A group of volunteers in matching yellow Juneteenth T-shirts clustered in front of a grill on 38th Street, steps from the Chicago Avenue corner where George Floyd had been killed by police.
They ordered hamburgers and hot dogs and, twice, one of the group members asked what he owed the cook, Glen Walton, as if he didn’t believe the answer.
“It’s free, man,” Walton said.
Walton, an arborist out of work since COVID-19 came to Minnesota, has spent the past month behind a grill, feeding many of the thousands of visitors and demonstrators who have come to the corner to pay respects to Floyd.
He is not alone on that south Minneapolis corner. Walton is among those who have set up tents, carts, food trucks and trailers, grills and a smoker on the streets that radiate from this intersection-turned-memorial.
While city and state officials and community members explore ways to make the site a permanent tribute to Floyd and the worldwide movement his death helped ignite, a kind of town square has emerged.
Volunteers spray visitors’ hands with sanitizer, a sound system projects the voices of poets and singers, florists cart in buckets of stems for mourners to place on the street, canvassers sign constituents up for politicians’ mailing lists.
And everywhere — at plastic picnic tables, on blankets on a grass lawn, on the curb or around the flower-ringed shrine to Floyd — people eat.
Like a spread after a funeral, the food is comforting, nourishing, even uplifting.
“Food is how we grieve,” said Nancy Alayon, owner of Qué Tal Street Eats, a Salvadoran food truck that served 2,000 free meals over two weekends at the memorial.
Many of the cooks who come and go throughout the day set up tents in small parking lots between buildings or on the street, like Walton. They park trucks on the perimeter. Or, in the case of the brick and mortar establishments on the block, like Dragon Wok, they’ve been there all along.
On a recent hot Friday, Dwight Alexander loaded 200 chicken wings onto a grate inside a massive barrel of a smoker in front of his takeout restaurant, Smoke in the Pit. The wings turned a deep bronze while smoke billowed over the street.
It was Alexander’s first day cooking out front; he usually keeps the smoker behind his building. But he was proud of the 15-year-old workhorse that was enabling him to feed the crowds.
“I wanted them to see the original,” he said.
Since these streets became a memorial site, the new customers streaming past Alexander’s business are learning something important about the intersection, he said. In the past, “everybody painted this corner as a hard corner.”
But with the world’s eyes watching, an unspeakable tragedy became a flash point for anger and then change. The corner’s true nature has been revealed, Alexander said. “It’s as soft as a pillow.”
He made about 1,200 wings that day. Some were sold from his storefront window. Others he offered for free to gatherers at picnic tables down the street. “They forget about the sadness for five minutes when they eat this food,” Alexander said. Providing that moment of relief in the epicenter of a global movement toward racial justice, he says, makes him feels blessed.
“This is anointed ground,” he said.
On the next corner, just past the welcome crew of hand-spritzers, Harold Porter has been cooking from his Phattone’s Finger Food trailer since late May. The trailer is equipped with a griddle, refrigerator and deep fryer.
Porter is typically swamped with orders for cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches and fried cauliflower. He started out giving away food, but had to begin charging to keep his business afloat.
Porter usually parked his restaurant-on-wheels in St. Paul, but when he heard about Floyd, whom he considered a friend, he relocated here to be closer to the movement.
“I’m tired of white folks killing us,” he said about his reason for feeding fellow mourners. “This is what I do and I love doing it,” he said. “People love to eat. ”
Similarly, Alayon of Qué Tal had been drawn to the corner in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
“We knew we couldn’t go on with business as usual,” she said. “We thought about how we could best serve our community, and we decided what we do best is feed them,” she said.
The truck canceled its upcoming events, and turned to its supporters to raise about $6,000 — enough to feed 2,000 people and donate needed toiletries to a nearby church.
Alayon was amazed at how quickly the corner became a community-run marketplace, with several food vendors rotating in and out, many of them handing out food for free. As soon as her truck ran out of meals and began to pull out of its parking spot, another cook moved in with more trays of food.
“It was organically beautiful, the flow of how that happened,” she said. “Everyone was incredibly generous with their time and their resources, and we were one of many. Food brings people together.”
Walton set up his tent and grill two days after the memorial emerged. He had never cooked for the public before. But he had grown up in the neighborhood, and felt “it was my duty to come down and make sure everybody eats.”
There are two signs at the back of the tent: one with Walton’s Venmo and Cash App names so people can send him donations; the other with the menu — beef hot dogs, chicken and cheese sausage, watermelon, shrimp, veggie burgers and his specially seasoned “Humble Burger,” because “it’s made by a humble person.”
Every day, Walton tallies his donations, goes to the grocery store to buy more supplies, and goes back to his spot on 38th Street. Someone donated the charcoal grill, too — he doesn’t know who.
To protect himself and others from the coronavirus, Walton applies the condiments to the meat himself, to order.
Thousands of people over the past month have flocked to the most famous corner in Minneapolis. Many have stopped by his tent, whether for a humble bite, or to fuel the fight. Does he worry about risking his health?
“Not at all,” he said over the sizzle of the grill. “This is a special place.”