Monday, January 9, 2012

mala leche

For a decade or more there was a KFC at the corner of Valencia St. and Hill St. near 22nd.  Within a few months of its opening a hand-lettered sign on white butcher paper went up on the window announcing that rice and refried beans had been added as menu options along side the corn, mashed potatoes and cole slaw.  Valencia Street was still part of the Mission then and during the day you would see people that lived and worked in the neighborhood and in the night hear some great Latin jazz at the intimate club Bajones next door to the KFC.
Through the 1980s Valencia Street had a number of women's establishments, the Artemis Cafe at 23rd, Old Wives' Tales bookstore, Amelia's bar near 17th but so dispersed along the six block strip that the area did not have the cohesive feel as a lesbian district that the Castro had for gay men.  One by one these places closed as the gals moved south across Army St. to Cortland Avenue on Bernal hill.
The last night of Amelia's in November, 1991 there was a line of women down the block, saying things like, ``How can you close, this is such an important part of our community?''  To which the answer was, ``We were open every night of the week, where were you?''  Rikki Streicher remodeled the space into the Elbo Room with the prescience to target a mixed clientele.
That block was dominated by the shuttered Pepsi bottling plant across the street.  Surrounded by a chain link fence at night it gave the stretch a dark, forlorn look, a place to pass through quickly.  The gang members probably thought the Elbo Room was a gay bar when they sent the initiate in to verify that he had the guts to be one of them.  The guy slid through the door into the crowd, walked to the rear and then returned, picking up speed as he neared the front and he savagely pumped a knife into the back of the person who sat nearest the exit.  That person should have died instantly but his girlfriend had her hand inside his jacket caressing the base of his neck.  The blade went through her hand before entering him and that distance kept the tip from puncturing his heart.  At the ER the doctors said he'd probably heal completely while she'd never have use of her hand again.
The area perked up when the Mission Police Station moved to that lot and soon valet parking was available at a restaurant down the block, so that some locals ranted, ``Valet parking on Valencia Street—it's time to leave!''  The Kentucky Fried Chicken began getting complaints about the odor, about drug dealers hanging out in the parking lot and eventually was picketed by a vegetarian group protesting the torture of chickens.
Someone told a story of how in the early 1970s they'd sat across the aisle from Colonel Sanders on a plane flight.  He was their travelling ambassador, the little eccentric in white suit, white hair, white goatee, string tie and he never once broke character, he was The Kentucky Colonel.  His southern drawl was so infectious you almost wanted to join in, ``Why K'unnell Suh, Ah Do Dee'clare.''  He was able to deflect any question or topic change that might evince an opinion but they tried, they asked, ``Colonel, what do you think of these hippies?''  He looked over at them across that short space with his impish smile, ``Dey eats chicken don't dey?''
When the KFC finally closed the owners put a small sign by the doorway thanking their customers for the support all those years and wishing them well in their futures.  The owners didn't have to put that sign, it was just a little courtesy from people who had interacted with those in the neighborhood.
A bit later other signs began being plastered on the plate glass of the empty store front, mostly election posters but also one large graphic of some hens flocked together and the words "Mala Leche" underneath.  Implication being that the person who did it was a hip, politically savvy Mission District artist who speaks for everyone: We don't want you here, Colonel.
Apparently the meaning of ``Mala Leche'' was lost on those the artist wanted most to impress (it translates literally to "bad milk" or "soured milk" and colloquially to "tough shit") because the sign was soon replaced by a similar graphic but now with the words "Bad Chicken" in English underneath.  Across the street a restaurant had opened that serves "white folks" Mexican food, a bit overpriced, not quite authentic—tofu enchiladas, things like that.  On weekends there is always a gaggle of young people waiting outside and they could be the people outside a restaurant in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn or 6th St in Austin or around Astor Place near NYU, that generic post-campus suburban look.
At the KFC, the now gone Mission District KFC, because its customers used a different criteria for how their food dollar was spent, the only people you ever saw eating there were blacks and Hispanics.