Joe Biden is America’s president. He’s also arguably a “late bloomer”: It took the Delaware senator three tries over three decades to win the race. While Biden is an especially high-profile example, many of us have found ourselves battling, enduring, and even stumbling onto long paths to success. The Inquirer turned to five current and former Philadelphians to share their long-time-coming stories — and selected snippets from three of our readers who also discovered it’s never too late to achieve a goal.
Cristina Martínez: 6 years after a solo border crossing to open her own restaurant
Cristina Martínez is the owner of South Philly Barbacoa and El Compadre.
When it comes to chefs and the paths that lead them to the kitchen, there are some beautiful stories out there. Mine is not in that realm.
I was 40 when I decided to put my life in a backpack, kiss my children goodbye — not knowing I wouldn’t see some of them for a decade — and walk through the desert for a shot at a better life. There is a lot of risk when you head to the U.S.
It’s like walking on a fine thread. You don’t know if it’s going to break, or hold long enough for you to cross. If you make it to the border, you have to face the desert, without food or water.
You can lose hope, but I had courage. I had rage. I had spent two decades in an abusive relationship, being called stupid, told that I wasn’t enough, that I couldn’t do it. At 40, I was ready to show the world who Cristina Martínez is.
I still carry the strength it took to cross that desert in my veins to remind me to be a fighter, create opportunities for people, and leave something good behind.
After almost two months in the country, I found work in a restaurant. Two years in, I was let go with such timing that I was unable to seek work, because of immigration procedures.
When comfort breaks down, you have to change [your] perspective. I ended up at a different restaurant, working 15 hours a day for very little. But it was enough to kindle the idea of starting my own restaurant.
“Just make sure you work for what you want.”
I didn’t know there were government programs that could help and I didn’t speak English, but I was set on making it happen.
Things aren’t easy and people won’t trust in your projects, so wholeheartedly believe in yourself. That is something you learn with age.
In just eight years, life has turned upside down for us, and we have channeled it into giving back to the community, generating jobs people can actually live off of, and doing charity work.
Don’t let that fool you. It was a lot of hard work and push through. Two weeks before the production of Chef’s Table, my 23-year-old son died. My right hand, my sous chef. It was around the time Trump became president. The community was in panic mode; people hid, businesses closed, and customers vanished. The stress was very high and his heart gave out.
He taught me to balance life better. Six months ago I started delegating, but I am still around to show my customers how grateful I am for their support and give back to the community.
In the end, it doesn’t matter when you bloom. Just make sure you work for what you want and, like the lotus flower, you will bloom no matter how putrid the waters.
From a reader: It’s never too late to write your novel
About a week before I retired from a career in health care in December 2019, a coworker commented that I should do something from my bucket list. I immediately replied that I would write a novel. I wondered why I had replied so quickly and with such conviction, as I hadn’t thought about writing a book since my adolescence. I had taken writing courses in high school and considered college and a career in writing, but decided to go to nursing school instead. Until that comment, I hadn’t realized writing a novel was on my bucket list.
In July 2020, at age 63, I published Beneath a Blanket of Snow on Amazon. I have received such wonderful feedback (currently rated 4.7 out of 5) that I am working on my second novel, which I hope to release in spring 2021. Decades after my high school dreams, I am a published author.
— Arlene Lomazoff-Marron, Broomall
Jamie Moyer: 22 years to a World Series
Jamie Moyer was a starting pitcher on the Phillies’ 2008 World Series-winning team and was born in Bucks County. He pitched for 25 years and in 2012 became the oldest player ever to win a Major League game as a pitcher.
Early in my career, when I played for the Texas Rangers, I happened to play with two older gentlemen. One was Charlie Hough, the other Nolan Ryan. At that point in my career, I was still kind of trying to find my way, but what a great opportunity that was for me, to do a lot of watching, and talking, and listening. It was mostly watching them do what they did, and they were able to maintain what they did, and also their effectiveness. So I had that in my late 20s, when they were in their early to mid-40s.
“Being 40-something, and able to be somewhat competitive with those younger kids—it felt good.”
I can honestly tell you — I’d sit and be around those guys, or watch them pitch on the field, and I’d say, “Man, how cool would it be to be able to pitch to that point in time in your life?” Not knowing that I was going to have that opportunity. So I think a little bit of that type of experience did help me — if anything, it didn’t help me throw the ball, but it helped me from the shoulders up. The end-all with all of those people was, they’d say: “Make them take the uniform off you. If you want to play, make them take the uniform off you.”
Once I hit my 30s, I don’t know that I got better. I got smarter, I got wiser. I worked differently. I had to listen to my body differently. As I got older, at the ends of seasons, I learned that my body didn’t recover as well. And so, that forced me to kind of take a step back, and reevaluate things, look at things a little differently, and reach out to different people.
Before I came to Philadelphia in ’06, I was honestly and seriously considering retirement. In August, I get traded to the Phillies [at age 43], and I walk into the clubhouse, not knowing anything of what to expect, and really not knowing anybody. My eyes were opened in an amazing way. I saw a lot of passion. I saw a lot of fire. I saw a lot of grit. I saw a lot of preparation. I saw guys wanting to do something as a team — individually, but wanting to create something as a team. And I saw an organization really trying to, where they could, make that happen. And it was really uplifting.
It kind of opened the door for the last chapter of my career, you could say. And of course, the World Series, and the parade, stand out.
I was the brunt of all the old jokes, which was fine. I enjoyed it. I had kids in college at the time, they were slightly younger than some of my teammates. I had some really young teammates, my last couple years of playing. But being 40-something, and able to be somewhat competitive with those younger kids — it felt good.
On the other side of it, I had many people, and I mean fans, say: “I really love what you’re doing, you’re doing it great. That’s kind of inspired me to work out, or to train.” I had never really looked at it that way. But when I started to hear that, that was kind of a feel-good too. Just because I was playing, and hearing that, it pushed me a little bit more, like: This is fun.
— As told to Stephen Silver
Nina Ahmad: 28 years for a science Ph.D to turn to politics
Nina Ahmad is a first-generation American, scientist, and former deputy mayor for public engagement for the City of Philadelphia. She received her doctorate in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and trained as a postdoctoral fellow in molecular genetics at Thomas Jefferson University.
Reflecting on the over three million votes I received in the 2020 general election for Pennsylvania auditor general, I am struck that this was more votes than trailblazers Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama received in our state in 2016 and 2012. While I did not win that seat, I celebrate the cracks I made in that proverbial glass ceiling — though it is perplexing we have yet to elect a woman of color to a statewide executive office. I am deeply grateful to Pennsylvania voters, especially those in Philadelphia, my hometown, who helped me amass more votes than any woman candidate for statewide office in our history.
“I like to believe I’ve created cracks in politics’ glass ceiling that are now ready to be shattered.”
Many might dismiss this as a failure rather than an achievement since I did not win. But I see this step forward for women candidates as meaningful, particularly as a primer for the next woman of color or nontraditional candidate who has much to offer but must navigate Pennsylvania’s in some ways unwelcoming political landscape.
My journey to become the Democratic nominee for auditor general was unusual: I am an immigrant and scientist with an obviously Muslim last name. Having lived through a bloody war of liberation that resulted in the country of Bangladesh, I was keenly aware of the fragility of democracy. The 2016 election was the wake-up call about this threat in my adopted country.
It was after that election I became convinced: Having diverse representation in the halls of power is critical in shaping policy that opens doors for those who have been historically overlooked. That has been clear from my experience as the first Asian American woman to join the cabinet of any Philadelphia administration, a commissioner on President Obama’s Commission for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and an activist with leadership roles in the National Organization for Women and other organizations.
Coupled with my fear as a scientist of the anti-science bias percolating throughout the country, my desire to uplift seldom-heard voices propelled me to consider political office. After completing my Ph.D. in 1990, I gradually shifted to public service. With no political “godfather or mother,” no easily identifiable voter base, I took up the challenge of running for political office as a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018. I was the last one to enter that scrum making it a five-way race. We had 11 weeks to compete in a field with four of us from vote-rich Southeastern Pennsylvania, plus a lone candidate from Western Pennsylvania who had been campaigning since his loss for a Senate seat in 2016 (and who just announced he’ll run again for Senate in 2022). I came in a respectable second, winning 16 counties.
Rolling up my “persistent” sleeves, I decided to deploy the political capital gained into the 2020 race for auditor general — an office that can be a powerful tool of progressive change as a watchdog of our tax dollars, interrogating how equitably and efficiently they are used. It was a tough race. Six candidates in the hotly contested primary campaigned through a pandemic and civil unrest prompted by police brutality. Pennsylvania also activated mail-in ballot voting for the first time, drastically reducing in-person polling. I was the only candidate from Philadelphia, but Philly’s Democratic City Committee and my former boss, Mayor Jim Kenney, backed the candidate from Allegheny County. Despite my lack of establishment support, I won with over 550,000 votes thanks to a diverse coalition of women, communities of color, organized labor, and progressive and young voters.
The general election was against the Republican opponent who ran unopposed in the primary and got solid support from the Republican Party, which ran a coordinated campaign of row office candidates that resulted in over $1.7 million in campaign expenditures in the AG’s race alone — 2½ times more than I spent in the general. In an election some Pennsylvania Republicans would go on to denounce as “rigged,” many down-ballot Democrats — myself included — lost. I believe that on top of the lack of a coordinated Democratic campaign, no straight-ticket option for in-person voting, and yes, enthusiasm for Donald Trump, xenophobia, misogyny, and Islamophobia led to my loss by 3% points.
I don’t regret running or losing as a nontraditional candidate. I like to believe I’ve created cracks in politics’ glass ceiling that are now ready to be shattered — by myself if I run again, and by others who join me.
From a reader: It’s never too late to get that degree
I graduated from high school in 1969. I graduated from college in 1999, summa cum laude with a degree in business management. High school was Archbishop Wood in Warminster. College was Allentown College, now DeSales University. (Meanwhile, in 1970 I was getting thrown out of La Salle, where I got one A — in the only class I attended.)
— Michael Florian, Bucks County
Jen Leary: 25 years to a bachelor’s degree
Jen Leary is a firefighter and nonprofit founder with a degree in emergency management.
I graduated from college recently, 25 years after I graduated from high school. I was happy and relieved that I finally received my bachelor’s degree, but for a long time I was also embarrassed about how long it took.
I tried numerous times over those 25 years to get my bachelor’s. I registered for classes at multiple schools, but nothing ever stuck — except debt from tuition. As a 17-, 18-, and 19-year-old, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my adult life.
After high school, instead of going directly to college, I started doing advocacy work for those living with HIV/AIDS, fighting for gay rights, and producing special events like the AIDS Walk and Gay Bingo. I was even arrested with ACTUP Philly, though not charged, for protesting the cost of HIV drugs outside of the WHO in Washington, D.C. (life experience)! As the years went on I continued working, always feeling as if there were other more important things I needed to be doing besides sitting in a classroom. For me there were always more people who needed help and more relief efforts I could be assisting.
“Not every high schooler will have a clear plan for their future —and that’s OK.”
Then in 2005, 10 years after graduating from high school, on the recommendation of a friend I had met while volunteering (life experience!), I started in the Fire Science program at Community College of Philadelphia. I had finally found a program that fit my passion.
But then work pulled me away again. In 2007, only one class away from receiving my associate’s degree, I was accepted into the Philadelphia Fire Academy, training to become a Philadelphia firefighter, and had to stop taking classes again. A few years after graduating from the Fire Academy I started a nonprofit organization (life experience!), keeping my degree on the back burner.
Yet still wanting to escape the weight of my unfinished education, which had been hanging over me for two decades by then, I enrolled at Philadelphia University’s Emergency Services program. But again, two years into the program I had to stop, this time due to the demands of running my nonprofit, working full time, and trying to pay for classes out of pocket. So another year went by.
Returning to school as an adult is complicated by many factors, not least of which are lack of time, conflicting priorities, and money. In order to receive financial aid to help pay for classes I needed to take two classes a semester, which was not possible at the time. If I wanted to continue pursuing my degree I had to pay for it, which was also not possible for me — and rarely is for most students. Finally, in 2019, securing loans allowed me to take classes again. In August of 2020, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in emergency management from Thomas Jefferson University.
Looking back, I’m no longer embarrassed by my long journey. I’m proud of the persistence and perseverance it took to complete it. Not everyone’s path to higher education will be the same. Plus, not every high schooler will have a clear plan for their future — and that’s OK.
To this day I firmly believe it’s wrong to expect teenagers to determine their profession with hardly any life experience. For me, the things I did, the people I met, the experiences I had over two-plus decades formed the person I am today: a 43-year-old with an abundance of life experience, a full career, and now a college degree.
Elena Gooray: 29 years to ride a bike
Elena Gooray is opinion coverage editor at The Inquirer.
I had exactly one item on my bucket list for turning 30: learning how to ride a bike.
There are personal and professional achievements that matter more in the grand scheme of things, probably. But for me, staring down a new decade, the milestone that mattered was figuring out how to do something most people master in grade school.
I have no good excuse for taking so long to do it. My parents and two older siblings can bike. Before I turned 10, a couple of relatives parked me on my parents’ front lawn to give it a try. But my lack of educational chemistry with those would-be teachers, and the lawn’s terrifying-to-me downhill slope, spiked my hopes of losing the training wheels.
“I’m relieved I got over my worry about looking like an idiot in public.”
So I made my biking deficiency a dependable punchline for classroom icebreakers, and an occasional source of angst. I sat out a few family bike rides, and it offered convenient fodder to guilt-trip them when I wanted some youngest-child sympathy. I dangled the idea to close friends that I would at some point make them teach me, and three delightful female friends even volunteered to help me ride up a residential street in Santa Barbara, Calif. They were excellent teachers, standing on the curb and clapping in support for my shaky attempts like characters in a family-friendly sitcom. But since I didn’t repeat the lesson, the skills didn’t stick. I remained biking-unsure and -incompetent.
Until my last month of being 29.
When people mentioned I had a big birthday coming up, the vision that floated before me was not of a journalism award, a perfect take on Julia Child’s beef bourguignon, or other Instagrammable aspirations for an adult woman. It was the dream of sitting on a two-wheeler without falling on my face.
I turned to my older brother, the person who trained me not to lose at Mario Kart, for help. Donning our COVID-era face masks in his yard, we developed a regimen. First he directed me to my then-4-year-old niece’s pink bike with training wheels. (“To feel the balance,” he said — plus I could fit on it because I’m short.) Then we upgraded to my sister-in-law’s picturesque teal bike: Goodbye, training wheels. Hello, cute wicker basket. My brother’s neighbors politely drove by our lesson without commenting on a 34-year-old man pushing up and down the street someone who looked a tad too old to be one of his kids. “Just keep pedaling” was our mantra. We stuck with it until I could get up and down a long stretch of his street, and turn into his driveway, without him propping me up as part physical support, part spiritual guru. For the first time, I felt in my bones what up until then had been a mysterious phrase uttered by a club to which I didn’t belong: It’s like riding a bike.
Now, at least if someone helps me hop onto the thing, I feel comfortable biking up and down a quiet suburban road. By the end of this summer, I’d like to be able to go around a block. My only regret was that I didn’t persist sooner. But I’m relieved I got over my worry about looking like an idiot in public, and instead dragged a loved one into looking like an idiot with me. And for birthday 31, in what will hopefully be a post-pandemic lockdown world, I’d like to rent a bike for myself on vacation — mask-less and rocking a basket on my sweet, sweet ride.
From a reader: It’s never too late to perfect your music
As a longtime Bruce Springsteen fan, I began to try to teach myself how to play Suki Lahav’s gorgeous 24-second violin intro to “Jungleland” at age 60. Playing it every day for 10 minutes (25 times) for the past eight years means that I have played it over 73,000 times. I feel that I am finally getting close. I have no regrets. How many people can do this?
—David Bolger, Williamstown, N.J.