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.

One cold December morning before heading out to meet his ride, Steve the roofer sits with his coffee and talks to a young woman holding a bag of stuffed animals. She has the disheveled look of an orphaned kitten. "How old are you, Wendy?"

"20."
"You should go to trade school. That's what I did. I got more trades than anybody down here. There ain't nothing I can't do."

Wendy looks away, at the menu with its missing letters, at the cluttered kitchen shelves stockpiled with Styrofoam cups and flour, and runs a hand up the back of her uncombed hair. The friends she walked in with are next to her, safe in their own discussion.

"You got family?"
She nods.
"Where?"
"Oregon."

"Why don't you go home? These people ain't no good. They don't want to work. They want to be here."

Wendy shifts restlessly and doesn't say anything.
Outside, a half-dozen people rest against the walls of the restaurant, rolling cigarettes, killing time. They'll be here still when the place shuts down. A trio of carts piled high with belongings sits nearby. As the day passes, discarded coffee-cup litter gives way to crushed cans of Milwaukee's Best and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Some of these folks are here all the time. They have dibs on the spot. Some got tired of waiting for their names to be called for day labor, or just decided not to work today. Like many in their situation, they regard strangers suspiciously, having decided that, in general, society does not keep its word.

"Mama knows us," says a skinny Chicago native named Robert who does carpentry work when he can find it. "A lot of people see us and just walk by with their noses in the air, let's put it that way. Mama respects us. A lot of people don't."

Robert loiters outside the cafe with a few of the regulars. Ruben, the guy long adopted by Rivera's family as a cafe fixture, points out the campsite to which he lays proud claim, a patch of concrete underneath an iron-grated window of the cafe. He says, with palpable reverence, that Mama lets him help out despite his mental imbalance, his problems with drinking.

Ed, a seasoned, crusty man with a growth on his leg and a chip on his shoulder, sits in the captain's chair, feeding the others from an emptying case of Budweiser set next to him like an old dog. Bobby, a scraggly yellowbeard, jokes with a Hopi woman wearing a red hooded sweat shirt and a cap reading "Here Comes Trouble."

"This is as close to home as some of us have," Bobby says.
"It's like home to everybody that hangs around," the woman says in a delicate staccato. "I can't put it any other way."

"She's got a big heart," Bobby says.
"That right there--I can't put it any other way," the woman says.
"This is where everybody spends their money," says Robert from Chicago. "Two eggs, hash browns and a coffee for $1.60--when you make only $28 a day, that's a hell of a good deal."

A man walks up; Ed suddenly recognizes him as one of the old regulars. The guy is Greyhounding from Abilene to somewhere, had a three-hour layover in Phoenix and hurried over here to see who was still around. He catches up with Ed and then Ruben, who grabs him in his favored greeting, a strong but playful headlock.

"Why can't you just say 'Merry Christmas' like everyone else?" Abilene says.
Linda, a Navajo woman evicted by her family because of alcohol problems, steps away from the scene and says never mind to anything the others say right now; they're really buzzed. "These people, I just want to smack 'em sometimes. Their attitude. Someone tries to talk to them nice, and they act like, 'Who the hell are you?' They think everyone is looking at them like, 'I'm better than you.'

"These people don't have to be homeless. They just don't want to do what it is they have to do. A lot of people feel sorry for them. That's the wrong attitude."

The Hopi woman asks Ed for another beer. He teases, then retrieves one from the cardboard box. She takes it with both hands. The cans pile up in a scene played out here every day, every week, every month, every year.

"Merry Christmas, kid," Ed says.
"Merry Christmas to you too, Ed."

At 9 a.m. Christmas Eve, a day when Lucina Rivera traditionally offers free coffee and doughnuts for everyone, Aurora Torrez is sweeping the cafe floor and wearing a Mickey Mouse tee shirt. Her aunt works the counter; another aunt does the cooking.

Everyone wants to know where Mama is.
"She's coming pretty soon," Aurora tells them.
Already, several people have left gifts for Rivera, mostly roses and purses. Aurora receives a ceramic bell from a man in a denim jacket and knit cap in gratitude for a free cup of coffee given on some penniless morning in the past. The gift more than makes up for all the times Aurora's seventh-grade classmates have asked her: You actually work there?

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