Sunday, December 12, 2010

The High Price of Beans

The Price of Beans.
My jaw snapped, sending a sharp stab through my tongue, suddenly thrown back to the now of it, I stood up and saw myself. The backpack was slung open in the morning sun, I stirred, grit in teeth and eyes rimmed with dried tears, my puny reality lay there for all to see. All flies and ants, all lizards and crows.

What was I, woman, mother, doing in a boxcar, in the rail-yards of East Los Angeles? The boys were awake, silent. They knew no one must see us- no one must know of a family living in the turn around. Compton was not the place where you dare sleep, or eat peacefully. We were rabbits in a land of wolves.

I signaled my sons to look around, explored the immediate surroundings and slid behind a wagon ...relaxed and hungry I then attended the day...We were to function and hide. One by one we picked beans from the carrier floor, in the cloth bag, five, ten pounds later, we gathered wood close to the tracks. Ever vigilant and aware, we had a pile of rotten boards, branches from a lone tree by the far tracks, discarded toys, handles and papers.

I had to cook the beans, the wood so dry, very little smoke escaped, clean bright flames jumped and fanned the fears, ever present around us. I had one gallon of water left, one pot, enamel, blue and a wooden spoon, two bay leaves and a sprig of artemesia I had picked earlier. The raw smell of legumes rose and teased, and scared me.

I took the last bit of salt pork, passing it under their noses, little button noses, smiling back and wrinkled in tacit knowledge...We were going to eat, real warm, real food. How much does happiness cost? A glance, a finger across lips, a secret.

Before the beans were done, we wiped our tin dishes, each, slowly, eyes watching every angle, we dodged and sank into the railroad car when a pick-up from Union Pacific veered at the end of the open yard. Soon to disappear in the vast sea of discarded and debilitated wagons waiting for repair or vintage status. A pigeon suddenly flapped and fear returned to make its presence known.

I killed the fire and brought the large pot inside, in the corner where view was blocked by the sliding doors, we ate, one bite, one slow, slurped spoonful at a time. One look and seconds were in order, a cup, plus another, and then we saved some. Sun was about to set when I heard scuffles, screams, shouts. Men' s voices came closer and closer. I had a choice—to run or to hide— I looked at the boys, stuffed with the first meal in two days, and I knew.

I motioned them to lay flat and silent in the dark recess, counted about how many cars were between the approaching trouble and placed my bag, my steele and me close to the open way. On knees, I peered, ready to leap. A few lights came on in the distance, the city was stirring for nightlife. Cars roared on the street, shots rang, bottles were thrown, muffled sounds of strife and anger.

Suddenly steps ran, not far from us, someone yelling, someone hurting, my heart pumping, my feet cramping, a loud sensory landscape exploding, and my hand held high in silencing stillness. People murmuring urgently, going away, away to the gates, to the streets. Flashlights dying somewhere.

The smell of beans clung to the heavy night air, the boys and I hugged in a mass of warm bodies, sweating the waning fear from our pores—our secret. The headline claimed some unidentified male was found near the East LA turn around, we chose to move before being found. No shelter for us!


  1. Nadine, surely an experience so common for the invisible of society. So poignant, so well written, it brought the reader directly to the core issue. Excellent. R.

  2. RAYMOND, these experiences have brought my children closer, and taught them valuable lessons in sustenance. precious skills and a basket full of memories. thank you for visiting.