Joe Skvarna and Cole Smith
‘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?
11-year-old Grant Peeleman got the San Diego County Fair to donate several hundred yogurts for his homeless clients.
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?
Early in the morning before passing out the burritos, James McElroy supervises scrambled-egg cooking.
“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.
Naturally, Jimmy Olson wants to know who pays for the 400 burritos. It must be a sizeable amount of dinero. Johnson answers this one:
“Donations. Every dollar we get goes into food. We use our own money for gas and stuff, but the donations go for cheese, eggs, tortillas, and water.
Burrito Babes apply hot sauce.
The next day, as he writes up his story about the burrito kids, a number of unasked questions occur to the two-fingered typist. So he goes out again the following Sunday, again to 13th and K, and finds that the boys have just arrived from 16th and Market armed with 408 burritos.
Photographer Christian Cullen says, “Yeah, I was over there with ’em. You should have seen it, lines stretched around two blocks. It was like the opening of Star Wars…Hey, how does the year 1932 strike you?”
The hard-boiled investigative newshound —Woodward and Bernstein combined — thinks lightning fast on his feet, scratching the manly stubble on his cleft chin. “You mean the soup lines during the Depression?”
“You read my mind,” Cullen says.
The unshaven one struts toward where books are being grabbed up by the street crowd. Thumbs hooked into his waistband, he says to the photographer, “A hunch. The result of years of beating the street.” He picks up a Mickey Spillane novel called My Gun is Cool or something, slides it into his back pocket, and looks around as if shoplifting. Though Chris Brubaker did invite him to help himself.
James McElroy (left), Chris Brubaker (center), and Mike Johnson (right) are among the adult advisors to the burrito-distributing youth.
At that point, the near mind reader of a reporter, searching the trolley area for that woman in the short skirt, walks into a wheeled device with a dusty backpack on top. The backpack drops to the street, and Woodward — or possibly Bernstein — is splayed across a rocking baby carriage. He straightens up, reaches for the infant he has jolted, and lifts what looks like a bedroll from inside. He makes hushing and soothing sounds. As he coos, a blonde woman dressed like a mud-soaked hippie at Woodstock, floor-length tie-dyed skirt and all, calls out, “What are you doing with my stuff?”
“I’m sorry, I thought I’d upset the little one when…” As the writer speaks, unwashed laundry falls from the blanket roll until there is a pile at his feet and he is left holding a small comforter. He apologizes and moves quickly away.
After lustfully eyeing two cartons of paperback and hardcover freebies, the laptop (formerly typewriter) jockey asks a few of the hungry street people for a capsule review of the free cuisine.
“They’re dynamite!” says Damien Lovan. He’s waiting at about the halfway point of the line. His companion, or at least the man standing next to him in the double ranks, answers as well: “Awesome.” Lovan appears to be a disenfranchised, outsourced account executive, or maybe a pricey accountant with a firm that went bust. At any rate, an educated, middle-class fellow fallen on the second Great Depression. Substituting burrito lines for soup lines is the only difference. The man next to him — round shades, red goatee — says, “Eggs, cheese, potatoes, and I think sometimes sausage in there.” When asked for his name, he looks at the sky. “Ah, Tim…uh, Jones. Okay?”
“A lot of these people wait all week for us to come by with books.”
The recorder-wielding one says, “Yeah, whatever. That’s fine. I use different names sometimes. All the time, really.” He steps backward, grinning like the village idiot, as he realizes that those tattoos on Mr. Jones were likely made in prison with a Bic pen shell, a sewing needle, and a rotary wheel from a Sony Walkman. The ink came from God knows where, some cell-brewed concoction derived from Magic Markers. He’s not about to ask. He does say, “That’s a nice one there on your forearm. ‘Fuck Donovan.’ Yeah, that’s cool. I never liked him, either. Not as good as Dylan, and what was that ‘Mellow Yellow’ thing anyway? Yeah, he was, like, you know, a punk. Yeah, a punk.”
Cullen rescues him. The photog is six-foot-two, a muscular, barroom-type brawler (not that long ago) who rarely loses a fight. He smiles at Lovan and Jones, then yanks the hyperventilating hard newsman away by the elbow. “What’s the matter with you? Donovan? ‘Mellow Yellow’?”
“I don’t know…I’m not awake. It’s the crack of dawn.”
Cullen snaps shots with a camera the size of a small stereo hung around his neck, homing in on a handful of very young girls, scrubbed faces, friendly to all the customers, as if they are waitresses at the Hyatt. An attractive woman stands among another cluster of girls, who are shaking bottles of hot sauce onto tortilla-wrapped breakfasts.
The writer approaches. The girls — “The Burrito Babes” is what they call themselves — are as cute as they are young. The nice-looking 40ish (?) woman wears a wedding ring. Naturally. She is Gina Boccia, wife of Chris Brubaker, who’s busy getting good books into the hands of people in wheelchairs, and also those who are otherwise disabled and thus cannot reach down to the box. Brubaker knows most of the compulsive readers, and he makes sure each gets a selection.
Gina is a cadet with the scouts, the equivalent, the scruffy writer guesses, of an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts (which long ago kicked him out for mooning a den mother). Both she and her husband, Chris — white-haired, handsome — are schoolteachers who have taught all over the world.
Homeless East Village residents eat breakfast burritos prepared and distributed by a growing group of teenagers.
The Babes introduce themselves. Molly Scanlon. Maria Boccia, daughter of the aforementioned Gina. Delany Boccia. Everyone laughs at this last, and the reporter assumes that somehow it is at his expense. But these Babes aren’t mean, only giggling at the combo Irish/Italian name. An old joke to them, obviously.
Terry Macon is next, a grownup woman with the sort of fullness popular with Italians (the writer thinks). But he’s wrong: she’s Mexican. “I met Mike Johnson at Costco, where I work. And he told us what all these tortillas, cheese, and eggs were for. We got to talking, and he asked me if I’d like to bring my girls out. Since then, we’ve been out here every week. A year and a half now. McKayla and Aurora are here somewhere.”
Possibly dabbing hot sauce on burritos for those who prefer them that way.
“Is there some religious umbrella the burrito team is under?” the reporter asks. He has seen trade-paperback editions of the Bible in the hands of those living where they can from night to night. Some have multiple copies, provided by such sources as the Anchor Church Reach Out Team. When a man is asked where he got so many Bibles, he rattles off a list: the Rescue Mission, Antioch Reach Out, and so on, and when he got to God’s Extended Hand, the man, one Leonard Ward, substituted a single digit rather than the deity’s entire hand.
“No,” says Mrs. Macon. “There’s no religion going on. It’s just decency.”
More practical than church on Sunday morning, thinks the possibly cynical interviewer. His memories of Mass involve spouted gobs of inscrutable Latin while down on his knees, and scowls from Father Cunningham because he hadn’t said it loud enough. He remembers sermons that terrified rather than uplifted.
When Mike Johnson has a moment — he and his young posse are handing out toilet paper and dog food, as well; next week it will be clothing — he smiles in the scrawler’s direction.
The ace reporter again brings up the religious thing.
“I have nothing against any of the ministries,” Johnson says. “These people need that, too. But our kids just come down here and treat them with dignity and respect. When people are hungry, give them something to eat. When they’re thirsty, give them drink. It’s so basic as a principle. That’s all I want my kids to do. I’ll leave it to the adults, I’ll leave it to the politicians, and I’ll leave it to everybody else to solve the problem of homelessness. Until then, we’re going to come down here and feed people who are hungry.
“This morning we have kids from nine different schools. Kids who don’t know each other, but they came together somehow, some way. Some of them didn’t even know who they were making the burritos for, but they made them with such love.” Johnson’s voice trails off. He looks around as if searching for a way to explain something that he himself doesn’t fully understand.
The writer wants another moment with Chris Brubaker, whose impressive white mustache makes him look like Mark Twain. The recording device switched to off, he asks, “What was it you taught, Mr. Brubaker?”
“Call me Chris…I taught middle school for four years. Mostly English and social studies, not the math part or the science part. My wife taught first and second grade. We taught 20 years up in North County, and then, the last 17 years or so, we taught overseas. We taught in Saudi; New Delhi, India; Indonesia; and Beijing, China. We fell right into this. Mac has been a friend for years. Since our recent retirement, we’d been looking for something to volunteer for, and when we asked Mac, he said, ‘Hmm…let’s see.’ A half-second later, he said, ‘Oh, I’ve got an idea!’ Something like that.”
Learning that Chris was an English teacher, the crusty-but-benevolent defender of the First Amendment thinks of Mr. Grey, his sophomore English teacher, and James McCullough, his English teacher senior year. He thinks of men and women like Brubaker, his wife Gina, and Johnson, and McElroy — and the Burrito Boys and Babes. He thanks everyone for their time and walks toward the trolley. He thinks of Jack London and what he remembers of the man’s work:
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.