One of the things that ties Angelenos together is the love of a good taco. I don’t care who you are, there’s something about holding a soft, handmade tortilla filled with goodness that will make all of us queue up around the block. It doesn’t matter if that taco is served out of a truck or in a fancy restaurant. If you make it, we will queue for it as long as it’s damn delicious.
My favorite taco place is a little shack by the ocean. There’s no indoor seating or even public bathrooms. There’s picnic tables outside and a window to order through. The kitchen is presided over by Manuel, a Hispanic guy with tattoos and a thick accent. He thinks the way I talk is hilarious. I’ve got a southern accent with a touch of Hawaii thrown in, all coming from a woman with skin the same as his, so I suppose he’s right.
The customers are a mixed lot like they tend to be in such places. Women with long bouncy hair and designer dresses stand next to gardeners in their dusty jeans. We’ve got entitled teenagers with shiny locks and blinding smiles standing next to boys who are always going to just want to catch the next wave. The boys are immune to the admiring glances the girls throw their way. In their heads, they need to eat, fuel up to catch the next wave.
That’s the thing about taco shacks on the beach. No one much cares what you look like. We’re all just there to eat. Everyone takes their turn waiting before wandering off to their own lives again.
I’m waiting in line for my tacos when I see someone moving slowly. He’s looking at the tables, checking the ground around where people sit. His clothes are dirty, his hair long and unkempt. He’s cradling a guitar like it’s his most precious thing. He’s got that look, the one you see recognize and just know. I used to wear that look, a hell of a long time ago. He’s homeless, been sleeping hard for a long time. He starts at the back, searching the tables and then the trash cans.
Next to me one of the junior spa day set titters to her friends “hey…just like, watch this”. She takes her leftover tacos -still warm and uncommonly good, waits until the guy sees her walking. She walks up to him and stares in his face while she throws that food away. Her and the other girls laugh again when they see him reach into the trash, pull it out.
Right then I’m ashamed to be human. She’d already had her meal, probably on her parents dime. Wouldn’t have cost her anything to hand it to him, let him keep the tattered threads of dignity.
It’s my turn to order, and I guess Manuel saw the look on my face. He shrugs and just says, “they look, but don’t see.”
I give my usual order but add a new request — a burrito, wrapped up to go. Manuel smiles and takes my money.
One summer night a few days after high school graduation, I came home to find my key wouldn’t work. I was dirty and tired from walking everywhere, looking for a summer job. I had already signed up for the Army and made plans to escape. My grades were good but my prospects otherwise dim, since my parents believed college was a waste when I should be content to stay home and serve them. My parents never let me in the house but instead dropped me in Downtown LA. Why should they support a child who was leaving anyway? I learned a heck of a lot about loss of dignity that summer, and the needs that go beyond just food. Dignity and kindness were in as much short supply as food and safety.
When my food came out, there was an extra burrito gently steaming. Manuel shrugged and said “bean and cheese. Maybe he don’t eat meat”. I smile at Manuel and wonder if he remembers hard nights with too much cold and too little dignity too. I took my food and walked over. The homeless guy was still searching through the trashcans, looking for a little more. I remember the endless days of always searching for more. I said “hey”, waited till he looked up and his eyes met mine. “You should eat this.” Then I just hand him the bag.
What can I say. Talking to strangers always makes me awkward. But he didn’t need words. He just needed to be seen. I remember that feeling well, being invisible. I don’t know his name, but his eyes were sky blue. He looked at me, nodded, and then said “thank you.” For the food or for seeing him, I don’t know. I don’t know if it matters. They were both as important when the hungry one was me.
I walked back to my table and he walked away, happily munching on a burrito. The girl rolled her eyes but the surfer just looked at me and nodded. “Was a good thing, man” he said, wiping down the sand still dotting his legs. “We try to help, when we’ve got a few extra bucks”. I saw the girl who’d been laughing with her friends at the pain she caused throw a surprised look at the surfer.
That’s the thing about being human. Sometimes the shame comes packaged with lithe skin, perfect bodies. And sometimes the pride’s kicked back in by someone who’s eyes are a little unfocused- a combo of sun and pot — but who can still look, and still see the hungry guy who was looking for a meal. And maybe a little dignity.
This post was previously published on Equality Includes You.
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