What I am about to share is both personal and heartfelt. I suppose that what I am about to share with you is also part of why I see things the way I do. Also, this is where and how I learned about the birth of my taste buds and the meaningfulness of lunchtime and meals after a hard day’s work.
Of course, not everyone likes the same thing and not everyone comes from the same background which is why I like to try new meals from different people. I admit to being adventurous and trying foods from different places. I can say that I have tried things that were not for me. I can say that I have tasted things without knowing what they were and, in fairness, had I known I might not have tried them in the first place. And yes, I’ve eaten things that sound terrible but tasted great.
My first introduction to the working world was as an apprentice at my family’s business. My Father who grew up in an obviously different time was born out of The Great Depression in the year 1929. He was raised in the Bronx and lived through a different time in the history of New York City.
On the other hand, my Mother, who never admitted to her real age or the year she was born was someone who came from a much different culture.
Mom was born in Carlsbad, New Mexico, which to me might as well have been a totally different country. Mom never talked about her upbringing more than to say that her childhood was unhappy. Her father, my grandfather Dave, passed away when Mom was somewhere about the age of ten.
By the way, I was born at a time before the internet which means now (if I wanted to) I can search records and find Mom’s real age but hey, Mom passed away several years ago – so, I’d rather keep her secret safe and stick with the phrase “I don’t know” when it comes to Mom’s age.
My family’s business was a tough one. The office was situated in Jamaica, Queens, which was certainly a different neighborhood compared to my suburban hometown and the station of my early youth. Perhaps this was my introduction to culture and my first entrance into the understanding that life is not the same across the world.
Of course, intellectually, I knew that people were from different places in the world. I knew about financial differences. I understood that not all backgrounds and families are the same. I knew that people come in different shapes and sizes, color, beliefs and, of course, I knew that my view of life was limited to what I understood or saw in my daily experience.
Intellectually, I understood this yet, emotionally or intrinsically, I never knew much about a life outside of my own little world. Safe to say, I am not alone with this. Safe to say that we all have a background and culture and that in our own minds, we see the world the way we were taught to see it. We see what our experiences teach us. For me, I was fortunate to expand my experience and learn this at a young age.
I worked with men who came from tough upbringings and who lived hard lives. I worked with men who came from other parts of the world, who came here with nothing, who learned to speak the language, who worked hard jobs with their hands, who labored and bled or sweat, and who scratched and scraped and did all they could to create a good life for themselves. I worked with people who looked to create a promising life for their children so that their children’s life would be easier than theirs.
These were the greatest people.
Of course, at a young age, I never thought much about the future or saving money. I was young enough to think that the future belongs to old people.
As for money, I was safe enough to be protected by my family. Nothing was “on me” yet.
I didn’t understand what it means to have a mortgage or pay bills. I certainly had no idea what it meant to feed a family (or know how to) and as a result of this, as a result of my time as a helper or apprentice, as a result of me running around with tools, cleaning up after plumbing and heating jobs, running for coffee, and literally being shoved or stuffed in the dirtiest of workplaces and told, “Clean this out;” I can say that this opportunity showed me a different side of life.
I can say that I have seen the best at their craft. I have worked with people who, at one point, could not speak a word of English, who learned to communicate in a new language. Because of this, they learned to read blueprints and wiring diagrams or build heating systems and fix things beyond my understanding.
I worked on pumps and motors. I worked inside oil burners and on sewage ejector pumps which, of all jobs, this was the nastiest of them all. And the mechanics knew this was the worst of them all. They all laughed at me too – especially when I learned that the ejector pump was how residential buildings removed their toilet waste.
I remember sweating like mad in hot rooms and working long hours on heavy equipment. I was young l, too, which meant that my friends were experiencing life from a much different perspective. They were hanging out or having fun.
They were living the life that I suppose I should have lived; and had I done well in school and not failed out – I suppose I would have been with them.
This was hard especially in the summer when my so-called friends were running around like mad, little lunatics, crazy as ever. They were free in the freedoms that only come at a certain age.
Had I listened or paid attention in school, I would have been out with them on their late-night rendezvous, but no. I thought I knew what I was doing and, in fairness; although my classroom was different – this was my school. To me, my alma mater wasn’t one that came with a diploma. No, mine came with a job and an experience that lasted a lifetime.
Sure, I missed out.
I had to be up before sunrise the next morning. I had to be on the road and ready for work. Not to mention the fact that by the time I arrived home; I had to try and wash the filth from my skin. I had to try and clean myself enough that the black rings underneath my fingernails was gone and by the time I was set to go out, it was already late enough that the real night was underway. As such – I already missed the inception and the opening ceremonies of whatever craziness was about to happen.
Safe to say that at that age, I was unaware how important these lessons were to me. I lived two very different lives. I lived in my suburban surroundings part-time and worked in an urban culture part-time as well. I worked in special homes where people didn’t have enough money to heat their own homes, let alone feed their own families. I saw the inequality and the nature of underserved lives, who were people like anyone else. All they wanted to do was live a good, happy life.
I suppose one of the most generous or charitable things that has ever been offered to me was a glass of ginger ale from a woman who had nothing else in her fridge. No food. This was all she had to offer as a means of appreciation to a team of people who piped heat into her house in the middle of winter.
Now, in spite of all the hazing and in spite of all the tough tasks and dirty jobs, there was something special about lunchtime. There was something more meaningful about this; in which case, this was a lesson that took me years to celebrate and recognize to its full potential.
I ate lunch with a group of men who learned how to feed their families and in their kindness and generosity; they shared their meals with me and taught me about the meals from their country.
I never knew much about what I was eating, especially because the foods were Spanish dishes like carne guisada or pernil. I never knew what bacalao was or ate much arroz con pollo or anything like this. And ah, the yellow rice. Ah the plantains. Ah, the meats and the sauces and the way the flavor touched my tongue. I was 16 years old and working like a grown-up; to which I was told, “If you’re going to work like a man, then eat like a man!”
(What a way to honor me then and yes, as I detail this, I admit to the tear which filled my eye.)
I miss these men. I miss seeing them. I miss their voices and even their jokes (even the ones at my expense) and most of all, I miss the meals that I shared with them. I miss being full like never before.
I miss the lessons they would teach me. However, I am sure that life has unfortunately changed for them. They were grown men with families then. And I am a grown man now.
I don’t know where they are now. However, my aim in this entry is to say thanks. I want to say thanks for working with me. Thanks for teaching me that there is so much more in the world than what we see. I want to thank them for turning me onto some of the best tasting dishes which I still look for and because of them; I am able to order these meals with an appropriate accent. I can even ask for more, if I need to.
The theme of this journal is food is love. These gentlemen, whether they knew it or not; they showed me a love that I have not forgotten. Nor will I ever forget.
This is for you Rigo, Marcos, Carlos, Joe, Victor and Kenny.
It is an honor to say that I worked with you but even more so, it’s an honor to say that I broke bread with you.
By the way: La Pequeña Colombia on Roosevelt is still there. How nice it would be if we were able to meet again and share a meal together.
Someday . . .