Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "A Vibrant Symbol of the American Dream"

This poem is spillover from the May 4, 2021 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] chanter1944, [personal profile] technoshaman, and Anonymous. It also fills the "inventors" square in my 5-1-21 card for the Leaky Pipeline Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by a pool with [personal profile] fuzzyred, [personal profile] ng_moonmoth, [personal profile] bairnsidhe, [personal profile] erulisse, and [personal profile] edorfaus. It belongs to the Rutledge thread of the Polychrome Heroics series. It is the fifth in a set, after "Escape a Thousand Memories," "Who Can Create the Future," "Good Food Choices Are Good Investments," "Layering Flavors, Tastes, and Textures," and before "The People Who Give You Their Food."

Warning: This poem contains graphic descriptions of delicious Syrian foods that you may or may not be able to obtain.

"A Vibrant Symbol of the American Dream"

[August 2015]

Syrian Foods was officially a hit.

Kardal Abdullah never had
a hard time finding a place
to park his food truck.

It was more of a scramble
to fit all of the requests
into his schedule.

He could really use
some help, but there
wasn't much room in
the truck for anyone else.

Maybe he could move
the salad things to a table
outside, and keep the truck
for cooking and those foods
that needed refrigeration.

Kardal was mulling over
that, and who to ask about
permissions, when he heard
a sound like ripping canvas.

He leaned half out of the window
to check his new pop-up awning,
because if somebody ripped it,
he'd call the cops, he really would.

Instead he saw a man appear.

The fellow looked Middle Eastern,
with brown skin and curly black hair,
and he just stepped out of thin air.

It took Kardal a minute to realize
that he must be a superhero, and
that wasn't familiar to him at all.

He'd been surprised enough when
Maple Syrup had come to sample
all of his Za'atar Maple offerings.

Still, the man took his place in line,
so Kardal went back to serving.

It was between lunch and supper time,
so the crowd wasn't too thick, and
Kardal could keep an eye on him.

He looked perfectly normal.

When the man reached the front,
he said, "Hi, I'm Zipper. What
would you recommend?"

"How hungry are you?"
Kardal asked, suddenly
back on familiar ground.

"I am extremely hungry,"
Zipper said with a chuckle.

"Hummus Buster Munch Combo,
the Hummus Sampler Platter,
or the Falafel Meal Platter,"
Kardal suggested. "Those are
among the more filling options."

"Hummus Buster Combo with
Za'atar Maple Chicken and fruit
and oh you have jallab I haven't
had that in ages one pomegranate
please," Zipper said all in one breath.

Kardal chuckled. "Coming right up,"
he said, and began loading the platter.

"... could you put in more syrup?"
Zipper said, watching him mix jallab.

"Sure," Kardal said, and gave it
another squirt of pomegranate.

Zipper thanked him and paid.
Then he took the pile of food
and sat down on a nearby bench.

Fifteen minutes later he was back.

"That was fantastic," said Zipper.
"I'd like the Falafel Meal Platter with
kishkeh and Syrian chopped salad."

Kardal glanced around. Maybe
Zipper had met some friends.

"Just me today," Zipper murmured.
"People spent all morning inventing
and my brain needs a break from
all of that fancy science talk."

"I sympathize," Kardal said
as he dropped falafel into
the deep-fryer. "I could
never keep up with that."

"Cooks can be inventors too,"
Zipper said. "They're some
of the best, in my opinion --
and I've eaten all over the world."

Kardal was flattered by that.
"I'm glad you think so."

"This is very close to
what I remember when I
was growing up," Zipper said.
"So many of the foods are
similar around the Middle East."

"It would be closer if I could
find all the right ingredients,"
Kardal grumbled. "I have to work
with what I can find in Vermont."
Then he brightened a bit. "But
their maple syrup is very good.
I wouldn't want to miss that."

"I don't go near what was once
my home," Zipper said quietly,
"nor most of the Middle East.
It is too dangerous there."

"I understand," Kardal said,
giving him a bitter smile.

"Yes, you would," Zipper said.
"I don't go there, but some of
my friends do. Put up a list
of ingredients you want, and
probably someone will bring
them to you hoping for barter."

"That would be wonderful,"
Kardal said, cheering further.

"Be gentle with the young ones,
if you can," said Zipper. "Some of
them don't have much money,
or even a place to sleep."

"I will do my best," Kardal said.
"I don't want anyone to go hungry.
Chickpeas are cheap, I can give
them hummus or falafel and pita,
even the ones who can't pay."

"You are a kind man," Zipper said.

"I am a refugee," said Kardal.
"I know what it is to have nothing."

He fished out the falafel, put
the kishkeh in its tub, then
surrounded them with olives,
fresh vegetables for dipping,
and Syrian chopped salad.

"That looks so good," Zipper said.
This time he stuffed his change
into the tip jar on the counter.

Kardal kept up with his customers,
but he also kept watching Zipper.

Sure enough, the man came back.

"I want some dessert," he said,
looking over the small assortment.

By this time Kardal was onto him.
"The only dessert platter I have
is for the sweet hummus," he said.

"And I've had enough hummus
for now," Zipper said. "Well,
I can buy them individually."

Today's desserts consisted
of three different flavors of
Ma'amoul (date, pistachio,
or walnut) at a dollar each.

"Ten dollars for a dozen,"
Kardal said, and Zipper
pounced on the offer.

"I love food trucks,"
Zipper said. "They're
a vibrant symbol of
the American dream."

"My dream, yes,"
Kardal agreed.

Maybe he should
make a pastry platter
too. Families might
appreciate the option.

After that, Zipper finally
seemed satisfied, because
Kardal didn't see him for a while.

What he did see were a lot
of new customers who ate like
they hadn't seen food in a week,
and sometimes arrived with
bizarre sound effects or lights.

A few of them brought things
that were hard to find in Vermont --
a bag of sumac, sheep cheese, and
once a big sack of fresh Aleppo peppers.

Kardal was thrilled, and made specials
with whatever ingredients he got.

He also bought a sandwich board
of lightweight plastic, decorated it
with his food truck and bestsellers,
and added a pair of shoulder straps.

That way, anyone without money
could walk around the block or event
and earn a tray of falafel or hummus.

He was pretty sure that some of
the young people who took the offer
were homeless, or close enough,
but he didn't turn them away.

He knew what that was like too.

When Zipper reappeared,
Kardal asked quietly, "Are
your friends getting enough
to eat? They order like you do,
and I'm ... a little worried."

"Most of them are fine, they
just need more calories,"
Zipper said. "Some people
need a lot more -- have you
seen how construction workers
eat, or anyone else doing
hard physical labor?"

"Oh yeah," Kardal said.
"I got booked for road work
a couple times. Those guys
can clean me out just in
one lunch hour rush!"

"Teleporters are like that,"
Zipper said. "Some of us
get energy from other places,
but we usually need extra food."

"What kind of food?" Kardal said.
"Is there any way I could help?"

"Our exact needs vary, but fat and
sugar give the most fuel, and carbs
help it last longer. We need things
that are high in nutrients," Zipper said.
"Strongmen need extra protein, and
speedsters have a sweet tooth."

"Let me think about this a bit,"
said Kardal. "I can probably
come up with a new combo.
Meanwhile, what do you want?"

"Your Party Size Dip Platter,
a shawarma with kabiss, and
a pomegranate jallab," said Zipper.

Kardal filled the dip platter, and
there was no room on it for shawarma,
so he loaded that and the drink onto
a snack tray and added a handful
of phyllo spinach triangles for
one of his favorite customers.

This time, Zipper came back
only once, for the dessert hummus.

The next day, Kardal fiddled around
with ideas for a teleporter platter
(which desperately needed
a better name), then gave up
and called Penina Trueblood.

"I need to make a new platter
for maximum nutrients," he said.
"Sugar, fat, and carbs are good.
You know the food numbers
better than I do, so I'm hoping
you can give me some ideas."

"For construction workers or
other heavy labor?" Penina said.

"That's one market," said Kardal.
"Another is, well, teleporters."

"Oh, I took a class in college
on catering to people who need
higher nutrients," Penina said,
clearly excited. "Let me pull up
your master menu. Do you want
something static or flexible?"

"Flexible," Kardal said. "I have
a lot of dishes that I rotate through."

"Okay, so something like one of
your existing platters, but bigger,
and focused on the richest foods,"
Penina said. "Start with hummus
and pita, that's a meal in itself."

"Good idea, that was one of
my thoughts," Kardal said. "But
what to put with it? I can't use
too many expensive ingredients."

"Skip the fresh vegetables,"
Penina advised. "They're high
in vitamins but not calories. Folks
can always buy some separately."

"That makes sense," he said.
"Falafel is cheap too, and it's
great with most hummus."

"Hard boiled eggs are
nutrient-dense," she said.
"Tabouli is a rich salad."

"Okay," said Kardal. "I
can let them pick a meat,
or just add more falafel.
Desserts vary by day."

"Some of your other dips
are rich too," Penina said.

"I don't think I want to mix
dips with hummus for
this one," Kardal said.

"No problem," Penina said.
"Do you want to include
a beverage, though?"

Kardal laughed. "Jallab,
either flavor. They keep
asking me for more syrup.
Did you know speedsters fill
bottles with energy gels?"

"I had heard that,"
Penina said. "I think
you've got an outline
for a new platter, so
you can try it out."

"Yeah, thanks,"
Kardal said gladly.

After a bit more research,
he named it the Humdinger,
and put it out as a special.

It was immediately popular with
families and other big groups.

Twenty minutes later, he
was swarmed by teleporters.

Two hours later, they had
totally cleaned him out and
he had to go restock.

The new special
became a regular.

After that, Kardal
worried less about
them eating enough.

The sandwich board
continued to be useful as
work-trade and advertising,
with only one incident where
a black girl didn't come back.

The next morning, Zipper
showed up with the sign.

"Where did you get that?"
Kardal said. "Yesterday it
went missing around noon."

"Backstep is still learning
how to use her powers,"
Zipper explained. "She
got startled into a jump and
was too tired to return this.
It happens with novices."

"Well, problem solved,"
Kardal said. "Thank you
for bringing it back. I hadn't
even found time to replace it --
today's work-trade is picking up
litter, because this place is a dump."

Zipper looked around at the park
with trash choking all the gutters.
"What happened here?" he said.

"Some football event in town,
and they came to this park for
extra practice," Kardal said.

"At least you have your sign
back now," Zipper said.

"True," said Kardal. "You
want a Humdinger? I know
teleport's usually expensive."

"This is part of my job as
mentor, but I'll certainly
buy one," Zipper said.

When Kardal handed
it over, he asked, "Is there
anything else I could do
to support teleporters?
They're great customers."

Zipper grinned at him. "You
could roll out a teleport pad.
Muslims use a prayer rug, and
most others use a compass rose."

"Could I combine them?" Kardal said.

"Sure, just put the GPS chip into
the rug and chalk a compass rose
around it," Zipper said. "Usually
you park on the pavement."

"Some events have grass,
but I could use spray chalk
there," Kardal mused.

"Just make sure nobody
walks over the teleport pad,
it's not safe," Zipper said.
"You might want to put
ropes or panels around it."

"I can afford a prayer rug,
but cheap posts are flimsy
and sturdy ones are pricey,"
Kardal said. "I don't know."

"Don't worry, I can source
all the equipment," Zipper said.
"The Maldives stocks plenty.
You buy the prayer rug and
chalk; I'll cover the safety net."

"That works for me, but
eat first," Kardal said.

Zipper ate first, then
disappeared in search
of the necessary supplies.

When he returned, he said,
"One prayer mat with GPS, $15.
One box of sidewalk chalk, $5.
Four portable posts with a set
of ventilated privacy panels."

He looked at the empty pavement,
and then checked his vidwatch.

"The prayer mat faces Mecca,"
he explained as he set it up.
"You'll need a qibla compass
for this. The compass rose
should orient to the north,
so use a magnetic compass."

"I have a qibla compass,"
Kardal said as he waved
his own vidwatch. "I don't
have a regular compass."

"Check your app," Zipper said.
"The good ones have both kinds."

Kardal checked his app, then laughed.
"There it is. I just never needed it before.
I don't run around in the woods like
some of the people do here."

"Well, I'm happy I could help,"
Zipper said. "Let me grab
a portable dessert, then
I need to get going."

Kardal filled a bag with
a dozen Aleppo cookies
and waved him away.

For the most part,
the teleport pad
worked very well.

The teleporters soon
found it and used it.

Other food truck vendors
quickly realized that Kardal
was attracting more customers
and pointed them to Syrian Foods.

After all, someone who bought
lunch there might buy dessert
somewhere else, or vice versa.

Kardal had seen more than
one teleporter eat their way
down the entire food lane.

He only had a problem once.

"I need an extra five-by-five feet
near my truck," Kardal explained
to the Band Battle organizer.

"You get the space marked
for your size of food truck and
that's it," she said. "No extras."

"I have a teleport pad that needs
clearance for safety reasons,"
Kardal said. "That's important,
and it pulls in more customers.
Have you seen how they eat?"

"We don't need any of them,"
the organizer snapped.

"Then Syrian Foods will
not be attending your event,"
Kardal said in a frosty tone.
"I do not serve bigots."

He got another call later
from Eat Wisely Rutledge,
asking about the cancellation.

"I didn't drop out for no reason,"
Kardal explained. "She wouldn't
give me space for a teleport pad,
and said -- I won't repeat bad things,
that is very dirty in my religion."

"Oh, anti-Muslim prejudice?"
the secretary said sympathetically.

"No, anti-soup, but bigotry is
bigotry," Kardal said. "People
like that tore my country apart
and -- and killed my family."

"I'm so sorry," she said.
"Of course you don't have
to attend an event if its staff
create a hostile environment.
We'll look into that immediately --
other vendors may want to quit too."

"I didn't feel safe," he whispered.
"I need to feel safe in Vermont.
This isn't Aleppo or Damascus.
I was at my street grill, selling
food, when the bombing began."

"How awful!" the secretary said.
"Do you need emotional first aid?"

"No, thank you, I have a counselor,"
Kardal said. "I think I'll talk to him."

The refugees had good support staff,
some from the government, some
organized by the local citizens.

Kardal's counselor not only
helped him handle the stress of
running into a bigot at work, but
also promised to pass the word
to his coworkers just in case
anyone else came complaining
of similar problems with that event.

It was an unpleasant experience,
but Kardal was not about to give up
his teleporter pad over a bit of bigotry.

Zipper kept bringing his friends
to eat at Syrian Foods, too.

One day, Kardal got his hands
on the ingredients to make natef
to go with the Aleppo cookies,
courtesy of teleporter barter.

Zipper finished his dessert and
then dashed back to the window.

"Could I get an order of this to go?"
he asked. "A friend of mine will love it."

"I'm sorry, you just ate the last of it,"
Kardal said. "I don't know when
I can make more -- the ingredients
are impossible to find in Vermont."

"Write them down," Zipper said.
"I'll pass the word and find some."

Kardal started writing, but
the other customers grumbled.

He dumped some falafel in a tray
and handed it to the first woman.
"Here, a free treat for everyone
who waits patiently!" he said.

They all shut up at once.

Kardal wrote out the recipe
and handed it to Zipper.
"Good luck," he said.

It took a couple of days,
but Zipper somehow found
the necessary ingredients.

"Tomorrow?" he said hopefully.

"Yes, I will make Karabij Halab
with Natef tomorrow," Kardal said.
"You and your friend come early!
I run out of things faster every day."

"We'll see you in the morning,"
Zipper promised before leaving.

The next morning dawned bright
and warm, the air full of butterflies.

Zipper showed up with a young man
whose white-blond hair gleamed
in the sunlight like a beacon.

"Good morning," Kardal said.
"What do you want before dessert?"

Zipper glanced at the menu board.
"Two Koobideh Kebabs and
a Hummus Sampler Platter with
fresh fruit -- oh, and two jallabs,
one of each flavor, please."

His friend was crouched
by the menu board, examining
the chalk display with interest.

Kardal dished up the order
and added a dozen cookies
with a medium tub of natef
instead of the usual small.

"Here, Shiv, try this,"
Zipper said, offering
the cookies and dip.

Shiv dug into the dip with
his fingers, then squealed.

"It tastes like soap!" he said.
"And flowers, but mostly soap!
How does it taste like soap?"

"Natef literally is made from
soapwort," Zipper explained.

"The same stuff we wash dishes
with when camping?" Shiv said.

"I don't know if it's the same species,
but if not, similar," said Zipper. "Now
quit dancing around, I already have
the recipe. Let's sit down and eat."

Shiv was still a bundle of energy,
bouncing in his seat as they ate.

Kardal kept an eye on them
while serving other customers,
just in case they needed more.

During a lull, Shiv came back
to the counter. "Can we get
a Dessert Hummus Platter?
And uh, do you use knives
here in the food truck?"

"I'll get your dessert,"
Kardal said. "Why do you
want to know about knives?"

"I uh, sharpen things, and
that whipped stuff is awesome,"
Shiv said. He opened his hand,
and a scrap of metal danced in it.
"So I could make your knife sharp,
perfectly, forever. As a tip."

Kardal loved soups, he
really did. You never knew
what they were going to offer.

"Here," he said as he handed over
the shawarma knife that never held
an edge because he used it all day.

Shiv swiped a thumb along the blade,
then handed it back. "Test that,
see if it's the angle you want."

Kardal tested the knife edge.
It was absolutely perfect.

He stuffed the meat
in a pita, doused it with
white sauce, and handed
it to Shiv along with
the dessert platter.

One of them was
sure to eat that.

Kardal waited on
a few other people as
he watched his friends
devour their dessert.

When they finished,
Zipper came up and said,
"Thank you, that was lovely.
I don't suppose you could
spare a bottle of jallab syrup?
Shiv fell in love with that too."

"Here, I'm selling these to
teleporters and speedsters
now," Kardal said, handing
him a small squeeze bottle.
"I buy it in drums like olive oil!
I can't keep the truck stocked."

"Have you considered adding
a cold trailer?" Zipper asked.

"I would if I could afford it,"
Kardal said. "They're pricey."

"Now this is a problem that
I can fix," Zipper said, and
went back to sit with Shiv.

A few minutes later,
the young man came
to the window again,
holding out his phone.

"Do you know what you'd
want in a refrigerated trailer?"
he said. "I've seen 'em before."

The phone had a catalog page
from one of the sites that Kardal
had browsed before giving up.

"That one," Kardal said, pointing.
"It's big enough to walk in, but
not so big that it would be hard
to drive with it on my hitch."

"Great, thanks," said Shiv.
He went back to Zipper.

Twenty minutes later,
the teleporter zipped away,
and Shiv came up again.

"I'm gonna have to move
your teleport pad, because it's
behind your food truck," Shiv said.
"Would you switch off the GPS?"

"Wait, what?" Kardal said.

"Zipper went to pick up
your refrigerated trailer, but
it goes there," Shiv said,
pointing at the safety space.

"All ... right," Kardal said slowly,
too bemused to argue with him.

A few minutes later, the ripping sound
announced Zipper, with trailer in tow.

It was exactly what Kardal needed
to keep up with his super customers.

"You bought me a trailer?" he said.

Zipper laughed. "No, no!" he said.
"The Teleport bought you a trailer.
I could have afforded it myself,
but if I had, my friends would've
been outraged at missing a chance
to chip in on something important."

"I get it, you know," Shiv said.
"Teleporters, they're like cats
chasing a tuna can, but if they
like you, they bring you presents.
A lot better than half-mice, too."

"Thank you all," Kardal said.

Food truck notwithstanding,
he thought that superpowers were
a vibrant symbol of the American dream.

* * *


This poem is long, so its notes will appear separately.
Tags: community, cyberfunded creativity, ethnic studies, fantasy, fishbowl, food, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing

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