The rumors were rampant: ICE would swoop down on our county fair, where at least seventy-five percent of the attendees are Latino. Wednesday, opening day of the fair: slow. Thursday: slow.
Friday, Stu was the Lion’s shift captain for the day, which meant that he’d arrive at 8 a.m. and park cars with his crew until 10 p.m. that night. It’s what the Lions do: it’s community service, and it raises money for their scholarship programs.
What self-respecting similarly community-minded wife would not raise her hand, so I did, and Stu assigned me to a 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday shift, coinciding with the big Latino band concert that began that night at 8 p.m.
By Thursday, with very light fair attendance, Stu was saying, “Yeah, I’ll probably send you home.”
But by Friday afternoon, it was as if our Latino neighbors decided that ICE was just another boogey man under the bed. Slowly, the lots starting filling. And then the doors blew off. The chatter on the walkie-talkies we are carried was as noisy as blackbirds on a wire, and we began shifting cars and Lions rapidly from one lot to the next – first the soccer field, next the McCurdy field– as fast as we could.
I hate to just stand and wave cars by, so every year, on my single Lion’s fair car parking shift, I dance, I sing, “We’re off to see the wizard!” I bow, I kick, I jive, I juke. I get lots of grins and waves and thank-yous. One woman said out her window, “You’re going to wear yourself out!” And yep, it was HOT out there. A sheriff on a three-wheeler tossed me a bottle of water. Stu brought me a gator aid. I had fun.
And then, after hundreds of cars settled in for the music show, I went to see Cuate. In my screaming yellow parking vest, walkie-talkie around my neck.
Cuate and his wife Lola and their kids are family to Stu and me. Cuate was with us from the beginning of Nora’s Table as a dishwasher, and by the end of that run, he was the only cook besides me who could work every station at both breakfast and dinner service. I love him. After Nora’s, he bought not one, but two food trucks, and every year he has a hamburger booth at the fair. This year, he went with two booths: one for tacos, one for burgers.
When I arrived at the back of the food truck, lines at both booths were about 40 people deep, and it was bedlam. Organized bedlam, but bedlam all the same as fifteen staff cranked through preparing the hand-made tacos and burgers (we taught him well at Nora’s) to meet this crush of customers, the first big crowd of the week’s fair.
Cuate was elbow-deep in a big metal bowl of masa flour, water, cumin and salt, getting the mix just right for tortillas. Another of our Nora’s dishwasher alums, Arturo, was running a metal spatula through a big flat top full of carnitas. And in the tent attached to the side of the food truck, Cuate’s staff were frying burgers, grilling tortillas, building tacos, and hollering.
“Mas chipotle mayo!” “Mas cebolla!” “Mas masa!” Mas, mas, mas.
“I’m washing up, Cuate,” I said, to his appreciative nod. I took the now well-mixed masa, and started rolling it into balls, and plunking them into a big plastic pitcher. When the pitcher was full, I reached across the food truck window into the prep tent, and dumped the balls into Lola’s upheld lexan container. Boy, was she surprised to see me on the other end of that pitcher! Two more women dropped the balls quickly into a tortilla press, and then onto a flattop to griddle.
Ball after ball after ball. Mas. Mas. Mas. I lost count after a while, but I think it was darn near 500 before I was done. Cuate and Arturo and I chatted in the midst of all that chaos, catching up on families and friends and children, church and school and life. And then Cuate handed me a plate of tacos.
When people ask me if I miss Nora’s Table … this is what I miss. A crew of people working through pressure, happy to be together, pulling in the same direction, putting a food coma smile on people’s faces.
I’m sure people walking by wondered what an old white woman in a parking vest with a chattering walkie talkie in her pocket was doing in Cuate’s trailer rolling masa balls. To a few raised eyebrows, Cuate laughed and pointed at me, “She was my boss. She’s STILL my boss.”
No Cuate, I’m not your boss anymore. You, my friend, are the boss. El Jefe. Thanks for letting me roll your … well, you know.