‘Why do you guys do this?” he asks the kid, who is maybe 14 years old. A cherub with ginger hair and a better complexion than the writer had when he was 14.
The kid, who is armed to the teeth with burritos, says, “Just thought it was a good way to help the community the best we could. And we saw that we had a big displaced population down here. We think a hot breakfast is a good way to get ’em on their feet and on their way.”
When the lad says “on their way,” he does not mean it in the sense of, say, a power-mad security guard or an SDPD ambassador (whose wife may have burned his toast that morning). The “down here” he’s talking about is a block or so from Petco Park, where some of the “displaced” population the teen refers to — not all — is housed at Father Joe’s Village and where a free lunch is served to a huge number of people.
Julian Wahl is among several young men between the ages of 12 and 15 who are known as “The Burrito Boys.” They’ve been at Long Island Mike’s Pizzeria in Tierrasanta, making some 400 burritos in the wee hours before dawn to distribute among those in need of nutrition other than red Twizzlers and beef jerky bought at the liquor store on 16th with panhandled money.
A look at the process and personalities of the "Burrito Boys."
“I got an idea!” the unkempt (hey, it was Sunday — early!), recorder-toting journalist says enthusiastically. “How about ‘The Flying Burrito Brothers?’”
Wahl and the others look blankly at each other and shake their heads. None of them knows what the writer is talking about. They think his suggestion is cornball; they’re not high-wire acrobats in a circus.
A 15-year-old humanitarian answers the enquirer’s next attempt at stand-up humor — “So, what? You in this as a kind of get-rich-quick scheme?” — with a courtesy grin. “I wish,” the boy says. “I asked if I could join ’cause I thought it was a good thing. Gradually, this got bigger and bigger. We got more donations so we could provide a few more things.” This kid’s name is Cole Smith, and I’d keep my daughter away from him, pure of heart as he may be: he’s a handsome, not-so-little devil.
The next burrito distributor says he was always looking for a way to give back to the community. When I was his age, thinks the recorder-wielding one, I couldn’t have cared less about the community. I was more interested in stealing hubcaps, a now, seemingly defunct pastime.
“After I joined,” Cole Smith continues, “I realized it was even more fun than I thought it would be.” Today is the 126th Sunday morning the group has been out here.
“Where are all you guys from?” the interrogator asks, meaning: which planet?
The reporter nods, satisfied. As far as he’s concerned, that is another planet. He’s talking now with Joe Skvarna, age 15. “It’s Czech,” the boy adds. “I started when I was 12 years old, so I’ve been doing this for three years.”
“You guys aren’t into crime, gangs…drugs?” the writer asks, almost pleadingly.
“Ah, no.” Skvarna breaks into a smile. “Don’t look so disappointed.”
The scribbler picks out one of the adults on the scene, someone who clearly has a home, a place to shave and dress casually in clean clothes. The adult is going through books, arranging them spines outward.
The fourth-estate representative with four days’ growth of beard introduces himself to the adult, a lawyer named James “Mac” McElroy. He shoves the recorder toward his face. The lawyer extends a hand to shake, but the observant reporter is suddenly more intent on observing a woman with long legs and a short skirt walking toward the trolley station, and sees the gesture too late.
“You’d be surprised,” McElroy says. “Just because someone doesn’t have a roof over their heads doesn’t mean they don’t read. A lot of these people wait all week for us to come by with books. There are a surprising number who are voracious readers. Of course, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands. We’ve got people coming up to us and saying, ‘We really appreciate the burritos, but did you bring books again?’ It’s important to a lot of them to have three or four books to read during the week.”
The recorder-wielding one cranes his neck over Mac’s head, in search of the leggy woman, and says, “As an attorney, you must have other things to do, even on Sunday.”
“I do. But this is more fun. It’s probably illegal in 12 or 15 states.” McElroy laughs. “And that makes it more fun. The burritos are great [confirmed by chomping recipients], but I really look forward to grabbing some fun books, good books.”
How did a civil lawyer get into this?
“I guess I just heard about it, and I went to the pizza place where they make the burritos. That was about a year and a half ago. I discovered that these are great kids.”
Now a second adult, Michael Johnson, comes forward, smiling at Mac. He seems to call him “cousin” but perhaps that is only the writer’s impaired hearing: years of rock music, bands for free beer.
“So,” says the writer. “You guys are cousins?”
“Partners,” Johnson says. “There are four partners — we call them an advisory board — in this business…er, charity.” Johnson has an easy laugh, too. He’s a graduate of John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio, a Jesuit-taught school outside of Cleveland, where Johnson grew up on the city’s west side. He’s what he calls a “land banker,” buying and selling property in the Antelope Valley.
This triggers a thought in the inked-wretch-of-a-Hemingway. Ah, a foreclosure vampire. [This is untrue, a figment of the writer’s delusion that his deductive-reasoning skills rival those of Sherlock Holmes.] It’s his way of making Sunday-morning penance. But Johnson’s demeanor is anything but that of a penitent. And McElroy? Aren’t civil lawyers the same thing as divorce lawyers, and naturally they’re into lawsuits…so maybe they’re both [the writer’s senses that his delusions are again acting up] …Ah, who cares. That’s another story, and a good thing.