The Journey


My September Friend


William Mason                                                                                                                                                        September 22, 2009

This event occurred on Monday, September 21, 2009.


It had taken only moments to settle on a place for lunch — and although the decision itself was rather unremarkable, the experience it spawned is one I shall not forget.


Fast-food is not usually healthful or memorable, but it is almost always delicious. And where taste is concerned, Alfredo’s has always been just such a place: great Mexican food made from individual ingredients where each menu item is cooked or otherwise prepared to order in the traditional way, much like one might expect from a good Mexican restaurant — not the imitations, the wannabes, with nationally-recognized names that are often sprawled relentlessly across our television screens. As a result, Alfredo’s is very different … and memorable: To be sure, it is fast food — pure and simple — but it has all the flavor and character of the real thing. It is … authentic.


As I set out on my journey to find nourishment on this particular day, Alfredo’s did cross my mind, but I immediately dismissed the idea. “Great food,” I thought, “but they don’t do well with public health inspections. And I will not eat at any food establishment where a ‘B’ is displayed in the window.”


A “B” means the restaurant received a score of 80-89 percent on its last inspection. It is a good system because restaurants that earn a “B” don’t keep that rating for long; problems cited by the inspectors are quickly fixed and the once-offending establishments are soon able to display an “A” in their respective windows.


… That is, most restaurants … but not all.


Alfredo’s was one of those few restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley where a “B” had been consistently displayed month, after month, after month, after month. Many times I had wanted to stop and eat there once again, but that “B” had kept me away for nearly two years.


Meanwhile, in my search for food, I decided to head north and west from Columbia School, my work location in El Monte, California. Many possibilities lie in that direction, including American, Asian, and Mexican cuisines. When I came to a stop sign at one of the major intersections near the downtown area, I noticed Santa Anita Avenue, a major artery running through three cities, only a block away.


“Maybe they have an ‘A’ now,” I mused.


Whether a thought or an impression, I’m not sure. An impression is such a fragile, fleeting thing; one moment you feel it, the next you’re not even sure what it was, much less whether or not it was real. Recognizing the difference requires effort — the kind of effort that comes with a sincere desire to understand the spiritual, a price many are not willing to pay — and a level of confidence and skill that comes only with much practice.


Whatever it was, I found myself having made the decision to give Alfredo’s another try. Besides, my mouth was already salivating as my imagination savored the dance of colors, smells, and flavors to come.


A flicker of doubt crossed my mind, however, when I turned north on Santa Anita. “Maybe I’ll drive on up the road a little farther,” I thought. “There are some other places to eat, and, anyway, I’m sure Alfredo’s still has a ‘B’ in its window.”


Because it had been so long since my last visit, I could have easily missed the place — and I wouldn’t have been terribly upset if I had missed it. After all, submitting my body to the ecstasies of food poisoning was not at the top of the day’s to-do list. Nonetheless, as I approached its location — perhaps traveling a bit too fast — I glanced to my right. And there it was: Alfredo’s had an “A” in its window!


With a certain amount of disbelief I looked for the entrance, but because I was not paying close enough attention to my speed, I passed the entrance before I realized I had done so. I turned in to the next driveway, a competitor’s parking lot, and with little concern — after all, I was hungry — I parked my car.


Lunch is a busy time at Alfredo’s. After placing an order, it’s not unusual to wait a few minutes longer than one might normally expect at a fast-food place, but the sounds of a busy kitchen and the incredible smells that emanate from the melding of resources and talent morphs the wait into an experience that must be had to be appreciated. Woven in and through the clangs of pots, stovetops, utensils, and shouted instructions are the savory, airborne delights of chilies in a hundred unique forms, carne asada, carnitas, chorizo, refried beans, salsa, tacos, tortas … each testifying that the extra minute or two of waiting will be rewarded ... which only further heightens the anticipation.


A polite, thin, young man with a broad smile, bronzed skin, black, straight hair and deep, brown eyes eventually appeared at the pickup window … my wait was about to be rewarded.


“Your order, sir,” he said.


“Thank you,” I replied. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”


“Gracias. You, too.”


I picked up my enchiladas plate, with a chile relleno on the side, and headed to the car with every intention of returning to school where I would then join my colleagues for lunch. A soft, gentle breeze blew from the southwest; it wasn’t a cool breeze, but it wasn’t warm either — it was the perfect complement to one of those clear September days when the temperature was barely on the warm side of comfortable, when you could enjoy the outdoors in short sleeves and an open collar.


It was all too inviting: I never made it to the car, choosing instead to seat myself at one of the tables shaded by a canopy of wooden slats intertwined with creeping vines. Five or six trees, including three small palms and some kind of fruit-bearing tree, along with several well-developed shrubs, completed the scene.


Sitting at a table directly in front of me was another, older man. Streaks of gray accented his thinning, combed-back-but-somewhat-untamed black hair. He had a half-eaten avocado in his left hand. Occasionally he would take a slice from the avocado and add it to the soup he was slurping. In front of him was a newspaper; it was obvious from the stern look on his face that something had captured his attention — and it was not pleasant.


For a moment I watched him — studied him. I wondered who he was, what he had done for a living, whether or not he had family close by … A conversation would have been easy enough to start, but I was hungry and he was obviously thinking deeply about whatever had captured his attention in the newspaper.


Before I knew it, my chile relleno was history — good history. Every morsel was thoroughly enjoyed. So tightly packed was the velvet-like, white cheese that I wondered how they managed to get it all inside of the chile, and how the chile itself managed to avoid exploding from having been so overstuffed. The egg batter that surrounded the stuffed chile was flavorful and done to perfection — slightly crisp at the edges but moist and tender everywhere else.


Next I turned my attention to the cheese enchilada. And just as I finished my first bite, a stranger approached me.


He was young — probably mid 20s, tall — about six-one or two, thin, virtually bald, with ebony skin that drew attention to his exceedingly white, straight teeth: the contrast in color between the two could not have been more striking.


He began to babble; his English seemed broken as he spoke in unsteady, halting phrases.


“Do you? … They steal … from me … I know … I’m a loser … hamburger … can you? … I’m from … I need … Can you please spare?”


At first I wasn’t sure if he even had a functioning mind, so disjointed were his phrases — I say “phrases” because they could hardly have been called sentences, especially when taken in by the ear of an English teacher. Even so, I knew what he needed. It was obvious. Unfortunately, my first instinct was to ignore him. Ultimately, I rejected him. I had enchiladas to conquer, and no one was going to keep me from my appointed task.


“I’m sorry. I just spent my last ten dollars on this,” I replied, pointing to my own meal. But that wasn’t true; the truth was I didn’t want to be bothered. And anyway, there are so many strangers who approach people like me with similar requests — I couldn’t be expected to respond to every single one … could I?


“Have I not in the past reached into my wallet to answer such pleas?” I asked. “Of course I had, many times. And there will be other opportunities to help in the future,” I reasoned. “I need not deal with this particular request at this time.”


The stranger looked toward the man at the table in front of me, but decided it would do no good to approach him. The stranger passed by me on my right as he walked quietly away. Not once did I turn around to see where he was going or where he had gone. He was, however, gone: that was what I knew and that was what I wanted.


Again I turned my attention to the cheese enchilada — a culinary triumph that was the perfect blend of a corn tortilla, melted, yellow cheese, and a sauce that seemed to deliver all of Mexico to a delighted palate — thereby saving the chicken enchilada for my last conquest. Both campaigns would be punctuated with excursions into the rice and beans.


But something was different … something had changed.


“Why hadn’t I helped him?” I thought, staring at my food. “Was I really that calloused?”


As I pondered what I should have done, the enchiladas grew less and less appealing.


“How could I have been so selfish?” I asked. “I should have helped him.”

But it was too late. He was gone, and I was alone with my guilt, my sorrow for not having been more like the Samaritan who had helped the traveler who had fallen among thieves.


A moment later, an impression came to me.


“Eat your lunch, and then go find him. Offer to buy him a meal.”


At first I cast aside the impression, believing it was no longer possible to complete the task. The stranger had left … he was gone. But the impression remained, growing in scope and power. And the more it grew the faster I ate. Without even realizing it, I had soon made the decision to follow the prompt.


“I’ve got to hurry and eat this,” I said to myself. “It’s gonna be hard to find him. Hope he hasn’t gone too far away.” Knowing the area, I began to think about where he might have gone, all the while continuing to eat my lunch.


I picked up the pace: the food was good and I didn’t want to waste the money I had spent; money was tight, and that meant eating what I had purchased … in this case, with haste because I had to find a young man who was hungry, and I was genuinely afraid I wouldn’t be able to find him. As I finished the second enchilada, the chicken enchilada, I decided to forego most of the beans and rice; I could have eaten them, but doing so would have meant less time to find who I would be looking for … and I really didn’t need the extra calories. I carefully gathered my leftovers along with the paper and plastic goods and headed for the trash can.


Just as I began to throw my leftovers into the can, I heard a gentle, pleading voice.


“Are you going to throw that food away?” it inquired in perfectly-spoken English.


I turned to see who had uttered the words: to my amazement — and relief — it was the man who had approached me only minutes before, asking for food to satisfy his hunger. From the very first moment he had left my view, I suddenly realized, he had been sitting quietly, directly behind me, and I hadn’t even known.


He was eating, however. A little puzzled, I looked more carefully. Our eyes met and I immediately understood — he was eating food someone else had thrown away.


It was a heart-rending sight. A grown man eating from a trash can. And yet he seemed grateful for having something … anything at all … to eat — even if it were someone else’s rescued-from-a-trash-can leftovers. At that moment I was grateful he had not gone far, grateful I would have a chance to rectify what had been an inexcusable rebuff, grateful that I might have an opportunity to offer succor to a brother in need.


I ignored his question and threw my leftovers into the trash can.


“Come on,” I beckoned. “Let me buy you lunch.”


He ordered what I think was the largest item on the menu — along with a large Coke — but I would have been happy if he had ordered twice the food. I would not leave him hungry.


The young, bronzed man who had taken and then given me my original order took the stranger’s order. I paid for the meal and gave the receipt to the stranger. Turning to the young man and pointing to the stranger, I said, “I’m giving him the receipt. This is for him.” The young man smiled — the only communication that was needed.


“Thank you,” said the stranger.


“You’re welcome,” I responded.


With that I returned to my car. For some reason, however, I was not completely satisfied. Although I could not see the stranger or the front of Alfredo’s, the area where the tables were located was clearly visible. So I waited; I watched. I suppose I wanted to make sure the stranger got his food. After what seemed like more than enough time to receive his order, I began to wonder where he was. Why had he not appeared with food in hand? To sit at one of the tables and enjoy his meal? I wondered if he had run into some difficulty, or had perhaps cancelled his order, taken the money, and left.


Just as I was about to get out of the car to see what had happened, the stranger came into view. He sat at one of the tables under the canopy and then opened the plastic bag which held his meal. Gratefulness and joy: those were the expressions on his face. I was satisfied.


With the ignition key in place, I turned it. Soon after that I was on my way back to Columbia School. But I did not get very far.


“Rescue,” the impression came. “Many of Father’s children, my brothers and sisters, need to be rescued.”


“What does that mean?” I wondered. “How can I possibly rescue him? I bought him lunch. What else can I do?” I asked myself.


“Sometimes the most important rescue is simply letting someone know he or she matters,” responded the impression.


“But how can I possibly do that?” I questioned.


“Perhaps something as simple as a conversation,” counseled the impression, “a conversation that shows a genuine interest in the individual to whom you are speaking.”


“Okay, I’ll go back and talk to him,” I responded. “I’ll ask him who he is, find out a little about him. Let him know he’s worth spending time with.”


Soon after I had turned back toward Alfredo’s to meet the stranger, I changed my mind, reasoning that he would probably be gone and probably didn’t want to be bothered anyway. But as soon as I turned away from Alfredo’s and headed back to Columbia, the impression again came to me.


“Go talk to him. He’s there. He will appreciate the gesture.”


Once again I turned back toward Alfredo’s. And as I approached Alfredo’s I saw the stranger. He was still there, and still enjoying every bit of the food I had purchased for him. I parked my car, got out, and took a seat at the table where he sat.


It all seemed so surreal. One would think it might have been awkward … not so: it seemed as natural and as comfortable as walking, or breathing, or singing. Nor was the stranger surprised: it was almost as though he had expected me to return.


“So tell me about yourself,” I said.


In polite, tender tones he began to tell me something about his life. I’m not sure he was entirely lucid, but it was clear he had faced some very real challenges.


Prison was a place he had known — the result of “taking the fall for a girlfriend.” In most cases I would have been tempted to discount the story, but his telling seemed genuine, without guile. Both Texas and Indonesia had been home to him, but his parents had apparently not been part of his life for a very long time — the result of some kind of loss. A French woman had apparently played a major role in rearing him. What he called home was a lonely, one-bedroom apartment, but that might soon be lost because he was broke in spite of his best efforts to find work. He also spoke of religion and faith, although I was unable to understand most of what he said other than he felt like he was being guided to move northward.


Time passed easily and pleasantly.


At some point I came to know that he truly appreciated the listening ear; nonetheless, I could also see that our conversation was interfering with his ability to eat — after all, it is not always easy to eat and speak at the same time. Even so, I was gratified, having been richly blessed for spending a few dollars on and a little time with my new-found friend.


I knew I would never see him again — a thought I find unsettling, even a little haunting — and I don’t remember his name. Nevertheless, I saw in this stranger-turned-friend a reflection of myself, a spark of the divine, a child of Father, a brother. And though I could not solve his problems, I could — at least for a moment — provide some relief from hunger and friendlessness … and it had been a privilege.


“Take care of yourself,” I said. “I wish you well.”


“Thank you for the food,” he answered.


I walked to my car. As I opened the door, I thought I heard him call to me. I turned to look in his direction.


“I’m sorry. Did you say something?” I inquired.


“God bless you,” he said, smiling broadly, his teeth clearly visible.


I waved. “You, too,” I replied.


Driving away from that scene I replayed in my mind what had transpired. From somewhere deep within my soul and in spite of my effort to hold it back, the images drew a tear to the corner of my eye — it rested there for a moment before finally falling away.


“God bless you,” he had said. His gentle nature, grateful attitude, and humble spirit once again filled my heart and mind.


“Yes,” I thought, “he most certainly has.”


William Mason

September 22, 2009

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(c) Copyright 2009 William Mason. All rights reserved: The work titled "My September Friend" (the reflection directly above) may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission from the author.




Last Updated On 2011-10-15 20:38

(c) 2010 William Mason. All rights reserved.