Smiles Cafe - Above the Darth Vader Hiss of the BART
Yesterday, I ventured out to buy a stack of the San Francisco Chronicle with the big article and pics on the Precita Eyes Muralists Center's 30th Anniversary Gala Benefit event this saturday at Project Artaud. I went across the street to where the papers are only 39 cents and the ATM will give you the limit. There in the beeping ATM sat a crisp twenty dollar bill and the receipt. I looked around. Two Mejicanas standing around and chatting with their carts, both frequently glancing over at me with my card in hand. I left the machine and looked down the street. No one. I stood with my hand over the bill, the other poised at the receipt - some way to locate the owner. Then, I needed to fly out to the Rockies right away. I couldn't wait (so I thought). I quickly pocketed the cash I could use and started my transaction.
I was intending to buy some miso soup to-go at the place across the street. Then fly away to cash in on my future, here in this Declaración de la Independéncia I signed on the Dieciséis de Septiembre in order to buy a pre-fab 2-bedroom, 2-bath house - or boat, should Global Warming exceed The Enlightenment as it's perched on the edge of a cliff over-looking the Pacific. Perfect. Until The Deluge. I'm buying it. And, tossing my offerings to Yemaya. I also decide to buy two orders of bbq pork buns - comida prohibida. But, done. They are the most like home: my mother and grandmother having worked as cooks and housekeepers for wealthy Chinese families. No one makes them like they do at home: the overflow bags in the freezer, the steamer left on the stove as a monumental sculpture to a perpetual hunger. These, could be saw-dust, or worse, could be gristle and fat in a gooey wrap; deadly. These are a well-kept secret. Perfect. I start to read my paper, one of the stack, an article about new clamp-downs on the homeless. The Homeless, that metonymic shift that's the net of the not-the-aristocracy of San Francisco.
I lucked out, I think, as I go in my wallet to pay. Guiltily. i don't want to look at the folded bill in my pocket - or the receipt which I, somehow, know is made out just for 20 dollars. It is. The last 4 numbers are recorded there. "Bad karma," I thought to myself as I walked to the Chinese Sushi place. I was walking across the intersection where no one gives a damn. "Best to get rid of it." I thought to order 2 orders of pork buns as penance.
The young/old/middle-age - younger than me - couple take seats at the sushi bar in front of me. I bristle. I have a plane to catch, and a take-out order to wait on, as the waiter takes their order first. They can't decide what they want. I was about to complain, to be unusually assertive, when I heard her say, "How much for the wonton soup?" "$6.50." She reaches into her pocket after a look to her partner, and pulls out a folded $20. "We'll split it." The waiter is as nice as a waitress in the Deep South. He serves them hot tea ("no charge") and patiently makes culinary suggestions for two divided by half. He throws in two bowls of rice. He is so polite to them, like a grandmother. He knows them?
I know this hunger. Intimately. I would have just ordered a bowl of rice and tea. Maybe veggies if I were flush. I study them. No drugs. No alcohol. They love each other. And the woman looks and sounds just like my idol, Memphis Minnie/Kid Douglas. Dead ringer. Uncanny. And I know what the universe wants me to do; how to change my bad karma. I walk over to them, thinking how much they look like Kid and her man in an after-gig cafe same as this 1920's place, untouched save for the red walls; them, swiveling on the stools deciding on the next full meal. Counting. Thinking how much that snap-shot of them there in my head resembles a news foto of Katrina survivors. Counting the coins in their hands. I wait until the waiter leaves and we're alone.
"Excuse me." I reach into my pocket. The slim and tall man looks over at me for the first time, reading my mind, and straightens up.
"I found this." I slip out the still-folded twenty. The man starts to shake his head - no, it isn't mine and I'm not going to lie about it - when I look at him and continue. "It was in the ATM. It isn't mine. I needed to use the machine, so I took it." I look at her, "And, frankly, it's bad karma. It's not my money. But, I couldn't help over-hearing you just now. And it seems like that's what this money is for, to maybe buy somebody some lunch or dinner, maybe for someone like you." And I hand her the bill. "Maybe spread it around."
They smile. They smile. And their smiles are so radiant and clear. And I don't want to say anything more or maybe my smiles would flush to sea water. "Besides," I tell them, "I know what it's like to be hungry and down to my last twenty." I can't croak out any more. A chorus of "thank you"s begins and accompanies my words for the man who seems so sweet. "Don't thank me. Thank whomever left it in the machine and whatever led us to here." "Oh, thank you, Jesus!" The woman holds the bill to her heart and then up to the rain-clouded sun as I once saw a Yucatec Mayan woman in Isla Mujeres do when I was the first sale of the day.
The waiter comes out with bowls of steaming rice and a smile. I hope they order more. Make him an extra surprise sale for the day. He's on the phone as I gather my things and go next door to the world's most excellent panadería where the recipes for La Señora's tamales blatantly cross three borders y tres o cuatro culturas. When I come back, the waiter is bringing bowls and a special smile and a plastic bag for me. This time, I notice, he ties the bag exactly as they do in the Yucatan.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Really, thank you so much!"
"Thanks to El Mundo, and the power of listening."
Spread it around.
(And, p.s., if you lost some cash in an ATM, let me know the time and location, and the last 4 digits of your card number. And, thank you. And, if you were trying to get cash to settle a score, hey, pues, it's your own bad karma, Ese.)