Friday, February 22, 2008

Summer treats: Papi's mamey and vanilla shakes

"Johnnnny...your dad's here."

As soon as I heard that call from my friends at summer camp, I knew it was time for Papi's vanilla shakes.
Whether I played baseball, Checkers or ran laps around Muss Park in Miami Beach, I would be on the look out for Papi's cream-colored Pontiac Grand Prix in the early afternoon. The car's sporty engine carried a particular thumping mechanical hum so I always knew when Papi was near.
I always looked forward to these visits. He worked in the mornings as an exterminator, ridding roaches from Beach hotels and people's homes and apartments. He would then go home for lunch and relax for two hours until he had to get ready for his second job, as a waiter at a Cuban restaurant in South Beach. He worked as a waiter since he came to Miami from his native Cuba in 1968 with Mami and he managed to make a decent living from all the tourists tips.
But with his long hours at both jobs (He would get home at 2:30 a.m. each night), I rarely saw Papi, except for glimpses in the morning as I headed to school or on his days off, Thursdays and Sunday mornings.
So these quick visits he would make always made my heart -- like those shakes - melt during the summers.
"Johnnnny...your dad's here,'' one of my friends would shout from the playground on those typical steamy Miami summer days.
When I heard those words, I would stop whatever I was doing and dash to the front of the park, with two or three friends in tow.
And each time, there was Papi , parked in the parking lot, with the passenger window open and a smile on his face. His black wavy hair was slicked back and he wore his usual crisp white buttoned-down short sleeve waiter's shirt and black pants.
Whenever I approached the car, with my friends Melissa, Kellyn or Cristina behind me, Papi would hold up a medium-sized Vanilla shake from Burger King for me and hand it over.
"Como estas Yonito,'' he would tell me, calling me by my family nickname. "Que hicistes hoy?'' he would then say, inquiring about my day, while flashing his electric smile.
I would briefly talk about jump-roping, running laps or about whatever I did that morning as I took sips from my frosty shake.
"Fui nadando hoy y jugue la pelota,'' I would answer him in Spanish, about swimming and playing baseball and then translate the conversation to my friends except for Cristina, another cubanita who spoke Spanish like I did.
These few minutes each afternoon was Papi's way of spending time with me. I understood at an early age that Papi worked so hard so that Mami, my sister and I could have the kind of good life he never had while growing up poor and fatherless on a farm in Cuba.
Most of my friends' fathers worked 9-5 jobs, as lawyers, doctors or dentists and they would be home each night for dinner. Papi didn't have that luxury. He was taking people's orders and serving them dinner, meals like arroz con pollo or media noches each night. He never complained about his long hours. He just did what he felt he had to do for us.
So these quick visits made up for the time he wasn't home when I got home from camp or from school. At least I could say I saw him once during the day.
Though he spoke broken English, he tried his best to communicate with my more American, English-speaking friends.
"Melissa, how are jou today?"
Sometimes, Papi would bring a doughnut or un pastelito. When we had Sugy, our sugar-colored little mutt dog, Papi would bring him too so I could pet him and so my friends could see my diminutive gregarious dog. But the vanilla shake was the most common treat from Papi and I would share sips with my friends.
Over the years, during my childhood, the cars changed, from a Dodge Aspen to a Toyota pick-up truck. As I got older, I moved up from camp to camp, from Muss Park, made up of mostly kids in kindergarten to third grade, to Polo Park, from fourth grade to sixth grade. And Papi followed me from park to park, always with a shake in hand.
As I got older and moved on from the summer camps, I would drive to his restaurant to see him. There, he would make me his own shakes, from mamey and mango to banana and chocolate. But my favorite was vanilla.
I now call Boston my new home and Papi and Mami still live in our old house in Miami Beach, a few blocks from those parks where I spent my childhood summers.
Now retired from his two jobs, Papi has all the time on his hands to relax and enjoy life with Mami at home and taking walks on the beach at dusk.
His hair is still slicked back though mostly gray but he still knows how to make a mean shake.
When I come home for visits, he offers to make me one and I'm reminded of those hot summer vanilla shake days.

August 30, 2006 in Cuban Being