Yesterday I recorded my solo album in Humboldt Park. It is an excellent neighborhood: gritty, charming, humble, resilient in its own way. I arrived at the Paseo Boricua fifteen minutes early and smiled as I passed under its gate, a metal sculpture shaped like a giant Puerto Rican flag blowing in the wind. In spite of the neighborhood’s economic challenges, it eschews the anti-homeless tactics of removing or partitioning or spiking park benches. Instead it simply lays the benches out, two on every block, next to big planters graffitied with tropical flowers. There is less propriety, less Midwest restraint here than in the neighborhoods I have lived. A well-groomed woman parks her car at Division & Rockwell and blasts R&B on her car stereo as her two young children somehow sleep in the backseat.
I make it through a seven-hour day at the recording studio on two protein bars. Afterwards, I stumble towards Papa’s Cache Sabroso like a zombie, hungry and weak. As I eat my life-restoring meal — flavorful steak and onions squeezed between fried plantains, lettuce and tomato slippery with mayonnaise — a couple in their late forties sits down. They joke with their waitress and enter into a good-natured argument about the proper Spanish words for various plantain preparations. They rebuff an offer of beer with a breezy call of “We’re New Lifers!” I can hear every word of their conversation: the woman’s fervent retelling of the one time, inexplicably, that she had an allergic reaction to salmon. The man listens with great interest. It is clear how much he respects her, and clearer still when the red plastic basket arrives with its four little slices of bread and its soft pat of butter and she is the one to say grace. If I were at dinner with her, I too would nominate her to say grace. Her joyful devotion is with me still, and I was just the stranger dining alone three tables over. “God, we thank you for this day, God. This day had been JUST. BEAUTIFUL, God. And God, we just pray that you will bless this food, God, and the hands that prepared it, God. We just thank you for this day, and this food, and this fellowship, God.” She is one of those people who says your name repeatedly during conversation, making it abundantly clear that she still sees you, that you are still here. Even in my exhaustion I know I will not forget this: taking in one of the city’s most resplendent $10 meals in the good company of strangers.