January 6, 2010
Man From Delice
Albert Suissa loves coffee. In the 1930s, growing up in Casablanca, he would have his coffee with his buddies at the Café Pietine, where he would also play pool for money. Suissa (probably a distant relative — we think my great-grandmother was his father’s niece) was part of the cultural trifecta of being Jewish in Morocco in the middle of the 20th century: equal doses of Jewish, Arab and French influences.
After studying at a Jewish Alliance school, he worked in the transit department at the Casablanca port, where he learned the ins and outs of how to get on ships. Eager for adventure, late one night in 1942 he boarded a clandestine ship to Gibraltar and soon after found work on a French ship run by the British navy. For the next three years he fought in World War II as a mercenary for the British navy, traveling to places like India and North Africa.
He remembers how they would release huge balloons connected to thick cables that would trip up and destroy German warplanes.
In 1947, he joined his five brothers who had gone to Israel from Morocco to fight in the War of Independence. He was a paratrooper on about 20 missions. He and four brothers survived the war. One didn’t.
After the war, he returned to Morocco to comfort his parents who were mourning the loss of their son. But he soon got antsy and headed off to Paris, where he learned industrial design at an ORT trade school. He built refrigerators for several years, and when his company went under he returned again to Casablanca to be with his parents. There he met and married Esther Abergel, but the marriage lasted only six months.
He taught himself another trade — embroidering — and launched a successful business in Casablanca. But he got antsy again and traveled the world for a couple of years before joining a brother in Montreal, Canada, in 1956.
Tired of the harsh winters, he joined another brother in Texas in 1966 and then, six years later, finally made his way to Los Angeles, where he also had siblings and where he has lived ever since. All along, he used his design background and family connections to land odd jobs and make a modest living.
His luck ran out about 10 years ago, when he was in his late 70s and found himself alone, out of work and looking for a place to live. A friend let him stay in a garage for a few years, but this became untenable because the place was too cold and invaded by opossums, which occasionally bit him.
His luck turned again when a neighbor named Maty Baruch befriended him, invited him regularly for dinner and set him up in a guesthouse in the Fairfax district at the home of her best friend, Miriam Fiber.
Five years ago, though, is when he got his real late-life break. For years, he would ride his bicycle to Delice Bakery every morning, have a quick coffee and get a baguette to go. One morning, he decided to eat the baguette inside and stay a little longer. The owner, Julien Bohbot, who’d noticed him every morning, asked him where he was from. After a few minutes of Jewish geography, it turns out Suissa knew Bohbot’s family in Casablanca intimately, and he shared many stories.
They have been virtually inseparable ever since.
Suissa spends most Shabbats at Bohbot’s house, where he enjoys the great food, but more importantly, where he has an audience. According to Bohbot, give Suissa enough mint tea or coffee and he’ll spend the whole afternoon telling one story after another.
I hung out with Suissa at Delice the other day, and I couldn’t stop him. He recalled the smallest details of his life, like the names of the buddies he hung out with 70 years ago at Café Pietine in Casablanca, including the last survivor, Simon Ohana, who passed away six months ago in Paris.
Today, you can walk into Delice any morning and see an 88-year-old man, named Albert Suissa, wearing a beret and looking busy. He’s not an official employee, but he might as well be. He prepares boxes for the pastries and refills the coffee urns. Mostly, he hangs out and chats with whoever’s in the mood.
He can’t read anymore, so he’s lost his favorite pastime — buying geography and history books at flea markets and learning about the world.
Still, he hasn’t lost his talent for drinking coffee and socializing. He says he can’t remember a day in his life — whether on a British warship, in the Israeli desert or in the slums of Calcutta — when he didn’t wake up to a cup of coffee.
Some of the coffees were better than others, as were some of the days. He knows that nothing can ever replace those heady days in the 1930s in Café Pietine, when he knew everyone and everyone knew him. But coming home to Delice Bakery every morning, and knowing he might have an audience for his stories, gives him enough reason to keep going.