lenten journal: ray charles saved my life


    One of the great things about working in restaurants in the greater Boston area is I get to work with Brazilians. If it were not for them, the restaurant industry would cease to function in eastern Massachusetts. We have three folks who work in our kitchen as dishwashers and prep cooks: Thelma, Wesley, and Wanderson (I love that name). I love their friendly spirit and their incredible work ethic. Wesley is always asking what to do next; Thelma sings while she makes onion rings. (Now there’s the first line of a children’s book!)

    The biggest challenge of our working together is the language. I speak no Portuguese and they speak very little English. We have somehow found a way to communicate, even in the busiest and most hectic times. When I say the English name of something – potstickers – they respond with their phonetic repetition of what I said –poschticko – and we both know what we are talking about, which I guess qualifies as our own restaurant dialect.

    Milton, for some reason, is a familiar name to Brazilians. I spent most of my life thinking only my family inflicted people with this name (I was named after grandfather and father), but I would not feel so alone on the streets of Rio. One of Brazil’s best loved singers is Milton Nascimento, so he’s my lead when I meet now folks from Brazil and tell them my name: “Like Milton Nascimento,” I say and they smile and nod and start to sing. Wesley even said, “Milton is my father’s name.”

    “Mine, too,” I told him.

    I found an interview with Milton Nascimento where he spoke of the powerful role women had played in shaping his love of music and the way he sings. As a young boy, he imitated the women singers he heard because women sang with their heart and men sang to show power in their voices.. When his voice changed, he was heartbroken because he did not think he could sing in a way that mattered because he could not sing like woman.

    “And then the radio was playing a song by Ray Charles and I became very quiet with my eyes close and I said, ‘My God, man can sing with the heart, too.’ So, Ray Charles saved my life,” he said.

    His comment makes me think of two things. First, was the record Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, an album that my parents had when I was a kid. I get goose bumps now when I think about hearing “You Don’t Know Me” for the first time – and then again for the ten thousandth time. The second thing I thought of is my favorite song, which has nothing to do with Ray Charles.

    If I only got to keep one song, it would be John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” particularly when Bonnie Raitt sings it. The song came to mind as Nascimento talked about how he learned about heart from listening to women sing. I was going to sing “Angel” one night at a coffee house and prefaced it by saying it was my favorite song. I went on to say I identified with the lyric more than any words I knew. Then I sang the first line:

    “I am an old woman, named after my mother . . .”

    The audience couldn’t help but laugh. And I don’t know that I would have said it any differently because I do feel like the old woman in the song. She speaks from the heart.

    Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
    Make me a poster of an old rodeo
    Just give me something I can hold on to
    To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

    Thanks to cell phones, Ginger and I both talk to each other on our way home from work. She calls when she’s driving home from the church; I call as I’m winding down Route 3A in the dark after I leave the restaurant. More than once, as I’m dialing the phone, I think about the lyric to the last verse of Prine’s song:

    There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear ‘em a buzzing,
    And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.
    How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
    And come home in the evening and have nothing to say

    Wesley, Wanderson, and Thelma all work at least one other job besides the time they put in at the restaurant. Thelma has a husband and two children back in Brazil; she is here to send money home. She cannot go back and forth easily, so she stays here and still finds it in herself to sing and dance while she works. One night, one of the servers needed some help getting a dessert ready and Thelma picked up the pastry bag and began to make wonderful designs on the plate with the chocolate ganache. That’s when we found out she had worked with pastry chef in Brazil. We didn’t know because no one had thought to ask.

    When we were redoing the kitchen in Charlestown years ago, we called a guy who advertised in our neighborhood paper to come tile the floor. Vic was from Bosnia and had fled the violence there with his family. In his home country, he was a filmmaker; he became a tile guy here because it was what he could do to make money. The tiles we picked were three different sizes, rather than being a straight pattern. He was elated when we told him he could decide how to lay them out. He approached our floor like an artist to his canvas. It was beautiful. The other thing we shared in common was he wore Chuck Taylors. When we paid him for his art, we gave him some new Chucks as well.

    Ray Charles has saved the life of at least two Miltons. I have to say, for me, the same goes for Bonnie Raitt, Patty Griffin, Nanci Griffith, and – of course – Emmylou Harris:

    I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham
    I would hold my life in his saving grace
    I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham
    If I thought I could see I could see your face

    When I’m driving in the dark and the girl from Birmingham who makes my house a home answers the phone, I hear her voice and I feel her heart and I know there will always be something worth saying.



    1. Well this was certainly a voyage of discovery for me..Chuck Taylors? Milton Nascimento?? Modern Sounds in Country & Western??? Angel From Montgomery???? I love it!! Keep it coming mate.

    2. Milton, I have been lurking here for quit a while. I’d like you to know that my recent Amazon order included a Billy Crockett CD, a Patty Griffin CD, along with a book on how to improve my credit rating.

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