Community Connections

Moving away from home has its ups as well as it downs. New setting, fresh faces, newly discovered routines are all reasons for excitement, but what happens once the dust settles? Your sense of newness has now been accustomed to what is now your daily life. What do you miss? At times, it’s the very thing you wanted to move away from, your community.

When I decided to move back home this last time around, one of the things I was most excited for was once again having that sense of familiarity around me. Not only did I yearn to be around familiar relationships, but I was excited to get involved. As a kid I had always seen myself giving to the community that raised me, so once I got back, I made sure that it had been on the top of my list of goals. I wanted to make sure that I got involved in a way that was through some sort of passion of mine. Whether it would be through the arts, working with children or the elderly, handing out food the homeless, or cleaning up our streets. My mind was set to find a way to volunteer my time and services to making the city a little bit better than it was yesterday. Had anyone told me that a pandemic was going to hit and that it would take that to spark the change that was needed in order to begin, I would have laughed in your face and told you that maybe you’d been watching one too many sci-fi thrillers.

COVID came by and with one swoop, pulled the cloth out from under us. Some of us were tipped over by it, crashing to the floor, left confused and unable to pick up the pieces, while others remained relatively unscathed, still standing in the same spot as if nothing ever happened. Yet, every single one of us walked away with change in one form of it or another. Being locked away for months all we had was time. Time to do all the things we had been craving to do, the time to think, the time to reevaluate life. It’s of no surprise that once we were let back out into the world, I didn’t last very long working the job I had prior to everything happening. I had spent so long enjoying my days and being constantly reminded about how short life was and how unexpected death could come, that I was no longer satisfied doing what I was doing. I was miserable. I felt over worked due to the shortages in staffing and supplies, and underappreciated. After a long and crazy shift, I walked away and never went back, vowing to myself to find a way to produce enough income to sustain myself and that would make me happy.

Quitting that job opened up a whole new set of opportunities. I once again had the time to do what I wanted to do, and what I wanted was to make time work for me. I took the last little bit of cash I had left and invested it into an idea I thought would work. I created a product to sell and to my surprise, it took off fairly quickly. I wasn’t too shocked that it was doing well, I was more shocked at the fact that it had been relatively easy. All I had to do was let go of what no longer was working for me to make room for what I wanted. The Universe works is magical ways, and I say this because it was through this newly founded business of mine that I ended up meeting someone who would later end up being key to my integration into the community.

It was my very first showing as a vendor and after a few hours, and many successful exchanges, I began taking apart my area in order to get ready to leave. It was then that I met this wonderful human being and after a bit of interaction I decided to gift her one of my products and told her that if she ever needed where that came from, she knew where to call. And she did. Not only had she become one of my regular clients, but it was through an invitation of hers that I discovered my love for yoga. It was through her that I was asked to volunteer at a local art exhibition in the city, and it was again, through her, that I was invited to be on the committee in regard to our city clean-up as well as to help feed the homeless.

Connecting with my community has been something that I have been striving to do for years. I feel that since moving back, the pieces to many of my life’s adventurous puzzle pieces have been falling right into place. I am at the start of this new journey and the excitement is high. I can’t help but imagine all the treasurable moments that are going to come from this new direction I have taken in. I can’t wait to meet people that are riding that wave that I’m on right now, those that are on my life frequency, who little by little will help change our community with me.

Like Chocolate Covered Orange Peels

My first job ever was on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. Located directly across from the Tropicana casino was a huge pier designed to look like a ship and it was called the Ocean One Mall. Within this boat mall were dozens of shops, a huge food court, and the entire first level of this three story tier was a dedicated arcade center for the kids. I worked for a Greek family who owned two businesses located within this mall. One was a smoothie shop and the other was a candy store called Kandyland. The candy shop was what would be my home every weekend throughout the school year and for the entire summer. The store was huge. It was three levels of sugary goodness. Any kind of candy you could possibly crave you would be able to find there. Candy cigarettes, candy buttons, gummies, ring pops, over-sized lollipops too big for kids to ever finish, fudge. You named it, we had it. There were even candies I had never before heard of. Things like chocolate covered orange peels, raspberry jelly rings, marzipan. I was mind blown. Not only did they sell sweets, but they also had a walk up window conveniently accessible to those walking by on the boardwalk which sold your typical boardwalk treats. There were soft pretzels, popcorn, soft serve ice cream, hot dogs, and beverages. Could there have been a better job for a 13 year old? No fucking way.

During the months of May through September the boardwalk was consistently packed from sun up till sun down. Peak season is what it was for the Jersey shore. From an areal view it looked as though an army of ants were crawling all over the place. A dark black mass of people who had chosen to come to the Jersey for a nice vacation. I had started working for Niko and Marinela in May, right at the beginning of season, and this first job definitely provided me with many other firsts. This was the first time I had ever had bosses. This was where I earned my first paycheck, and my first reprimand (I almost got fired within my first week!). This is where I had also met my first ever boyfriend.

His name was Luis Velasquez , a 14 year old Colombian native who had just recently moved to the city with his family for a better life. I’m not sure how moving to Atlantic City would constitute for a better life. I guess that at the time, any place would have been better than dealing with the craziness of living in Colombia.

Luis was dark, tall, and SO handsome. He had a head of hair that the ladies would die for. His eyes were as dark and as deep as the bottom of the ocean. He was an entire head taller than me and ridiculously lean. His lips were the prettiest, yet manliest color of pink  you could imagine and looked as soft as flower petals. He was the first boy I ever wanted to swap sloppy kisses with. Luis was hired to work next door at the smoothie shop. The only times I would ever get to see him was if I decided to have a smoothie on my break (which was just about everyday) or when he was bringing the cash over from the shop after closing up. As any teenage girl with a crush would do, whenever Luis came around I was there readily available. For what? I don’t know but at least I was there 🙂 It wasn’t too long before we became friendly and then moved up to dating. Though as quickly as things developed, that’s how quick they was over. My first break up. The relationship hadn’t lasted long so the “heartbreak” wasn’t as bad as most first breakups would be. I had quickly discovered that he was a liar, gang banger wanna be, douche bag. The kind of guy moms and dads warn their daughters about. He had even gotten fired from the smoothie shop for pocketing a few dollars.  He was caught on camera red handed, and immediately fired without a chance to explain. The was the last I saw or heard of Mr. Velasquez.

I had come to really love my job at Kandyland. My bosses and I had gotten close. I considered them like my parents away from home. I had come to learn so much in my time spent working there with them, not just business related but about life in general. So you can imagine my surprise when I left for a week to visit family in Boston for the holidays and came back to find the store completely shut down and gutted. This had been my first experience with betrayal committed in the first degree by adults. They had allowed me to leave on a family vacation without telling me that I would return unemployed.

I will never forget the day. It was a cold Saturday morning in December. It was in between Christmas and New Year’s and I had just returned from visiting my aunt and uncle up north. I had woken up that morning and did my usual routine to get ready for work. I left my grandparents apartment and walked the 15 blocks to work. I always walked instead of taking the jitney because minus the bums, the walk was always beautiful and peaceful, especially that early in the morning. I arrived at the shop cold but excited to be getting back to work. The excitement hadn’t lasted long. Once I set foot through the front doors I was frozen in place. Displays and candies were all gone. Drywall dust covered everything and there were cans of paint placed throughout the lobby.  There were people walking around, none of whom I hadn’t recognized.

“Can I help you hun?” An old, bald headed man with thick, black rimmed glasses had asked. I hated that he had called me “hun”.

“Yeah. I work here. What’s going on?” I asked back, pulling the gloves off my now sweaty hands. We stare at each other for a few beats. I wonder who looked more confused, him or me? Just then, Niko walks out of what used to be the employee area and stops dead in his tracks.

“Nata!” It was their nickname for me. “What are you doing here?” He asked in his heavy accent. He was equally as confused as the old man and I were.

“What do you mean? I always open on Saturdays! What’s going on?” I questioned a second. At this point worry was starting to really set in. Niko looks at me and I can’t tell if it’s frustration, embarrassment, or pity that flickers across his face. Maybe it was all three.

“Mari didn’t tell you? Kandyland is closed for a bit. We’re relocating a couple blocks down from here.” He was starting to fidget. Funny, one always knew when Niko was stressed out when you’d see him pull at the tiny, frosted curls that topped his head, which was exactly what he was doing now. Between Marinela and him, his wife had all the balls in the relationship. Both hers and his.

“No, no one said anything to me about this. So….” I looked around. There seemed to be so much to do. “Should I help you guys? Or did you want me to come back in a couple of days?” I mean just because they were relocating didn’t mean that I was out of a job, right?

“Sorry honey, no. We won’t be reopening until the spring and there isn’t much that you could help us with around here. You’d be a liability.” He seriously couldn’t have looked anymore uncomfortable. I was in shock and once that shock passed just a few short seconds later, I got pissed. I mean, who does this?

“So you’re telling me that a week ago, when I was clocking out, you couldn’t tell me that I’d be coming back unemployed? That totally just slipped everybody’s mind to tell me that there would be no Kandyland when I returned?” I began freaking out. I could no longer stay calm, cool, and collected. Not when I had felt so betrayed. “I dedicated my weekends to you guys. My entire summer was spent working here and not one person could tell me that this place was closing down? I’m sure everyone else got the memo! Is it because I’m just a “kid” that I couldn’t get the same respect?” My eyes began to water but not because I was sad. Oh no. It was because I was angry. Niko looked defeated and understood that there was no winning this argument. I had been right even if I was just a “kid”. We stared at each other for what seemed like a second too long.

“We’ll help you find another job.” I had completely forgotten about the strange an that had initially greeted me when I walked in. He was still standing in the same spot when he broke the awkward silence. “I have a brother who runs a pizza place in one of the casinos. Niko can give me your number and I can call you once I speak with him.” He spoke with sincerity so without saying a word, I dove into my purse, fishing out a piece of paper and a pen. I quickly jotted down my number as well as my name, then handed it over to him.

“Niko seems to be forgetful so here’s my information. I appreciate you helping me out and I’ll be looking forward to your phone call.” I then turned to Niko and thanked him. “It was nice working with you. Have a Happy New Year.” I said dryly and with that I walked out.

It was a long walk home. I was irritated and angry that they had done this to me. I had worked just as hard, if not harder, than most of the people that came and went from that place. This entire scene would have never happened if I had been older. It had been the first time that I realized that it didn’t really matter how great of an employee you were, or how loyal, if you’re a “kid”, adults didn’t have to respect you.

I ended up getting the phone call that very night. The strange man had kept his promise and within just a few short days, I had a new job. I had been surprised by the kindness and generosity of this stranger. I later learned when having a conversation with this man that he had been very moved by my situation and said that no person, child or not, should be treated that way.

“We all deserve to be treated fairly. We all deserve a proper explanation, even children.”

Even though my employment at Kandyland ended so abruptly, leaving a slightly sour taste in my mouth, I can’t deny some of the sweet memories I made while there. I guess one could say that this was a bitter sweet chapter of my life. Slightly similar to the taste of chocolate covered orange peels.

10727571_1518315738407738_613590124_n (2)

Photo Credit: Natal Galvan