Some memories are good. Some sad. Many good and sad…
We emigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1958. Mother, Grandmother, brother and I. It was a rainy night in Miami. The flight attendant held an umbrella as we came down the stairs. No jetways back then.
Growing up in 1960s Miami as a Cuban kid was not exactly easy. My family was very poor and we could not afford to pay for my school lunch.
I was given a card by the school. I distinctly remember it was white cardboard. I would present it to the cafeteria cashier at the end of the lunch line to “pay” for my lunch.
I know it was cardboard because I left it in my pocket several times. The Washeteria machines mangled it on two separate occasions necessitating getting it replaced.
My favorite school lunch was meatloaf, with mashed potatoes, peas or corn. I also liked the spaghetti and meat sauce. We got 2 slices of white bread with butter and a carton of milk.
My classmates would buy an ice cream cup.
I wasn’t able to buy an ice cream cup with the card, so I would finish my lunch and sit while my buddies ate their vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Sometimes they made a sort of ice cream frosty with the milk and ice cream put together.
For kids our age this was a big deal. A cool thing. I didn’t participate because I could not buy the ice cream. I would come home and tell my mom about it.
She would listen attentively and then stare off wistfully, not able to do anything. Ice cream was 5 cents. We didn’t have 5 cents for ice cream.
One morning my brother and I were leaving, about to walk the 7 blocks to school. Kids could safely walk to school back then.
We would walk the one block to 2nd avenue, and take a right turn for 6 blocks to Buena Vista Elementary School in Wynwood on 30th street.
My mom stopped us before we left and gave us 5 cents each to buy an ice cream cup as a treat that day. I was overjoyed. Ice cream. Just like my friends!
At lunchtime my friends and I left our 3rd-grade classroom and hightailed it to the cafeteria. I could barely contain my excitement.
I walked down the lunch line with a tray, grabbed a carton of milk and then the plate with meatloaf, mashed potatoes, corn and 2 slices of bread with butter. My favorite! This was going to be the perfect lunch.
Just before the cashier as my friends got ice cream cups from the cooler behind us, I reached in and got a cup of chocolate ice cream as well.
As I got to the cashier, she looked at the tray and exclaimed “You are on the Free lunch program. You’re not entitled to ice cream”. Of course, I knew that already and had my 5 cents in hand.
I extended the nickel to her and politely said, “Yes ma’am. I’m going to pay for the ice cream with this nickel.”
To my surprise, she snatched the nickel from my hand, the ice cream from my tray and said in a very loud voice, “Well if you have the money to pay for ice cream then that nickel goes towards the lunch. Go on. Sit down.”
I was horrified. All my friends had watched and heard every word.
Up and down the line and even in the lunch room kids were staring. I took my tray and in total embarrassment began the long, shameful walk to the table where my friends and I always sat.
Just then Miss Sacasas, my 3rd-grade teacher swooped in from where she had been standing a short distance away.
She called my name. “Enrique. Come here.” I turned around, expecting to get a tongue lashing from this woman who I looked up to and deeply admired. I was sure I had violated all kinds of rules.
I watched as she grabbed the nickel and ice cream from the cashier’s hands and put both of them on my tray. “You go sit down my love. Go. Now.”
I rushed out of there as fast as I could but I still heard Miss Sacasas, my heroine, pounding that cashier with the most severe outburst I had ever heard this lovely woman utter.
“Don’t you EVER do anything like that again. How DARE you abuse an innocent child like that. YOU pay for that ice cream out of YOUR pocket, right now. What gives YOU the right…”.
I could hear no more as I reached the table to sit with my friends. They were all smiling at me.
It was the best lunch and most delicious ice cream I ever had. I am sure of it.
I never saw the cashier again. I have no idea what happened to her. Miss Sacasas never said a word about it to me again.
1960. Those were much different times.
Some things and people stay with you. They change you forever…
“In the life of everyone there is a limited number of experiences which are not written upon the memory, but stamped there with a die; and in the long years after, they can be called up in detail, and every emotion that was stirred by them can be lived through anew; these are the tragedies of life.”
― James Weldon Johnson