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.

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Marc Ramirez