If Charlie Chaplin had been born in Zacatecoluca, La Paz, El Salvador, he might easily have looked like Jose Montes.
Montes, who turned 70 on June 28, has the sweet demeanor, the wise sad eyes, and the off-kilter gait of Chaplin. He has now lived exactly half his life in the Mission District of San Francisco, arriving here at age 35.
He celebrated his birthday in the pandemic by making himself a fresh salad, mindful of his salt and sugar intake.
Montes lives alone, in a room he has rented for 10 years, off of Silver Avenue. “I’ve always lived in small rooms in the area of the Mission,” he explains. Nevertheless, rent is a constant worry, as his social security check is less than $700.
“I was looking for a job right before the virus started, because my landlord told me the rent was going up, and I didn’t have it. So he moved a man into my room. That is hard for me, for my privacy. I have to change clothes in the bathroom. Then about a month ago, I didn’t feel well, I felt I had a fever, and I went straight to the hospital. They tested me and I was okay, but I was scared. They told me I just had a cold. But I was worried, because I do not know where my new roommate goes. Now I stay outside all day. The air is so fresh, the light lasts so long. It’s beautiful outside.”
His children are far away — and Pan Lido can be a bridge with others
His three adult children and nine grandchildren live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the last time he visited was five years ago.
“They send me a ticket when they can, but it’s complicated. They have their own lives, their own problems.“
For most of his working life here, he was a dishwasher and busser: Fenton’s Creamery, (Oakland), Miz Brown’s (San Francisco) and the House of Pancakes (SF Airport). “You know, because of the English I, well, pues,” he shrugs, “I tried to learn, I started City College for English three times but I would always fall asleep in class, you know, working two jobs … ”
A hip operation five years ago forced his retirement, but he still very much wants to work part-time, and would love to be an ascensorista (an elevator operator). He knows that, in the time of a pandemic, that is not a job to aspire to.
Montes dresses with impeccable care in pullover sweaters, slacks and a red beret. He smiles easily and lights up when talking about El Salvador, where he has not been in 35 years. Montes stays connected to his community by helping out at two El Salvadorean bakeries.
“Don Walter, the owner of Pan Lido, (on 22nd Street) well, his father knew my father back in Zacatecoluca. Our families were friends, so he trusts me. So, my routine, what I would do, before the pandemia, I would go in and attend to the customers. I wait on them, sell them pastelitos, (pastries with jam) viejitas (with cinnamon), pan frances (soft rolls).
“Or I carry in boxes (but not the heavy ones). And I watch customers’ cars when they double park, I sweep up, I do whatever I can.”
But the pandemic has changed his routine.
“At Pan Rico Salvadoreno (alla por Geneva), por ejemplo, I would always go in, get my cafecito, sit and talk to everyone before starting to help out. I would spend several hours inside, also serving customers. But now, of course, one, can’t go in and talk and visit: only one person at a time inside the bakeries. Before, we would always talk, the owners and me. About home, about everything, But because of the pandemia, and the masks, no one talks much anymore, people just come in and go out. The owners are busy and distracted. I understand.
“I am used to living alone, but I miss my chats, my cafecitos and talking about my memories. Our memories. There are so many of us who left El Salvador.”
Then he smiles with that Chaplinesque crinkled grin.
“Claro, I long for my country, I long for El Salvador, it’s nice here, it’s nice, but I have such yearnings for home. In this time of the virus, I feel those longings pulling me.”