Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2007 | By day, this corner of Mission Valley teems with bustling office workers and honking cars. But an hour after midnight on a recent cold, clear night, the surrounding towers of glass and concrete slip into shadows, and two nearby gas stations grow dark and deserted. All of the business-hour exertion has left the neighborhood yawning, and now, it sleeps.

VIDEO: Selling shrimp tacos on a cold night

But one beige stucco building in the corner of a quiet parking lot still glows at this hour. Neon and fluorescent lights illuminate its facade — red, green and yellow. The drive-thru of this Del Taco restaurant proves an all-night, every-night bastion of activity. Its menu of tacos, burgers, fries, nachos and milkshakes magnetizes late-night workers who missed dinner, or party-goers seeking a wee-hours snack.

Patrons drive into the parking lot and fall into a queue behind other cars. From a metal speaker in a menu board, a voice crackles.

“Good morning, this is Lateisha. Would you like to get our shrimp taco meal today?”

The voice sounds automated. The customers’ car windows slide up and down as if by rote. Down to order, up to pull forward, down to pay, up to wait, down to grab the paper bags stuffed with food, up to drive away.

In the drive-thru machine, the worker may be nothing more than a collection of necessary body parts to a hungry customer — a voice to greet, ears to take orders, hands to make and package food, arms to reach the food out to the waiting customer.

Those arms, that voice, those ears and hands are Lateisha Parker. Tonight, she leans out the sliding window, into an exceptionally chilly night in San Diego. Her breath makes fog swirls in the cold air.

Lateisha Parker doesn’t look 30. Her small frame is nearly swallowed by a yellow uniform T-shirt she’s layered over a faded navy sweatshirt and black pants. Her face is bare, and a few straggly curls of hair poke out the bottom of her red ball cap. A stud piercing her tongue buzzes against her teeth.

Parker works the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., four nights a week, for about $300 weekly. Mondays and Tuesdays are slow, she says. But Fridays and Saturdays, party nights, are different.

Parker could do without the excitement at work. She grew up in foster care, placed there because of abusive home situations she can’t entirely remember. When she was 13, one of her social workers helped her find her father.

“Unfortunately, he was in jail,” she says. “That was a bad first impression.”

She had two kids as a teenager. And she’s been in some abusive relationships herself, one that ended in divorce. The kindest description she can muster of the life of her 15-year-old son, Lee, is “a predicament.” He’s already spent some time in jail. “My poor baby,” she says. And she says she’s not always able to keep track of her 13-year-old daughter, Andrea. “She’s a teenager, you know?”

Tomorrow, Jan. 3, marks a year from the day Parker’s mom died. She had AIDS and two strokes. The second stroke hit when Parker was holding her mom’s hand. “I’m her baby,” she says. Her death was a shock.

She and her older sister, Tanya, are close. Closer since their mom’s death. The sisters work together on Saturday nights at the restaurant.

“A bunch of drunk, freaky people come through here,” she says. “People having sex in the drive-thru. We can pick out which car will be the one putting on the show. It’s exciting, I guess.”

Parker fits into a nearly invisible army of service workers in a county lauded for its job growth in high-paying, highly specialized technology sectors. She fills bags with burgers and tacos and French fries while most people sleep. She scrapes together just enough to live. She is among those for whom ever being able to afford a home here is so unlikely, she doesn’t even think about it.

She’s on one end of what’s increasingly becoming a hourglass economy of haves and have-nots in the San Diego region.

After a while, graveyard shift jobs all feel the same. Before this, she was a bar waitress, a gas station attendant, a cashier at Condoms Plus. She sees the same kind of people at the same time of night. They’re the awake ones in a city of modest nightlife. It’s almost a little community.

Almost.

A shiny silver Cadillac pulls up to the speaker. Two women inside yell out an impassioned greeting and their food order. They’ve been here before.

The women, in their late teens or early 20s, spill stories from a night on the town. They ask if Del Taco sells bottled water. “Only at Taco Bell,” Parker says.

She jokes with the women, tells a couple of stories of her own, then hands a couple of heavy-looking bags of food out the window. The car pulls away, and Parker’s window slides shut.

When she props it open again, she explains. “They’re kind of my regulars,” Parker says. “They come when they know I’m working.”

They’ve exchanged cell phone numbers before, she said, agreeing they should hang out when Parker’s not stuck behind the window. The number exchange was a while ago. “We haven’t really hung out yet,” she says. The girls are busy, she says, and so is she, and it would probably be difficult to find a time that would work. She trails off, sounding less than certain that the meet-up will ever happen.

Parker kicks a box of ketchup absentmindedly while she takes orders. The sound of clattering pans fills the air as the store manager, the only other employee on duty, makes the food. Their efficiency is measured by a red LED clock mounted to the window. Parker says they’ve been scolded recently about the times.

An ice-blue sports car orders tacos with mild sauce. A navy Toyota Echo orders a chicken burrito and shrimp tacos. A white cargo van orders two bags’ worth of burgers and tacos.

Tonight, Parker arrived at work late. She hasn’t had a chance yet to wipe down the tables in the dining room or clean up the food preparation counters, her duties when no cars are waiting.

Soon a charcoal grey BMW pulls up, with two 20-something men inside. They flirt with Parker, and she flirts back, even taking down the number of one of the guys, who tells her his name.

“Hugh, like Hugh Hefner?” she asks. She checks to make sure she has the right number. The area code is from Santa Rosa, in Northern California. She hands the bags of food to the driver. They pull away. Her window slides shut.

Parker is used to the flirtation. Her e-mail address uses the moniker “PrtyBrnEyes.”

“I get it all the time,” she says, trying to hide a smile. “It’s the worst pickup line for me now. I got it tattooed on my arm, it got told to me so much.”

“I try to build their self esteem,” she says of the male customers. “They’re young. I’ve got one at home anyway.” She refers to her boyfriend, with whom she shares an apartment in the College Area. “We’re just dating, really, right now. I can’t really say we’re boyfriend and girlfriend.”

Parker doesn’t see herself working behind the glass forever. She has dreams, she says. The self-esteem analysis she made of those customers isn’t out of character for her. In fact, she took a few general education college classes with hopes of pursuing a psychology degree one day.

“I’ll do that when I’m more focused,” she says. “I love picking brains.”

“I was thinking of working with kids,” she continues. “I want to tell them, ‘I’ve been down that road, and you guys, don’t do it.’”

Other than that, she doesn’t wish for much.

“Just making it in this cruel, cruel world,” she says.

Her words come in a cloud, and dissipate into the cold night.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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