Food Truck

F

FOOD TRUCK

David Klein

None of us mentioned the food truck. Too much else required our attention. We had urgent stories to post about the seven confirmed dead and the eleven still missing. We had reports to write about the remnants of the hurricane that dumped six inches of rain in less than twenty–four hours and lifted the rivers and streams to record levels causing the Schoharie Creek in Fort Hunter to take out the foundation of a two-hundred-foot bridge on the New York State Thruway.

The pier closest to the western abutment collapsed first, at dusk. The surging current ripped out the iron fittings and posts from the dissolving concrete piers. Then the middle pier tumbled. The road bed broke above like ribbon candy. Traffic was heavy at the time, despite the weather warnings; it was the Friday night of Labor Day weekend and people were traveling for their last shot at summer or to get their families home before school started.

Westbound vehicles slid down as if on a steep ramp and plunged into the river. Eastbound was like driving off a cliff. Two tractor-trailers and seven passenger vehicles lost, by most recent count. Several vehicles swept downstream, toward the Mohawk River, so powerful was the current. One semi jackknifed and dangled from a beam that had supported the road span between the two piers. That driver survived, even though he was “hanging in the air like live bait on the end of a fishing pole” (one of us wrote).

We were the media, the state police, firefighters, paramedics, doctors, engineers, road crews, and rescue teams. We came from Fultonville, Amsterdam, and as far away as Schenectady and Utica. We set up a command center east of the remaining bridge abutment. We redirected traffic. We combed the banks of the river downstream, searching for survivors and vehicles and bodies. Within an hour the governor was on site, his helicopter setting down across two lanes of the thruway, safely beyond the site of the collapse, but still within the camera angle. Those of us from the media raised antennas in our mobile broadcast vans. We interrupted television shows with special bulletins. We sent alerts. We posted social media updates. Rescue and recovery continued through the night while the heaviest rain moved Northeast and out to sea.

A few hundred yards to the south, a secondary road paralleled the thruway. This road also bridged the Schoharie Creek, in a much smaller crossing, and so far was holding up against the torrent below. It was here the food truck appeared. At first no one noticed it, we were so busy pulling bodies and tending to the injured, detouring traffic, and calling in the engineers and heavy equipment and medivac. The food truck parked and its lights turned on. Its awning cranked up and its counter hinged down. It was a well-lighted vehicle and one of us spotted it across a brushy meadow upstream from our command center. We were wet and tired. We’d been working all night. We’d seen awful things. A cup of coffee, perhaps a Danish, is what we needed to keep us going. We crossed the sodden field to investigate.

***

The food truck was very clean. It was painted sky blue and decorate with marshmallow-like clouds. Decals of food decorated the sides: hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos, falafels, satays, even salad bowls resplendent with fresh greens. Lemonade, soft drinks, and coffee. The awning was painted blue with yellow stripes that called to mind sunbeams radiating from a center point. The counter was as green as spring grass. A string of glowing golden bulbs trimmed the perimeter. There were two screened windows: one said Order, one said Pickup. Music issued from speakers, a soothing, almost melancholy violin. Bach, one of us said. Mendelssohn, said another. No, that’s a violin sonata in D minor by Johannes Brahms, said a mechanic from the thruway authority.

We ordered coffee. It was strong and steaming hot. We also ordered egg sandwiches. A couple worked the tiny kitchen, although they were not much more than shadows through the dark screening. There was a task light over the stove, another at the register. We thought the couple was elderly. The woman, her hair tied in a kerchief, took our orders and made change. The man, wearing a waist apron, did the cooking. One of us later described the man as having gray hair and darkish skin, and very thin.

When we returned to the command area, others noticed our coffee and sandwiches. In small groups, when we were so exhausted we had to take a short break, two or three of us made our way across the meadow to the food truck. After, we returned to our duties with renewed energy and determination. One passenger in a car that went into the creek was found alive downstream, clinging to a tree on the swollen banks. By the early morning hours, all the missing travelers had been accounted for and the number of dead raised to unlucky thirteen.

We didn’t notice the food truck leaving. The only evidence of it ever having been there was video footage of the governor’s on-site interview. We could see the lights of the food truck in the distant background, although the cameras focused intensely on the governor, whose face was a portrait of anguish as he spoke of the tragedy and his personal sorrow for the loss of life. Someone handed him a cup of coffee, unknown to the governor that his steaming beverage had come from the food truck. He declared an official state of emergency.

The food truck wasn’t news yet. We had other questions to ask and stories to post about the effects of climate change and how we’re not doing enough, and about our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, this bridge being one of ten thousand bridges across the country in need of repair.

***

Two inmates, convicted murderers both—one who strangled his boss and the other perhaps wrongly accused and imprisoned (according to the Innocence Project)—escaped from the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora by tunneling into the sewer and surfacing through a manhole in the village streets. Near the main crossroad of this tiny upstate town, where media congregated and hundreds of law enforcement officials gathered and launched an intensive manhunt, a food truck appeared on the side of the road. It was 4:30 in the morning. We had only just gotten on the scene ourselves. We were law enforcement officers, federal marshals, state officials, reporters, camera crews. Soon there was a line for coffee at the food truck. There was a woman who took orders, and a man who poured coffee and put on fresh pots.

As the sky lightened and the sun rose, the food truck continued to serve our crowd. The menu included sandwiches, pastries, and more. The village of Dannemora was small. There were few places for us to eat. There was a pizza parlor. The Stewart’s shop. The food truck maintained a brisk business.

In the hours and then the days ahead, as we realized the two escapees were no longer in the immediate area, we expanded the search radius. The food truck covered more territory as well, parking for a few hours near a manned roadblock, then next to another marshalling area—wherever our team needed support. We were very appreciative. After hunting through dense woods and soggy marshland, fending off bugs, approaching hunting camps and cabins with our weapons drawn, battling the elements and our own tension, who wouldn’t want a cup of coffee, or a hamburger, or a popsicle?

The manhunt so gripped the community, and at times the entire nation, that we didn’t consider the food truck in a newsworthy way: how it managed to move with the story itself, from spot to spot across a remote region of the Adirondack Mountains, stopping near groups of searchers or officials diverting traffic or line-ups of vehicles at roadblocks waiting to be inspected.

As the hunt extended into a second week, and our team became more dispersed and beginning to show frustration over the lack of results, and there weren’t any updates to report on, no sightings of the two fugitives, one of us got the idea to post a feature about the elderly couple operating a pretty blue food truck that seemed to be popping up all over the search area. But suddenly the food truck was gone—and we sorely missed it.

That same day a police team came upon a burglarized hunting camp that showed signs of the fugitives’ presence. There were discarded bloody socks (one of the fugitives must have suffered from blisters). There were opened boxes of cereal. A half-finished bottle of gin. And there were food wrappers: a paper bag and two crumpled balls of foil. When the foil was flattened out—using gloves to protect any DNA evidence—one of us recognized the wrappings as coming from the food truck. The O and K written on the foil were the same letterforms that the officer had seen on his hot dog foil, and the letters stood for onions and ketchup.

We had to conclude that the two fugitives, who had yet to be spotted, had come upon the food truck somewhere and been served. We were shocked. Not that they’d been served—because these were two dangerous men, and who wouldn’t comply with their demands if they wanted hot dogs—but why hadn’t the operators of the food truck contacted the police afterwards? Surely, they recognized the two escaped convicts. Their photos were everywhere.

We worried the couple had been murdered by the fugitives, and the food truck stolen or hidden.

But soon thereafter, a trooper discovered one of the fugitives behind a shed in a field and shot him in the head because the fugitive was armed and would not drop his weapon. The other one was still at large and presumed to have fled the region. The local search team disbanded.

People began talking about the food truck that served the fugitives. The chief investigator for the state asked the food truck operator to step forward. “We’re grateful to you for working 24/7 to feed our hungry force and we’re concerned for your safety and would also like to ask a few questions.”

***

The bomb exploded during our morning commute, as the southbound Number 2 express train pulled into the 14th Street station. We suffered many casualties. Emergency responders established a perimeter on 7th Ave. While we triaged and evacuated the wounded, bomb squad experts and robots probed among the twisted steel and shattered concrete for additional explosives.

Within minutes of the detonation, the food truck raised its awning, lowered its counter, and began service. We recognized its markings—the blue sky, the puffy clouds, the rays of sunlight that cast from the awning. And the lights—up one side, across the top, down the other side—a golden marquee. It was beautiful, for a food truck. And the music. Serene, yet hopeful. Strings, woodwinds, brass. A piece you might hear in a church or around holiday time. Someone said they recognized a sound track to a movie.

We were hungry and thirsty—and fearful and grieving. This being New York, the food truck wasn’t the only place to eat, but it was the only one serving within the secure perimeter established by emergency responders. Therefore, we realized, it must have been in location prior to the explosion. Near the food truck, we noticed a torn railing from the subway stairway and broken concrete with exposed rebar, yet the truck itself was undamaged.

The explosion, the human carnage, the senselessness, the search for culprits, the inflammatory rhetoric, the requisite thoughts and prayers—these stories captured most of our attention. No group claimed responsibility. Initial blast forensics revealed this was not the work of a suicide bomber, but more likely a planned, timed, and executed attack set off when the train passed over a trigger mechanism on the track. It could be the work of a terrorist group or of a lone madman.

There was too much blood, there were injured and dead people. There were witnesses and spectators. One of us, a reporter, who stood in line for a snack and coffee, asked the couple working in the food truck how they managed to be on the scene at the time of the explosion. The woman serving turned to the man who was cooking and said, She wants to know how we got here so quickly. The man nodded and said something in a foreign language. He plated the burger onto the bun. The woman wrapped the burger in foil.

Our reporter moved to the pickup window, where her hamburger had been placed, along with her coffee. She got a better view of the man tending the grill. He looked like her, of Filipino descent, but much older. She recognized a few words of his Tagalog.

We later heard the couple was questioned by investigators. That they might be persons of interest. How did they manage to be at the bridge collapse, at the fugitive hunt, and now, most importantly, at the subway explosion in Manhattan? Locations spread apart by hundreds of miles.

Our restaurant has wheels, the man reportedly said. We’re supposed to travel from place to place.

We have all our permits, the woman allegedly added.

The interrogator for our side, who was from Puerto Rico, was surprised the woman was Latina and spoke in Spanish.

At what time did you arrive at the intersection of 14th Street and 7th Avenue? Do you remember seeing any suspicious activity? Anyone carrying a large package or backpack? Did you plant the bomb? Did you serve the two fugitives from Dannemora? Why aren’t you charging people for coffee?

The couple was released. When they got back to their food truck, they didn’t raise their awning or hinge down their counter. The lights didn’t go on and the music didn’t play. They repositioned a barricade and drove away. Many of us were disappointed. The mobile kitchen we set up next, the food wasn’t good, but we didn’t complain.

***

Despite our heavy hearts over the bombing, and stress and fatigue taking its toll, we wondered where the food truck would appear next. We didn’t have to wonder for long. A section of Wrigley Field in Chicago collapsed during a Cubs baseball game, killing four and injuring 38, several critically. The blue food truck was parked out front. There were other food trucks already present, those that worked every home game and served fans as they went into or out of the park, and so the blue food truck had to park farther away, and it had no monopoly on business.

Although the game was immediately suspended and fans left the stadium in an orderly fashion, the stadium concessions stayed open—until they ran out of food; and the food trucks stayed on site, until they also ran out of food and left—and only the blue food truck remained. At one point, it moved closer to the area where the collapse had occurred, and then parked and re-opened.

Thank you for your dedication and tireless service, but how could the food truck—it was the same one, confirmed—travel so quickly from the subway station at 7th Avenue and 14th Street in New York City to Wrigley Park in Chicago? Under the best of conditions, and no stops, this drive took seventeen hours, which happened to be exactly the amount of time between the last reported sighting of the truck in New York to its first in Chicago. So it was not an impossible time/distance ratio. But that possibility raised other possibilities. This couple that operated the food truck—taking orders, cooking, wrapping, pouring, serving, doing their part to keep us going as if they were an official arm of the disaster response team . . . they hadn’t broken any laws. They weren’t suspects. Except they were. We just weren’t sure what to suspect them of.

For one, due to its initial parking spot, the food truck violated a city ordinance by operating within 200 feet of a fixed brick and mortar restaurant. But that’s not what made us suspicious. Nor even how quickly they arrived in Chicago from New York, as improbable as that trip was. What raised our suspicions was the blue food truck did not stop serving, while all the other trucks ran out of food and subsequently left the site.

We entered the truck from a rear door. Those waiting in line began to jeer and boo. Several shouted about police brutality. We tried to ignore them; at the same time, we weren’t sure of ourselves. We began to search. The refrigerator was not much bigger than a four-drawer filing cabinet. The dry goods storage consisted of several drawers below a work surface. There was one large roll of aluminum foil, two packages of paper napkins. A single coffee urn. An ice bucket with chilled bottles of water. A lemonade dispenser. There were no hidden compartments. No magic doors. How could they not have run out of food? Who had been providing supplies? No one had. They had not been supplied. No witness could recall any delivery or re-stocking.

We were split on what to do. The couple was in possession of a health department certificate, but when we researched the permit number, we could not find any results in the database. Therefore, the document was forged. But it looked authentic. It was stamped, it was signed. The couple had driver’s licenses, addresses, social security numbers. We verified the data. The address was in a town called Ilion, New York, which was not far from the thruway collapse, which might explain their timely presence at that disaster site, but little else so far.

The man turned off the grill. He wiped his hands on his apron and removed the apron and then presented his wrists to be handcuffed. We did not handcuff him. They were not under arrest. We only wanted to ask questions. We escorted them to headquarters.

During our interview of the couple, which revealed little intelligence, we detected accents, but even our forensic linguist could not identify their origins. Seemed to be a combination of European Slavic languages and Middle Eastern, Lebanese perhaps. Also, a hint of Spanish in the slightly rolled Rs. One of us previously reported that the woman had spoken Spanish. Another had heard words of Tagalog. At first glance, the couple was Caucasian. Or he was. She was slightly darker, and might be African, but her features were more Asian. On second glance, he was mixed race as well. His skin was the color of milk with a splash of coffee. We all had different impressions. The problem is they were old enough that their skin had wrinkled and mottled; and their color, the tones, were faded and blended and in places splotchy. Their features sagged into each other. But according to their identification, he was 43, she was 41.

A headline appeared: Food Truck Terrorists? None of us had posted that. There was no evidence for any such insinuation. Yet some reporters suggested the couple may have been involved in acts of sabotage—never mind that the collapse of the stadium bleachers was most likely caused by a rusted and weakened support beam, and that in New York City a bombing suspect had already been arrested.  

A more puzzling story was that the food truck never ran out of food, and continued serving for as long as people lined up, that is until the couple was taken away for questioning, to the outrage of those of us waiting to be served—the rescue workers and medical personnel and volunteers who worked fifteen, twenty or more hours straight, and were grateful for a snack and hot cup of coffee from the food truck.

One post speculated the food truck couple was sent by God. Or might even be God. They had performed a feat on par with the loaves and fishes, when Jesus fed thousands of people with seven loaves of bread and three fishes. When we finally released the couple, there were throngs of people waiting outside our headquarters, hundreds of them. Some were holding signs about the second coming of Jesus. Some were blind or disabled and hoping to be touched and healed. Some signs were about the end of the world. Some commanded people to fall on their knees. Some praised Allah.

We had to wonder if we were in the presence of something special that we simply had no way to understand. We escorted the food truck couple through a tunnel that connected to the federal court building across the street, and from there we led them out through a delivery dock in the back, and then we drove them in an unmarked car to the impounding lot where the food truck was parked.

The couple got into their truck. One of us assigned to the task was parked several blocks away, waiting for this moment. The food truck turned out of the lot onto a quiet street. It passed our person waiting in her car. She pulled in behind the food truck and followed at a discreet distance. The truck turned left at the next intersection. She followed. Three more blocks and another left turn. Must be heading to the freeway entrance. She turned again, but the truck wasn’t there. She sped up as far as the ramp to the freeway. The truck hadn’t been that far ahead of her. It couldn’t have been lost from view. It must have scooted down one of the alleys. She executed a three-point turn, returned along the street, slowing at each alley and looking down its length. There was no other traffic. It was an early Sunday morning in the warehouse district. There were no people on the street. She saw one lone jogger and she called out to him: Did you see the Food Truck go past?

The jogger said, It was here? You saw them?

I was following the truck, but I lost it.

I haven’t seen it. I’ve never seen it. He quickly looked around, disappointed, the certainty he’d missed out almost bringing tears to his eyes.

***

An earthquake registering 8.3 on the Richter Scale struck the San Francisco area, the strongest in 300 years. One of the first sounds heard in that awful silent beat of time after the shaking and collapsing ended, and before the screaming and sirens and explosions began, was music from the Food Truck.

Most of the downtown high rises remained standing, but were severely damaged, and countless other buildings—older structures, highways, monuments, entire blocks of housing—had collapsed. The Golden Gate Bridge stood, but a number of suspension cables snapped and one of the stanchions was listing. There were explosions from natural gas leaks. Fires. It was the equivalent of one-thousand thruway bridge collapses, one-hundred subway bombings.

Emergency responders were overwhelmed. The damage was catastrophic. Help was needed everywhere. Thousands dead. Thousands more injured and trapped. Homes destroyed. The Food Truck was seen in the Marina District, then along the Embarcadero, spotted again in Golden Gate Park.

We lined up for hours. Not just rescue workers, not just the suddenly homeless, but anyone and everyone. People who lost loved ones wanted to ask the Food Truck workers: Have you seen? Do you know? The couple was polite, but could not answer such questions. Bulletin boards went up with the names of people who were missing. The couple cooked, they served. They were not resupplied. They never ran out of food. Is that wrong? Is that worthy of investigation? They were guarded by the police.

Even amidst this major emergency, the Food Truck was a leading story. The earthquake was real, it surprised no one, it was easily explained. The Food Truck was a mystery. While it’s true we wondered if the couple was responsible or at least collaborators in the bombing at the subway and the collapse of the bleachers, no one could say they had causative role in the earthquake. That’s what we in the insurance business call an act of God.

Strong aftershocks struck the region, terrifying us and shifting the debris and causing additional damage and dangers. While medical personnel and rescue workers and engineers and utility repairmen and the Red Cross and FEMA and the National Guard worked long hours, the Food Truck offered hot coffee and fresh water, sandwiches and snacks, no charge, because it would be usurious to charge, and it demonstrated charity and compassion to volunteer and contribute in any way possible.

We did the math. We calculated the impossibility of driving from Chicago to San Francisco in less than eight hours. But one of us pointed out the Food Truck could have been loaded onto a plane, such as a military transport plane, and flown to Moffett airfield, and then driven to San Francisco. But there were no records of a military transport flight. Of course there weren’t—the military operates under a veil of secrecy.

The Food Truck was a government conspiracy, we thought. To what end? To frighten us. Or to give us hope. Either of which is likely to stir us from numb complacency. This will give the military an excuse to conduct a coup.

The Food Truck was causing disruption and wild thinking among us. There was chaos. There was no longer a line to order food, there were tens of thousands of people descending on a disaster area where services were already strained and the infrastructure ruined. The Food Truck was surrounded on all sides. It was hard to know who was in line. I guess we all were.

Instead of a voice of reason appearing on the scene, a military convoy pushed through the rubble and inched apart the crowd. Armored vehicles surrounded the Food Truck and led it away, for the couple’s own safety. Or because they were disrupting rescue operations. Or because no one knew what to do and leadership was sorely lacking.

***

Weeks passed. There was a major forest fire in Arizona, we didn’t see our Food Truck. There was a mass shooting in Georgia, but no Food Truck. Soon we heard sporadic reports about food truck sightings. In an Orlando residential neighborhood. On a highway near Buffalo. Pulling out of a hotel parking lot in Las Vegas. But none of these were scenes of disasters. We wondered if the appearance of our Food Truck was now somehow averting a disaster. Instead of responding to a tragedy, it was preventing one from occurring. If not for our Food Truck, there might have been a gas leak and explosion in the neighborhood, a pileup on the highway, or a terrorist attack in Las Vegas.

***

We had no plans to attend the rally. We heard it might become violent and that government troops would be cracking down on protestors and organizers. But then word spread that our Food Truck would be there, and we decided we would go, and so did one million others, two million others. We were all heading to the same place. Demanding change, hoping for a miracle.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, avid reader, discriminating watcher of movies and series.

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