It was a democratic process. The van was full of the moving crates we’d just emptied at 11 Burton Place and it was time for 20 hungry, tired volunteers to go to lunch. There are five restaurants within a six-minute walk of 11 Burton Place, so we took a vote.
One for the Popeye’s next door. Thirteen hands shot up in favor of Alvarado’s. Welcome to Frijole Friday.
That’s how I came to have lunch with 20 women, almost all of whom share an unusual passion for Mexican food. There was one holdout who bought her own lunch at Popeye’s because she detests Mexican fare, disproving the unilaterally held belief that everyone loves tacos. Some, or at least one, prefers fried chicken on a bun. I can’t blame her; I’ve had fried chicken days myself.
Having warned Alvarado’s that 21 people were about to descend on the restaurant for lunch, the group marched across Broadway and turned south with only one (very) near miss by a white Mazda in a hurry to get into the Academy parking lot.
“It’s like a field trip,” one of the volunteers said.
It was, and I considered whether we should institute a buddy system or insist the women walk single-file.
Alvarado’s was nearly ready. Two big tables were set for our group and a server came around to take drink orders. She eventually made it to my end of the table and looked to a volunteer sitting near me. Instead of telling the server what she wanted to drink, she looked at me.
“Are we allowed to get drinks?” she asked.
For a beat I was dumbstruck.
“Of course!” I said. “Get whatever you want!”
She smiled giddily and asked for sweet tea.
That’s a question children sometimes ask in the same way they ask if they may have dessert. They’ve been taught that the thing they want might be too unhealthy or, more often, too expensive. They’ve learned that because an adult has said no. No, you have to settle for water. No, you don’t need dessert. No, you can’t have that toy.
It’s not a question I expected to hear from a mother.
She is in her late 20s or maybe her early 30s. She has a job as a veterinary technician and had to leave Alvarado’s as soon as she finished her chimichangas and sweet tea to ensure she was there by 1 p.m. She was the most enthusiastic of the volunteers, naturally assuming a leadership role and working hard until the last crate was emptied and put away.
At lunch, she spoke freely and confidently about her commitment to the ReMerge program, to living sober and to making sure she never goes to prison or jeopardizes her status with her child.
That not only makes her a great participant for ReMerge, but also it makes her a great volunteer and, I suspect, a great employee. She will be part of the 67% who successfully complete ReMerge’s prison diversion program and gets her felony charge dismissed. She will be among the 94% of graduates who never get in trouble again.
But from her vantage point, she still believes she has to ask if she can order a drink with lunch. That’s someone who is too familiar with institutional life.
She’ll forget soon enough and she’ll stop asking. She’ll buy her own and drink all the tea she wants. And it’s going to be even sweeter.
© 2020 Ted Streuli