Freddie Cruz is not so much a character as a Wesleyan institution. Working the cash register during Late Night every weekday night, he has seen and gotten to know every student who walks into Usdan Marketplace between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. In exchange, the regular customers come to know Cruz, call him by his first name, joke around with him, and sometimes even write songs in his honor.
Having worked at the University for eight years, Cruz has manned every inch of food services, watched students graduate, and seen old buildings destroyed and new ones built. And every night, he finds something rewarding in his card-swiping interactions.
Cruz arrived at Wesleyan in 2005 after hearing from his nephew about an opening in the vegan section of the now-closed McConaughy Dining Hall. Tired of his job as executive chef of The Village at South Farms, a senior living community in Middletown, Cruz decided to join his nephew working at the University.
“It’s a very good union job with great benefits,” Cruz said. “I’ve been blessed with that. And the pay was right.”
Although he began in the vegan section, Cruz’s food allegiance lies elsewhere.
“I love doing Classics,” he said. “Classics is like the main dinner. That’s where you’ve got your meat, your potatoes, and your starch. It’s a challenge cooking for 750 kids, sometimes 1000. That’s what I like—a little challenge.”
For Cruz, the simple things can turn out to be the most satisfying.
“For some reason, I like making a good meatloaf with homemade mashed potatoes and corn,” he said. “It sounds basic, but if you make it right, you gotta put a little love into it.”
Cruz became a mainstay at Late Night four years ago, but he continues to cook throughout his day, which is anywhere from 12 to 16 hours long.
“I’m doing pasta, pizza, vegan, you know, grill, grab-and-go, whatever comes up,” Cruz said.
The cashier gig at Late Night, which ends at 1 a.m., brings with it the opportunity to interact directly with students. That, Cruz feels, is the main perk of the job.
“I got a lot of regulars,” he said. “I probably got, guaranteed, a good 45 percent of them that come at least five or six days a week. Their thing with me is they challenge me to remember what they always get, and I’m pretty good at it, they say.”
Of course, Cruz added, the more popular menu items are easy to predict: chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, and breakfast sandwiches.
Despite the late hours, Cruz finds that he rarely has problems with student behavior. Only a few times in his four years has he needed to ask people to leave, and his positive reputation with the students means that they listen to him when he does have to speak more firmly.
“I like joking around with them, and I try to take care of them when they need help,” Cruz said. “They know when I’m serious.”
Cruz usually comes off as highly approachable; as a result, students develop their own rapport with him. Sitting at a table in the Marketplace, he interacts with multiple students who come over to say hi, give him a high five, or shout to him from across the room.
“I can guarantee everyone in this room knows my name,” Cruz said. “I’m very well known to be joking around a lot with the students, all in fun—that’s what we do.”
Cruz’s regulars talk to him about everything from his everyday life (hobbies of choice: caring for his fish tank and frequenting the Wesleyan men’s basketball games) to his love for driving around town (car of choice: BMW 328i) to his extensive travels (destination of choice: Florida).
During the academic year, Cruz maintains close ties with his Late Night customers. Once school is out, however, he takes a red eye flight to some place warm.
“When we break, I’m out of state somewhere,” Cruz said. “Very rarely do I stick around.”
Every November, Cruz and his entire family vacation together in the Caribbean. In the summer, Cruz hops in his car and roadtrips down to visit his family and friends in Tampa and Hallandale Beach. He takes his time doing so, stopping to visit family in New York and staying the night with other relatives in New Jersey.
“When I travel, I don’t travel Point A to Point B because I got a destination and I got a timing,” Cruz said. “I just get in my car, pack my bag, that’s it, I hit the road. I get there when I get there. It’s not really a priority thing, it’s just a matter of meeting people and enjoying them as I go along.”
Wherever Cruz finds himself, he values his relationship with each individual person. His favorite part of Late Night is making students smile every single night. As an example, Cruz motions to a girl at a table on the other side of the Marketplace.
“She came into Late Night, and she seemed a little upset, and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and she said, ‘There were no bananas today,’” he said. “And I said, ‘Did you bother asking anybody?’ ‘No, it’s usually out there. If it’s not there I assume they don’t have any.’ So I looked in back, and there happened to be a bunch of bananas. I grabbed her a couple and came in here and gave her them, and she was happy about it.”
Cruz paused for a moment.
“This happened yesterday, and when she came in today, she thanked me,” he said. “That’s rewarding. You do the little things for them, and they appreciate it. That’s why I like doing it.”
We could all stand to take a leaf out of Cruz’s book: put a little love into the things you do, and they’ll come out just right.