Los Angeles vendor pushes a balky cart through a precarious world

Amado Campos is his own boss, but he works long hours, seven days a week. His costs are up but sales are down as his customers cut back in a poor economy. And he needs a new cart.

June 17, 2009|Hector Becerra

Amado Campos stands before a makeshift altar in his living room, crosses himself and prays to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.

"Help me, San Juditas. Bring good people in my path and keep the bad ones far away."

It is just after 10 a.m. as Campos, 44, loads his wooden cart with the essentials of his trade: a red cooler filled with boiled corn on the cob, a blue cooler with a 25-pound block of ice, flavored drinks in milk cartons, ketchup bottles filled with chili and lemon juice and melted butter, a large mayonnaise jar, and dozens of bags of Flaming Hot Cheetos.

He grabs the cart by the handles and wrestles it down his front stoop and onto the sidewalk.

He was up late the night before, preparing flavorings for shave ice and pouring them into quart and gallon jugs. He awoke at 4 a.m. and took a bus to downtown Los Angeles to buy corn and other supplies at a wholesale food center. Then he hurried home to Boyle Heights to load the cart.

He will walk miles today, up hills and across freeway overpasses, under bridges and past gangbangers.

Now, as he prepares to push off, money dominates his thoughts. His wife scolded him last night for spending too much on a party for their 13-year-old daughter, who had just celebrated her first Communion. She's a good girl and rarely asks for anything, so he borrowed money from a neighbor for a spread of carnitas and chicken for more than 80 family members, friends and neighbors.

Campos pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes, as if overwhelmed by worry. What is there to do? Only this: Go out with his homemade cart with the temperamental front wheels, as he does every day, and earn as much as he can.

"I tell her, 'I'm going to pay what I owe,' " he says.

In the hierarchy of immigrant occupations, street vending is near the bottom. It is for those who can't find work at a factory or in construction or who think that maybe they'll do better working for themselves. It's a job from which you can't be laid off, but you have to work long hours every day to make a living.

Campos came to this country in 1990 from the Mexican state of Puebla. An illegal immigrant, he has been a gardener, a cook, a dishwasher and a carpenter, jobs that didn't work out or paid too little. He started pushing a cart two years ago and eventually settled on a route through a warehouse district in Boyle Heights.

It is arduous work in the best times, and these are not the best times. Campos used to clear $100 a day, enough to get by as long as he worked seven days a week. Then food prices went up and sales went down. Now, he's lucky to take in $70 a day, and about $30 of that goes to corn, milk and other ingredients.

Home is a one-bedroom duplex on Soto Street. He and his wife, Maria, sleep on a pullout sofa in the living room. Their daughter sleeps in the same room, on a metal-frame bed next to the television and a tower of potato-chip boxes. Two other relatives share the house with them: Maria's daughter from a previous relationship and the daughter's year-old son.

By 10:30 on this Wednesday morning, Campos is pushing his cart down 6th Street, near Hollenbeck Park. A jangly, accordion-filled Mexican version of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" blares from his portable radio. At the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Boyle Avenue, he parks in front of a laundromat and honks his horn. Leticia Ulloa, an employee, laughingly tells Campos she's on a diet.

Refugio Gonzalez, 23, an out-of-work refinery worker, buys a tamarind-flavored shave ice. He needed to break a $20 bill and didn't want a bunch of quarters from the change machine inside, but that isn't his only reason for patronizing Campos.

"I see him walking up and down the street, and I can tell he's not always selling," Gonzalez says. "You want to help out."

Nearby, an elderly, sun-baked woman raises two bags of cherries.

"Cherries, las cherries!" she cries, and leaves without making a sale.

Campos sells a shave ice and a bag of chips at a tow yard on Boyle Avenue, then turns west on 7th Street, holding tight to his cart on the long downhill stretch over the 101 Freeway. In the distance, the downtown skyline looms through the haze.

About 11:30 a.m., the wheels of the cart get stuck on a crease in the sidewalk. The cart pitches to the left. Campos strains to keep it from tipping over but loses the battle. The two coolers -- holding three dozen ears of corn, a block of ice and some Cokes -- fly into the street, along with bags of chips.

This has happened before. On this very stretch. Crestfallen, Campos thinks about going home.

But the corncobs were in a bag, and Campos is relieved to see that only one has fallen out.

The ice has also stayed in its bag. A Coke can is punctured. The biggest problem is that the hot water has spilled from the cooler holding the corn. Keeping the corn hot could be a challenge.

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