This businessman is old school. He believes a man should be dignified, gentlemanly and as well dressed as his job allows. To abide by that rule, he puts on his three-piece suit, carefully knots his tie, combs his hair and then checks the mirror a final time. He has his pride and an image to maintain. He is proud to tell you how important his work is.
He gets into his vehicle and drives from Oceanside to his job site in Encinitas, or one day a week in Carlsbad. His co-workers see him strolling across the parking lot and they know a wide range of things will be taken care of.
He is Placido Camacho, a small man of 64 made taller with a straight back and an uplifted face. His home is a rented room with the bathroom down the hall. His vehicle is a 1997 Isuzu pickup. English is a rock-slid mountain he struggles to climb every day.
He doesn’t worry about the CIA, global warming or where the Chargers will play. He worries whether the old truck will start when he turns the key.
His professional duties are discharged at the fast-food restaurant El Pollo Loco, where his versatility is both prized and praised. He busses tables, cleans restrooms, sweeps floors and chops vegetables. He also fills in at the cash register; not just anyone does that. For 13 years, he has done whatever is needed — and never has to be asked twice.
Placido’s employment earns him $11.50 per hour. He doesn’t complain, because he’d probably do it for less.
But those are just tasks. His real work — his profesión, as he calls it — is serving customers. He brings food to tables and offers a smile as a free “side.” He is the closest you will find to a fast-food maitre d’.
He’s also a teacher, but more on that in a minute.
He passes out churro, the Mexican cinnamon pastry, to children who eat their meals — and even if they don’t, or regardless of whether they’re well-behaved or not. It’s a bluff. Even a half-eaten meal is rewarded. He’s an easy mark with the churros.
“I think about my own kids, and I feel like it’s my kids. I want to make sure they eat. I talk to the kid. I’m all like, ‘OK, you have to eat your food. I have a surprise at the end when you finish your food. Then you can show me the plate.”
He even gives me a churro just because I’m sitting there: an older customer who is reasonably well-behaved and who also cleaned his plate, even though he probably shouldn’t have.
That’s how I met him — through a churro, a multicultural sign of goodwill.
Placido was born in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, one of 11 children of a fisherman. The house he was raised in was one large room. Just one. The kitchen and toilet were outside. He was only able to complete the fourth grade.
The only amelioration to those struggles was the presence of even poorer families in the neighborhood. Count your blessings.
When he started his own family, which grew to six children, they lived in relative largess in three rooms with an inside kitchen. The toilet, though, stayed outside.
He worked as a mechanic to support his family. “I used to work Monday to Friday,” he says, “and then on the weekends I used to sell books.”
Were you able to earn enough to keep food on the table?
“It was very hard; we had beans and eggs. We ate meat at least once a week.”
He came north at age 51 to join some of his children who preceded him. His wife remains in Oaxaca. His hope is that she can “get her papers together” and join him.
His daughter was working at El Pollo Loco when he arrived, so he used that connection to get hired. He’s never left.
He says his zeal for a life of service started 20 years ago, when he discovered his spiritual side.
“I start reading the Bible and I feel like I become more like a gentleman. It make me become a better person than the person that I was before.”
Placido is not a man with great entertainment demands. He says, “When I'm not at work, I like to sing and play with my guitar. I sing for God, and I also go to church.”
The best part of his day is making kids happy. Maybe it goes back to the poverty of Oaxaca when churros were dear.
“A lot of the mothers that come with the kids, and they go like, ‘Oh, Placido, thank you so much. My kids are like grown-up and healthy because you make them eat when we used to come here.’”
Bella Tijero, his assistant manager, says if Placido has a day off, she’s witnessed children who come to the restaurant expecting to see him but then break into tears.
Moist eyes also happen to Placido when he describes a mother who comes into the restaurant with her special-needs child on Saturdays. The child looks forward to seeing him, and he the child. As he describes the hug he receives, his voice catches and he pauses and lowers his face as though to say grown men aren’t supposed to show that emotion.
Yeah, Placido, I think they should, for the right purpose. It’s a manly thing.
Placido is not a simple man, because there is no such thing. Rather, he is a poor man and a proud man. Those are not complementary, but neither are they contradictory.
If I were teaching a career-preparation course in college, I would certainly bring into class the CEOs, the CFOs and all those other C dudes. But I’d also bring in Placido to tell students things about the meaning of work that aren’t in the syllabus.
Placido’s story is as modest as he. It’s about the pleasure of giving a churro to a child. It’s about a humble man being a rich man.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org