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.

"I look at them like they're regular people--even though sometimes they're really raggedy and stinky, and some are drug addicts--just as long as they respect me and my family," Aurora says.

What the customers do outside the cafe is their business. Rivera is no saint and she is no judge, but she is a mom, and maybe that is what they want. Whatever--she has a business to run. She watches out for her customers while she can, and they watch out for her, and the relationship usually stops right there--in the cafe parking lot.

This Christmas Eve morning, a man in a blue Windbreaker announces that a local church is serving "hot breakfasses" underneath the Seventh Avenue bridge to anyone willing to listen to a little preaching. Maybe one or two people bite, but the only holiday preaching most of them want to hear today comes from a short lady with a cackling, infectious laugh.

At a quarter to ten, Rivera finally makes her grand entrance in a red blazer, breaking through a line a dozen people deep that reaches to the far door. She springs immediately into action, wiping down tables, serving up pancakes and breakfast burritos. She says good mornings to the guys in caps and old jackets, the women in ratty coats and aged sweat shirts, the immigrant laborers with thrift-store Windbreakers bearing misgendered names like "Amy."

She asks a guy in a ranchero hat why it's been so long since he's come in. "Because the last time I was here, you threw me out," he reminds her.

Oh, well, it's Christmas Eve, and she's forgotten all about it. The people roll their cigarettes and smell their coffee and greet her as she passes. No one is going to tell them what time to get up or go to sleep or finish their break, but if Mama came over right now and said to put out that cigarette, they'd do it and ask if she needed the floor swept, too.

Okay, okay, she is saying, she will break tradition this year and open for a few hours on Christmas Day because of the demand--even though she's about to spend all afternoon in a family assembly line of tamale making in preparation for tonight's annual dinner. Too many customers are whining about nowhere to go, nothing to do for the holiday, and it's not like she can't. Six to 11, okay? But that's it.

Around the cafe, the fly-drenched pest strips above the tables have given way to Rivera's festive holiday decorations. A set of frilly paper Christmas bells adorns the wall in red next to the counter. Underneath, the words "NO CREDIT" have been exiled to utter insignificance.

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