Nothing about Los Angeles is more interesting than how people make it here. For sheer industriousness, creativity and hard work, it's the people at the margins, rather than in the mansions, who make up the lifeblood of the city.
Take, for instance, Rafael Lopez, 71. He owns two faded, beat-up vans. The 1992 Chevy Astro is his office. The 1995 GMC Safari is his home.
Lopez parks both in Echo Park, where everything has changed in recent years except him and his shoe repair business. Seven days a week, parked near a quinceañera mural on the wall of a Señor Fish, you can find him squatting in the back of his cramped van, gluing on new soles or hammering heels squarely into place.
It's five bucks for this little job, 10 bucks for that one, and sometimes he'll make old boots new again for $30. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the holy comptroller, watches over the operation from a sticker pasted in the window of the van, praying, perhaps, that Lopez doesn't fall out when he straddles the tailgate to round off a heel on his electric grinder, dust flying everywhere.
Gentrification has many critics in Echo Park, where longtime residents have been driven out by rising rents and changing ways. A Lassen's market, with forests of high-priced hemp and goji berry products, now stands where a Pioneer mercado once did. But Lopez said in his line of work, there's an upside to the invasion of artists, musicians and kale-munching coolios.
Those people love boots. And when the boots wear out, they know where to go.
"Business is good," said Lopez.
Instead of haggling over prices, he told me, the young folk think they've found the bargain of a lifetime.
"I get a lot of tips," he said.
One day while I was talking to Lopez — known to Latino clients as El Zapatero Don Rafa and featured recently in a Univision newscast — two young men approached on foot. They were wearing dark shades, and they were dressed as if they might be long-lost members of the Beatles.
"I play music, and I run Lollipop Records," said Ignacio "Iggy" Gonzalez.
He said he and his pal, Shane Stots — who wore a polka-dot shirt and tight green blazer — are in the bands Mystic Braves and Creation Factory. But more to the point, they were bringing their rock 'n' roll boots to Lopez for repairs.
"He does really good work," said Iggy, "and it's really great prices."
Lopez posed for a picture with the two, and in his small gray fedora, he looked like he could have been a member of the band. He actually does play a little guitar, Lopez confessed, and I can tell you firsthand that he has rhythm. When business is slow, which doesn't seem to happen often, he cranks up his boombox and dances salsa on the sidewalk.
There's a little bit of the Caribbean in his blood, said Lopez, whose story begins in Veracruz, Mexico. He and his wife had a small shoe factory there but couldn't duplicate it in Los Angeles, where brick and mortar are expensive. So they began roaming the city three decades ago repairing shoes on sidewalks and street corners. It was a roaming enterprise until they found the hot spot in Echo Park and dropped anchor.
The Lopezes have raised four kids on the holes in L.A.'s shoes. Two of those kids are in college, including Rosario, who is studying for her master's degree at Cal State Northridge.
"They always said they wanted us to do better than them and they wanted us to go to college," said Rosario, who added that she didn't understand her parents' sacrifice when she was younger, but she greatly appreciates it now.
When Lopez and his wife separated several years ago, Mrs. Lopez got her own shoe repair van and parked it near MacArthur Park. Rafael Lopez, meanwhile, moved into a small apartment with a roomie but told me that didn't end so well. The roommate drank too much, he said, so he moved out two months ago.
Lopez applied for low-income housing but doesn't know if or when he'll get it, so he moved into the GMC Safari. It's not as bad as it sounds, according to him. He uses the bathroom at the nearby McDonald's, and another restaurant owner lets him park safely in his lot at night. In return, Lopez keeps the restaurateur's shoes shined to a high gloss.
"This is one of my best customers," Lopez said when Nok Phattanasiri arrived to pick up a pair of open-toe shoes she had left with El Zapatero.
Phattanasiri, who said she runs a massage parlor, told me the elastic straps on her shoes had stretched out too much, making for a lousy fit. Unfortunately, Lopez found one of her shoes but couldn't locate the other. It's a random storage system that only he can understand, but not always.
"Here!" he finally exclaimed in relief, locating the shoe under a pile of others.
"How much?" Phattanasiri asked.
Lopez scrunched his face, as he often does, before throwing out a number.
"Six or seven dollars," he said, then shrugged. "Six dollars."
"It's always the same," said Phattanasiri. "Six or seven dollars for everything."
Lopez, it would seem, has plenty to complain about. He still has to work, at 71, to survive, and he sometimes labors 10 hours a day. And, of course, he's living in a van.
But aside from griping about the possibility that the door seems ready to fall off of his workshop van, Lopez didn't have many complaints. Los Angeles is a great and beautiful place, he said, and in his line of work, he has made friends of every stripe, some of whom plop down on an overturned bucket to share part of a day with him.
Lopez didn't divulge this, but his daughter told me he had a stroke several years ago, so I asked him about it.
Yes, he said, and he can barely see out of one eye. But he eats healthier, now, he said, reminding me about the roasted chicken he had for lunch.
What about the French fries? I asked.
But also a salad, he noted.
After watching him dance, and repeatedly climb over the tailgate to slide into his work station, I'd have to say he's in pretty good shape.
"I'm surviving," said El Zapatero Rafa Lopez. "Work is good for your health."