15 Minute Read –
When I was in the second grade, my teacher gave me a progress report that said “Lizzie, doesn’t utilize her time well.” I have been annoyed by that assumption ever since.
15 minute read
“Are you Rafael?”
“Si, si, el cheque.”
I’ll be the first to admit that Rafael, with his collar, ripped at the seam leaving a four-inch vacancy of fabric at his upper-chest wasn’t what I would call the poster boy for financial security, but I was in no mood to argue after the morning I had dealt with which included but was certainly not limited to:
I had been given specific instructions to hand deliver payment to Rafael by Maria who has been running the warehouse since her ex-husband, Miguel, had been moved from the operating table to the Intensive Care Unit at Cedars-Sinai.
To bring you up to speed, Miguel is (in a sentence) the manager of my upholstery warehouse and has been for nearly a decade. But he deserves more than one sentence. Miguel has been responsible for constructing some of my most astonishing pieces of furniture out of nothing more than some wood, fabric, and a few sketches I scratch onto paper. He’s a hardworking and creative earner that runs his team like a battalion and carried his shears holstered on his hip like a Mexican gunslinger. If you’ve purchased anything from the likes of an armchair to a sectional from me since 2009 chances are Miguel built it.
Two years ago, Miguel had surgery that left him incapable of lifting a roll of fabric over his head let alone haul one down from the teetering plywood storage shelf shooting up twenty-feet to the rafters. But he still showed up every damn day to cut, sew and stitch what he could from the floor. And when he became sick and was in a wheelchair he still showed up every damn day and managed the books as best he could from the office. And when couldn’t come in at all, and when he was bedridden in the hospital, that’s when Maria took his place on the job and she showed up Every. Damn. Day.
The answer to why keep the pace of Miguel’s persistence begins and ends with loyalty. Not loyalty to me and my company but rather loyalty directed the opposite way.
Miguel’s workshop employs 14 people. About half are young Mexican men and the other half are young Mexican men with families and because of Miguel and because of Maria these families eat. And that is something well beyond admirable and far more deserving than one sentence.
On this particular day, I was stopping in to make sure the two sofas and matching love seats I needed to be completed within a few short days were on schedule and to, of course, drop off payment. Maria who had previously managed all the books was now on the floor and had hired Rafael to take her place at the desk. I caught her for a second time as she sliced through a leather cushion like a surgeon.
“How are the sofas coming?”
“They’ll be done tonight. You can pick them up tomorrow by 8 A.M.”
She either ignored me or didn’t hear me. Her attention shot across the floor to two employees laughing over a video playing on their cell phones.
“Ey, what are you two doing?! These cushions need to be done ASAP.”
Like sixth-graders being scolded for interuppting class, they swapped their phones for pliers and got back to it with a snarl. I could see this was a good time to get out of the way.
“I’ll come back bright and early tomorrow,” I told her as she returned to her fabric.
“Did you pay Rafael?”
“I did. I gave him a check just a few minutes ago.”
I turned to leave but she stopped me.
“I’m sorry for all the confusion since Miguel has been gone. I’m not a builder. I sew. The boys don’t want to listen to someone who sews.”
It wasn’t entirely their fault and less a matter of insubordination than sorrow. This crew of jolly pirates had seen their commander walk the plank and watched helplessly as he each week he took another step closer to the murky waters below.
“Maria,” I gently said, “how many pillows could you possibly make me in the next hour?”
“By myself? Maybe ten.”
“What if the boys stopped working on the sofas and helped you? I can pick them up later in the day tomorrow. That’s no big deal.”
She called over one of the boys over to her workstation, laid out a roll of fabric, and held a pair of shears in front of his face like a dare.
“Cut me the sections to make a 20″ x 20″ pillow,” she commanded.
He had the attention of the entire warehouse now and he took the scissors from her and hunched over the fabric with the same confidence as an 11-year-old looking at a calculus problem. The entire floor exploded with laughter and snatched the shears out of his hand cut two perfect squares for him faster than you could snap your fingers. She picked both sections up and held them high in the air by the corners.
“You should know how to do this. All of you come up here.”
Over the course of the next sixty minutes, Maria and I ran an impromptu sewing class on the sawdust-covered floor of a downtown Los Angeles warehouse. The boys pricked their fingers with needles, ruined fabric with knotted thread, cut out (what seemed to be) every shape other than a square, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t one of the more memorable times I’ve had in this business in recent memory.
I had requested 30 pillows and left that day with 54 perfect shams and when I was stuffing them into the back of my truck a well-dressed Mexican man I had never seen before approached me.
“Hello, I will need a check for the pillows, please.”
“Who are you?” I asked when Maria came up beside him.
“Lizzie, this is Rafael,” she said.
I stopped loading the car and looked at them perplexed.
“No, I spoke to Rafael earlier. I paid him…”
I trailed off when they both slapped their heads in unison.
“Cancel that check, Lizzie,” Maria said, “you paid a crazy man. That guy wanders in here asking for ‘el cheque, el cheque’. We have to kick him out daily. Follow me inside and we’ll sort it out.”
And as they stepped back inside I could see the original Rafael a few hundred yards down the road happily fashioning a hat out of an old McDonald’s cup. For years he had been asking for a check and today he had finally found his mark because he put in the work – every damn day.