Thursday, October 14, 2010

Connecting To The World Around Us

There are so many people in our lives that touch us in different ways, either in serving us, supporting us or living life around us. This story touched me because it tells of how in doing our jobs we can bring more and go beyond the goods or services. If we take a moment and connect, it can bring so much more into our lives and those around us. Taking that moment to say hello, how are you, how is your family and giving the respect and warmth all humans need can be a mission on to itself.  Work can be so much more than the processing of duties and responsibilities, it is how we connect to the world around us. What do we bring to work? What will those we work with, for and around remember of us?

At Farragut Square, mourning the burrito man who became a friend
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 9:31 PM

In the ever-churning universe of a city street corner, Carlos Guardado was that rarest of things: a fixture.

For almost 20 years, he was there, a little guy in a metal cart, selling rice-and-bean burritos at 17th and K streets NW on Farragut Square. He was there in all weather, during uptimes and downturns, a dependable rock in the rapids of life in downtown Washington.

Until suddenly, this week, he wasn't, and a busy neighborhood paused to realize that it was a pretty big man who had been doing that little job.

Tuesday, when the hungry emerged from their marble lobbies, in place of Guardado's cart they found a hand-drawn sign posted by his brother-in-law announcing that the burrito man had suffered a heart attack and died a few days earlier. He was 48.

A man in a tailored suit read the words, touched his open mouth and lowered his head into his hand. Two women hugged, one crying openly. They came to the cart at least once a week, the other said, usually together.

"No! Oh my God," cried Pat Pasqual as she stopped in her tracks. She had bought countless cups of coffee from the cart that was no longer there.

"I'd like to talk about him, but I don't think I can right now," said Robert Tigner, a lawyer for a professional association across the street, his voice breaking as he read the notice.

All day, they came, lawyers and interns, lobbyists and vagrants, working folks who had made Guardado a part of their routine, suddenly realizing that the burrito guy had found his way into their hearts.

"I guess we became friends. We did become friends," Tigner said later by phone. The lawyer marveled that he'd spoken with Guardado almost every workday for 10 years. "Sometime for a few minutes, sometimes for much longer. We talked about kids and soccer, his two loves - in that order."

Judy Sheahan worked a few blocks away at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' offices. As soon as a friend called to tell her about the poster, she went to "Carlos's Corner," as many called it, and joined in the spontaneous street-side mourning.

"I was hugging people that I didn't even know, faces I recognized from Carlos's cart," she said. "We cried together. This tore a real hole in our office."

Tigner and Sheahan were two of almost a hundred people who attended a visitation for Guardado Tuesday night in Gaithersburg. Many were downtown office workers, connected by nothing other than their acquaintance with a cheerful vendor.

Sheahan, who started nearly every morning with a stop at the cart for coffee and a chat that would sometimes last 20 minutes, made a study of Guardado's wide appeal. He kept people coming back by recalling not only their food preferences, but also the names of their children and standings of their sports teams. Workers who had been transferred away would come find him on their visits back. He once got a postcard from a customer traveling in Africa. It was addressed "Carlos's Burrito Cart, Corner of 17th and K."

"When he told you he hoped you would have a good day, he really meant it," said Sheahan. "I don't think he had any idea the impact he had on people."

Actually, Guardado often did speak of the impact his customers had on him, according to his wife, Carmen Diaz, a secretary at Montgomery County Public Schools headquarters. His own routine was brutal - up at 4 a.m., a drive from Germantown to pick up his cart at a downtown warehouse by 6, set up on the corner with his massive coolers deployed and the beans simmering by 7.

But he came home filled with stories he plucked from the endless parade of humanity that marched by his window.

"Every day, he came home and tell me, 'Carmen, they love me,' " Diaz said Wednesday as she and their children, Allison, 19, and Mathew, 14, made their own final pilgrimage to the corner where Guardado lived so much of his life. "The people in the city, they were his family, too. We shared him with them."

Guardado came, illegally, to the United States in 1981, as the war in El Salvador made life dangerous for a 17-year-old boy. He told Sheahan how he'd had one cousin die in his arms and discovered the body of an uncle.

For years, Guardado worked as a painter, eventually gaining legal residency. In 1990, paying in installments, he bought a hot dog cart licensed for Farragut Square. Soon, he changed his menu to burritos, which put him years ahead of the food-cart boom the city is now enjoying. He put out a basket for people to pay by the honor system - so he wouldn't have to handle money in his "kitchen" - and found himself a career.

If he looked lonely, an isolated figure in a steamy cart, customers soon learned that his life was full. The soccer prowess of his children, along with their academic achievements, were known to hundreds of diners. When he brought Allison to Take Your Daughter to Work Day a few years ago, word spread as if a celebrity had been sighted.

"It was really cool seeing them together," recalled Ava Page, a regular from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nearby advocacy group. "He was just beaming."

Guardado meant the cart to be a stop on the way to a proper restaurant. But years turned to decades, and the income was enough to buy a house and, later, send Allison to the University of Maryland, where she is now a sophomore.

His talk of opening a restaurant faded in recent years.

"I think he was content," said Sheahan. "He always talked about the cart being a wonderful window on the world and that he learned more on that corner than most people do in a lifetime. He was one of the smartest people I've ever met in Washington."

The Carlos Guardado Children's Education Fund is being administered by Father Evelio Menjivar at the Cathedral of St. Matthew, 1725 Rhode Island Ave. NW,
Washington, D.C., 20036.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Surprise Moment To Say Thank You

Well yesterday, I was off doing what I always do when I travel – getting in the “zone.” Focused on getting to the gate, getting on the plane and heading to my location. Things to read, things to think about and out of the blue a change takes shape. As I was standing in line waiting for my flight to come in an an announcement was broadcast at the Southwest gate at Dulles International (IAD)... “dear passengers on the flight to Chicago we need your generosity. Your plane is about to pull in and it is filled with WW2 Vets, many disabled, coming to Washington to see the WW2 National Memorial and to have a special day. If you would like to join the color guard and welcome line please do. While this will delay your boarding, we will make it all up in the air and this is a special opportunity to thank those that gave so much for our way of life.”

Wow, all the passengers where standing in line, looking at one another – motionless. All these young military people started showing up and going to the hallway right out side the plane gangway. So I said to the Southwest employee, “can I go out there and be part of that?” He said “as long as you clap very hard and make sure the vets know you care?” After my handshake commitment off I went to the hallway and I would say 50 plus of the other passengers followed.

So the plane was pulling in and two fire trucks pumped water over the plane, in a water cannon salute. I had never seen something like that and everyone in the long glass hallway started to clap and cheer. Within a few minutes all the WW2 vets started coming down the hall way, in wheelchairs, with walkers, with canes or standing up straight and walking on their own. They were wearing hats with what branch of the military they were in, or where they served, some in their old military jackets. Some had around their necks pictures of them as young soldiers. Men, women, African American, Asian American, all colors, all different but they all had this glow about them and the biggest smiles.

As the Vets came down the hallway, the people waiting clapped, hugged, kissed, patted each and every Vet. I heard “thank you for serving” and “welcome to Washington DC” and “you are a great patriot.” The tears were flowing on all sides (the Vets, the welcomes and even those on the other side of the glass that had not followed into the hallway.)

For a moment it felt like we were all doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. You know that moment when the world and time seems to stop and you want to do the best you can. I shook the hand of every single one of the Vets and looked them in the eyes and said “thank you and welcome to your Capital” boy, the connection in their eyes. Such a humbling moment for all of us, the sense of love of fellow human, fellow American. It  recharged my batteries and made me think of my Grandfather and how he served in WW1 and my Uncle Bob who is a Marine that served in WW2 in the Pacific and my Father In-law Gorge who served in WW2 in the Army in the Philippines and Pacific. How soon they will all leave us and we need to say thank you.

We should all have to do that, stand in a line welcome those who have served and say “thank you” - makes you realize we have a great deal to be thankful for.