Mis Ángeles: It Hurts To See Los Angeles This Way

Hot dog vendor Chela says she plans to keep serving food on the streets of Boyle Heights. (Erick Galindo/Chava Sanchez for LAist)

I'm driving down Cesar Chavez in the middle of the day Wednesday and it's so strange. The Guisados is closed. King Taco's patio is covered in caution tape. And all the street vendors that usually bring Boyle Heights sidewalks to life are gone.

It doesn't feel good. For a second, I can't breathe and I wonder if I got it. I woke up feeling what I assume or hope is a cold. Maybe allergies. Maybe it's just paranoia.

But for a moment, I'm drowning. My lungs stick together and I'm sure I have coronavirus. Then tears start coming out of me.

And I realize, it's not COVID-19. It's despair. It just hurts to see Los Angeles this way.

***

A fruit vendor along Cesar Chavez in Boyle Heights is still at work the day after the city's stay at home order was put in place. Licensed food vendors are allowed to stay open. (Chava Sanchez/LAist )

On Tuesday the City Council voted unanimously to end a grace period that gave street food vendors six months to get an L.A. County Health permit. It's the latest move by city leaders to severely curtail L.A.'s famed service industry in order to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

I confirmed with Council President Nury Martinez's office that vendors with the permit can continue to operate during the state's shelter in place order.

Though a motion was initially floated to shut down all vendors, state law prevents the city from shutting down a vendor with a county health permit. Those permits essentially mean they are restaurants, which can still provide takeout and delivery.

Still, the motion essentially empowers LAPD and StreetsLA to shut down the vast majority of street food merchants.

I talked with activist Rudy Espinoza who has been part of a years-long battle to give street vendors some kind of legitimate status. He says that probably more than 90% of street food vendors lack the county health permit.

"The L.A. County Health permit is really hard to get," he says. It's expensive, he explains, and the carts the county wants don't even exist yet in some cases.

"We're talking about some of the big name vendors everyone writes about and talks about," Rudy says. "They don't have it."

But Rudy tells me he's torn. On one hand he is devastated for these micro entrepreneurs who feed our city. Yeah, you see them on Instagram and some are famous, trending, whatever. But they are actually providing a service to people who can't afford to eat at Bestia or Adam Perry Lang, yet deserve a quality meal.

On the other hand, Rudy understands that people need to stay home. Many street vendors are older so they are more at risk. And many are undocumented, therefore they don't tend to have health insurance (or unemployment, for that matter).

***

King Taco has taped off their outdoor dining area in an effort to keep customers from lingering/ (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

What's happening to L.A.'s service industry right now is terrible but necessary. Because that's where we are. We got to flatten the curve.

What's going to happen to the street vendors will likely be worse. They may lose their only source of income and not be eligible for any government relief. Or get sick and not even have a GoFundMe to help pay for their care. Because that's what we do, isn't it? Pair the bad with the terrible.

On my late afternoon ride, I did manage to spot some street vendors scattered around Cesar Chavez.

One of them was Chela who said she's not worried about the law. "Police come by all the time. They say hi," she said.

I asked her where all the other vendors were. Chela said they must be scared of the virus.

She's not worried about COVID-19 though. "I have my Corona with lime and salt," she joked over a bacon-wrapped hot dog she was grilling up for me.

But she was wearing clear plastic gloves and carefully moving everything with tongs. When I paid, she took the cash and put it away in a box. Then she threw away her plastic gloves and put on a new pair for the next customer, wherever they may be.

Chela's son has special needs and she can't afford to not work. "I'll be here everyday at your service," she said.

I walked over to my car, much more than six feet away, and leaned there with my hot dog.

As I ate, I thought about how when I was younger, I'd go to a bar or club to have fun or be sad. But all in anticipation of having one of these hot dogs after last call.

Sometimes me and the boys would squeeze into an Uber to Echo Park just to see Doña Olga, our favorite hot dog lady. Sometimes I'd take a bite and pass it to my date and she'd take a bite. Then I'd take a bite again. All in love with everything.

All of that, wrapped around a hot dog on a near empty street in Boyle Heights. And I wonder if I'm ever going to get to do any of that again.

But it's really not about me.

It's about Doña Chela, Doña Olga, tens of thousands of others like them, who are already suffering and waiting for it to get worse before it gets better.


About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor (and, yes, he still love tacos).


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