Monday, October 26, 2009

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 a single cigarette 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.

My town is a haven for seasonal residents who fall into two categories: those from places that get cold in the winter, and need browning 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, both it and El Papi's Taqueria are all but invisible.

Not to me. I am privy to the Taqueria, and the magic José brings to Florida from home.

Today the lunch crowd hasn't yet arrived. Two men sit at one table; their dark blue shirts have lettering over the front pockets I can't read. I have my pick of the remaining half-dozen tables. It's easy to move to the counter without the perdón that, in half an hour, will be necessary to weave just a few feet across the room.

José smiles and greets me with a hearty, “Hello, my friend!” I am the thing here that is not like the others, yet José seems happy to have me. He greets everyone as if they are his favorite guest – his only guest – and still makes it feel special. “You want what you always have?” he asks as he sets down a pan and takes up his pad. José's English is better than my Spanish, and I'm 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."

“Oh, I know just what you'll like,” he says, scribbling on the pad. “Maíz or flour?”

I scowl a little. “Maíz. You know that.” Always the corn tortillas. He makes them every morning.

You can see the street from every table. I'm sitting at one with less sunlight, 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've backed up to my table. We're all in this together now. I've lost sight of José, but I know he's just a few feet away, back there smiling at his customers and taking orders.

Then 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, 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, or Pavlova just moved, or Michelangelo just made decorations.

On this plate is a celebration of all that is wonderful about being human – all that looks pleasing, smells wonderful.

I savor the moment and the thousands of parts that compose it: the tastes, the colors, the telenovella in the background, the window facing traffic. An endless parade starts and stops outside, land yachts toting golf bags to artificial destinations.

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

By Boudreau Freret
Naples, Florida

Photo credit: Bruce Barone


  1. Oh, well done!

    I enjoyed this story very much! I went to school down in Florida. Great place for atmosphere.

    Better place for retirement. lol.


  2. Great story!

  3. As a displaced Texan myself, I know the significance of finding a bit of home in an unexpected place. Beautiful imagery, Boudreau. Simply beautiful.

  4. I handed the printout of this page, with comments, to José, and explained to him what it was.

    He smiled, and put the folder away, safe, beneath the counter.

    "Today, my friend," he said, "you eat free."

    "Don't you think you should read what I said, first?" I asked.

    Thank you all so much for reading, and for your comments.