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Begin the Beguine

Talk about Synchronicities. Last night I was wondering whether or not my decision to embark on a writing career at this late stage was realizable. And if so, what is the essential thing to do in order to measure up to the challenge? I’m now in my seventies. Is it still possible to “begin the beguine”? I thought, humming my Cole Porter favorite, when the phone rang.

“Hello, Mr. Manny? I just call to say thank you.”

“Luis!” It was my former co-worker at the JFK office. I could tell by the broken English and the unmistakable tone of his voice.

“Great to hear from you again, Luis!” It had been years since I last heard from him. “Thank me--what for?”

“Mr. Manny, I look for your phone to call just to say thank you.”

“You finally retired?” He was in his sixties when we last saw each other.

“Oh no. My own company doing very good.”

“Your own company?”

“Yes. And all because you help me! I’m just beginning.”

That was how our conversation went last night. Luis was one of those workers whom I trusted the most. He was always there when no one could make it to work especially during snow storms. He was also always the first to volunteer when I needed people to work overtime.

Luis is a devout family man who migrated to the US from South America. He loved his work and was proud of it to the effect that often during his off hours he would bring along his 6-year-old grandson to watch the planes at JFK. They’d always drop by to visit me in the office before going home.

His wife Maria worked as a cleaning lady for an office cleaning company in Manhattan. During most nights after work, Luis would also work part time at his wife’s company to earn extra money for his family. A model family they were and I always felt good when they were around.

Just beginning--he said that? But Luis is just about my age, and he said he was just beginning?

Suddenly it all came back to me. One afternoon, impressed by his dedication, I suggested to Luis that since he and his wife were very good at this cleaning job, why not put up their own independent cleaning company? I could help them jump-start by referring them to my friends who needed cleaning services for their homes and offices.

I thought he’d take the advice matter-of-factly. Luis took it seriously. We arranged his schedule so that he worked 4 days a week with me in the company until the time he could earn enough to rely on his business income. The 4 days became 3 days until the customers poured in he had no choice but to resign. I was only too happy for him to move up to success. That was the year I was retiring from work.

I don’t know what transpired after that. I had doubts whether he would push through with his venture because Luis was already in his sixties at the time we parted. He must have retired by now. Or so I thought. That is why hearing from him again, specially with the good news about his booming business lifted my spirits.

“So when will you retire?”

“Never,” I can almost see the big smile in the tone of his voice.

He said he was only too happy to be in a position now to help the people from his native land find a job in his company.

Luis and his wife don’t do the actual cleaning anymore. They hire employees to do the actual cleaning work. Furthermore, he said his business is good despite the pandemic, because of his special COVID-disinfecting protocol added to his cleaning services.

Not many people start their careers late in life. I personally do not know anybody who started from the bottom at retirement age. Luis is the first I know personally. So I did a little research. Here’s a sampling:

I found out that KFC founder Colonel Sanders didn’t succeed until he started his business at age 66. There’s Peter Roget who created the Thesaurus in his seventies. And there’s that simple school teacher who led an ordinary life, Frank McCourt, who at age 65 wrote Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir about his childhood. The book won him the Pulitzer Prize. Then in 1999 Universal Pictures International bought the rights and made it into a movie with the same title.

Luis is not in bad company after all.

Before we put down the phone Luis told me he wanted to send me a fruit basket for Thanksgiving. He said he did this every year to his employees.

“No need for that, Luis. Just treat me to a nice South American restaurant with great paella when this pandemic goes away.”

“Yes, Mr. Manny. Let us look forward to that!”

As I lie in bed I could not help thinking of Luis. He had the essential thing needed to begin the beguine. He had gratitude. When I lent him a helping hand years ago I did not expect him to remember. Yet he went out of his way to call after many years to say “thank you.” Now that’s something. That’s character.

“Good people will prosper like palm trees,” says the Psalmist (92:12ff). Luis is one of these good people. “And they will grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.”

The next lines leap out of the page and speak out loud and bold to old fogies like me: “They shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall be fresh and flourishing.” There’s the answer.

I think again of Luis’ gratitude, as I close the day belting out my Cole Porter that was interrupted earlier by the phone call:

I’m with you once more under the stars, And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing And even the palms seem to be swaying When they begin the beguine.

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