"Have a good day, dear," sings the blase young waitress at Vickman's Cafeteria, and goes back to trading wisecracks with five coffee-drinking policemen.
Have a good day, indeed--it's 3:20 a.m. People here in the Produce District are unsettlingly attuned to a midnight schedule (yes, Vickman's does serve decaf at 3:20 in the morning). Outside Vickman's door there's nothing but dark streets echoing the scrape of your footsteps.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 18, 1991 Home Edition Food Part H Page 39 Column 3 Food Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Name Change--"Midnight at the Oasis" (July 11) incorrectly referred to the 7th Street Market by its former name, L. A. Union Terminal Market. The downtown produce market was purchased from the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1988 by Lowe Enterprises and officially renamed the 7th Street Market at that time.
A block east of the cafeteria, though, Central Avenue is ablaze with light, swarming with movement. Two major produce markets meet here. North of 8th Street is the Los Angeles Union Terminal Market, built in 1918 and owned by the Union Pacific Railroad (a rail spur still runs alongside it).
It's a sort of narrow, block-long courtyard formed by wholesale produce stalls, which are basically warehouse rooms. Trucks from the farm country are offloading fruits and vegetables from outside the building and trucks heading for restaurants and markets are on-loading in the yard. Tonight it smells distinctly of melons.
South of 8th Street is the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market--a modernistic dazzler, a virtual Disneyland among produce markets, completed almost exactly five years ago. It's immense. Together with the Terminal Market, it occupies nearly all the land between 7th Street and Olympic from Central to Alameda, and does so in grand style. No boring blank facades on Central; the walls are covered with freeway-type murals of fruits and vegetables.
Instead of resembling a courtyard, like the Terminal Market, it takes the form of an open field of wide paved aisles separating the wholesalers' stall buildings. Looking down one of the block-long concrete loading docks that front the spacious storage rooms, you get the odd feeling of being in an airport. It may have to do with the signs in front of stall after stall that belong to major wholesalers. Something about a row of signs reading GIUMARRA GIUMARRA GIUMARRA is reminiscent of an airline ticket counter.
Or maybe it's the sight of wide, runway-like aisles flood-lit in the dead of night. The semis lumbering into the yard and pulling up to the docks look like jetliners, somehow. Even high-sided stake trucks do, or so it seems at this unearthly hour.
Surprisingly, this market has lots of wide concrete ramps with blue Handicapped Access signs. It seems all too politically correct until you're nearly knocked over by a worker whizzing a handcart full of pineapple down to the yard and up onto another stall row. Some wholesaler has just had to call on another for five crates of pineapple, toot sweet, to fill a customer's order. There's not a wheelchair in sight--the ramps are really for handcart and forklift access.
On the dark west side of Central Avenue, the old Central Market still stands, dwarfed by the produce Disneyland across the street. It's a wholesale/retail operation handling meat and dairy products as well as fruits and vegetables, and alone among the neighborhood's markets it sports an illuminated sign reading "PRODUCTOS LATINOS PUBLIC INVITED."
There's another major produce market some blocks southwest of this conglomeration, running along the west side of San Pedro Street between 9th and 12th. It's the oldest of the markets, the City Market (despite the name, privately owned, like the others). It was built in 1909 on a spot where farmers were hauling their goods in wagons a hundred years ago, when Los Angeles was smaller than Oxnard is today.
The buildings bear their age with a weary gallantry. The yard floor is full of asphalt patches; tumbleweed and pampas grass grow in the pavement outside. And it has narrow, pre-automobile dimensions.
It's a stall-lined courtyard like the Terminal Market, but three blocks long, with two rows of roofed sheds running down the middle. Small trucks can enter--they drive onto hydraulic platforms that lower them until the floor of the truck is even with the yard, for easy offloading--but semis can't enter until 10 a.m., and may have to be offloaded at the clogged street entrances. In the darkness, you can see semi trucks standing out on San Julian Street, shuddering from the vibration of their air conditioning, awaiting their turn.
The official names of the produce markets are: L. A. Union Terminal, City, Central and L. A. Wholesale Produce. But people in the business don't refer to them that way. They call them the 7th Street Market, the 9th Street Market, the Mexican Market and the New Market. And since the 7th Street Market and the New Market are next to each other, swampers often don't distinguish them at all.
The word swamper is loggers' lingo; "to swamp" originally meant to cut a road through a forest (a "swamp") by chopping down trees, and then it took on the meaning of hauling felled logs. In the produce markets, a swamper hauls crates in and out of trucks, perhaps using a hydraulic jack to move them between yard level and the loading dock, and stacks them to order.