After emerging from stressful and expensive taxis in New York, Bill and I sometimes calm ourselves at the Heartland Brewery, situated on the Eighth Avenue side of the Port Authority. [This, of course, is only if the taxis have taken us to the Port Authority, terminal for buses bumping southbound into the belly of New Jersey. Taxi trips to Penn Station, whence New Jersey trains flow (or lurch), are openers for quite another kind of post. Contain yourself.]
The Heartland Brewery, darkly panelled to produce an interior of almost stygian gloom, is not quite empty at about two-thirty in the afternoon, but nearly. It’s an eatery right out of what I recall as the Midwest. (“Heartland,” get it?) I only passed through the Midwest once, in 1952, when my father drove cross-country in his brand new ’52 Pontiac, loaded with my mother, me and quite a lot of luggage that didn’t have wheels because no luggage had wheels yet. The purpose of his trip was to find a lifetime of happiness for us all under the California sun, and never mind what kind of food they served along the way. But Heartland certainly does bring back memories of those once-in-a-lifetime mid-America meals in all their caloric glory. Whenever we sit down and open the menu, I’m surprised not to find chicken-fried steak still on offer.
The great thing for us about Heartland, though, is its flexibility. It is willing to depart from its printed offerings if the kitchen’s not too busy — which apparently it rarely is, at least by the time we get there. So Bill can have a Swiss cheese sandwich on thickly cut rye toast, with mustard and tomato inside, a heap of crisp french fries alongside, and a cup of ketchup all his own, plus a bonus of two excellent dill pickle spears. Not only is this not on the menu. Its constituent parts are almost all things not usually found in our longevity-seeking, gluten-free, lactose-free (except for goat cheese), deep-fat-fried-free home. But after our taxi traumas, treats are in order — on the understanding that leftovers don’t get on the bus with us. What leftovers? There never are any.
The first time we were there, Bill had to describe this “novelty” lunch in detail to the waiter. Thereafter, the waiter remembered. How could he not? A Heartland customer who, peculiarly, wanted something not on the menu? Of course, we had to remember the waiter, too. Otherwise — with another waiter — it might always be the same story: “Why can’t I? Javier always manages to get it!”
[Just so you know — in case you too want the Swiss on rye — Javier is on the 11 to 4 “lunchtime” shift. Although I would recommend leaving the sandwich to Bill and having what I had last time: the one non-mid-America thing on the menu. It’s a sashimi-grade tuna burger, done medium rare, served bunless with ginger slaw on top, wasabi sauce in a cup, and a side of spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic instead of the standard fries. Really good.]
The point of all this, however, is not to guide your eating choices but to guide you to Javier. Just a few questions and a wealth of information pours out of this man. One wonders how he holds it in when Heartland does get busy. The youngest in a family of Cuban emigres settled in Miami, and the only one of the children born in the United States, he is perfectly bilingual. He speaks his fluent English mainly at work though, since he lives in a mainly Hispanic community in Weehawken. He also visits Cuba regularly to see relatives left behind, and is entirely comfortable there, too. Cuban medicine, he declares, is the best in the world, and available without cost to everyone. Cuba has universal literacy, too. Javier advises a visit soon (if it can be engineered minus relatives in Cuba) because — he further opines — when Castro goes, American money will move in and ruin it.
But setting aside his travel advice, the really fascinating thing about Javier is his extracurricular life. He coaches speaking!
“You mean you teach Spanish on the side? I ask.
No, he doesn’t mean that. He means “speaking” as in “public speaking.” Javier is active — a co-chairperson, I think — in his local Toastmasters organization. The local meets every Thursday, at which time aspiring public speakers stand up and deliver. Javier coaches the newbies, gets them ready for the mike.
“You must make a pretty good speech yourself,” I say, “if you can coach.”
“Oh, yes,” he exclaims. “People like me. I’m personable.”
“And modest,” I add.
“That too,” he agrees. “You see how easy it is for me to talk to everyone here?”
“We do, we do,” we assure him.
“Of course,” Javier continues, probably missing another bus to Weehawken thanks to our charisma, “it’s much easier to talk to somebody one on one, the way we’re doing. Speaking to a group is different. That’s scary.”
“Even for you?” (I do like to lead people on.)
“Are you kidding?” exclaims Javier. “I’m petrified every time! You know public speaking is one of the three things people are most afraid of?”
“What are the other two?” asks Bill, who’s pretty much polished off the fries by now and has freed up his mouth for talk.
“Spiders is one of them.”
“And the third?”
“Anything you want to name.” (Which is a pretty good answer, when you think of it.)
“Like cancer?” [Trust a medical man, even one retired from practice, to come up with the big C.]
Javier shook his head. “No,” he said. “It can’t be a disease or death. Anything else you want to name, though.”
What does he mean, “it can’t be?” If I want to be afraid of cancer, why can’t cancer be up there with spiders for me?
But I didn’t speak out, so Javier didn’t explain. Instead, he asked: “Do you want to know what I tell my students when they say they’re too scared to get up there and do it?”
Yes, we both wanted to know.
Javier (with gravity): “Public Speaking doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.”
A light bulb went off in my head. (Forgive the cartoon visual; it had been a long day and, as you already know, New York taxis are exhausting.) “That would work for writing, too,” I said. “Wouldn’t it? I’m always so afraid of the next blank page.”
“She tries to write,” Bill explained.
“It works for everything,” declared Javier. “Everything in life you’re afraid of doing. Speaking, writing, flying, roller blading. ‘Whatever It Is doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.'”
Second light bulb: Blog post!
“Javier, may I take your picture with my i-Phone?”
The next morning there was, understandably, a minor editorial change. My blog, my prerogative.
“Writing doesn’t get easier as you write. It just becomes more possible.”
Gnomic perhaps. But worth the price of two Heartland lunches, don’t you think? I might even get a tweet out of it.
Thank you so much, Javier.