The glow of the foreign alarm clock assaults my eyeballs at 4:12 A.M. I lay there wondering if I should get up or frustratingly stay horizontal. I don’t like wasting time, so my sockless feet hit the cold wood laminate floor.
It’s Saturday, the eve of 2017. I am amazed at how we Americans invent ways to celebrate common days. God willing, if the sun rises again tomorrow and I’m graced with another breath, it will feel like a typical Sunday. But it seems like our country is starving for any reason to raise a glass, alcoholic or not.
Since I had decided to wake up, I then needed to decide what I was going to do. I began at once with my usual morning routine. The tactics are the same on this day, but the environment is different. My sweet half-Mexican queen politely demanded that we spend the weekend in Temecula, California for New Year’s weekend. I, of course, said yes, with only mental hesitation. My memory served me well in managing the pushback. A happy wife is more valuable than winning a decision by breaking her down with persuasion. And plus, if I have access to good coffee, a few books, a gym and my laptop, I have proven to myself that I can be a merry man. I did my due diligence of Temecula, I can get all of these things here.
Waking up in a home that’s not yours stimulates the senses. This small guesthouse sits on two-acres and the front window gives me a glance to the wet morning sky. Properties out here sit on big lots. Something I’m not used to. It feels expansive and pure. When I visit Los Angeles, the tall skinny palm trees seem so sad. It’s like they are being chewed down by the murderous intensity of noise, suffocating pollution and buzzing chaos. I don’t’ sense that here in Temecula. The trees seem happy. But Temecula sure isn’t Los Angeles either.
Read. Write. Exercise. This was all complete before the sun cracked the horizon. A restorative walk through the Temecula wine country was like a love note to my lungs. I’m not a photographer, but I like to take photos. Apparently, this area of the state is home to many horse owners. I met a horse who I quickly named Bella simply because that was the first name that came to mind when our eyes met. She was a burlap colored beauty. She moved delicately, but I knew there was a lot of potential power she was humbly reserving. I talked to her like I would talk to my baby daughter if I had one. She seemed to like it and if nothing else, she was a wonderful listener. I took many photos of her and thanked her after my last click.
Charlie was up by the time I got back to our little guesthouse overlooking two acres. We’d both agreed that breakfast was the priority. I scrubbed my teeth and tasted blood and the rinse I spit out into the sink was swirled with pink. I took a cold shower because in the mid-nineties my Uncle Syl (a former old-school bodybuilder in Venice, California) told me exposure to cold was good for your body.
I can’t tell you much of what happened after we had breakfast at a local diner that served free strudel that I declined upon visiting. The mid-day hours in Temecula demand a slow-pace. A few hours at a coffee shop and a visit to a farm property that is for sale we both are fantasizing about are all I can recall.
But, I can report to you about dinner.
Charlie and I have adopted a habit that has served us well when it comes to choosing a place to dine. We make our decision based on what other patrons say about an establishment. What did we do before Yelp?
The consensus was a four-star reviewed mediterranean establishment called Zoro’s. Downtown Temecula is something like a snapshot from the wild west. But the overflow of modern vehicles that force you to park 1600 meters away from your destination reminds you that it’s a few days before 2017.
The air is wet, but it’s not raining and the chill has turned my hands yellow. Charlie is bundled up in at least three layers like she’s in the Midwest. It’s 46 degrees.
I’m immediately suspicious when I see that our place offers pizza too. If you’re a Mediterranean joint, please specialize.
We crack open the big black door that screeches at every inch and the warm interior of the restaurant feels good.
A woman with thin black hair and lipstick that was too gray for her face greeted us while running food. I don’t know how she managed to carry five plates at once.
And then I realized her physical makeup had something to do with it. She stood tall at six feet. After she dropped the food, she walked toward us and I noticed that her arms hung to her knees.
Her smile was genuine but tired. Her white collared shirt was spotless and buttoned all the way to the top and her legs tight in her black pants that were pressed to perfection.
“Hi there,” she said. “For two?”
And even before we could respond, a joyful yell came from the kitchen window. I’m under the impression that this is Zoro – or at least the man who runs Zoro’s.
“Heeeeeey. Welcome to Zoro’s.” It was like your favorite uncle welcoming you to his home. His face showed years of labor. Perhaps the harsh heat of the kitchen has done this. But here was joy behind that cracked smirk.
Charlie and I both wave like shy grade school children. The man then proceeds to throw his hands into the sides of his face. From 20 feet, I could see so much sclera in each of his eyes.
“Oh my God. Are you related to Brad Pitt? You look like him, man.”
“Ah damn it,” I thought mentally. I look around and there are at least eight sets of eyeballs on me now. What the hell am I supposed to say?
I think I smiled and then our waitress shuffled us to our table.
Charlie thought it was great and she had that silly smile on her face that makes me weak in the knees. It was a pleasurable distraction.
We looked at the menu and decided quickly because we were hungry. When we ordered, it looked as though our waitress had grown another foot staring at her from a seated position.
It was a fine, functional meal. However, what happened after we cleaned our plates was more profound.
Zoro marched out of the kitchen to make rounds to his people. His white apron was stained with reds, browns, and yellows. Working class denim finished with a pair of beat up Adidas running shoes outfitted his lower body. He was a heavy-set man with arms that looked like logs.
We were seated at the back of the place, close to the kitchen. Our table was his first stop.
“How is everything. It’s good?”
“Oh, it’s great. Thank you.”
He put his hands together like a ball of rubber bands below his chin and replied, “This makes me happy. I’m so glad you’re here.”
We have grown accustomed to witnessing courage in the form of heroism. A firefighter rescuing somebody from a burning building, a surfer taking on a herculean wave, or a college drop out that burns their boat to be an entrepreneur. The obvious risk involved displays a courage that anyone can see. To be sure, huge acts of bravery are needed to keep the world turning. But, many of us don’t come up against this type of risk on a daily basis.
There’s a stain left on the mind when one is exposed to this kind of courage exclusively. It tends to influence an idea that if it’s not grandiose, then it isn’t courage.
But I disagree.
Not because of my opinion, but due to the fact that I experienced courage in a subtle way on this night at Zoro’s.
The big brown man who I believe was Zoro himself, displayed a type of courage that is accessible to us all. He showed that he cared for his customers and he showed it by simply visiting our table, asking how our meal was and then with a gesture of finality, told us he was grateful that we had paid him a visit.
He didn’t have to do this. Instead, he choose to risk it and open himself up to others by leveraging the power of kindness. For a reason I’m still trying to learn, this seems to be one of the most difficult acts of our day. And consequentially is a form of courage that’s hard to find.
Have we created an illusionary world? Perhaps the adrenaline-fueled activities like sky-diving, putting all our chips in on a business idea or running an ultra marathon is an easier performance of courage.
When he walked away from our table, it was like a cool stream of water running down my spine. Something had happened, but I didn’t quite have the words to put a bow on it.
A few days after some standard agony that all writers go through when trying to get thoughts on paper, I finally discovered what had happened.
The latin word for soul – anima – also means courage. When exercised, courage is not an attempt to be something we aren’t. Instead, it’s a brave shot at defending what we already are.
I learned this not in the awe-inspiring format America has grown used to. It was made plain to me that courage can be employed in the quiet margins of daily life, all thanks to a man you will probably never see on Instagram.
We finished our meal in a few words, not because we were mad at each other but because the food was good. The tall waitress dropped our bill off and I noticed how long her fingers were. I signed the check. My autograph was flawless on this night. Illegible. Complex. Huge.
On our way out, the man who taught me so much in a subtle gesture was sitting at a table eating pita bread with great enthusiasm, ripping it from his mouth like a piece of flesh from the bone. He had a glass of light-bodied red wine close by and when his happy eyes turned up at us he threw his hands up and said, “Aren’t you going to have a glass with me before you go?”
Photo: Getty Images