By Ruby Contreras
I will never forget the smell of her Oscar De La Renta perfume in the morning as I watched her unroll her hair and tease it out with a pick comb. She’d then seal her bright red curls with some Rave hairspray and put on the brightest colored lipsticks she’d buy from customers who sold Avon. I loved being in her comfy bed watching her tie her hand-sewn apron around her neatly starched uniform. No matter if it was a Mexican blouse, or hot pink Polo shirt, she always dressed it up with gold shrimp earrings and big flowers in her hair. We’d then walk a few blocks down Buena Vista Street. She’d hold my hand as I balanced myself on the curbs of people’s yards. I knew we were getting close when I’d start to smell the flowers from a Texas Mountain Laurel tree planted next door. This was an everyday thing, with the exception of her one day off, each summer.
Every day she’d greet everyone on her way in with a smile though some would not greet her back. She’d go straight to the employees’ station, check the schedule she’d made, and make sure everyone was there doing what they were supposed to be doing. As a child, I sometimes dreaded having to sit there all day until my mom got off work, but now as an adult, I realize how much they love me and wanted to make sure I was okay. When I worked there as a teen, there were times I did not make the efforts she did her entire life. I’d show up late and slack off, and when she punished me, I didn’t understand or appreciate it as much as I do now.
I’ve come to realize that if it wasn’t for that job, I along with many of my family and
friends, wouldn’t have gained so much knowledge and experience. It was a good job to start with considering we probably worked harder than we would have at any other restaurant. There were all kinds of people that came, most of which some might call ghetto. But this was OUR neighborhood, and we still managed to learn customer service and how to remain calm with irate people. We learned to clean, to defend ourselves as minorities, to spot a thief, and how to save money. We learned to make the most out of the smallest, ugliest things and stand up for our culture. For me the most important thing I learned was how much deeper this job meant to my grandma and how she built a life out of it.
My grandma, Maria Gloria Ricondo, known to many as “grandma” or “Yaya” worked at the Malt House for over 50 years. Although, she eventually became a manager, she never stopped waitressing. Rain or shine, you’d find her there, between 11am and 5pm. All day on Fridays. She’d come home smelling like fried chicken and salsa. Before she sat down to watch the news, she’d pour herself a “guerita” in a glass. I’d fight to stay awake with her all night, but I couldn’t; and she’d still somehow managed to be up before me each day. I’d wake to the sound of her blow dryer and the smell of coffee. This was every day for her. Every Single Day! She’d do it again and again and rarely complained. She made a life at the Malt House, with no benefits. There was no salary, no bonuses, no paid time off, nothing. Yet, she still managed to become a homeowner, pay bills, buy vehicles, and we never lacked a thing. My mother, me and her other granddaughters are the bold women we are today because of her; because of this. “If you only knew how proud I am,” she’d say as tears welled up in her eyes, “Me, una mojadita de Monterrey. A waitress, raising such beautiful intelligent women. It’s an honor!”
Many may argue and say she was hard on them. Some may even call her mean. But no one but my family and I will ever understand how much she truly cared for her employees and why she pushed them as much as she did. My grandma could not, and still does not, comprehend laziness. She doesn’t understand it because even through her own hardships, she made a living.
My grandma did not have it easy growing up. She crossed over to the U.S. as a child and began working in cotton fields at a very young age. She cared for eight brothers and sisters as a teen and for her own two children as an adult. She lost her son way too soon and an awful divorce followed that. But no matter what life through her way, nothing kept her from work and caring for all of her family.
Many people came and went from the Malt House. There were good days and there were horrible days. Busy and slow. It was open on holidays and closed by the health department for cleaning. People made a living outside soliciting. People dined and dashed. There was always something going on there, but through it all, one thing remained the same, the Malt House was her life and even on the worst days she loved it.
As years past, time took its toll on my grandmother. I noticed it was harder for her to carry out trays to her tables. I noticed her rubbing Bengay on her legs more often. I noticed her withering. But my grandma had so much pride, that she did not want to quit and let go. She pushed herself until she could not push anymore and it was then that I began to resent the Malt House. I couldn’t understand the amount of disrespect she was given after all she did and sacrificed. I couldn’t believe how people treated her and mocked her for not being as fast as she was 50 years ago. Most of all, I could not wrap my finger around the fact that after decades of being there and years of sweat, blood, and tears, her reliability, loyalty and soul being put into this place, she was left with nothing. No retirement, no goodbye party, no thank you, NOTHING. Not that she needed any of those things, but it still hurt me. I guess the only satisfaction I got was knowing that once she was gone it would crash and burn because no one cared for that place as she did. But now that it is actually happening, and now that I know those walls will be torn down and broken to pieces, I am realizing so is my heart.
I love my grandma so much it’s indescribable. The thought of her leaving this world makes me dizzy and I literally feel my insides crumbling at the thought. I know it’s inevitable, but her love will live forever in me and my memories of her will always be more than vivid. This is why the Malt House being demolished actually breaks my heart. No matter how many bad things happened there, I will always remember the good times. I enjoy passing by there because I picture my grandma in a bright red Mexican blouse, with a flower in her hair, clapping her hands and singing along with mariachis. I taste the fried chicken and fresh-squeezed lemonade. I remember so many things, and in all those things, I see my grandma. I wish they’d leave it there solely for that reason. When she’s gone, I want to be able to see it and picture her in there. I want to be able to go inside and imagine her there, working hard. This place is more than a landmark to me and my family, it’s history. Our childhoods and second home and its everything that made my grandma the amazing woman she is today.
I am not expecting for the City to call off the demolition. I can only hope that some miracle will happen and they do. But, I just want this city to know and hear her story before it’s gone. I don’t remember the bad things when I pass by there anymore regardless if the food was awful, as some might say, and there were rodents due to the owners’ lack of care. Instead, I remember being a child, eating a Fat Boy burger as I watched my grandma hustle to make her living. All I want is for people to know, how much history the Malt House holds for my grandma and most of the Westside neighborhood. These memories of her will live forever and ever within my family and I. She, a single Hispanic woman, deserves this recognition more than anyone I know.