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Vendor pushes a balky cart through a precarious world

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

Stepping into the street, with cars whizzing close by, Campos rights his cart and turns north into a warren of brick warehouses, barbed wire and lonely streets.

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Just before noon, near the corner of Anderson and 7th streets, he greets Ruby Are- llano, a 22-year-old fruit vendor. Three weeks before, she was selling fruit in East L.A. near Atlantic Boulevard when city inspectors took her cart and merchandise. So she moved here. Business has been slow.

“Two years ago, it was pretty good,” Arellano says. “Right now, there’s not a lot of sales.”

The two vendors commiserate. The streets are empty. Arellano gives Campos $1 for a cup of shave ice.

He walks a few blocks and pokes his head into an olive packaging company, where a receptionist picks up the phone and asks a co-worker whether anyone wants anything.

“Do you want an elote?” the receptionist asks, using the Spanish word for corn. “The elotero is here. . . . Entonces, no? You don’t want me to get you one?”

The receptionist buys two corncobs. Campos jams sticks into them and slathers them with mayonnaise, granulated cheese, butter and chili. The midday heat has kept the corn hot, even without the water. Campos wipes his brow and pushes on.

This route used to yield more sales. Now, the warehouses seem to have fewer workers than before. Some businesses have closed or relocated.

About 12:20 p.m., he waits outside a garment shop for workers to take a break, near the peeling, beige pillars of the 4th Street bridge. A few of the workers owe him money, he says.

Tired of waiting, Campos walks inside. A handful of workers sit in front of sewing machines; bundles of clothing lie on a long table.

“Right now, there’s no work,” says one employee as he walks outside to buy a shave ice. “They pay good, about $8.50 an hour. But there’s not a lot of work.”

Nearby, two Mexican immigrants -- a middle-aged woman and an elderly man with a 10-gallon hat -- beg for money to catch a bus to Paso Robles. They say a smuggler who spirited them across the border left them in Fontana early this morning and a Christian group brought them downtown, with instructions to ask sympathetic Latinos for help.

Campos is suspicious. He says the pair has been here about a week, drinking beer under the bridge.

“Well, everyone struggles how they can,” he says with a shrug. He skips lunch, as he does most days now, trying to lose weight and save money.

About 1 p.m., Campos runs into his brother, Guadalupe, 52, pushing his own cart from the opposite direction. The older brother tosses a large bag of baked snacks called churros or “duros” to Campos and takes a Coke to drink under the hot sun between barren-looking warehouses.

“My cart fell on the street,” Campos tells his brother.

“Well, buy a new one!” he responds with a laugh. “Man, it’s bad right now, brother. So much walking for $5. Phew!”

They part ways. Campos listens to Mexican music on his radio and struggles to keep a beach umbrella mounted on his cart from falling to the side as he walks between eerily quiet warehouses and abandoned railroad tracks.

He made the cart himself from discarded pieces of wood and painted it light blue. But the front wheels are too small and get caught in cracks.

Campos stops at a beer-truck repair shop and sells a few items. A few months ago, one of the mechanics, Tony Rodriguez, noticed that Campos was having trouble with his back wheels and replaced them with wheels from a dolly.

The vendor had offered Rodriguez a drink, something to eat, anything.

“He said, ‘No, paisano. If we can, let’s give each other a hand,’ ” Campos recalls.

Now, the mechanics vow to make him a new cart of metal.

There are other acts of generosity on this hot afternoon. A Salvadoran garment worker gives Campos two gallons of hot water for his corn container, and three women at a children’s clothing warehouse, among his most loyal customers, buy chips and shave ice.

One of the women says Campos’ arrival is a much-anticipated event. Sometimes, it is even announced over the public-address system.

“The raspado man is here!” says Christina Macias.

Around 3, Campos pushes his cart to Gless Street, near Dolores Mission School, and waits for the bell to ring. Beside him is vendor Daisy Vivar, 58, who has worked this corner for nearly 20 years. An ice cream truck is parked behind her. A man with a pushcart selling Popsicles thinks better of the scene and keeps going.

One of the vendors, Crescencio Bueno, 74, lectures Campos for selling his chips for $1 a bag instead of $1.25. Bueno says he won’t make a profit that way. Campos nods politely, explaining later that if he raises the price, the chips won’t sell.

Children stream from their classrooms. Many rush to the fence, holding out dollar bills, buying shave ice, chips, soft drinks and tamarind-flavored candy. A chorus of chirpy voices asks for Flaming Hot Cheetos with lime juice and other treats. A boy squirts lemon juice in his Cheetos and in one eye, staggering away with a squint.

A 9-year-old boy walks up to Campos to claim his prize: He’d bet the vendor on the outcome of a soccer match.

“He won,” Campos says with a smile, explaining that the boy gets a free item of his choice for three straight days.

The boy chooses a vanilla shave ice.

Seven-year-old Juliana Ortega hovers nearby, waiting for her mother.

“My daughter, right away, even before I get here, she’s already ordering,” says Martha Ortega, 26. She says she appreciates that Campos lets her buy things for her daughter and pay later. “He trusts me to pay him back.”

Before long, most of the children have left. Campos and Vivar stay behind for a softball game at a nearby park. Campos makes a few more sales.

Just after 7, he turns his cart and heads home. It wasn’t such a bad day. He took in $78. But for the second day in a row, 12 ears of corn sit unsold in his cooler, destined for the trash.

At 8 p.m., Campos reaches his front stoop. In the dwindling light, he crosses himself again, thanking God for keeping him safe. In the living room, he is greeted by images of St. Jude, Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe. At the dinner table, he prepares the flavored concoctions for his shave ice; then he goes to the store to buy milk for tomorrow.

About 10 p.m., he sits in his kitchen, decorated with three different images of “The Last Supper,” and eats a dinner of beans and eggs. Rent is due soon.

Tomorrow, he’ll head out again, but not before praying to St. Jude.

“He knows my anxieties right now,” Campos says. “He knows we need money.”

--

hector.becerra@latimes.com


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