Row Warriors

Vendors at historic Produce Row battle the forces of modern commerce

One of Hughes' favorite topics these days is, in fact, the market's recapturing program. Boxes, they've got boxes. "We throw out 5 tons of cardboard a week," he says, "but we've started putting it in marked bins that get picked up by a recycler. We don't get anything for it, but that's 5 tons that didn't go to the landfill." He brings out a 6-foot-long strip with two edges -- cornerboard for stabilizing pallet loads. "We used to have to throw these things away, too, but now the manufacturer is offering to take them back, in good condition, not only pay for the shipping but give a small rebate. We're getting ready to ship 7.5 tons down to Florida. That's 7.5 tons that didn't go to the landfill, and we get 7 cents apiece for them."

Like Fran, Hughes believes the market will flourish in the next century, though the roll call may be truncated. "It's transcended all the changes that have come about," he says. "It was built as a railroad terminal wholesale market, and the lines came up next to the buildings. That's where they parked the rail cars, and people used the rail cars for cold storage. Well, the trains are gone, so what's happened is people have taken the square footage inside the units and converted them to cubic feet. Where they had gone up 6 feet, now they're going up to the ceiling. We're probably looking at another 50 years while this market goes through the transition of square-feet to cubic-feet interior space, which, in turn, will allow them to go ahead and change their methods of doing business. At that point there will probably be fewer companies here, but all the space will be occupied and fully maximized. So, survival in this market is a matter of investment. Some companies have already put in $250,000 in heating-and-cooling equipment to maximize space; some have done nothing."

One of the changes Hughes made was to put security cameras all around the market. He glances occasionally at a pair of TV screens a few feet in front of his desk, making him, one might surmise, the Big Brother of Produce Row. The screen shows a tractor-trailer pulling in. The driver stops at the gate, where he will pay the $20 fee required to unload off-the-road goods ($10 for regular trucks). Next stop, one or more of the companies. The task of unloading can go three ways: The truckers may do it themselves (not often, because federal regulations say they have to spend so much downtime between runs); the houses receiving the produce may have their own people do it; or they call the lumpers, casual laborers who eke out a living by being available to unload trucks.

Historically, lumpers have been the lowest caste of Produce Row society, a mixture of drunkards, ruffians and guys actually looking for work. Starting at dark, they would mill about outside the gate, busting up wooden pallets and feeding trash-can fires throughout the night, tippling and scuffling, vying for what work there was. Hughes got there in 1990. By January 1991, he had regulated the situation. "There was drugs, alcohol, fights and prostitution," he recalls, "so I pulled it inside. I told them, 'We don't need 80 of you, we need eight.'"

It was nearly a moot point, according to Hughes, because the industry was already making lumper labor obsolete. "More and more, it was becoming the rule rather than the exception that produce was being shipped on pallets at proper height so it can be unloaded with pallet loader," he says, adding, "but there are still things like watermelons, which have to be handled individually."

Some found work with the chain stores, says Hughes, but from that day on, the lumpers who really wanted to lump "had to undergo a background check. No propensity toward violence, and they now wear ID tags. We built a place for them where they can watch TV and wait out of the weather."

The lumper shack is about the size of a one-car garage, and there's not much to it: Concrete floor, two metal benches, a couple of windows and a TV on the fritz. One gloriously balmy Sunday found a solitary Gene Gladney in there, whiling away the morning, reading his large Bible, waiting to catch a few trucks. Though he comes in several days a week, working "no particular hours," Sunday is his big day. He arrived at 6 a.m. and will stay until probably 1 a.m. Normally, he says, the house would call if they needed his labor, but sometimes "the trucker'll call you if they know you. Certain truckers got certain lumpers." On this day, he had been told in advance that he would be needed to unload two tractor-trailers arriving at scheduled times, more or less. These definite jobs, plus any others that might come his way, could earn him upward of $150 spot cash for the 18-hour day.

Although the Row is not a rough place by reputation, anytime you have up to 950 people (mostly men) in one place at one time, you're bound to have incidents of violence. That said, there have been two murders on the premises in the last two years. In December 1997, Ronald Hardwick pleaded guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Mary Ann Wright, 30, of Collinsville. Hardwick, 25, was living at a halfway house in the 1600 block of North First Street and worked with Wright at Field Fresh Processed Foods, on the Row. According to a Post-Dispatch story, "Investigators believe Hardwick murdered Wright as they sat in her pickup before they were scheduled to begin work June 6 (1997). She died from being hit in the head with a blunt object." Hardwick was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

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