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LABOR AND LIVES

Sidetracked by Life

Cashier imagined an artistic future but for now keeps busy by the numbers.

September 08, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a teenager, Isabel Lolmet had a vision for her future: She would become a fashion designer.

"I was enrolling myself in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. I had an appointment to go see the director, and I was doing sketches," she says, "when I found out I was pregnant."

Lolmet, now 21, lives and works in an entirely different realm from the one she imagined when she was 17.

She's married and has two sons--currently playing with a toy soccer ball in the living room of their Downey home.

And, in the dark of morning, she's a cashier at the Mellano & Co. stand in the Los Angeles Flower Market. Each year, some $100 million in flowers are sold here by more than 100 vendors. Their customers are florist shops across Southern California.

One of the buyers who regularly comes to Lolmet's stand is Lisa Howell, owner of Paul's Flowers in Fullerton. Lolmet's stand is usually the first stop Howell makes during her weekly trek to the market.

Despite the routine, the two women know virtually nothing about each other.

"I know her in that I deal with her every week," Howell says. "She's very pleasant. She takes care of me. I feel like I get special treatment."

Lolmet says Howell zips through the stand so quickly they never get a chance to talk.

"I know her to say hi and bye and how are you," Lolmet says. "She's all right. She doesn't give any complications when she comes in."

Lolmet's hours are difficult. Some shifts begin as early as 3 a.m. But the need for income sometimes outweighs the need for sleep.

She makes it work by focusing on a child's happy smile, a checkbook in the black and an unbridled faith that life could be worse.

"I have a home, two kids who are healthy, a car and a job," Lolmet says. "I'm stable right now, and that, to me, is very rewarding. I'm not thinking about where to go, what to do. We're OK."

To achieve some of the things she and her husband, Victor, wanted--owning a house, taking in an occasional movie or night out with friends--meant they needed two incomes.

So Isabel took a vocational course in keypunching and landed a part-time job at a neighborhood hardware store. Needing more hours, last November she took the full-time job at Mellano & Co., where she makes $6 an hour.

The work is simple. Process orders. Tend to the wrapping. Collect the money. At the end of the shift, legs sore and stiff from eight hours standing on concrete, she grabs a broom and helps sweep up.

Lolmet likes the constant parade of people and the camaraderie among market workers. Much of it is family-based. Two of her brothers and a former brother-in-law also work there.

"Each stand has a family member that works somewhere else," Lolmet says. "Two other cashiers where I work are twins. It's a great place for gossip."

Lolmet's job and her husband's have them getting ready for work about the time most folks have called it a day.

Victor goes to work at 11 p.m. to his job assembling medical supplies.

Four times a week, Isabel rises about 1:30 a.m., wakes the boys, drives them to South-Central and leaves them with her mother-in-law, then goes on to the market. She picks the kids up early in the afternoon.

It's an exhausting schedule, and Lolmet and her husband often find themselves nodding off on the couch midday as the boys play in the living room.

They sleep in shifts, and sometimes, Lolmet says, she drifts off while the boys are watching television. She wakes hours later to find them asleep on the floor, the television flickering in the dark.

"There's times when I feel like I just don't have time anymore," Lolmet says.

Lolmet was born in El Salvador but has lived in Los Angeles since she was 3. Her teen years were marked by rebellion, and her boyfriend--now her husband--was the biggest point of contention. Her family didn't like her being seriously involved with a man six years older.

Lolmet moved out and had her first son, Adam, three years ago. The couple's second son, Erik, is not quite 2. She has since reconciled with her own family.

The young couple achieved a family goal two years ago when they bought their comfortable but sparsely furnished four-bedroom house.

"To the point that we can meet the bills, it feels good," Lolmet says. "When it's hard to make the payment, you wish you didn't have it.

"But when salespeople come to the door and ask to talk to my mother because they can't believe that I own a house, that's a good feeling."

She has no plans to change jobs, but sometimes, when the pull of the day gives way to quiet, she thinks about her dream of a career in fashion design.

"It's never too late," Lolmet says. "I'm just waiting for the right opportunity to get myself back on that track."

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