“The show never stops.”
Those were the first words Alex said to me during an interview with him, moments before he officially retired from Meals on Wheels San Francisco. I couldn’t have summarized his distinguished 30-year career as a driver any better.
He vividly remembers the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. “People were very nervous. The Marina District was the worst. Most of the buildings were broken.” He also recalled the uprising that followed the Rodney King trial in 1992; and the massive flooding that drenched the city after the heavy rains during the winter of 2010. Through all of these calamities – both natural and manmade – Alex canvassed the city of San Francisco, making sure he never missed a beat (or a turn). No earthquake, flood, or riot would keep him from delivering chilled and hot meals to homebound seniors.
In his 30 years as a driver, Alex was on the front lines of major changes for MOWSF.
“I got the first hot meal route” he recalled, chuckling as he tried to remember the details, some of which get a little fuzzy over time. “It was mostly downtown, South Van Ness, part of the Mission. Not much at first. There were no more than twenty, twenty-five deliveries. Today, there’s sixty to seventy.” He was thinking back to January of 1988, just over a year after he started. Since then, MOWSF has grown from delivering 100,000 meals a year to over 1.6 million meals in 2015.
Like our home delivered meal routes, Alex’s path to MOWSF was not a linear one. For years, he worked as a pianist on cruise ships, entertaining hordes of dancing and drinking passengers from the Port of New York City to the southern tip of Argentina. On one of his last trips, he recalled, “I got a gig from New York all the way to South America and back. And then there was no more.” “Why no more?” I asked Alex. “Because I was sick and tired of that job.”
Lucky for MOWSF, Alex traded his sea legs for land legs. And boy did he use those land legs! Based on some back-of-the-napkin calculations, our Home Delivered Meals department estimates he drove 300,000 miles in his career. That’s like driving across the country 100 times, with lots of stops along the way.
After recounting many changes to his routes over the past 30 years, Alex recalled other sentimental memories. He was holding a note from one of his longest-served clients, relishing the feeling that he made such a profound impact on her over the years. “Most of these clients live alone,” he explained. “So they are waiting for the time you come there.”
Memories of our clients – especially those who live alone – stirred up memories of his own parents, immigrants to San Francisco in the early 1980s from wartorn El Salvador. “In my culture in Latin America, we have to keep our parents with us. I see my father take care of his mother and father. Same thing with my mother. I did the same with my parents. No one forced me to do that. I think it’s part of my responsibility as a son.”
As life goes on for Meals on Wheels, so it goes on for Alex. He’s eager to get back in to a routine of exercise, taking care of his health, traveling to El Salvador, and enjoying some well-deserved leisure time. But life after retirement is a big adjustment. “The first week, it was hard. The day of the Christmas party, I felt sad. I still miss my friends here.” He waxed poetic about his years at MOWSF, and the significant role it played in his life. “I see Meals on Wheels as an extension of my house. I’ve got very very strong feelings about Meals on Wheels. It is part of my life.”
As the years roll by, the ups and downs of life don’t seem so bad. He looks back with little regret. “We have a few hard times here, but nothing to worry. Most of the time was happy.”
While the show does go on, the people who make up Meals on Wheels San Francisco stay with us; in the meals served, the miles logged, and the friendships made. Alex summed this up best when he offered his own parting advice to his friends from MOWSF: “When you are old, you need more to be around people who really love you and who take care of you.”
Advice he readily dispensed during his tenure at Meals on Wheels.
Meals on Wheels remembers Carlos Alex Henriquez and his 30 years of service to the seniors of San Francisco with love and gratitude.