Ducking the Elephant in the Room

The day takes shape slowly. Getting out the door just happens. Once you do the bus is ten minutes late. Then, so is the MAX, but you don't mind. You've been quietly extricating yourself from time. You wait in the chill beneath an interstate, listening to teenagers gossip. Staring at the spikes lining the steel beams beneath the roadway you think perhaps a bit too long about pigeon deterrence.

Boarding the wide slick new cars of the Green Line, you laugh occasionally at a Wait Wait Don't Tell Me podcast and take another stab at the crossword you started two days prior. Disembarking in Lents, you pass a crop of green, swirling, solar panel-topped sculptures, walk beyond cold, new planters toward Foster Road and gaze on Lincoln's giant face on the side of the New Copper Penny.

This landscape is neither foreign nor familiar, a domestic banlieue swept to the edge of the green movement's model city.

The mission is murky at best. You walk west under another freeway, looking for a well-reviewed video game merchant you found online. It's not clear why you went this far. You don't play games often enough to make them a destination, though you suspect the entire point was to ask just such questions. Wedged next to a 7-11, the store is smaller than you imagined, as cluttered and cramped inside as the clamoring chaos of the intersection between which it's squeezed. A man lingers at the counter, trying to squeeze pennies from the business as he sells old games. There are too many people in the store. Despite nostalgia stirred by the pile of old NES games all you want to do is leave. Asking a quick question of the clerk, he assumes you're there to make a trade and for some reason won't look in your eyes when he talks with you. Nothing in the store interests you enough to make a purchase.

Not quite ready for lunch, you head the other way beneath the freeway to see if you can find some sort of treasure to justify the journey. Past a barber shop and tiny antique shop and a handful of businesses closed for the weekend, all you can see in the distance is a long road.

You turn back toward the MAX line, but can't ignore a taqueria down a side street. Inside, fake pepper and onion and garlic plants line the ceiling. Elephant statues raise their trunks from every surface behind the counter. They're outnumbered only by ducks. Rubber ducks. Ceramic mallards. Wooden drakes and plastic hens. Ducks. Everywhere.

Everything else is as traditional as taquerias seem anywhere. Staticy TV stations play spanish-language music videos. Hand-written specials fill a dry-erase board. A dozen bottles of hot sauces and salsas sit on the edge of every table. The red, white and green of the Mexican flag on the wall mirrors the facade's paint job.

You make your order quickly, and simply. Tacos. One pollo, one pastor, and one cabeza.

You sit down at a middle booth, ponder discoveries and road trips and that burning itch to travel. When you pull from your bag the latest issue of Harper's, it opens to an excerpt from a writer who spent five weeks in residency at London's Heathrow Airport. He describes arrivals. Expectancy. The cultural filters thousands of us pass through each and every day. Crunching tortilla chips and hot salsa you sink into the words, wishing you wrote that way, or that you could be there, documenting the everyday, spinning it into lush, rich language.

A family comes through the door, led by a girl of no more than seven hobbling on a cane. She's dwarfed by the boisterous entry of her oversized relatives. They settle into the larger table in the middle of the room. You find yourself inching away as one sits near you, the slightly unpleasant odor of her exhaustion hitting your nostrils just as your meal arrives.

Embarrassed by your quick judgment, you let the discomfort pass and eavesdrop on their cheerful Saturday afternoon conversation. They plan errands. The mother recalls a long-passed uncle's favorite foods. The boys and girls chirp. A man, a boyfriend or brother or son, sits at the head of the table and doesn't utter a word. Not one. The women talk about an 18-year-old niece's thwarted hopes to hire a male stripper. The $150 cost of the house-call is too high and she's too young to go to the 21-and-over club in town with male exotic dancers. Mother and daughter and aunt discuss the situation as the younger kids laugh and joke, oblivious. It doesn't seem anything is resolved, except the family's decision to include tacos with breaded fried beef in their order.

You sprinkle a little too much habenero sauce on top of your second taco, the chicken. A middle-class couple walks in. The woman is cute, blonde, maybe mid-30's and wearing a long, knit sweater-jacket. Her partner is about the same age, with a meticulously cropped red beard around his chin and a tight, pastel green t-shirt from another Northwestern metropolis. They ponder the menu and make their orders. They're loud, somehow more so than the sum cacophony of the family, which somehow seems to have gained even more members in the fifteen minutes or so they've been in the restaurant.

You turn your attention away and sip your lime Jarritos. A waiter offers more tortilla chips. Though you decline, on each of your remaining five or six you carefully dab a few drops of a different sauce to find just the right one for your last taco. The name of the favorite escapes you now, but you sprinkle it carefully on the taco, only a touch so as not to overpower the pork.

Taking a bite, you sit back in the booth and notice another herd of elephant figurines in the corner.