Chasing street meat

On a warm summer night in Santa Barbara, on the streets nearby our little apartment on a hill, a very particular dance was set into motion, cars circling city blocks and pedestrians bustling, hurrying to get to the Bowl. Many summer nights in that area are busy, the roads blocked by taxis dropping off concert-goers finding their way in the Lower Riviera in Santa Barbara where the rich and semi-famous have built their hillside mansions, just above where we reside in our studio loft sandwiched between Craftsman homes and those extravagant castles. Traffic halts for careless jaywalkers, in a rush to find their seats at that outdoor concert venue carved into the hillside. Our tickets in hand, we descended the hill from our apartment a few blocks away, happy and excited for the show ahead.

Once at the Bowl, we find our seats. Tall foaming beers, the rim of the plastic cups find our lips. One after another, the cold drink fill our throats and pour into our bellies, that delightful poison finding its way into our bloodstream and flushing our fingers and faces red and warm. The night becomes a little blurry as we stand and dance and sing from our seats, happy, elated to be here, with each other. There’s no one else who would be more fun to be with, no one quite like my companion in life, my fellow adventurer and explorer through this world that is still so new to us. The lead singer of the band belts out, sha la la la la la la, singing with his hands in his pockets, an apathetic posture, almost as if he was signaling directly to us that he doesn’t really care for us. And to us it doesn’t matter who cares, as long as we care for each other.

The night is young but the music fades. Cheers for an encore bring the band back out for a few more songs, but the concert is soon over. Our faces are tingling, a pleasant and light buzzing from the drink imbibed. We stumble out of the stadium, hand in hand, pulling one another through the crowd. Her once-straightened hair is now a little wavy from sweat, a glisten brought on by the warm summer air, the closeness of strangers, and from the exuberant dancing. Her shining eyes tell the truth of her bright smile, a genuine beam just slightly silly and uninhibited from the drinks. Her fingers are laced between mine, and I follow her, recognizing her Hansel and Gretel trail of radiance, the only thing alive in a sea of zombies. We weave in and out between the crowds of people making our way to our hill, our final climb to some place a little more comfortable, where we’ve made our first home together.

But first, at the foot of the hill there he was, a stationary beacon in the flowing crowd. Others passed him right by – was he just a mirage? Did we imagine him? But the delicious smells were real, that was for sure. The scent of sweet grilled onions and green and red peppers, dripping greasy with oil and striped black from the grill, and the crackling sound of sizzling meat of unknown origin all filled the air. Hot dogs grilled on his makeshift cart, magically appeared on East Anapamu Street. He worked his magic, that Willy Wonky of hot dog vendors, his craft perfected and exact but with style, flipping the ketchup bottle, tossing from one hand to another, and floating the tongs of stringy veggies above the toasted bun. Like Mary Poppins, supplies emerged from the endless bottom of his cart – oil, meat, veggies, mustard, buns, ketchup. We slipped him a crisp green sheet of paper, Abraham Lincoln stamped to the front, and he handed us the plain hot dog. His tongs spread toppings all over, dripped condiments all over that mysterious street meat. We shared one bite after another, our mouths full, stomachs satisfied, mumbling through food and teeth about how delicious it was. On the busy sidewalk, we would stop, take a bite, and share. Near the end, we each take a bite, then take a smaller bite, trying to leave the last bit for each other.

A year later, another concert, but all I can think about is that street meat. I want another street hot dog. At our seats, we drink, listen to the sounds of the bands of our youth, chase nostalgia, fight off getting older, fight off responsibilities. My mouth is watering as we leave, thinking of our mysterious hot dog hero of the night. Arm in arm, again, we go down the street, pushing our way through passersby. We are looking, searching, but he is nowhere to be found. Was it real? Was it all just a dream? We were disappointed, but it didn’t matter. Food was found at home, and we were happy together. Street meat was not what we needed, I realized, we just need each other. All alone, I can grill onions, I can drink, eat greasy food. Without her though, I can’t share an experience, even an experience as mundane as buying food off of a jury-rigged grill on wheels on the street. What I really craved was making memories together, memories of nights of endless merriment, of days exploring new and foreign worlds, of weeks of simple joys like sharing a favorite TV show or cooking an extravagant meal.

Later, on the night of the Christmas Parade, as we walked toward the downtown area where the crowds had already gathered for the floats and bands that would march down State Street, he was there in the distance, a line of people waiting with cash in hand and mouths watering. A warm familiar feeling washed over me, one of joy and longing and elation and desire, but all of that was not directed at the man with the tongs and apron. It was for her beside me, for all the experiences we’ve had together and for all those that we will share in the future.

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