At the corner of 30th Street and Polk Avenue, 200 yards from a café where graphic designers and graduate students sip coffee and pound away on their laptops, José Gonzáles sells tamales from a cart.
“¿Tamales?” he asks as people walk past, his voice quiet or raised, depending on the volume of street noise. City buses are the loudest of the noisemakers, but there’s also the thump-thump of the occasional car radio, the sound of skateboards scraping the sidewalk. Although 30th is a thoroughfare, midafternoon traffic varies on this stretch north of Lincoln, south of El Cajon. During a particularly quiet lull, Gonzáles might raise his voice to beckon passersby on the opposite side of the street. Sometimes they ignore him. Sometimes they wave.
“¿Tamales?” he asks a blonde woman in a pink sweater and wearing pink lipstick.
“No, gracias,” she says with a smile and a gringa accent. She keeps walking.
Gonzáles tells her to stop by on her return from wherever she’s going. The woman looks back over her shoulder. “Okay, maybe,” she says. Then she stops and walks back toward him.
Come to think of it, she’ll take one for her husband, too.
“¿Tiene de elote?” she asks.
Of course. Gonzáles makes small talk as he bags up the sweet-corn tamal. Despite her accent, the woman speaks as if she’s familiar with the language. They laugh together and joke as she leaves and takes off again.
Gonzáles turned 53 in June. He has a carefully groomed mustache and speaks with a lisp, and he wears a black apron whose bib doesn’t quite cover the white lettering on his black T-shirt: “GOT TAMALES?”
Though he doesn’t own this cart, he does man it Tuesday–Saturday, 6:30 a.m.–8:30 p.m. The owner, a man he refers to as mi patrón, works inside the storefront behind him, at 4118 30th Street, where the tamales are made.
Just after noon, another woman walks past, pushing a toddler in a stroller.
“¿Tamal?” Gonzáles asks.
The woman stops to look at his menu. As she’s about to turn away, Gonzáles says, “¿De cuál gusta?” She says she has no money.
No matter, he tells her. Which kind do you want to try? If you like it, come back another time.
She chooses chicken. He lifts the stainless-steel lid and reaches with metal tongs into the cart’s innards to grab a tamal. He drops it in a plastic bag, along with two small containers of salsa — one red, one green — then sends her on her way.
“Yo no pierdo. Gano cliente,” he says. I’m not losing. I’m gaining a customer.
He tells me that yesterday, the same thing happened with an americana who said no to the tamal when he called out to her. Go ahead, try one, he said. No, she said again. Gonzáles put a pineapple tamal in a bag and handed it to her, gratis. She gave in, took the tamal, then returned 20 minutes later with a big smile, cash, and an order for more.
I tell him he has the magic touch. My Spanish is poor. His English is limited. But somehow I get the idea across. He laughs.
“Sí. Sí. Tengo el toque mágico,” he says, smiling conspiratorially.
Gonzáles travels up to four hours daily to and from Tijuana for this $8.50-an-hour job. In Tijuana, he says, it’s hard for anyone over age 50 to find work. Ruth, his wife of 26 years, stays home with their 13-year-old son, a boy still in diapers who doesn’t speak.
Especial, Gonzáles says of the boy. Siempre de la mano.
He outstretches his arm and closes his hand to emphasize that his son needs constant care. To emphasize further, he informs me that, on Sundays, he and his wife have to take turns going to church. They both go, but one must wait outside with the boy, holding his hand and walking him up and down the street.
A woman in black leggings and pink flip-flops approaches the cart.
“Can I get two chicken and two beef?” she asks.
She has come out of the Women, Infants, and Children office across the street, in the company of a four- or five-year-old boy in a Yankees cap. Gonzáles says something the woman doesn’t catch. She looks to me. I didn’t catch it, either.
“Delicioso,” he repeats. He puts the chicken tamales in one bag, the beef in another.
Two elderly Asian ladies in velour tracksuits (one brown, one bright purple) saunter by, carrying plastic bags filled with vitamin bottles.
“¿Tamales?” Gonzáles gently asks.
One of the women hasn’t noticed he was talking to them. The other shakes her head. They take a few steps past the cart, stop for a second, and look around as if lost. Then they turn around and walk back the way they came. The one in purple adjusts a polka-dotted sun visor.
A guy in skinny jeans, a suit vest, and a full beard rides by on a skateboard.
Returning to the conversation about his son, Gonzáles tells me that diapers cost $20 per week and the boy’s medicines about $20 per month. He nods for emphasis, his eyebrows raised. After a second, his face relaxes and he smiles. He hugs himself, mimicking the constant “besos y abrazos” his son doles out.
“Padres especiales por tener un hijo especial,” he says.
Special parents to have a special child.
“Vale la pena todo por el,” he tells me. He is worth it. “Y por mi hija también.”
His 20-year-old daughter studies international relations in college and works as a support technician at Televisa in Tijuana. Last year, she paid all her family’s bills for the six months her father was out of work, before he landed this job.
At this point in his story, a lonely Spanish-language ballad rises from the phone in his pocket. He answers. The caller is looking for the boss’s wife. Gonzáles leans in the storefront door and hands the phone over to her.