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Wisdom from Older Strangers
How I got my confidence back
Melvin Pichardo
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Camera flashes lit up my high school graduation ceremony, triggering images of broken light bulbs in my mind. The assistant principal at the podium called my name, “Melvin Pichardo.” My heart sank as I thought the same thoughts I’d had throughout high school: “These people don’t like you.” “You’re a loser.” “You’re worthless.”

I headed toward the stage; I heard clapping. I got my diploma from a teacher, and then shook the principal’s hand. “Congrats!” she whispered in a happy tone. I stepped down from the stage toward my seat. “Nice suit, Mel!” said the dean, happily shaking my hand like a proud father. I sat down and looked at my diploma. I got goosebumps on my arms and back and an internal wire buzzed this thought. “Now what am I going to do?”

After high school, my friends went to college. I wanted to go too, but I knew I wasn’t ready. Deep down, I knew that I wanted to pursue an acting career. But I felt alone, unmotivated, and depressed.

I think I suffered from depression mostly because when my father’s drunk I’m the target and his drinking had become more frequent. Whatever he feels about himself, he says I am. “You’re worthless.” “You’re stupid.”

At the same time I saw my mother working hard for my sister and me. She tried not to pay too much attention to my father because she had to pay bills, and go to her job as a home attendant. But she would defend me when she could.

Ready to Work

I knew I wasn’t ready for college but I was eager to find a job. My motivation wasn’t even money. I needed to be away from home and I also needed to find myself again. I didn’t want to start college as an insecure young man with these negative thoughts jumping around in my head.

I applied for jobs online and went door-to-door; no one hired me. I figured I didn’t have the right attitude. Until one day in September my mom got a call from her girlfriend.

It’s hard not to overhear my mother’s conversations because she talks so loud.

“OK, I WILL ASK HIM,” I heard her say in a loud voice. Then she hung up.

“Mom, who was it?”

“My girlfriend just called to find out if you’d be interested in a job that’s available at Citymeals-on-Wheels. I told her I would ask you because it seems like a tough job,” she said.

I looked at my mom with an expression that sent her the message: “Really, Mom, how come you didn’t say yes on the spot? I have nothing else to do with my life.”

What I said was: “Of course I would! I would do almost anything that comes up right now.”

So my mother called her girlfriend back and got the name and number I needed to call, which I did immediately. The lady asked if I could come in the next day. I said, “Of course.”

I woke up early, showered, and got dressed in a gray, short sleeve, button-down shirt, black dress pants and my good black shoes. When I got to the interview I met the lady who I’d spoken to the day before. She explained what the responsibilities were: Delivering meals to housebound seniors around the neighborhood; they were to receive one hot and one cold meal every day.

In the interview I was motivated and serious to start working. I gave direct answers to the questions she asked and I kept my body and hands still as I listened to what she was telling me.

That afternoon I got a phone call from the boss that I got the job. I was in shock; I’d been hired for my first job! From that moment I began to gain confidence. I started the following day.

Unexpected Encouragement

I found the job difficult at first. The cart was much heavier than I thought, about 40 pounds, and I had to do a lot more walking than I expected. But I got used to the physical demands after about a week.

Each day I reported to the senior center where I would pick up my route, pack the meals, and get my cart. And then I went out on my deliveries. Two weeks into the job, I got route 10. I was to deliver meals to about 25 people that day.

image by YC-Art Dept

When I got out of the elevator, Dudley Williams, my first client, was waiting in the hallway for me in his wheelchair. “Citymeals-on-Wheels?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Dudley Williams that’s me,” he stated.

“Give me a second and you will get your meal.”

Dudley is an African-American man, with gray hair who looks like he’s in his 70s or 80s. He used to be an engineer. When I met him his left leg was broken and in a cast. He wore a button down shirt with old gray jeans. He had a lot of white facial hair.

As I was getting the meal out of the bag, he asked, “You’re a young guy, why are you doing this job?”

I told him I wasn’t in college yet because of personal reasons. Then he asked what I was planning on doing.

I told him I was taking an acting course although I didn’t know if I’d pursue it as a career. I waited for him to shake his head and tell me to do something more sensible. Instead Dudley surprised me by raising his voice, “Then you be that actor! Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t. Don’t let anybody take away your dream. And you’re a nice looking guy believe me.”

Tears welled up in my eyes because it hit me that this stranger saw the potential in me that I saw but didn’t have the confidence to believe. I began to lightly tremble. I handed the meal to Dudley and said, “Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.” I didn’t want to leave but I had to continue to the other clients.

Words Melted My Soul

During my fourth week I was assigned a new client, Serenity Young. I was intrigued to meet her because I thought her name was interesting. Serenity was the eighth client down the route sheet. When she opened the door the sound of classical music poured out. I got a feeling Serenity was a peaceful and positive person. She’s tall and elegant with pale skin and gray hair yet there’s a youthfulness about her. Her apartment was neat.

As I handed her the meal she looked at my sweater. It had “Stella Adler Studio of Acting” stitched on the front. She asked me about my acting studies and told me I’d do well because I have a good face and voice. I felt my face getting red and the comment melting into my soul. I left the building with a sense of hope.

Then there was Joseph Schwartz. I had been delivering to him for two months when I arrived one day and got a surprise. Joseph is a tall white man with white thinning hair that he cuts himself. His wife passed away years ago. Every time I’d see Joseph he was always kind. The first thing he would say to me when he saw me walking toward his door was, “Melvin, it’s good to see you,” and I would say, “Joseph, same here.” He would ask me how I was doing and how the acting course was going.

One day, I handed him his meal and then he said, “Hold on, I got something for you.”

He came back and handed me a DVD and said, “When you become big, don’t forget the old man you used to deliver meals to.” It was a Tyler Perry movie, Madea’s Witness Protection. I was grateful that he thought of me; it meant a lot.

“Thank you Joseph. I would never give this away and to make it more memorable can you please sign it?” I asked and he did.

Ready to Take the Stage

That was the last time I saw Joseph. I’d decided to leave Citymeals-on-Wheels and start taking college courses. I was also starting the evening conservatory program at Stella Adler to continue my professional training as an actor. I was ready for this demanding schedule because I felt more confident.

Things hadn’t changed with my father but I was more focused on myself now and so wasn’t as affected by him. I got to say goodbye to all the seniors that encouraged me to leave the job and be who I wanted to be. For the first time in a long time, I felt happy.

These older individuals came into my life and told me things I needed to hear about myself when I needed it most. The timing is mysterious to me because they had no clue what I was going through at the time. They helped push me through a dark moment in my life in a way my family and other people I love couldn’t.

I realized after getting to know them and what they’re lives are like now that you’re only young once, so take advantage of it. When I’m an old man I want to be able to say I did everything I wanted to.

I think many of the seniors I delivered to feel like they’ve been thrown to the dumps and are no longer worthy. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. If you listen closely, they’ve got a lot to say that is valuable.

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(NYC-2015-11-12)

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