THIS IS IT

 

Angel Velez always tried to establish a connection despite our obvious differences.  To that end, he plied me with doughnuts and regaled me with stories he hoped would entertain.  Angel and I spent time together when my parents vacationed and my father conscripted me to manage his clothing store in a run-down section of Philadelphia.  Angel was the full-time salesman and, since my father only agreed to go away during the slowest periods of the year, we were rarely interrupted by customers.

Angel never ate breakfast before coming to work but invariably brought a bag containing four doughnuts from La Isla Bakery down the street, and insisted that I eat at least two.  He urged me to have three, but after we went through a ritual of his cheerful offers and my determined refusals, he took the last doughnut.

Thus, it was not unusual for me to be sitting on a stool amidst piles of pants and racks of shirts, munching away, trying to think of something to talk about with Angel Velez.

“What station do you want?” Angel asked, as he tuned the radio.

“Anything you want,” I replied.

“No, really, we should listen to your favorite.”  He was insistent.

Angel and I had nothing in common.  I had gone to a private high school and was studying pre-law in college at the time of this recollection.  Angel was a high school dropout with a marginal ability to sell clothes.  He was fiercely proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, though he had only ventured out of his neighborhood in North Philadelphia one time in his life, when he mistakenly drove across the bridge to New Jersey and did not have the necessary toll money.  Over the years, I listened several times to his boisterous re-telling of how he begged for quarters from vagrants on the Camden side in order to return.  Angel thought the story was hilariously funny.  I thought it was sad, though I always tried to laugh along with him.

Since he did not know how to prioritize expenditures, Angel spent his money on embellishments for his Chevy Nova, including racing tires and extra chrome.  He did not obtain these items from stores but rather from “some guys, friends of my step-brother.”  I was relieved when I did not encounter Angel’s acquaintances; my father instructed me to be extra-vigilant if any entered the store.  Meanwhile, a necessary operation on his two-year-old daughter’s cleft palate had been delayed.

Angel never tired of hearing about my two trips to Puerto Rico.   I could not fathom how he failed to show even a hint of jealousy.  He also seemed intensely interested to hear about life at college, especially about living arrangements.  “You mean girls live in your dorm?” he repeated, in an insinuating tone, accompanied by a wink.  We both tried hard to keep the conversation going, though I am certain my unwillingness (and unstated inability) to offer salacious details was disappointing.

Though Angel talked more than I would have liked, particularly when I had a book or newspaper to read, I do not recall his speaking voice or any particular expressions, with one notable exception: “This is it” was Angel’s mantra.  He used it to sum up everything.  He said it when it began to rain.  He said it when a customer, who had sent him scurrying up and down ladders and, in fact, all over the store, left without a purchase.  He said it when he ran out the door to whistle at a passing girl and she ignored him.   I imagine that Angel said “This is it” to manage his own disappointment with life, to express it in terms of inevitability and not something he could change.  It was his way of staying unbowed.

I never thought about Angel when I was not with him.  And, in spite of his persistent efforts, I did not enjoy his somewhat saccharine friendliness.  When my father sold the store a few years later, I did not inquire what became of Angel.  I have forgotten him almost entirely, except to recall how he tried to interact with me, and to marvel how he maintained such a degree of outward optimism.  Deep down, did he feel differently?  If I had asked, I imagine he would have said:  “This is it.”

My final memory is what happened one morning when I mentioned that doughnuts go best with coffee.  A few minutes later, Angel emerged, smiling, from the small kitchen at the back of the store, with a huge mug of coffee for me, and a glass of water for himself.

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