1990, a lunch truck making a right turn from Powerline Road onto Copans jumped the curb and struck him. Ross died at the scene.
Several more vendors were killed when they waded into traffic to sell papers. Alice Maddex stayed on the median, but she died in 1994 when one of the cars in a nine-car collision at University Drive and Sheridan struck her and threw her into the path of another vehicle.
Ken says he's had several close brushes with the automobile, but mostly he blames himself. Two years ago, Ken's doctor told him to give up drinking or die. Before that, he used to fill up a green Mountain Dew bottle with beer and keep it beside him in a median while he sold papers. Once, as he walked back to a median, he turned to see a monster truck barreling toward him. In his impaired state, he says, he wasn't able to jump out of the way in time. The mirror clipped his arm, but the injury wasn't serious. He also laughs about a friend who walked into traffic and right into a boat hooked to the back of a truck. Drunk, Ken says. The guy came away battered and bruised but otherwise OK. Still, it was good for razzing. "We'd say, 'What you'd do, go down the Intracoastal selling papers?'"
Despite the dangers, Ken says he'll continue selling papers. "This here's guaranteed," he says. "They always have corners open. It's easy money when you're homeless."
While Jerry stands passively on the median on Mother's Day, just a few feet away, "Herald Rick," a colleague of Sentinel Rick's, wades into oncoming traffic. The Miami Herald's neon-green T-shirts and caps, which hawkers wear to make themselves noticeable in traffic, are incidental visuals for him. Rick's style commands attention. With a couple of papers tucked under one arm, he slings his skinny self toward the cars, the motion sending his free arm spinwheeling into the air like a rag doll's. He and his limbs come to a rest standing on the white line separating the two inside lanes of traffic barreling out of the tunnel. He sticks his hip out and holds the papers jutting from the side of his body. He glares at the sea of cars as though he owns the place and they are the interlopers. As the automobiles pull to a stop at the light, Rick stares into the shut windows as if trying to will them open. "It's a mind game," he says. "A mind-hustling game." A stream of cars whirs by until the light changes red. Then he walks between the vehicles, stopping, adopting the pose, and moving on.
"Howdy, cap'n," he calls out to one man.
"Whaddaya say, gov'ner?"
Every time a woman buys a paper or gets within talking range, he calls out "Happy Mother's Day." On request, he gives customers directions to locations around downtown. He extracts $2 from one man and grins. "I should be selling flowers. Hell, flowers and newspapers!"
Rick boasts that he makes most of his money in tips. He says customers often hand him $2, $5, $10, $20 for one newspaper and tell him to keep the rest. One time, he says, a customer gave him five $100 bills. "Five hundred dollars for one newspaper!" he says. He's been out here for an hour less than Jerry, but Herald Rick's hail-fellow routine has already earned him $20. And Herald hawkers don't have to kick back a percentage of the sales to their distributors, at least not in Broward County. They keep all of their earnings. Plus, they make a whopping $7 a day just for being out there.
Herald Rick's been hawking papers for 14 years. On this Mother's Day, he floats between the northbound and westbound intersections of Broward and Federal doing his act. "I'm what's called a fixture out here," he says. He expects to take home $200 this Sunday. Unlike Jerry, he's not interested in finding other work. "I turned down a job paying $12 an hour as a flagman," he boasts. Rick says he likes it so much that he sometimes stays out until midnight hawking papers and taking tips. The Herald and the Sentinel want hawkers off the streets by 11 a.m. during the week and by 4 p.m. on weekends, but Rick says the nighttime is a good time to be out. People are headed out to clubs or coming home from a night on the town. "I do this 18 hours a day," he claims.
The Sentinel began selling newspapers through street vendors in 1984; the Herald started the practice in 1989. In addition to adding to the ways the newspaper reaches its customers, the vendor program gave employment to people who have a difficult time working steady jobs, Sun-Sentinel spokesman Kevin Courtney says. From the start, the program employed individuals who usually work in labor pools, stay in homeless shelters, and live on the street.
Vendors don't account for a majority of sales of either the Sun-Sentinel or the Herald. Currently, about 180 hawkers peddle the Sun-Sentinel, Courtney says. On Sundays, they sell about 20,000 papers, or about one-fifth of single-copy sales, which also include street-corner-machine and in-store sales. The Herald peddles about 18,000 copies through vendors on Sundays, about 12 percent of its single-copy take.
The use of hawkers isn't widespread in the newspaper industry, says Michael Moran, vice president of the Audit Bureau of Circulation, a trade group that monitors sales. The practice is common mostly in major metropolitan areas such as Chicago or New York City. In Florida, though, the St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune, and the Orlando Sentinel all use vendors. The Florida Times-Union does not. And in Broward County, where one of the nation's hottest turf wars, between the Herald and Sun-Sentinel, rages, the hawkers are ubiquitous. They function as moving billboards.
"There is a demand for it from people who want to buy their newspaper this way," Courtney says. "It's convenient and effective... It has proven to be one of the most important ways to get people information."
Courtney says the Sun-Sentinel uses independent distributors who purchase papers from them, because it's standard practice in the field. The company demands professional behavior from the vendors, but the distributors must ensure compliance. If problems become chronic and the distributor is negligent, Courtney says, the Sun-Sentinel would sever the relationship with the distributor.
Asked about the pay vendors receive and particularly about Jerry's story of earning $2.50 in six hours of work, Courtney responds that he can't comment on something he doesn't know is truthful or accurate. "You have to consider the sources of your information," Courtney says. "They are giving you anecdotal information. You are asking me to comment on something I do not know to be true."
Sun-Sentinel distributor Jim Ellwood, who works the Central Broward area west of I-95 with about 50 vendors, declined to comment on pay, as did two other distributors whose names Courtney provided.
And at the Miami Herald, Vice President of Publications Robert Beatty says, commenting on pay issues is inappropriate. "The vendors are independent contractors for us, and that is the method by which the relationship is defined," Beatty says. "The Herald must, by law, maintain an arm's-length relationship with them." His response to questions about vendor behavior and the Herald's responsibility for ensuring the safety of vendors was the same.
Farms that use migrant labor to pick their crops have a similar relationship with their labor force. Labor contractors, not farmers, hire migrant workers and pay them. It would seem such an arrangement separates both the farms and the newspapers from liability and other legal concerns. Beatty doesn't accept the comparison. "I can only assume your analysis is based on a misunderstanding of the law," he says.
But in 1994, the Herald itself reported that the paper had spent $490,000 on medical bills and death benefits for hawkers. That would seem to imply a more-complicated relationship. And one nine-year Herald hawker interviewed by New Times said that the $7 a day Herald vendors receive is from the company, not from the distributors.
Vendors are generally offered insurance. Sun-Sentinel hawkers can pay $4 a week to the distributor, but several said they'd rather hang onto their money. Courtney says the paper is not involved in the insurance arrangements with vendors. Beatty says the Herald does not provide insurance for vendors, that it is provided through the distributors, but several longtime Herald vendors said their insurance was proffered by the company.
Courtney says the Sentinel takes responsibility for the safety of vendors by requiring its distributors to follow certain guidelines: They must make sure the vendors wear bright-pink caps and T-shirts and orange safety vests and take a pedestrian training course at the National Safety Council.
Although all of the vendors New Times spoke to for this article wore the orange vests and the hat and T-shirt, none of them had taken a safety course. "Basically, they just said to watch out," Jerry says as he sells papers on Broward and Federal Highway on Mother's Day.
"Don't fucking make me laugh," one vendor scoffs when asked about the course.
The hawkers found themselves at the center of a major constitutional squabble this past spring. Hollywood -- Broward's second-largest municipality -- basically shut down the street sales of newspapers on March 25, when it began issuing citations to hawkers, and a few days later, the Sentinel and the Herald sued in federal court. The city says it's using a state statute to protect the hawkers from harm. The Sentinel and the Herald say Hollywood has attacked their constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech.
Hawkers fear this eagerness to be rid of them under the ruse of protecting them will spread to other towns. And in the past few years, a spate of small South Florida municipalities has limited the places where hawkers can work. Days after Hollywood began ticketing vendors, the Pompano Beach City Commission passed an ordinance on first reading to keep hawkers away from busy intersections. Again, the city portrayed the move as concern for hawker safety. Pompano Beach is working on a compromise ordinance in consultation with the Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, and the Homeless Voice, a newspaper sold locally for donations to a homeless shelter.
A memo from Assistant City Attorney Mark E. Berman to City Manager William Hargett Jr. dated November 1, 2002, cited a laundry list of complaints the city had received about vendors. The gripes included littering, aggressive solicitation, and public urination. Berman also noted complaints about the number of vendors at some intersections. In South Florida, sometimes as many as ten vendors representing the Sentinel, the Herald, and the Homeless Voice fan out into traffic or perch on medians at major intersections like Broward Boulevard and Federal Highway.
This past May 18, a pair of Sentinel vendors at Federal and Broward illustrated the sloppy supervision of vendors. The men, who split the duty at the west side of the intersection, didn't want even their first names used in an article. Whenever they made a few bucks, "Shawn" went off in search of a Natural Lite tall boy. By 10 a.m., he reeked of beer. He offered to talk about newspaper hawking, but he preferred to do it behind the Einstein's Bagel shop, where he sat on a plastic crate and pulled a tall boy out of the pocket of his shorts. He bantered for half an hour, then bought another beer at the Mobil station and downed it behind Premo's Subs. "I'm a newspaper boy," he explained after cracking open the pop-top. "We're all alcoholics."
As he stood up to return to his post, Shawn realized he had to take a leak. He did so beside a Dumpster. "What's the matter -- you don't like my dick?" he yelled as I turned my back.
Later in the day, both men were in the median with six lanes of traffic streaming past them. Shawn sat on a crate, and his friend stood beside him. A stack of Sunday papers still to be sold was on the ground beside the pair.
On April 3, the Herald and the Sun-Sentinel asked Judge Ted E. Bandstra of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida to issue an injunction that would prevent Hollywood police from citing or arresting vendors until the case is decided. So far, no decision has been rendered. "We are hopeful that the parties can reach a meeting of the minds," Beatty says. "That's our hope; that's our expectation."
In the meantime, the Hollywood Police Department continues to write citations. Between March 25 and May 30, city police wrote 47 tickets for violations of the law and arrested two Herald vendors. The actions have had a chilling effect on sales. In an affidavit that is part of the pleading to Bandstra, Howard Greenberg, Sun-Sentinel's vice president for circulation and operations, said that "the Sun-Sentinel has been forced to shut down its news vendor program within the Hollywood city limits..."
Sean Cononie, who publishes the Homeless Voice, felt the heat first when Hallandale Beach restricted street sales by charitable organizations, a move directed at Cononie's Homeless Voice vendors. After Cononie filed a lawsuit in 2001, U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger ordered vendors back into the city.
For the past several years, Hallandale Beach has been controlling vendors using the same state statute that Hollywood employed. Other local cities, including Weston, Pembroke Pines, and Margate, limit vendor sales, and Sunrise bans them altogether.
Sentinel Rick hustles. Like Herald Rick, he's a long-timer. They couldn't be more different. Where Herald Rick is tall and skinny, Sentinel Rick is short and stocky, with a teddy bear-like demeanor. Where Herald Rick is mercurial, some days not showing up to sell until 11 a.m., the hour vendors are supposed to be off the street, Sentinel Rick has built a clientele on the tenets of friendliness and dependability. For the past 12 years, he's made his living hawking papers for Fort Lauderdale's most prominent rag. His lengthy provenance and dependability have earned him a good spot on east Broward Boulevard, on the edge of Victoria Park. He is at his post at 5:30 a.m. on Mother's Day, stuffing inserts into the Sunday paper, stacking them into piles, putting the piles inside tan garbage bags, and tying the bags at the top to protect the papers from the elements. Compared to the other corners, where Sunday papers flap while weighted down by rocks, Sentinel Rick's spot looks neat.
Rick says he recognizes his regulars by their cars. As soon as one drives up, he is there, paper in hand. On Mother's Day, he figures he'll sell at least 180 newspapers. For that, he'll pocket $63, earning about $7 an hour if he stays there until 3 p.m. or $5.70 an hour if he stays until 5 p.m.
He's not telling what he makes in tips, but the regulars obviously enjoy him. Rick invited one customer to join him at a Marlins game. He's built relationships there on the corner.
On May 18, another of his customers drops off a large load of T-shirts for him. "That's what I like to wear," he says grinning. "T-shirts and shorts. This is Florida. I always wear shorts."
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By 10 a.m., when the east-west light at Broward Boulevard and Federal Highway turns red, cars headed east back up at five or six deep. Rick walks between the lanes holding a Sun-Sentinel. He's wearing a bright-pink Sun-Sentinel T-shirt and cap. "It's never been my favorite color," he says. "But it sticks out, and that's what you need." As he proceeds down the line of cars, some people ease their windows up. Others roll theirs down and say hello. Rick knows the work is dangerous. "It don't bother me," he says. "I keep my eyes open. And I'm out of the street before the light changes."
During the 12 years he's worked for the Sentinel, Rick has paid $4 a week for accident insurance. He says he doesn't know what it covers. "If I get hit, I'm dead," he says. "How will I know what it's for?"
To Sentinel Rick, this eagerness to rid the area of vendors seems at cross purposes with other values cities purport to hold. "They bitch and cry about the homeless situation," he says, "but if they get rid of us, they will only make it worse.
"The hardest thing is not knowing what is going to happen. Are we going to stay, or are we going to go?"