It was 10 pm San Diego time and I needed to feel a last bit of SoCal air on my face before settling down in my hotel room. It had been an enjoyable day until I found out that my son had been in a bicycle accident back home in Oklahoma. He made it out with a fractured jaw and wrist and other minor bumps and bruises, but I wasn’t there to comfort him. and I felt an inexpressible pang of distance from him. Then my phone broke, cutting me off. Something about the two of those things created a loneliness in me as I stepped out onto the sidewalk of the Pacific Highway.
Next to the hotel was a pretty decent taco shop that I’d eaten at three times before. Not the best, not the worst. They put fresh guacamole on top and I wondered if that were a typical California thing. When I walked in, I saw the same girl behind the counter that I saw earlier when I came in to get a cold Mundet, which is an apple soda. She was young, wide hips, push up bra, and the kind of lips that rich girls use plastic surgeons to imitate. She had an easy manner as I ordered my usual: soft shell taco carnitas, and to be a little adventurous, I ordered an Jarritos Tamarindo pop instead of the apple.
I took a seat next to the only other customers. They were a couple of sorts, but of what sort I could not tell. I never saw her face, but her hair was dyed jet black and she wore black fishnet stockings under black shorts with a long-sleeve black shirt. I imagined that she probably also wore heavy black eyeliner and dark lipstick; a goth girl. The man that sat across from her had a bold but silent demeanor. Perhaps it was just his clean shaven head that made him seem bold. He never spoke, at least not with words. I took a good look at his t-shirt. I’ve learned that t-shirts are like bumper stickers for bodies. They are an expression of some part of a person’s identity. He wore a Bettie Page shirt; a pinup legend, a goth icon. I wondered what it said about him.
That’s when the moment happened. The music was louder than when I’d come in earlier. It came to the forefront of my mind. It was a latin singer singing a ballad. There was a yearning and a sadness in his tenor voice. The girl behind the counter began singing along. Her voice was clear and easy and I could tell that she had sung it many times. She might not have even known she was singing. The goth girl turned her head at the sound of it, but I still didn’t see her face. Then it occurred to me that the taco girl was living a life here by the bay; a life far beyond my knowledge.
It was a perfect moment, both sweet and sad. And when a moment like this comes a long, I see things that I never saw before. Little details. The sign in front of the register and been changed from “$10 minimum credit card charge” to “CASH ONLY”. There was a sign next to the kitchen door which warned of the dangers of drinking alcohol. I wondered why they had changed the sign. Had the machine broke? And did California require warnings about alcohol, or was the owner just a concerned proprietor. I felt a heart-ache. Nothing that I could truly identify or articulate, just a feeling that seemed to change the color of everything.
When my food was ready, she pulled the pop out of the fridge and set it in front of me.
“Do you want me to open it for you?”
I said that I did and she pulled it under the counter for less than 2 seconds and handed it and the cap to me. I said, “Gracias” just as casually as I could, though I knew it was unnatural. She half turned as she was walking to the drive thru window and uttered “Uh hum”. She was smiling. I turned to leave and realized that I didn’t want the cap. Awkwardly, I put it back on the counter and left.
As I walked back to the hotel I could see a man walking my way. The first thing I noticed was that he was barefoot. His dark brown skin shone in the lights of the hotel drive. I was apprehensive. I knew that he was homeless and that he would likely pan handle me. As I passed him, he stopped to talk to me.
His voice was worn and his speech was fast and disjointed, but friendly.
“Hey, yeah, hey man. Do you have a cigarette?”
I said, “No man, no cigarettes on me.”
He must have noticed that I had come from the taco shop because he raised a paper bag and said, “Them people in there give me burritos. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Really good. Say man, do you have a dollar? I could get a little cigar with that.”
I said that I did, and I pulled out my wallet, careful not to show him what was in it, and handed a dollar to him.
He was much obliged. As he walked away he turned to me and said in such broken, confused English, it was in such clutter that I could only just make out the gist of it, “Yeah, ok, hmmm, sure, may may maybe I’ll see you around. Enjoy your beer!”
I wished him well and decided not to tell him it was just a Mexican soda pop. I didn’t want to ruin his nicety.
I chatted with the staff about what to do about my phone. The lady remembered that there was a repair shop down the street that she always passed on the way home from work. There was something about that detail that deeply humanized her for me, her way from work, and I thought about the girl in the taco shop and how there was life around me beyond conferences and tourists and broken phones.