The 35-year-old street vendor, who identified himself only as Javier, edged nervously around a San Fernando street corner, glancing furtively over his shoulder at each approaching car.
When police drove by, he checked quickly to make sure he was partially hidden by a drooping tree branch. The patrol car passed. Javier breathed a sigh of relief and hurried his pushcart over to a young customer.
Money was exchanged and so was the contraband: a Mexican-style ice cream bar known as a paleta.
In the city of San Fernando, most street vendors keep one eye out for authorities at all times. They know that if police catch them plying their wares without a license they will be issued a $50 citation and ordered to leave.
Most of the San Fernando Valley's Latino neighborhoods, where the vendors sell their wares, do not require business licenses, so the ice cream vendors known as paleteros say they generally do not bother to obtain them in San Fernando.
This year, in fact, only three of the dozens of paleteros who regularly duck into the city heeded the 1984 ordinance that requires street vendors to purchase $150 business licenses, according to city records.
The rest say they just take their chances.
To avoid citations, most play a kind of cat-and-mouse game with authorities, slipping surreptitiously into areas within city limits and selling as many ice cream bars as possible--all the while trying to steer clear of police.
"When you come here, you have to be ready to hide," explained Javier, a Mexican immigrant who would not give his surname because he feared retribution.
The 4-year-old law, adopted by the city of San Fernando as a means of regulating street vendors, bans the salesmen from commercial districts altogether but allows licensed vendors to operate in residential and industrial areas. So far this year, officers have ticketed an estimated 25 to 50 paleteros for violating the law, said City Administrator Donald E. Penman.
The ordinance was adopted as a result of complaints from local merchants concerned about competition, excessive noise and litter, Penman said.
But many other local shopkeepers are sympathetic to the paleteros and regard the city's efforts to license them as unnecessary.
"They never do any harm," said Norma Burgos, a saleswoman at Sussy's Brides and Formals on San Fernando Road. "Why don't people complain about people selling drugs to junior high kids on the street corner here? Why should they worry about something like paletas?"
Javier said he received a ticket last month for unauthorized sale of ice cream bars from his pushcart. He then stayed away from the area until just recently, when the lure of potential profits finally outweighed his fears of getting nabbed again.
It is worth the risk, most paleteros say, because late spring and summer are the peak seasons for paleteros. And San Fernando, a 2.5 square-mile city with a 70% Latino population, has plenty of customers eager for the treats.
The city's tough restrictions also serve to scare away all but the most determined vendors, thereby making competition less intense in San Fernando than in other Latino enclaves in the northeast Valley.
"You can sell a lot here," Javier said. "There are fewer paleteros here than in Pacoima." Some days, he said, he makes up to $60 in San Fernando--almost twice as much as he makes in Pacoima--most of which he sends to a wife and two daughters in Mexico.
Paletas sell for 50 and 60 cents apiece with flavors ranging from the usual--chocolate, strawberry and vanilla--to the exotic--mango and tamarind. The vendors keep half of what they sell and turn the rest over to the paleta distributor, who is their employer. Top paleta salesmen, who signal their approach with jingling bells, can make as much as $100 on a good day, vendors say.
Although their popularity is greatest among Latinos, a growing number of non-Latinos have become the newest enthusiasts, vendors say. Customers are attracted by the freshness of the paletas, which are made with only natural ingredients and contain no additives, salesmen say.
Weekends draw the greatest number of paleteros to San Fernando, especially to the streets surrounding an open-air swap meet at Glenoaks Boulevard and Arroyo Avenue and to the newly refurbished San Fernando Mall.
Some savvy paleteros, however, avoid such highly visible sales locations. Moises Salazar, 22, said he stays away from the mall. "That's where they catch people," he said.
Instead, he sells paletas in the barrios of San Fernando, near parks and schools. He has yet to tangle with police.
"Sometimes they act like they don't see us," Salazar said. "Police cars pass around here, and they don't do anything."
Dennis Levine, manager of People's Store, a clothing store in the San Fernando Mall, wishes that police would be more aggressive in citing street vendors. He said he has called to complain about the paleteros dozens of times, "but nothing gets done."
"I have never seen any enforcement," Levine said. "If it's banned in this area, then they should enforce it."
Yung Choi said she is losing business to the pushcart vendors who gather outside Hot Dog Hacienda, her small, corner restaurant on San Fernando Road.
"They take all of my customers," Choi said. "People buy the paletas and they don't come in here."
Rick A. Barrow, a San Fernando city code enforcement officer, said he routinely warns unlicensed paleteros to leave the city and sends letters to their employers, who own the pushcarts and pay for any license.
"It is quite common to have to guide people out of town quite regularly," Barrow said. He regards street vendors as "a distraction" and plans to suggest an ordinance banning all pushcart vendors within San Fernando city limits.
Some San Fernando residents and merchants, however, say the paleteros enhance the city's Latin character and serve as examples of what hard work and initiative can bring.
"I believe in anybody who's creative enough to peddle ice cream," said Saul Stanoff, owner of Jim's on the Mall, a clothing store. "I believe there should be more vendors. . . . If someone sells ice cream and makes $100 a week, what's wrong with that? It's better than sitting on a street corner and smoking marijuana."