My friend Blazo visited this weekend from London. I haven’t seen him in a year, since before the trip, and he said he’d been living vicariously through me – he and his wife have a young son, and haven’t been able to travel as extensively as they would have liked. He asked me what the trip was like, and I found myself frozen, trying to describe it.
“You used to work in a pizza place, right?” I said. He’d moved to Los Angeles as a young man from Montenegro, and in the early days he had to hustle hard to make ends meet.
“An Italian restaurant,” he corrected me.
“OK, an Italian restaurant. I’m just going to make something up for purposes of an example. I imagine you, at 18, working a full shift. You’re learning English, and probably…well, you were in a restaurant in Los Angeles, so probably Spanish, too?”
“It was either learn Spanish or everyone else learned Serbian,” he said, smiling.
“So you’re hustling tables, thinking in three different languages, answering complaints, and every night you’re working hard. And I’m just going to make up something else. I imagine you, at the end of a shift, in a parking lot behind the restaurant, with everyone else who was working with you, and you’re in your black waiter clothes and they’re in their kitchen whites, and you’re smoking cigarettes and drinking bottles of beer and looking up at the sky and the lights of the city.”
“Every damn night, that happened every single damned night,” he said.
“And I see a chain link fence and some concrete bricks, some guys are sitting and some are leaning against the fence, and you know the personalities of every single one of the guys you’re hanging out with better than you know your blood family, and you know who is going to tell a great joke, and you probably remember some of them, maybe they were in Spanish, and if I were you the thing I would be wondering is: ‘How do I communicate this to my son? How do I make sure that these memories don’t fade away, don’t disappear from the earth, but are preserved?’ And that’s the trouble I have: how do I communicate my memories from a trip around the world to someone who wasn’t there, and even more important than that, how do I make sure I don’t forget them? How do I tell you, for example, of the beautiful couple who owned the fruit stand next to our hotel in Bangkok? They had this stand, and all they sold was fruit. The first night we were there, we tried to buy a bunch of fruit for breakfast to save money, but we didn’t have enough cash for some mangoes. So this woman doesn’t even pause, she realizes she’s at the end of the evening and she’s not going to sell some things, and she thinks we’re these poor kids just trying to scratch by in Bangkok, and so she gives us these mangoes that will be too ripe to sell by the morning. And then every evening we went to her stand, and she always gave us free fruit that was perfectly ripe – these incredible mangoes, and papayas, and bananas, and pineapples, and we’d thank her as much as we could in Thai, and then take the fruit up to our room and cut it up for breakfast with yogurt, or muffins from Dean and DeLuca around the corner, and when we left them it was one of the saddest moments of the trip, because we really loved these people and we knew that there was no way we’d see them ever again. And how do we communicate that to people? How do I make sure that my kids know that just the simple act of giving people pieces of fruit can have a massive impact on their lives, their memories, that I’ll always associate the image of these people with kindness and beauty and love and decency and charity? How do I make sure that I pass that on?”
He paused before answering. “I think you do it through your actions. You do it by someday passing on that kindness and love. Nobody needs to know about those people, because if you take that lesson from them and live your life with the same charity and love, their lesson will live on in you, and in everyone you touch with that same love.”
He’s right, of course. But I’m still going to post their picture here and hope that somehow, someone can translate this to them: thank you for being so wonderful to us. We will never forget it, and we hope to be able to repay your kindness a thousand times over someday.