MIAMI — The pickup truck pulled onto a sidewalk under downtown Miami's web of highways. It was 7 p.m., and already the jolt of the workday had flat-lined into a desolate world of silence and silhouettes.
Then, a voice whistled. Within seconds, 18 homeless men and two women were at the back of the truck, forming a single-file line, their hands outstretched. The four men riding in the back handed each two sandwiches and a soda.
They performed their act of charity without the support of any formal organization. The five — including driver Orlando Mendez — pay for the food out of their own pockets, about $200 a week.
Sometimes, Mendez will ask the homeless to pray with him before they eat: "Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
Three years ago, Mendez heard a speech by Bono describing how God's presence can be found in pockets of poverty. It followed a moving sermon by his church's youth pastor, who urged the congregation to go out and do good.
So he packed a duffel bag with bacon double-cheeseburgers and told his wife he was going to start heading to Overtown once a week to befriend the afflicted. Soon, he was joined by four friends.
Their food came from Wendy's. Their street name came from elsewhere. "There goes the Whopper Men!" came the yell from a group sitting in folding chairs near an intersection.
Times being what they are, there aren't any Whoppers right now. Only recession sandwiches.
Mendez makes his living renting out construction equipment — not the best business when little is getting built. Manny Diaz, 42, installs car sound systems — not a boom business in the age of the iPod. Tomas Chadwick, 39, got laid off at Bear Stearns. Javier Castellon, 44, works in real estate. Billy Hernandez, 51, does window tinting.
They meet around 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon at Mendez's sprawling home in West Miami-Dade. On his dining and end tables, they set out slices of oat and white Winn-Dixie bread. Then, a glob of mayo, some bologna and ham, and a swirl of mustard on each. This is what they can afford.
They wouldn't want to consider what would happen if they ever stopped altogether. Not for the people they serve — and not for themselves.
"Sometimes, I think we get more out of it than they do," said Chadwick, who runs a company that operates airports in Latin America. He buys the sodas the group distributes.
They've learned the most appreciated item is Pepsi. Least? Apples. They tried them once, and it was the only time they came back home with food left.
"I guess the homeless don't always have the best teeth, so no one would take them," Chadwick said.
Each block has a different mood. Even corners on the same block are different.
The first stop, as always, was a group of 10 at an empty lot behind the Adrienne Arsht Center.
A whistle went out, and a line formed. A man named Micky Barnes approached Castellon, dug into his pocket and pulled out a small orange Bible, its edges dark around the book of Psalms.
"I've been reading the Bible you gave me," Barnes said. "I don't wanna sound cliche, but I've had five job interviews this week. Stuff is starting to happen for me."
At another stop, a woman named Bobbie Jean proudly reported she had stayed out of mischief for another week. As she talked to them, a mother and child pull up in a green sedan. "Can my son have a sandwich?" she asked. They got one and drove away.
The Whopper Men moved onto a corner underneath an overpass, where the only brightness comes from crack users lighting their pipes. There were 15 of them here, hunched on a curb, many of them shaking.
One subtle sign they're making a difference: The people at this corner no longer try to sell the Whopper Men drugs.
Mendez smiled: "We'll be back Tuesday."