Calle Esperanza 154 Miraflores, Lima, Peru
I came for the Old Man. I’m not sure which one he was, or if he existed at all. His face was an anomalous puzzle to me, not because I had not seen it, but because my memory refused to recall it, at least not directly, just as my eyes cannot stare directly into the terror and benevolence of the sun.
They were all old men. Even the young ones. They dressed as penguins. The brisk starch that made their black bow ties jut out from above their white shirts caught my eye well before I could see the yellow walls and simple blue-and-white chequered seating of the café. It was not an expensive or even luxurious place. It was a small café which smelt like a café, and its reclining customers gave it the languid mood of a café, even during the lunchtime menu rush, wrapped as they were in a mood of owning more time than the world at large usually affords us. Yet the menu, inscribed in black marker on white boards hanging from the yellow walls, was that of a great restaurant. One of the greats of Miraflores, in fact, in terms of length and breadth.
Here (in a place which may not have had blue-and-white chequered tables after all), under the watchful gaze of men turned old by their formal bow ties and the nonchalant, white, and dense serviettes thrown over their raised forearms, patrons sitting in the two shallow yellow rooms could summon to their lips authentically fashioned dishes from all over Peru, from the northern sands to the southern cities, from the western slopes to the eastern valleys, and follow up this excavation of a nation’s culinary history with an ecumenical indulgence: an aromatic café con leche, steaming petite on white marble (or perhaps white plastic?) tabletops.
The rich cream drowning the chicken in the aji de gallina sat partly clouding the oddly sensual puff of rice. The rocoto rellena gleamed and fell open to exhale a mess of savoury hot air trailing from soft meats. The melting wash of milk from the tres leches pudding hits with a sweetness that is almost, but not quite, too much sweetness. The arroz con pollo, served only on Sundays, deserves a week of expectant salivation.
On a Monday, or perhaps a Wednesday (but most likely a Sunday?), when the boom of lunchtime had subsided, and the narrow pavement of Esperanza was quiet, and my hurry was pushed by a stomach rumbling in protest, I walked down that long street, for perhaps the second or third time, and there I would see him, half-hidden behind the corner of the small yellow dining space of the café, half caught up in the decaying mist and shadows under a scrap of dying tree in front of the open air patio seating. He was waiting. Ever waiting. I could not look into his face, and I dared not meet his gaze, but the anxiety, nearing a terror, unexplained even now as I write this many years and hundreds of miles later, rose up in me as his serviette-draped forearm swung in my direction. Walk on, walk on by, I thought, but also, sit, sit, enjoy.
Will he know me? He cannot remember me, surely.
Yes, I’d come for the Old Man. His head stayed slightly lowered, out of respect. A respect that transcended generations. A respect that haunted the streets and dressed the walls with the je ne sais quoi (ou pas?) from an older, more formal, and smaller Lima, a Lima left for the storytellers more than for the gnarled Rememberers, a Lima profound in its careless succumbing to progress and betterment. A Lima preserved in taste, in yellow walls, and in the starch and the tired burning-bush Buddha gaze of the Old Man.
He has me seated, has me ordering, waiting and staring out into the day, then has me full and on my way (I politely declined his offer of dessert or café), with barely a loose word, in his own sweet time. He never once needs to ensure that I am satisfied, even when he asks me if I am, since such a question, like the Old Man, is only the kindest formality from a corner of Lima lost.
And from there on I progress, bettered, possibly to a Starbucks for free Wi-Fi and a Frappuccino-induced regret. I am not sure. It was most likely not a Sunday.