the boyz n the hood

28 08 2008

You could only be in the club if you knew the secret password:

 “Father Michael, Roman, Lucy, Tino, Cheto, Juanita, Mary, Maria, Michael, Anthony, DeDe, Louie, Tommy, Eddie and Isaac.” – said in one breath.

I was a guera – more WASP I could not be.  

I wanted ethnicity – they had what I wanted.  

Our next door neighbors on Porter Street were this wonderful Mexican family being raised by a widowed mother…a bunch of them.  I remember the buzz around the hood when we knew that Father Michael was coming around.  The older sisters in all their glory looked like they walked off the set of Mad Men, like a  60’s version of JLo.  They probably don’t remember me – I couldn’t tell you who is who to save my soul – but they pressed in on me.  

The ones closest in age – relatively speaking – started with Louie.  I just remember dark, Latin and good looking.  But he had the heart of Mary Jimenez who lived 3 doors down right next to the South Shore tracks.  Mary’s brother JJ was my age – JJ – Juan Jose, Jorge Juan – I don’t know.  It was just JJ to me.  We’d be playing at my house and if we heard the train coming (like it did about every few hours) headed to and from the Loop – we’d run down to stand in front of JJ’s house and wave.  Like our own version of trying to get a trucker to toot the air horn…waving at people staring into space.

Then there was Tommy, Eddie and Isaac – all closest in age to my brother who is four years older than I am.  What girl can’t have a crazy crush on three Latinos living next door that always hung out with her brother?  

Maybe my memory is all whack – but I remember Mrs. Ortiz opening her back door – calling for the boys and they’d line up for hand-outs.  I got into that line a time or two.  Fresh, hot, homemade flour tortillas, dripping with butter and salt.  To DIE FOR.  To this day – one of my favorite breakfasts, lunches, or dinners – but mine are I store bought imitations that I throw on the griddle till they start to puff up.  Carb heaven!

Mrs. Ortiz doesn’t know that I was so fascinated by Hispanics that I started taking Spanish in 5th grade when our elementary school started one of the first bi-lingual pilot  programs in the States.  So many had come from Mexico to work in the Steel Mills that they capitalized on that influx of kids to help us learn Spanish.  Just think of it – 40 years ago we were glad to welcome those workers to our industries and were even smart enough to learn a thing or two about a culture other than our own bland one.  Who’d a thunk it?

And Mrs. Ortiz doesn’t know that in high school and college I took as many Spanish classes as I could.  Nor does she know that then I moved to Spain to live for 12 years.  And she doesn’t know that for the last number of years I’ve been working as an interpreter in a rehabilitation hospital helping Hispanic families who’s kids have all kinds of challenges.

But I see Mrs. Ortiz whenever I’m at work – Latinas that know how to love and nurture their broods.  When the Hispanic families I know are admitted to the hospital – their rooms are full.  Family comes from Chicago, Iowa, Florida, Kentucky – wherever to sit beside the bed of their suffering loved one.  The “white” people’s rooms – especially the older ones – no one comes to visit those grammys and grandpys.  They might be “graced” with a visit when it is convenient on the weekend as long as it doesn’t go too long…

There are so many things I’d like to tell Mrs. Ortiz about.  How I wish I could speak to her in Spanish.  How I’d love to hear her story from her mouth.  But I can’t.  Two hours after my dad died on Monday morning – we got a call from Tommy saying that his 96 year old mom died in another area hospice center.  Two hours later!  Tomorrow I will take my mom to the viewing.  With 49 grandchildren,  74 great grandchildren and 5 great great grandchildren…they may not even notice us come in.  With the exception that we’re gueras.

Wonder if Mrs. Ortiz lives next door to my dad again?  That neighborhood would be heaven.





strawberry fields forever

27 08 2008

It’s called stress eating.  I know it’s wrong but it’s stress. When I’m here in my dream world of a hotel room – alone – tv on – and it’s midnight and I have a mini 7-Eleven in the lobby, I do the wrong thing.  It was only one ice cream bar – not a box full.  About a bite in and I’m thinking of how this ties me to Billy.  It’s all his fault.

We joined the mass exodus from Gary to land in what seemed to me to be Podunksville – Valpo.   My brother and I laughed that kids probably would be coming to school with manure on their shoes.

It was summer when we took possession of our new digs and with working parents – there was no room for idle hands.  My dad was still commuting into his job some 25 miles away and his route – meandering of course, took him right by a big fruit farm. And I’ll be darned if he didn’t stop in there one day and talk them into hiring a 12 year old with zero experience to help pick fruit.  There goes that karma thing again – me thinking everyone was a hick, I suddenly became a farm hand myself.

My boss was an hispanic migrant who lived on the property in a very small trailer with his wife and a newborn.  With acres of land, you’d think that they could have found a shady spot for that little silver bullet but it was parked in the middle of the cracked earth – just like a mirror it seemed to intensify all the heat the sun could dish out.  

It was the tail end of the strawberry season as I quickly learned.  With the sun barely up, I’d have to search for enough berries to fill each small pint container.  There must have been something like 12 pints to a flat and when I got to that magic number I’d get a ticket.  Tickets were turned in at the end of the day and I swear they were worth pennies on the dollar.  But a couple of tickets could be redeemed for an ice cream bar at the farm stand.  Heath bars were new and they were my friend. I’m not sure I ever brought home any money – but I did eat alot of ice cream.

After strawberries came raspberries.  Bushes and scraped up knuckles.  It gave a break to the knees and back and punished the hands and arms.  We’d work from sun-up till about 4 pm.  So hot, so sweaty…our only break was 20 minutes at high noon to eat sack lunches on the back of a flatbed truck in the bald scorching sun.  One afternoon, as I awaited my dad in the lengthening shadows, the foreman invited me into his trailer where he handed his wife 2 pints of raspberries.  Before I knew it I was drinking a concoction of berries pressed through a sieve, some cold water, lemon juice and sugar.  I had discovered the nectar of the gods right there in the middle of that farm field from the hands of a sun-burnt migrant with a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon.

It is not lost on me that 40 years later I’m working with these people again but in the context of a medical system that defies understanding even when a person is 100% red-blooded WASP.  I now have a greater understanding of those families that are bound together by caked earth, sweat and back breaking labor that this little guera couldn’t do in the prime of her life to save her soul.

My first paying gig did more to teach me what hard work looks like than all the other jobs to follow.  And I love raspberries – flavor, berries, preserves…not with chocolate though.  All around me are pieces of Billy stamped on my soul – even to my taste buds.  I can’t imagine that there will be many days that I don’t think about him a million times, in a million ways and with a million tears.