On an otherwise quiet, balmy night in Auburn, Alabama, in an otherwise empty, over-air-conditioned Taco Bell, three young, blond women huddle over a fast-food dinner. Suddenly, the door to the restaurant swings open and about 50 people -- mostly young women -- burst inside, chanting in unison:
Hey Taco Bell
You better listen, listen
cause we ain't kiddin', kiddin'
and we are stayin', stayin'
till you are payin', payin'
a living wage (clap-clap-clap-clap)
for blood (clap)
and tears! (clap)
Some clang metal mess kits; others shake water bottles full of pebbles, forming a makeshift percussion section. The restaurant has protest acoustics: The sounds echo off the walls. A tall, thin, blond woman in a hot pink pleated tennis skirt waves pompons made of strips of shiny, blue-and-gold Mylar. Punk kids and anarchists in tattered T-shirts and olive-drab army fatigues dance and stomp on chairs and tables, their flesh pierced and tattooed, their noses and mouths covered, cowboy-style, with bandannas.
The customers in the corner are outnumbered by protesters by more than ten to one. They stare in disbelief; eyes wide, hands clasped over mouths full of refried beans. In their surprise they seem to forget their food. Bean burritos, chalupas, and tacos lie amid sheets of waxed tissue paper like abandoned Christmas gifts.
After a couple minutes, an employee phones the police, then calmly informs the protesters of that fact. They don't leave immediately but instead start another round of chants, gleefully circling the dining room as if taking a victory lap.
Regrouping outside on the sidewalk, they debate the legality of blocking the drive-thru. Two police cars glide up, without sirens or lights. A bespectacled, middle-aged officer emerges, inquiring what they're up to.
A young woman comes forward and raises her trembling voice. In an awkward, roundabout way, she explains that Taco Bell is the largest buyer of tomatoes from Six L's Packing Company, Inc., an Immokalee, Florida-based firm that, she says, pays its workers paltry wages with no benefits.
He gives her a satisfied smile and pauses. "OK," he drawls patiently, "so if y'all are through with Taco Bell?" In other words it's time to leave.
These activists aren't nearly finished with Taco Bell, but for tonight, at least, the protest is over. Their display was bright and brief, excess enthusiasm burning off like the flame from a kerosene lamp. Though it seemed to come from nowhere, the ten-minute spontaneous demonstration had been building since early afternoon.
The participants in this impromptu action were among the roughly 500 activists in town for the Third Annual Southern Girls Convention at Auburn University July 20 through 22. Southern Girls was organized to make radical feminism visible in the South, to combat discrimination, and to challenge stereotypes about life here. It was also devised, the program explains, "because we have an intrinsic desire to revolt." It was summer session, though. Few remained to hear them scream.
The show went on anyway. The schedule included workshops on do-it-yourself pet care; ecofeminism; preparing for the upcoming International Monetary Fund protest in Washington, D.C., this fall; and "big women in the porn industry." There were also a few workshops organized by and for men, including one about peer education to end violence against women.
Because the weekend of workshops, discussions, speeches, and impromptu parties drew attendees who'd met at earlier radical conventions, Southern Girls had the friendly feel of a reunion. Participants were mostly white women in their early twenties along with a sprinkling of Asians, blacks, and Hispanics; a few men; and a few who identify as transgender.
Workshop organizers took pains to include minority participants. On the fourth page of the convention program is a "trans policy" that advises which of the student union's toilets transgendered participants should use. "We apologize," it reads, "for the gender-segregated bathrooms."
Meanwhile, parts of the conference were intentionally gender-segregated. A man was asked to leave a workshop about sexual assault, while a white woman was kicked out of a workshop aimed at women of color.
No one, however, was barred from attending a radical cheerleading workshop held by Classic City Chaos, a squad from Athens, Georgia. About 60 mostly female conventioneers scattered about the sun-scorched grass in front of Foy Student Union to learn stunts, cheers, and matching moves from a squad of young women dressed in matching camouflage miniskirts and black T-shirts with the squad's name emblazoned in red letters across the chest. They focused on popular feminist and anticapitalist cheers; the repertoire also includes chants against harassment, consumerism, sweatshops, and work and in praise of bicycles, anarchy, gender-bending, and being fat.
One woman wondered aloud whether Cara and Aimee Jennings of Lake Worth, Florida, would show up. When another gave her a blank look, she smugly launched into a spiel about radical cheerleading's origins, proud to be an insider in an outsider's scene.
The Jennings sisters never did make the workshop, though their attendance at Southern Girls lent the event an aura of authenticity. They wanted to go but were stuck at a nearby copy shop, battling a jammed paper tray while furiously reproducing copies of a cheerleading handbook. "Story of our lives," Cara moaned afterward, sprawled on the floor of the student union.
If the nation's anarchists sat down and (collectively, of course) drew a map of Florida, the Villa de Vulva would be marked with a red-and-black X. An unprepossessing ranch house on B Street in Lake Worth, the Villa sits 15 minutes north of the posh shops of Boca, past the throbbing, well-lit worlds of Crate & Barrel and Victoria's Secret yet just out of the reach of the grasping hands of acquisitiveness. By comparison, the Villa is a clenched fist. There are real wooden crates and barrels here -- and, one suspects, secrets too.
Above the front door, in place of say, a windsock or a welcome banner, Villa denizens have hung a flag that reads, "Rise Up!" Plastic Halloween skeletons are strewn atop the hedge like the grisly remains of garden gnomes. Behind a door plastered with posters for upcoming political events lies one of South Florida's most active cells of all things radical feminist, anticapitalist, antiracist, anarchist, queer, vegetarian -- or none of the above. An ever-changing configuration of four to six residents lives in the four-bedroom, two-bathroom, one-loft house they rent for $1050 a month. (At least one resident's parents pay a share of the rent.) The Villa is also often crowded with visitors. It can get hectic, and in the summertime, sweltering, because residents choose not to use the air conditioner.
Although they no longer live here, Cara and Aimee Jennings established Villa as an anarchist collective two years ago. The two now live together at another nearby house, but the Villa still functions as the unofficial headquarters of the area's radical cheerleaders and local anarchist scene.
Villa regulars are punks, skateboarders, students, slackers, riot grrrls, or hippies, but with their potluck suppers, food- and literature-distribution, sewing circles, and movie nights, the group has the cozy feel of an interdenominational summer camp. People come from all over the country to visit. In fact, in winter, when the Florida sun is most sought after, legions of fellow travelers inhabit the sparse living room, crashing on a futon, the floor, or a lumpy sofa bed.
As its name suggests, the Villa is woman-identified: "There's no way you're going to be sexist here," says Melodie, a resident who, like most of the Villa people interviewed for this story, asked to be identified only by her first name. A male counterpart, Casa de Cock, existed nearby for a while, but it was short-lived. Most Villa residents say the Casa was about partying.
Melodie helps keep the house anarchist yet orderly. There's a phone list and a nonhierarchical chore wheel on the wall. Above the sink is a hand-written reminder: "First the dishes, then the revolution." Food is stored and cooked communally. Some residents are vegan, but in practice, the house is "freegan" -- meaning members will eat dairy as long as they don't have to pay for it. Decisions are made by a long-winded process of consensus, a practice in which several residents have been trained.
Despite this, Nicole insists the Villa is women-led. "The women are paying the rent, doing the activism," she says. "The boys are pretty much staying on the couch."
Among the current couch crashers is Blake, an 18-year-old Miamian with a mop of wild curly hair and a theory he calls anarcho-robotics. Obsessed with electronics, Blake believes a class of servant robots could eliminate class distinctions and liberate humans from the evils of capitalism. Others just laugh and call him Dr. Roboto.
For the record Blake thinks radical cheerleading is silly.
It is nearly ten o'clock and still humid and hot by the time Aimee and Cara Jennings arrive at the eerily empty Villa one recent evening. Hungry and exasperated, they show up separately. They were supposed to meet earlier at Kmart but somehow missed each other. Now they're bickering about who went to the wrong store. Ladling leftover tofu curry into bowls, they collapse at the table and dig in hungrily. Within minutes the tension has dissolved, the food has disappeared, and Aimee leans back in the chair and sighs. Stomach full from dinner, she unzips her pants.
Self-professed loudmouths, the Jennings sisters are delightfully unselfconscious, yet it is with trepidation that they agreed to be interviewed. They shun publicity but not because they're shy. As anarchists, they don't want to create a hierarchy or lay claim to the radical cheerleading concept. Decisions are made by consensus; there is no leader.
Their faces glow in the humid air as they turn to catch the breeze from a nearby fan. Though they are of the same mind about politics, the Jennings sisters are hardly twins. Aimee is 25 years old, tall, and imposing, with freckles and long reddish hair she often wears in braids or ponytails. Cara, by contrast, is short, with brown hair cut in a blunt bob, a wide, ruddy face, and impish grin. She is 24 years old. They like to be called the Jennings sisters; they are more powerful, they insist, as a unit.
Radical cheerleaders fascinated the mass media at recent "antiglobalization" protests, but the Jennings sisters complain that their message gets obscured in a fixation on pompons. Though the cheers are straightforward, the essence of radical cheerleading involves complex political theories that, for corporate media conglomerates, are both difficult to put into sound bites and rather threatening.
In the interest of countering this, Cara stipulated that a cheer of their choice be included in this story so that if the whole thing missed the point, at least one unadulterated message would make it through. The cheer they chose is called "Hell No":
Hell no we won't
Hell no we won't
Hell no we won't
Go there with those tired old chants
My activism is more like a rant
A rant of rage of resistance
This system I speak out against.
One, two, three, four
Boring protest no more
five, six, seven, eight
Resistance let's activate
Here's a piece of my mind
A piece of my behind
Piece it together you'll find
Radical cheerleaders on the frontline.
It's a mild cheer compared to others, like the one that encourages the assassination of the President. ("Guaranteed to get you arrested," Aimee warns.) "Hell No," by contrast, barely hints at anarchism.
Perhaps this is no accident. After all, the media's most-talked-about anarchist is Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Environmental anarchist John Zerzan also draws much attention for his antitechnology stance, which frustrates Villa anarchists who don't share his views.
Moreover, in their quest for strategic anonymity and solidarity, protesting anarchists have often hidden beneath the hoods and masks of the "black bloc." As such they have been categorically dismissed as terrorists by the media and relegated to political irrelevance. This is another reason why the Jennings sisters agreed to be interviewed.
"I think it's super important to put a face to anarchism," Cara says. "Anarchism isn't chaos, anarchism is..."
"Mutual aid," her sister chimes in.
The second and third of five daughters, the Jennings sisters credit their parents, devout Catholics, for instilling in them a strong sense of social justice. Growing up in the Cutler Ridge neighborhood of Miami with their three sisters, Cara remembers feeling tremendous empathy for the plight of homeless people and panhandlers. She would go home and make food and gather clothes for them; her parents would patiently help her.
As teenagers the two sisters attended Peace Camp organized by the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice -- Aimee reluctantly. "I was forced to go," she remembers with a laugh. "I wasn't gonna have none of that hippie shit!"
In 1996 the sisters attended the Active Resistance anarchist conference in Chicago. "That's when the pendulum swung," Aimee recalls. Their compassion morphed into radicalism. Cara had been considering leaving Florida State University; the conference helped convince her. "I traveled," she says, "and that broke the mold for me in terms of how you could live your life."
They went on to Sister Subverter, an anarchist women's conference on a remote patch of land in the Midwest, then hitchhiked back to Florida, staying with and meeting anarchists and radicals throughout the country.
While excited about this newfound world of activism, the Jennings sisters were also critical of it. Protests too often seemed dominated by whoever held the megaphone (usually a man), could be intimidating to newcomers, and frequently devolved into senseless mugging for the omnipresent television cameras.
Later that summer, in a van on the way to the Youth Liberation Conference at New College in Sarasota, Aimee, Cara, and their sister Coleen ("the third cofounder," Cara quips) came up with the idea of cheers instead of chants. "Part of it was wanting to have more of our voice be heard and wanting it to be fun."
When they taught three cheers at an impromptu "radical cheerleading" workshop, 25 people showed up, some of whom the sisters vigorously recruited. "We're obnoxious," says Aimee. "That's the hidden secret. We were like, "So, are you coming to our workshop?'"
The next summer they performed at a talent show at Sister Subverter in Arkansas. Seemingly all of a sudden, radical cheerleading went from being "really dorky" to universally embraced. "We got an encore to do [the cheer] "Shoot the Rapist' again," Cara says, smiling wistfully. "Still a favorite."
After that conference, a number of attendees went home and started their own squads. "That's where radical cheerleading broke," Aimee says. Though there is no formal organization of members, squads now exist all over North America, plus a few in Europe.
At the time, late 1997, the Jennings sisters had no idea how far radical cheerleading had spread. It wasn't until nearly two years later, in the summer of 1999, that Aimee got a glimpse of the concept's contagion. When activists were being arrested at a land struggle for the Minnehaha Free State in Minneapolis, protesters broke into the Jennings' "Pigs" cheer. They called out "Give me a P," and so forth, and when they got to the end, the crowd spontaneously did the whole cheer.
Aimee was amazed at the sight -- "I had to keep my jaw from dropping," she says -- but the scope of radical cheerleading did not hit Cara until several months later, when friends returned from World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in December with mini cheer handbooks protesters had made and circulated among themselves: "I was really shocked. Then at the IMF/ World Bank protests in Québec City last April, we were on the street and someone says, "You should do a cheer.'" She did, and 50 people called out the response.
"I was floored," Cara remembers. "I was like, We didn't even know them!"
Radical cheerleading had by then seeped into Canadian activism. Kate MacLean, who works at the Womyn's Center at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, first learned about radical cheerleading from an out-of-town friend of a friend. Enamored of the idea, the 23-year-old helped form an 18-member community squad for Access 2000, a Canadian national students' strike in protest of high tuition fees. After another action, at the fall 2000 March of Women in Ottawa, MacLean was invigorated. "I was like, "I want to meet everyone who does this. Let's have a conference!'"
Her Web-posted conference notice garnered responses from all over the world, including queries from would-be radical cheerleaders in Germany and the Philippines, who, MacLean notes, have since started squads. She invited the New York City radical cheerleaders, a close-knit and active troop, but one of them said she wouldn't feel comfortable attending unless the Jennings sisters were there.
MacLean agreed, obtained the sisters' e-mail address, and offered to fly them to Ottawa.
"They said, "We're tickled pink!'" MacLean recalls with a chuckle. "You know how cute they are."
About 100 people attended the conference in March 2001 at Carleton University. Meanwhile in Florida, many activists were still oblivious to radical cheerleading's origins. When the Eve Chapter, a newly formed women's group based in Boca Raton, was setting up Femme Fest, its first annual women's celebration held at Florida Atlantic University in March, organizers were hoping to find some radical cheerleaders to perform.
"We were hoping to fly some in," says Justina Hook, one of the event's coordinators. Hook says she was surprised when an out-of-state radical cheerleader informed her that the movement had started just a few miles away.
The disconnect is far from arbitrary. Though the Jennings sisters see radical cheerleading as a collective phenomenon and assert no ownership of the concept, the success of radical cheerleading is due in part to the sisters' charisma. They know a lot of activists, and they make sure the activists know the cheers, which speak for themselves.
"It's genius," says Hollywood activist Ali Bateretz. "Not many people these days pay attention to protesters, but with radical cheerleading it's performance."
Bateretz, who is 30 years old and uses a wheelchair because of a nervous-system disorder, is hoping to start a Miami-Dade/Broward county squad including cheerleaders who, like herself, have disabilities.
Bateretz also admires the way radical cheerleading inverts gender stereotypes. Many radical cheerleaders would not be found on a traditional cheer squad. Some are fat, some have hairy legs and armpits, some are male, some are transgender: "You're taking something that's not exactly a feminist thing, and you're making it into something so powerful and feminist and nonhierarchical."
But it's not wholly or intentionally satire, though some squads, much to the Jennings sisters' chagrin, read it that way. When they see such ironists, Cara and Aimee give them dirty looks. While the protests are supposed to be fun, the cheerleading is no joke.
"I was a junior-high cheerleader," Aimee exclaims, proudly throwing her arms into a stiff V for emphasis. "I'm like, "I'm glad you asked. I did make the squad.'"
"I was rejected," Cara says with a sideways smirk at her sister.
Aimee is not the only former cheerleader to turn radical. Narrowing her eyes in mock scrutiny, Cara says the sisters can usually spot a squad member with previous experience: "It's like, Hey, where'd you get those moves?"
Both say they're inspired by the skill and athleticism of conventional cheerleading, and it motivates them to perfect their moves. In fact, Aimee says, the aggressive sexuality of modern cheerleading inverts the demure moves of old-fashioned pompon girls: "There are some stomps and some grinding the hips that I don't think cheerleading ever intended," she says, arching an eyebrow.
Aimee cheers every day, repeating her favorites like a mantra and busting out the steps to boost her mood. It bothers her, for example, that the squad's most daring stunts are so-called "cheater pyramids" -- not the legit, stacked formations of the top teams.
"I'm constantly practicing," she says. "If I pass by a full-length mirror, I'm like, "Tighten it up!'"
Even though it conflicts with their goal of inclusiveness, the Jennings sisters admit they can't help but cringe at the sight of limp, sloppy moves. They want their cheers loud, their moves tight, and their routines synced. Aimee dreams of elevating radical cheerleading to its sporting-world equivalent: "I'm all watching ESPN and saying, "We can do a basket toss!'"
The cheerleaders strutted their subversive stuff at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art last December as part of a program by their friend, Miami artist Naomi Fisher, who designed the squad's posters. While preparing for that show, Cara had to keep her natural perfectionism in check. She wanted the squad's performance to be impressive, but "you know we're antiauthoritarian, so we can't be that tough!"
The national media is also beginning to catch the spirit. Cara says Seventeen magazine contacted the New York City radical cheerleaders, hoping to accompany them to anti-FTAA rallies in Québec City, but the squad ultimately said no.
The Jennings sisters have also been interviewed for an upcoming article about radical cheerleading in Spin magazine and were sent an application to be included in a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Though the concept has changed in ways they never imagined, the Jennings sisters don't sweat it. Dissent always gets co-opted, Cara notes. Ideas that were once radical get absorbed by the mainstream and commodified.
For example she heard that the Spice Girls were a commercial outgrowth of the riot grrrl movement, and while they might not be explicitly feminist or anarchist, Cara concedes that the perky girl-group does have attitude -- and a song in praise of nonmonogamy.
"It'd be nice, though, if they looked like other women," Aimee interjects.
"OK, I take it back," Cara says dryly. "The Spice Girls are fucked."
Radical cheerleading may have struck a chord globally, but it's only one aspect of life at the Villa de Vulva. On Tuesdays the residents hold a "stitch and bitch," which is sometimes suspended in favor of 99-cent bowling at a local alley. (To save money, they share shoes.) Thursdays they put on a theme movie night using a borrowed VCR.
Villa residents work to keep things free, cheap, or DIY -- a practice for which un- or underemployment is both cause and effect. Since it's hard to keep both your job and your principles, residents are sometimes fired or forced to resign for speaking their minds. It's just as well, they shrug, for while they usually need to work to live, they don't live to work. Chronic joblessness forces Villa residents to rely on the excess of capitalism, which they find all around them in forest-green bins.
Everyone who Dumpster-dives, like everyone who fishes, loves to tell the story of his or her greatest catch. For Mel it was the time she found a pink Hello Kitty hair set in an Eckerd Dumpster. "I was so happy," she gushes. Another time she and a fellow Dumpster-diver unearthed a perfectly good boom box with just a few messed-up buttons.
Peter's fondest memory is the time former Villa resident Waffle found toy swords in the trash behind a drug store and the two fought a Dumpster duel amid the garbage. He laughs, but Sue keeps a straight face. Things have changed at that particular Dumpster: "They got a compactor now. Fuckers. All of them."
In fact Sue says Dumpster-diving has gotten tougher as more and more stores padlock their trash bins or do away with them altogether in favor of irretrievable methods like compaction. She doesn't want the location of the remaining Dumpsters revealed. It's not that she worries they'll get caught. "No," Sue laughs, "we don't want the competition!"
Villa residents Dumpster-dive the way some people shop at 7-Eleven. If they pass one late at night, they pop in to see what's available. Like most consumers, Villa residents go to the store that specializes in what they need, be it auto parts or home-improvement supplies, but instead of grabbing a cart and perusing the aisles, they wander out back to "browse" through the trash.
They don't always wait for things to be thrown away. Most anarchists, including those who live in the Villa, feel it's OK to steal from corporations because they are corrupt and oppressive. In essence such stealing is a strike against the capitalist system and also happens to have the added benefit of letting one take what he or she wants or needs. Moreover, anarchists argue, stealing from corporations enables those who steal to work less, which is good, since work under capitalism is inherently oppressive. Some don't keep the things they steal but instead return them for cash.
There's no telling a pro-theft anarchist (and most of them are) that filching merchandise from a corporation drives up prices, thus hurting the working poor, or puts the screws to the workers and management, who are paid to prevent theft. Prices, they argue, are artificially low because they don't account for true labor costs, and if workers get fired as a result, well, they should quit working and take to stealing, too. Theft, one anarchist giddily suggests, could help hasten revolution.
For most anarchists, however, there is a sort of ethical code to theft. Stealing from individuals is wrong, as is stealing from independent, mom-and-pop stores. Stealing overpackaged merchandise is not as acceptable as stealing bulk foods, for example, since overpackaged products are wasteful. But ultimately, they say, the ethics of stealing are (conveniently) left up to the individual, which means some forgo deep thought in favor of impulsive shoplifting: "I'm not fronting like that," says one Southern Girls participant when the topic turns to "revolutionary" theft. "If I want a candy bar, I take it."
In any event Dumpster-diving poses fewer risks than stealing, though the spoils are often exactly that. One recent night, on the way home from a show at Soundsplash, an indie record store in West Palm Beach, Peter and a friend pulled behind a certain health-food grocery store and snagged some grapes, lettuce, and a papaya from a mass of smelly wet cardboard. It was a disappointing Dumpster run, Peter admits, but it was better than nothing.
The best thing about Dumpster-diving, everyone agrees, is the donuts. Dumpster donuts are a diver's manna, and the sugary serendipity is surprisingly easy to find. Donuts packed in boxes, often only a few hours old, can be salvaged from grocery stores, Dunkin' Donuts shops, and Krispy Kreme franchises. "Oh yeah," Melodie agrees, "Never buy donuts."
The wheelchair hits a crack in the pavement and shudders to a halt just steps outside the Villa de Vulva. Melodie leans over -- again -- and frees the stuck wheel. Plastic boxes the size of steamer trunks sit in the chair, loaded with surplus food. Under the weight of the load, the wheelchair-turned-roach coach picks up speed on the sloping street, wobbling with the comic unpredictability of a toddler's first steps.
It rained earlier, leaving the sky dim and bluish gray, bereft of a postcard sunset. The streets are empty save the omnipresent prowling of police cars. Battered pickup trucks that ferry migrant workers to their farm jobs out west have long since come to rest beside boxy, putty-colored one-story homes bordered by small, sparse front yards. Curtains made of sheets or tapestries are pulled back from open windows in hopes of catching an infrequent breeze.
"Quieres comidas gratis?" Melodie calls out. It is a rhetorical question, an open invitation yet to be accepted. An ice cream truck's tinkling theme plays in the distance, interrupted only by the bleating reveille of a low-rider horn.
Melodie takes a few steps and calls out again. Her simple Spanish query would seem an unlikely chant for an anarchist, but the ritual known as "distro" is the very sort of direct action that anarchists such as Melodie consider revolutionary.
Waffle began distributing food about a year ago in the Lake Worth neighborhood just west of downtown, inspired by his work with the Miami chapter of Food Not Bombs, which cooks free community meals. He's traveling now, so Melodie has taken over the route.
Her social-justice efforts weren't always this straightforward; while a student at Rollins College near Orlando, she spent time working for a film festival but was turned off by bureaucracy. In May 2000, just two classes shy of graduation, she moved back to South Florida and into the Villa. Now about once a week she instead takes to the lettered, grid-patterned streets, which are riddled with one-way signs and crisscrossed by low-slung chainlink fences that, like a length of butcher's string, seem to both dissect and restrain the neighborhood.
Melodie modestly says she's not nearly as good at distro as Waffle -- in part, she suspects, because her Spanish is lousy. She's also a bit shy. With tiny hair clips tucked into her short, brown, bed-head hair, she has a grrrlish look and a warm, irrepressible grin. Her short, wool tartan skirt and lavender T-shirt were culled, like most of her wardrobe, from thrift-store racks -- a practice she adopted in high school, where secondhand clothes were considered cool. Now 24 years old and usually un- or underemployed, Melodie wears thrift-store clothing and eats a steady diet of expired food.
Every week or two, Melodie or one of her housemates backs her turquoise, late-model pickup truck behind local health-food stores and produce stands to collect damaged and past-pull-date merchandise the stores cannot sell. There is usually more than can be distributed in the neighborhood; the Villa people eat the rest. No one, Melodie notes, has ever gotten sick from it.
At a house overgrown with foliage, a white-haired man in a tank top with "Key West" printed across the chest emerges, a ball of plastic bags in hand. He opens one and begins to fill it with food, and hands the rest to Melodie, so she can give them to her other "shoppers."
From a nearby alley, a man and a woman holding a little girl walk barefoot in the gravel. They take a few items and wordlessly express gratitude, their smiles revealing gold teeth.
Melodie speaks with persuasive authority when she advises an uncertain young mother about the food's safety. That bulging carton of milk is still good, she says. After all, she drinks it, too.
Tonight's haul features a dairy mother lode. There are dozens of cartons of Stonyfield Farm yogurt in flavors like maple cream and "banilla" as well as the children's version -- tiny tubs called Planet Protectors. Melodie also offers stacks of soy cheese, water-packed tofu, cappuccino-flavored kefir, vegan "chicken" patties, organic orange juice, and the occasional tough loaf of millet bread, which costs about $4 when fresh. Cartons of Zendon soy milk are emblazoned with a panda and a series of haiku poems.
To the neighborhood's population of mostly low-income Hispanics, the selections are often exotic. A man picks up a plastic bottle of cappuccino kefir and turns it over curiously.
Melodie tries to explain. In Spanish she calls it "coffee milk," but her description doesn't quite fit the thick, sour, drinkable yogurt. Later Melodie confides that she feels a little guilty calling the rectangular cartons of vanilla soy milk leche de soya or meatless patties pollo. She laughs at the subversiveness of it: "I wonder if people go inside and say, "This isn't chicken!'"
The man finally decides to take the kefir and smiles. "Gracias," he says.
"De nada," Melodie replies and wheels the chair around a corner, following the route she knows by heart. She knows where people will sidle up to her makeshift cart, picking gingerly through the bins. She knows which families will take whatever she has left and which ones will always wave her away, her persistent but unheeded calls a shared joke.
Like most of the Villa residents, Melodie is painfully self-conscious about her place in the neighborhood. "We're gentrifying it by being here," she says matter-of-factly. And she knows how weird it must look: a young, white woman with a wheelchair and rolling table full of exotic food, calling out like a barker from some bizarre carnival.
A car drives by, a small, fringed Cuban flag hanging from the rear-view mirror. It slows down, and the twentysomething men inside refuse the food but suggest a house nearby: "The people are hungry there."
Melodie continues down a potholed street to a cluster of small apartment buildings shrouded in weeds. At the gate an elderly man and woman wait, staring and gesturing anxiously. Another woman shuffles out, her white hair sticking straight up, as if she just hurried out of bed. She tries to speak, but her words are slurred and unintelligible, obscured by a picket fence of missing teeth. She asks for spare change.
The elderly residents accept the food with apparent satisfaction. As Melodie leaves they stay at the fence, nodding and muttering, watching until the carts are out of sight.
It is dark now; the streetlights cast an eerie amber glow. Cars drive by, and the drivers stop to chat with friends standing astride bicycles. They surround Melodie curiously, and she appears overwhelmed by the attention. No one takes food any longer. Instead they talk to Melodie in Spanish, Creole, and slanged-up English, flirting boldly in the patois of the street. A faint blush rises in Melodie's cheeks.
Finally, with difficulty, she extricates herself from the throng of young men and starts home, but two young Haitians insist on walking her back to the Villa, one pushing the now-empty cart in a gesture of chivalry. She relents to this patriarchal courtesy, and they start back toward the house.
Before long, a police car rolls up and stops. The officer gets out and walks around the car. He is tall and thin, his ramrod-straight posture making him all the more imposing. "What've you got there?" he asks, apparently meaning the cart but eyeing the two young men.
"Yogurt," Melodie answers good-naturedly, explaining the food distribution. "Would you like some?" He declines and asks where she "operates" from. When she tells him, his face registers familiarity. He knows the house on Lake Street, he says cryptically. (Everyone does, Melodie says later, particularly the police.)
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Then he pauses, looking at the empty boxes, at Melodie, at the young men. She offers what's left of the food again, and again he declines, explaining that he's about to get dinner.
After he drives away, the men, who remained silent during the whole exchange, look relieved and resume their conversation.
"Fucking pigs," Melodie mutters under her breath.