November 12, 2016

How to Make Friends with Strangers.

Elvis Payne

“Where are you from?” I asked the bartender.

My husband and I were sitting at the bar for lunch at a little Italian restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway outside San Diego. Through the huge plate glass windows we could see all the way down the coast for miles and miles.

“I was born in California,” the bartender said, but his family was from Oaxaca, Mexico.

While we finished our drinks and waited for the pasta to be served, he told us more about what he referred to as his parents’ “very romantic story.” 

His father met his mother when they were in high school in Mexico.

“He came here illegally, of course,” he said openly, but his mother was afraid to come with him.

“So, my dad went back to Mexico three times to get her. He had a dream and he didn’t want to live that dream without her.”

That was 30 years ago and his parents have lived and worked here ever since.

I told him that over 60 years ago my dad had a dream too; a dream for a better life away from the Philadelphia ghettos and the stigma of being Italian immigrants. My dad drove my mom, sister and me 3,000 miles across the country to California—on roads without yellow lines down the middle of them, or shoulders along the sides or phones, rest stops or even many gas stations between cities.

“My mother was a born in Italy,” I added. “She was a was a “refugee du jour” when she was growing up.”

“Refugee du jour,” the bartender said. “Yeah. I get it. Like soup. Today it’s one kind or refugee, tomorrow it’s another.”

We laughed at the comment. Not because it was funny, but because it was true.

“What if they’d put a wall around California in those days,” the bartender said and I reminded him of the time in history when they did. If not a wall made of bricks and mortar, a wall made of hatred and men with guns and dogs.

“In those days,” I added, the refugees were called Okies.

I was surprised when the bartender, as young as he appeared, knew what I was talking about. As it turned out, he’d completed a double major at San Diego State University, one in physics and one in American Literature.

We had good time that afternoon—this young Mexican man with the great sense of humor and the illegal parents, my husband, the naturalized citizen from Canada and myself, the first-generation American, daughter of an Italian immigrant mother.

By sharing our stories, we’d found our sameness.

When we were leaving, my husband wished the bartender well with his physics.

“Yeah,” thanks, he said. “Most people usually say ‘What are you going to do with physics?’ but I always say back, ‘Are you kidding? What can’t you do with physics?’”

I actually felt like hugging him.

Outside, my husband and I went down the ramp, onto the sand and all the way to the water’s edge to stand and watch the ocean for a while.

The wind was blowing, surfers were surfing, children were squealing and barefoot lovers were walking by.

“Is this what you wanted Beach Girl?” my husband said into my ear.

“I’m so in love with the beach,” I told him. I’m in love with the smell of the Pacific Ocean and with seeing the familiar foggy, hazy sky and with another thing for sure.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I love the fact that the beach is open to people of all kinds.”

“That’s right,” he agreed. “No refugees du jour.”

“And no walls,” I said back. “No walls.”


Author: Carmelene Siani

Image: flickr/Elvis Payne

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock




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