Crystal is sitting on the floor cross-legged, plucking filmy green cilantro leaves from their skinny stems. She's wearing a yellow apron, which is abnormally bright and frilly, considering her (and my) typical funerary garb, so we've been told. There's a beer can by her legs, and Carlos stands behind her, over the sink, washing the dishes. All morning he has been starting fires (literally), shepherding the kitchen herds, handling the meat, which are large and unwieldy slabs of flesh, a slippery sheet of stomach, red and yellow spiced chicken parts, offal-stuffed stomach lining. There is a lot to do.
Jonathan is thinly slicing radishes, while Crystal makes kale salad in the sink because we don't have a bowl big enough. We make do with what we have--people power, mainly; the implements are not important. Carlos is stacking leeks and onions between pork slabs and tying it up in a burlap sack, an old coffee bean bag that I haphazardly sliced with a scissor blade. The pork has been seared and cooked again in its own coffee-filtered drippings. Now it is packaged like a meat present, and set atop a grill to steam through.
We've been shucking corn, and now it's painted with a cotija cheese-lime marinade, sitting on a rack that we pulled out of the oven, because we have so much food and nowhere to put it, nowhere to mix it and marinade it and salt it. Initially we didn't even have any salt, but we ran next door to Ben's house, and he gave us some, which was crucial. We always find a way to make it work.
People are arriving. It's sunny in Oakland, with a bay breeze that we'll never escape, even on the hottest day. The meat is shuttled back and forth between the grill and a barren wooden table, where the food is laid out, unmediated by bowls and plates, just piled directly onto the table, arranged like a garden of earthly delights. Here is green foliage with shredded carrots and jicama and caramelized onions like a blooming bush, here are sliced radishes and cilantro and garnishes for your meat, a pot of beans cooked with pork neck, and spanish rice, simmered like risotto in red spices. Carlos is chopping the meat, and the knife thwacks the table rhythmically, like a metronome. Now everyone lines up, and Carlos is serving people their food, from table to plate, person to person.
It's JD's birthday, and we are all sitting around a long table, eating in the sun. I don't know how they do it--these people, my friends, I am so in awe of my friends, and I've never witnessed such community as this, who serve each other food and drink and music so gracefully, who fill each other's stomachs and carry each other with such love, dedication, humor.
In the early morning, in a warehouse by 47th Avenue in Oakland, we are working with our hands, making food, but it is not a labor, it is camaraderie, the purest that I know. In the afternoon we are so full, and we are aching, sun-tired. We laugh as JD, who is tied up in a sweatshirt, attacks a football-shaped Raider pinata like a madman, and then we scramble to pick up horrible chicken-flavored lollipops that probably cost $1 at the Mexican grocery store.