By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 9:31 PM
In the ever-churning universe of a city street corner, Carlos Guardado was that rarest of things: a fixture.
For almost 20 years, he was there, a little guy in a metal cart, selling rice-and-bean burritos at 17th and K streets NW on Farragut Square. He was there in all weather, during uptimes and downturns, a dependable rock in the rapids of life in downtown Washington.
Until suddenly, this week, he wasn't, and a busy neighborhood paused to realize that it was a pretty big man who had been doing that little job.
Tuesday, when the hungry emerged from their marble lobbies, in place of Guardado's cart they found a hand-drawn sign posted by his brother-in-law announcing that the burrito man had suffered a heart attack and died a few days earlier. He was 48.
A man in a tailored suit read the words, touched his open mouth and lowered his head into his hand. Two women hugged, one crying openly. They came to the cart at least once a week, the other said, usually together.
"No! Oh my God," cried Pat Pasqual as she stopped in her tracks. She had bought countless cups of coffee from the cart that was no longer there.
"I'd like to talk about him, but I don't think I can right now," said Robert Tigner, a lawyer for a professional association across the street, his voice breaking as he read the notice.
All day, they came, lawyers and interns, lobbyists and vagrants, working folks who had made Guardado a part of their routine, suddenly realizing that the burrito guy had found his way into their hearts.
"I guess we became friends. We did become friends," Tigner said later by phone. The lawyer marveled that he'd spoken with Guardado almost every workday for 10 years. "Sometime for a few minutes, sometimes for much longer. We talked about kids and soccer, his two loves - in that order."
Judy Sheahan worked a few blocks away at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' offices. As soon as a friend called to tell her about the poster, she went to "Carlos's Corner," as many called it, and joined in the spontaneous street-side mourning.
"I was hugging people that I didn't even know, faces I recognized from Carlos's cart," she said. "We cried together. This tore a real hole in our office."
Tigner and Sheahan were two of almost a hundred people who attended a visitation for Guardado Tuesday night in Gaithersburg. Many were downtown office workers, connected by nothing other than their acquaintance with a cheerful vendor.
Sheahan, who started nearly every morning with a stop at the cart for coffee and a chat that would sometimes last 20 minutes, made a study of Guardado's wide appeal. He kept people coming back by recalling not only their food preferences, but also the names of their children and standings of their sports teams. Workers who had been transferred away would come find him on their visits back. He once got a postcard from a customer traveling in Africa. It was addressed "Carlos's Burrito Cart, Corner of 17th and K."
"When he told you he hoped you would have a good day, he really meant it," said Sheahan. "I don't think he had any idea the impact he had on people."
Actually, Guardado often did speak of the impact his customers had on him, according to his wife, Carmen Diaz, a secretary at Montgomery County Public Schools headquarters. His own routine was brutal - up at 4 a.m., a drive from Germantown to pick up his cart at a downtown warehouse by 6, set up on the corner with his massive coolers deployed and the beans simmering by 7.
But he came home filled with stories he plucked from the endless parade of humanity that marched by his window.
"Every day, he came home and tell me, 'Carmen, they love me,' " Diaz said Wednesday as she and their children, Allison, 19, and Mathew, 14, made their own final pilgrimage to the corner where Guardado lived so much of his life. "The people in the city, they were his family, too. We shared him with them."
Guardado came, illegally, to the United States in 1981, as the war in El Salvador made life dangerous for a 17-year-old boy. He told Sheahan how he'd had one cousin die in his arms and discovered the body of an uncle.
For years, Guardado worked as a painter, eventually gaining legal residency. In 1990, paying in installments, he bought a hot dog cart licensed for Farragut Square. Soon, he changed his menu to burritos, which put him years ahead of the food-cart boom the city is now enjoying. He put out a basket for people to pay by the honor system - so he wouldn't have to handle money in his "kitchen" - and found himself a career.
If he looked lonely, an isolated figure in a steamy cart, customers soon learned that his life was full. The soccer prowess of his children, along with their academic achievements, were known to hundreds of diners. When he brought Allison to Take Your Daughter to Work Day a few years ago, word spread as if a celebrity had been sighted.
"It was really cool seeing them together," recalled Ava Page, a regular from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nearby advocacy group. "He was just beaming."
Guardado meant the cart to be a stop on the way to a proper restaurant. But years turned to decades, and the income was enough to buy a house and, later, send Allison to the University of Maryland, where she is now a sophomore.
His talk of opening a restaurant faded in recent years.
"I think he was content," said Sheahan. "He always talked about the cart being a wonderful window on the world and that he learned more on that corner than most people do in a lifetime. He was one of the smartest people I've ever met in Washington."
The Carlos Guardado Children's Education Fund is being administered by Father Evelio Menjivar at the Cathedral of St. Matthew, 1725 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20036.