A Portable Feast

In the world of the lunchero, the food is hot, the drinks are cold, and the turf wars are downright dangerous

He still smells soapy clean, but he has 36 stops and a long day in the sun ahead. Elbow resting on the windowsill, arm outstretched into the wind, he holds the morning's first cigarette as he drives. The vehicle's rear compartment, stacked with merchandise and ice, lists slightly to one side. Water trickles from beneath the truck like sand in an hourglass.

After a ten-minute drive, he turns into the rear parking lot of Mary's Carpet & Tile. His horn blares as if it were the world's loudest three-note harmonica. Aguada dismounts, change belt clanking. He has the build of a middleweight boxer whose stomach has gone a little soft, solid and stocky with plenty of reach, and quick, powerful legs.

He begins by propping open the truck's wings, which create faux awnings, as well as shade, for his customers. Lifting the side door of the food compartment, he unveils a miniwarehouse packed with merchandise. From the compartment's ceiling a Latin love ballad spills out on to the lot. Aguada has rigged a car speaker above a shelf of potato chips. The storage space is about eleven feet long and three feet deep. At the base is a refreshment cooler stocked with chilled cans of Arizona iced tea, cartons of chocolate milk, bottles of Gatorade and Pepsi, as well as apples, oranges, and tangerines. Above, on three shelves that run the length of the side compartment, are assorted snacks: plastic-wrapped wedges of pound cake, bags of plantain chips, Snickers bars, ham and cheese sandwiches, Ritz crackers, muffins, bread pudding, dulce de leche. To the left, the condiments: ketchup, hot sauce, mustard, mayonnaise, relish.

Luis Lopez, godfather of luncheros, went from selling ice cream to owning the most prominent commissary in the county
Steve Satterwhite
Luis Lopez, godfather of luncheros, went from selling ice cream to owning the most prominent commissary in the county
Selin Aguada (on the right with two warehouse workers), begins his day with the purchase of beverages and prepackaged foods, and the crucial visit to the ice machine
Steve Satterwhite
Selin Aguada (on the right with two warehouse workers), begins his day with the purchase of beverages and prepackaged foods, and the crucial visit to the ice machine

Aguada opens the rear compartment door to reveal food warmed by the truck's propane-fueled oven. Behind Plexiglas windows are assorted hot foods on several shelves: tender grilled chicken coated with barbecue sauce, chicken croquettes, prewrapped fried thigh-and-leg combos, hot dogs, hamburgers, steak sandwiches, medianoches, French toast, a Milanese sandwich of veal and sauce and mozzarella, chicharrónes, two trays of rice. To the right of the chow is a giant silver coffeemaker, self-serve.

Workers swoop down on the rear and right side of the vehicle, shouting greetings, grabbing hot food from the back and juices from the side. A carpetlayer heaps portions of rice, potatoes, and roasted chicken onto a heavy-duty cardboard plate; another eschews a plate and grabs directly at a taquito, the oil dripping down his fingers. A third hands Aguada a five-dollar bill. "Did you see the Heat?" he asks the lunchero.

"No, I went to sleep early last night," says Aguada, pumping the pistons of his change maker.

"Here we talk about everything," jokes outlet manager Armando Dominguez. "Politics, baseball, and faggots."

With fourteen years of experience on this route, Aguada has learned the special preferences of his customers. He stocks up in the morning on hot food from Los Viñalesos and on desserts from Mis-Postres. His daily choices have become second nature. In all there is about $500 worth of merchandise on the truck, of which he will sell between $400 and $450. At the end the day he'll discard the unsold entrées and restock packaged foods for the next day. In the morning he'll buy a new batch of meals. On a good day he'll have cleared $150 in profit.

As self-employed businessmen, drivers pay taxes on their income every three months. But not all luncheros are as forthcoming as Aguada about their earnings. This being an all-cash business, fudging on tax forms is a common practice. "You know how it is. Everybody reaches in and takes a little; not everything you make is reported," says another driver, who declined to give his name.

Now and again Aguada grabs a frayed and food-stained spiral-bound notebook. In its light-green pages he scrawls updates of customer tabs. These credit accounts are paid off twice monthly, in accordance with the workers' pay schedule. He knows nearly every customer by name.

Oscar Rodriguez, a carpet installer with a yen for pork sandwiches, says he amasses $15 to $20 of expenses per week on credit. He's typical of the lunchero crowd: a blue-collar laborer without much time to eat, and limited funds. A typical construction worker, for example, has a break of about fifteen minutes to eat lunch, hardly enough time to dash out for fast food, assuming he has a car. Besides, the quality and variety proffered by your average lunchero puts Mickey D's to shame. And when was the last time Ronald McDonald let you eat on layaway?

Aguada has been servicing Mary's as long as he has held this route. He secured the venue in an informal meeting with Mary's owner. While many drivers complain about having to offer kickbacks and/or free food to owners and foremen to secure permission to stop at a business, Aguada says no money changed hands to get this account. The owner has been pleased with his service to this day. So, does Armando Dominguez, the manager, get free food? "Are you kidding?" Dominguez bellows cheerily. "He charges me more!"

After the last of three groups of employees make their purchases, Aguada rearranges the drinks encased in ice. He pats down the cubes, wipes off the rear counter, lowers the doors, and takes off again.

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