Judas Act

"Happy birthday to you, cha cha cha, happy birthday to you, cha cha cha!" What the...?

The guys who've been sleeping here on the sidewalk look up. "Happy Birthday" at 6:30 a.m.? Some have hardly moved from their cardboard yet. One guy, already in his wheelchair, rolls around between the Oh! Que Bueno! café on the corner and the entrance to Homequest farther up Tenth. Homequest is a recovery place, and already they have a meeting going inside. Maybe 30 guys and gals are attending.

But the noise comes from round the corner. Raucous singing, female voices. They're inside Oh! Que Bueno!, working on three cakes and slurping coffee. Now they stand and throw their heads back.

"Happy birthday, dear Naomi, happy birthday to you. £Feliz cumpleaños!"

A moment later the roar of diesel engines drowns all the singing. Buses haul up to the stop at Ninth and Broadway.

Naomi doesn't miss a beat. She's on her feet and leading all the ladies out, struttin' like a Pied Piper, holding the remains of her birthday cake, balloons bobbing around her wrists. The ladies head out.

"They come in ev-e-ry morning," says Arturo Lopez from behind the counter. "Then they catch the buses up to jobs in La Jolla."

Me, I just sit, half awake, trying to remember when I've been here before.

"This place?" says an old salt in a USS Ranger cap. "It used to be Monty's. Remember that? But things are changing, my friend. All this is gonna be history. Enjoy it while you can. We're all going to be shunted out to some hellhole on the edge of town so the rich can claim our city for themselves again. Mark my words."

Now that he mentions it, I do remember Monty's. That joint was cheap, and cheery too.

Meantime, I'm here, I'm hungry and desperate for a cuppa joe. Oh! Que Bueno! has the regular panoply of standard breakfast fare, like chilaquiles ($3.99), eggs with chorizo ($3.99), omelets ($3.99). At the bottom of the way-big menu, it says, "Special Breakfast. Choose any 3 items, $2.99. Or chilaquiles con huevos, $2.99." Hmm. Sounds like a deal. A kind of breakfast buffet steams away in chafing dishes at the counter. Arturo says he's been open since 5:30 a.m., and already his mom and other family members are back in the kitchen starting to cook for the lunch buffet. That begins at 9:00 and goes right through till 5:30 and includes any one of ten chafing-dish choices, say, fried chicken, with rice and beans, for $3.99.

But I can't wait for lunch. This may not be Breakfast at Tiffany's, but it's my favorite meal. And I love discovering it on the street like this, 'specially when it looks to be such a good proposition. By now, the ladies have disappeared, and the Homequest class is gaining traction next door. Street sanitation guys bumble up and down the sidewalks, piloting vacuum cleaners on wheels, chasing papers and cigarette butts.

Here inside it's kinda bare-bones. Eight tables and a white-tiled counter, where Arturo stands behind his chafing dishes.

Of course, first I have to deal with the guilt. Left Carla sleeping this morning. She'll be having fat-free biscuits with cottage cheese, and maybe a protein drink. We're losing weight together. So this will be a Judas act. 'Specially since I've just broken the 200-pound barrier. Down to 198! Don't want to wreck all that hard work the lovely Carla inspired.

But...such a deal. The ten plates of the breakfast buffet include scrambled eggs, eggs and sausage, eggs and bacon, frijoles (refried beans), potato patties, sautéed potato chunks with onions. All grease-babies, for sure. I point to the eggs with bacon chips mixed in, then the mess of potatoes and onions, and finally the sausage links. Arturo clips out all three from their steaming dishes.

I hand over the cash, plus $1.25 for a medium coffee, and go find a seat near a security guy who's stopped in on his way to work. He's listening to early-morning talk radio on his little personal set. I feel wicked but have to admit that these links and egg and spuds with their slippery onions are delicious with the coffee. Actually, the big chunks of potato with sautéed onion are the best. Obviously hand-done, the kind of thing you get at a family operation.

I sit down with my polystyrene plate and plastic fork and coffee. Whole thing has cost me $4.45, including tax.

Isn't it crazy, the pleasure these simple little things can give you? An uncomplicated meal. Eating what you want. The whole day ahead of you.

Of course, the old salt's probably right. This is going to give way to more downtown redevelopment. This old building will come down. High-rise condos'll sprout up. Things will get smart. We'll have to dress up, and the boys won't be able to camp out on their cardboard anymore. The price of the meal will reflect the new rents and the higher taxes...Arturo and Josefina and Ernesto Lopez won't be able to afford this place. Some deep-pocket Chicago chain will appear with auto-cut spuds and auto-smile staff and higher prices and signs saying "Please Wait To Be Seated." Hey, these folks here are an endangered species.

I spike my last potato and the last sausage link. Mmm. Oh! Que bueno! That tastes poignantly good. Grab it while you can, cha cha cha.

[2009 Editor's Note: Oh! Que Bueno! has since closed.]

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