Wednesdays, nothing real special about the day when you work 80 hours a week as an intern. There is no real beginning nor end to our work, so the notion of a hump day defining a midpoint between weekends seems quaint. After last week, I now look forward to Wednesday for a whole new reason: The Burrito Project.
Los Angeles Burrito Project started when a few friends in the bike community decided to do something to change the world: hand out free burritos to homeless folks in downtown. After toasting tortillas on gas stove, I toss warmed flour shells to my friends. They scoop rice, beans, and salsa to form delicious burritos. These beauties would sell for $5 a pop, neatly wrapped in aluminum foil rolls. We layer them into our bike messenger bags by the dozens alongside water bottles.
Four teams of riders head out to distribute water and burritos. “Buurrrrritos! Aaaaguaa! Waaateer!” our calls echo in the glowing night vacant roads. From tents, plastic lined cardboard boxes, lifting baseball hats off eyes, hundreds emerge hungry, thirsty. “Oh its Wednesday again?” people ask unwrapping dinner. The Burrito Project hasn’t missed a Wednesday night distribution since January 2006.
“The Burrito Project has changed the way we all interact,” my bike messenger friend informs me. “We used to be hassled riding through these streets. I used to not acknowledge homeless folks and just ride right past. Now we have a different relationship. I wish I didn’t have to see the same people living in these conditions weeks after weeks. Since we started handing out Burritos the streets have changed for the better for all of us.”
Working in a county hospital in South Los Angeles, I doctor on the frontlines of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, and mental health. Patient by patient, one by one, disease by disease, we are the healers of last resort. Our emergency room always in “surge capacity,” the special designation occurs when a hundred of patients wait in boredom and desperation for medical attention. My patients on Thursday could easily be some of the same people I handed a burrito on Wednsday. Its not enough.
From the hospital, I bike north on Vermont Avenue twenty miles to reach my house in Koreatown. This terrain stretches forth miles and miles of medically underserved neighborhoods. If I weren’t a doctor, I would be a bike mechanic, I think to myself. I live a fantasy-alternative life, pondering who I would be if I didn’t decide to be a doctor. What would I be doing right now, at 3 AM if I weren’t an intern? I’d be sleeping at home, my hipster bikes hanging from the ceiling. Some people think I’m crazy for biking. In Los Angeles. Twenty miles. After working 30 hours. Biking links my alternate identity to my reality. The Burrito Project affirms both.
My friend Emily Ramsey brought me to my first night with Burrito Project. She’s a rad nurse at UCLA and board member of the Bike Kitchen a nonprofit in Koreatown dedicated to teaching youth how to fix bikes. We find ourselves talking equal parts bike geek and medical geek. “What would it take for us to put together a mobile clinic on bikes?” I ask her,”What would our top 10 medications be?” I vote antibiotics for wound infections. Emily believes some sort of pain medication.
Later, I accost one of my co-residents in Family Medicine in the elevator. She used to be a one-woman walking free clinic. “Lets see, you should carry meds for hypertension, infection, pain, diabetes…” The Burrito Project is an all volunteer run project, funded by passing around a can before our ride. You are welcome to ride with me Wednesday, I’ll be there unless I’m on call. We’re half serious about the new and improved Burrito with side serving of Primary Health Care Project.
Neither our emergency room, nor our Burritos will cure our community. But until we decide to invest comprehensively in our city’s health, both will have to make do.
Rebecca is an intern at Harbor UCLA Family Medicine who believes that our burritos & our bikes are our bombs. She is a proud single mom to Zev age 10 who is too smart for his own good. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org