Paddy Wilson, please meet your family at the front entrance."
The loudspeaker crackles loud and then soft, depending on the wind.
Wow. Kobey's Swap Meet. Looks like a state fair.
"Food?" Vince says. He punches my $1 ticket at the gate. "It's down the bottom there. Green canopy."
I cast my eye past sideshow-lookin' tents with wind-blown flaps and tables and crowds. Ah, yes. Green. At the end, as the man said. I wander past karaoke-gear stands, knife stands, art stands loaded with stag-in-the-sunset-type paintings, a tent filled with artificial palms, a whole rack of used cars, even. Strikes me that this may be the last place where ordinary people can come and do business. This is pre-slick. Medieval, almost. It don't have that lemony-sweet waxed-nightly smell, that nicey-nicey-grab-your-money-and-smile feel of, say, Mission Valley. This is face-to-face, a place where The People still do their own business, innocents, con artists all.
Except, of course, the concession at the end's run by Aramark. It's an outfit that's all over the country. So this ain't no mom 'n' pop cooking Grandma's recipes, no sir. It'll be standard fare. They have a few round white plastic tables and benches outside. No umbrellas. And today's a sharp-sun doozy. You stand at the counter, and the guys behind look down at you from about four feet up. Behind them, the wall menu has three or four breakfast items, like a bagel filled with egg and cheese ($3.75) and a breakfast burrito ($3). But the main thing is lunch. They have a hamburger for $4, or BBQ bacon, teriyaki, or chili cheeseburgers for $5. Chicken sandwich is $3.75, and a superdog goes for $3.50.
I ask for a coffee ($1), but they're out. Hmm. That's when I see the gyro ($5.50). Now I notice a spit turning in the gloom. I order one and go sit out at the nearest table, next to a little lady in an electric scootabout. Alice is sipping a hot cocoa. She, uh, has a frog on her back. A big green frog with its arms wrapped around her.
"Say hi to Mr. Frog," Alice says. I shake its cloth paw. It's a backpack. "I'm a self-taught cabdriver and puppeteer and clown," she says. "I live nearby. I'm here quite a lot. It's my mini-vacation for two to three hours every weekend."
The guy yells "Ed!" from the kiosk, and I go to pick up my food. I'd been expecting some mass-production gyro, nuked in the microwave, but guess what? This is terrific. Slices of lamb, tomato, lettuce, yogurty-cucumberish sauce, tzatziki, I guess, all of it oozing out of the pita bread. Ten minutes and I've got the thing eat and beat -- love lamb when it's nice and juicy -- and I'm ready to rock and roll.
So's Alice the frog lady. She leans forward, flicks some tzatziki off my nose. "You must come meet some of my other friends."
We start our tour of the midway. Alice calls "Hi!" through the tent flap to Mr. Seu, the Chinese masseur. And to Rafael, under the towel. He's one of the regulars. We stop at the stand where her friends make jerky out of elk, croc, buffalo, all sorts of weird animals. Then Will's Wire Works, where this guy Will is twisting metal around a tiger's eye gemstone right there in front of you, and another place that makes nothing but crazy signs like "Your husband called and said to buy anything you want."
By the time we get to Paul "Sticky" Binner's honey stand, I'm hungry again. But not for sweet stuff. That's when I see three magic letters.
Huh. I thought there was only one concession spot at Kobey's. But these guys, in their blue-and-white kiosk, are set up beside another Aramark outlet. I leave Alice chatting with Sticky and follow the aroma.
"Delicious BBQ sandwich, $4.50," says the little sign. "With curly fries, $6." They have hotlinks too, for $3.75, but the sandwich is it.
"I'll have one," I say to Emilio, guy who's helping out today. Has a stud in his -- ouch! -- chin.
"Fries?" he asks.
"Nup," I say.
Within a minute, he has slipped together bun, mayo, a wad of steaming shredded pork, grilled onions, and BBQ sauce. I take it all to a circular seat and huddle under the single black umbrella, next to Rosa María -- another li'l ol' lady, about Alice's age, except she's from Sonora. She nibbles fries from the Aramark concession ($1.75). I bite into my bun. Ooh. Yes. Good taste. The meat feels nicely smoked, has a slight vinegar tang to it, but not too sharp: Interesting. And man! The garlicky sweet BBQ sauce ramps it up from good to great. Maybe the atmosphere is part of it. Nearby, two guys under a green umbrella play South American music with guitars, lutes, pipes, pan flutes. Yes, it's standards like "El Condor Pasa," but they do it really well. Rosa María and I groove away in our tiny shared island of shade.
After a while, I lope over to ask the guys where they're from. Ecuador, they say. Inty and Rumy. They call themselves Khausak. It means "life" in Quechua, the Incas' language. They're here every weekend. On the way back, I come across Tom. Turns out the BBQ is his idea. "We cook the pork in a smoker the night before," he says. "We're kinda new here, but I've been in the business 30 years." 'Course he won't tell me his sauce recipe, except it includes garlic and brown sugar, Southern-style. He's aiming for ribs too, soon.
But he knows he's gotta be good: There's a big Phil's BBQ just beyond the back fence of this place.
Hard to leave. The pan pipes, the hawkers, the stuff, these rich BBQ pork smells, the sun...it's precorporate! That's what it is. Yeah, Kobey's makes a mint off this operation, for sure, but it's where business is basic. It makes you think of Ma's last speech in The Grapes of Wrath.
"We keep a-comin'...Can't nobody lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa. We're the people."
The Place: Aramark refreshment stall and Tom's BBQ (Festival Fun Foods), at Kobey's Swap Meet, 3350 Sports Arena Boulevard, 619-226-0650 (Kobey's number)
Type of Food: American
Prices: At Aramark: breakfast bagel filled with egg and cheese, $3.75; breakfast burrito, $3; hamburger, $4; BBQ bacon burger, teriyaki burger, or chili cheeseburger, each $5; chicken sandwich, $3.75; superdog, $3.50; at Tom's Festival Fun Foods BBQ: BBQ shredded pork sandwich, $4.50; with curly fries, $6; hotlinks, $3.75
Hours: Aramark, 7:00 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays only; Festival Fun Foods BBQ, 8:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays only
Buses: 8, 9
Nearest Bus Stop: Sports Arena Boulevard at Kemper