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Clutching at hope during hard times

Applicants form a long line on Figueroa Street, seeking one of 50 minimum wage jobs at a new Dollar Tree store in Highland Park. They share a yearning for a better life.

March 02, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Tuan Le, 20, in red T-shirt and shorts, joins about 125 people looking for work at a discount store. His father is out of work, and he is trying to help his parents and save for college.
Tuan Le, 20, in red T-shirt and shorts, joins about 125 people looking for… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

The line began in the middle of the block and extended to the corner. By the time I made a U-turn and went back to see what was happening on Figueroa Street in Highland Park, the line had snaked around the corner at Avenue 59.

More than 125 people were slowly inching their way forward Tuesday morning — men and women, young and old, moms with strollers — all of them hoping to land a job at a Dollar Tree store that's about to open.

"Everything's $1," said the store logo, and a sign in the window announced that applications for employment would be taken from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week.

The official unemployment rate in California is somewhere above 12%, but some people suggest it's much higher when you factor in those who've given up the job search.

Nobody who came to Figueroa has given up.

"I really need the job," said Francisco Tamayo, 49. He said he's been working for a milling company in San Dimas for 32 years, operating a machine that makes Honey Nut Cheerios. But his hours have been cut back, and he and his wife, a seamstress, are losing ground.

Three people were interviewing the job candidates at the front of the line, and a DollarTree supervisor told me they'd probably hire 50 applicants and pay them right around minimum wage of $8 an hour. Another supervisor told me there would be some benefits, but he didn't have time to specify.

None of that discouraged the crowd.

"I have to make it," said Frances Garcia, 49, who used to be a cashier at Chuck E. Cheese's but has been out of work for three years because of a leg injury. "God's going to have to help me."

Her prayers went unanswered last week, though, when Garcia took the train to Pasadena and went door-to-door in Old Town looking for work. She said she tried nearly 40 businesses.

"Restaurants, clothing stores, everything. Nobody was hiring. I couldn't believe it."

Tuan Le, 20, drove in from El Monte and said he has a lot at stake. His father is out of work, and Le is trying to help his parents even as he tries to save for college. He works 23 hours a week at a Little Caesars pizza joint, but you might say he needs more dough.

Jose Ramos, 34, said it's been rough since 2008, when the printing company he worked for let him go after eight years. He finally got a seasonal job last fall at Toys R Us, but it ended Feb. 14. Looking for work is his new occupation, but that's hard to do without a computer.

How about the library? I asked.

"It's closed on Sunday and Monday," said a woman in line, adding that it doesn't open until 12:30 on Tuesdays because of budget cuts.

Josefina Chavez, 57, leaned heavily against the wall of the medical clinic on the corner, across the street from Mr. Maury's Shoes. With more than 100 people in front of her, she was looking at a two-hour wait, but she intended to stick it out. She lives with her daughter and grandchild, she said, and her daughter's part-time job doesn't cover the bills.

"We've had no water or light for one month," she said, telling me the service was shut off because they're $3,000 behind on the payments.

How strange it must be to these people to hear that Wall Street is rebounding, that Oscar parties were as lavish as ever, and that Charlie Sheen has thrown away millions of dollars in his latest tantrum.

Up and down the line there was hardship and despair. But not defeat. And as I made my way through the crowd, I found the kind of yearning — the simple, undying desire for a better life — that has always been the strength of this city.

One young man stood out in the crowd. He arrived on a skateboard, wearing a necktie.

"Dress to impress," said Arthur Rodriguez, 25, who has worked in shipping and receiving and made sandwiches at a Subway.

Aureliano Galvez, 59, has been sinking since a layoff last year at Macy's. He worked in shipping and made $12.43 an hour with benefits, which helped him raise two kids and provide for his disabled wife.

"But I'm enthusiastic and I know I'm going to find something," Galvez said.

Jesus Romero, 32, worked as an in-home caretaker, but that work can be iffy, he said. Some patients get better and don't need you, some get worse and go to a hospital. And some die.

I asked if it was discouraging to show up at a job application site and see a line stretch clear around the corner.

"No, because I have faith," Romero said.

The Dollar Tree application had a space for "special interests and hobbies," and Romero wrote, "I like to read and volunteer for the Salvation Army in my spare time."

Reading exercises the brain, Romero told me, and helping out at the Salvation Army in Huntington Park, assisting less fortunate souls, is good for the soul.

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