El Papi

by Boudreau Freret

José's El Papi Taqueria is hidden, tucked away in a corner of the Kwik Pick convenience store.

The Kwik Pick has no gas pumps. You can purchase single cigarettes at the cash register from opened packs. You can wire money home. A poster in the front window next to the door advertises bus service to a handful of Texas cities, and several more scattered across northern Mexico.

Houston is over a thousand miles away.

This town is a haven for seasonal residents that fall into two disparate categories: those from places that get cold in the winter, browned by sun and golf, and those from Mexico and south Texas, browned by birth and labor.

The Kwik Pick exists to serve the latter, to the former, it, and El Papi's Taqueria are all but invisible.

But I am privy to the Taqueria, and the magic José brings here from home.

The lunch crowd has not arrived. Two men sit at one table, their dark blue shirts have lettering over the front pockets that I cannot read. I have my pick of the remaining half dozen tables. It is easy to move to the counter without the “perdón”s that, in half an hour, will be necessary to weave the few feet across the room.

José smiles, and greets me with a hearty, “Hello, my friend!” I am the thing here that is unlike the others, yet José seems happy to have me. As always. He greets everyone as if they are his favorite guest — his only guest — and still makes it feel special, unique. Welcome into my home.

“You want what you always have?” he asks as he sets down a pan and takes up his pad. I am reminded that José's English is better than my Spanish, and I am briefly ashamed.

“I don't think so,” I tell him.

“No?” he looks concerned, then smiles broader than should be possible.

“No- I'm at your mercy, you pick,” I say.

“Oh- I know just what you'll like,” he says, scribbling on the pad. He is right, and we both know it. “Maíz or flour?” he asks.

I scowl, a little, and answer, “Maíz. You know that.

Always the corn tortillas. He makes them every morning.

You can see the street from every table. I pick one with less sunlight, and sit so I can both stare out the window and watch the telenovela on the tv, high on the wall in the corner. On the screen, a woman is upset with a man in a doctor's lab coat, while a baby wails from its clear plastic hospital nursery bed.

The lunch crowd starts to arrive. Some sit, most stand and wait to take their orders with them. Back to work. They stand first at the counter, then spill into the room, finding space where they can, until they have backed up to my table. We are all in this together. I've lost sight of José, even though he is just a few feet away, but he is back there, smiling at his customers and taking orders.

The crowd parts and José appears, bearing a plate. He places his creation in front of me, turned just so, then vanishes into the crowd only to reappear seconds later with a cup of salsa verde picante. He leaves it, grins bright eyed, then is swallowed again.

The plate, the food. Oh my, the food.

This is not just food, any more than Isaac Stern just made sounds from a violin, Pavlova just moved, Michelangelo just made decorations.

On this plate, like the work of any master, is a celebration of all that is wonderful about being human — all that looks pleasing, smells wonderful, and tastes unforgettable. A celebration of life and love, the warmth of being welcomed into the home of another traveler as we make our way.

Home. On a plate.

I savor the moment and the thousands of parts that compose it: the emotions, the sensations of sound and smell and touch and taste, the telenovela in the background, and stare out the window at the traffic. An endless parade starts and stops outside the window, land yachts toting golf bags to artificial destinations.

I wonder what all those people will eat for lunch, and for a second, I almost pity them. For a second.