Lunchero by Larry Strauss

I used to think the school at which I taught should have been named Rodney Dangerfield High because nobody got any respect.

Oppressive rules treated students like babies. Weapons checks regarded them as criminals. Teachers faced overcrowded classrooms with shamefully inadequate resources and endured blatant—and often profane—rudeness from students and endless interruptions from everyone. We—the teachers—disregarded administrative rules as a matter of course. Other high schools and the district as a whole disdained us because we were small and had no football team, because our basketball team had a reputation for fighting and mayhem (because they never got enough respect), and because we didn’t even have real school buildings. We occupied condemned, termite-infested, thirty-year-old temporaries in a corner of a community college that was utterly disrespected by other community colleges in the region and by its own chancellor and district board (I knew one of the sitting members who said so). As such, we did not even have a cafeteria or a lunch room. The college had once had a snack bar with a grill, but cooks and clerks and custodians were so mistreated that the college eventually closed the thing down: more evidence of their disrespect for those of us who might want to get something to eat without getting in our cars.

Instead, they gave us a few vending machines, a battered microwave that probably leaked radiation, and a lunch truck—the roach coach, as it was called by some patrons, at least at first.

The first time I saw Gabriel Marron park it outside our school, I wondered how long he would survive amidst the poverty and anger and all the profound hungers he couldn’t possibly feed. This was 1992, just months after the burning, looting, and beatings that had started just a few cross streets away from us.

I wasn’t surprised when, a month after the lunch truck’s arrival, our principal told us that students were stealing chips and sodas and tagging the back of the truck. She assigned each teacher one lunch period per week to go over there and supervise. I resented the obligation—as a new teacher I was barely surviving myself—and when my turn came up I brought my brown bag with me, disdaining whatever it was that this guy was serving.

I stood back from the line, watching our students jostling for position and asking each other for money but otherwise behaving themselves. Gabriel made eye contact with me and smiled. “You are from the high school?” he asked.

“I heard some of our students were giving you a hard time,” I said.

He laughed. “Kids, that’s kids. What’da you expect?” He laughed again and his mane of brown and gray hair bounced against the back of his neck. He shook the change in his coin apron and said, “When I first got here, you know. But now, they don’t give me no trouble.” He asked me if I wanted to try his burrito special—chicken, avocado, rice, and beans.

I told him no thanks but he insisted and gave his cook an order in Spanish. He added a soda and wouldn’t let me pay. “You’re the Maestro. The teacher of los high schooleros,” he said.

It wasn’t until weeks later that I understood his pun. Adding ero to the end of a word simply converts a word from meaning a place to meaning a person of that place—a ranchero is a rancher, etc. So, high schoolero is Spanglish for high school student. But the coo sound in school also made it high-s-CULERO (a culero is an asshole). He meant it affectionately, of course, but it was also his way of letting me know that he understood the challenges of my job. “In United States,” he said, “nobody want to be with the teenagers. But you teach them every day.” He explained to me that in Mexico no one was respected more than a teacher. He said he thought it ought to be that way everywhere.

I thanked him for the burrito and took a bite. Suddenly I was really hungry. I ate half of it on the way to class, saving the other half for after the psychodrama that was my sixth period.

I brought my own food to school the next day but by fourth period craved grilled chicken, cilantro, avocado, and salsa. When class let out I ran to the truck before it got crowded and fisted a $5 bill, not about to let this guy make a freeloader of me. I approached the window, scanning the handwritten menu of flattened paper bags taped to a metal panel, trying to remember the name of that burrito he’d given me. Midway down the list I saw my name!

“Maestro Strauss Burrito,” it said, “with chicken, avocado, rice, and beans.”

I glanced at Gabriel. The gold frame of his front tooth glinted inside his smile. I asked him what a maestro was.

“That’s you,” he said. “The professor of los high schooleros.”

I considered the menu again and noticed the Philly cheese steak sandwich named after one of my colleagues—a guy who hailed from the Mid-Atlantic—and a taco salad named for another of our teachers. I felt a little jealous at the possibility that my colleagues had been immortalized before I was.

I became a regular at the lunch truck. I got hooked on my honorary burrito but also tried the Poncho Villa tacos, Cesar Chavez Cesar Salad, the Corky Salizar Burger. Later in the year Gabriel added a JFK Tuna Melt, Malcolm X Teriyaki Bowl, Martin Luther King Chili Plate, and a pupusa plate for the homesick Salvadoran kids. He gave the high school students half off on most food and sometimes he purposely forgot to charge one of them.

He came to our graduation and served free taquitos, cake, and fruit punch. I saw some of the graduates thanking him for his help. He wouldn’t tell me what he’d done for them but many of the students did—aside from giving them credit when they were broke and hungry, he’d driven some of them home through gang-infested neighborhoods when they had reason to be particularly afraid. He had even counseled some of the Latino students who weren’t comfortable discussing personal problems in their second language.

“You should be a teacher,” I told him as he served me a slice of graduation cake.

No way, he told me. “Teaching the kids all day. I don’t know how you do it.”

I helped him carry his punch bowl and the leftover plates and cups back to his truck. I checked the menu to be sure my burrito was there and ordered it one last time before summer break. He cooked it himself and when it was ready yelled, as if I wasn’t standing in front of him, “Un Maestro Strauss Burrito por Maestro Strauss!”

“Gracias,” I said. “Gracias, Maestro Gabriel.”

“No, no,” he said. “No maestro. Tú Maestro.”

“What then?”

“I am lunchero,” he said, leaning back with laughter.

For about the next ten years he was our lunchero, as important a member of our school as anyone. I ate a lot of Maestro Strauss Burritos over those years, and by the end of that decade I think I may actually have deserved that name. Since then I’ve realized that the honor Gabriel had bestowed upon me with a scrap of yellow sandwich wrap with Sharpie writing and a tortilla and everything stuffed inside of it had helped me believe in myself as a teacher.

Then one fall a new college president doubled the fee for Gabriel to sell food on the campus. Most of us hadn’t even known that he’d been required to pay for the right to park his truck at this pitiful place. Now this institution that had squandered millions of dollars over the years was trying to help balance its budget on his hardworking back.

Gabriel couldn’t afford the fee and neither, it seemed, could any other lunch truck operator—so we were without a lunchero for weeks. Students from the high school and community college united behind Gabriel. They staged protests to which no one paid attention. This was during the recall campaign of Grey Davis when bodybuilding and movie actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, first ran for governor in 2003. The embattled Governor Davis made an appearance on our campus along with Representative Maxine Waters and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. They had come to address an inner-city college audience but it was late enough into the semester that most of the college students had already stopped attending their classes—so most of the spectators were our high school students. Some of them held up signs about the injustice against our lunchero, about the hungry students who could no longer get a high school taco for a dollar. Some of them yelled out at the governor, the representative, and the leader asking them to intervene on our behalf.

At one point, Governor Davis seemed almost to acknowledge one of them. Then he froze for a moment, in an awkward half-smile of confusion—he must have realized what the student had said: something about ghetto nachos (Doritos with hot chili and cheese poured into the bag)—and then Jesse Jackson stepped in with a half-audible statement about “demagoguery and the democratic process.”

A girl with a sign that said NO JUSTICE NO EATS blocked one of the local news cameras and then wouldn’t get out of his way, even as he tried to move around her. A guy in a dark suit gently shoved her out of the way. I ran over and confronted the well-dressed man and we argued for a while, and by then the event had ended.

I watched the news that night, hoping to get a glimpse of that student protester or her sign, but of course none of it made the cut.

I don’t suppose it would have been appropriate for a sitting governor—or a United States representative—to have intervened in this matter, and I’m sure Jackson had more urgent civil rights matters to attend to. The students seemed to understand. They said they didn’t expect anyone to care about our problems. That impressed me. But it was somehow really sad.

Gabriel never returned to our campus. The college president eventually lowered the fee, but by then Gabriel had relocated to a construction site and a swap meet and couldn’t get out of those contracts. Years later I heard that he had become a truck driver for an oil company. We’ve had about a half-dozen different lunch trucks since Gabriel and most of them are all right—a few of them even offered a discount menu for our students—but I’m afraid that for us Gabriel was the last (and only) of the luncheros.

 

Note: I have been told by students and former students that the proper spelling is actually loonchero—because Spanglish words are spelled the way they sound or are supposed to sound. I have ignored this rule, however, and spelled it lunchero for the sake of clarity—particularly for readers not fluent in Spanglish—and I mean no disrespect by it.


 Larry Strauss
Larry Strauss is the author of four novels, including the recent Now’s the Time (Kearney Street Books) and a bunch of trade non-fiction, including the upcoming Everybody’s Business (also Kearney Street Books) and a collection of essays. For ’80s cartoon devotees, he wrote four episodes of the first-generation Transformers show. He lives and teaches high school in Los Angeles.

 

An Interview with Larry Strauss

by Susan Shafarzek

 

This piece is full of compelling emotion. Would you say it represents a part of the more significant learning in your life?

Absolutely. My early years as a teacher taught me so many things. It immersed me in an enormous struggle. I had the opportunity to help guys leave the gang life and reinvent themselves—try to anyway—in society and my colleagues and I lost others to those same gangs. I saw great acts of courage and awful acts of self-destruction. I lived the schizophrenic life of a middle-class husband and father who had taken children at the margins into his heart.

Although this memoir includes a very sad story about lost opportunity and failed hopes, it also seems to me to express a strong appreciation of basic human worth. I wondering how it felt to you as you were writing it.

I hope I never write anything that doesn’t appreciate human worth. It is something that makes a story worth telling. But with that appreciation almost always comes deep sadness. Just last month I attended the funeral of a 17 year old student who’d been stabbed to death. It isn’t just her death that is so heartbreaking but the brutality that drove to the dark place where she was killed. I cannot say that I felt the sadness of my story as I wrote it. For me the writing process is about making some sense out of it, finding the humanity in the misery. Perhaps one day I’ll write something about Aubre (the girl I saw buried a few weeks ago) and I’ll try to make sense out of that senselessness.

The first person I asked to read this piece, after I had decided to consider it, was very struck by the importance of language in its construction. Would you like to speak a little bit about that?

That’s a great observation. I can’t imagine any other way to tell this story, to get at what it’s about. I mean, here I was trying to figure out how to reach my students and inspire them—or cajole them, at least—to read books and care about words and want to say things effectively on paper. I actually didn’t have any teaching mentors, no colleagues for whom I had much admiration. And here was this lunchero who understood the power of language, the beauty of the word, the phrase, the untranslatable. He helped me realize how essential it is to give students a voice—to give everyone a voice—by listening and helping them emerge from the shadows of their own silence and their own rote thinking and trite phrases and recognize the unique things they have to say and the unique way they have of saying it.

I like this memoir as a very nice example of street-light. Can you say more about how the qualities of this particular place affected you as you assembled it?

Of course, there is the surprise and delight of a discovery about someone and the simultaneous self-discovery. “Lunchero” is an underdog story and those are always satisfying for me to write and to read. Also, I often find myself struck by the juxtaposition of the lives of us regular people with the lives of the famous and powerful, such as Jesse Jackson, Gray Davis, and Maxine Waters who appear in the story. Living in Los Angeles, the great dream factory, I am sensitive to the struggle or regular people to feel their lives are as meaningful as those of the celebrity class. The first story I ever wrote—and published—about my experiences as a teacher involved some guys who made the local Fox News because another student had gotten an internship and Fox was using him to assemble various law-breakers for their sensationalist segments on moral decay in the inner-city.

This piece seems like it could be part of something larger. Are you at work on a more extended memoir of this time in your life and the history of this place?

I actually have done a substantial amount of work on a memoir about how my school was nearly obliterated, nearly ten years ago, by the neglect and incompetence of our school district. I got a little indulgent with it and wound up writing, at length, about the school’s history, before and after I arrived, and about my own early years as a teacher. I hardly even got into what I thought was a compelling story about a school on the brink and the students, teachers, and parents who saved it. This is something—the action, I mean, not the memoir—that I am still extremely proud of. It is something I boast about all the time to my current students. I took more than 1,000 pages of notes during the actual struggle. I believed I was preparing to write a book about a really great school that would be destroyed. Perhaps I’d have been more motivated to finish what was becoming a massive undertaking if we hadn’t succeeded in keeping the school open. One of these days I hope to get back to it.

What seems to you to be the most important element of this story? What impelled you to tell it?

For me it always starts with the individual, a person whose story ought to be told. In this case a quiet hero with a lesson for anyone with power in the education system—a lesson about love and about what children need and what teachers need in order to help those children. But more than that, a story about what we all need from each other. If I was a folk singer I’d write a ballad about Gabe and I’d sing the hell out of it.

I’m curious to know what you would add to this story, if you had, say, unlimited space and opportunity.

Great question. I wish I knew more about Gabriel for one thing. So the opportunity to somehow track him down and find out his story and do it justice would be great. I’m sure there is much I could and would add about him if I knew it. Also I suppose if I was going to really stretch out on this one I could see the story encompassing more about feeding our children—as a school, as a society, as a world. That, more than anything else, is what made Gabe such a hero to me. That he went to such lengths to make it possible for these kids to eat every day. Our students are always hungry and I and some of my colleagues feed them every school day. Right now there are two students in my class who I know do not eat enough. I bring them each a sandwich each day and get them fast food gift cards for vacations. I have been trained and certified, hired and paid to feed my student knowledge and skill but I know there is so much more they need that I should at least try to give them—confidence, esteem, hope and also food. They suffer so much emptiness and often that emptiness can’t be filled by the title 1 poverty meal, the mass-produced government food that gets carted to our school in the trunk of a woman’s car. Michelle Obama has gone to great lengths to make this food more nutritious, which is an admirable and sensible objective. But it would have been wise also to make the food and the process of feeding these kids more humane, less demeaning so that all of them might all end up actually eating this more nutritious food and being truly nurtured in the process. Gabriel understood that. I wish the First Lady had collaborated with him on her initiative.

Would you like to say something more about the way this place has gone through changes since the time of the experiences you talk about in this piece?

I am still there after twenty-two years, which is kind of cool because now I am teaching some of the sons and daughters of some of the students I taught during my first few years. And because former students can find me when they want to and tell me how they are doing and they can see what has become of me. And because I can tell all the current students about the history of their school, which they are actually quite interested in. We now have a beautiful—if stupidly designed—new facility that was earned with the hard work and determination of students, their parents, and my colleagues and me. It is a prodigious collective accomplishment. Now Maxine Waters—who actually did come back to lend a hand when we were trying to stay open—visits us for photo opportunities because we are a success story in a blighted part of the city. Still, our students struggle against the same forces they always have and there are never enough concerned, involved, perceptive adults around to fill the void for all of them.

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