Did you ever wonder where a writer gets their inspiration? Well, for me, much of what I write comes from personal experience. Al the fruit man is a perfect example because he was based on my neighbor, Ricardo. I wanted Al's character to reflect Ricardo's generosity and influence in my family's life.
I remember many things about my neighbor Ricardo, and his wife Yvonne. They were both from Haiti, though Ricardo came from German and Puerto Rican parents. He had built the first radio station in Haiti, and upon moving to the United States, he worked as a sound engineer in his small, and fascinatingly messy basement workshop. His wife, Yvonne, spoke only French, and she and Ricardo would speak Creole to each other. They had no children, yet they were the kind of neighbors you could leave your children with. I would visit them on long summer afternoons where they fed me cookies and juice. At times, I would stay there when I was home from school with a sniffle and my parents had to work. Ricardo would watch cartoons with me before retreating downstairs to his workshop, while Yvonne would prepare something soothing for me to drink. Somehow, being sick wasn’t so bad.
When my Dad decided to build a sukkah, we were new to the neighborhood and had not quite established our familiar relationship with Ricardo and Yvonne. As my father stood on the porch taking measurements, (contemplating how on earth, he was even going to build a sukkah from scratch), Ricardo curiously watched him from his backyard. “Are you building a new porch, Shelly?”“No, not really,” answered my father hesitantly. “Well what are you measuring?”My father sighed. He wasn’t quite sure how to answer. “You wouldn’t understand,” he muttered. Ricardo looked a bit surprised. “Oh I don’t know about that,” he said as he lit up his cigarette. By this time Ricardo had already come into our backyard and was standing on the porch. “I’m building a sukkah, said my father.“ A suk what?” stammered Ricardo.My father described the sukkah’s physical structure of three walls and open roof. He told Ricardo that it represented the temporary dwellings of the Israelites while wandering in the desert sun, and that it was symbolic of life’s fragility. I am sure he could have told Ricardo much more, but that was probably enough information.
Ricardo gently took the tape measure out of my father’s hand and began to measure the porch. “I know exactly what you need,” said Ricardo confidently. My father was too stunned to even ask how he knew. He just… trusted him. Ricardo purchased the wood, and skillfully designed a sukkah to fit our porch. After hours of painting, hammering, and nailing, he and my father put up the sukkah that would still be in use thirty-five years later. By the end of the project, my father worked up the nerve to finally asked Ricardo how he knew exactly what to do. “Ah well, yes, growing up in Haiti we built similar structures to shade us from the sun in the summertime. They were called pergolas. Your sukkah is not that much different from what I remember building as a boy. “ And with that he nodded his head and smiled.
When Ricardo died a few years later, it was a great loss to my family. Since his passing, my parents had always honored his memory at our Sukkot Ushpizin; the custom that spiritually invites personalities from Jewish history to a meal in the sukkah. The traditional invitees are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob etc… but Ricardo was part of my family’s personal Jewish history, and we felt that he deserved top billing.
The sukkah story has taught me many things about friendship and the human spirit. Who would have thought that a Jewish boy from the Bronx and a Puerto Rican-German man from Haiti would build a sukkah together in Queens? Yet somehow, even with religious and cultural differences, they found a common denominator. It didn’t start a trend or affect world news, or even re-shape politics, but for one family in Queens, life has a deeper meaning because of the sukkah that Ricardo built.