Everyday Living

Riding the Streets of Venice in a Produce Truck

By Ian Lovett

Three years ago, when I first moved to Venice, I lived at Broadway and 7th St. My house, part of a row of four cottages, had this fantastic garden, where my neighbors grew strawberries and basil, and I used to sit outside to read, or to eat, or to nap, or for any other reason I could come up with.  Ambient street noise would drift over the fence—passing cars; domino games in the park; drug deals on the corner; the crack addicts and prostitutes yelling at each other; and, inexplicably, the first line of “La Cucaracha,” played on a horn.

When I returned to Oakwood at the start of this year, I found police and helicopter raids had pushed the drugs and prostitutes off that corner, and the dog-walkers who now frequent the park have filed a series of complaints about the domino games. But “La Cucaracha” remains a neighborhood fixture—you can hear it any time a produce truck passes by.

These produce trucks play an integral part in a Venice community that many of my neighbors—the mostly white, young transplants from other parts of the country, like me, who increasingly populate Oakwood—remain largely aloof to.  Unlike the more universally celebrated taco trucks, which enjoy greater crossover appeal, the produce trucks are an industry of, for, and by Venice’s Mexican immigrant population—grocery stores in a city where so many functions usually reserved for fixed structures are played by motor vehicles.  As such, these trucks help map the community they serve, tracking where its members live, what they eat, and what they need, with a stark intimacy.

The Morales Produce truck, like most in the area, is a four-wheeler of reinforced steel. It resembles a postal truck, but Hugo, the owner and sole employee, says it was once a military vehicle, though he himself bought it “on the street.”

Hugo’s repurposed truck is right its new work, because the steel sides keep the temperature inside cool. This is especially important, since, unlike the taco trucks, none of the produce trucks keep their product on ice.  In addition, the back door slides up into the roof, leaving the contents of the truck completely visible to the customers who stand at the back, on the street. This door remains open all day, even while the truck is moving—a more effective marketing strategy than the small “Morales Produce” signs hand-painted onto each of the front doors.

Like Ralph’s or Albertson’s, the local trucks sell a mix of fresh produce, household supplies, and junk food.  In the Morales Produce truck, one of the four that service Oakwood, the produce sits on the lowest shelf along each of the truck’s walls, and in cardboard boxes on the floor near by the back door, which, really, functions as the storefront. On the higher shelves, a variety of snacks and candy intermingle.  As you move towards the back of the shop, the shelves hold more household supplies, and become less organized. Whereas at the front all the blue Doritos sit in a single row, towards the back rolls of toilet paper sit next to a Cup o’ Noodles, a bag a peanuts, and Zote Pink Soap. Two coolers up near the cab house all the cold drinks—Gatorade, Coke, Water, and Jarritos, a Mexican soda.  And atop one cooler, a metal tray holds an array of Mexican pastries—sweet buns with lemon filling, and fried breads that resemble donuts, but without the signature hole in the middle.

Unlike Ralph’s or Albertson’s, the goods trend Mexican, both in their origin and their production.  Amongst the lettuce, the onions, the corn, cilantro sits proudly at the end of the shelf closest to the door, as do tomatillos, jalapeños, and other peppers I don’t recognize.  On the opposite shelf, with the fruit, is a green spiny-looking thing I’ve never seen before. “It comes from cactus,” Hugo says.  “Good for cleaning the stomach.” He peels the outer layer off one and hands it to me. When I bite in, it’s watery and fresh, sweet, full of seeds just small enough to swallow.

The junk food, too, mixes the Mexican with the American. Alongside the ever-popular Doritos hang “Polvorones” and “Bimbuñelos.” Perhaps more than anything else, these products epitomize the delicate balance that exists between Mexican and American in these trucks.  Under the name “Bimbuñelos” is an English tagline: “Wafer Crisps.” It is a Mexican product, with a name evoking a ‘buñelo,’ a deep-fried Latin American cookie. But the manufacturers added the tagline in hopes it might also appeal to English-speakers in the U.S., even though Bimbuñelos, while crispy, are only wafer-like by the loosest of approximations.

Everything in the truck comes from the market at Central and Olympic, downtown. I ask Hugo what it’s called, but he doesn’t remember—he just calls it “El Mercado.” It’s where an entire industry begins its day—a central hub where all the taco and produce trucks come together, along with middlemen and purveyors, to secure the goods their businesses depend on.

El Mercado is a veritable city of trucks—a parking lot really, with trucks angled into spaces, pulling in, pulling out, watching out for the fork lifts and dollies hauling piles of boxes onto still more trucks. We even pass a taco truck near the gate, selling, basically, to its competition.

The wholesalers’ shops line the market’s edges, pushed back against an industrial-looking cement building that encloses three sides of the parking lot.  The food, for the most part, sits outside the shops, stacked in cardboard boxes on wooden platforms that keep the bottommost box about three inches off the ground. Hugo says they want to shut this place down. Who does? He shrugs. “The city. The inspectors.”  When the inspectors come, he explains, they say the food all has to be inside the shops, not outside. But as anyone can see, there’s no room inside for all this—produce is piled up everywhere, with crates springing out from every unclaimed piece of asphalt.

We park, and snake through the maze of trucks towards our destination—Hugo buys from the same shop every day.  Because he’s a regular, they give him better prices.  Plus, he says, everything’s cheaper here, at the back end of the market.

He nods to the staff as went enter the shop—these are people he sees every day, no handshakes or formalities, just down to business—and heads towards the heaping boxes of bananas in the corner.

He goes next for the green grapes, great big ones.  These come in Styrofoam boxes, the top one with its cover already removed.  He tries a few of them. “Son buenas.”  He motions for me to try one—and they are good, juicy and crisp and fresh. A girl notes these down on a piece of cardboard from a discarded box. “¿Qué más?” she says.  What else?

While larger produce is priced by the box, smaller produce—cilantro, and the millions of different kinds of peppers—is priced per pound and weighed on a scale beside the register, with weights rounded to the nearest pound. One guy who wanted to pay for 4 lbs of garlic starts off with nearly 5 lbs, and just keeps removing cloves until he’s down to 4.17—within an acceptable range of 4, apparently.

The customers all move nimbly, looking, squeezing, turning over, opening, occasionally asking questions. The staff, too, remain in constant motion, the young woman checking off orders and cashing people out when they’re done; a boy, maybe 16, hauling boxes out from inside, dollying goods to customers’ trucks, stacking and unstacking; and an older man, overseeing everything. I want to ask the boy if he goes to school, but can’t muster the courage.  Plus, I’m almost sure I know the answer—at his age, without any command of English.    Save for myself and a guy in a Green Bay Packers hat, everyone here is Latino, and, except with the Packers fan, all conversation is exclusively in Spanish.

Hugo’s order is small today, just $83.  Usually, he says, he’ll spend at least $100 here, sometimes more like $200.

Again we wind our way through the truck maze, unloading the dollyfull of boxes into the truck, and climbing back inside, where he stashes his bag of jalapeños under the driver’s seat.  “You scared them,” Hugo says. “They think maybe you are the health inspector.”  At 6’3’’, white and blond, wearing Oakley’s and a plaid shirt, I am, it seems, a very suspicious character, especially because I speak Spanish.

Before heading back to Venice, we stop in at another market where Hugo gets his junk food, and where the owner regards me with even more suspicion than the last one had.

As Hugo orders chips and M&M’s and bottles of water, I watch truck owners wander off to the “lunchero” at the corner, leaving their trucks open, their goods sitting in boxes outside on the ground.  They order tacos at the window—cabeza (spelled “caveza” on the side of the truck), tongue, carne asada. They wash their hands at the side of the truck, where the cashier pours water from a bucket over their finger and onto the street, and eat at a table set up in the truck’s shade, seated on upturned crates, sipping tamarind-flavored Jarritos.

Hugo usually eats there as well, but today we’re behind schedule—his regular customers are already starting to call him, asking where he is.  As we get ready to head back west, Hugo finds his brother’s driver’s license. He holds it up to show me—it’s the only one he has. Again, I don’t ask why, the answer obvious.  If he gets stopped, he’ll say that’s him on the license.  And, as you’d imagine, he drives very carefully.

Aside from the daily trip downtown, Hugo’s route is incredibly compact, covering barely half a square mile, bounded by Broadway to the south, Lincoln to the east, Rose to the north, and 4th Ave. to the west.  He has no claim on this area—it’s not his turf. It’s simply where his customers are concentrated. The neighborhood’s other three trucks operate in the same space, give or take a block.

Despite the competition that might naturally emerge from such an arrangement, Hugo maintains notably friendly relationships with the other truck owners.  One recent morning, when another owner was sick, Hugo moved his truck for him so he wouldn’t get a ticket.  And when the Sanchez produce truck parked ten yards in front of Hugo, he remained unperturbed.  His prices are lower, he said. His customers will find him.

In the mornings, starting sometime between 10am and noon, whenever Hugo gets back from his four-hour trip to El Mercado, he usually begins his route around Sunset and 6th.  He sells milk, eggs, and bread, mostly, early in the day.  Wives and mothers stocking essentials for their families, most repeat customers he knows well.

I watch as one regular, an older woman, completes her purchase, thanks Hugo, and begins to walk towards her car, her bag still sitting on the back of the truck.  Before I can call after her, Hugo had already picked up the bag and stepped off the truck, following her to the car with her groceries.  This is part of their routine—she buys from Hugo and he carries her groceries, so reliably she doesn’t even need to ask him.

As we sit in the truck, helping occasional customers, Hugo cleans, getting out the vegetables from underneath that are starting to turn and tossing them into a box to throw away. It’s amazing to me how much he throws out.  A pile of bananas, which has started to spot brown but remained very edible.  “They’re good,” he says. “But no one wants to buy them.” Especially now that he has new ones.  He peels the outer layer off of onions and the husks off corn.  He tosses out pounds and pounds of little tomatillos, many of which are still good.  But it’s easier, he says, to just get rid of them all, rather than comb through pulling out the good ones. Even throwing out this many, he still turned a profit on the batch.

“Así es,” he keeps saying. This is it.  He sounds weary as he says this, tired, bored.  He’s had this truck for six years now, and he’s ready to sell it.  He wants to take his wife and their two-year-old son back to Oaxaca, where he’s from.  He plays tuba in a mariachi band, and there’s more opportunity for his music in Mexico. It’s hard to imagine that hearing “La Cucaracha” all day is very satisfying for a musician. Plus, he says, life is “more tranquil” in Mexico.

Around 2pm, hoping to grab some lunch, Hugo settles the truck in front of his house, where he lives with three other couples, eight adults and two children sharing four rooms, plus a bathroom and a kitchen.

But this is one of his most profitable locations, a place his regulars look for him, and he finds himself immediately besieged.  Two teenage girls stand outside, one holding a baby to her chest with one arm, picking grapes from the crate at the back and popping them into her mouth with the other. Everyone picks at the grapes, which is apparently as acceptable here as it is in the market downtown.  When he cleans out the fruit, Hugo even puts the single grapes on top, so people will eat those instead of pulling new ones off the vine.  The girls chat with Hugo, eventually buying a pack of tortillas, $2 of tomatillos, and $1 of cilantro. Enchiladas will be ready in an hour, one of them says, promising to bring him some.

This is how transactions work: quantity is measured in price—”I’ll have $2 of tomatoes”—everything comes in a plastic bag, including the plastic bags themselves, and everything is paid for in cash. Occasionally Hugo will let one of his regulars pay with credit, especially towards the end of the month, when rent is coming up, money is tighter, and his business slows.  But no cards are involved.  He simply gives them what they need, and hopes they’ll come back with what they owe.  And, like at El Mercado, all conversation is in Spanish.

I saw very similar systems in Asia and Africa—informal economies in which vendors set up shop where and when they can; cash rules; credit is extended on the strength of your word, not some algorithmically-determined ‘score’; and business is conducted in a language the state does not officially recognize.

The exception to the predominance of Spanish comes with the other side of Hugo’s business.  While parents come to Hugo for groceries, their children come for the junk food.  And whereas most of his adult patrons are Mexican, children of all ages and races like Coke and Oreos.  Even the several English-speaking adults tend to order snack food—they just snack on grapes instead of Doritos.

As we sit outside Hugo’s house, a black kid with blond stripes in his hair and a Ghostbusters shirt orders a Gatorade and a candy I’ve never heard of; his friend, a Latino, just gets a water—all in English.  Without missing a beat, Hugo serves the drinks, then begins rooting around on the shelves in search of the mystery candy.  “Too much stuff,” he says in Spanish.  “It’s a disaster in here.”

Almost as an afterthought, the Latino kid asks for “a dollar of grapes,” which, naturally, they’d already been nibbling on.  Hugo picks up a bunch, deposits them into a plastic bag, which in turn goes into another bag, this one yellow with handles, which he hands to the kid.

“That’s not a dollar,” the kid says.

Hugo smiles. He takes the bag back and throws it up onto the scale suspended from the ceiling.  “Dollar per pound,” he says in English, as the needle settles on 1.2 lbs.  They all laugh, and Hugo throws a few more grapes into the bag before handing it back to them.

“Son mis amigos,” he says to me after they’ve gone.  They’re my friends.  He speaks a version of kitchen English—the names of the products, prices, a few little helper words, but not much else.  He bought an English textbook years ago, he says. But he works all day—no time to study.

Así es.  Going to the market, cleaning, helping customers. We keep moving around his small territory, once venturing southward to Westminster.  Hugo drives while I sit on a cooler in the back—this is a vehicle designed for one person.  As the afternoon wears on, the younger customers fall off, replaced again by the matriarchs buying milk and eggs and bread for tomorrow.

Hugo’s business, and indeed the very existence of produce trucks, may seem curious to outsiders—I know I had to get used to the idea of setting out in search of the grocery store. But his business is not unlike FreshDirect.com, minus the heavy investment of venture capital.  Hugo, too, provides his narrow patch of Oakwood with specialty ingredients the community needs but might not have easy access to if it weren’t for his service.  Indeed, the truck represents a somewhat remarkable segment of an informal economy in Oakwood that operates slightly more on trust, friendship, and communal experience than most of the more formalized business transactions in the area.  It’s a developing-world business model, adapted with a set of wheels to this nominally developed city.

Towards the end of our time together, out of nowhere, Hugo asks me if I ever go out dancing.  He’s been answering my questions for days now, and apparently has some of his own. He asks me where I’m from, and then about the climate in Boston. He asks about my family, and how often I see them, and where I learned Spanish. As the sun goes down, and Hugo prepares to close up for the day, the interviewing seems to be over. We’re just talking now.

Finally, as we talk about the Mexican clubs downtown, and the climate in Oaxaca v. Boston, and his other two kids who live with their mother in Hollywood, I ask one more question: why “La Cucaracha”? I tell him that I associate it with insects and marijuana, not something he’d want people thinking of when they see his truck.

Hugo laughs. He could change it easily, he says.  The song plays on the red horn that’s visible just below the front bumper. Some customers tell him he should get his own distinct song. But it’s a Mexican song, he says, and it’s their song—the produce trucks’ song. It’s how people know they’re coming. And, well, he just likes it.

Categories: Everyday Living, Oakwood