Moving Targets

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.

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman