The Grace of Taco

When one is working in a scrap metal yard one must remain vigilant to not only the edges and folds of the gnarled, worn metal but the contours and dips of the ground as well. Elevation changes may be subtle but can, without much effort, lead one headlong into a tailpipe or ankle-strafe on a twisted fender.

These can be amazing places, buffets for junkyard dogs, enthusiasts, scrap collectors and those finally restoring the ’67 Corvette sitting under sheets for far too many years on the back patio or in the shed. I do not understand why so many of these broken and twisted wrecks have tarps or cloth draped over them. Are they in danger of becoming even more wrecked?

Lots of silver and chrome; some worn and some not so much. There is glass as well, tiny chucks peppering the ground and full plates braced off to the side of the yard against faux walls. The smell is of grease and dirt and solvents and gasoline all blending together so that no one odor holds court.

It’s busy. Not only are those that work there busy dismantling, packaging, or rearranging the set but there is a steady stream of clientele of very discerning taste; they are here to hunt and peck, to haggle and consume.

I arrived in…let’s say Vernon or Huntington Park…a little SSE of downtown Los Angeles after already having had worked one job earlier in the morning. This was an emergency clearance for a long-time client. Nobody else was free to do it. I was supposed to be in the office finishing a report, sitting at a workstation close to the refrigerator containing my lunch. I had some peanuts but those were gone within the first hour.

Around 1 pm I noticed all the yard workers making their way towards the main entrance of the facility, removing their cut resistant gloves and brushing their clothes off. And then I heard a car horn. I continued working. A few minutes later I saw one of the workers walking back toward me with a plate of food. He moved the plate up and out towards me, the gesture indicating that I should get some food.

I walked out to the front of the facility. A woman and her daughter were serving the crew out of the back of their Chevy wagon. What looked like woks were resting in the back of the wagon, steam rising out from where the foil had been slightly bent back, aroma seducing those within whiff range. Carnitas, beans, and rice. The corn tortillas were kept warm in a domed Styrofoam container. A stack of paper plates and napkins sat next to that. Small plastic cups of chile and lime slices completed the array. The woman was having her daughter – who must have been about 12 or 13 – collect the money while she put plates together and made small talk with the men.

It was $5 a plate for 3 street tacos, rice and beans. I had $3. I asked the daughter and mother in unison, in my very limited Spanish, if I could just get two tacos because I only had the three bucks. The woman smiled. I think she was surprised to not be receiving another lurid question regarding the availability of her daughter paired with the fact that a white boy stood before her and was working here among what may or may not have been undocumented labor but also seeking a bite from the back of her wagon. The daughter continued staring and smiling at me.

The mother and daughter gave me a full plate for $3. They gave me extra napkins too, closed up the wagon, got into the car, and began to pull out and head off to the next auto scrap facility just down the street. As they were pulling out the daughter was looking back over the seat towards me, still smiling as I stood there eating. She reminded me of a kid going away to camp for the summer and staring out the back of the bus at her parents with a look that screamed out “Save me?!”

I was lost in pork. The crispy edges delighted me to no end while the tenderness of the inner meat provided a savory, greasy anchor. The accompanying chile had a small bite I respected. I drizzled it on my tacos from the small plastic cup. I squeezed lime slices and understood why I had so many napkins.

One of the best meals I’ve ever had. Food: authentic and tasty. Yes there was lard in the beans. Yes the rice was a bit dry. But isn’t a meal quite often as much about the food itself as it is about the experience in which the food is framed? Plating in this instance could not have been more spartan though for the location I found myself in it could not have been otherwise.

Many of you I’m sure saw the Pixar movie Ratatouille.

There but for the grace of taco go I:

I had a Ratatouille moment right there in the scrap yard.

Forgetting or ignoring that I was surrounded by sharp and shiny things, broken glass, a drill rig and the crew manning it, as well as my wandering client with the rush job I was working my way through I found myself metaphysically back in Tarpey Village, CA (a “census designated place” or CDP. Look it up…I was curious you see) and sitting at a small kitchen table in the Guiterrez home.

Raymond Guiterrez and his family lived directly across the street from us right on the corner of Sussex and Argyle. We played football almost every Saturday morning along with my brother and David Marzullo so that there were 4 of us. But Raymond was not a classmate. I don’t know where he and his older sister Rachel went to school. I just know that it wasn’t at Jefferson Elementary like my brother and me. I don’t know where Raymond and his family went to church either but I know they all looked quite fabulous on Sunday mornings and that they would not return home until dinner time or even later.

I recall being in the Guiterrez family kitchen once. The house was somber quiet and kinda dark. The small round table sparsely set. Three plates, 3 small glasses of water, knives and forks, napkins, and a simple glass vase with some water and 2 flowers in it. There were candles and a small shrine to the Virgin in the corner of the dining room. Raymond showed my brother and I Mil Mascaras (one of the first and certainly most popular of the luchadores emerging from Mexico in the late 60’s) comics and posters while his mom, who spoke no English that I remember, fed us homemade pork and chicken tamales. I do know that my brother and I had never had tamales before then. I know that we liked them. We liked unwrapping them. We liked licking the sauce off of our fingers. That was the only time I was ever in Raymond’s house that I recall.

Dramatically, almost desperately, opposite the noisy, seething scrap yard, yes but food, like poetry and good winter bedding, must be multi-layered. The gluttonous magic had ended (I failed to mention that I wolfed down everything on that plate, even the plastic containers, in mere moments). The heat of the afternoon remained. Sweat ran down my face and my fingers were again glazed with dust and the shiny metals of the yard had dimmed. My gut napped.

Previously Published on OTV