For the last month, day by day at noon, I watched the street people of Blythe, California file to the free Kitchen eatery door and, after reading the same old sign, retrace their steps staring at their feet: Cook had heart attack!
Today, out of hope, I looked up at the sign one more time to find it had been replaced with, Open! and drooled through the door. The joint was a-bustle as Pepper, the new cook, shouted, ‘You’re number 103, 04 and 05′, a new record’, for he knew of my appetite for food and hearty facts.
An old bearded feller bent over a steaming plate of spaghetti looked up and smiled, ‘I don’t care what they say about the cook, the food didn’t kill him.’ A deathly silence befell the table for but an instant until a hippy screamed, ‘The cook is dead, long live the cook!’ that was the go-ahead to strap on the feed bag.
A Mexican laborer sat across from me beaming as if filled with some good spirit. ‘What gives, bro?’ someone asked him.
‘The Kitchen is open and I got a dollar in my pocket,’ he explained.
‘If you’re nearly broke, fool, what makes you happy?’ was then asked.
‘Madre de Dios,’ responded the Mexican, ‘Yesterday I crossed the U.S. border dreaming of the ‘promised land’. A sign on this Kitchen door said ‘Cocinero esta muerto’. I crossed myself when a truck pulled up looking for laborers, so I jumped in. After digging post holes for two hours the driver dropped me back at the door, but the cook was still dead. I was sorry, but I had $12 in my pocket.
‘I spent $2 on an alarm clock at the thrift shop to get me up in time to work another day. It runs forever as long as you wind it. I bought a cold bottle of milk for $3 to have the strength for another job. I bought a jackknife for $2 because you should always keep one handy. Then a girl and her sister begged me for a dollar and when I gave it to her, the sister wanted one. Their brother came up and, since I myself have begged, I gave him one. Now I’m so happy to have one dollar in my pocket, a full stomach, and the truck driver’s promise to return after noon to give me more work today.’
‘What if I get in the truck instead?’ challenged the old-timer. ‘I’ll whup your butt,’ the Mexican answered simply. A horn honked out the door and the laborer jumped up.
‘Wait,’ I called. ‘What happened to the other dollar?’
‘That’s Kitchen Ed,’ the hippie nudged the Mexican. ‘Pay him no mind.’
‘Smell my shirt,’ the Hispanic said, and I did. ‘Sweet,’ I replied.
The worker left whistling, and the thought of that freshly laundered shirt made me tell everyone left at the table about how I got caught by the U.S. Border Patrol in the middle of the Rio Grande River while sneaking into the USA.
‘But you are a gringo,’ someone observed. ‘True’, I replied, ‘But my Mexican visa had expired and I wanted to escape the Federales.’
‘What did the U.S. Border Patrol do to you?’
‘It detained me for an hour and entered the incident into a computer. Now I can’t get my job.’
‘Three months ago in July, I applied to teach in Imperial County, Ca. The school district routinely sent my LiveScan prints to Washington D.C., saying that I’d have a teaching certificate in my hand in five days. Now the district reports that I’m ‘lost in the system’ and ‘don’t call back’.
‘Maybe you should leave your prints on a shovel,’ suggested the old guy. ‘Wait for another truck to pull up.’
‘Don’t worry about me,’ I replied at the exit. ‘I have a dollar in my pocket, an ‘illegal’ working my job, but the Kitchen opens tomorrow and that’s enough to make anybody happy.’