Brown Paper Bags

She stood on the corner. If I came by at 6, she was there, 9, she was there, 12, Monday, Saturday. I was at first intimidated, embarrassed by my lack of Spanish and her lack of English. It was a mystery what was inside the coolers – a liquid, hot, milky white, carefully ladled into Styrofoam cups. Her eyes were hidden by a furry hood but popped with metallic blue eyeliner always crookedly applied. This made her look cross-eyed and created uncertain contact. Tamales, steamy, hand-made, picante – verde, rojo – dolce, came out in paper bags for young men going to work in a hurry. There is a man not two feet from her with more containers. He came first, then her. Were they working together? Two people who made peace selling side by side on such a small street corner? Who makes the tamales, when? At their home, is it a family affair, nana helping support the niños, plying her craft in huge batches, grandchild, who should be in school, hocking them for $1, $1.50? Down the street, Key Food, Costco sell their homemade tamales, frozen, for $4 each. What is her tactic? The population is kindred spirits, bundled, anxious for the hot steaming treats, something homemade, like from their own nanas, seeking a moment of comfort before their descent into the dark tunnel. Does she, like the girls I meet in the Chinatown shops, want to learn English? Want her sisters, her nieces, nephews to find someone to talk to, to break free of the neighborhood where her lack of English is as bad as my lack of Spanish, less than a dozen common words between us? Who will tell her to charge double, to raise it fifty cents, a dollar, diversify, push out the young hipsters in the truck down the road who learned about this spot just from watching her. Who took their capital, their English and attracted their friends, who will pay $5 for an authentic tamale, handmade, from the same nana, dressed up in fedoras and foodie culture to make it easier to avoid the awkwardness of facing the young girl with the crooked eyeliner who doesn’t even say dollar. What will the men do on their way down into the subway in the morning? They will go further back, further down and start again and the girl will try again on another corner, masa in hand, nana at the ready to go.

Melissa Tombro