Saturday, September 11, 2010

Carmen's Lunch Place

Every day we all brave the fierce hill of Montufar Street, go careening down its back side, wait at the traffic light on Flores and take our first right onto Guzman. About ¾ of the way down the block we step into a dark and dingy lunch spot on the right—no windows, dirty wooden floors, long tables and benches where crowds of people eat at the same time. And there is Carmen herself, an affable woman from the coast, from Manabi to be exact, which is why people from all over the historic center seek out her food. Lunch is taken very seriously in Ecuador and Carmen has the best lunch in the area. For $1.50 one gets soup, juice and a second course which always includes salad, rice and some sort of meat (I never ask what it is—often I have no idea what I’m eating, but it’s delicious anyway). Carmen stands behind two huge pots, a big ladle in hand, first doling out the soup, and then serving heaping spoonfuls of rice and meat onto large platters. Standing under the heat all day, always wiping a bit of sweat from her brow, Carmen treats her business seriously. She always has enough food for everyone and never repeats her menus. Furthermore, Carmen is a lovely woman: she’s warm, accommodating, and friendly with her clients. In fact, everyone is friends with Carmen, everyone from all over the historic center.

The first time I went to Carmen’s I felt intimidated. Most definitely not a place to go alone--I went under the care and supervision of my sex worker friends. Carmen’s lunch place accommodates all the robbers, muggers, drug addicts, drug dealers, pimps, mafia members, and sex workers of the historic center. Basically, all of the area’s most “dangerous” individuals (as would be described by conventional society) eat lunch at Carmen’s. As such, my first trip to Carmen’s was filled with anxiety. The women warned me before we entered that I had to sit at the far table with them, on the inside, squeezed next to the wall, while they sat on the outside of the table. They took my bag and stuffed it into their pants. I glanced around at the unfamiliar faces and felt a bit scared. I was also worried that I’d get sick from Carmen’s food—I had eaten at other “hole-in-the wall” types of places before with the women, but this was the dingiest of all.

Many months have passed since my first visit to Carmen’s. Now I enter alone, greet Carmen with a kiss on the cheek, greet her brother, nephew and son who all help her run the place. I go from table to table and greet all the people—they are all still the muggers, addicts, drug dealers, pimps, etc. but now I know them and they greet me with much warmth. Only once I’ve made my rounds to say hello to everyone do I then sit down and eat. I dive into my food without fear. I’ve never gotten sick from Carmen’s food, so despite its outward appearance, I know it’s a safe place to eat. Usually I’m with a sex worker friend or join a few women at a table. I chat with everyone and it has become a very pleasant ritual in my day. I feel no fear at Carmen’s, nor do I need to. I know her brother guards me fiercely, as do many of the pimps I now know—as well as the sex workers and Javier, who is my official bodyguard. In fact, I feel completely at home with Carmen. I enjoy joking with her and the others in the restaurant.

Last week I arrived at Carmen’s with my transgender friend Ginger to find that Carmen’s had been closed. We rapped on the door again and again until we saw Carmen peer through a tiny crack. She whispered, “Come around the back.” As if entering an underground speak-easy, we entered a door a few doors down from her restaurant into a plaza and living area of an old colonial home. There was another gate to the right, surrounded by barking dogs. Carmen’s brother shooed the dogs away and invited us through the gate. We crossed through a yard, entered a cement basement, passed through several rooms and then finally, up some steep steel stairs through a trap-roof door to enter the extra-dark restaurant. Everyone was there, speaking in hushed tones. Teary-eyed, Carmen explained that they shut her down that afternoon for no apparent reason--that she had received a denouncement from someone and the police were investigating. We ate lunch silently, listening to Carmen as she complained that someone must be jealous of her and wanted to close her down. I asked if all her health codes were in order and she said she had just renewed everything.

The next day Carmen told me that the police shut her down because apparently she “sells drugs” from her establishment. When she told me this I almost laughed out loud. Anyone who knows Carmen knows that she’s the last person who would sell drugs. It is ridiculous. My laughter quickly turned to anger. How on earth could they assume such a thing, I asked. Carmen explained that these things are arbitrary, that the police don’t need any proof of anything to shut her down. Carmen explained that the police are angry that all the “scum of the earth” eat at her restaurant—that it’s a cesspool of vice, etc. but Carmen herself cannot be blamed. Carmen, again teary eyed, explained that she had to pay a $400 fine in order to reopen the restaurant. It’s a problem because she can’t control who comes to eat at her restaurant—it’s not her fault that her lunch place is smack in the middle of Quito’s most dangerous neighborhood, in the red-light and drug district. She told me that she can’t help it that she doesn’t attract diplomats or lawyers to her lunch place. Her food is for the locals—for the most humble and poor members of Quito’s historic zone.

What happened to Carmen strikes me as unbelievably unfair. Under no circumstances does Carmen sell drugs from her lunch place. She just provides an incredibly delicious meal that attracts faithful clients, many of whom are taking a break from their work in the underworld economy (furthermore, not ALL her customers are part of the illegal economy—plenty of local storekeepers and municipal workers eat there—I’ve even seen police too). I agree with Carmen—she doesn’t pick her clients, nor can she refuse to serve people, due to economic necessity. The police just fear the sheer number of “bad people” all gathered in one place, under one roof, sharing a communal meal together.

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