One of the recurring memories Jesse Aleman has of his 22-year career as a concrete finisher is when he was pouring concrete on a road in California.
“Every time we're digging a hole, ‘sucks to be you!”
The Moreno Valley, Calif., man is referring to what drivers would shout as they passed him and his fellow orange vests on the highway.
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His job often involved 12-hour days in the sun surrounded by gray concrete.
“I’d be coming home, really late and always tired,” said Aleman.
During the pandemic, Aleman started noticing he wasn’t just tired. The job he started doing at the age of 16 was bringing him other feelings, heavier ones.
“I was very sad. Depressed. I hated my job. I had my little life. I had my family. But it was like you were working to make your family happy, but you never really cared about what you were doing,” Aleman said.
Pouring concrete wasn’t his passion. The paychecks were nice, but the work was grueling. Still, despite his depression, there were slivers of happiness. Those glimmers of hope came when he was with his family or in his backyard garden.
“I was able to kind of create a little oasis at my home. I was able to create something where I would come home and be happy to come home and come and visit my plants or visit my garden. And then I'd be a lot happier for my family.”
Encouraged by the joy plants brought him, Aleman started reading all he could about plants, watching documentaries and buying plants to cover every inch of his backyard and his living room. He dreamed of having a business selling plants.
So in August 2020, Aleman quit his job, bought wood to build a small cart and put some plants on it.
“I made this myself. I carry succulents and all types of houseplants, and I go around the little neighborhood selling my plants,” he said.
Aleman’s cart has been at festivals and markets across Southern California and even made an appearance at the opening of actor Cheech Marin’s Chicano art museum in Riverside, Calif., this month.
The cart even has a name: Succs 2 Be You, a variation of the “sucks to be you” that Aleman would hear as a concrete finisher. “It was really funny to put that into our story to bring you succulents, cacti and houseplants,” Aleman said.
The cart’s in-real-life success has translated to online fame.
Aleman’s daughter Genevive started posting her dad’s street vending adventures on TikTok, and before long, the page amassed more than 126,000 followers.
One of his videos has even garnered 1.1 million views. In it, Genevive shares that her dad can’t be taken anywhere “without him finding plants to snatch.” Viewers leave comments calling out his smile and how happy he looks. Aleman says he’s often recognized in public, probably due, in part, to the signature beige hat with a black stripe he is usually wearing. After catching wind of him on TikTok, customers have come from as far away as Canada to buy a plant from his cart.
Aleman hopes to one day have a brick-and-mortar plant shop where he can also sell his award-winning tamales. He says he’s not making anywhere near what he was making as a concrete finisher, but that’s not his priority right now.
“It becomes where money is not as important as what we're bringing to life or to ourselves, to our health. I think that without the plant cart, I probably wouldn't even have made it,” Aleman said. “I’m a lot happier now.”
This story is part of Connect the Dots, our series that shows how different aspects of our lives are connected to each other. Watch the video above to see what ties house plants, street vending and brunch together.