Alicia Escamilla bounced a pen off her leg as she watched the woman sort through her clothes. Escamilla was somewhere between nervous and bored as she sat on a cooler in the shade of a sport-utility vehicle. Next to her, a blue tarp hugged the ground, holding neat piles of jeans and shirts, a row of high heels and sandals. "There's no work, and the tomatoes just got started," she said, explaining why she's here, in a grassy patch along State Road 674 on a hot Saturday morning, selling items from her home. Escamilla is not alone. On this day, there are three other families selling used wares alongside her in the right of way on the south side of the highway in Ruskin. They have similar stories, involving lost jobs and desperate searches for work.
It's a scene that repeats itself every weekend throughout southeast Hillsborough County. From shrimp sellers along U.S. 41 to the cypress furniture hawker on Lithia-Pinecrest Road, there seems to be a bumper crop of roadside vendors beyond the normal fruit stands.
In a recession, an apparent random garage sale might actually form a lifeline for many families trying to make ends meet.
But not everyone sees value in the vendors' entrepreneurial spirit.
County code enforcement officials report a slight uptick in complaints over the past several months about roadside vendors on the public right of way, said supervisor Bill Langford. He assumes the weak economy is to blame.
Officials have already cleared off some vendors from State Road 674 in Ruskin but plan to make another raid soon because they recently received several calls from residents, Langford said.
"You see a little of an increase, but it's nothing off the chain," he said.
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Escamilla is not out here every week. She comes only when she has absolutely nothing left with which to buy food or pay the $480 monthly rent.
"If I need money, I'll look through my house to see what else I can sell," she said, as her two daughters, ages 3 and 4, built a make-believe fort with milk crates in the back of her SUV.
At the moment, her husband is in West Palm Beach, working one or two days a week in the tomato fields. Local growers had already filled jobs closer to home, she said.
The makeshift vendors chose this spot along SR 674 because it offers plenty of traffic and would-be customers, from field workers to Ruskin parents to Sun City Center retirees.
By midmorning, a sedan pulled off the pavement and into the grass. A woman stepped out and wandered over with her two young sons and daughter.
The little boys took toy cars out of a bushel basket. The little girl favored a hip-high dollhouse. Their mother flipped through the piles of jeans, each pair priced from $1 to $2.
The woman browsed, but ultimately moved on to another family hawking its wares.
Moments later, a red pickup truck stopped. A woman with gray hair walked up and flipped through the piles of jeans. She turned away and headed back to the truck, where her husband waited. The couple left without speaking to anyone or buying anything. They didn't speak Spanish, it seems, but they knew well the language of bargain hunting.
Escamilla's next customer, a Hispanic woman, picked up a pair of baby shoes and looked at her.
"Un dolar," Escamilla said, and the woman handed over a single bill.
"I've never seen anything like this," Escamilla, who has lived in the area three years, said about the job market. "What can we do but wait?"
On a good day, Escamilla can clear between $50 and $60, starting at 8 a.m. and staying until about 3 p.m., she said. But this Saturday was not shaping up to be a good day, with only a few small sales.
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A few hundred feet to the east of Escamilla's truck, another family said they would leave Florida if things don't improve.
"I'm out of work, can't find no work," said Floyd Strickland, 29, sitting on a folding chair in the shade of trees alongside his wife, their toddler and his in-laws.
A few feet in front of them, closer to the road, their wares sat on a blanket: jeans, blouses, a car seat, teddy bears, a pet carrier.
"Every week, we put out five or six resumes, and no one calls," Strickland said, lighting a cigarette. He and his wife recently moved in with her parents in Clair-Mel after their trailer burned down.
The family set up shop on SR 674 several months ago because they have a storage unit nearby.
"Gotta make it somehow," said Billy Taylor, Strickland's father-in-law.
Taylor, 47, lost his job sandblasting and painting more than a year ago. His wife still holds her job stocking at Wal-Mart.
Every week, the family fills a cooler with sodas and ham and bologna sandwiches. They come on Saturdays because the traffic is better than on Sundays. They don't mind the Mexican families setting up nearby.
"More people stop," Taylor said.
Strickland said his days as a roadside salesman will soon end.
"We're moving out of here," he said. He has family in West Virginia.
"You pay dearly now to live in Florida," Taylor said.
Closer to Escamilla's spot, two other families originally from Mexico sold household goods placed on blankets.
Celia Esquivel hung flowered print dresses and black skirts from hangers perched on tree limbs.
"(The tomato farmers) already have the people they need," Esquivel said, the dresses ballooning behind her in the breeze.
During the housing boom, Esquivel, 35, used to work in construction. But with the bust, those workers returned to farm jobs. And the farmers, with plenty of laborers at hand, prefer the men, she said.
Esquivel shops at flea markets for food to feed her three children.
"We hope it'll get better, but we'll see," Esquivel said, turning to a woman in stretch pants waving a blouse at her.
"How much?" the woman asked.
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2441.