You descend about 13 steps from the main floor, make a right and you’ve arrived at Zabar’s employee lunchroom. Well, it’s not exactly a lunchroom because it doesn’t have the required number of walls to be considered a room, so let’s call it a lunch area.
Equipped with a large table and sufficient seating capacity, eight to ten employees can lunch there together. Lunch time is approximately 20 minutes; Zabar’s provides a free, luscious sandwich of your choice and the lunch area is stocked with all kinds of muffins, bagels and rolls; there’s hot coffee and tea, and you get paid for your lunchtime just like you would be when you were working — Zabar’s perks.
This area can also be used for employees to take their ten-minute daily breaks should they desire to do so. So by now you can see that this is an area to socialize as well as to eat. The conversations at the lunch table are probably interesting, humorous and informative — that is, if you can understand them since the languages spoken are often Mandarin, Hindi or Spanish. I am probably one of the few people in the world that speaks only one language fluently: English.
This unfortunate situation has prevented me from partaking in the luncheon conversations on most occasions. I had been trying to find a solution to this problem for many years, until one day, a sudden memory gave me an idea.
Many, many years ago, when I was probably about 25, my best friend, who was a craftsman of precious metals and jewelry, took occasional business trips to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to sell his products to jewelry manufacturers. He stayed at high-end hotels on these business trips. He asked me if I wanted to join him on one of his trips; I could stay in his room for free, enjoy hotel privileges while he worked and we could be together on his off hours. I couldn’t resist the offer and one cold winter day I found myself in sunny, warm Puerto Rico, sitting poolside, drinking pina coladas.
It was wonderful. I walked the streets, ate the food, discovered mafongo and saw the sights
I was attracted to a sign that I saw at a bus stop. The sign said “PARADA DE GUAGUA” (bus stop). I couldn’t help myself; I kept repeating the words — parada de guagua, parada de guagua. I just loved how the words seemed to roll off my tongue.
So one Friday, I’m sitting at the lunch table. Everybody is laughing, speaking Spanish, generally having a good time. Suddenly there’s a pause in the conversation; no one is speaking. I stand up and say “PARADA DE GUAGUA.” The silence continues but now, everyone is looking at me. Finally, Manuel speaks up.
“Why are you saying ‘Parada de guaga?’”
“Because these are the only words I know in Spanish and I want to be part of the conversation” said I. Everyone smiles, there’s a momentary pause and then, someone says to me. “I’ll teach you another word: linda, that means pretty.” So I say “Linda parada de guagua.” Everybody laughs.
From that day on, any time I pass an employee in the store, nods are exchanged and the words ring out, ”PARADA DE GUA GUA, LINDA PARADA DE GUAGUA.”
Len Berk is The Forward’s lox columnist. He worked behind the counter at Zabar’s for 26 years.