Category Archives: Food, people

Stories with lunch about ordinary people who have inspiring stories. Everybody has a story…everyone can inspire.

Protecting people, remembering why

Trooper Mark Nytco was standing in line at a coffee shop when I realized I had not interviewed a policeman and needed to do so. After obtaining permission from his captain, we agreed to meet at a favorite Mexican restaurant, Alvarez.  1375642_529961663748425_107114062_n

I ordered pork tacos, Mark was decisive: chicken fajitas.

He is just as confident about performing his duties as an Illinois State policeman. This tall, fair, handsome man has serious eyes with a steadying effect.  images

“When you stop people, are they respectful?” I began.

“Yes, very seldom do I have any problems with people.”

“Are you aggressive?”

“When I have to0 be. You have to know what you are dealing with. I do not take any disrespect from people. I am respectful to them. If they cross the line, then all bets are off.”

“What’s the most fulfilling crime-stopping you do?”

“It’s hard to tell, because it’s pretty much every day. Whether you stop a person with a gun in their car or whether you stop a drug dealer with a large amount of narcotics. Who knows? You think, well, maybe you saved something today from using the stuff.”

“Do you get involved with their families?”  Unknown

“Sometimes I probe, try to find out their background, what kind of person they are, what kind of home they come from. Sometimes it is shocking when you call a parent:

‘Can I call your mom to pick you up?’ They say, ‘OK, go ahead, she won’t care.’ The parent often says, ‘Can’t you charge him with something so you can keep him overnight in jail?’ I look at this kid and think, no wonder this kid is here on the street.”

“What’s the solution?” I ask.

“It all boils down to family life.”

Mark knows about family. He was 16 when he arrived in Chicago on a September Thursday in 1974.

“I was born in Poland about 80 kilometers east of Krakow. I was brought up under communism, but at home, I knew better than what the officials at school said. Parents and grandparents told me different.  data=VLHX1wd2Cgu8wR6jwyh-km8JBWAkEzU4,VG857Eg-k9KYTzCWUSnCnFuZmK1ZNhnDmeGeom7DBrFxYDE69zf6ZIS-Ob7IwPV5X7s4abxfuwoYgrPOUKusdI-OADc_kAcpnLC3MN0K3_w9fPpu_qjR7gibCGoKAM73Rlx_u5rRMDgjzBD9iilSYbqZIWG5T05jfJe_wxxe2nJBvFJ6WG6s8BwK-7GXsiAFZaHdp3U

Mexican guitar music filled Alvarez’s small dining area, but I was captivated by the Polish accent, the surprising story unfolding. He paused briefly for a bite of sizzling chicken or bell pepper, but he was intent on continuing. He had important things to say.

“When I was in school, I listened to the version of history that this teacher had, totally opposite with what my parents and grandparents taught me, or what they went through. For instance, my grandfather was part of the underground. Fought the Nazis,” he explained.

“After the Polish army fell in World War II, when the Nazis invaded Poland, a lot of officers got captured by communist Russians. About 10,000 were executed by Stalin. My grandfather was able to escape, but somehow the Gestapo found out about their organization. Under some kind of torture, they were able to get all the n ames of all the conspirators from this one person, and overnight they rounded up 236 of them, including my grandfather. They arrested him and eventually transported them to Auschwitz. A few months later, my grandfather was executed there, in Cell Block 13.”

He broke through to say, “I don’t know if you have ever visited Auschwitz, but you should. I think everybody should.”

“How did that change you? I asked.

“When you’re  kid, you think everything is beautiful. Then you listen to adults–not reading a  book or watching a movie. I had an eyewitness.”

His aunt survived three concentration camps.

“What they did to them every day, how they made them stand out in 10 below zero, in an outfit like P.J.’s and wooden shoes. Made them stand there for 10 hours at a time. And they didn’t care if they dropped dead. You were basically to die. They didn’t care. I realized how evil people can be to one another.

“This has affected how you do your job?”

“I understand when I come across a lot of people, and there are more and more people who are from former communist countries. I can understand why they’re so distrusting of police, because I can still remember what the police over there were like.”

“You can be more forgiving?”

“Yes. I can relate to them. I know why they are like that, because their life over there was hell. The policing there wasn’t to protect them, but to keep them in line.”

“Here you’re the good guy,” I said.

He smiled. “Yeah, I like to think so. And, this job doesn’t pay much. You have to love this  job; you have to sacrifice; but that’s where dedication comes in. You have to remember why you took this job.”

 

Revisiting the Golden Island

Tony Ernandez’s award-winning pizza at Lisa’s Pizza in Janesville, Wis., has spanned three decades, but Tony is about more than pizza.

“At 16, were you thinking about owning a restaurant?” I asked.

“It was the easy thing to make it a going concern. It’s a dream,” he said. “It’s like, watta gotta lose? Am I right?” he added with his stereotypical Italian hand gestures.

“I found something that really got me moving, and the more I do it, the more I wish I would be younger, because you get more experienced. I wouldn’t do anything that much different, but I would do more things, because I would be more energetic.”

We were lunching at South Beloit’s Ramada Cattails Restaurant.

“I’m gonna have the salad,” he said. “Something simple.” He ordered their seafood Louie with creamy dill dressing. I decided on bronzed salmon served on a bed of spinach.

Tony’s mother was born in Beloit, Wis., moving to Sicily when she was about ten.   Unknown

“Grandpa decided to go back because of his health. He worked for Fairbanks. He had a problem with his lungs. The doctor said the only way to get out of it was to go where there’s a lot of fresh air.”

So Tony was born in Petrosino, Trapani, a Sicilian province. His after-school days in the Mediterranean were spent helping his father in the vineyards and orchards.

“When you hit twelve, you have a job,” he explained. I got my own motorcycle by twelve, MV, 50 cc’s. It’s a beautiful vehicle for everybody,” he smiled. “That’s the way they can go real cheap, city to city, if they have a job, because they don’t make an arm and a leg as money.”

Recollecting Sicily brought light to Tony’s dark eyes.

Unknown
an annual event in Sicily

“Your family made tomato sauce?” I prodded.

“Yes, we did that.Every year. One does one thing, the other one helps Mom. That’s the way it’s done. The mother organizes. Usually we are all together. Father, he is the one who provided the whole thing. We helped him pick the tomatoes and bring them home. Then you boil it, and then you have the machine by hand, and then you make the sauce, olive oil, and salt. You cook them, then;put it in 2-liter jars, and then you seal them. you make enough to last you all winter–60, 80, a 100, depending on how many you want. In the summer, you live by salad, almost every day. What we are missing here is a lot of fresh produce. It’s not the old days. Now we eat with chemical fertilizers,” he sighed.

“Sicily’s produce is very popular, known as the best around–oranges, lemons, because there is so much sun. Every day you have fresh vegetables, fresh fruit. The clime is fantastic; it’s not real big, but it’s so loaded with sun. It’s called the Gold Island.”    Unknown-1

It’s unfair, but my greens at the Ramada paled as I imagined sun-drenched Sicily’s deep greens, compared to his iceberg lettuce and limp field greens.

Tony struggled too with the comparison. “This shrimp, this is in a can, and it tastes funny,” he said. He’s a restauranteur.

Tony’s mother moved her family back to Beloit, a few years after his father died. Tony was 21.

“It seems you’d want to stay there with the beautiful climate, fresh air, the fresh produce. Why here?” I asked.

“It’s everybody’s dream to work if I could make more money. That’s the key. It’s like any other country. There’s better opportunity in America than there is over there.”

“You could go in the winter,” I suggested.

“Even if I could, I wouldn’t,” he explained. “Restaurants are like babies.”

“That’s why you don’t leave?”

“You’re right, a 100 percent right,” he said. “Most of the failures, the restaurants are not taken care of right.”

Tony loves America and his work. This isn’t his second choice.

“That’s my priority. It’s the food. That’s life,” he said.

Our server brought over a dessert tray.

“Do  you want dessert, “ I asked, looking at the cake on the tray.

“No,” he said. “You know why? I had a piece of zucchini bread we made three days ago. It’s fantastic–got nuts in it. So I’m thinkin’ when I go home, I’m gonna have a piece with an espress coffee,” his musical accent emerging again.

“Oh that sounds good,” our server said, unmistakably thinking more zucchini bread than cake.

Tony reached for the check.

“No,” I said.

“You sure they’re buying,” he said, referring to my newspaper (where this story appeared originally). “You don’t lie to me?”

I laughed. This beefy body builder was ready to fight for the check.

“This is Lunch with Marjorie,” I affirmed. “Tony, it’s my job.”

He acquiesced, reluctantly. It was hard for him to let a woman pay for lunch.

 

This miss won’t miss life

I met Tabitha because she was a fellow thespian with my daughter at their high school. They became fast friends and soon Tab was spending a lot of time at our house.

So I know things about her: she loves steak but not vegetables. She is quiet, responsible, respectful and determined for her life to make a difference. We were in Loves Park, IL.

We wanted a sandwich place, but the one we chose was closed, so we went across the street to the Basil Cafe, a favorite of mine for Mediterranean food. I wasn’t sure how Tab would like it.

Soft jazz greeted us with white tablecloths even for lunch, and a friendly greeting by our hostess. Perfect, I thought. I ordered spanakopita, goat cheese and spinach stuffed filo pastry.

“You’re not a goat cheese person, Tab, huh!”

“Nooooo,” she giggled.

I sighed, knowing this meat and potatoes girl would always be the slender beauty she is now.

“You’re studying to be a social worker?” I asked, launching our chat as we waited for our food.

“I decided on community college for two years. It would save a lot of money, and I don’t have a lot saved up. I knew Tab works many hours at a local restaurant as a server, just to afford the community college tuition.

“Are people good tippers?”

“No, not really. Some are. As a server you expect 20 percent if you give good service and you refill drinks, and the food comes out with nothing wrong in the order. If you give them everything they need. I don’t think people should tip less than 15 percent. ‘Cause if someone gives me less than 10 percent, it’s like an insult, like I did something to offend them, or didn’t give them good service.”

“Do you like the school?”

“They have really, really good teachers, and good programs, and get you ready for a four-year, so, yes, I like it.”

“Sounds like this is a lot about finances.”

“Yes.”

“Does social work pay well?”

“Not so good. But I wouldn’t give up this career for anything.”

Challenges are nothing new for Tab. Besides working full time while going to school, she had to take a year off for medical reasons.

“I had really bad headaches. There was a whole time when we were trying to figure out what it was. They misdiagnosed me a couple of times…then found I had torn something in my spinal column–a tiny, tiny tear that caused me to have headaches. They stopped the leaking. Spinal headaches are just horrible.”

“Hopefully that is behind you,” I said admiring her courage.

“I’m probably always going to have migraines.”

“Are you feeling like you are behind?”

“So many people are switching majors, still in their sophomore year at my age. More people just aren’t sure what they want to do.”

Tab is not ambivalent.

“I really want to work with kids up to the time they are teenagers. Kids that have dealt with domestic violence, and also with battered women. I want to support and understand them, not judging. I want to teach them how to be strong, how to make it, that’s it’s okay, and that what happened to them it doesn’t make them less of a person.”

“Is your pizza good?” I interrupted.

“The crust is a little tough,” she said. “But it’s homemade sauce–very, very good.”

“Has studying for social work made you see things you didn’t see before? At your restaurant? Abusers?” I was curious.

“When you see a guy and girl sit down at the table, you’re like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and she just looks down at her plate. I’ll say, ‘Can I bring you something to drink?’ and try to make eye contact. She won’t look at me, and he’ll order everything for her. You can tell she’s hesitant to say anything, scared. I just want to pull her aside. You can’t do that, because if you say anything, he’s going to get irate and she’s the one who’s going to have to deal with it when she gets home, and not you.”

“What motivates you to help?”

“‘Cause I’ve been through bad situations, and I’ve come out and survived them. And, it made me a better, stronger person. You just have to get through it day by day. Forget regret, your life is yours to miss.”

“That’s from the musical Rent?”

She nods and smiles that I knew her favorite show.

“If I think I’m going to regret something, I’m going to do something about it. I don’t like to live in regrets, because then you dwell on them so long that you’re missing out on a lot of things.”

“Are you thinking dessert?” I knew she was.

Turtle cheesecake won. Tab had a big slice. I tasted a corner of hers. “Yum, lots of caramel,” she enjoyed.