The Man in the Chef’s Hat
While growing up during the Great Depression, my respite from the poverty that surrounded me was Saturday afternoons in the darkened movie theatre where I would watch the likes of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn portray those who were privileged to live the life of high society. I can remember asking my mother one particular morning after watching the movie, ” Bringing Up Baby,” if we could ever attain such a luxurious existence? She seemed irritated by my question and pointed to the bowl of Cream of Wheat cereal before me, “Stop asking such foolish questions,” she said, “many rich people are bad, and God will punish them by not letting them into heaven; eat your cereal or God will also punish you and be glad you have what to eat!” I looked at the cereal box in front of me and there was a picture of a man with a chef’s hat staring at me, and for many years before I reached adolescence, I perceived that man on the box to be God.
I found that on my yellow brick road to Damascus mainly during my college years, that there was indeed just a man behind the curtain, and that man who determined if I could live a privileged life or not was no one else but me. Kierkegaard gave way to Sartre as I erased God from my equation in taking responsibility for each step that I took on that path to success. I was fortunate that my oddyssey in life had more peaks then valleys, and I was able to spend the autumn years of my existence following the warmth of the sun that was marked by the coordinates of West Palm Beach in the winter and Southampton in the summer.
In 2005 even before the paint on my new house in the Sunshine State was even dry, Hurricane Wilma struck with such ferocity that its high velocity winds were rattling the storm shutters on my windows to a point where the entire house started to shake. After the deluge was over, we existed as though we were inhabiting a third world country as we lived without any power for a over a month; since I had never endured such a void of all of my conveniences from lights, refrigerator, stove, phones, Internet, TV and flushing toilets for such a long period of time, I could not even fathom that this prelude to my golden years could be a harbinger of thing to come. I simply vowed to spend more time in Southampton until the temperature of the waters surrounding the coast of Florida had cooled sufficiently that the season of the tempest was officially laid to rest.
In late August of 2011, a clarion call was sounded that Hurricane Irene was at our doorstep and that evacuation was mandatory for every inhabitant on our most vulnerable peninsula in Southampton. Seeking an oasis from the storm, my family and I chose the Hampton Inn as a sturdy fortress situated in a central position on Long Island that we thought could easily withstand the force of nature’s winds of war; we were totally right as the gale winds and torrential rains were not as dominant to our senses, and except for the howling of the winds and occasional flickering of the lights, were we made aware of that Hurricane Irene was alive and still kicking. Knowing we were safe in our beds, we all drifted into a peaceful sleep until four in the morning when the fire alarm abruptly woke us from our slumber. We could smell the smoke in the air, and without any hesitation, we all evacuated the hotel into the courtyard where there was that calm after the storm as Hurricane Irene had made its last goodbyes hours before. After the fire engines had departed as the fire had been confined to the hotel’s kitchen, we decided that it was time to return home and access the damage.
After we removed the plywood that had shielded the windows and doors from the wrath of Hurricane Irene, we were fortunate that the water damage was at a minimum, but it was later that evening that the aftermath of the hurricane reared its ugly head with an invasion of crickets in such numbers that it felt that they were falling from the sky; with broom in hand, I defended my terrain against these chirping marauders. Flood, fire and petulance was now upon me, and my first thought was that this was the Rapture that was solely aimed at me for my heathen existence as the Cassandra on the Bible, my mother, had predicted would befall me if I chose this life of affluence over what was God’s axiom that poverty was a virtue. As I sat down on my deck to find some repose after my conflict with the crickets, Tevye from the Broadway musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” came to mind. As was the case with my mother, Tevye had this undying faith in God, but unlike my mother, Tevye yearned to be a rich man and was more like a lawyer in a court room who tried to plead his case before the judge as he looked for a better deal. I even remembered that line in the play where Tevye asked God if “it would spoil a vast external plan” if he was a wealthy man? I knew that I could not use Tevye’s template to advocate for my defense as God had already sided with my mother when he unleashed these hurricanes as a warning against what He deemed to be my prosperous life. With that in mind, I preceded to argue my case as I looked up at the heavens and in almost a whisper, I said, “God, Jehovah, I am not a Johnny come lately to your cause. When I was young, I believed in what my mother taught me that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle then for a rich man to get into heaven.” I may have gotten sidetracked by greed along the way, but I have always seen the light and have not really strayed that far. If I lived in Palm Beach in the winter and Easthampton in the summer, that would be sufficient for my punishment.” I paused for a moment and pointed to my house and the area that surrounded it. “But I live here in Southampton,” I continued, “and then in West Palm Beach.” Just as I uttered that last word, a sudden silence surrounded me which caused me to pause, and after a few seconds, it dawned on me that the chirping had ceased because all of the crickets were gone. At that point, I knew that I had said enough.
When Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island a little over a year later, my house stood strong, and during that day, I had played a round a golf and dined at my favorite Italian restaurant in the comforts of a warm and sunny Florida. Maybe that “Man in the Chef’s Hat” was listening.