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AL MARTINEZ

There's less danger in eating a Norman Clementi hot dog than in swimming among the effluence and chemicals of Santa Monica Bay. : Notes on a Hot Dog Vendor

May 26, 1988|AL MARTINEZ

Norman Clementi is not the kind of man who enjoys fighting City Hall. A prisoner of his own emotional vertigo, he sits most of the time in a semi-darkened Santa Monica apartment waiting for something to happen on his behalf, and hoping in a way that it never will.

If the effort he has made at re-shaping life fails, it is likely that the tiny apartment will indeed become his prison, and Norman Clementi will sink back into its darkness like a man plunging down a bottomless pit, never knowing where it will end.

Clementi suffers from agoraphobia, an intense and unreasonable fear of public places that locks its victims behind barriers more confining than any made of steel. Many of those with the affliction simply never leave their homes but live in monastic silence behind drawn curtains and drawn lives.

Norman doesn't want to be one of them, and for the past few years has fought his private terror by taking to the street again to cure himself. There are times when the marketplace still sends him reeling back into the haven of his apartment, but those times lessen when purpose replaces fear.

Which brings us to his hot dog cart. Clementi, a 40-year-old native-born Sicilian, decided that becoming a hot dog vendor might solve a myriad of problems for him. It wasn't what he had hoped for his life, but expectations are altered by tricks of fate.

A hot dog cart would offer him a reason to once more challenge the outdoors and simultaneously allow him the independence to withdraw when it became necessary. It was also a way to make a living without relying on the state assistance he now receives.

"You don't know what it's like being intelligent but acting like you're crazy," Clementi said the other day. "Others know there's something wrong with me by the look in my eyes and think of me in terms of weird.

"When an attack comes you can't speak coherently or carry out a thought. You can't hear very well and what you can hear doesn't make any sense. You stand there sweating, filled with terror, wondering what's going to happen next. . . . I withdrew from people for almost 20 years, afraid of making a fool of myself and of making others uncomfortable. Now I want to go back into the world."

With money saved from a restaurant he once owned, Clementi bought a hot dog cart for $3,500--and then ran into some realities more debilitating than his affliction. He discovered that hot dog carts were illegal in Santa Monica, except under specific conditions, one of them being need. There is no need for hot dogs.

The city refused to allow him to apply for a permit, even though Clementi saw others with carts working the streets. Encouraged by an organization that helps those with emotional problems, he went before the City Council not once but twice to plead for permission to operate his cart.

The council responded not only by turning him down but by placing a moratorium on all pushcart vending except in one area that is franchise-operated and closed to individual vendors.

In a city that allows its homeless to sprawl over beaches, parks, alleys and sidewalks, granting work approval for those unwilling to join their dreary caravans would seem a logical approach to at least part of the problem.

Vending carts are regulated by the Health Department, but even if they weren't you'd be in less danger eating a Norman Clementi hot dog than in swimming among the effluence and chemicals of Santa Monica Bay.

City Atty. Robert Myers told the council that opening the streets to vendors would offer poor people and immigrants an opportunity to make a living, and he's right. It would restore pride and purpose, two essential ingredients the sick and homeless so desperately lack.

The city manager argued that Myers' proposal would risk turning Santa Monica into a magnet for thousands of vendors from throughout the county, but all he's got to do is look around to see it's already a magnet for every bum, wino and panhandler who has come down the pike.

Does that mean programs for the city's homeless ought to be similarly curtailed because they attract the flotsam and jetsam they were never intended to benefit?

Clementi took his rejection by the council back for a long stay in his apartment, fighting devils with tranquilizers so strong they turned his efforts at sleep into nightmare encounters with demons.

When he finally did go out, he again saw hot dogs being sold illegally from pushcarts and, driven by desperation, Clementi decided to do something he had never done before: challenge the law.

He took his pushcart out without a permit, was cited three times and now must appear in court June 1 to answer to the charges.

"They won't give me a business license, then cite me for not having one," Clementi said. He shook his head. "You know how lousy I feel? If they handed me a license on a silver platter today, it would take me a month before I could leave the apartment again."

He stood wearily to show me out. "I was never looking for a fight," he said. "I just wanted to get well."

I left him standing in the doorway. The sun was in his face, the darkness at his back.

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