The Homeless Cafe

5:15 a.m. Central Phoenix stirs, measures the darkness and slips back into one last dance with its dreams. But just west of downtown, a tiny corner building is busily stretching to life.

Outside the pink brick walls, people mutter and gather up bedrolls and sleeping bags. A man scavenges a nearby Dumpster in the dark while the red Christmas tree atop the Bank of America building twinkles over the skyline. Figures file from shelters and walk the empty streets like zombies in the 36-degree December chill, drawn to the light of the awakening cafe.

The signs in the windows still read "CLOSED," but the stony, jacketed men inside, eyeing steaming cups of coffee at their tables, say otherwise. The line at the counter is a constant six people deep; a sign there reads "NO CREDIT. PLEASE DON'T ASK." Mostly men, the customers murmur their orders to a guy who takes them down and repeats them to the owner, a woman draped in an apron of green.

"Scrambled," the order taker says; it's another order of the menu's most popular item--two eggs, hash browns and coffee, for $1.60. Another murmur, another scribble. "Another scrambled." And on it goes. "Over easy."

Virtually all of the cafe customers are homeless, and if they're not, chances are they live in one of the cheap hotels or low-rent apartments nearby. They come here for the prices, and for the food, and for the camaraderie, and because it's open at five on a frosty morning, and because the woman who runs the place doesn't shoo them off like other people would.

For that, Lucina Rivera is rewarded with loyalty. At 47, she is younger than many of those she serves, but nearly everyone calls her "Mama." Without conscious effort, her cafe has become a refuge for the homeless, for the addicted and the unstable, for the losers and the down and out--a refuge they have chosen, not one chosen for them. They are her regular customers, some as regular as regular can be, meaning they camp outside and awaken when she opens in the morning.

Some trudge in and buy a 50-cent, 16-ounce cup of coffee and nurse it for hours, watching an assortment of cafe regulars--the scrawny, impish woman who looks like a strung-out Nancy Reagan; the migrant workers with the kiddy boom box; the Morgan Freeman look-alike with the white streak in his Afro; a 13-year fixture named Ruben who stumbles around blankly or helps out around the cafe, or occasionally does both.

Others take their coffee and head for one of the many labor services in the area, where they wait for their name to be called for a day's work at $4.50 an hour. A core few plant themselves just outside the cafe on plastic chairs and milk crates, forming a ragged coffee klatsch that will switch to cheap beer by early afternoon.

Mama understands us, they say. Mama treats us like people. Mama is one hell of a great lady.

Lucina Rivera also knows when to lay down the line. She'll bend rules to lend a hand, but woe to those who break them.

By 6:30 a.m., a cloud of cigarette smoke dominates the room, drowning out any breakfast aromas. You can buy single cigarettes at the counter--15 cents apiece or two for a quarter--but it's cheaper to roll your own, and many do.

They stream in with their backpacks and bedrolls and plastic bags thick with survival gear--clothing, toilet paper, water bottles. Among them, they share a shaker of salt, a shaker of pepper and a bottle of tongue-searing homemade hot sauce. They sit on red-vinyl chairs at small tables or at one of five tiny booths along the wall--about 35 places in all. When they're full, Ruben bellows a directive: "Okay, anybody that ain't drinkin' coffee, out the door! We need the seats!"

A while later, two scruffy day laborers erupt into a spat over money, prompting annoyed calls of "Peace!" as the conflict escalates and threatens to produce blows. It's too early for this stuff. "Peace!"

One of them finally leaves.
An old man from the nearby Seventh Avenue Hotel comes in with a videocam, collecting footage of his friends. A woman with short, spiky hair sits with a biker friend and mugs for the lens. The camera zooms in as she says, in official monotone: "My name's Leslie, uh, we're sitting here in La Esquinita cafe in Phoenix, Arizona, at Seventh Avenue and Jefferson." What more can she say? "Uh, that's it."

A sad-eyed woman in a pink shirt tires of her half-finished hash browns and gives them to a guy arguing with himself at a nearby table. He takes them eagerly, continuing his private conversation. But the woman doesn't give him salt and pepper; the oversight turns out to be his downfall.

When the man wanders around trying to find out who last had the everyday spices, Rivera sees him from the kitchen. She comes out wiping her hands on her apron, ready for battle, a five-foot, rosy-cheeked fireball with scrunched, frizzy red hair. "Out," she says.

He tries to plead with her, but he is not a man who can readily control the words that come out of his mouth, and Rivera is already on her way to the kitchen. She returns with a sheet of aluminum foil, slides the food onto it and shoves it at him. He is still pleading.

"No. I know you," she snaps. "You nasty man--get out of here--right now!" She sends him away with a flurry of expletives in her native Spanish. He looks around for support, but he won't get any here. Mama has spoken.

It was not always this way for Rivera, this being Our Lady of the Homeless. When she and her then-husband opened La Esquinita 14 years ago, she wasn't exactly thrilled by an area teeming with the unpredictable walking tatters of society. For one thing, she spoke no English.

They'd moved to Arizona in 1978 from the Mexican state of Durango, and found a house on Durango Street in the Golden Gate neighborhood near 18th Street and Buckeye Road. When the city, anticipating airport expansion, leveled the barrio in the early 1980s, the couple figured to use some of the relocation money to go into business.

Rivera's husband knew Louie Pritzky, an aging goodheart who owned seveCR>n or eightlow-rent hotels downtown, including the Seventh Avenue Hotel. At one time, huge, painted letters outside the hotel read: "God Bless America and Louie for Helping the Unfortunate." Louie was known far and wide for letting the rent slide for a while if a guy couldn't pay, but so many people took advantage of his goodwill that he finally had the clerk paint the "Louie" off the sign. He died 11 years ago.

Louie offered them three months' free rent and utilities on a business location; it was too much for a hotel pastry chef and his dishwasher wife to resist, even if the location was the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and Jefferson, at the center of downtown decay.

The couple remodeled the new building and called it "La Esquinita," or "The Little Corner Place." Lucina Rivera opened up and waited nervously. And then, just as she feared ... these unwashed legions, these odes to dysfunction and addiction, these products of hard times and poor education, began pouring through her door. She misunderstood orders; angry customers threw the plates back at her. She learned to recognize English swear words.

Little by little, she gained the customers' respect by welcoming their business. She gave free coffee or breakfast to some because she pitied them; others got free food because they scared her.

"Louie said, 'Be careful of those people,'" Rivera remembers. "'If you treat them nice, they will watch and care over you.' I just did what he told me."

Gradually, her maternal qualities emerged. She was the second oldest of 12 children and had five of her own. She knew how to scold someone if he--or she--needed it. She came home one day and told her husband, "I can't take it anymore, I can't take the people, I'm gonna have a heart attack. I'm gonna hit somebody." And the next day, somebody ticked her off; she took a broom and was about to let loose with it when the guy said, "You can't hit me. You're not my mom."

And she said: "Yes, I am."
"So from then on," says cafe helper Joe Villalobos, "they started calling her 'Mama.' And the name just spread. They'd come from all over the place, places like New York, and say, 'Our friends sent us to Mama's. Where's Mama?'"

Meanwhile, her ex-husband ran into trouble she's not specific about, except to say that her marriage went south. So did her ex-husband, home to Mexico, leaving her with the modest house they'd bought on Southern near Ninth Avenue in Phoenix.

Her family helps run the cafe. Rivera's 23-year-old son, Hector Cervantes, mans the place until closing, with the company of the kitchen's black-and-white TV; Rivera's boyfriend, Filemon Rios, sweeps and takes the morning's orders. Daughter Susy Cervantes, 21, works at B.F. Goodrich these days, but used to run the place four years ago when her mother traveled to Mexico. She, like her mother's brother and his wife, works when needed, especially during the holidays.

Then there's Lucina's 13-year-old daughter, Aurora Torrez, who has been putting in time at the cafe since she was born. When the labor pains hit, Lucina Rivera went straight from La Esquinita to the hospital; after Aurora was born, Rivera kept her under a table in the kitchen, unable to afford a baby sitter.

Now a seventh-grader at Phoenix Preparatory Academy, Aurora often helps out on weekends.

"I am happy to have a place," Rivera says. "When I take a day off, I really miss the people. They don't come here just to eat. Some say, 'I just want you to tell me off.'"

Despite the sign on the wall, plenty of them rack up credit, the figures duly noted in a tablet behind the counter. The policy has occasionally backfired; one lady ran up a bill of $200 and then disappeared. Sometimes, if someone is short of money, Rivera lets them sweep or help unload groceries in exchange for a hot meal.

She has come a long way since the days when those walking tatters and unwashed legions made her cower in fear. God help anyone she finds peeing in the parking lot, and if she catches anyone messing with her prized burgundy Chevrolet pickup, well, Vaya con Dios, hombre. "They're scared of me now," she says, laughing.

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.

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?"

"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.

"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?

"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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