Tall, broad shouldered and dressed in the uniform black vest, pressed shirt and tie, Cesar Len, a native-born Peruvian, could have been a waiter at any upscale restaurant in town. But, he preferred to wait tables at the local coffee shop where he started as a bus boy thirteen years earlier. That is, until last November, when he decided to leave L.A..
An old friend in Arkansas offered him a job in real estate. The lure of more income, a larger home, new schools, and a lot less traffic appealed to him. His wife and his children were hesitant. They weren’t convinced that Cesar’s hopes for a “better life” would be all that much “better” than the life that they were leaving behind.
I met Cesar a year ago. After attending an early morning event at my son’s high school, I stopped by the coffee shop, where Cesar was my waiter. I sat at the counter with my newspaper and looked up at him just briefly to place my order. When my coffee cup was half-empty, he replaced it with a freshly filled second cup. He noticed my surprise. “Tastes much better than a refill,” he said, smiling.
Reading the name tag on his vest, I smiled back. “Thank you, Cesar.”
He touched his heart and nodded. “You’re welcome.” Then, he dashed off to fetch another hot breakfast.
It wasn’t long before I began having weekly breakfasts there. Somehow, Cesar had the knack to spot his regular’s turning into the parking lot. He always had coffee waiting for them at their usual spot at the counter. I was no exception. We would greet each other, and before I even opened the newspaper, my breakfast would appear. I’d finally found the perfect place with good food and a server who knew when to leave me alone, what I liked to order, and when to hand me the check.
Two months later, Cesar announced that he was leaving. I acted excited for him, reassuring him that he was right about “seizing the opportunity.” Silently, though, I hoped that he’d change his mind. He wasn’t just a server anymore, he’d become a friend.
The countdown started in early December. Each time I came into the coffee shop, Cesar would update me on his move – the job in real estate, the new house, the sale of his old house, new schools for his children, the drive to Arkansas, etc. From what I overheard, other customers were just as unhappy as I was. He’d even been offered management status, but nothing could hold him back. “I’m not going to miss L.A,” he told me. “I’m fed up with the grind. Everything’s too expensive. And, the traffic’s really getting to me.”
When I told the hostess how sad I was about Cesar leaving, Carolina confidently replied, “He’ll be back. I give him a year.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked, handing her my check and a ten dollar bill.
“Three things,” she answered, punching numbers into the cash register. “One, it’s not wise to work for friends.” The cash drawer sprang open; she paused to count my change. “Two, Cesar’s a city slicker. I can see him moving from Arkansas to here; not here to Arkansas. And, three,” she handed me a dollar bill and some coins, “he’ll miss his extended family too much.”
I was glad that I was away on business when Cesar finally left in January. It would have been hard to say good-bye. I kept coming back for breakfast, but it just wasn’t the same. On a misty morning in June, Carolina passed by my perch at the counter carrying two pies for the dessert shelf. She smiled at me. “Cesar called yesterday.”
I looked up over the top of The Times. “Really? How’s he doing?”
She gave me a knowing wink. “I think he misses us.”
Three months later, when I arrived at the coffee shop, a steaming cup of coffee had been placed at my usual spot. I eagerly scanned the room. There was Cesar at the end of the counter. He was taking an order – vest, starched shirt, tie and all. “Wow, you’re back!” I called out, so happy to see him.
Cesar finished the order and came over to greet me, then, he turned somber. “My dad’s sick,” he said. “He’s in the hospital, and I need to be with him right now.” He explained that his wife and kids had stayed in Arkansas. He’d told them that his visit here wouldn’t be long.
“My wife’s been a sport,” he went on. “She doesn’t like Arkansas, and neither do my kids. Last week, when I took them to the lake, we just sat there for two hours staring at the water. My son finally said, ‘dad, this water is no big deal. We’re used to Oceanside where there are WAVES.’”
“I’m so sorry about your father,” I said, sitting down at the counter. I put my newspaper aside, signaling him to continue.
“When, I saw my Dad lying there in that hospital bed and my mother, standing by his side, that did it,” Cesar said, wiping the already clean counter. “I called my wife and told her, ‘Honey, start packing. We’re moving back.’”
“She must have been thrilled,” I replied, sipping the coffee.
Cesar was quiet as he continued to wipe the counter. Then he stopped and looked up. “You know, I enjoyed the work there. I was making good money, living in a big house, but I was gone all day. My wife, the kids, they missed me being around, missed their family here. They missed everything.”
“They adore you, Cesar, and wanted to see you live your dream.”
He sighed and tossed the dishtowel to the side. “I know,” he said, “but, the house, the job, the whole thing wasn’t worth it if they’re all miserable.”
Putting the cup down, I nodded in agreement.
“What good is steak on the table if there’s no one to share it with,” Cesar said. He touched his heart like he always did and dashed off for another hot breakfast.
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