Out Beyond the Limits of Settled Lives
Juan Delgadillo looked like a Shriner who had lost his parade. He cruised by my car window on a dusty day west of the Grand Canyon driving an ancient convertible painted the colors of a dripping ice cream cone. It was a griddle-hot morning in July, but a decorated Christmas tree stood tall in his back seat. At the top a sign read: “Follow me to Dead Chicken sandwiches.”
“Hey, buddy!” I shouted. “What’s with the Dead Chicken sandwiches?”
“Don’t you hope all of them are?” Juan yelled back.
My cup holder held the only water for miles, but the little man in the clown car sported a yachtsman’s cap. He pulled it off and waved toward a freeway exit, motioning me to follow. of course I did, and other drivers pulled off, too. Who could resist a desert Pied Piper blowing a kid’s wolf whistle?
Juan led us away from Interstate 40 toward Seligman, Arizona. He stopped at the Snow Cap Drive-in, a sandwich shop where customers are confronted with two front doorknobs. I turned the one on the right, next to the latch. Nothing happened. I spun the one on the left. The door popped open and swung backward on hidden hinges, revealing Juan laughing inside. . J
“Would you like catsup with fries?” He called from behind the counter.
He grabbed a catsup bottle and squeezed it at me.
“Here you go!”
Red yarn exploded out of the nozzle and all over me. I scanned the parking lot for Alice and the Queen of Hearts; clearly I had landed in Wonderland.
“I dreamed all my life of opening this place,” Juan told me, as I cleaned myself off. “Built it out of scrap lumber collected over many years.”
The tables were cobbled together at odd angles, and brightly colored. They could have been borrowed from the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
“I worked evenings after finishing my job as a laborer on the Santa Fe Railroad,” Juan said.
Took him nearly a quarter of a century. He opened the Snow Cap Drive-in with the Fates aligned against him: He began business on the same day that Interstate 40 was completed, bypassing Seligman, Arizona. Cars started roaring down the interstate without stopping.
Juan’s brother, Angel, ran a barbershop next door.
“There was no one here. I look one way. Look the other. Stand out in the road, old Route 66. Empty.”
Juan’s father and mother came to Seligman from Mexico. Built a pool hall and raised nine children. The business flourished, then faded in the 1930s during the Great Depression. the family packed its things and prepared to follow the great flood of people who passed by their door, heading west, looking for work. On the morning they were to leave, Juan found a job playing in a dance band. Eventually he got positions for all his brothers in the group, but for a time he went hungry so that his youngest brother, Angel, could eat.
“Juan put food on the table and saved the family,” Angel said quietly. That’s why Juan hopped in his old car and headed out to the Interstate, looking for customers twelve hours a day, seven days a week with the “Dead Chicken Sandwiches” sign. Before Juan died in 2004, a parade of tour buses would follow him to his little sandwich shop in the dessert—sixty-four each week—filled with friends who told friends they must search for the silly man in Seligman.
“You want catsup with those fries?”
Nothing overcomes human apathy quicker than a laugh.
That day in the dessert I asked Juan what was so special about his place. He ducked his head and glanced up through bushy black eyebrows.
That kind of attitude helped build America, which has always attracted pioneers with intensity and drive—people who inspire the novels that get made into movies, whose stars, rather than the individuals they portray, are then interviewed by the media,. Our country is a forge whose citizens have spirits of hammered steel. You pass by them every day. The real American story is tucked away in people who believe their lives hold something of value regardless of whether their dreams soar or shatter.
No one had time for the old man squatting over a box of vegetable peelers on a New York City street corner. The crowds swirled around him on their way to work, but he didn’t seem to notice. The solitary street vendor flicked a slice of potato off his thousand-dollar suit, smiled to himself, and asked, “Why would you buy four peelers, if they last a lifetime? Well, you have four friends. That’s why.”
He pulled out a carrot and began to peel it. Finally a woman stopped to watch him, and then another, and another. He ignored them until a circle of onlookers had gathered around and then looked up, holding out the long carrot.
“Here,” he said quietly to the woman who had been the first to stop, “try for yourself. Just pull the peeler along the carrot. Easy.”
His cultivated British accent made her grin. He continued his demonstration. People at the back of the crowd stood on tiptoes to see.
“Come closer,” he said softly. “I’m not going to ask for money,” he assured her, smiling warmly. “You can keep your watch.”
Even the people in front had to lean in to hear.
“This peeler is the finest ever made,” he said. “Comes from Switzerland. Costs only five dollars. You can’t buy anything from Switzerland for five dollars these days.”
Joe Ades could talk a starving dog off a meat truck. A woman rummaged through her purse, pulled out some bills and dangled them in front of him. He ignored the money until others brought out their dollars, too. That’s when he finally made eye contact with his crowd, selling the peelers as fast as he could pull them from a box. In the garden of life, big things can grow from small beginnings, provided you use enough fertilizer.