An old building on the historic Congress Ave. in downtown Tucson, has housed the upscale Penca Restaurant since 2013. Penca is an old Spanish word that, among other definitions, can mean “leaf.” Penca de maguey are leaves from the maguey (also known as agave) that are used as wrappers to cook barbacoa (slowly cooked meats with seasoning). The penca provides support, flavor, and zest to what slowly evolves inside.
It was at the Penca Restaurant that our family gathered one evening for dinner. With the weather beautiful and thoughts of the pandemic still lingering in our minds, we chose to eat outside. From my chair I could glance at the inside bar where customers came and went unaware of me or my personal focus on the newly arrived Chile Relleno resting on my plate. Near the end of our meal my attention shifted away from my spent relleno to an old man entering the bar dressed in hippy style clothing and sporting long unkempt hair. Around his neck was a two-and-a-half-foot long snake. After staring at him and pointing him out to my family, I decided to speak to the old man and find out why he wore a live snake around his neck.
“Excuse me,” I offered as I sat down on the bar chair next to him.
“Hi, yeah, feel free to sit there. My name is Johnny, and who are you?”
I gave him my name, shook his hand, and asked, “What’s the deal with the snake?”
“You mean my two-and-a-half-year-old python, Butterscotch?”
“Python! That snake is a python?” I respond in amazement.
“Yeah, he is a Butterscotch Python. This breed has been known to live up to 70 years and get about eight feet long.”
“What on earth is he doing around your neck?” I inquire.
“Four wars. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Homeless. Lived in a wheelchair for two years. Butterscotch saved me. Not sure where I would be without him. He is a Service Snake. That is the only reason they let me in the bar with him.”
“Well, Johnny, I know full well what a service dog is, but I have never heard of a service snake. A service dog can provide all kinds of services such as physical stability, alerting owners when their blood pressure is low, picking up stuff the owner cannot reach, acting as the ears for a deaf person, and even predicting the onset of a seizure. But what can a python do for you? He doesn’t even have legs. Uh, no offence Butterscotch.”
Johnny smiles and responds, “For starters, if you had gotten here ten minutes earlier you would have seen Butterscotch curl around my glass of beer and pull it closer to me. Then he helps me drink it. Butterscotch loves beer. On the other hand, if I put a cigarette on the bar, he will knock it to the floor. He doesn’t like for me to smoke.”
“You know Johnny, it is obvious you love Butterscotch. But the more interesting question is ‘does he love you?’”
“Let me show you something.” Johnny guides the python to his right cheek. The snake begins to rub his body up and down against Johnny’s cheek. “He does this whenever I ask him to. And even more important, Butterscotch senses when I have an anxiety attack coming on and he moves to my cheek and starts rubbing. He is aware I am in trouble before I know it. I have stress management issues and Butterscotch knows when my emotions are getting out of hand and he calms me with his cheek caress. Butterscotch has saved my life. I know he loves me.”
“You are better, even healed, because of Butterscotch?”
“Yah, I am calmer, more solid in my thinking and feeling, and gaining back physical strength. In fact, I just got married a few months ago. Never would have happened without Butterscotch.”
I thought to myself, Butterscotch is acting as a penca leaf. He holds Johnny together and adds flavor and zest to the uniquely seasoned human being inside the python’s protective cover.
I tell my new friend that my family is about to leave and I need to go. “Thank you for sharing your story with me, Johnny. You okay if I write about you and Butterscotch in an article or a book?”
“Sure. Not a problem. I hope to see you in here again sometime. For now, Butterscotch and I will finish our Budweiser and then head for home. Have a good evening.”
“Goodbye my friend,” I say as I get up from the stool, shake his hand, pat Butterscotch on the head, and walk back outside into my familiar world.
I smile at the grandkids and say to myself, “I too need, maybe not a snake, but a penca in my life to wrap the seasoned changes age slowly brings. I want to hold close and savor the changes and new perspectives aging grants.”
Regardless of its form, perhaps we all need a Butterscotch in our senior years.
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization.
Now Available: THE MOON at the WINDOW
***All royalties from “The Moon at the Window” go to support the work of Smart Strategies for Successful Living.
About the Author: With a sprinkling of exuberance and vitality, Dr. Cobbs is an accomplished author of three books and numerous articles published in different venues throughout his life. Dr. Cobbs’ first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A spiritual approach to Aging (2008), offers a thought-provoking interpretation of the interplay between how to live life with meaningful intentions and the eventuality of coming to terms with death. His second book, Ravenwind (2019) delves into the raven’s role as it relates to Native American myths, legends, and folktales and global history. His reflections on the spirituality of living and dying depicted in his books are threaded throughout the short essays posted on the website for “Smart Strategies for Successful Living” and in his latest book, The Moon at the Window.
Smart Strategies for Successful Living provides an international format for writers to share research, thoughts, and experiences on aging well. One of our writers, Hartzell Cobbs, has compiled and edited articles from the past four years and put them in book form. “The book reveals the thoughts and emotions old age has dealt me” says Hartzell. “I have been surprised by how many aging people have similar experiences to my own.” The book has its genesis in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, and concludes with reflections in the silence of the Arizona desert.
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On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, a special thanks goes to Hartzell Cobbs for his brilliant works as a guest writer and for donating the book royalties from “The Moon at the Window” to us. We greatly treasure his talents and generous support of our website.