I'm in the middle of cashiering a transaction, during the lunch rush, and on the verge of being profoundly annoyed when this weird old man appears behind my counter.
"Please, finish whatever you need to. I just had a question," he says.
He says he would like to put the bill for a group of Johns Hopkins University anthropology students that are about to have lunch at the cafe on his card, and my face suddenly grows hot with recognition: This weird old man is Sidney Mintz, a world renowned author and educator, who helped found the anthropology department at Johns Hopkins University in 1975.
Mintz's most famous book, 1985's "Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar In Modern History," is a historical narrative of the global rise of sugar, told through its significance within human relationships. Part of a fundamental group of texts for anthropological theory, "Sweetness and Power" had an unprecedented reach across nearly all of the social sciences. He saw commodities like sugar as possessing symbolic meaning and used the cultural significance of a product, in its treacherous journey from raw to refined, to give a bottom-up account of globalization and colonization. Through everyday objects, we all become purveyors of history. The premise ignited my, and countless others', obsession with the material. His other work included an incredibly humanizing ethnography, "Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History," and examinations of slavery and its impacts in "Caribbean Transformations," as well as the U.S.-focused "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past."
When I hand him back his credit card, I burst out with a series of incoherent sentences embarrassingly similar to the ones I uttered upon meeting my teenage music idol. He laughs and tells me it is always great to meet fellow anthropologists, and his light-hearted sincerity has me near tears as I look down at my stained restaurant clogs. I feel at once the same pang of shame that slides through every time someone asks me what I'm going to do with my degree and a kind of strange elation that a person I admire so much is referring to me as, somewhat, his equal. After his lunch, he makes a point to come back to thank me and invites me to a lecture series the department puts on.
This whole encounter, while extremely pleasant, flings me further into another chapter of an endless crisis of what exactly am I "doing with my life." I didn't want to be an anthropologist any more than I wanted to be a barista. I didn't want to be anything really. I don't go to any lectures. Food service had set me into a pattern of exhaustion I knew to be my only inheritance. I had tried to escape it with higher education, but we failed each other.
The second time I meet Sid he is sitting in the building's shared dining area after my cafe has closed, waiting as people are setting up for what I gather is some JHU history event. I'm wiping tables, watching him like a cat, cautiously making my way over for a chance to say hello. When I do, he cuts me off mid-reintroduction and says, "Of course, I remember you, you're the anthropologist who works here." We get to talking, we wish each other a happy May Day, and he sings a labor song I don't recognize. He tells me his mother was an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World in 1901, and I share my own organizing attempts with him. I overindulge my time and explain the specifics of my mid-20s life crisis and he politely shrugs away people who interrupt our conversation. He gives me all of his attention. We discuss without too much detail a certain academic department's apparent contempt for manual labor. I mention conversations about Marxism that I would overhear while making coffee for academics that, in all their class analysis, never consider giving their barista a tip. His thoughtful criticism of others feels validating, but I get the idea if we were better acquainted, he would not spare me similar challenges.
He asks me, slightly out of context, if I write. I tell him I write poetry sometimes and he says, "A very good friend of mine used to write poetry under a pseudonym. Perhaps you're familiar with her: Ruth Benedict?" I shed a layer of myself. He suggests I try to pursue creative writing or journalism. This doesn't make sense to me, but I thank him for the advice and realize I have neglected the rest of my closing duties.
We do not meet again. I put off taking any of Sid's advice until, coincidentally, shortly before he died on Dec. 26, 2015, from an injury sustained during a fall. The loss resonates deeply within Baltimore by those fortunate enough to have known him personally. In academia and the anthropological community, I am sure the loss is felt similarly, as Sid's professional work absolutely reflected his character. He sought out people that others, blinded by an imbalance of power, could not see—in the sugar cane field, in the factory, in the kitchen. He remembered their names, asked them their stories with the intent to elevate their voices, and he gave them the same graceful consideration he lent me after stepping behind my counter.
My experience with Sid was not unique. I believe he had a talent for creating a space in which marginalized people were able to feel important, because he knew they were, and that is a rare magic I pray does not disappear with the sudden halt of his practice.