When, on a Monday morning in January, you have to leave the comfort of routine and home and wake at 4 a.m. and leave before 5 to drive nearly four hours, much of it in the dark, with blind and wild truck drivers whizzing by, and you’re concerned about your ability to stay awake, about your bowels and about your life. The sun finally cracks open the day and you’re on the east coast of Florida, pulling into the jobsite in Malabar. A senior living high rise on the Indian River. The morning is newborn and beautiful. And cold.
When, on the first day of supervising the delivery of hundreds of thousands of dollars of stainless steel fabrication and other kitchen equipment, you’re pissed at your fabricator back in Sarasota for building one counter 19 feet long and no way to dismantle it without a sawzall. Your installer onsite complains, having to take an extra few hours to cut and re-weld. Extra time is not something either of you have.
When, sitting at the bar for lunch at The Shack next door, looking at the river, you check your emails and see you’ve accumulated three rejections since Saturday. You are 55 and you realize, as you have for some time, that designing and installing commercial kitchens is probably what you are going to do when you grow up. Sure, there have been a few pops in your literary aspirations, a few essays published, a moment of former-chef fame on Thrillist. But you’re really good at THIS. You finish your gumbo, return to the cold job site and put on your hard hat and safety goggles.
When, after a long, dusty day and the hottest and longest shower possible at the Holiday Inn Express, you are so tired you’ll settle for a chain restaurant because it’s close. Texas Roadhouse is too bright, but the rednecks all around are amusing, friendly. Their Southern accents make you think of cartoon characters. Like at the jobsite, you realize, where everyone is friendly and kind of freakish: the tall man ducking under doorways, the Gandalf-bearded man, the smaller bearded men like gnomes—all talking like their mouths are full of chew—then of course you, the only girl, rounding out the north Florida gypsy team of subcontractors. Camo caps sell a lot here.
When you take that first sip from the giant mug of Sam Adams and although you feel sleepy when the grilled chicken Caesar salad arrives, it’s ACTUALLY ON A CHILLED PLATE. You awaken somewhat, appreciating the attentive service from Kelly the bartender, who calls everyone by first name. Darrel at the corner gets more bread. Bill is sitting next to you, under a well-worn camo cap, and introduces his friend, a gal from Montana, whom he’s known for a hundred years.
When you tell Bill where you’re working and he says Malabar Point was a great fishing spot back when he was a kid, you feel sad enough to apologize but really you of all people feel so much guilt for participating in the ripping apart of Old Florida. For a paycheck.
When, driving toward the river the next morning, you see through rested eyes that this area is—was—Old Florida and the high-rise destination with the crane out front, although a beautiful senior living facility, sits like a yellow cancer amongst quaint rural shacks and endless river. You recognize this scene: Hawaii in the 70’s, Destin in the 80’s. All you can do is sigh away progress.
When you’re called boss all day and the redneck gypsy plumbers and electricians actually appear to respect you, and you decide you are having a good time and wonder why all job sites can’t be like this. (The upcoming installation next week in Sarasota has already proven to be full of egos, chaos and assholes.) You think about your essays again, the rejected ones. You loosen your hard hat to alleviate a headache.
When the owner gives you a hug to express his gratitude for such a fine kitchen, and you wonder again if you can really do this when you grow up. Is this it? Is this your path? He’s a very nice client; why can’t they all be nice?
When the kitchen installation is complete, checklist signed off and your crew is heading home, and you race back to the hotel to shower, wanting to get back to the river before dark, to a rambling old joint with a porch you saw on the corner of US 1 and Malabar Road called Malabar Moe’s. You’d worked through lunch, sketching out another kitchen in the job trailer in lieu of food, since you have a design deadline to meet and today the job site is your office.
When you order a rum and grapefruit and fried pickles to tide you over until you order dinner, and a man sitting next to you comments on your drink choice and introduces himself as Marco. You tell him this must be very cheap bar rum; it doesn’t taste good. Marco tells you he’s a snowbird from Chicago and you ask him if he reads and he says he does not. You think he probably has ADD but you tell him about Devil in the White City anyway because you believe if he WERE to read, he’d read this book since the two of you Google the year of the first Chicago World’s Fair and the names of both the serial killer and the architect portrayed in the book. After more chatting, you decide Marco appears content in his post-divorced life as a Lake Michigan seasonal shop owner and snowbird and he’s also 55 and you want to ask him if it feels weird approaching sixty. If, like you, he spends time reflecting about the past. You want to ask him how it feels now that David Bowie and Glen Frey are both dead and who is next, anyway? (Mick Jagger? And shouldn’t Mick Jagger outlive us all?) But you don’t ask any of these questions. You share some of your fried pickles with him. Then he takes off.
When you finish your terrible Mahi tacos (cold tortillas, even after the second reheat), you read your check and learn why the rum had been so awful. Although you’d said rum and grapefruit, the gum-snapping bar maid heard vodka and grapefruit—no wonder. You decide to finish your third awful drink out on the heat lamp-dotted porch and listen to the musician. A table of four—two camo bearded gents and two women—pay their dinner checks after one song and you’re the only audience now and your awful drink is gone but you can’t leave him to sing alone! He sings Apeman by the Kinks and who sings that anyway nowadays and you sing along to every last word. Your musician boyfriend in the late seventies sang it, that’s who.
You think of those days of your frustrated youth, when your urge to be part of something was so strong, you thrived on anonymity in bars, a drunken night prowler fruitlessly scratching at life’s surface to find meaning and fulfillment. But now, in spite of your hard hat hair and seemingly unreachable literary aspirations, and some post-recession real estate debt, you know you have something that many your age do not. For the last ten years the jolly eyes of your man have melted away your angst and you bask in his warmth, his humor, his love. Your man, former commercial shark fisherman and single father, his ego and machismo perfectly balanced by his love for chick flicks and scented candles. Your man, whose clever misuse of the English language invokes in you healthy, hearty gut-laughs. Your man, a proud redneck who (thankfully) does not wear a camo cap but a baseball cap. Your man, whose warm skin and happy face and defiant silver braid draw you toward him always and all the love you’ve built up during your life you hand to him graciously, a mountain of your love, no longer tainted but pristine and plentiful. He waits at home for you—your ultimate destination.
You wonder if the musician is your age or is he younger (your generation’s music is timeless, after all) and he’s a good guitar player and when the manager comes out to invite him to perform inside, he stops playing and you go up to him and thank him.
When he tells you his name is Marvin and he just moved from Indiana, you exchange cards. You run to your car to get five of the dollar coins that the machine at the rest stop spit out yesterday as change for your purchase of coffee and peanuts. You plop the coins into his tip can. These are dollars, not quarters, you tell him.
Marisa Mangani was born and raised in Hawaii and now lives in Sarasota, Florida where she designs commercial kitchens and bars. She has a degree in Restaurant Management and as Executive Chef won a silver medal at the Florida Restaurant Show’s 1993 Mystery Box competition. Her culinary adventures took her to New Orleans, Vancouver and Australia and now she writes and open mics about food and life. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, Skirt! Expound Magazine and South 85 Journal.