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A man with a little girl in tow stops to ask in English if Gonzáles takes credit cards. When it’s clear that Gonzáles doesn’t understand, the man switches to Spanish.

“No,” Gonzáles says, “but tell me what you want, I’ll give it to you to try.” The man accepts, asks for chicken, lots of green salsa, and a business card.

Gonzáles glances in my direction. Gano cliente.

While he alternates between promoting and selling tamales and telling me about his family, I sit on a folding chair at a small table next to the cart. Every time he lifts the stainless-steel lid to retrieve a tamal, condensation drips onto the napkin dispenser, hand sanitizer, and squeeze bottle of green salsa on the table.

A loud bus rumbles past. Across the street, a man walks out of the barbershop and lights a cigar.

In 2003, after Gonzáles left his job of 23 years at a television factory in Tijuana, he and his family moved to National City/San Diego, where he found work at a carpet-recycling company. After two years, his boss, who he says was a muy buena persona, was murdered by someone Gonzáles thinks had the wrong guy. Gonzáles then moved on to a carpet warehouse, where he cut carpet for three years.

During this time, his daughter attended school at San Diego High. He can’t recall the name of the school his son attended, but he does remember that he received one-on-one support in the classroom, for which Gonzáles remains grateful. In Tijuana, he tells me, there’s no help, unless you can pay as much as $50 an hour.

As an example of his son’s mental state, Gonzáles takes the napkin dispenser off the table and places it on top of the cart. “Este aqui,” he says. Then he starts over and does the same thing. And again. “Este aqui. Este aqui. Este aqui.”

He worries constantly, he says, about what will happen to his son when he and his wife die.

Gonzáles’s boss steps from the door behind the cart and hands him a paper cup filled with steaming champurrado (a warm, thick, chocolatey drink) for one of the customers at Cecilia’s Hair Fashion, the salon next door. Gonzáles excuses himself and runs the drink inside. He comes back out with a dollar, which he places in the shaved coconut shell — labeled “Tips” — attached to the front of his cart.

Back at his perch behind the cart, he tells me that Cecilia, the owner of the salon, “es muy linda persona.”

When he first started this job four or five months ago, before he’d become adept at picking up the spoken-too-fast English phrases of the neighborhood’s non–Spanish speakers, Cecilia often came out and translated for him.

Indeed, at one point in our conversation, when we can’t get through our own language barrier, he goes into the salon and returns with Cecilia who happily helps out.

Limited work and high rent eventually sent the Gonzáles family back to Tijuana, where Gonzáles spent time as a fruit-and-vegetable vendor. Then came those few months of unemployment, during which time his daughter paid the bills.

Today, although the lengthy commute and long work hours keep him from his family six days a week, Gonzáles says he’s happy and content with his job. He thanks God for it every day.

“Mientras tenga buena salud, gracias a Dios,” he says. As long as I have my health.

“Siempre hay que ser humilde y acomedido.”

Humildes, I understand. Humble. To explain acomedido, he lifts the mini-cooler in which he keeps the small containers of salsas added to people’s orders. He mimes that it’s heavy and is causing him great strain. Then he lightens up and acts out another person arriving on the scene to help out.

At this end of North Park, the hip restaurants and yoga studios haven’t quite taken over old-time mom-and-pop shops. Not yet. On the south side of Polk, Filter Coffee House and Ritual Tavern face each other from either side of 30th Street, a gateway to the hipper, more current North Park; but here, it’s pretty much locksmiths, tax preparers, and nail salons.

Judging by the white clouds of hair and slow, careful gaits of Cecilia’s clientele, I’d say her salon would likely be the best place in the neighborhood for stories of what things used to be like. But for a darker look at what’s going on now, one need look no further than the ladyboy prostitutes who pass by now and again in their short shorts and half shirts.

Of the neighborhood, Gonzáles shrugs and says only “Bonito. Tranquilo.”

And the people?

“Muy buenas personas,” he says, adding again that Cecilia is one of the best.

A woman with blond bangs and dark-brown hair rolls up in a motorized wheelchair, in the company of a bespectacled man in a Padres T-shirt. Both greet Gonzáles familiarly.

“What do you want, baby?” the man asks the woman. She answers promptly that she’ll have one chicken, one pineapple.

The man stares narrow-eyed at the varieties listed on the front of the cart. Gonzáles waits patiently for him to decide on his order. After a minute, the woman looks at me, smiles, and rolls her eyes. “He’s looking too much,” she says.

When they’ve gone, Gonzáles tells me that the first time they came to his cart, they had no money. He let them both try the tamales anyway. Now, they stop by regularly. They buy four or five tamales each week.

El toque mágico. ■
Elizabeth Salaam

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