Five Dollars of Happiness
On the corner of 38th and Walnut next to the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity house is a small, silver, banged-up food cart with a sign reading “N.Y. Gyros”. Philadelphia and particularly the area surrounding the University of Pennsylvania campus is home to a myriad of food trucks, and “N.Y. Gyros” is like any other food truck in that it provides a cheap, unhealthy, and mouthwatering alternative to the overpriced, healthy, and downright unpalatable option Penn’s dining services offers to Penn students.
My first run-in with “N.Y. Gyros” was during my freshman year when I decided to grow a pair for once and try out one of the food trucks that attached themselves to the various edges of campus like suckling puppies do to their mothers. It was October, and the hellacious summer heat had packed its bags and moved out of Philly to make room for the crisp, dry chilliness that characterizes the fall season. As I was making my way on the crosswalk, a warm, inviting smell cut its way through the stiffening cold air and made its way to my nose. Growing up with Japanese home cooking all my life, I didn’t need to be told twice when good food was in the proximity – I immediately dashed my plans of simply going back to my dorm, turned around in the middle of the crosswalk, almost got hit by an inattentive driver, and found myself in a short line for the food truck.
The first thing I noticed was that there was only one person running it, a grown man of at least fifty years of age, sweat pouring down his forehead as he cooked the chicken on the metal plate in front of him as the heat from the cooking shielded him completely from the nippy elements. His dark, black hair, his battered skin, and his soft, brown eyes were all accessories to his most defining feature, a bright, white smile that seemed quite content to remain on his expression regardless of how much chopping and order taking and cooking he was doing at the time.
“What can I get for you, brother?” he asked cheerfully, looking over at me while the chicken fizzled and sizzled between the metallic utensil he was using and the heated metal pan.
I stood in my spot shivering from the cold as I looked at the menu that was listed on the side of the food truck. I wasn’t feeling like eating chicken even though its smell was what had lured me in the first place, so I asked for a lamb platter.
“I’m sorry, brother, but I’m out of lamb right now,” he apologized.
“Oh, well, that’s fine, I’ll take chicken, please,” I sheepishly responded.
He took the chicken he had been cooking, energetically cut it up into smaller pieces, and put it on top of the rice he had already served in the plastic platter. He added some vegetables, lettuce and a slice of tomato, and asked politely if I wanted some white sauce and hot sauce.
“I’ll take both, please.”
With a big grin, he added a healthy dose of the hot sauce, which I would remember next time to not ask for so much because of the hellacious agony it put me through on the bathroom stool the next day, closed the box containing my food, and wrapped it up in a plastic bag.
“That will be five,” he said, as he handed me the food.
I gave him the five dollars and wondered if he spoke a bit of Arabic. As I took the bag from him, I told him in parting, “Shukran!” He laughed and bid me goodbye in Arabic, and his already radiant smile became even more so. I hurried back. I may or may not have been skipping a little.
Several minutes later, I arrived at my dorm and sat down to eat. Something about the man’s smile still stuck in the back of my mind though, and as I unwrapped the plastic bag and opened up the box containing that delicious little marriage of grease and heaven, I couldn’t help but to smile myself. I dug into the food voraciously.
Since then, I’ve become a regular of “N.Y. Gyros”, if not a borderline junkie, finding myself greeting the guy way before he can even take my order. Sometimes, I’ll just drop by to say hi as I pass by the food truck just to bask in that friendly, familiar smile of his and his accented question, “How are you, brother?” He’s offered me free food, allowed me to pay him later when I forgot to bring money with me, and given me extra servings of chicken and lamb when no one else was there, but none of those things really mean as much as what has so little to do with the food itself – his smile and his greetings he continually gives out for free.
But then again, maybe that has everything to do with the food itself.