People Feature: Alejandro of San Mateo

People Feature Series #5

I spent a full year in 2015 writing my book Crazy Cycling Chick in various coffee shops throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of my regular joints included Barnes and Noble Cafe, Philz Coffee, La Boulange (which has since closed after being acquired by Starbucks), and other local cafes. I was constantly rotating between these coffeeshops to fuel my writing muse.

While at Barnes and Noble, I often saw a man whom I assumed was Mexican in his late thirties or early forties. He was always by himself and a creature of habit: he would enjoy a cup of coffee and a piece of pastry while watching videos on his phone. Sometimes he would look around at other patrons, sometimes he would doze off for a few minutes, but most times he would fix his gaze at his videos. I would see him at different times on different days: sometimes in the morning, sometime in the afternoon, other days in the evening, and occasionally, at night. Sometimes I’d see him once a day, very rarely do I see him twice in a day.

When I saw him today (over a year later in early 2017), I smiled and told him, hey I see you around here quite often, he nodded to affirm so, and we started chatting.

Originally from El Salvador, Alejandro (not his real name) came to the United States in 2012. He wasn’t vacationing - he had one mission and one mission only: to work hard, save every penny, and send money home to clear his deceased parents’ mortgage debts in El Salvador.

He labored first as a kitchen help, then later as a construction worker. He worked day and night, sometimes in one job, sometimes two. Two years of extreme focus later, he finally cleared his parents’ debts. It would have taken him ten times as long on a Salvadoran wage.

He worked so hard he quickly transformed from an overweight to a slimmer and stronger man. He would punch more holes in his belt until he had to get new jeans. His jeans dropped several sizes from 40 to 32 inches.

The third year saw him working even harder to put his younger brother and sister through college. By the time the fourth year rolled around, his family debts and expenses cleared, he had lost all drive. There was nothing to work hard towards anymore. Without a purpose, he stopped saving and started spending frivolously - drinking in bars, playing pool and traveling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Still, he didn’t make a single friend and grew accustomed to being alone.

Several wasted months later, he awoke from a drunken stupor after a fitful dream. In the dream, he was standing in front of a beautiful house which belonged to his sister. The house was big and had many rooms. While he was proud of his sister, he was sad that he had nothing to his name. When he awoke, he decided he would work hard to build himself a house in El Salvador. Not a large house, for he is a single man; he just wanted one he could proudly call his own. This new goal spurred him to work hard again. 

Since his arrival in the United States over four years ago, he hasn’t gone home to El Salvador once.

He currently works on residential construction on weekdays and gardening on the weekends. Whenever it rains, all jobs would come to a halt. During the rainy seasons, he would often be found holing up in his favorite bookstore and cafe, Barnes and Noble.

Alejandro enjoys working. He especially likes hard labor involving construction, demolition, electrical and gardening. He dislikes painting - he finds that boring.

His weekend gardening jobs came about through a chance encounter at Home Depot. Alejandro had just bought a tool and was walking out of the store when a Croatian man walking in stopped in his tracks and asked Alejandro if he does gardening work. Alejandro said he could (he grew up helping his father harvest coffee beans in their farm in El Salvador) but he doesn’t have the tools to do so. The man said that’s not a problem because he has the necessary tools; he just needed someone to do the job. Turns out, the man owns several senior care facilities in San Mateo. The man was so impressed with Alejandro’s work that he recommended Alejandro to his friends. Merely through word of mouth recommendation, Alejandro now services some eight property owners in the Bay Area.

I have everything he doesn’t have yet he is happy, grateful and positive.

I have a car - he doesn’t. He had a cheap bicycle which got stolen after a year and a half. He takes the bus and Bart or walks to get from place to place. He spends between four and six hours each day traveling between home and work. He rents a small space in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment in San Mateo. He doesn’t own a mattress - he sleeps on the floor carpet with a few layers of blanket.

I have a spouse - he is single and never married. I asked him if he would like to find a wife in El Salvador - he said that would be a wonderful dream. He did have a girlfriend for a short six months during his first year in the United States. When she realized that he owned neither a car nor any earthly possessions save for some essentials, she packed her bags and left. He didn’t stop her - he knew he couldn’t provide for her.

I have friends - he doesn’t. He thanked me for taking the initiative to chat with him. No one has chatted at length with him before. He had tried initiating conversations with people but it doesn’t go beyond hi how are you. No one would spend time to chat with him. He tried to make friends but was unsuccessful. Eventually he got used to being alone. He was very happy that someone would chat with him today, his very first conversation in four years, and he told me everything from his family to his work and interests and his dreams.

He was very animated. He spoke very little English and I could understand him only half the time; the other half of the time saw him explaining his message using big gestures. He would rub his chest to say he had lost a lot of weight; he would pull up his shirt to reveal his belt which needed more punched holes; he would rest his head on clasped hands to mimic sleeping or boredom; he would pull his hair in multi directions to indicate frustration.

I, in turn, communicated my message using Google Translate - I'd type in English and show him the Spanish translation. When even gestures and sign language failed to get his message across, I'd urge him to type in Spanish in Google Translate. I must admit it was pretty hilarious watching him type letter by letter, given his lack of proficiency in using the laptop. We laughed a lot as we tried to communicate using a combination of words, sounds and big actions. It was almost playing like a game of Charades. 

Despite not having much, he found pleasures in the little things in life and has clear goals to move forward.

Alejandro loves to read. Every free time he has, especially during the rainy seasons, is spent either in Barnes and Noble which is just a block from where he lives, or at the San Mateo library. He showed me three prized items which he always carry in his backpack: a Spanish novel which he borrows from the library, a writing pad and a pen. He would write in his journal daily - the things he did, the people he observed in his favorite coffee shop, and his plans for the future. He also enjoys Italian music, classical music and pop songs. His favorite band? The Killers and U2.

He enjoys people watching - he says people’s faces are mysterious. What you see isn’t what’s going on in the person’s head and life.

Alejandro knew not a word of English when he arrived in the States. He enrolled himself in a community school in San Mateo which taught English. Three times a week between 6-9pm, he applied himself diligently to learn the language. I asked if he made friends with his fellow English learners. He said they kept a lot to themselves - they would show up and pay close attention in class, and went straight home after. They were not interested in making friends. It saddens me that Alejandro has no friends.

In the meantime, Alejandro aspires to polish his English so he could return to El Salvador one day and teach English (English teachers are in demand and paid well). He also learns Italian on the side via YouTube because he loves the Italian language which he found very romantic. He also hopes to take up a course which would enable him to apply for a contractor’s license.

This is Alejandro's first proper meal in a Chinese restaurant - he loved it. My husband and I taught him the art of eating with chopsticks. 

This is Alejandro's first proper meal in a Chinese restaurant - he loved it. My husband and I taught him the art of eating with chopsticks.