Originally published in the anthology: Lowriting: Shots, Rides & Stories from the Chicano Soul, January 8, 2014
Santino J. Rivera (Editor), Art Meza (Photographer)
In the 1970’s, we lived off of Florence in Southeastern Los Angeles, in an area called Cudahy that was so crappy we called it Crudahy. There was nothing good in that town. Nothing. It was economically depressed. There was nothing but roach-infested, cheap tract housing and even crappier apartments. There were a few “real” houses but they too, were nothing to write home about and just stood there as hold outs to a time before tract housing for steelworkers. That end of the L. A. River was nothing like the Los Feliz part of it that had delicately tiptoeing egrets, green rushes and the hills of Griffith Park surrounding it. No, this side of the river was all concrete, stink, florescent green algae and junk.
Our street was a dead-end. It wasn’t a gaba neighborhood where such things are called cul-de-sac’s in a tone that implies that somehow made it safe. No, to us it was just a dead-end street and had nothing to recommend it. Our street was so bad to the Bell Police Department (yes that City of Bell) that they came four in a car, in full riot gear just to cruise. Cudahy didn’t even merit its own police station.
The vatos on our street were bored, with not much to do. We’d sit out on summer nights, drinking cheap cola and watching them stand around, looking cool and bored. There were no parks, unless you went to the other end of it, and only the white folk went there. We just hung, sitting on curbs, being bored, eventually getting into trouble. Those guys weren’t scared of anything or anyone, well except for the moms and grandmas in the neighborhood. I’d seen more than one of them running as fast as he could to escape a chancla, or in my mother’s case a broomstick. She’d run as fast as her short, fat legs could carry her too, shouting, “Stay away from mis hijas, pinches cholos.” They guys would haul butt and run, but they’d be laughing till tears ran down their faces as they ran from the abuse.
There was one escape and that was the river. We’d slip onto Florence (technically Bell) and scoot under the bridge. We’d run down the concrete river. We’d play ball, we’d find things, kick at old junk. Maybe the guys would spray paint their names and /or that of their girls or neighborhoods in Old English script:
El Ruben con La Smiley c/s
Little Payaso y La Giggles por vida
El Junior rifa!
Little Dopey con safos
That kind of thing…
I would go to the concrete river, ignore the violent green algae that seeped stinkingly onto the cement around me, find a quiet spot under the bridge and read. There was always a book in my pocket.
One day, we found an old car, or parts of a car I should say. The rusted out, stripped frame of it sat in the shallow water, partially hidden by debris. Only the graceful hood remained, rising up out of that unnatural green water, an algae-encrusted rust beast that still believed it was the beauty of its youth. I looked at it and it seemed to be saying, “Save me, I’m too beautiful to end like this.” Ruben and the other vatos from the street hauled it out of the water and dragged it into an old tunnel. The car became our raison d’etre. Piece by piece, in shop classes and in garages, each of us contributed something to the car. Maybe Junior happened upon some paint. Maybe Oso lifted some tools from the hardware store. Maybe, just maybe, I might have pilfered S.O.S. pads from under my Tia’s sink that we used to buff away rust and grime. All summer long we found ways to patch it together, hidden in that storm drain we called a tunnel in the concrete river.
It didn’t become real to us though; never became more than bits and pieces of an old car, until the day Little Dopey got out of juvie. He’d been locked up for petty theft for six months and while in there, had been missed, especially by me.
Little Dopey was my particular friend though I never called him that. His real name was Carlos and it suited him far better than that ridiculous name. He looked scary, with tattoos on his face and covering his neck, but he always stopped by the 7-11 and brought me bags of candy when I was younger. I looked up to Carlos who always showed up with small presents that my mom would have smacked me for taking because they were most likely stolen. It didn’t matter to me if they were – Carlos had no money but he had a big heart and to my romantic, book-reading mind, he was the Robin Hood of the barrio.
Carlos also knew cars like nobody’s business. He was magic that way. The day he saw the old piece of junk we were working on, he lifted his inked chin, pointing at the car with it and said, “1941 Chevy Deluxe Coupe. Bomb” and immediately took off his immaculately pressed blue cotton shirt, folded it neatly and handed it to me. “Don’t wrinkle the shirt mija” as he crouched down and disappeared under the car.
We waited nervously, almost breathlessly for his verdict. When he came up, he had a smile on his face. When Carlos smiled, it was like the whole world would just light up. His smile changed his face, which he always kept in a study of fierceness. He most-always looked pissed off and scary. When he smiled though, you could see the guy he really was inside. The kind guy that always brought candy or food to kids that didn’t have any, the guy who stole in order to buy groceries for his old abuela who was barely existing on her small government check, the guy who would stop to help you, no matter what. All that showed in his smile and it was blindingly bright and warmed your soul up with its light.
Carlos stood, carefully dusted off his khakis and stepped around the car and opened its now rust-free hood. After a half hour or so of muttering to himself half in Calo, half in Spanglish, he closed the hood, flashed that lightening smile again, winked at me and said, “Firme. Needs a radiator, a few belts and some brakes but I can get this bomb up and running. We gotta move it from here though, the damp is killing it. Car’s have spirits you know and this one is saying it doesn’t like the agua homies. It’s had enough.” No one dared talk smack when Carlos got all mystical and shit. Nah, man, his abuela was a mean-assed curandera, so no one even blinked an eye when he talked about the car having a spirit. We did eye the car a little differently though.
That night, Carlos walked me home from the concrete river. It was one of those perfect pre-summer nights, where the air smelled like the jacarandas that shit their petals all over the sidewalk on Florence, leaving gross-looking smears of brown and purple mush, but a heavy, intoxicating scent. We talked about his time in juvie and he gave me shit about dressing like one of the cholas. “Don’t get all chola’d out mija, he said. Keep the makeup off and your nose in that book you always have. You should go to college esa. This vida loca ain’t for you.”
In turn, I told him about school, the books I was reading, talked to him about poetry and problems with my stepfather. Carlos was the always best listener and a really good friend. When we got to my driveway, he winked and hopped over the concrete block wall and I was left to make my way in and deal with the hell that was my home.
My home life wasn’t great. In fact, it was shittier than the neighborhood. My mother was an abusive drunk, my sisters were mean and my stepfather lecherous. I hated them all. It was no wonder I escaped into the worlds of my books and spent as much time as I could away at the concrete river. That night I stepped into the usual pile of dirty crap on the hard tile floor, opened the fridge and saw, the usual – a piece of moldy old cheese, some watery Kool-aid with no sugar and a beer. I don’t know why I expected any better. Once again, my mother had sold her food stamps for booze and there wasn’t anything to eat. Rummaging around the cupboards, I found fideo and started frying it for sopa de fideo. My sister Carlotta (Lottie) popped her head into the kitchen when she smelled food. “Whatcha cooking?” She sniffed appreciatively as she expertly braided her long thick hair. She had a startled look that came from her plucking her eyebrows all the time. I never said so but privately, I thought she looked like a bald, blue-blacked hair chicken.
“There’s nothing else?”
“Nope. The usual.”
She whined, “I thought Mom got her food stamps today.”
I rolled my eyes and poured water and a can of tomato sauce into the browned pasta. “Get real.”
“Fuck! She spent them already?”
“What do you think?”
“Fuck. I guess me and Tina are going to have to go steal some cartons of cigarettes and sell ‘em to that crazy dude again.” She curled up her lip, Elvis-style and yelled for our other sister Tina. “Teen! Yo, get your face outta the mirror and get in here!”
“What?” bitched Tina, clomping into the kitchen with her makeup half-done.
“Mom spent the stamps.”
“Are you serious?”
“Crap. Whatcha making, Elena?”
The last sentence directed at me with not a little scorn. Tina didn’t think much of me. My weirdness, always reading my books bothered her. Yet, God forbid either she or Lottie would cook. They did try and clean every so often though and they hustled to get us fed so they weren’t all bad. Tina too had dyed her hair that weird blue-black that she thought was so cool. Her already long lashes were caked with about a whole bottle of mascara and her eyes shadow was just about every color and all the way up to her drawn-on brows. She looked like a clown.
“I should think its obvious. It’s fucking fideo, the same as last night and the night before.” By then, I was beyond fed up and snappy with both of them.
“Oyela. Talking que fancy and shit.”
This from Lottie, and a recurring theme too. You’d think they’d come up with better ways to pick on me, but no, it was always about my vocabulary or my books.
“Well, fancy or not, it’s fideo, either eat it or shut up.”
“Fuck that” Lottie said. Tina and I are going out, we’ll get food outside.”
“Planning on bringing anything in?”
“I don’t know Elena, are you going to do my history homework for it and Tina’s too?”
“Then we’ll bring some carne asada or something and we’ll get some cash.”
I didn’t even want to know what they were going to do for the cash. I tried not to think about my sisters that often. They took off and left me, as usual, with the task of handling their homework while they went out and flirted with the vatos.
I ate quickly. Where my mom and her current husband were, I didn’t know, but I planned on being in bed before they got home. I sure didn’t feel like dealing with drama and whatever fight was sure to ensue, nor was I looking forward to Andy’s leer as he stared at my chest right in front of my mother. She was so oblivious.
I got lucky that night. My sister’s homework was easy enough and I did it quickly, then did mine as well. I washed up, left a plate for my mother and scooted into bed.
Around midnight, my sisters slipped in through our bedroom window giggling and whispering. Tina threw me a bag from Carl’s Junior and I sat up to eat the still warm french fries and burger they had brought. In exchange, I whispered between bites that their homework was done and in their Pee-Chee folder’s all ready for school tomorrow. We heard my mom and her husband stumble in, clearly drunk but they were too busy getting busy to bother us. I could almost feel Lottie’s eye roll as they got loud and the bed started thumping against the wall. She grumbled and pretended to snore loudly.
“That’s so nasty,” whispered Tina.
“Good night, Tina.”
I pulled my pink sheet up over my head and smiled a little at the embroidered roses I could feel against my cheek. My grandmother had stitched them for me and it was one of my few nice things. Counting the days till it was summer and I could spend the three months with my grandparents, I fell asleep.
Summer arrived all too slowly, and then, like summers do, it was over all too fast. Autumn brought cooler days and still Carlos and the guys worked on the old coupe, now in his grandmothers overgrown backyard. It was shaping up, becoming the beautiful and sleek lady that the hood had promised it would be. Carlos often said that the car and I were growing up together. All the way into winter, he worked on the car even when the other vatos had long become bored with the project and found other, less productive things to spend their time on. It had become important to him, a symbol. Of what, I don’t know. Probably status and achievement. Most days it was just Carlos and me and every night he’d walk me home, then jump that wall his a smile and a wink.
Soon it was spring again and I turned fifteen. There would be no quincenera for me, though my mom enjoyed taunting me about it whenever my grandparents mentioned the idea. She could be shitty that way, but mostly she was bitter about her own life and her daughters, especially me gave her some feeling of power. I understood that on a basic level, but it still hurt.
That spring was a wet one and Carlos moved the car into his grandmother’s garage. I often sat on a rickety old stool, absently handing him this tool or that and reading aloud. He loved hearing stories; non-fiction and history were cool too, but his all time favorite was poetry. At school each day, I’d spend my lunch hours in the library, poring over the poetry section to find something I thought he would like. The day I read to him Federico Garcia Lorca’s Romance Sonambulo , he stopped all work on the car and just sat his haunches, transfixed, almost enraptured. “Verde, te quiero verde” he said over and over after I was done reading. “Read it again mija, “ he said. And so I did, over and over in the days and weeks to come. I renewed it three times and finally, in an old second-hand bookstore, I found our own copy for twenty-fives cents and bought it with my change I had hoarded. He smiled his rare full-lipped smile when I brought the used copy and even rarer, he hugged me.
“That Lorca vato, he’s cool eh.”
“Bueno, you read him, I’ll work, but first I got something to show you mija” he said with a wink.
He went over to a locked cabinet in the garage and pulled a rusty key out of his pocket. When he opened it, I saw paint, real car paint, not just some paint the vatos brought from the last house their dad painted. Car paint and it was the loveliest shade of silvery green. I looked at Carlos in wonder.
“It’s beautiful. Where did you get it?” I asked and gazed down into the shimmery paint.
“Here and there, mija.” He laughed. “Nah, my Uncle Javi has an auto body shop down in Lincoln Heights and I worked for him and took this as pay.”
I smiled. I didn’t like having to worry about Carlos going back to juvie.
“It’s Lorca-green, mija. The carrucha’s name is Lorca.” This he said with that dreamy look he often had when talking about spiritual, curandera-type stuff. In another time, Carlos would have been a shaman, a seer, a wise man. In this time, he was just another vat, but somehow set apart a little from the rest.
I looked up at him smiling. I loved that he would call the car Lorca and paint it the green of our poem though I didn’t have the heart to tell him Lorca’s last name was really Garcia. The naming of the car and the poem connected us somehow in a very deep and soulful way. Carlos, I know thought of me as the little sister he never had, but I had one big-time crush on him and this was damned romantic.
Now my days were spent wearing a mask as Carlos carefully layered paint on Lorca. When the car was fully painted and dried from its last layer of paint, he took the airbrush and wrote on it, “Verde, te quiero verde.”
While I was at school, Carlos had haunted the junkyards coming back with old grills, chrome numbers, hood ornaments and other odds and ends that he piled in the back of the garage. Some had gone on the car, others stayed in his pile of parts. He’d talked another uncle, this one with an upholstery shop, to re-cover the seats in a buttery cream vinyl that almost looked like leather, or at least we thought it did. What did we know?
Not too long after he had painted the car, Carlos showed me his latest treasure. Four white wall tires and some chrome rims that he had polished up to a high shine. He even had found a chrome visor for the windshield and carefully installed it. “Wanna go for a ride in the carrucha mija?” He asked, grinning that Dopey grin.
“Can we?” I was dying to.
“Pues, si. It’s running, my tio hooked up the pink slip and a license plate for it, so we won’t get stopped. I have my license. Not too far though, this ain’t ready for the Boulevard yet.” He was speaking about Whittier Boulevard, the place where people drove up and down showing off their cars. Lorca, with it’s shimmering green paint job, sparkling chrome and sleek lines was bound to be a hit on the Boulevard.
I’m sure my eyes were shining. I clutched my book tightly and hopped onto the new smelling vinyl seats. I breathed in the good, clean smell of Carlos and the car and sighed happily. This was my perfect moment in the sun. The guy I loved, his beautiful car he had turned into a poem and me, reading him poetry (this time from Pablo Neruda) as we slowly cruised around his block. I remember he’d even got the old radio working and after I finished reading, he turned it on and the song that played as he took me for the last spin was Tell It Like It Is by Aaron Neville and Carlos sang along in a voice nearly as good as that of the singer. That was my last good memory.
The next day, I woke up excited and happy. It was the last day of school and I’d be going to my grandparents over in Los Feliz for the summer and leaving Crudahy behind for three peaceful months. I was getting out of school, then catching a bus to my grandparents. School let out early and I ran all the way home, eager to get going. No one was home when I got there, so I quickly packed and hopped into the shower. While changing in my bedroom, I thought I heard a noise and called out for Tina or Lottie. Nothing, so I called out for my mother dreading the confrontation. Still nothing so I resumed combing out my hair and braiding the long, wet strands of it, still daydreaming of my perfect day with Carlos and Lorca the car.
I heard another noise and annoyed, I turned up the radio, thinking my sisters were trying to scare me. I can hear the song now as I tell you my story. Taste of Honey was singing Boogie, Oogie, Oogie and I was dancing around the room as I packed up my few critical items – books, that were making the trip to my grandparents with me. On my last disco spin, I whirled right into the body of my stepfather Andy who had snuck into the room. I yanked away hard, and screamed at him to get out of my room. He was just too creepy.
In answer, he yanked me by the arm, almost pulling it out of the socket, till I was pressed up against his beer-smelling body. Ugh! I yanked away and he pulled me back. I was both angry and scared, struggling and fighting as he held me tight against him. I managed to lift my knee the way Carlos had taught me and caught him a good one right in the nuts. “You fucking bitch!” he yelled, spit flying all over my chest as he stumbled down to his knees, his hands reaching for his crotch.
I ran. I got out of my room and flew out of the house down the driveway, not even realizing my shirt was gaping open. I just ran. I ran till I got to Carlos’s but there was no one home. The garage was empty too and then I remembered, Carlos was working at his uncle’s today, paying off in slave labor the cost of the green paint.
Frantic, I ran back out onto the sidewalk and the street was empty except for what appeared to be my stepfather’s old chevy, slowly turning the corner. Fuck. I had to get away, but where? The concrete river is all I could think of. I would get there, hole up in one of the tunnels and wait for Carlos, then sneak out and have him get me to my grandparents.
Bell cops sure weren’t going to believe me. They treated us neighborhood kids like criminals whether we were or not. All we were to them was Mexican trash.
So I ran. I didn’t stop, I didn’t think, I just ran. My wet braids slapped against my back noisily as I ran. I made it over the bridge on Florence and down into the riverbed and climbed into one of the tunnels. There I sat gasping for air till my breathing calmed and I realized my shirt was half open. That’s when I started to cry and tried to button it, fumbling because my hands were shaking so. I gave up and cried for an hour. Then I got cold. It was cold in the tunnel. Cold and damp. It smelled like moldy water, urine and I started to freak out, thinking about possible rats. Still, I stayed there, till it seemed like enough time had passed for Andy to stop looking for me and for it to be time for Carlos to be home.
Carefully, I crawled out of the tunnel, my cramped muscles screaming. I was hungry and cold and wanted the last dregs of sunlight to warm my skin. It was too dark in the tunnel to get a look at my arms, but they hurt, so I knew they were bruised from where he’d grabbed me. I hiccuped and a shiver ran down my spine. I didn’t know what to do and stood blinking in the light for a moment when I got out of the tunnel where Lorca had spent is first weeks with us.
I smelled him an instant before my hair was being pulled hard and I flailed and scratched but with nothing to grab onto as he dragged me caveman style back into the tunnel.
“Bitch! Thought you would get away? Thought this place was secret, huh? Fucking whore, I know you come down here with those cholos. Probably giving them all what you tease me with while I’m stuck fucking your fat mom. Bitch! Whore!”
He hit me again and again as I tried to get away, scooting on my back through the slimy water in the tunnel where he’d thrown me. With each blow, he’d call me whore. I screamed and fought, his face was dripping blood onto mine from the scratches I’d dealt him, but it was no use. He was biting me, the smell of beer was making me gag and then I felt his clammy hands on my breasts, as he shoved his knee in my crotch hard.
“Remember this bitch?” Knee me will you? “ He kneed me again and I howled from the impact. Then he was yanking my pants off and I screamed again as he tore into me right through my panties. I struggled even more but there was no stopping him. I bit him and he yanked me up by my bra strap and slammed my head down on the wet cement. Then he did it again. Then I didn’t feel anything.
I woke up in the passenger seat of Lorca. It took me a day or two to realize that I was dead. I just sat there crying softly, till the day Carlos got into the car, put his head down on the wheel and cried. Seeing him cry stopped me cold. I tried to reach out and comfort him, but my hands passed right through his body and freaked me the hell out.
It took them two weeks to find my body.
My mom didn’t even look for me. She’d figured I ran away and good riddance. It was my grandparents and Carlos that looked. That is to say, my grandparents went to the police, dragging my mother along with them sullenly, while Carlos haunted every block, every hiding place he knew of and every library looking for me.
One day Carlos rounded up the guys and girls and everyone looked and up and down streets until Ruben and a couple of other guys from the hood decided to ask my stepfather about me. They knew something was shifty, so they beat him. They kicked the living shit out of him until he spilled where he’d left me, still calling me a whore. Carlos busted his jaw then.
The guys wanted to kill him, but Dopey shook his head. “Nah man, let him die in prison”, he said. “They’ll make him someone’s bitch in there.” He dragged Andy to the police station in his uncle’s car, Ruben and the guys holding him down in the back. It was then the cops put that yellow tape around the concrete river and opened up the tunnel.
I don’t know how I came to live in Lorca. Carlos knows I’m here though. He brings me books of poetry and places them like altar offerings in the passenger seat. It is he who now haunts libraries and old bookstores. He cruises up and down the Boulevard on Fridays and Saturdays, sometimes with the guys. No one is allowed to sit shotgun, ever. If they ask, he simply says, “That seat’s Elena’s” and no one ever dares question him.
His grandma died a few weeks ago and he moved Lorca and I to Lincoln Heights. He turned to me just the other day, almost as if he could see me and said, “You know what mija? We’re going to be happy here. Watcha.”
I just smiled at him, picked up my book and began to read to him from the new copy of Octavio Paz he’d put on the seat that morning.