“Do you know what a New York minute is?” the restaurant manager asked David condescendingly. Before David could even answer the question, the manager had already sized David up and decided that he was unfit for the job as a waiter in his busy New York City restaurant. It didn’t matter that David had extensive experience working at bustling Parisian brasseries or that he spoke three languages. The manager wasn’t convinced with David. He had made up his mind… in less than a New York minute.
It seemed cruel at the time, but the manager may have been right. That’s how fast-paced is this world. That’s how fast paced is this life. And there’s no slowing it down.
In August, Pepe, our hippy, chess-playing landlord, surprised us when he started ordering non-alcoholic beer. He had gone swimming and, ever since then, had been experiencing pain in his back. The medicine that he was on couldn’t be combined with alcohol – hence the non-alcoholic beer. Weeks passed and the pain didn’t go away. In September, I got a call from Sandra, his wife. Pepe was in the hospital. They had found a tumor. Days later, they diagnosed it as malignant and started chemotherapy. Less than a week later, on September 18th, when he was only 67 years old, he passed away. There had been no time to say goodbye. His departure had happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly.
The news came as a major blow for David and me. Over the years, Pepe had almost become almost a father figure. He had been such an integral part of our time in Altea and with AlteArte. I remember the countless days in the very beginning when we would hear him cursing upstairs as he would play his rapid-fire chess games on the desktop computer that we used to have on the second level. After we removed the computer due to the fact that most people bring their own devices, he would still come in for frequent visits in the afternoon. But, instead of playing chess on the computer, he would pull out a chess board and play a game with Javi, the artist, if he so happened to be there. And if there was no one to play with, he would talk about chess, giving us reports about the latest tournament that he had competed in. One day, he shared with us how he was so lost in thought returning from a tournament that he drove straight into the middle of a roundabout. The car was banged up, but Pepe was fine.
In the beginning, we would share with Pepe the problems that we were having with the building, hopeful that he would offer his help. Having built AlteArte with the help of his son, he knew all of its nooks and crannies, so there was no better person to ask. However, we soon learned that, true to his hippy nature, he would simply dismiss our concerns or make us feel silly for even complaining to him. When we told him about the water damage due to a broken pipe in the street, he quickly trumped our story with his own and proceeded to tell us about how, once, the first floor got so flooded that he had had to drill a hole in the opposite wall to get the water out. Eventually, we stopped telling him about the problems and just took care of them instead. Many an afternoon, he would share stories of his wild past while occasionally requesting a Bob Dylan or Pink Floyd song. And, every Summer, we would joke about meeting up at the beach, though we both knew that it would never happen since he was a true Spaniard and would purposely avoid the sun while I work too much during the high season that I have little time for beach outings. In the last year, he raved about his new granddaughter and shared with me how he wanted to have a special bond with her. Most likely, he couldn’t wait for her to grow up enough so that he could teach her how to play his favorite game. And, in those last several months of his life, he talked to me almost daily about when David and I were going to have kids. And, when I shared with him that we wanted to have kids but divulged that it just wasn’t happening, he pushed me to do something because life is short.
We entered the funeral home as quietly and as respectfully as we could. And, as we took our seats just rows behind Pepe’s wife, son and daughter-in-law, I tried to maintain my composure. But when Hotel California started playing softly through the speakers, it was just so Pepe, and I couldn’t hold back the tears. After about 15 minutes of sitting, his son, Benjamin, stood up and thanked us for coming. And, just like that, it was over. It was not superfluous, over the top, or religious. It was efficient and simple – just as Pepe played chess and just as he would have wanted it. We stayed in the room, waiting to pay our respects, and then we exited the funeral home with Sandra, Benjamin and Amparo, Benjamin’s wife. Amparo’s parents were waiting for them in the parking lot with their granddaughter. And as I saw the group of them all crowded around a stroller, in which cradled the nearly one year old baby girl, the beautiful symbolism of that moment hit me, for it truly represented the circle of life. We had just said goodbye to Pepe, who had lived a short but rich life, and we were all heading to see Sandra, his granddaughter, who had entered this life such a short time ago and who had her whole life ahead of her. Too young still to talk or walk, Pepe’s granddaughter probably won’t have any memories of her grandfather, but she had arrived just in time to give her grandfather countless, precious moments during the last year of his life. And as we all turned our attention to her, I realized that she was our bridge to connect the past with the future. In this moment, her presence alone was giving us the strength to face tomorrow.
When I’m at AlteArte, I feel Pepe’s spirit all around me. He was and is such a strong part of this building – as strong as the wooden beams that hold everything up and provide structure and support to AlteArte. It was he who built it with his son, Benjamin. It was he who used to run it as a bar in the 80s with his wife, Sandra. And his presence embraces and comforts me, and I don’t feel that I have to fully say goodbye just yet.
Recently, while brainstorming ideas for things that we could do at AlteArte, I suddenly thought of Peter Mui. Peter Mui was an entrepreneur who I had had the honor to meet when I interviewed him in person during the time that I lived in New York City and worked for Entrepreneur magazine as a staff writer. I remember my nerves as I rode the elevator up to his office to conduct the interview. And I remember my disbelief as we rode the elevator down together at the end of the interview and he suggested that he, David and I have dinner together. We stayed in contact, and, about a month later, he reached out to me and suggested Per Se. Per Se was arguably one of the nicest restaurants in the city. Owned by chef Thomas Keller, it’s located in the Columbus Center Tower and was a place that we had heard of but would have never dared to go to – that is not until Peter Mui suggested it.
We met Peter in the lobby of the restaurant. He had just flown in from somewhere and had come directly from the airport. When we were seated, the waiter welcomed him warmly. Apparently, he was a regular here. We were never shown a menu. The tasting menu was ordered for us and Peter ordered some of the best wines for each course. Here we were dining in one of the most exclusive restaurants, drinking some of the finest wines, and at a table overlooking one of the most amazing cities in the world, yet Peter had no airs about him. He was down-to-earth and asked us questions. He was engaged and interested in talking to us. The whole meal lasted a couple of hours, yet he seemed fine donating so much of his time to us, which shocked me. For a New York City-based businessman, he almost seemed to be unaware of what a New York City minute was! After our second dessert, Peter invited us to tour the wine cellar and kitchen and then we found ourselves in the lobby once more – without ever seeing a check. We parted ways in the lobby. We would never see Peter again. That was in 2008. When we moved to Spain in 2009, I remembered him and his kindness, and I wrote him an email letting him that know that we were here and inviting him should he ever come to Europe. I didn’t hear back, but I didn’t think much of it. He was a busy man after all.
I might not have ever thought to reach out to him again, but then I had my idea for AlteArte. When I couldn’t find his email in my inbox, I switched to Google. It was on his company’s blog that I found the information that brought so many things home to me. In August, 2009, Peter Mui passed away from sudden heart failure. It was just a year after I met him. It was just around the same time as my last email to him. He was only 56 years old.
My interview with Peter and our subsequent dinner at Per Se are etched into my memory as some of the most precious moments that I lived while in New York City. For a man so important, the time that he gave to us was so valuable. Yet, he did it as if we were the important ones! I feel so grateful that our lives crossed in such a special way, for it would have been so easy to have missed that experience altogether.
In January, while David and I were in California spending time with my parents, we received news about one of our dear friends and arguably one of the most colorful and unforgettable people that I have ever had the good fortune to meet. Daniel was larger than life and had filled AlteArte with his booming voice and contagious laughter ever since he had first come to the bar two and a half years ago. He always showered me with compliments and loudly praised me to others yet was quick to get upset when I tried to speak highly of him in return. He was honest and straightforward, and when he didn’t like the pink hat I wore one day, he made sure to let me know. He was adamant about what films to show at film club. He was real, he was genuine, and, as much as he enjoyed giving all of us a good show, he was unapologetically authentic.
He brought boundless amounts of energy and life to AlteArte and wholeheartedly took on the role of bringing people together. “He or she is a keeper,” he would turn to me, and I would nod my head in approval. Together, we would joke about adopting people, about embracing and welcoming people into our AlteArte family. In reality, I think he was ready to adopt anyone and everyone, for he saw beauty in every person who entered. And he was so intelligent, as he talked to me about books and music and movies – even when I was busy doing a thousand other things.
He lived large, but, at only 41 years old, Daniel passed away in his sleep. His heart had given out. Apparently, he lived too large for even his own body. Sunday, February 26th, was his birthday. He would have turned 42. Friends from Norway had planned to surprise him for his birthday. Instead, they came to remember him. Daniel wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad, so, amidst tears, we celebrated him. And I marveled at all these people who were colorful and beautiful just like him. Even in his passing, he continued to bring people together. And that was beautiful. And just as Daniel would have wanted.
The New York City restaurant manager was right in asking about whether David knew what a New York City minute is because life happens in a flash. But he was wrong about being so quick to size people up. In being so hasty to make a judgement, he most likely has overlooked a lot of great talent. You can’t be in such a rush that you are alive but don’t truly live life. I had the pleasure of spending hours listening to Pepe reminisce about the full life that he had lived. I only spent several hours total with Peter, but I can pretty confidently say that, though his time in years might have been short, he lived his life to the fullest. And I can truly say that my life is richer having known Daniel. He taught me how to live when he was alive, and he continues to teach me how to live. Every moment is precious. Our time on this earth is limited.
Life passes in a New York City minute. It is up to each of us to grab on to that minute and make each and every second count – to live passionately, to give generously, to be different, to reach out to others, to embrace life, to live consciously.