He was speechless. I am confident there were many days at the Central Cafe when he did not earn $18. The entire twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation took in perhaps $25,000 a year during the long years of the Depression, and that sustained our family, two cooks, four waitresses who were paid a dollar a day plus meals and tips, a dishwasher, and Jack Ryan, who for years held down the overnight shift all on his own—he, all alone, and with an unceasing smile, did it all; he cooked, served, and washed the dishes. The Central Cafe produced regular gifts of cash back to my father's family in Vahlia, and less frequent ones to my mother's village of Niata, as well as wardrobe-sized boxes of used clothing to both places. And it produced my father's promise to me that when I graduated from high school he would provide me "the best education money can buy," a promise that gained momentum when I won the New York State Regents' prize, which provided a scholarship at a New York university, scoring highest on a standardized test given to all the high school students in Buffalo County, where Kearney is situated.
The Regents prize was one clear signal that my future did not lie in Kearney. The $18 check lying on the table was another. For the first time I realized there were options out there. I didn't know what they were, but I wanted to find out. I also knew, or sensed, that I would have to seek them elsewhere. One day soon I would leave my hometown and my parents and enter a new world that I could explore on my own terms.
Copyright © 2009 by Peter G. Peterson; Reprinted by permission of Hachette Book Group / Twelve