I absolutely hate it when restaurants sing Happy Birthday to costumers.
It might have begun when I turned eighteen and my friends sang Happy Birthday to me seven times in public places.
I see that it’s a nice gesture and yipee they usually give you free cake, but it’s annoying when you are eating and having a pleasant conversation and suddenly a group of employees comes out screeching and they clap so hard when they sing. I always wonder if they think other people will begin clapping too if they do it hard enough, and no, I’m way too busy trying to share with my table that “the mariquitas are REALLY TASTY! NO, TASTY! TAS. TY! Screw it, I’ll eat them all and tell you after there’s none left for you.”
Back in May my mother’s family decided to gather for a belated birthday lunch, my birthday is in March and they tried for endless weeks to schedule an afternoon with me but (and I’m grateful for this) I had a lot going on and kept telling my grandmother that I couldn’t. I turned down my grandma, if burn in hell I won’t have to ask why. So one Sunday I was informed that I was to be at Metropol Restaurant at a certain time, presentable and cheery to celebrate my birthday. It was very a la Emily Gilmore.
We had a lovely time, we ate fabulous food and we laughed a lot remembering that time when grandma and grandpa took their youngest son to a “witch” (he almost died, my uncle, they had taken him to the best doctors in the island and no progress had been observed. I don’t blame them, they didn’t had MRI’s back then.) and he is very content with this but his older brother is still freaked out by black birds. (Apparently the witch used one of this in the procedure. And in case you wonder, yes, my uncle was cured, my grandma prayed a lot to Baby Jesus.)
My father couldn’t be there, but when it was desert time a lot of people came out of the kitchen and a crazy amount of plates was set on the table as they began singing Happy Birthday. In Spanish. (I think it’s ironic, generally Happy Birthday is sang in English here. We like our English in public places.) The clapping was horribly loud and my face was burning hot the entire time. Then the manager of the restaurant gave me a cell phone because someone wanted to talk to me. I knew this was my father’s doing because going over the top is his thing (when I was a child I thought he invented over the top), so it could be ANYONE on that phone, Obama, Elvis; but when I said hello into the stranger’s cell phone father’s voice came out very crisp “hello baby, I love you. God bless you.”
He arranged for all their deserts to be served in our table, hence the 500 plates that were scattered in front of us, and they had to bake a chocolate cake not available on the menu for me. They put a candle on it.
It wasn’t as horrible as it could have been, I mean, at least it wasn’t an orchestra. So I made a truce with Happy Birthday. And then the other night I was having dinner at a place, it’s called Raíces (Roots), it’s right in the middle of Old San Juan but they decorated everything as if it was in the middle of the island, they dress like people did centuries ago and basically they try to recreate what it was like to eat somewhere circa 1940’s.
When they sing Happy Birthday, this happens. (click up there!)
The percussion you hear is panderos, from our native music of plena. Slaves brought those sounds to the island, they sang plena to liberate their feelings about their masters without their knowing, to communicate messages and also to have fun.
I decided to take out my camera and share with you the kind of Puerto Rican Happy Birthday that would make me dance instead of cringe. I’m sorry I zoom in at the beginning because there’s an audio gap, but it’s tiny, please clap your hands through it, you won’t even notice.