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Early Risers

During one of my annual summer migrations from Chicago to New York to stay with my grandparents, I learned the great benefit of waking up early. Looking at my grandmother’s new purchase of a clock with numbers that flipped the hours and minutes I as was able to read that it was six thirty in the morning. Even though this was an ungodly hour according to my father, it seemed that the residents in my grandparent’s apartment building on 184th Street, disagreed since many people were up clanking about as I peered into the various open windows just like ours. My grandfather noticed me awake as he stepped out of the bathroom with his freshly combed jet-black hair, carefully slapping the “1800” cologne on each side of his neck. “¿Quieres un paseo?” he asked in a whisper. At six years old I was unsure of my Spanish language capabilities, but “paseo” was one of my favorite words. When translated into English it was the boring phrase of “going for a walk,” but from my grandparents it meant going on an adventure! Even though we only walked half a block from the apartment, for me it was radically different from my home in chicago where we lived next to a forest preserve, a large school and park. At home there was open land everywhere. My grandparent’s Washington Heights neighborhood was packed with large squat buildings five to six stories high, cement and cars everywhere. Most striking were the people, everywhere. My grandparents seemed to know everyone, and they so often introduced me to people as my “primo” that I doubted the meaning of the word as “cousin”.


My grandfather finished getting dressed as I jumped out of my pajamas and changed into my new summer dress. In “Nueva Yor” as my relatives would announce, you must look good and dressed. Dressing up, was every day in the “City” and I loved it! “Perfecto”, my grandfather said in a low hush, so he would not wake my grandmother. We tip-toed down the long hallway and out the door, at which point my grandfather had to pull the door so hard, I was sure that would wake up my grandmother. We were out quickly stepping down the four flights of marble steps. I went down slowly because I knew my grandfather could not keep up with me and the August heat even at seven in the morning prevented all fast actions.


On the cement stoop my uncle greeted us with a brief good morning as he hurried to take his dog Poochie for his morning walk. Observing my desire to play with Poochie, my uncle assured me that he would wait on the stoop for our return. As we walked around the corner onto the busy main street of St. Nicholas Avenue, I counted the metal gates covering the glass doors and windows of the stores. We headed to the bakery, which was the fourth door, the only store open and brightly lit inside. My grandfather pulled the door closed behind him as we stepped in and I noticed the refreshing feel of air conditioning, the store was cooler than outside.

A man stood behind the tall glass counter and handed my grandfather the main source of the aroma, Cuban coffee. That aroma of “Café,” as the man behind the counter indicated, was not pleasing to my child senses, but to my grandfather it seemed lifesaving. As an adult that sound of the dark liquid bubbling up from the coffee maker and the strong, deep aroma unique to Cuban coffee wafting in my kitchen gives me the strength to conquer any of life’s challenges. In hindsight, perhaps those were my grandfather’s thoughts that morning he was charged with caring for his granddaughter for the entire day.


With a reverent voice, as he picked up my tiny six-year-old body he whispered, “A ver si te gusta” (Let’s see if you like it). In my grandfather’s arms I had the most wonderful view looking down on the glass cases filled with pastries. The two men exchanged phrases which made me doubt that I understood any Spanish at all, but quickly they fell back into words I understood referencing my mother and “Hija,” (I knew that was me), her daughter and at the reference of “seis años” I dutifully raise my five fingers in one hand and one finger in the other hand.


“No me digas, pero se parese muy delgada!” The man responded in the voice that all adults use to speak to children. “You don’t say, but she seems too thin.”


At that, my grandfather squeezed my apparently skinny leg and pronounced, “That’s why we are here. She must try one of my favorites. You can see how well they work for me.” He vigorously slapped his ample gut.


Knowing exactly what was requested, the man slowly placed a huge, rainbow sprinkled, doily-framed Merengue in my hands. I looked down at this amazing white cloud in awe. It felt so light it could float away. I thought it would be soft to my tongue but was surprised by the crunch when I took one tiny bite of the hard mass of foamed egg white. I nibbled again, delighted by the deliciousness of this new confectionary melting in my mouth. “She will be eating that all day at this rate!” The two men joked together.


Now that they had adequately entertained the child, they spoke of important manly things, to which I paid no attention to because I was falling in love with soft crunch, gentle sweetness, and colorful sprinkles they called, Merengue. At first, I was confused, “isn’t that a dance”, I thought, but the men were engrossed in their talk of “los numeros” and I didn’t want to bother them. I was placed in a cool plastic chair to enjoy this mysterious treat. I watched the actions outside the large glass window which cocooned us in semi-quiet coolness. Outside the sun was gaining strength and metal gates were sliding away as if an opening show curtain on the great stage event of “Tuesday morning on St. Nick Avenue.” I could hear a radio promotion in Spanish and then fast paced syncopated music that reminded me of salsa dancing.


“Mira, se lo comio todo!” Look at that; she ate it all. I looked over at the case full of those beautiful sprinkled white puffs of absolute heaven, craving more. As if my grandfather read my mind, he showed me the bag that he had purchased. There were enough of the wonderful treats to take home to the family. “Tenemos bastante para la familia,” my grandfather stated as I hopped over to take his hand and we walked back around the corner to our apartment.


There were two lessons in his words: Eat just one and wait until later and share what you love with others; it will double your enjoyment. He looked at me the way I have since looked at my own children: imparting my values, giving them my lessons learned, hoping they will love what I love. He shared something with me in the hopes that I would like it, and I loved it! Then he knew just how to make me smile. What a wonderful bond we had over . . . what was it? Food? Sugar? The shared experience?

I think it was that we both liked to wake up early.

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