Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

Giuseppina had arranged with Dolores and Alicia to prepare a traditional Sunday afternoon Sicilian family dinner. Though Little Italy was relatively close to Little Spain, the Alonsos and the Cuestas were not very familiar with Sicilian home cooking and welcomed the generosity of their guests. The four mothers arose before everyone else and went on a shopping expedition to nearby Little Italy. By 11:30 a.m. a large pot of "sugo siciliano" was simmering on the stove in the Alonso's apartment. "Sugo" is the traditional Sicilian term for tomato-based pasta sauce, traditionally served over pasta. Giuseppina was amused when the clerk in one of the Italian stores referred to it as "gravy". Alicia and Dolores were equally amused when they saw that Giuseppina added, in addition to various meats, two dozen hard boiled eggs to the sugo. The four women laughed as they compared local idiosyncrasies. As the others awoke, they gathered in the large kitchen, which was now functioning as a Sicilian cooking school, with Dolores and Alicia taking notes. 

By 3:00 p.m. the group of 16 people were feasting on seemingly endless platters of Sicilian delicacies. Silence replaced the simultaneous talking that normally prevailed. Giuseppina and her "assistant", Sofia, proudly observed as their families and guests enjoyed the new experience.

"Fernando y yo hicimos llamadas esta mañana. Conseguimos reservaciones para el tren a Tampa el miércoles. Llegarèmos el jueves. No había disponibilidad hasta ese día. Esperamos que no presenta problema para vosotros. Podemos conseguir un hotel sin ningún problema."

Ignacio announced that he and Fernando had made phone calls that morning and were able to get train reservations to Tampa for the following Wednesday. They would arrive in Tampa on Thursday. They had tried to get reservations for an earlier day, but there was no availability for eight people. Ignacio hoped this wasn't a problem and said they could go to a hotel.

Almost simultaneously, Guillermo and Amancio assured them that all was fine, and they welcomed them to stay as long as necessary. Dolores joked that the only problem would be the weight gain if Giuseppina continued to prepare the meals. Everyone laughed, as more food emerged from the kitchen.

Monday and Tuesday were spent enjoying the sites of New York. The Alonsos and Cuestas were the most generous of hosts. Amancio and Guillermo co-owned a small cigar factory of approximately 40 employees. These were known as "chinchales", the Spanish word for bedbugs, due to their small size. In Tampa, they were also known as "Buckeyes", but no one seemed to know exactly why. Amancio and Guillermo were successful, having carved out a large local market for their high-quality cigars. Their tour of New York included a visit to the factory. The visitors were struck by the similarity to those found in Tampa. Many of the employees they met had spent time in Tampa prior to moving on to New York. Most had learned the trade in either Tampa or Havana. This reinforced the fact that Tampa was the focal point of cigar manufacturing, and the ties between the New York and Tampa Spanish immigrant communities were many.

New York's Penn Station was not particularly busy. The Silver Meteor train to Tampa was scheduled to depart at 3:00 p.m. Always obsessively early, Fernando had insisted on arriving two hours before departure. Amancio and Guillermo had returned to work after their "mini vacation" as hosts. Dolores and Alicia had accompanied the travelers to the station. The families had bonded during the past four days, and the farewell was emotional. The New Yorkers promised they would visit Tampa in the near future. The Tampeños checked their baggage and enjoyed a quick tour of the majestic train station. They boarded the Silver Meteor at 2:15 p.m.

At precisely 3:00 p.m. the train slowly pulled out of Penn Station. Unable to obtain sleeper accommodations, the travelers settled in for what would be a night of trying to sleep in their seats. Fernando reminisced on his trip from Havana to Tampa on the Mascotte, remembering that hard wooden bench that served as his bed. Certainly, these train seats were more comfortable, but his being 36 years older would probably offset the difference. He was anticipating a difficult night but decided to shift his focus and enjoy this last part of this great adventure.

As expected, Rafael and Luciano were rarely to be found in their seats. After several walks from one end of the Silver Meteor to the other they finally returned to their seats. After a few hours the train slowed as it entered Union Station in Washington, D.C. The conductor announced this would be an extended stop of 50 minutes. Luciano, wanting to get a quick glimpse of the nation's capital, asked if it would be possible to disembark. The conductor said it would be, but to make certain they retained their tickets for reboarding. 

As the train came to a halt in the cavernous station, the Tampeños gathered their belongings and walked briskly into the terminal and onto the street. From the main entrance they could see the U.S. Capitol, its white dome just visible above the many trees lining the streets. Luciano and Rafael asked permission to run ahead of them for a better view. Their parents agreed, reminding them to keep an eye on the time. 

The departure from Washington was anticlimactic, as the route was via underground tracks. By the time the train surfaced, the beautiful rolling hills of Virginia were visible. After a short time, they were called to the dining car. The conductor had thoughtfully arranged two tables across from each other. As Ignacio began eating his delicious fried chicken, he commented to the others.

"Saben que esta es una de las pocas veces que he comido comida americana tradicional. Está deliciosa."

He said this was one of the few times he has eaten traditional American food, and he found it to be delicious. After some exclamation of surprise, the group realized that this was logical. The typical immigrant living in West Tampa or Ybor City in 1936 would have had limited exposure to American culture. Their children, on the other hand, had begun the great process of assimilation. 

By the time dinner was over, the sun had set. The Tampeños began the process of trying to convert their seats into makeshift beds. Using the blankets and pillows that had been provided, they had limited success. Adding to their restlessness was the anticipation of finally getting home after an exciting, but stressful, adventure. 

"Next stop, Savannah, Georgia! Next stop, Savannah, Georgia!"

It was approximately 6:30 a.m. and the Silver Meteor was entering Savannah. Mercifully, the several stops during the night had no ticketed passengers, and the sleeping passengers had been spared additional interruptions. The conductor advised them that if they wanted breakfast, they should proceed to the dining car shortly. In Jacksonville, Florida, their car would be switched to another train headed to Tampa and St. Petersburg. The remainder of the train, with the dining car, would continue down Florida's east coast to Miami.

Shortly after breakfast they completed the transfer in Jacksonville. By 2:30 p.m. they were slowly passing through Ybor City. The tracks paralleled and were immediately next to 6th Ave. Excitedly, they identified familiar landmarks that somehow looked a bit different from their perspective. After pulling onto a set of side tracks, the Silver Meteor began slowly backing into Tampa Union Station. Fernando turned to his fellow travelers.

"Bueno, quizás Tampa es una trampa, pero es una trampa que adoro. Finalmente, estamos en casa."

He told the group that perhaps Tampa was a "trap", but it was a trap that he adored. They were finally home.

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This is a work of fiction. With the exception of references to known and publicly documented historical entities, the following apply:

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. ©Tony Carreño 2020