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Unsung Heroes

By Marty Nemko

Among the people I most respect are employees who do a good job despite low salary and no status. My wife Barbara and I took a little vacation last week in Monterey County and ran into four such people.

We had gotten lost trying to find a movie theater in Salinas (Go see Identity a mind-bending whodunit) so we arrived too late. We decided to wait until the next showing. What to do for an hour? We popped into Macy’s, browsed around, and found something we could waste money on: a featherbed. There were five kinds, all of which seemed to have the same specifications: 11 pounds, 95% white feathers, 5% down. Yet their prices varied from $80 to $190. To the rescue came salesclerk Elliott Cordoba, the last guy on the planet one would think would be a featherbed cognoscenti—he was a 20ish macho-looking dude wearing the half-inch wide chain popular among gangbangers. He expertly explained that cheap featherbeds have large feathers whose spines can be annoying. They’re also covered in a slightly scratchy fabric. But he revealed, “The truth is, all you need to do is cover the featherbed with a nice sheet, and you won’t feel any difference between the $80 and the $190 bed—and, even better, that the $80 one will be going on sale in two days for $49 and that he’d be happy to hold it for us and ship it when the price comes down. Elliott Cordoba: unsung hero.

The movie was over and we stopped at my favorite kind of restaurant: a well-patronized hole-in-the-wall, Rosita’s Armory Café. Although it was 9:45 PM and the streets were empty, the restaurant was half-full. No surprise: an order of three (!) burritos with rice and beans and homemade chips and salsa was $6.95. But could the food be edible? After we started eating, a tired-looking woman, Carmen Juarez, sitting at the counter asked us how we liked it. “Delicious and so fresh tasting!” She beamed: “Everything is fresh,” explaining that she is the restaurant’s owner and main chef. She went on to say she works 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, arriving at 7 AM to start making the salsas. She said she hasn’t had a vacation in 6 years because when she tried to hire people, “No one made the food quite right. And my customers can tell.” Carmen Juarez is an unsung hero.

We’re too cheap to stay at fancy places, but we like visiting them, so we drove down to Big Sur’s Ventana Inn, where rooms go from $400-$1,000 a night. We passed Maria Serrano a 55ish woman in a housekeeper’s uniform, pushing a heavy cart filled with bedding, towels, etc. “How do you like working here?” She said she liked it but she said it hesitantly. “But what?” I asked. “People pay a lot of money to stay here. I have to be perfect or I’m afraid they’ll complain and, who knows, maybe I’d get fired.” “How long have you been working here?”, I asked. She replied, “26 years.” Maria Serrano is an unsung hero.

At the offices of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Barbara and I got to watch Stephany Benchener in action. She was the receptionist. “Hello, Monterey Bay Aquarium.” “Oh, I’m sorry you’re lost. It’s just one more exit on Highway One. Then follow the brown signs to the aquarium.” She said it with the enthusiasm of someone who was giving directions for the first time, rather than the thousandth. It was then our turn. I wanted to meet with a fish husbander—I thought that would be an unsung hero—someone who played Barry White music for courting fish. But before I could ask Stephanie how to find a fish husbander, Barbara said, “Forget about the fish matchmaker. Stephanie is your story.” As usual, my response: “Yes, dear.”

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