"Just so you know I'm not walking off with it," says the fella, Doug Weiss, who runs the Collinsville Farmers Market, a regular customer.
"I trust you like a brother," says Fran.
"Then you're a fool," Weiss shoots back.
"Yeah? Cain and Abel were brothers. You know what Cain did to Abel? That's what I'd do to you if you walked off with my produce."
It's all bluster and baloney. Razzing is a form of endearment on the Row.
A few hours earlier, at sunrise, Carmen Mannino had made his daily pilgrimage to Produce Row. Mannino, 48, runs a produce market on Highway N in Cottleville, in St. Charles County. He parks his truck at Franklin Produce. Shopping list in hand, he studies the offerings on display. Most of it looks good, especially the Washington State Fancy Red Delicious apples. Nice price on them, too, Carmen notes. His customers will snap them up. He makes a preliminary order: two crates of 88-count Red Delicious apples, a dozen Hawaiian pineapples, 90-count U.S. No. 1 Extra Fancy pears, 100-pound sacks of potatoes -- two No. 5 red and two No. 5 white -- and a couple of bales of Vidalia onions. Carmen comes to the strawberries. There's something about this particular load he isn't sure about, and he knows it's going to be a big weekend for strawberries -- that's always the case just before Mother's Day. He balks at the strawberries. "I'll let you know," he says.
Now, Carmen has been trading with Franklin Produce ever since he can remember. When Carmen was a kid, his father, a produce man, traded with the fathers of Fran and Brother. Carmen's grandfather traded with them, too. Carmen buys most of his produce from Franklin, and they take care of him, but no one's got a hard-on if Carmen wants to see what the neighbors have to offer. As far as the strawberries go, Carmen is going to "shop the street," look for quality in purchase.
So he goes to Mantia, to Heimos, to Independent, but not to every house, because he doesn't have loyalty to every house, even if one is 50 cents lower than the rest on a carton of greens or a peck of strawberries. Having seen all the prices, and the quality being equal, he may come back to Franklin: "Hey, your neighbor's two bits less on the same peck of strawberries. Can you beat his price?" And Fran may acquiesce: "Yeah all right, you got me this time." Or maybe Fran knows something that Carmen doesn't know. "You better double-check the quality," he may say, "because there were two loads of strawberries in the market this morning. We got the better grade." The transaction could go any number of ways -- the market isn't Famous-Barr, and it's OK to dicker -- or it may not happen at all. In this case, however, the strawberries look noticeably better over at Heimos, and the price is right. Carmen takes two pallets' worth, trading on the timeworn adage that governs every sale on Produce Row: Quality speaks for itself.
Produce Row is going full-tilt when most of us are asleep. The 21.5-acre complex, located on North Market one block east of North Broadway, sees some 18,000 tractor-trailers per year, each holding an average of 22 tons of produce. It is a trading hub that takes in buyers from about 150 miles in all directions, making the market a veritable fruit basket to the Midwest. From potatoes to pomegranates, the Row has it at one time or another, an ever-changing array of inventory. The collective produce carried by all the purveyors on the Row, representing harvests from growing regions in 49 states and 74 countries, arrives by the carlot. Much of it will go out by the pickup load. Some people confuse Produce Row with Soulard Market: Both are near the river, off Broadway; both carry volumes of produce. The distinction is that Soulard is a retail setup, whereas the Row is strictly limited to wholesale. In fact, Soulard vendors (farmers excepted) buy big at Produce Row. They and every other customer, including the St. Louis Zoo, must have a city-issued tax number to purchase anything on the Row.
It is a place of robust commerce with a colorful cast of characters that includes jobbers, brokers, lumpers, buyers, inspectors and truckers. The feel of it is old-timey, the sort of place that would inspire muscular poetry in a blue-collar bard, setting to meter the images of guys stomping around the docks all hours of the night, barking orders, making notations, moving produce-laden pallets with the motorized lift trucks called jeeps. Then, if it's cold or lonely, there are always a few jobbers gathered near one of the cylindrical kerosene heaters, a few choice spuds cooking on the grill for later, when the long hours cause a stomach to grumble.
Twin rows of two-story concrete buildings, 1,225 feet long and 114 feet wide, make up the market. The broad thoroughfare between these buildings is called "the street." When buyers are looking for the best deals, hoping to cash in on the intense competition among the purveyors, they "walk the street." The 98 stalls on the row are occupied by 57 companies, including wholesalers, food distributors, brokers, a drayage (short-distance hauling) firm and market offices. Above the doorway of each set of stalls, 3-foot white letters on a green background spell out the name of the house: Heimos, Moon, United, Sherman, Adolph & Ceresia, Mantia and more.
The first seven stalls on the odd-numbered side of the street are taken by Franklin Produce. It is a prime location.
Produce Row was inaugurated by families, small tribes of produce purveyors. In 1946, Sam and Frank Cusumano opened Franklin Produce at Fourth and Franklin Avenue (now Delmar). The brothers built the business in the '50s and '60s, catering to the numerous corner groceries and peddlers who hawked produce in neighborhoods throughout the city. Although times have changed and many wholesalers have taken on partners outside the family, at Franklin Produce -- "carlot receivers and jobbers" -- business is still conducted solely by the Cusumano family (cousins to several other folks in various echelons in the local food trade, including the Cusumano clan that runs the famous Kemoll's Restaurant). There's Jack -- 38, nice guy, transparent, somewhat formal, calls customers "Sir" and "Ma'am," works the flowering-plant side. There's Fran -- 51, stocky, ready smile, gregarious. The talker. Fran's been on the Row since he was a kid; says he's been working seven days a week since he got out of the service in '68. And there's Brother -- always with the cap, the lowered specs and the chewed stogie. Brother, 70, given name Francis, runs the business. Even nonfamily say he's the most respected man on Produce Row. He can be Santa Claus to certain down-and-out buyers, those he knows and trusts, giving credit on a handshake. Fran's sister, Nettie Olsen (nee Cusumano), works the books in the office upstairs. Fran and Brother are first cousins, the sons of Sam and Frank, respectively. Jack is Brother's son. Capisci?
Early on a cold Saturday in mid-April, four guys -- "bummers," Brother calls them -- sit around the kerosene burner, smoking and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups: three black guys in caps, lounging on what looks to be the rear seat of a bus, and one grizzled old white guy called Harpo, real name Anthony Ventimiglia, tilted back in a ragged office chair. Retired years ago from the market, Harpo, 76, still shows up at Franklin every day just to be a part of it all. He used to be a tomato packer, and he still can't resist the occasional need to cull. Even now, he says, "when something comes through and doesn't look good, I'll go though the box, take the bad ones out." The three guys on the bus seat are in-house laborers. Normally they would be readying orders and loading them into trucks. Not today, however. Today is slow. Only in the last five years has Franklin Produce gotten into the flowering-plant business, and though the dock area is awash with marigolds, geraniums, azaleas and New Guinea impatiens, the cold has kept the nursery and garden folks away. Instead, a few produce buyers straggle in from outlying areas.
What produce the Franklin house has in inventory is displayed just outside the bay door of No. 3; avocados from California, honeydew melons from Guatemala and potatoes from Colorado rest alongside yams from Louisiana, cherry tomatoes from Mexico and red Anjou pears from Argentina. In sacks and crates, they lie gleaming in the early-morning light, awaiting the educated scrutiny of a prospective buyer -- an independent grocer, perhaps, the stall-tender at a small community market, or even that endangered species, the solitary produce huckster.
Butch Kabat backs his pickup to the Franklin dock. He gets out, a big man with an open face. A bit of gab while his order is being filled reveals that two years back Kabat decided to get out of the restaurant business and into the produce business. The family-run Fresh Produce Co. is located in Tamaroa, Ill., just outside DuQuoin. He's buying potatoes, onions, tomatoes and lettuce to sell to restaurants and country stores. "Most don't have time to shop for themselves," says Kabat of his 32 accounts. "Having been in the restaurant business, I understand when they tell me they want quality and feel they don't get it from the bigger suppliers. They want a case of half-green/half-ripe bananas, that's what they'll get. The bigger suppliers will give them a case of all green or all ripe." The name of the game is price and quality. Wholesalers such as the Cusumanos buy good quality in big lots and sell it in smaller lots -- the less purchased, the more it's marked up. When not filling orders, they constantly work the phones and the fax machines, getting quotes from brokers, sending quotes out to customers. The vicissitudes of a fickle market keep the wholesalers hopping. "It changes every two to three days," says Fran, referring to product availability and price. "Not enough sun, not enough rain, a freeze in Florida, whatever, it changes the supply and demand. Prices seesaw. There's always the temptation to buy when prices are high. Buying scared, you have to resist that. You learn to buy when prices are right, and that takes experience. You make mistakes along the way."
In an office the size of a coatroom, the history of the company in pictures tacked to the walls, Brother talks about how the business has changed over the years: "In the beginning of this market, everyone specialized. You saw Kincaid for celery, and he made a living just with celery because he bought by the carlot. We put celery on our walk, we'd die with it. That's the way it was. You saw Moon for tomatoes, Kelly for horseradish, somebody else for lettuce. We were the cauliflower kings. Then, it switched. The buyers wanted one-stop shopping; everybody started handling everything. It's all diversified now."
Then there was another disturbing trend: Business started to wane. Oh, it didn't happen all of a sudden or for one particular reason but crept up on the purveyors like pernicious anemia. To hear Fran, Brother and others tell it, the middleman, the wholesaler, is being squeezed out. Between the brokers muscling in on customers and the food chains buying direct, the customer base is dwindling, causing dog-eat-dog competition. The evolution of the supermarket is reflected in the prevailing trend that bigger is better is less expensive and the hell with the small fry who get washed up on shore and left to rot. Ergo, the small grocers, the mom-and-pop stores that once existed on every corner, the hucksters -- such as Pete Daleo and Charlie Cillo, who drove the neighborhoods and peddled produce from the back of their trucks -- many of those folks who once came to the market daily, replenishing stores, have been absorbed or eliminated by the chains. C'est la vie. And unless they're temporarily short of something, the chains bypass the wholesalers, buying direct from the shipper, just as the wholesalers do.
"Used to be we didn't worry about Heimos or United because we had plenty of customers," says Fran, jangling the change in his pockets, "but now, since business declined, we're all fighting for the same trade."
As a result, the ranks of the wholesalers have declined through attrition. "From '53 up until, oh, '62, these 98 stalls were taken up by as many as 85 wholesalers," says Brother, sales book in hand. "There's just eight now, but then every little house had a unit. But what happened over time was, somebody dies or quits and there's no one to take their place, they get bought out by existing companies, usually a neighbor wanting to expand." Case in point: United Produce. In the last decade, as neighboring companies have folded, the Row's largest wholesaler has assimilated their units and warehousing until United now claims the lion's share, 31 stalls. Conversely, hardly any new companies have come aboard in later years, Sunfarm and Mr. B's being the exceptions.
To stress the point, Brother brings out a stack of black-and-white 8-by-10s showing the early days of the Row. "See that?" he asks, pointing to an old panel truck in the photo. The truck is lettered with a company name. "G.A. Marsh," he says, "one of the driving forces in the move to the new location, gone." He lays out the pictures, runs through a roll call of bygone purveyors, many of whom were friends and associates. Weinstein, gone. Schwartz, gone. Mike Regina, gone. Lombardo, Friedmeyer, Niedenberg, Hollman, New Market, Bolsano -- gone, gone and gone.
Well, nobody ever said competition wasn't a bitch, but that doesn't make it any less of a kick in the ass. For one thing, the dynasties on Produce Row are stopped short. There's a Charlie Gallagher Jr. at United, and a fourth-generation Mantia over at the banana house, but by and large, the sons aren't replacing the fathers. Even Fran, who revels in the business, doesn't want any of his three school-age offspring stepping into his boots one day. Not enough to go around. "When our fathers were here, this place took care of five families -- their food, clothes, education," he says. "That just isn't the case anymore. Everybody's selling more by volume, and the profit margin hasn't gone up with inflation."
But it's not just the downturn in volume that keeps the sons and daughters from taking over the family business. If the competition's tough, the hours are tougher. Twelve- to 15-hour days are the norm on Produce Row. "The old guys," says Fran, in a sort of perverse boast, "they worked until they dropped. You couldn't get them away from this business. My dad and my uncle, even in their 80s, put in 14 hours a day. They were all that way. We grew up in this business -- it's in our blood, let us be nuts for working these hours -- but kids today want to have a life outside work." Indeed, they certainly don't want the insulated existence of Joe Bohac, proprietor of the now-defunct Hollman Commission Co., who, years ago, in gruff summation of those who grouse about the hours, remarked: "If you don't like it, get out. You're never home anyway, so you may as well like it here."
The phone rings. Fran gets it. It's an order from Pete's Shur-Sav, an independent grocer with three outlets in St. Louis. Good, steady customers such as Pete's and Stelmacki's Super Market out in North County and Doug Weiss from the Collinsville Farmers Market are what keep Franklin Produce afloat. Unlike United and Sherman -- which get at least a portion of their business from Dierbergs and Schnucks, respectively -- Franklin's customer base is the small independents, the fruit-store proprietors, and some days it seems as if there aren't enough of them to go around. To some degree, customer loyalty can help offset the occasional slump. You take a regular such as Jasper Giardina, the Cherokee Street radio-museum owner, who comes to Franklin about every other day to get the good stuff for his famous fruit baskets, frequently touted by Charles Brennan on KMOX. Franklin will have Jasper's business so long as Brother's around. "This guy took care of me when I was broke," says Giardina unabashedly. "I couldn't get a nickel on the street, and Brother gave me credit. That's what you call trust, and you don't see much of that anymore."
Jasper and other well-wishers notwithstanding, the larger question remains: With all the buy-outs, grocery chains gobbling each other up, buying direct with increasing incidence, will Produce Row still be around in 20 years, or will it go the way of the Kansas City wholesale market, which at one time was similar in scope to Produce Row and now has only four produce houses left?
"It will survive," says Fran. "For one thing, the Kansas City market didn't have a Soulard Market to fall back on." He cites the central location, the nexus of interstates surrounding the market, as well as the sizeable surrounding customer base -- west to the Lake of the Ozarks, north to Quincy and Hannibal, northeast to Springfield and Decatur, south to Poplar Bluff and Carbondale. "There's no competition within 150 miles, and there's deals to be had in St. Louis because of the cheaper freight out of Florida. So, yeah, this place is going to be around for a while."
Produce Row opened at its current location on Feb. 3, 1953, though it existed elsewhere, under different names, long before that. In the time of Laclede and Chouteau, a loosely formed market was, by convenience, located along the levee, where merchants were able to meet the boats carrying commodities up and down the Mississippi. Then, around 1875, the merchants moved their stores to a 36-acre tract along Third and Fourth Streets between Biddle on the north and Washington on the south (around where Planet Hollywood now stands), where they sold for the next 75 years. The place became known as Commission Row, a conglomerate of homes and business storefronts converted to stalls where meat and poultry were sold alongside fruits and vegetables. The "little bitty stores with no refrigeration," as Brother remembers them, did not exactly make for an ideal or sanitary situation, according to some old-timers, but Commission Row was where you went for what you needed.
By the late '40s, construction of what is now the Martin Luther King Bridge began displacing some businesses. The merchants banded together, forming the St. Louis Fruit and Produce Association. They pooled their resources and, in 1950, with the purchase of land from the Wabash Railroad, began the construction of a wholesale terminal market, close to Interstate 70, the current Produce Row. The new facility was to be as modern and convenient as any ever built, with high ceilings for upward storage and railroad tracks coming right up to the back docks. The produce came by boxcars up until the 1960s. In the late '50s and early '60s the trucks started coming.
Gus Mantia, at 84 the oldest purveyor on the Row, remembers when the proprietors moved en masse to the new digs. "We thought it was a real good deal," he says, a sheaf of orders in his hand. "Each company came down here and picked where they wanted to be. Back then, the limit was two stalls per company. We just couldn't believe how huge it was -- 2,500-square-foot warehouses; that was a luxury. In the old place, just to get the orders, you had to run up and down the basement steps."
Today, business is done mostly at night, anytime from 8 p.m. until noon the next day. But it wasn't that way in the beginning. At first, the market would open at 2 a.m. for the out-of-towners, because they needed a head start in getting back to Decatur or Sedalia before sunrise to sell or deliver the produce. For the locals, it was 4 a.m. But some of the wholesalers, trying to get the edge, started sneaking customers in, and then more started doing it, which caused the market to open earlier and earlier until the hours became what they are now.
A pact was formed at the time of incorporation: The individual companies would be shareholders of St. Louis Produce Market. Today, 21 companies on Produce Row are shareholders in the private enterprise. The structure is not unlike that of a condominium: They own their own units (and may sublease if they wish), yet pay rent for the upkeep of the market, street and building repairs, guard salaries and so on. A board of directors makes the rules, sets the standards, plots the course and hires the big chiefs.
"Our whole purpose is to get the stuff in the trucks and get it out to the stores before rush hour. Those restaurants serving breakfast at 6-7 a.m.? We've got those trucks loaded and headed out two hours beforehand." Clarence Hughes, the market manager with a mug like a Celtic chieftain's, is talking about the market's brawny role in providing fresh produce for some 4 million folks dwelling in the heartland, but what's really on his mind this day is waste.
"The wholesalers have to pitch 12 to 18 percent of their produce," Hughes remarks. "Maybe they don't ripen properly; they're not the right size; they've gotten bruised, whatever. Americans buy food by look," he stresses, "not by taste." The phone on his desk rings. Hughes listens for a moment and says to the party at the other end, "You tell that guy if he throws one more pallet in the Dumpster, he loses his contract." There's no compromise in his tone. "We don't need wood in the landfill," he says, placing the phone back on its cradle. "It's expensive and unnecessary."
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.
Work-release employees are sprinkled throughout the market. Up until Hardwick, they have not caused any serious trouble. Says Hughes, "They're actually very dependable people. They have to be to work on time; they have to be back on time. They come in, do their job, keep their noses clean, and if they don't they can't stay at the halfway house, so the people down here have found them to be a valuable labor source."
The most recent slaying involved the beating and stabbing death of Devon Lenard Jr. in January. Two men -- Randy Stroud, 44, and Jason Stroud, 22, both from the Metro East -- were arrested and charged. They have yet to go to trial. All three were employees at the market and, according to police sources, Lenard had been fired that night. He begged to get his job back, to no avail. The employer, United Produce, called security, and he was escorted out the gate. Later, the employer saw Lenard, in a sort of obstinate protest, back at his job. Instead of calling security again, the Strouds took it upon themselves to put Lenard off the property. There was a fight, one of them pulled a blade, and Lenard lost his life. The altercation was caught on videotape by the cameras that Hughes had installed.
"These unfortunate events really had nothing to do with Produce Row and the fruit industry," says Hughes. "They have to do with working conditions throughout the world. I mean, if you're working with a nut, how do you know he's a nut until he turns nutty?"
Another day on Produce Row, trucks coming and going through the gate, a stream of activity throughout the place. Guys on jeeps moving pallets of bananas from one side of the street to the other, someone yelling at someone for being clumsy. Over at Franklin they're regrouping after a busy night. Here come the a.m. customers, those with no predawn work schedule. General Simms, owner of the Arkansas Fried Chicken restaurant on Martin Luther King Drive, comes in to buy some potatoes for his hash browns. Up drives Paul Pagano -- "Father Time" -- in his patriotic bread truck. Pagano, "at the smallest end of it all," is possibly the last of the roving produce peddlers in St. Louis, buying small lots of produce for daily delivery to residents in the senior-citizen apartments in the Bevo area. "When they see me," he says, "they have something to talk about besides their ills, pills and doctor bills."
Two nuns drop by. The Little Sisters of the Poor have made their way down the street, collecting their weekly dole of produce for the convent. This has been going on for years, and their van is fairly stuffed with fruits and vegetables. "Everybody on the street gives," remarks Fran, proudly, "and it's the best stuff, not your throwaway produce."
The orders filled, there is a lull in the activity. Over near the kerosene burner, Harpo toasts his fingers, the nub of a long-smoked cigar clenched between his teeth. Brother's on the phone, Fran's moving pallets of potatoes. Fella named Bobby walks in, studies Harpo for a moment. "Every time I come here, you're in that friggin' chair," he razzes.
"Nah, you see me over there sometimes," responds the old man, nodding toward some other favored perch.
"That's right," says Bobby, "you're in the corner like a dog."
Harpo ignores the remark. Nobody's rattling his cage. Ancient eyes peer brightly from hollowed sockets. "Man," he says to no one in particular, "I wish I had a penny for every tomato that went through my hands.
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