There is a taco truck called The Moveable Feast next to the 3 Clubs Bar in the heart of Hollywood’s theatre district. It has a green and white striped awning, three picnic tables, and a table of salsas, peppers, sliced onions, and marinated carrots. Bus stops and billboard advertise the services of immigration lawyers. As I walked down Vine from the Metro on Hollywood Boulevard, past the hipster bars and clothing boutiques, from tourists (wide-eyed, flamboyant) at one end to actors (wide-eyed, flamboyant) at the other end, I thought of my father’s own Moveable Feast.
He had started those Saturday night food runs after I had gone to college, so I never knew exactly how he came up with the idea, though I think I now know, in a general way. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac, a block from an elementary school to the west and a junior high school to the east. As I later learned, under dramatic circumstances, there was a meth lab in the shantytown separated from our backyard by a narrow culvert.
With the exception of my family, everyone else on the block was Latino. The parents worked as machinists, in restaurants, and in the orange grove that is now an elementary school. I’d see the sons and daughters in high school but because they didn’t do the same things I did – run track, serve in student government, and take what is now known as AP classes – I barely, if ever, spoke with them, even at home. For the most part, our neighbors were quiet, kept to themselves, except when a quinceañera would erupt and the block would become a Mardi Gras.
Because all of us, including our parents, were geographically ignorant, we would refer to them as Mexicans, not for a moment realizing that only one family came from Mexico while others, first generation one and all, came from Guatemala, El Salvador, Paraguay, and Chile. Behind us there was an enclave of Latinos who lived in what I later know is a favela, a slum, with its own butcher shops, hair salons, and bars (My father’s words, when I was 16: “I know I can’t stop you from going into bars before you’re 21; but whatever you do, don’t go into El Palenque under any circumstances.” “Why?” I asked my mom. All she would say is “Trust me, for once you really should do as your father says.”) There was a Mexican market where my father would buy ingredients for the dishes he learned to cook from the wives of his friends in the favela. I would tag along because I could buy tamarind soda – 5 cents a bottle – and handfuls of jawbreakers with a coriander seed in the middle.
My father’s friends were as colorful as they were troubled. When I was a kid I was only aware of the colorful bits. One of his friends, the one who gave the most wonderful tribute at my father’s funeral, had been a tank driver under Patton in North Africa. Another had been a pachuco, though he wouldn’t tell me what they did. I learned later that a gang of racist navy men beat the crap out of him and his friends in Los Angeles during World War Two. He’d get incredibly (and one later afternoon, tragically) drunk on homemade mescal and show me his moth eaten Zoot suits. I wanted to wear one to prom but my mother said that probably wasn’t a good idea. There were a lot of sons and daughters getting married at that time and each wedding lasted for three or four days. It would include a pig cooked underground for a couple of days, homemade wine and mescal, amazing pastries, and endless singing and dancing.
It was, as I said, a colorful childhood and, though of course I didn’t know it at the time, I later learned that each time I was to be beat up by the various gangs after school in the bike racks for some unconscionable though unwitting breach of conduct, my father’s friends’ sons, some in gangs, some not, would quietly intervene to ensure my personal safety and prevent the loss of my bike, my skateboard, and most certainly my honor. I’m glad I didn’t know all this at the time.
My father was in his element at these gatherings. He appreciated the lack of pretension in his favela friends, their utter disregard of ceremony as well as the fact that, as he also believed, any occasion merited a party, a wild, all-night party with loud, boisterous singing and dancing. My mother once asked me to help her make a piñata for a birthday but that was a disaster, as was my attempt – my father’s idea – to learn to play Latin music on the piano to accompany the various musicians who, even though they could barely stand up, much less see straight, could still play their guitars like impresarios.
Even though some of these families lived in flimsy houses, sometimes a dozen to a room, that a good Santa Ana wind could blow over, they always had pianos. The dutiful son, I asked my piano teacher, my stalwart, prissy piano teacher, if she could teach me to play Mexican music.” “Oh you mean Ricardo Castro, Gustavo E. Campa, Jose Pablo Moncayo and Arturo Marquez?” she said, eager, I think, that I was finally taking some interest in my weekly piano lessons and my goddamn monthly recitals. “Are they mariachi composers?” I said, “I want to play mariachi piano.” Her voice dropped an octave. Calling me by my first, middle, and last name, something my mother did when I had done something horrible to my little sister, she said “Let’s stick with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms and leave mariachi music to the Mexicans.” A few days later my mother told me that my piano teacher wanted to focus on serious students.
Somewhere out of all that came my father’s idea of the moveable feast. I had come home for the weekend because my college roommate had asked me if I could be out of the room for the night, a Saturday. “Where am I supposed to go?” I asked. “Well,” he said, all-knowing and impudent, if you ever brought anyone around I’d certainly do the same for you and, hey, now while we’re on that topic, why don’t you ever bring anyone around?” Rather than divulge my antics with our freshman comp professor (later the attorney general for Alameda County), I told him fine, I’ll be home if anyone calls.
So, in a what-the-hell mood (serious study didn’t come until graduate school), I walked out of the student bar (Yes, father, I was underage, but this wasn’t La Palenque, it had sorority girls watching soap operas at lunch), boarded the Humphrey Go-Bart to the BART station and, with nothing but a credit card the pernicious Visa people had sent, unsolicited, to everyone in the dorm, caught an Air California flight home. Ah, the good old days, no advance reservation, a $17 ticket, and no security line.
I got home at 3. The kitchen was a mess, which meant that my father was up to something culinary. “Oh,” said my mother, not registering the slightest surprise that I had appeared unannounced in the kitchen from university 500 miles away, “you’re just in time.”
“In time for what?”
“You’ll see. Take this to your father on the patio,” she said, handing me a large teak salad bowl filled with marinated strips of beef. “Okay,” I said. Oh goody, a barbecue. The stereo console was on as usual, blasting Frankie Yankovic’s “Milwaukee Polka.” I had to smile, not at the music, which I happened to love (and still do) but at a stereo that, to my college freshman ears, seemed horribly antiquated. Everyone in the dorm had these spiffy turntables, speakers, and amps. Even at half volume, Pink Floyd and the Doors and Led Zeppelin could blast your eardrums out of your head.
And there he was, my father, out on the patio. At that moment he apparently was in his Ernest Hemingway phase: a full, unruly beard, gray, with hair, also gray, longer than mine and mine was down to my collar. He was wearing one his Western snap button shirts and a bolo tie with an amethyst, that I had made him for his birthday. He was hollering something to our two cooped-up Airedales, Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart. “Is that Spanish?” I asked him, wondering when the hell he had become bilingual.
“You’re just in time.” Just like my mother had said. He walked over to hug me. Yup, same spindly legs in those same brown Jodphur boots. In high school I used to think that I was getting taller but, in fact, he was just getting shorter. The top of his head came up to my shoulders. Yup, can of snuff in his left shirt pocket, pocket watch (another birthday gift from me) in his right pant pocket. He smelled like Vitalis and Old Spice, which he called The Mariner’s Cologne. Damn it was good to be home.
“In time for what?” Again no answer.
He walked over to the side yard. My trailer was still there. When I was a freshman in high school, I had come back from rock-climbing at Joshua Tree for the weekend and there was this Dust Bowl-era faded blue and white striped trailer in our side yard. “Hell’s that?” I asked my father, who was in the living room watching yet another World Two documentary on the TV. “Why, that’s your new home.” My mother walked in from the kitchen. “He’s got it wired for electricity. I made it as cozy as I could. I think it’s kind of cute though now of course your sister’s going to want one.”
Part of the side yard was now paved. On it was the green wheelbarrow. I thought it was on fire. Nope, there was a thick piece of steel on the bottom. On that was a bed of glowing charcoal and, on top of that, a grill. “So, what’s wrong with the regular barbecue?” I asked, nodding over to the behemoth, three-grilled brick beast he built when we first moved into the house. “Nothing’s wrong with it. This is for something else.” My mother appeared with my little brother’s baby carriage. On it was rigged a large tray, with slots for – was that salsa? On the carriage’s canopy was another tray. On it rested what I knew were two tortilla warmers. On one, in my father’s ham fisted scrawl, was written “Corn,” on the other, “Flour.”
“I think that’s everything,” said my father. “Let’s go.”
“Lucky you,” said me mother, smiling, “you are the bearer of condiments.”
I had no clue what was going on. My father had disappeared around the corner of the house into the front yard. He was already past the Piss Tree, marked with various initials, heights, and dates. I caught up to him as he turned right at the end of the driveway.
“So,” I said, “when am I going to know what’s going on?”
“In about thirty seconds,” he said. From out of somewhere he pulled an alphorn, the things yodelers use in Switzerland. I would never cease to be surprised by my father. As he was blowing on it, I wondered what my roommate was doing at the moment. A few seconds later, seven people, two parents and five kids, scurried out the door and across the grass to the sidewalk. “Moveable Feast at your service,” said my father, his voice as proud as when I won a tennis tournament at the age of eleven against someone whose father - my father’s boss - was a royal asshole.
He flung the strips of marinated beef on the grill as the father scampered back into house. A minute later he appeared, with an unlabeled bottle half filled with what looked like iced tea. “Good man, good man,” said my father. He turned to the rest of the family. “Corn or flower?” As the family picked out their respective tortillas out of the warmer, the man pulled out two enormous shot glasses, asked me to hold them, and filled them to the brim. “To Los borrachos,” my father said, taking and then downing the shot. He squinted, shook his head, and said “Mighty fine stuff, mighty fine stuff.” The man had downed his shot as well. Apparently this was not iced tea. “Would my university-educated son like to try some homemade mescal? It’ll put hair on your chest.” “Sure,” I said, “I’d be delighted,” praying it really would.
The guy pulled another huge shot glass out of his serape pocket, handed it to me, and filled it up. “To Los borrachos,” I said, thinking wouldn’t it be funny if they were toasting a Velazquez painting I had recently read about. I downed the shot. He then refilled the other two glasses.
Now, my entire dorm is one big drug laboratory. If whatever you wanted wasn’t at hand, someone knew someone who could get it, pronto. I never understood how money never seemed to change hands. To tell you the truth, it scared the hell out of me, watching the hard-core ones, the ones who later became surgeons, Silicon Valley CEOs, and politicians, pull out a book of pharmacology, open the rainbow capsules they’d procured from God-knows-where, and watch them mix the various drugs, one with the other. I thought of my mind as a Stradivarius violin, susceptible to a little humidity (beer, wine, shots) but not a little jostling, which is what I figured I would be doing with these artisan drug creations.
I immediately began to hallucinate. It was sunset and, even without the beauty of the then-photochemical sunsets, the sky had begun to melt like crayons in a microwave.
“Good stuff, good stuff senor?”
“Oh yeah, great stuff, finest kind.” With that he poured me another. I gulped it and couldn’t feel my feet.
Meanwhile, the family’s gobbling up these tacos. My father’s cooking the meat; they’re helping themselves to the tortillas and salsa. My mother came out, carrying a large cooking bowl with more marinated meat.”
“Looking a little wobbly there, are we?” she said, her smugness suddenly not funny because she was absolutely right.
“No, no, I’m fine, I’m fine. Where’d you get all this meat?”
“Your father and his chums. Deer hunting. We’ve got enough for ten neighborhoods. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine mom, damn it, I’m 18.” She turned and walked back toward the house.
“Let me know if you need help getting home, I’ve got your bed laid out,” she said, winking. Damn, she was enjoying this.
Well, she must have really enjoyed it when, two hours later, we staggered home. Well, I staggered home. My father looked like he was marching in a parade. We had done the exact same thing at seven other houses: a feast, a serenade, and shots of homemade mescal that I would swear was laced with LSD. My father covered the coals with sand and my mother pushed the carriage into the kitchen. I took a step up into the trailer. The lights were on, my cassette player was blasting, God help me, The Moody Blues, my favorite high school rock group that, the moment I got to college, became my least favorite one. There were flowers on the table next to the bed. “Welcome home,” said a note on my pillow, next to a tray of warm ginger cookies and a glass of milk. Well, goddamn.
I left the trailer; no, to be truthful, I fell, flat on my face. The dogs started barking as the motion-detected lights blared on. My father came around the corner, my mother just behind him.” Are you okay,” they said in unison.
I lay on my back, looking at the stars. The world was spinning or else I was but I didn’t feel disoriented in the least: somehow being home gave me all the coordinate points I needed.
“So,” I said, still looking up at the sky, “how the hell did you come up with the name Moveable Feast? I didn’t know you read Hemingway.”
“Who the hell’s Hemingway?” said my father.