“Sign from the Universe” from May I Be Frank
Categories: Excerpt Food & Nutrition
At fifty-four years old, Frank Ferrante was sick, lonely, and lost. A former addict, Frank’s host of medical issues was rivaled only by his long list of failed relationships. One night, almost by accident, Frank found himself in a Café Gratitude looking for a cup of coffee. What he got instead changed his life forever…
This excerpt is from the first chapter of May I Be Frank: How I Changed My Ways, Lost 100 Pounds, and Found Love Again.
Tags: Biography & Memoir Vegetarian & Vegan Frank Ferrante
Sign from the Universe
My New Age friends inspired by spiritual leanings remind me to be present to the “signs” offered up by the Universe. I politely nod in agreement as my mind churns out disclaimers: Yeah, right! What the hell is the “Universe” anyway besides trillions of stars? Send me a memo when you find out. Even though I voluntarily took up residence in San Francisco, I harbored deep skepticism about all this California dreaming.
Why would a blue-collar Sicilian guy from Brooklyn live in San Francisco, of all places? The reason was professional—in 2005 I was accepted into the humanities graduate program at San Francisco State, an achievement of particular importance since I waited until the age of fifty to get a high school diploma. I should have gotten it sooner, but I was “busy.”
One day I received a call from my cousin Michelangelo (yes, that’s his real name, and no, he’s not a ninja turtle) who told me he was ill and out of sorts. Before going to see him, I drove to Le Video, a video store specializing in foreign films located in the Inner Sunset near the intersection of 9th Street and Irving in San Francisco. I thought I’d rent some Italian movies—cheerful neorealism, perhaps—and watch them with my cousin.
In the distance I saw “a sign.” Rather than a metaphor, the Universe, in its infinite wisdom, sent me a sign I could easily comprehend: a well-lit billboard over a restaurant that read “Café Gratitude.”
Gratitude is a central virtue in the 12 Step world; I assumed someone from AA was being cute and clever with the name for a coffee shop. I walked toward this Café Gratitude anticipating a clientele of recovering addicts and alcoholics. I was about to tumble down a rabbit hole that would change the direction of my life—it was one of those moments when going left instead of right would have altered me forever.
It was a gloomy February night in San Francisco. The sidewalks and streets glistened from the dampness. The fog hung in the air like a dreary gray curtain. The atmosphere reflected my dismal internal landscape. I was reaping the rewards of my many years of hard living—weighing three hundred pounds and feeling unimaginably lonely. So lonely in fact, I sometimes rang my own doorbell to hear what a visitor would sound like. My relationships were toxic because I was toxic. I felt lost and discon- nected from everything. I was filled with self-loathing. I felt like I was dying.
I stood in front of the café and peered through the large store- front window. The place was warmly lit with only a few people inside. Hemingway’s “A Well-Lighted Place” came to mind. Standing on the other side of a large front window, a pretty young woman with an olive complexion and two long auburn braids—she looked like Pocahontas—smiled brightly and innocently as if to say, “It is okay, you can come in. It’s safe here.” For a moment, she reminded me of my daughter.
I sucked in my gut and opened the door, jangling a little bell. I was met with a barrage of hearty salutations from the young staff. “Hi! Welcome! C’mon in! Glad you’re here!” For a lonely guy like me it was like hearing eighteen years of greetings in ten seconds. I walked up to a smiling twenty-something hipster, shook hands with him, and said, “Hey man, I had to get a cup of coffee at Café Gratitude. I figure somebody here is in recovery.” He looked back at me and said, “We’re all recovering from something . . . aren’t we?”
I immediately knew he wasn’t in recovery and assumed he had just smoked a joint before coming to work. As I looked around, I noticed the absence of an espresso machine. What, no coffee in this place? Not to mention no recovering boozers or dope fiends. There wasn’t even a stove. It didn’t look like any restaurant I had ever seen or would have normally entered. Ryland, my twenty-something waiter and host, noticed the perplexed look on my face. “We’re a raw food, vegan restaurant,” he explained. “We just opened a few months ago.”
My first thought was, Raw food! How do you cook that? Up until that time, I thought vegan was a planet. I was convinced that humans were born to eat cooked meat; I was also deeply committed to raspberry white truffle cheesecake and fried chicken—a dietary relationship which announced itself through my waistline.
Despite my confusion about the menu (I couldn’t decipher the entrée items as each went by an affirmation such as the “I Am Healthy” green juice), the café was a radiant wonderland filled with happy, shiny-looking young people. I am by nature an extrovert who can be comfortable in most situations—if I’m not depressed or bored. I was also a hippie in my youth. Yet around this crowd I felt like a cross between Richard Nixon and Don Rickles. “This isn’t just a restaurant. It’s a school of transformation,” said Ryland. And I found myself thinking, This really nice kid is in his hippie phase of life. I don’t buy anything he’s saying, but it’s a refreshing perspective.
Even though I was fat enough to cause an eclipse of the sun, I felt unseen. But these young New Age types made me feel comfortable, wanted, and visible. I felt a kindness and a sincere welcoming spirit here. So I started frequenting the place. It certainly wasn’t about the food. I may have eaten a salad or two of sprouts, after which I’d march out to find the nearest Indian buffet and gorge myself—I needed more than leaves to get around, or so I thought.
Another part of my being needed nurturing just as much as my body. These bright, shiny young idealists were stirring it. My soul was crying out for connection, and my heart was yearning for love. That first night, unbeknownst to me, I found both.
To generate meaningful conversation, the staff at Café Gratitude pose to customers a “Question of the Day.” When Ryland asked me, “What do you want to do before you die?” I responded without hesitation: “I want to fall in love one more time, but I don’t think anyone will love me with this body.” Ryland leaned closer. “Frankie, want to do something about it? Would you like to be part of an experiment?”
That word “experiment” captured my full attention. What do you want me to be? A guinea pig? I guess we’re all guinea pigs in our own life experiments anyway, so what the hell!
“Let us become your transformational cheerleaders?”
“What do you mean?” I was both intrigued and suspicious. Are they cheerleaders for a cult group, and am I being recruited?
“You come in here, and you eat this food,” he said, “and you allow us to be your transformational cheerleaders so that you can shed whatever you’re carrying: the shame, the weight, the discontent, and really love yourself so that someone else can love you. And we’ll film everything.”
I was getting high counsel and an offer of help from an idealistic twenty-year-old. I was old enough to be his father, but I was already surrounded by twenty-something students in graduate school, so some kind of co-generational karma was already at work in my life. Psychologists claim that practicing addicts are in a state of arrested development, and that their emotional growth stagnates at the age they become addicts. Maybe I was staring my own emotional timeline in the face.
Ryland later confessed that he saw me as this fat, sometimes obnoxious Italian from Brooklyn who can be endearing when I want to be. Maybe he thought I was a challenge, a project worth undertaking, and not as hopeless as I thought I was. What do I have to lose except maybe some weight?
Besides the weight problem, I suffered from a slew of issues, my legacy as an ex-junkie and alcoholic: hepatitis C, chronic fatigue, joint pain, severe depression, and a libido that was all but a distant memory. I was taking a daily fistful of prescribed meds to help me feel better. Instead, I felt like death warmed-over, I was afraid I might live. Like millions of people, I had issues. Mine brought me eye to eye with the Angel of Death.
At that time, I was an unemployed, full-time student working on my master’s in humanities. I struggled to keep pace with the youngsters who surrounded me in class. Grants or student loans were my source of income. I frequently woke up with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse trampling the inside of my head. At fifty-four years old, I felt like the least likely candidate for a major personal transformation.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I blurted, even though I was thinking, What is this going to cost me? I don’t have a clue what I am agreeing to, but I don’t think it will hurt me. If I don’t like what comes up, I can always get in the wind.
There is no logic as to why I verbally agreed to something so open-ended, except that I had quickly grown to trust this young man. I figured I’d drink some wheatgrass, eat some nuclear-powered rabbit food, lose some weight, and then move on.
Little did I know. . . .