Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Proustian Plumber

The garbage disposal goes out at least once a month, filling the sink with vegetable fragments and microbial soup. Our rental has a decent view of the San Francisco bay, but the toilets are lousy, and the finicky disposal goes on strike when things like dimes and champagne wire get stuck in its gullet. Sometimes, my husband manages to fix it, but this time, we had to call the plumber.

He showed up at 9 a.m. as promised, Miguel, a short, trim El Salvadoran in his early thirties with a smile that challenged the morning fog. He got right down to work while I started a pot of coffee.  French Roast, fresh ground. A rich java aroma permeated the room.  I offered him a cup – black, three spoons of sugar. 
“The smell of this coffee," the plumber said, "it reminds me of my grandmother’s house, in El Salvador.”  I took a sip of my coffee and leaned back against the kitchen counter. I sensed a story coming on.

Miguel put down his wrench and picked up his cup. He looked just past me, and I could feel the landscape of his childhood materialize around us. The coffee plantation in El Salvador where he was born, he explained, is the most beautiful place on Earth. He should know, he grew up there. His parents used to work the fields for the plantation owner.  Some members of Miguel's extended family still tend those same fields. The rows of coffee plants stretch all the way to the foot of the mountain and when they flower, their small white blooms dust the tropical landscape like a miraculous snowfall. The earth is rich and the people are poor, but they live in the protective shadow of an extinct volcano and wake to bird song and balmy weather.

"My grandmother, she would make us coffee with sugar and ground corn. Thick, like oatmeal. You eat it with a spoon. The smell would wake us up in the morning. "

Despite his caffeinated diet, Miguel grew, and his father watched him closely. Several of the boy's friends drifted into gangs. MS13 is a strong draw for teenagers whose only prospects are field work.  Four childhood playmates hardened into criminals and met violent, early deaths. Miguel's father moved the family to El Norte, specifically, San Francisco. There, Miguel and his siblings managed to stay out of trouble. It's been twenty years since they last saw their grandmother.

Long grown, with two kids and a wife, Miguel is glad to be making a decent living and living an honest life. He loves Northern California and takes his children fishing in the San Francisco Bay. Still, the bracing smell of strong coffee caused an aftershock of longing. His memories flowed freely, like water down my newly unclogged drain.

"My kids, they are Americans. They work hard in school. I work hard for them. But some day, I am going to retire in El Salvador. I'll buy some land in the valley where I'm from. My kids can come visit."

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