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Yet it's felt by downtown's licensed vendors that the city bureaucracy does not see their work as honorable in any way. They've been served with police notifications warning them of pending stepped-up enforcement efforts. Many have written letters to the city in protest, claiming the enforcement has been abusive and borderline racist.
Licensed Cushman cart vendors, for instance, must have a letter from a neighboring business or restaurant stating that the merchant allows the vendor at the cart to use its restroom. The carts, however, must always be within 200 feet of their sponsoring restroom. That 200 feet includes the distance traveled up or down stairs or elevators. Palacios said she's had health-department inspectors tell her they won't deal with her because her English is not good enough. ("And why wouldn't I have an accent? I wasn't born here," she protested.) Other city workers tell her she should give up her cart and just get a job in local government, because there "you don't do anything." She said that once a police officer accused her of possessing a fake California ID card, suggesting she was an illegal immigrant.
How are all these rules made up? Codes are formed at the state level, with suggestions and input from local health departments. They are frequently updated. Terrance Powell, acting director of the L.A. County Department of Environmental Health, says he has little room for pity toward vendors who operate outside of code. In fact, rules related to street vending have recently been "liberalized," he says, in temperature limits, for instance.
"I cannot bargain with safety — will not — that's not my arena," Powell says. "We are a country of laws, and we are going to abide by them."
But in a country of laws, does the public retain the right to ignore laws intended to protect them, at their own risk? What harm is there in risking a bit of indigestion in exchange for the mouthwatering greasy glory of a bacon-wrapped hot dog?
Frustrated, angry and desperate, the licensed hot-dog vendors of the Fashion District formed what may be the first professional organization for street vendors in the United States, the Hot Dog Vendors Association. They've had some meetings, stressing that their initial goal is to give their industry a semblance of sophistication and self-respect. And on January 17, in response to the LAPD's junk-car law enforcement, the group staged a protest of nearly 50 vendors in front of City Hall and at the LAPD's Central Division station.
The association leaders have stressed repeatedly that in order to be a member, a vendor must fully abide by current codes and laws, meaning no bacon, no grilling. For now.
But the association is already showing signs of internal stress. The pressure of the market, the demand that exists for bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and the competition from illegal vendors have been too great. Some association members have quietly returned to illegal grilling.
"It's out of desperation," Palacios says, sighing. "You do feel abandoned."
Like other vendors, Palacios' business has plummeted since she gave up grilling dogs last year. She tries gussying up her baconless wieners with fresh salsa and avocado, but it's not enough. She's been thinking about giving up the street-hot-dog business — but the health department wouldn't make it easy to sell off her carts. Old-model Cushman carts are being phased out, and reselling them isn't allowed. Even so, Palacios has been thinking she might try starting a catering business.
Not long ago, a woman just up the street from Palacios' usual corner was selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs from a tiny homemade stand on wheels, her cart surrounded by ravenous customers. Palacios watched.
"Let me tell you one thing. You have no idea how good I feel right now. Because although I'm losing money, at least I don't have to be dealing with them," she said, referring to the police and health inspectors. "This abuse, this injustice. And that's the word — it's an injustice."