LUNCH & LIFE
We were out of place; no question. Even as we walked towards the first car, its truck open, forty men glancing down into its recesses, every head pulled towards us: Chris’s button-down and my all black dress get-up didn’t help; Warren, in his shorts and t-shirt, offered the most credibility to our group. Chris reached into his pocket and pulled a crisp twenty into view, which seemed only to confirm their discomfort. Cocaine? Illicit weapons? Black market baby?
Nope, we were after lunch. And lunch was in the trunk of that car.
There were three cars in the lot actually, positioned strategically to serve hundreds of Hispanic workers at two of Chattanooga’s many condo construction sites. This car, a big old coupe with a cooler of Cokes in the backseat and a trunk-full of three-compartment Styrofoam meals, was operated by a chunky man with a Hawaiian shirt and a ponytail. “No more,” he told us, though a number of containers remained.
His anxiety was no surprise. Chattanooga’s Hispanic community has been on edge since the raid of the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant this spring; over a hundred workers were arrested. Even the Hispanic Festival at the Chattanooga Market, generally bustling and colorful, was reserved, poorly attended, slightly mournful even.
At the next car, a man and woman spoke rapidly to one another at our inquiry, a sort of should-I-or-shouldn’t-I back and forth. Finally, the woman said, “Carne only. Eight dollars.” The gringo price for sure, but we were hungry and pleased at their willingness. We gathered our armfuls—napkins and spoons, foil-pouched tortillas, sodas, and Styrofoams—and went to sit on a flowerbox.
Poor working-man’s food: meat—mostly bones—that most of us would discard, veins jiggling and gristle, in a tasty gravy, floating delicious sauce-soaked chunks of potatoes; rice and elbow noodles with a scattering of bagged mixed vegetables, seasoned with Goya; chubby red beans in sauce; and homemade corn tortillas. I made “tacos” of the rice and beans, dipped them in the spicy red meat stock, and gnawed the meat from the bones.
The workers around us lounged, some napping, in spots with a snatch of shade, enjoying their few minutes before the return to bricklaying and building in burning sun. By the time I went to wash my hands, they seemed comfortable with our presence, pointing me towards the lady’s room and smiling from under the brims of their ball caps. For Chris, Warren, and I, it was a memorable lunch, a lunch of experience: politics and culture, thrift and sustenance, homemade and open-market, beans and rice and bone and marrow.