Vending again

Rick Lopez, left, greets Art Flores, who ran the snack bar at the Downey courthouse before Lopez took it over. Lopez, 59, who is legally blind, ran the cafeteria and snack bar at the Long Beach courthouse for two decades before the management at the city's new courthouse forced him out. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times / September 15, 2013)

When Rick Lopez packed up the sodas, chips, gum and candy on his final day, he knew he was leaving a lot behind.

There was the security guard who helped him set up shop in the morning and would give him a ride home in the evening, the judicial commissioner who raved that his egg salad sandwich was the best in town, the attorneys who arrived early for the freshly brewed coffee — and even the old, dilapidated Long Beach courthouse itself.

For two decades, Lopez was a fixture there, running the cafeteria and snack bar through a state program that gives blind vendors priority in government buildings.

But when all the judges, bailiffs and clerks moved down the street to a gleaming new courthouse this fall, Lopez didn't make the trip. State officials told Lopez there was nothing they could do to keep him in Long Beach, but they could transfer him to another location. The new courthouse was built by a public-private partnership and developers were given the right to lease out the food stalls as they pleased.

Taking his place would be a food court with chains such as Subway and Coffee Bean.

Lopez was crushed. A courthouse is often a place where some of life's sad and dire dramas play out. But for Lopez, it was also a place where he and a regular cast of characters found ways to bond.

As he walked away from the old courthouse for the last time, he cried.

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Lopez, 59, has never married and lives alone in a one-bedroom condo in Long Beach. Every night he phones his 92-year-old mother to catch up.

Blind at birth, he regained some sight in his left eye as he got older. He credits his mother, who prayed over him every day. She would wave her palm over his head, and one day his eyes began tracking it.

"She could never take no for an answer," he said.

In high school in upstate New York, he ran track, always careful to keep his competitors to his left so that he could see them with his good eye.

When he was 23, he left New York to study at a small theology school near Disneyland. He stayed in California, taking odd jobs to make ends meet. During one stretch, he worked as a night-shift manager at a tortilla factory.

When a friend told him about the state's blind vendor program, he applied and landed at a tiny snack bar at a juvenile hall in San Diego, selling chips and sodas. It wasn't until he was transferred to Long Beach several years later that he finally felt at home.

Family members of defendants and victims, along with prosecutors and defense attorneys, came to know him by name. The court interpreters, whose offices were next to Lopez, would come in to get their weekly fix of French fries. He was there long enough that some of those who were called to jury duty for a second or third time became regulars.

"I eat up the years like I eat popcorn," Lopez said of his decades at the Long Beach courthouse. His hair has gone gray, and his constant laughter has carved deep lines in his face. But, he said, "I don't feel old."

He has a knack for remembering names and faces, even of people just passing through. When someone says a kind word, he replies simply: "You're nice."

Lydell Ball, a security guard, looked for him first thing in the morning at the old courthouse and sometimes helped him set out the pastries and get the coffee going. Ball would take Lopez on Costco runs, and Lopez always made sure to stock up on Whoppers — the guard's favorite candy.

Ball misses the vendor.

Lopez went by the new building a couple weeks ago after hearing Ball had been out sick. "I want to make sure you're doing what the doctors tell you," Ball recalled Lopez telling him.