The Mayor of Mozart Park
By David Abel | Globe Staff | May 20, 2007
The man in the black hat and plastic gloves has the kind of toothy grin of a mayor milling about his constituents.
Over the past 17 years, Manuel "Madego" Debrand has built a loyal following, slapping backs and kissing babies. But instead of a red tie, he wears a red apron; instead of patronage, he dispenses plastic cups of flavored ices, deep-fried pastelitos, and a helping of avuncular wisdom.
Still, the 58-year-old from the Dominican Republic, who heralds the end of winter by wheeling an old cart out of his red- and white-striped van to a corner of Mozart Park, curries a certain influence as one of the few licensed street vendors in Jamaica Plain.
"They call me the eyes and ears of the neighborhood," he says in a Spanish that echoes the Dominican accent of nearly all of his clients.
As he pours tamarind syrup over shaved ices and pulls pastelitos from a vat of sizzling oil, Debrand urges kids not to skip school, alerts police and park officials to problems, and kibitzes with anyone who stops by for his $1 treats.
With the steady beat of salsa and bachata pulsing from his boom box, he also transforms what might be an otherwise sleepy corner into a daily fiesta.
This year, however, the party may not carry into the summer.
Next month, the city will begin a $515,000 renovation of Mozart Park, leaving Debrand with little if any room to operate.
"It won't make sense for him to be there with the area under construction," said Mary Hines, a spokeswoman for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, one of several authorities that have issued Debrand a license to sell food in Mozart Park. "I just don't know how he's going to do business; there won't be much room for his clients."
Hines said construction crews will decide whether it's safe for him to operate while they replace concrete with granite cobblestones and install new planters. But she said the city hopes he can stay.
"He's invaluable to us: It's like having our own park partner there every day," Hines said. "Everyone thinks he's a great guy. He's the first to call if there's anything going on that shouldn't, or if there's something that needs to be repaired."
In addition to the parks department, Debrand has permits to sell from Boston's Inspectional Services Department -- which regulates 225 street vendors in the city -- and the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. None has any record of a complaint or violation against Madego's, an acronym he said stands for "Made to Go."
Debrand isn't complaining about the renovations that might blunt his business.
"What's good for the community benefits me," he said. "I'm not worried."
Debrand starts his days in Chelsea, where he and his wife have a small restaurant they call Madego's The Great Kitchen.
She helps prepare the pastelitos, cutting the dough, stuffing it with cheese, chicken, or meat, and folding them into turnovers, trays full of them, which they pack into coolers.
They load other coolers with cans of soda and bottled water, chunks of ice for the snow-cone machine, and reserves of corn oil, which Debrand stacks in the back of the pickup truck he takes to JP.
After winter ends, if the weather's nice, he opens nearly every day.
When he arrives at around noon, Madego's is like an ice cream truck at the beach, the salsa and bachata his bell.
Within minutes of opening his green umbrella and switching on the music, there's a line, a steady flow of customers that doesn't ebb until he leaves around dusk.
He won't say how much he earns in a day, but he's proud of not raising his prices -- nearly everything he sells costs a $1 -- since he began coming to Mozart Park.
"Life can be tough, but everyone has a dollar," he said.
He greets those who come for lunch or dinner with "mi vida" (my life), "mi cielo" (my sky), or "mi amor" (my love).
"He's like an uncle," said Juan Fernandez, who owns a nearby barbershop and said Debrand has served him nearly every day for years.
Gladys Rivera, who regularly brings her children to Madego's, said she wouldn't know what to do without him. "He's a part of the family."
Francisco Lizardo, a vice consul from the Dominican Republic who works at the consulate in Boston, said Debrand is a hub for the Dominican community.
"He really is like the mayor of Jamaica Plain," said Lizardo, who also regularly eats at Madego's. "He brings a piece of Santo Domingo here."
If there's a downside to the business, it's all the garbage that litters the neighborhood by the end of the day. But city officials work with Debrand.
On a recent afternoon, Moises Watson, a city worker who helps keep the park clean, gave Debrand several trash bags.
"We need more Madego's," he said. "He doesn't just look after the area; he helps keep the kids straight and sets a good example for them -- that if you work hard, you can succeed."
But Debrand said he doesn't see what he does as work.
With cars passing on Centre Street beeping their horns for Debrand and others parking in a nearby bus stop to grab a snow cone or pastelito, Debrand moves quickly, joking and laughing and offering his opinions while making change.
"This isn't work," he said. "This is a pleasure."
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.