The Burrito Prince of Folsom Street
Frankie climbs the stairs of 16th Street BART, rising through the scent of fermented piss like he was the Queen of Heaven ascending through clouds.
The wind is up and the fog is spilling over Twin Peaks like liquid nitrogen, vapors tumbling with the force of gravity, chilling the sky over the valley of the Mission Frankie both hated and loved. He’d grown up here, in this city that had always felt like an outpost, bricked off by an ocean you’d freeze your ass off in and the jagged Farallons. God must have dropped them in front of the Golden Gate to keep all the hijos de puta away. Too bad they found a way in anyway, Frankie says to himself. Good thing he’s getting out.
It happens like this every afternoon in San Francisco, in the long dry season after the rains, when you can’t turn your head to look up 16th Street without the sun assaulting your eyes like a meth-head working you for your last dollar. Well, this is a city founded by con men, gabachos who claimed it as their human cash machine, playing suckers too busy trying to get rich off gold they’d pay you $20 for a clean shirt. They were so drunk they never noticed they were the ones being mined. Whatever crazy padre with the clap named this place for San Francisco, the gentlest, most patient saint in God’s universe, must have had a fucked-up sense of humor. When was this place not brutal for the poor? Like the chuntaros who made it up here just to sweat seven days a week in a dish pit in a restaurant where the chef is off at fucking Aspen for a food festival, talking about how he got famous by staying true to his vision.
“Tell me another one,” Frankie says aloud, to nobody, on 16th Street as he steps off the curb to cross Folsom and his phone sounds a ting. He looks: another text from Noel, this time three question marks, each a finger poking Frankie in the chest. He’ll have to tell him. He can’t put it off anymore.
With his foot off the curb Frankie hears a screech like a poltergeist, looks up, and sees a cyclist swoop past, a few inches from Frankie’s face. The guy’s blowing a whistle, twisted around to face Frankie, orangey reflective lenses over a blond beard. “BIKE LANE!” orange lenses screams. “TAKE YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR ASS YOU STUPID FUCKING BEANER.”
It happens too fast for Frankie to react before the cyclist takes off again. “Oh yeah?” he says, to the retreating Lycra back. “OH YEAH? Well FUCK YOU! Racist piece of shit! This Mexican will kick your goddamn ass!” The guy’s gone; Frankie turns to see a driver in a huge shiny black BMW paused in the intersection to make a right-hand turn, hands off the wheel, raised like a real-life shrug emoji, waiting for Frankie to get the hell out of the way.
I spent all my life in this neighborhood, Frankie thinks—46 years—and I feel like an alien. For a flash he sees himself reflected in the BMW’s windows: orange-billed Giants cap, three-day scruff he really needs to do something about, dark eyes Noel always tells him look like an altar boy’s, guilty as hell for chugging the communion wine. Frankie’s eyes have dark circles these days. He steps back to let the car hustle through; his reflection vanishes. San Francisco didn’t use to be so hard. Maybe Jesus is sending him a sign, giving Frankie His blessing to go.
Who would even put a city here anyway? No trees worth a shit, just sand and sad, dry plants beaten down by the wind, Indians you could screw over and they’d never put up a fight. His ancestors (your antepasados, Tía Sonia always said) the Californios—ganaderos nobles—even though Frankie knows his antepasados arrived on the Southern Pacific train from Guadalajara to pick fruit in San Jose. What a joke—left with papa’s broke-down taqueria, selling burritos to guys taking their Google buses home from the place his abuelo used to work making twenty-five cents a bushel picking plums and apricots.
Spoiled white kids who grew up eating Chipotle at a mall in Orinda, now probably making a couple hundred K, in their Uniqlo puffy jackets and flip-flops—they show up at El Muelle because they read about his “authentic carnitas” on Thrillist or some shit. All they have to do is go eat a damn taco from the place where the people who clean their toilets eat. Take a 10-minute walk to the barrio outside their campus (or whatever they call it) in Mountain View to get an “authentic” taste of something that would make them never want to touch that free crap at work, the organic vegan quinoa fajita bar. “Free”: Frankie laughs out loud. The con-man gabachos didn’t die out after the Gold Rush, they just expanded their operations. Steve Jobs. Give me a fucking break.
Well, 24 hours from now he’ll be taking a big chunk of their gabacho money. Why not? He deserves it—owes it to the ghost of his poor abuelo, payback for all those bushels twisting up his body so bad. The chemicals they used to spray on those trees burned his lungs up little by little until he could hardly breathe at the end, like drowning in super slow-mo.
As he approaches the corner of 19th, Frankie sees that loca Cristina out front of El Muelle. She’s got white earbuds in, staring straight ahead, holding a tray of burrito samples: hacked-up pieces stuffed into plastic salsa cups, impaled on plastic picks like a pirate’s sword, holding them out for anybody to take, if anybody happened to be walking on Folsom and 19th at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday, which they aren’t. Business is dragging again. “So what else is new,” Frankie thinks, and feels the flash of guilt once more: should he have told them by now they’ll soon be out of a job? Better wait till he signs the papers. It’s not like they won’t be pissed at him anyway.
“Hola chica,” Frankie says. It takes Cristina a second to notice him.
“Hola Frankie” she says, keeping her earbuds in, talking loud over the music he can hear bleeding through. His foot’s on the tiled step in front of El Muelle’s glass door—he feels the front tile wobble, thinks, That’s one more thing I won’t fucking have to worry about. The place is essentially empty. Don Febronio is at his table in the back by the milk cooler, of course, pen poised over his notebook. A mug that’s been there since Don Febronio set it down on the table not long after 8 a.m., when Frankie unlocked the doors, is still sitting there, an hours-old shadow of café de olla from Don Febronio’s lips dried on the rim.
“Buenas tardes, Don Febronio,” Frankie says, rounding the counter to slip behind the burrito line, where Uriel is leaned up against the wall, flipping through his phone, as usual not doing shit. “How’s the chapter going?”
“It goes, Panchito,” Don Febronio says. “La musa must be angry today for some reason. She turns her face from me.”
Don Febronio was a friend of Frankie’s father, God rest his soul. He’s known Frankie since he was a baby. All through Frankie’s childhood, growing up in El Muelle, doing his homework at one of the tables, helping out by stocking the cooler, working the register, Don Febronio has sat—every day—at the back table, writing a great novel. He must have stacks of notebooks, stacks and stacks and stacks of them, taller than Don Febronio, lining the walls of his room on Capp Street. Every day he’s waiting in front of El Muelle when Frankie comes to open the place, every day he orders a cup of coffee and a concha—spends $1.65, counting out the dimes and nickels with cracked fingers—and sits there for 9 hours, until 5 on the dot, writing in his notebook.
No wonder this place is sinking, Frankie says to himself. What other business in San Francisco would let an old man hang out all day for less than two bucks? Frankie’s father, Don Rafael, had a soft spot for artists, any beat-down old-timer who convinced him he was a writer or a composer, anybody in the Mission who needed food or money. They always found a way to El Muelle. Well, Don Febronio is just going to have to find another place to write his novel that will never be finished. He’s a nice old man, but Frankie can’t worry about every anciano gray-beard in the Mission. Frankie didn’t create gentrification. No one could blame him for doing what he needs to do.
“Panchito,” Don Febronio says, “you need to do something about the front step. Your Tía Sonia almost fell this morning. Last week—”
“I know, Don Febronio,” Frankie says. “You don’t have to keep telling me. It’s all going to be taken care of. Soon.”
Don Rafael opened El Muelle in 1969—two years before Frankie was born—as Guadalupe Market, a bodega, a little store selling groceries to the ladies who lived in the apartments off this stretch of Folsom. He sold laundry powder, and fresh tortillas from Casa Sanchez so the ladies wouldn’t have to walk all the way to 24th Street. Most of their husbands worked at the Hamm’s Brewery on Bryant Street. Don Rafael himself had worked there, before the accident that took three fingers from his right hand and paid him enough to open the market. He put in a little counter for his wife, Maria Guadalupe, to sell menudo and pozole on weekends. When the brewery closed down in 1972, a lot of the families moved out—to Oakland, Rodeo, Fremont—and Don Rafael’s business stumbled.
The neighborhood had already been changing. It was filling up with Americanos: college boys renting the cheap apartments, demente artists, los hippies (God knows what they did in their places), lesbianas holding hands in the street, homosexuals in blue jeans and boots. At lunch there were firemen and mechanics from the Muni garage looking for sandwiches. Americanos always wanted sandwiches.
Don Rafael had heard talk about a carniceria that had been struggling, like Guadalupe Market. Raúl Durán, the owner, had just changed the place over into a taqueria. One day he walked down 16th Street to Valencia and found the place, the front freshly painted with the new name: Taqueria La Cumbre. Raúl’s wife, Señora Michaela, was rolling up carne asada and beans, with a little rice to keep the juice from soaking through, in a couple of wheat-flour tortillas and charging two dollars, four times the price of a taco! And people were buying, Americano kids were standing in line for these burritos, as Señora Michaela was calling them (one of her cooks was from Sonora, and it was he who gave them the name, after the rolled-up tacos from home).
Don Rafael expanded Maria Guadalupe’s counter. They started selling tacos, and pozole and sopa de res every day. They made these rolled-up super tacos—these burritos—setting two flour tortillas together like shingles on a roof (Maria Guadalupe tried using corn tortillas, but the juices from her frijoles de olla soaked through too fast), adding a clump of soft chicken and onions from her Guadalajara-style tinga de pollo, topping it like a taco with cilantro and salsa verde, and rolling it up tight (you needed foil, the expensive heavy kind, to keep it from unrolling).
And while Don Rafael was a businessman, he was also, in his own way, a philosopher, an optimist who believed that God had created all kinds of people in the world so they could come together. And that was his responsibility as a man given life in the image of Jesus to bring people together. He took down the Guadalupe Market sign and put up a new one, with a name that had great meaning for him: El Muelle, the pier. In his mind his little taqueria at the corner of Folsom Street and 19th would be a new ark, like the piers on the Embarcadero, only an ark in reverse, a place where every kind of person on God’s planet would disembark, to live together in harmony, under the patient eyes of Saint Francis.
Maria Guadalupe, a realist, would roll her eyes when Don Rafael talked about his vision, as many times as she rolled burritos for the Muni workers and firemen and crazy mustached maricones who started standing in line, just like at La Cumbre.
Frankie looks up at the mural Don Rafael asked the painter Juan Carlos to put on El Muelle’s back wall, a great pier with the Bay Bridge in the background, with the faces of hundreds of different people in a rainbow of colors, all stepping down the gangway of a ship to come to this city named for that other man with holy eyes, San Francisco. Frankie thinks how much the sun has faded the colors of those faces—funny how he never really noticed just how tired this place was looking. He has a fleeting thought to close the blinds against the late-afternoon sun, to protect it, but his phone rings, the sound of a tinny, robotic harp with invisible fingers on the strings. Frankie looks down to see the caller ID number of Cabrillo Capital LLC.
Fuck, Frankie says to himself, looking around to see if anyone’s watching, heading for the little office in back. So this is really happening.
Editors note: part two of the Burrito Prince of Folsom Street continues below.
The Burrito Prince of Folsom Street was published in the Winter 2017 issue. © 2017 Edible San Francisco. Illustrations © 2017 Dan Bransfield.