The kid was standing at the corner of 4th Street and Broadway in downtown Santa Ana, looking more like a well-scrubbed prepster than a street vendor. He was selling paletas, frozen ice cream on a stick, and for 60 cents on a hot day, it was a bargain.
His name is Carlos and he's 19. He says he's been in California for six months and rents the food cart he pushes around the downtown area. Only on the job for the second day, he said he has been told that he can make up to $50 on a summer day. These days, however, business has been slow.
Carlos has a breezy, hopeful look about him, but then again, there's nothing like the enthusiasm of a young entrepreneur. You imagine the smile melting about as fast as a Popsicle in June once young Carlos gets his comeuppance in this thing called American capitalism.
And get his comeuppance he probably will, for the Santa Ana City Council is hearing rumblings from its citizenry about the number of food carts rolling through its neighborhoods. The siren sounds of bells and horns that announce the food vendors' arrival on the block--sometimes early in the morning and into the early evening--is not greeted with universal delight.
What seems to be at issue in Santa Ana are the public complaints that the food carts--almost exclusively operated by Latinos--are proliferating too rapidly. They're outside shopping centers, they're in the neighborhoods, they're everywhere.
To that end, the council is considering limiting their numbers and restricting them to certain areas of the city, such as the immediate downtown area and Civic Center, for example. In other words, out of Anglo neighborhoods.
Here we go again, folks.
"This is how people in Mexico are used to living," Latino activist Rueben Martinez said as we walked around the downtown area Thursday. "Food comes to them. They don't go to food. They're used to that. They come to America, and so they do it here also. It's a way of life."
That is exactly what bothers lots of WASPs. It's all right to go ethnic and eat in a Mexican restaurant at lunch, but don't be wheeling your livelihood down my block, senor .
The city says it has fielded complaints about unhealthy food sold by vendors, litter left by people who buy from them, the noise from the carts and the behavior of some vendors.
Clearly, the city is loading its ammunition. But there are various steps that could be taken short of arbitrarily deciding who can earn a living from a food cart and who can't.
For starters, public health violations should be automatic cause for expulsion. There's a procedure, or there should be, to eliminate vendors who don't meet health standards. The city could insist that all carts have litter receptacles, which many already do. What customers do with their litter after that isn't the vendors' fault. And if the bells and horns are the problem, make it illegal to ring them or honk them before 7 in the morning, or whatever.
But after that, whatever happened to the good old free market?
When I wasn't dozing, what I remember from my college Econ 101 class is that if nobody buys a product, the seller will quit coming around. Maybe these pushcart operators won't understand supply and demand right off the bat, but eventually they will.
Martinez and I met another man, 59 years old, on another block downtown. Since 1980, he has been coming off and on to California from Mexico. He said he works five hours a day as a vendor and must go into the surrounding neighborhoods to make money because there is such stiff competition downtown.
He said he can't believe that he's pushing a cart to make money, because he never did in Mexico, where he farmed. But even the few farthings he makes up here is more than he can make in Mexico. He also said he's under the impression that he'll get Social Security in three years.
"If the government decides to do this (restrict vendors), what are we going to do?" he said. "My only hope is to go back to Mexico."
I told Martinez that that news would be greeted by a chorus of cheers by many in our midst. Perhaps, I suggested, that is precisely the point. Culture clash and all that.
Martinez is hip to those sometimes-unspoken fears. "Yeah, they're afraid we're going to take over," he says. "But this isn't Mexico; this is America."
When all is said and done, this is another one of those issues where it's hard to read the minds of people. Are city officials trying to regulate commerce and safeguard public health, or are they putting the screws to a powerless group that's inflicting a little too much of its culture on the mainstream?
At some point, the Santa Ana City Council will answer those questions. Let's hope it weighs all the civics lessons involved and not just the complaints from one group of residents.
About an hour after I talked to Carlos on Thursday, I was driving back to the office and saw the fresh-faced 19-year-old, pushing his cart a few blocks from where we'd talked before. This time, he was heading into the neighborhoods to sell his ice cream. I waved at him and wished him luck, knowing perhaps better than he does that his career may be a short one.
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.