Large white snowflakes fell slowly from the disgruntled grey sky onto the unsuspecting Brookline sidewalk on the last day of March. The wind nipped and tugged at passersby on the street, but it didn’t howl or scream, leaving the town eerily quiet. Along the street, a large off green sign on top of a darker green storefront reads “Baja Betty’s Burritos” in jagged red letters with two chillis on either side. Tomorrow would be April, the first full month of spring, the supposed start of flowers blooming and the sun shining, but as the dreary and cold day marched the idea of spring seemed outlandish. The promised brightness of tomorrow didn’t show any indication that it planned on coming outside, and as Baja Betty’s owner Brett Albert watched from the window of his restaurant, he knew the brightness of tomorrow wasn’t coming inside either. Baja Betty’s, a Brookline neighborhood staple for nearly 20 years would be closing its doors for the final time that night. Brett Albert, now 58 years old, finds himself at a crossroads for the first time in a long time, unsure where this crazy life will take him next.
Brett Albert was born in Queens, New York in 1959. The son of a nurse and an electrician and the grandson of an immigrant, he grew up in a housing project with 862 families, with over 2,000 kids in bedrooms so small you could reach out and touch your siblings hand while lying in bed. All of the families were poor and many were dangerous, but due to the tight knit community and excess number of children, Brett’s childhood was a filled with laughter and fun. “We didn’t wish for any better, because we just assumed everyone lived like that,” laughed Brett as he stroked his grey goatee. “We didn’t know any different.” When Brett got older he was bussed to a school called Junior High 109, which is in the bottom 5% of schools in the nation. The school was riddled with violence and danger, becoming one of the first schools in the country to install metal detectors as kids would constantly try to bring knives and other weapons inside. “We couldn’t use lockers, even though we had thousands because your lock would be cut and everything would be stolen,” remembered Brett. “It just wasn’t safe.” Brett was able to stay out of trouble by playing basketball, and through an accelerated program he was able to graduate in two years and get out, skipping 8th grade.
In high school, Brett felt trapped. In classes with 40-50 kids, taught by teachers who paid him no mind, Brett began to realize that the only way he was to learn was by teaching himself. He read the textbooks on his own, guiding his way through his first years of high school. By senior year however, Brett had had enough, and he put a plan in action. He went to his doctor’s office and feigned and injury, getting a signed paper from his doctor that said he could not participate in Phys. Ed. Brett brought the paper to his coach, and insisted that he didn’t want to just sit around in the meantime, he wanted to volunteer somewhere. His coach approved this, and he began to volunteer in the attendance office. There, he was able to change his attendance so he could leave school, hop on the train and head to the Museum of Natural History. Brett would ask the people in the delivery trucks if he could help them carry in whatever they had so that once he did, he would be in the Natural History Museum for free. “I spent most of my senior year at the Natural History Museum,” Brett said smiling ear to ear. “Finally, my parents came up to school to see how I was doing, and my homeroom teacher said Brett Albert? Who’s that? And it all fell apart.” Brett was called to the principal’s office who grilled him, asking where he’d been for what was had been almost an entire semester. The principal–who presumably imagined Brett had succumbed to drugs or other street violence–was baffled when Brett told him bluntly, “The Natural History Museum.” Unable to really hold his playing hookie against him, the school administration cut Brett a deal. If he took 10 courses in the next few months, they would allow him to graduate six months ahead of time, freeing him of the school that was clearly holding him back. Of course he took this deal, and in no time, Brett Albert–at 16–was a high school graduate.
Where to go next was shrouded in uncertainty but because of his impressive grades, for the first time in Brett’s life, his future was lined with opportunity. With the chance to be the first person in his family to attend college, Brett worked at restaurants and bars until he was 17 when he had enough money to go to Queens College. There he studied archeology and paleontology, studies he had fallen in love with from his time at the Natural History Museum. He went on a couple digs, but as he lost five friends in a short period of time to drugs and violence, he changed career paths. “Because of where I’m grew up I realized I wanted to give back,” said Brett. “I completely changed gears.” Brett went to Penn University to get his masters in urban design and set forth trying to help people who had been in situations like him. After graduating, Brett worked at a community development firm for a while in Bushwick Brooklyn, which is now one of the most popular up and coming neighborhoods in New York. “How times have changed,” remarked Albert shaking his head, chuckling quietly. “Then it was like Dresden after World War Two. Every third lot was bombed out, riddled with heroin addicts and crack heads. It was so impoverished.” The work began to wear on him, as it became just a cycle of depressing and soul crushing tasks with little to no reward.
To make matters worse, Brett became a key witness in a high profile murder case when his upstairs neighbor murdered his girlfriend’s boyfriend. The man got off, and Brett was the only person that testified against him. The detectives of the case informed him that it was unsafe to live in his rent controlled apart any longer, as the murderer was moving back to his apartment and was liable to lash out, especially against the lone man who tried to put him behind bars. So Brett moved with his girlfriend to Boston, and he was exhausted. “It got to the point where I just looked at my now wife and said, I just want to open up a ice cream shop. I just need to be around happiness.” He was serious. He began inquiring about different places to open up a store. Right before they got married Brett and his girlfriend almost moved to Maui to open up a shop; however, they decided against it after they got married and planned on starting a family. Soon after they got married, Brett went to visit a friend who owned a shop called Moe’s Burritos in New York. “He was just rolling burrito’s and listening to music and I looked at him and I was just like ‘this is your life? This seems amazing,’” recalled Brett. Brett proceeded to help out there for a while, before coming back to Massachusetts and launching his own burrito place, the legendary aforementioned Baja Betty’s.
Baja Betty’s became a Brookline institution, quickly becoming a spot where college kids flocked after class. Brett began to cultivate relationships with the locals, and it became clear to anyone who walked into the joint, it was about more than just burritos. The right wall held vintage posters of Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, accented by artwork that Brett allowed to be hung up to help promote the local artists. Across from that, on the far wall just above two California license plates and the words “Ai Cafeteria”, hung a colorful chalkboard listing the numerous varieties of food options, everything from Nachos to Chalupas. To the left of that was a beautiful mural, depicting the merging of traditional Mexican food and Brookline, as a native man holds a girl in his arms in Brookline Center and a little girl with a Red Sox pennant stands next to them. Resting gently against the mural was a bright red booth and sturdy white tables, where satisfied customers devoured their hefty burritos. Straight ahead from the entrance any customer would see wooden counter that resembles the front of food stand, complete with Mexican roof tiles and festive lights. On the counter there were cookies or brownies for a dollar each in a glass resembling something you’d find at your grandma’s house, as green, red, orange and yellow Mexican Soda’s sat in the back drop. Behind the counter would stand Brett Albert in a backwards baseball cap, his infectious smile standing out from his grey goatee and the whispy white smoke from the grill. He’d ask the customers about their day, and they’d ask him about his. Everyday Brett developed and nurtured relationships with everyone from professional athletes to little kids that live on the block.
The town treasured Baja Betty’s even if his landlord did not. After two decades of burritos, Baja’s–which lately was just getting by month to month– was forced to close down as the rent was increased and the property was listed because the landlord needed more money for lawyers and such as he is currently on trial for four charges of arson. “People would walk in and ask if this was 3 Harvard Street and I’d say, ‘Yeah why’ and they’d tell me how it was listed and they were looking for a space. I just couldn’t handle that anymore. It’s no way to live,” said Brett solemnly. “It didn’t end the way I would’ve hoped, but I wouldn’t trade a second I spent there,” he said smiling now. He repeats, “I never worked a day in my life.”
Twenty years have come and gone, and the man who insisted he hasn’t worked a day in 20 plus years is about to embark on yet another chapter in his already novelous life. “He’s watched kids who he used to give toys from behind the counter grow up and go off to college in that place. He’s seen children become adults,” marveled son Quinn Albert, 18. “He and that restaurant have seen me do that too.” Brett is nervously optimistic for the future, saying that he wants to find something that makes him happy and already has some things in the works, but he is determined to do whatever it takes to provide for his family. “I know that I will find something to provide for my family, I have to, it’d just be nice if it aligns with something I’m passionate doing,” said Albert smiling.
The man who was once just a scrappy kid from Queens, pulls down his white baseball cap down tight on his head, untying his apron covered in grease stains. The restaurant is mostly empty now and the spots on the walls where the Grateful Dead posters were once hung were now bare, and Albert lets out a sigh. He wanders over to the nearest wall and un-tacks the note from his first ever customer tucking it into his pocket. Brett Albert’s back has been against the wall with the odds stacked against him at every turn of his life, but every time he has prevailed. It’s unwise to bet against the resilience of Brett Albert. The snow has stopped now, and in classic New England fashion, the sun was now struggling to poke it’s head through the grey clouds. Perhaps there is hope after all.