No Man's Land

The unincorporated Adams family.

Cathy and Bernie have known each other long enough to have given up any trace of a formal boss-employee relationship. One day, when Bernie was minding the stand, she was overheard saying this to Cathy by phone:

"Yeah, I got slammed with customers and everything and you weren't here, but you know what? I could care less if you're here, because let me tell you, you're not missed. If you like me so much, why don't you bring me a hambooger? I'm starving out here. [pause] No, I don't want any of that homemade crap. Bring me a hambooger."

After that, a woman in office clothes appeared, saying she'd come to pick up a pot of homemade green chile. Or maybe it was a load of burritos? Bernadette knew nothing. She can tell you how to make green chile -- there's a lot of "you get a lump of pork about this big" and "then you put in some flour" -- but she only sells the raw material. On the other hand, maybe Cathy made a pot last night? Well, check back tomorrow. At this stand, there's a lot of check back tomorrow. Meanwhile, back to today.

The soft sell: Cathy Morales (left), Victor Sanchez and Bernie Drayton at the vacant lot on Sheridan.
The soft sell: Cathy Morales (left), Victor Sanchez and Bernie Drayton at the vacant lot on Sheridan.

It started about 8 a.m., when Morales employee Victor Sanchez showed up, unlocked the gates of the chain-link fence that constitutes the compound's only security, and began sorting through the Big Jims from Brighton. At 8:15 he paused to admit a small motorcade from the Adams County building department. One of the men nailed an official notice to a stake: The owner of this lot, one Stephen Friedlander of Rockville, Maryland, had been warned about the scrap wood, trash and slash that litter his lot, in particular the wooded section east of the chile stand. Since he hasn't stepped up to mitigate this "environmental blight," Adams County will spend the next few days doing it for him, and he'll pay.

At 11 a.m., a silent white man in a white truck pulled up, purchased a bushel of mixed Hatch and waited for Victor to roast it. Just then, an itinerant salesman with a load of sports duffels in one hand and a hard plastic briefcase in the other walked onto the lot. Barely out of the zit years, wearing brilliant-white gangster/lounging shoes and a goatee, he parked his wares next to a pile of chiles and spat out a monologue at breakneck pace:

"The company I represent is like totally overstocked so I'm hitting the streets to promote the product which is normally 25 bucks today I give it to you for twenty or two for forty which is twenty each when you add it up! What's in the case? Oh we sell guns, no background check required, no permit, ha ha, just kidding. Barbecue tools. Check 'em out. Nice! Today just twenty dollars. You interested?"

No sale.

"How 'bout you, dude?" he said, turning to Victor and whipping a handful of Walkman headphones out of his jacket. "Look at these! I'm hitting the street! They're overstocked! Nice, huh? Huh?"

"No!" Victor yelled, employing the few words of English he claims to speak. "No! Stop! No!"

"Okay, dude. Have a nice day."

The morning slam hit: two carloads of picky old ladies in battered Toronados. Victor hopped to it. Then Cathy arrived, having taken her kids to school, gauged the chile supply on 72nd and Pecos, visited her parents at their stand at 64th and Lowell, and run by the used-car lot to check accounting. Bernadette came to work a half-hour late, bringing not hamboogers, but hot, homemade burritos served with extremely fresh green chile. She assembled the Styrofoam plate almost fussily and watched while her boss ate. Then she cleaned up and went to help with the Big Jims.

Cathy Morales has her eye on the Adams County crew. She's never walked all the way through Stephen Friedlander's seven acres of land, but the presence of the county's backhoes makes it newly interesting.

"My dad talks to this guy Friedlander when he leases the land every year. I don't know much about him except he's a lawyer in Maryland. And now I know he didn't clean up all this garbage, which is stupid. A lot of people could do it for him cheaper than Adams County."

"He could have hired my cousin's grandma," Bernie points out. "She has that demolition company with her son Junior."

"He could have," Cathy agrees.

Thinking about the land, the big trees and chunks of busted-up concrete, she remembers that neighborhood kids play somewhere in there; you can hear their voices. You hear other things, too.

"Some old Indian told me it used to be an Indian place, maybe a burial ground? He came here last week to buy chile, and he said the Indian place was back there in the woods, and that's why they couldn't ever sell it. I also heard something bad about an underground sewage line. They been trying to sell it since we been here. The surveyors have to come out every time it goes on the market, but it doesn't sell."

She decides to take a look around, walking back into the woods through waist-high stinging nettles on what might once have been a road, her many gold chains glinting in the sun as they disappear into her ripped workout shirt.

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