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I’ve been focusing coverage on the community of City Heights, which comprises sixteen of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods and roughly 80,000 residents from dozens of countries. The community’s cultural and socioeconomic diversity make it a fascinating place in which to spend hours at a time just observing. You notice markers of that diversity and the community at large in the idiosyncrasies of daily life that often don’t elicit a second glance.
One of those is the prevalence of wire pushcarts. In City Heights, walking is the only form of local transportation for many low-income residents. That poses particular challenges for people running day-to-day errands — from grocery shopping to laundry mat trips. It’s not uncommon to see a Somali woman walking down University Avenue with a bag of laundry slung over her back or a Mexican man dragging a bag of cans to the local recycling center. In City Heights, the wire pushcart is a panacea of sorts for the difficulties arising out those daily tasks.
I spent a few hours Thursday walking around City Heights on the lookout for wire pushcarts and their diversity of uses.
Shauna Lowe was leaving the recycling center at the intersection of University and Highland avenues with $6.86 in her hand after cashing in a bag of aluminum cans a friend had given her.
She’s been homeless since June, trying to get into a detox program so she can reclaim her son from Child Protective Services by a mid-April deadline. Until a month ago she had been carrying four bags containing all of her belongings on her back. “My shoulder can’t take the weight of my bags,” she said. “I don’t know how to do this homeless thing very well.”
Then a friend gave her a small rusted pushcart. She uses it to carry around everything she owns, which Thursday she was storing at her friend’s apartment so she could use the cart to haul the bag of cans.
“The homeless and the low income,” she said, “use them because we have no other choice.”
Walking along University Avenue, I spotted a black wire pushcart outside of the VIP Wholesale Food & General Merchandise store at the corner of Menlo Avenue. It was chained to the bars protecting the store’s windows. There were folded strollers propped inside, and attached to the window behind it was a sign that read: “Shopping Card Prices,” and a list of prices depending on size.
Minh Suynh is the store manager. He told me there weren’t many places to actually buy the pushcarts in City Heights. Most come from distributors in Los Angeles, he said. Some local mom and pop shops will buy a case of two or three and then sell them, but after a couple of hours of popping into stores all along University Avenue, I couldn’t find another one for sale.
Which was strange, considering that they’re everywhere.
At the Albertsons nearby, Patricia Carrera had folded up her large, shiny, blue pushcart and propped it inside her grocery store cart as she started shopping. Her sister, who lives in Orange County, gave it to her after the tires on a smaller one she’d been using fell off.
This one was harder to use, Carrera said.
“It’s very big. For Albertsons it’s fine, but when I go to smaller stores around here, I can’t get through the aisles,” she said. At Albertsons she doesn’t use it until she leaves the store, because during check-out it’s easier to pull her groceries out of the store’s cart than hers, which is lower to the ground.
Carrera uses hers more sparingly, only when her husband can’t drive her to run errands. “That’s why it still looks nice and new, even though I’ve had it for more than a year,” she said. She doesn’t have to use it as often as an older friend of hers does. He uses his, Carrera said, to pull around his oxygen tank. The wire pushcart is a less expensive alternative to the fancy carts designed specifically for the tanks.
“I just use mine for groceries,” Carrera said. “When you walk, the weight of the milk is difficult.”
In another part of the store, Josie Turner placed a floral arrangement into her wire pushcart.
Back out on University Avenue, 78-year-old Sara Nuñez rested at a bus stop. She had taken her pushcart out for a walk. It was in bad shape. Cardboard covered gaps on the side where the wire caging had fallen off. She had used copper wire to reattach the wheels, which had fallen off. This was a replacement pushcart.
“I lost my other one,” she said.
Two months ago, she was standing in line at a food distribution on El Cajon Boulevard. As she waited for her ration of produce, she fainted. An ambulance picked her up and drove her to the hospital, but the paramedics left her pushcart behind. When she got out of the hospital, she went back to look for it. She looked to see if someone had set it in one of the local shops. She looked in dumpsters.
It was gone.
Three weeks ago, a friend told her she had an extra one, but that it was old. She took it.
Today, she wasn’t running errands. She was just going for a walk. She uses the pushcart like a walker to ease the tension on her back, which is stiff from decades of work picking fruit and in hotels.
“It makes me sturdy,” she said. She had placed bags of rocks on the bottom to stabilize it. It helps her get around, she said, since she went blind in one eye.
“I have to get around,” Nuñez said. “I have to walk. Otherwise I can’t live.”
— ADRIAN FLORIDO