Tonight, this happened to me.
Tony’s Tamales, on Woodrow Wilson Avenue, past the bridge over the railroad switchyard and into dilapidated, industrial west Jackson, is one of our favorite haunts. They make their tamales, tacos, and nachos with turkey meat, and they are divine, worth chancing west Jackson and its car-backfires-that-might-be-gunshots-and-they’re-probably-not-but-still. You might say I’m being paranoid but Tony’s has burglar bars and doesn’t allow any walk-ins after 2:00pm. La Bella and I, inevitably, get a craving for drive-thru tamales about 7 or 8:00pm, around the witching hour of the first round of drunk drivers and the imagined gangbangers in our fever dreams.
Today, I came home from work around 6:00pm, to discover in my mailbox an envelope from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Now, the folks at SPLC continued the good, hard fight of the civil rights movement into the 1970s—not the speechifying of Dr. King or Malcolm X of the 1960s but the hard grind of daily organizing, filing suits, and dealing with bomb threats. So, I’m in SPLC’s corner. Still, I’ve never given them financial support—shame on me—and there’s no reason for me to be on their mailing list other than that I’m black. I tore open the envelope. Ten bucks! In cash! To me! Ten bucks won’t kill my credit card debt or pay off my car note but, still, it’s ten free bucks.
A handwritten note explained all:
Take the change + donate a copy or give one away or keep it—up to you.
Peace + thanks!
Of course. My friend Jed Oppenheim, a tall, rail-thin white boy from L.A. with a halting speaking voice but surprisingly good dance moves, works for Jackson’s branch of SPLC. Last week, he mentioned by email a desire to get a couple copies of my Tribute to Whitney Balliett zine. I’d forgotten all about it; it’s been that kind of week. Hell, it’s been that kind of month.
My wife came home from work, and we talked. I told her about Jed’s small miracle, and she told me I should use it to treat myself to a Tony’s Tamales meal. I took my ten bucks and off I went. As usual, it was just about 8:00pm.
The voice coming through the drive-thru speaker was a woman’s, and that was a first for me at Tony’s. I ordered my usual nachos—laden with jalapenos, spiced turkey meat, diced tomatoes, and the “cheese” that tastes so wonderful and decadent—and a couple of tacos for La Bella. (And, okay, two tacos for me.) As I added it up, I realized that, with tax, the meal would be more than $10. No problem—Tony’s takes debit cards. I slid up to the drive-thru window, and wait. That’s usual for Tony’s; they’re slow. Finally, the window opened and, instead of a black woman peering down at me, there’s a six-year-old black girl peering up at me, forehead and glowing smile barely visible above the counter. She had corn rows with plastic beads in them, and a gap where a tooth had recently fallen out, probably already claimed by the Tooth Fairy. A large woman, in a purple t-shirt and hair in a frizzy poofed ponytail, loomed behind her.
“Step up to the speaker, girl. There you go,” said the woman. “Now, can you ask him if he ordered four tacos?”
Still smiling widely, and with chipper confidence, the girl said, “Did you order four tacos?”
“Yes, I sure did.”
“Good, now ask him if he had a Nachos and More.”
“Okay,” the girl said and turned back to me. “Did you have a Nachos and More?”
She couldn’t wait to spit out—didn’t even wait for the woman to say it—“And did you want peppers and sour cream?”
“I sure do. Thank you so much,” I said.
“You done good, girl,” said the woman, rubbing the girl’s head. “I should get you to take orders yourself.”
“You’d be great,” I said. The girl beamed and beamed.
“Now, let’s see what he owes us,” said the woman. She poked at the cash register. “Okay, tell him that’ll be $11.42.”
“That’s be $11.42,” said the girl.
“Good deal,” I said. “Now, I can pay you ten dollars in cash and do the rest with my card, or I can do it all with my card.”
The woman took the cash but turned away my card. “This’ll be fine.”
“No,” I said. “That’s not right. Here, let’s just do it all on the card.”
She shook her head, rubbed the beaming girl’s head again. “No, really, this is fine right here.” She handed me my food. “You have a good night.”
“Thank you. And thank you,” I said to the girl. And again to the woman: “Really, thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome. Have a wonderful night.”
I drove across the railroad bridge again, back to home, with that girl’s happy smile and that woman’s generosity over a dollar and forty-two cents following me all the way. I’m not sure which was the better miracle.