The Homeless Cafe

Lucina Rivera's cafe provides good food and camaraderie to the homeless and dysfunctional. It's not a charity. It's just Mama's Place.

Family members like to tell about the time a woman at the counter tried to pull a knife on Rivera. Every customer in the place, they say, jumped to Rivera's defense.

"Hi, Mama," customers chirp now from the counter when they order. And now and then, she emerges to banter with the crowd while delivering glistening orders of carne asada or bowls of fuming menudo. Stout and hearty, with a tall, straight nose and cackling laugh, Rivera is the pinball in the machine, bouncing from table to table and lighting up faces as she goes.

"A lot of them tell us they go there because she cheers them up," says daughter Susy Cervantes. "They say that when they're depressed, they go in just to listen to my mom yell at people. They say, 'I would rather come in and listen to her than go out and drink or do something I shouldn't.'"

Oh, sometimes the riffraff fight and explode into loud squabbles. It's like an old Western saloon. The other day, a woman ripped another's blouse off in a tussle; a while back, somebody poked a guy's eye out with a chain. But unless you are the type to lose sleep over cholesterol, secondary smoke and sticky fly strips dangling high above your table, the place is a sheep in wolf's clothing.

In all of 1995, police were called out to the cafe exactly once--for a report of criminal property damage. Still, for son Hector Cervantes, it eases the mind to have a gun around until closing time.

It's Lucina Rivera's attitude toward her customers, though, that makes the place what it unapologetically is--a homeless oasis in thelap of the downtown skyline with sidewalk Winnebagos, the shopping carts loaded for street travel, parked under the palm trees.

Says sister-in-law Gloria Rivera: "When she goes to buy the food, she always gets fresh stuff. She says, 'These guys know if it's not.' One time she went to this place where she buys the tortillas, and the lady there asked her, 'Why don't you just buy day-old? They're just for the winos anyway.'

"And she said to her, 'Don't you be talking like that.' Some people have the attitude that these people are nothing."

"She treats them like people," Susy Cervantes says, "and they respect that."

At La Esquinita, you're just as likely to overhear a debate about the best place to buy a 40-ounce bottle of King Cobra as you are a harangue about the continuing impact of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. More than 6,000 homeless people live in Maricopa County, and a decent chunk of them--about 200 to 250 people--grab their morning java at La Esquinita every day.

A glum, unshaven man in his 40s with a busted lip mutters to himself: "If I get past this bout with alcohol, I swear I'm never gonna touch beer again." The wife, the properties--all gone. He sips his coffee.

"Sometimes, I think I'll meet another woman and get married, and that'll straighten my ass out."

At a corner booth, a guy hoists a fist, offering his watch for sale. "Keeps good time," he announces to the din of the cafe. "Five bucks." He finds a taker.

"This place is good entertainment," says a guy named Steve, one of the few who can afford a cheap apartment. He's stopped here every morning for three years on his way to the corner where he gets picked up for regular roofing work.

"I've met all kinds of people down here. A lawyer--his wife left and messed him up. This guy didn't take a shower for a whole year. A lot of these people are down here because something happened to them."

Many of them stay for years. And the longer they do, the harder it is for them to climb out. Something kills their spirit. Sometimes, they just let it die. Or sometimes, riding the armrest of monthly government-issued checks, they think they've found answers the rest of society hasn't: Go ahead, they say, punch a clock. Be slaves to your possessions. Nobody's gonna tell me what to do or what time to get up. A good number of those who frequent La Esquinita have settled in for the long haul.

Sometimes, it's hard to understand why. For instance, there was a guy Rivera and her family called Red, whose dad would ride up in a limousine and hand him money and tell him to come to work, that he always had a place in his company. But Red would never go.

"A lot of them have college degrees and they're out in the streets," Susy says. "They don't like the responsibilities of paying rent; life is too much of a stress. They just want to be free."

At the same time, many of them recognize that maybe there are good reasons the road they've chosen isn't in the guidebooks. They tell younger people who show up in their ranks that there's still time to make something of themselves. They ask Rivera's daughter, Aurora, about the prep academy and tell her to stay in school.

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