Manifest Destiny

I wore a pink satin dress with a bow that tied in the back. My dad wore a white short-sleeved button down shirt. His mother taught him to always wear a collared shirt when going out in public. It was 1989. It must have been summer. I sat on my dad’s left arm. It was easy to carry a four-year old who weighed so little. With his right arm, he waved at someone just out of the frame. He wore a look of pleasant surprise; I had just kissed him goodbye on the cheeks.

“Even back then you knew more than your age,” he told me one day at lunch. He’s 78 now and living in affordable senior housing in Chinatown. He lost his sight 13 years ago, but the image of this picture is seared into his memory. I look at this photograph as an adult and wonder what made my dad say goodbye to his whole life that day at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

“I am going to America,” he said in the van ride to the airport.

“Is it far?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Are you coming back?”

“No. But you’re going to come with me.”

“Today?”

“No.”

When I turned six in 1991, I saw my dad again at the Los Angeles airport. I helped my mom push two carts worth of luggage up the carpeted ramp to the arrival gates at Tom Bradley International Terminal. Two years had taken a lifetime’s toll on his face.

“Life is a slippery thing,” he said at lunch. “It takes all the courage you have just to keep living.”

My ears hurt from 16 hours of cabin pressure. We squeezed seven across in the middle aisle on a Boeing 747. It was dark outside our aircraft for a long time while it tumbled up along the eastern rim of Asia, up to the tip of the Soviet Union, across the Pacific to Alaska, and following the coastline down through Canada. A flight attendant let me lay on the floor near the bathroom in the back of the plane because I was so nauseous. My mom sat on the floor next to me and rubbed my head.

“I don’t want to be here,” I cried. “I want to go home.”

When there was daylight again outside the airplane window, I saw little patches of land down below grow to a full-sized city. Life awaited.

“You have arrived in Los Angeles, California. The local time is…” a female voice said over the intercom in Mandarin Chinese. It was hard to hear over the loud cheers.

“Why are they so happy?” I asked my mom.

“Because we’re in America now.”

She asked the other people who got off the plane with her what the signs read and was met with confused stares. A young man in front of us with thick-rimmed glasses pulled out a pocket dictionary and flipped through the pages.

“Hang onto my pant leg,” she said as we squeezed through the stream of passengers. “Don’t get lost. I can’t speak the language.”

The population in China in 1991 was 1.2 billion. In the United States, it was 253 million. Being just one of many, by comparison, was much better here in the U.S. More land for everyone. More food. Life mattered here; in China, we were just a number on a graph. The U.S. was the land of the free. The land of the Self. Here, we manifest our own destinies.

“Where do we line up? What kind of identification do they need?” a woman behind us asked nervously, as we and dozens of others walked into the terminal.

They were people with college degrees, crushed by the Cultural Revolution, disheartened by a lack of choice, who would rather be motel workers in the U.S. than starve back in China. There were hundreds of them with luggage as big as ours inside that fluorescently-lit brown interior. Our whole lives fit into five black zip-up bags as big as I. My dad mailed letters to us with instructions on how to write our new identities in English:

W.X. Huang

116 E. 23rd St.

Los Angeles, CA 90011

“There are standards in America. Try not to stand out too much. They don’t like foreigners,” my dad’s letter read. “Remember to respect them.”

We waited for hours. The brown wood-paneled walls accentuated the terminal’s lack of windows and airflow. The young man with the dictionary slumped over his pile of luggage in front of us. There was only a little chatter here and there. I tried sitting on the floor, but my mom abruptly pulled me back up.

“Stand up,” she said firmly. “Don’t embarrass us. We’re in someone else’s country.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit on top of one of those big bags in front of us. How nice it would have felt to take a nap.

Before we had left Shanghai our relatives helped us pick out our best clothes to wear just for this moment of entry. “You have to look like you have money,” my uncle said at dinner the night before we were scheduled to leave China. “Otherwise they’ll turn you away.”

“They would do that?” my aunt, sitting beside us, asked.

“Yes. You have to make them believe that you’re only visiting.”

But we weren’t only visiting. Even a six year-old could tell from the five big bags that took weeks to pack. We were planning to stay whether they wanted us or not.

China was a place of perpetuated separation between the rich and the poor, the light- and the dark-skinned, the urbane and the provincial. There are 56 ethnic groups in the country but only one, the Han Chinese, made laws. In China, you got one shot at taking an entrance exam for college. There were no community colleges, no transfer opportunities, no mobility. People in rural towns stayed dumb and poor. Destiny predetermined.

The lines of black-haired people in front of us snaked across the terminal. Every few minutes more Chinese nationals piled on behind us from other arriving flights. Blond-haired people went into a separate line next to us that was much shorter. There were booths at the head of the line with uniformed officers hunched over a desk, examining paperwork and looking through bags. One blonde woman waved to me and smiled. She probably knew she was going home. In our line, no one smiled.

“Mom, can we go there?” I pointed as I tugged at her leg.

“That line isn’t for you,” dictionary man said. “That’s for Americans. You’re not American.”

At the front of the line, I couldn’t tell who I was supposed to smile at, so I smiled at everyone who didn’t look like us. My mom pulled out pieces of papers from her red leather bag. Red was the color of good luck.

This moment would be only the beginning of many instances where my mom would utilize her newfound communication skill: body language. The lady officer pointed at my mom’s purse and held up some papers as example. Getting what was being asked, she pulled out all the documentation she had and laid them out for the lady officer to choose. Two male officers opened our bags, occasionally bringing things up for a sniff.

“Why do the foreigners have such big noses?” I asked my mom while in line.

“Because the air quality in America is better.”

They opened our packages of teas, our menthol ointments and our dried fish snacks. I pulled open my pink plastic backpack to show them my package of crackers. They chuckled. Then I lifted my heels to flash my best six year-old smile at the lady officer over the counter. I made sure she saw me because she smiled back.

A couple stamps stamped. “Now we can go find your dad,” my mom said to me with relief.

Memories of my dad were faint. I remembered him running after me on a set of stairs at the park. I remembered him laughing as he fed me noodles with a spoon. I vaguely remembered a man who I had kissed goodbye two years earlier at the airport.

I thought that reunion would solve whatever problems we had before. Each time my mom showed me one of his letters she would say, “We’ll see your dad soon.” Often, he would send me doodles he made during down time at his motel job in Inglewood. Sometimes he would send a photo of him in front of the Federal immigration building in Downtown, or at the pier in Redondo Beach, or holding the box of Andes mint chocolates that came with the letter.

“For little Jian,” they always read.

I didn’t recognize the man who came to pick us up at the airport. He appeared as suddenly as the downtown L.A. skyline while we flew through smog.

“This is your father,” my mom introduced him. I hid behind her leg.

She grabbed my hand and placed it in his hand. They didn’t feel like my dad’s. They were thicker, darker skinned and much more calloused than I recalled. His face was fatter. His eyes were puffy. His head had more gray hairs.

“What happened in those two years?” I asked my dad over lunch in Chinatown.

“Life slipped away from me.”

Two years had erased the vitality in his face. The man I remembered had never heard a woman scream while getting raped at a motel, hadn’t heard of gang wars, or drug addiction, or seen a human body twitch after getting stun-gunned. He hadn’t seen black people, or brown people, and only theorized that we all bled bright red inside.

“We wear our lives on our faces,” my dad said.

Later, on those days when I helped him at a motel near MacArthur Park, we would play games and tried to guess whether someone checking in was a good person or a bad person. He would teach me how to punch someone in the face, a skill that would later come in handy at John Adams Middle School.

“Protect yourself. The world is an unforgiving place.”

But I didn’t know any of these things the day this man picked me up at the airport. I still understood the United States through Shirley Temple movies dubbed in Mandarin.

My mom and I had cheered along with everyone else on the aircraft because, finally, we were here in the land of the free. Everything would be okay. I would see my dad again – the same man I had kissed goodbye in the photograph.

Aureliano and Esther

Aureliano Valdovinos is walking under the October moonlight. The dirt road is full of shadows, but he is not afraid. He can feel his gun at his waist, moving with him. He’s been walking for more than one hour. Once he gets to the crossroad, he will catch a bus to Sahuayo; a second bus drops him off in San Pedro Caro, Michoacan, where he is now living. With each step he takes, he is leaving his old village, Jaripo, and his girlfriend of several years, Esther. The cluster of adobe huts, illuminated only by petroleum lamps, gets smaller by the minute.

Men have been leaving Jaripo for years. This small village in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, along with many other villages across the country, sends its working age men to the United States, to work legally as manual laborers under the Bracero program, an agreement the two countries entered in 1942. Thousands have left with contracts, for months at the time. They return home for some weeks, just to depart again with a new contract. Yet, poverty is not the reason Aureliano is walking away from the place where he was born.

 

It was August 15, the day of the Virgin Mary. Just after 6:00 pm. People were gathered at church for a rosary in honor of the Virgin. The sweet smell of flowers, and candles burning, mixed with the murmur of prayer. At the altar, a statue of Virgin Mary, dressed in a blue and white outfit, stared at devotees with an almost human expression of kindness and compassion.

Nobody knows why Moices Salceda pointed his gun at Rafael that afternoon. Rafael was sitting on some steps leading to the plaza. Later, they said Moices threaten to kill Rafael for no reason, other than feeling like bullying someone he knew unarmed. The two had never had any problems before. Antonio, Aureliano’s younger brother, happened to be standing nearby. He saw Moices pointing his gun at Rafael, a close relative, and ran to find a gun for himself, snatching it from one of his uncles. Antonio came back yelling for Moices to leave Rafael alone, and to come resolve whatever the problem was, now that he too was armed.

The two men ended up face to face. It all happened fast. Antonio fired first. One bullet hit Moices in the head. Moices lay dead on the street; 18-year-old Antonio was in shock. Revenge was law in town; it wouldn’t be long before armed men from the Salceda’s family stormed the plaza. Aureliano heard the commotion from inside the church. When he realized Antonio was involved, he rushed to his brother, who was still unable to move.

“Let’s go!”

Aureliano kept repeating.

“We have to go!”

Antonio started to move. He slowly bent over to pick up his hat and then took off running across people’s backyards.

Nobody else died that day in Jaripo. The gun battle that followed between the the Salcedas and the Valdovinos left only one wounded man on the Valdovinos’s side; but nothing was ever the same. Most of the Valdovinos clan had to move to another town. Aureliano’s family home and his father’s land had to be sold. Aureliano missed his friends, and working on his father’s fields, but more than anything he missed Esther.
Esther was a pretty, quiet girl, with long, dark, wavy hair and dreamy eyes. They met in elementary school, and remained friends until he asked her to be his girlfriend in their early teens. That’s why now, after the troubles, he kept coming back every week or two. He would only see Esther for half an hour or one hour each time. She pleaded for him to stop visiting. A few years had passed since Moices was killed. Nobody had bothered Aureliano during his visits, but is was impossible to say it would never happen. His gun was always ready; Esther was always on edge.

Esther’s family liked Aureliano. Her mother made tortillas for his mother for a small fee. They noticed the handsome, hard-working young man early on, and welcomed the relationship once they learned about it. The couple had talked marriage but nothing was decided, until one day Esther accepted Aureliano’s proposal in a letter. Aureliano paid for the wedding with money he earned as a bracero, pruning beets in Idaho, harvesting peas in Minnesota and corncob in Delaware. The newlyweds settled in San Pedro Caro. He was 24-years-old, Esther was two years younger.

For the next several years they were often away from each other. Esther, like many other Mexican women at the time, was giving birth and raising kids almost on her own. Aureliano always sent money home when he was away, working in the United States. He enjoyed bringing back gifts for the kids when he returned. But he always left again, sometimes with contracts, sometimes working independently. Esther would find out she was pregnant and write to her husband with the news. In spite of the money coming reliably in Aureliano’s letters, it was tough being a single mother to seven children. The day little Carlos died of stomach flu, which often killed poor babies. Aureliano was working in the United States. He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to his son.
Every day, at exactly 12:00 pm, the women in the neighborhood took out their chairs and sat in front of their houses to wait for the mailman. Sometimes he passed by a house without stopping. That meant no letter for them. They picked up their chairs and went back inside, hopeful that tomorrow would be different. Sometimes letters came with no money orders. The husband or the son would explain that frost had made it difficult to harvest the tomatoes or the asparagus. They had to wait. Yet the mail remained the most expected time of the day.
San Pedro Caro was a town of fisherman, farmers and migrant workers. By the beginning of the sixties running water was a privilege for few. Women and girls washed clothes by hand at the public “lavaderos,” or even at the edge of a canal, also popular with boys for swimming. Neighbors with wells in their backyards, opened their houses for the community. They endured the constant coming and going of people carrying buckets of water. Nobody had to pay, only patiently wait for their turn and follow the rules, like using only the rope and bucket already at the well to get the water out.

At night, and regardless of her complaints about the lack of help to buy new batteries, Maria Gil would take her radio out and put it where all could hear the soap opera. Women and kids alike surrounded the neighborhood’s only radio.

Esther was not very sociable, but it was difficult not to become part of the communal routines. People shared more than radios and water, and more than the sounds of kids playing on the streets; they shared the absences of loved ones, and the hope and loneliness that came with it. They shared the hardships for the lack of social services and the heartache of seeing babies die. But most also shared a dream, the dream of one day setting foot in “El Norte,” joining their husbands, fathers and sons.

Every time Aureliano returned home from the United States, he found work in the fields of well-to-do families in town. Even if he only had weeks to be with his family, he didn’t rest. One morning when on his way to work, while hauling farming equipment with his horse, tragedy struck. The horse got scared and threw him. The heavy piece of farming equipment trapped and crushed one of Aureliano’s arms when it fell on him. Some surgeries later he had improved but not totally recovered. For several years he was unable to return to work in the United States. He continued working on whatever jobs he was able to handle, but with more mouths to feed – now a total of 11 – for the first time since they got married, Esther and Aureliano’s family experienced hunger.

The economic situation was so bad that the oldest kids had to drop out of school to help. By the time Aureliano’s mobility and strength returned to his arm, some of the kids were young adults and teenagers. It was now their turn to look North. They left one by one, the way it always happens. At the beginning of the seventies, Aureliano made once again the trip to the United States to reunite with his sons, in Los Angeles, California, sending for Esther and the younger kids a couple of years later. The two oldest daughters had already married and stayed in Mexico.

For Esther “El Norte” was nothing like she had imagined. The two-bedroom apartment where she and her three kids landed, was infested with rats and roaches. The space was already home to Aureliano, three of their sons and two other male relatives; one son had already moved out and had a wife and a baby. The apartment complex was in the heart of East Side Clanton 14 St territory, one of the oldest gangs in Los Angeles. The two adult sons liked to party and were often out late at night. The teenager was ready to follow in their footsteps. Drive-by shootings and gang violence were frequent.

Esther had no friends to talk to. She had to clean and cook for ten people. She and her two girls often pushed a shopping cart full of dirty clothes to the laundromat. She always made sure to get the sand from the beach out of the seams and pockets of her son’s pants. She imagined the beach, and all the nice places in California she had been told about in stories. So far, she had not seen many.
During the week, with the kids at school and the man at work, in a dilapidated living room and surrounded by old furniture, she often buried her face in her hands and cried. Esther and Aureliano had grown distant from years of separation. Aureliano couldn’t understand why she was unhappy. It was true they didn’t have a car, they didn’t go places. It was ten people in a two-bedroom apartment. She was alone for long periods of time, unable to get around on her own, but was it really that bad? Why couldn’t she just be content?

As months and months passed, sadness and hopelessness took a hold of her middle age heart. She finally had enough, returning to Mexico with Aureliano, and their two younger daughters in the early eighties. Sadness went home with her. Depression never really left after those years.

Settled back in Mexico her daughters had what they needed, but when it came time for them to go away to college, Esther couldn’t let them go. Universities were several hours away, in Morelia and Guadalajara. It was better they returned to Los Angeles, there at least they had their brothers.

Luz Elena, the youngest daughter and the one that used to run to Esther with tissue for her to dry her tears, back when they lived near 14th Street, was the last one to leave the family home in Mexico, and move back to the United States. Once again, Esther found herself in an empty house. Aureliano always had an easier time adapting to the changes. In San Pedro, he enjoyed cock fights and sitting at the plaza with his friends. Esther walked to church and to the market alone most of the time.

Esther and Aureliano returned to the United States many times, they stayed with their son’s and daughters in the houses they purchased in the suburbs of Los Angeles: South Gate, Huntington Park, Downey. They welcomed many grandkids and then great-grandkids over the years. She told stories of how much she had worried and how difficult those first years in the United States had been. When shopping at the mall with Luz Elena, she picked nice shoes and nice clothes for herself. Don’t I deserve nice things, she would ask no one in particular. A picture from that time, of her, Aureliano and her two daughters, shows her standing in front of a water fountain at Macarthur Park in Los Angles, her lips tight and her eyes looking far into the distance.

 

Esther died in Downey, California at the age of 78.

Aureliano will soon turn 90. He remembers the beauty of her long hair and her blessings every time he started back down the dirt road, back in Jaripo, back when they were young.

Smoke Screen

In our family no one ever separated and God forbid they even think of divorcing.

Granny Love always said, “Course they’s some orta-had nevah got hitched in the first place.”

My Aunt Bertha Mae was scared to divorce.

“God may strike me dead ifen I divorce. I jest wants to be rid of ‘im,” she would say.

This is her story.

Bertha Mae was the oldest daughter in her family of three children. They lived in the family’s hundred-year-old, bulky two-story house on the edge of a township called McCleary Station, 20 miles outside the city of Talladega, Alabama. Her father was the only doctor within 30 miles. Times were hard in the 1950s and often patients could not pay their bills in cash, so they brought dried beans, peas, and home-canned vegetables, lard and freshly ground cornmeal. The family cellar was always full.

Homer Ghee was from the township of Wetumpka. His father, a District Attorney, had ambitions to become a state representative. Those ambitions included plans for his son to build a career as an architect.

In 1952, Bertha Mae was the first female in her family to enter college when she attended the University of Alabama Nursing School. Homer Ghee was working toward a degree in engineering. They met at a homecoming football celebration, fell madly in love and moved in together. Within the year she was pregnant and they dropped out of college, married and moved into the large house with her parents. Homer was nothing special, as far as her family could see. He was handsome, with sharp, blue eyes, was a good dresser and excellent dancing partner, but he was vague about his future. He and Bertha Mae went dancing at the Armory most Saturday nights.

After the birth of their son, Homer enlisted, departed for boot camp and was sent to Korea. His company was ambushed while on an early morning patrol in the mountains near the 38th Parallel. He took shrapnel in his neck and face, some loss of sight in his left eye and was medically discharged. Homer returned changed — restless and bothered by nightmares. The fun loving boy was replaced with a sullen, angry young man. Bertha Mae gave birth to their second child, a daughter, eleven months after his return home.

The first crack in their marriage was when Homer, newly medically discharged, removed Bertha Mae’s name from the checking account.

“We have little money and I can manage it better-n you,” Homer said.

This forced Bertha Mae to ask for money for household expenses, which Homer often forgot, and when he did remember it was never enough. Within a month of Homer’s taking over the finances, they realized they could not live on his military retirement income. They decided Homer would look for a job allowing Bertha Mae to be a stay-at-home mom. Homer found temporary work as a mechanic and gas-pumper at his Uncle Ben’s gas station but seemed unable to stay on the job. Soon, Homer began coming home in the early afternoon with liquor on his breath and demanding sex as his right. When rejected, Homer would storm out of the house and disappear for weeks without leaving money for Bertha Mae. He always returned from these trips as though nothing had happened.

Realizing Homer was not taking responsibility for his family and falling deeper into depression and running away, Bertha Mae insisted he go to his father for help. His father offered Homer a salesman’s job at his life insurance company.

The sales job entailed long hours, looming quotas and travel far from home. Homer moved his family to his home town of Wetumpka, 165 miles away from her parent’s home, into a small house that his father gave them. After spending months there, often alone, Bertha Mae high-tailed it back to her parents. She and Homer lived between the two homes for many years.

Bertha Mae’s parents died within six months of each other from the 1959 influenza epidemic. The house and two acres of land had been deeded to Bertha Mae, free and clear of any debt and she announced to Homer she would be living there permanently.

With a secure job, Homer finally got his self confidence back and won awards for his sales ability. Yet he repeatedly refused to take a District Manager’s position that would mean a desk job and more time at home. Soon, though, Homer’s bad eye was giving him problems. He tried to hide his vision problem from everyone. Slowly the blindness in his left eye prevented him from safely driving a vehicle. Now he took the desk job.

With more time at home, he and Bertha Mae argued more. Their twelve-year-old son refused to go fishing with his father; stating it was no fun, boring and they never caught any fish. Also, he was adamant he would not play football, nor any other ‘ball’ sport for that matter. The boy loved to read, draw and put together airplanes and cars and paint them up in loud colors. Homer accused Bertha Mae of coddling their son and making a sissy of him.

Meanwhile Homer grew bored and restless at his job, losing many workdays. Once his father became aware of his son’s absence from work he retired Homer. He gave his son a generous retirement monthly income package and encouraged him to go home and seek help for his anger and inability to adjust to adult life.

Homer now spent lots of time on the creek banks fishing, though he never brought home any fish. He once spent his full-month military retirement check for a deep-sea fishing rod and reel that could only be used in the ocean, which was 350 miles away.

One night there was a particularly brutal argument between Homer and their son. The boy insisted he would not play football.

“You are no son of mine,” Homer said as he departed the room.

Homer rose early the next morning, made the coffee and was on his second cup when Bertha Mae arrived in the kitchen. She took her mug of dark, steaming coffee, inhaled the aroma of chicory, and opened the door to go out onto the screened-in back porch.

“I think, today, I’m gonna leave you for good. You heah me, Bertha Mae?”

Bertha Mae called to her cat, “Come on Suga”

“You wanna talk about it?”

“No, I done quit talkin’ bout it. Suga, come on.”

“That’s our problem, you and that cat. She gets more attention than I do.”

Bertha Mae heard the front door open and click shut. Good riddance.

She stood looking out the open canopy-window over the kitchen sink. The early morning sky was slowly opening up to a soft orange light that seemed to color the air and gave the green bushes and shrubs a dusty orange glow. Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud grunt and then she heard a chair scoot across the floor. She saw Homer sitting at the dining room table pressing his thumbs to his temples. She just stood there looking at him, thinking that his strength always seemed so big to her; now, she realized how small and slight he was. In all the times he left, Homer had never announced he was leaving. She had never felt afraid until now. Can I do this alone? Should I beg him to stay? Will the children and I be safe?

Dressed in overalls over long johns, he came out, moved the cat from the doorway with his foot and closed the door. The cat screamed and dashed into the hallway and hid behind the chiffarobe.

Much too early, Bertha Mae needed her ritual “toddy of courage.” She reached for the Southern Comfort, poured a little into her coffee cup, and added a smidge of water. She coached Suga from her hiding place. The cat, stretching and rubbing against her leg, looked over at the empty food bowl. Bertha Mae filled the bowl with nibbles and walked out onto the screened-in back porch.

She sat in her double-seated rocker, just out of the sun’s reach. Suga sat beside her and began tongue-bathing. Bertha Mae rocked back and forth, singing her favorite gospel song, “There will be Peace in the Valley some day, Oh Lord. Yes! There will be peace…”

Later that day, Homer Ghee walked away from Bertha Mae and their two young children. He left with only the clothes on his back, his custom-made pipe and special-blended tobacco pouch.

She still had the checking account Homer set up for her years ago and the monthly deposits continued in his absence. She remained a stay-at-home mom, became President of the PTA and participated in the flower club.

Years passed. Their children married, moved out, and had children of their own. Bertha Mae and the children had discussed cashing out Homer’s life insurance policy so they could attend college; but the insurance company said he had not been gone long enough. Bertha Mae, meanwhile, adjusted to the hollow sounds in the big house she loved. She was born and raised in this house. The front of the house sat up high, on solid rock pillars. Her father dug out a root cellar under the porch, which provided a cool, dry place year round for food and children alike.

In time, with the children gone, she grew to enjoy her single life. The checking account supported her. She volunteered one day a week as a hospital greeter. She hated any unexpected interruptions, insisting friends and family phone before they come over—‘to be sure she was home.’ She woke every day, stretched, and rose from her bed, changed from her nightgown into her day dress, and tied the ruffle-trimmed apron around her waist. She then inspected for “grays” on each curler encased-bunch of hair. It was a daily chore. In the past when she found them “loitering about,” she would just jerk them out. With her hair getting thinner, this was now the biggest decision of the day before she went down stairs.

Every morning, Bertha Mae filled the coffee-percolator and placed it on the stove.

One day, as she stepped out onto the back porch, she felt the chill and saw the pre-dawn air was rich with musky dew. A white-orange light reflected upon the sky from somewhere barely over the horizon. Pale fog hugged the ground and glowed as it lay in smoky layers in the hollers and valleys behind her home.

Her last chore of the day was always to mix sugar water for her three hummingbird feeders. This morning, she saw that one was already drained. She was puzzled at the loss of a liter of nectar at a time when the hummers were resting. She was irritated. She wasn’t sure if the irritation she felt was because of the disappearing nectar or because of her friend nagging her to come to the Amory Dance every Saturday night.

“You need to find a man ’cause you’re talkin’ to yorself,” Eufaula said.

“I done had me one man and I don’t need no nutter-one!”

Or perhaps, her irritation was the result of learning, just the day before, that in fact she could have claimed Homer as dead and collected his life insurance years earlier.

Bertha Mae poured her second cup of coffee and went to the front porch swing. She never sat on this swing without remembering how she and Homer Ghee sanded, stained and put the beautiful walnut-boards together. The one project they accomplished without an argument.        Swinging and combing the fur of her cat, she heard a scratching sound and then a grunt. Thinking it was the swing grunting and the scratching sound was Suga’s claws on the wooden swing-boards, she paid it no mind and continued brushing.

But there it was again. The sound was distant and too soft to be heard clearly. She began to swing and brush in earnest. Then she heard a dragging sound. Suga went on alert.

Bertha Mae stopped swinging. Silence. Then they resumed swinging. There was that sound again; loud and much closer now. Sliding and scraping and bumpety-bump, slurred mumbles and grumbles from a human; this noise was moving toward the end of the porch.

A faint mist of odor she couldn’t immediately recognize floated up through the wide-plank porch floor. Suga bounced onto the floor, arched her back, tail in the air, in a defensive stance and screamed. This sent chills up Bertha Mae’s back.

Suddenly there was smoke curling up between the cracks of the porch floor.

“Who goes there?” Bertha Mae shouted.

She crept toward the noise coming from underneath the planked porch floor and the smell she was sure she knew. Suga rubbed against her leg with arched back. The noise moved toward the end of the porch. The cellar door creaked open.

A gray-haired head popped up and turned to face them. Homer Ghee, with his hand-made pipe in his mouth, was puffing his special-blend tobacco, smoke twirling into the air above his head.

The first thing that came to her mind was that she had just mailed the forms claiming Homer as dead and collecting his life insurance. Should she be nasty and argue or play nice?

Bertha Mae reached up and placed a hand on each of Homer’s shoulders, as if to verify authenticity. His face furrowed with wise creases and his blue-eyes burned brightly. Satisfied that the person was indeed Homer, shaking him roughly, she said, “Homer, we have to make you disappear again.”

“Huh?” He muttered as he grinned with a display of tartar-coated teeth.

“You sick Bertha Mae? You lookin’ mighty funny.”

She gave him the stink-eye, cold and direct. Then she released her hold on his shoulders, walked over and flopped down in the swing next to Suga.

The swing seemed to move of its own accord as Bertha Mae began to brush the cat.

Toque de Chicharra

Naked, standing in a puddle of water, my hands were cuffed behind my back, and the redhead again asked where I got the weed.

Once more, I lied.

Behind me, he inched closer and spread my legs with a kick from his boot. Pain exploded from my balls to my brain, zapped through my eyes and singed the ends of my hair. Dressed in khaki pants and plaid shirt, the Guadalajara city cop carefully handled the electric wand, stepped over the wet floor, and with sadistic sarcasm repeated the question.

“You want another hit of the chicharra?

On the city streets of Guadalajara, local tokers taught me to associate the chicharra – the cicada – with ‘catching a buzz’ and getting high; taco vendors served these insects fried.

That instant the incisive sound and sensation of the cattle prod was added to my personal vocabulary.

With that, I broke.

I took the police to the apartment of a university student I’d met at a wedding named Marco, with whom I’d smoked a joint.

*  *

That morning, I had awakened to Guadalajara narcotics officers bursting into my bedroom, guns aimed at my head. Handcuffed, they ushered me through the courtyard out to the street and into the waiting unmarked car as the neighborhood watched.

Joesepy, my roommate, had also been taken, as had Rudy and Louie. At the jail, different holding cells separated us, and one by one the cops conducted their investigation.

The Canada shoe-box my cousin Ramon had first handed to me full of fragrant marijuana buds sat on the interrogation table, full to the brim with stale grass, pills and other paraphernalia the cops had concocted to augment our guilt. By the time they got to me, the narcs said they knew the whole story. I just needed to cooperate and corroborate, but I knew no one knew, just me.

 

Of course I couldn’t give up my primo Ramon, the cousin who’d actually purchased the grass for us, so I blew the whistle on Marco, the poor Mexican pre-med student from the wedding.

Now in Marco’s apartment, as the undercover cops were making the buy, I stepped out onto the balcony and contemplated an escape. The narcs negotiated a transaction with Marco, who rolled a joint so ‘my friends’ could sample the product. He handed it to the tall green-eyed redhead who smiled and flung it to me. I immediately tossed it to his partner. The short, swarthy, mustachioed cop surprised me when he thumbed open his lighter and fired it up. Taking a deep drag, he expertly held his breath, and then handed the joint to his associate. The toke made the circuit, but when Marco offered it to me, I declined with a lame-ass, “I have a paper to complete, due in the morning.”

The undercovers wanted a kilo. Marco assured them he’d have it by noon next day.

* *

My junior year I traveled with nine other UCLA students to the city my mother proudly called La Perla Tapatía to study the culture of her ancestors. Our mission was to conduct independent research projects through a conservative Catholic university. We were to record the investigation in a term paper, and report the experiences at a public forum upon our return to UCLA.

La Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara catered to foreign students, mainly Americans unable to gain admission into medical and dental schools in the states. Almost everyone at the school dressed in suits and ties, and the day began with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer over the loudspeakers.

The first day of class, rifle-toting security guards turned away two members of our group at the school entrance; Rudy’s hair hung down his shoulders, beyond the designated neckline the school rules required, and my huaraches apparently demeaned their standards.

Later, the prefect in charge of our contingent, a dapper little man in a three-piece suit, tinted glasses, and bald head, sat behind a big desk and listened to our idealistic intentions and expectations. I quoted from El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán.

“In the spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage, but also of the brutal gringo invasion of our territories…”

As I read, the little man smirked and leered, his eyes lusting at Susie, the only gringa among us, who sat crossing her shapely white legs in a salmon-colored mini-skirt. He seemed to hold the attitude of my Tia Lydia. My mother’s half-sister was a strongly Catholic woman who did not appreciate modern influences; she was married to my Tío Miguel who worked as a porter on the train that commuted between this provincial city and the nation’s capital. I had met them on my first trip to Mexico City a couple of years prior. They had three beautiful daughters who had by now blossomed into womanhood. Before I left for Guadalajara, my mother told me I could stay with them; when I went to inquire about it, my Tío was away and my Tia told me she didn’t believe it would be proper. I tried to explain how as a Chicano I’d come in search of my Mexican roots. Tia Lydia belly-laughed and scoffed.

“You’re not a Mexican. You’re a pocho!”

That stung.

We ten Chicano students must have stuck out like a hitch-hiker’s thumb: our dress, our talk, our smoke. After class we’d fire up a joint on the way to the bus stop. All of us lived in the same neighborhood. Louie and Susie shared a two-bedroom apartment with Lorraine, Rudy, and their five-year-old daughter, Audrey. Albert, Becky, and the newlyweds lived in Marco’s two-story boarding house, while Joesepy and I rented a room from a single mother.

With other American students who spoke in a variety of English accents, we’d ride the bus to and from the campus on the outskirts of the city.

In the afternoons, Susie, who spoke perfect Spanish and believed in the Chicano Movement, sunbathed on her beach towel at a local park and attracted men like flies to pies.

Traipsing through the city high as a Mexico City sky, not caring that people smelled the pungent smoke odor, I sauntered down aisles at El Mercado de San Juan de Dios, which sold everything from horse saddles to local medicinal herbs, including peyote. Seated on a bench in front of the massive Teatro Degollado, I marveled at the sounds of its water fountains. I flirted with wide-eyed coquettish girls who giggled as they strolled in pairs, crooking arms or holding hands. Later I witnessed construction workers putting the finishing touches to the double-spired cathedral of El Sagrado Sacramento, a church that had been under construction since the nineteenth century.

I walked the streets and tried to make sense of what I read at the school’s very limited library; its stacks nearly empty, much like the grocery store shelves, but for government journals and crumbling folios that contained the city’s history and a lot of material about the Cristero Movement. Apparently, Guadalajara had been named in honor of the conquistador, Nuño de Guzman, who’d enslaved and tortured the natives to work in the silver mines. Guzman, who’d been born in a city of the same name in Spain, had been Hernan Cortez’s main rival for territory in the New World.

As I listened to a band of musicians strum out “El Son de la Negra” outside a cantina, another sextet belted out the lyrics to “Camino Real de Colima” on the opposite side of the street. Guadalajara was the birthplace of mariachi music. Yet, amid this Catholic and traditional city, modern American and British songs played on every sidewalk. Young people carried transistor radios in their purses and pockets. The Doors, Beatles, and Rolling Stones songs blared from everywhere.

Here, I encountered Huichol Indians for the first time, and they would eventually become the subject of my independent research project; a people who had managed for centuries to evade European assimilation, selling their artifacts on sidewalks. It was a beautiful Huichol girl who first made me aware of these folk. She stood at a street corner and held a yarn painting in one hand and on the other a transistor radio rocking and rolling the words to “Proud Mary” by Credence Clearwater Revival.

Some weekends my cousin Ramon and I visited the surrounding towns in his VW Bug. We cruised around Lake Chapala, ate fish and drank beer at beach restaurants constructed of poles and tarps anchored to the sand. As we circled the lake, Ramon pointed out the clandestine marijuana fields cleverly camouflaged on the ground by fruit and vegetable vines that hung above and lined the beaches. Ramon was a welder and an artisan who lived and sold his wares in nearby San Pedro Tlaquepaque. We celebrated my Tia Dolores, his mother’s birthday at El Parian, a popular restaurant/bar there.

On one occasion we drove out to the ancient town of Tonalá. As we rode around my aunt who had been a rural teacher and a school principal, explained to me that this tiny indigenous town had once been renamed Guadalajara by the conquering Spanish, but later abandoned when the Iberians found a more preferable site. Tapatio derived from the indigenous language of this land; tapatiotl, was a monetary unit consisting of three small bags.

*  *

On the drive from Marco’s flat to the jail, I tried to bribe the two plainclothesmen. They laughed at my offer. It was too late they said.

“De cincho un Quinto,” the short cop quipped as the cigarette smoke swirled out with his breath. For sure I’d do five years in the state penitentiary. The case was in the commissioner’s desk, and there was nothing they could do but advise me to act quickly, before it was too late. The lawyer would work out the details they said, and it was up to our relatives to respond.

As the cell door clicked closed, I wondered who would answer for me. My cousin Ramon? He was probably shitting bricks right now knowing I’d be tortured and thinking I’d denounce him. Louie and Rudy had their women. Joesepy had money; he’d been a successful insurance salesman before deciding to go back to college for a business degree. A middle-aged man, he enjoyed scoring with younger women who admired his sophisticated suits, his sporty Fiat, and his generosity. Jose Something, but we all called him Joesepy, the Italian Signore. Me, I was broke.

*  *

The three days of incarceration dragged with uncertainty. Just before our release the four of us were herded into the same cell where we all assured each other no one had said anything to the cops. One by one they called our names. I was the last.

As a condition of our release, besides a $3,000 fine for each one of us, we had seven days to leave the city. Enough time to settle matters at school, and shamelessly plagiarize government documents for my term paper.

When I finally stepped outside the jail, the short, plump, aging figure of my mother waited with tears in her eyes. Dona Teresa, my mother, had decided to pay me a surprise visit. She arrived the afternoon of our arrest at the home of the woman who rented us the room.

Mortified at the news, she called my cousin Ramon, who accompanied her to the city jail. There she met with the lawyer who negotiated and brokered the deal for our release. He, too, urged the matter be expedited.

When she saw the embarrassment in my face, she told me to forget this ‘mierda tapatia’. That evening we celebrated at Rudy and Louie’s apartment smoking and drinking and singing a song we’d all heard while in lock up; it was about a guy who had been recently released from jail after being busted and tortured by the cops for smoking a little weed.

A couple days after we were released, I ran into Marco at the main square, where I was getting my term paper typed by a paid scribe. I fumbled through an apology, but Marco said he knew they were narcs. He had to play along and pay them their bags of bribery, just as I did.

Not long after that, we left. As the Tres Estrellas bus drove us north towards Los Angeles, my mother slept on the seat next to me. I recalled the interrogation and my response, which I buried away in shame. The story I’d retell upon my return to UCLA would be about the nine days we spent communing among the Huichol people in the Sierra Madre Mountains. The spirit that urged me here in search of my identity now drove me away and I realized: I wasn’t Mexican.

Fruit of Labor

The flat-bed truck rumbled along the back roads of Ventura County, California. Don Luis crouched in a corner. His buddies’ elbows poked his ribs. It had been a long day, climbing ladders, filling sacks, emptying lemons into crates on the way down. But it beat picking beets in Nebraska. He’d returned home penniless after that stint, despite pleas to officials at the border bracero office to recoup his wages. At the cooperativa store in his Mexican village, he’d awaited a check in the mail that never came. Now, a year later, the memory of that fruitless trip to the Great Plains still stung like thorns tearing his skin as he picked lemons. But he’d get his pay, he thought, as he leaned against the truck’s side panel, while the engine hummed and he fell asleep.

Then a siren shook him from his slumber. Braceros scrambled, flailing their arms in the dark, canvas sacks still slung across their shoulders.

Don Luis sat upright. In the distance, the red lights atop a patrol car blinded him. Brakes screeched as the truck skidded off the road. A few feet away, a door slammed and footsteps crunched on gravel.

An object gleamed in the dark as a man approached the truck.

“All of you, get down,” he said, a badge affixed to his uniform. The foreman slammed the driver’s door and instructed the men, in Spanish, to climb out, then followed his crew.

Don Luis and the men flung canvas sacks off their backs and jumped out of the flatbed truck.

“Single file,” the police officer said.

Don Luis lined up, just as he did at the border bracero processing center where ranchers’ representatives gathered to select workers. He knew the routine. No shiny belt buckles, smooth hands, or back talk.

His neck stiffened and hands fidgeted. Was someone in trouble? As far as he knew, everyone had bracero papers. Or did they? In recent years, contracts had been harder to get.

The officer scanned the men’s arms.

“I need you,” he began, pointing to each of them. “There’s a fire raging over there.” He pointed to the hills.

Don Luis and the men broke away from the line. Fire trucks screeched as crews disembarked, hauling hoses, protective gear, and equipment.

Don Luis followed them into the desolate hillside. His feet and legs dragged, heavy from the day’s climbing. Drops of sweat ran down his forehead.

After nearly two hours, his legs began to buckle as he reached the hilltop. He looked up and saw firemen frantically extinguishing flames. Don Luis and his buddies hauled buckets, equipment, and hoses to them through the night.

As the sun peeked above the Ventura skyline, a sweet aroma cut through the haze. Workers set up a table, spreading it with bread and coffee. They sat there – braceros and firefighters together – atop the hillside, amid the embers. Don Luis poured a cup of coffee and bit into the bread. It filled his empty stomach.

Then he and his buddies followed the foreman for the downhill trek and drive back to the bracero camp, where lemons and oranges waited to be picked.

*  *

About that time, the postman at the village cooperativa store announced: “A letter for Don Luis.” Antonia grasped the envelope addressed to her husband, then handed it to her father to read.

“From Nebraska,” he said, opening the envelope. A check spilled out.

It came just in time. Food was scarce at home. They went to town to cash it.

In town, the teller studied the check.

“And where is Don Luis?” he asked.

“In El Norte,” Antonia replied.

The teller shook his head, returning the check. “He must sign.”

Antonia and her father headed back to their village. She dictated a letter to her sister and inserted the check in an envelope addressed to Luis in California.

It would arrive in two weeks.

*  *

Don Luis removed his canvas sack and followed his buddies back to the Oxnard bracero camp. At the entrance to the barracks, the mail carrier waved letters in the air. Braceros gathered around him, arms outstretched. Don Luis listened for his name.

When it came, he grabbed the envelope — a letter from home! – and unsealed it: a check for $100 from Nebraska. It was less than he’d expected. But it would put food on the table back home. He pocketed it and cleaned up for dinner at the mess hall. At night, he guarded it near his cot.

On Sunday, he presented the check to his foreman.

“It’s good,” the foreman said in Spanish, examining it. So Don Luis donned his best pants, straightened his shirt collar, and headed into the colonia, where – unlike in Nebraska and Utah – store clerks greeted him in Spanish.

He walked into a store displaying women’s and men’s clothes. He picked out a shirt and pants, then reached for the check inside his pocket.

“Please cash it,” he told the clerk.

“Sure,” the clerk replied. Don Luis signed, and walked out with his purchases.

The following day, he was back to climbing ladders and picking lemons. At sunset, he and the men mounted ladders back onto trucks, and stacked crates. On the way back to camp, he thought of the letter he’d write home.

But at the barracks’ entrance, he stopped. A badge sparkled on a man’s dark uniform.

“Hey, you,” he barked, in Spanish.

Don Luis’ neck stiffened. Was there a fire to put out? Or was someone in trouble? The police officer stared him down.

“Were you at a store? What did you get?”

Don Luis stood erect. But his hands fidgeted.

“A pair of pants and shirt,” he replied.

“You need to go back. And be sure to take the money and pick up your check. It’s no good.”

Don Luis washed. He grabbed the unworn pants and shirt and stuffed his pockets with change left over from his last paycheck. He headed into town.

At the store, he laid the clothes on the counter and paid for them with cash.

The clerk took the money and retrieved the check. “It’s no good,” he said, shaking his head.

“Why not?” Don Luis asked. “What’s wrong with it?”

The clerk shrugged his shoulders, but suspected it had expired.

Don Luis sighed, took it and folded it in his pocket and headed back to camp. The letter home would have to wait.

That night, he paced the barracks. He circled a trash bin near his cot, drew the check from his pocket, then stuffed it back in. He’d sleep on it. He hid it in a spot by his cot.

It stayed there for two days.

His mind raced. He recalled the sting that shot through his back in Nebraska’s beet fields.

One day, he approached the foreman. He spoke to him of Nebraska, the police officer standing at the barracks, the family back home, the check that was no good.

“Don’t fret,” the foreman said. He took the check, scrolled a white paper through a typewriter and tapped on the keys. Don Luis watched as he signed the letter with a flourish, folded, and sealed it alongside the check in an envelope.

Weeks passed as Don Luis labored in the orchards. Then one day, the postman arrived and another check from Nebraska fell into his hands.

That Sunday, he donned his new shirt and pants and went into town. He fingered the crisp check in his pocket.

At the store, the clerk greeted him. “You again?”

Don Luis placed the check on the counter and signed it with a flourish.

“How’d you do it?” the clerk asked, processing a money order for $100.

Don Luis grinned. Then he eyed the colorful cloth displayed on an adjacent counter. “Give me a swatch of cloth, for a woman this tall,” he said, pointing up to his chest.

The clerk rolled out the cloth, measured, cut and folded. Don Luis grabbed a pair of women’s nylon stockings. He remembered these had been rationed during the war.

He paid for his purchases and walked out, passing stores along the way. Then footsteps crunched on gravel nearby.

He glanced back at the shop he’d just passed. Voices in Spanish grew louder.

He watched as braceros exited the shop dangling shiny belt buckles and cowboy boots in their hands. Behind them, other braceros hauled Singer sewing machines atop their shoulders on their way back to camp.

Don Luis chuckled under his breath. He could hear them already – the machines whirring late at night, a seamstress in a Mexican village churning out dresses. He patted the money order in his pocket, and caressed the smooth cloth – a shade of green, the color of lemons ripening on thorny branches before the harvest.

Crazies In The Hood

My family thought I was crazy buying a house in a crime-infested, gang-ridden part of L.A.

Upon my return from Spain I had lived with my sister in the San Fernando Valley to get back on my feet, then eventually moved over to West L.A. into an apartment on Beverly Glen that a friend was vacating.

Staying with my older sister and her partner in North Hollywood was temporary. It was hard living with lesbians who chose verbal abuse, co-dependency and alcoholic, jealous-induced rants. Over in West L.A., my neighbors never conversed. I felt isolated and invisible. I’d sometimes wake up wondering where I was.

In the late-80s, Silver Lake was in the early stages of gentrification, but still had a rough edge. The grit of the neighborhood appealed to me. The house on Coronado Terrace was the first of ten the realtor showed me. I fell in love with the 1918, five-bedroom, semi-Craftsman two-story house, even though it had been worked on, piecemeal, over the decades. The ghastly dark-brown carpeting, the pink walls, the olive-green kitchen with its cracked linoleum floors, the back yard covered in concrete, the garage ready to collapse, and the chipped, red painted porch; none of this discouraged me. On the contrary, I knew the minute I walked in, it was the one.

I asked the postman about the area, the block, and in particular the eyesore next door. Junked cars were parked in the driveway and on the street, piles of booze bottles, beer and soda cans in huge plastic bags lined the side of the house, stacks of old newspapers were everywhere, and rose bushes and shrubs stood unkempt and covered in dust. I told myself there were always a few houses like this in a neighborhood, and not to worry. He described the Flores clan, a multigenerational family from the Philippines that lived in the tiny two-bedroom Spanish bungalow, and that drug dealing and gang activity had been going on for years.

“They’re a tough lot,” he said.

Frankie, Freddie, and Fidel – three sons out of the five kids — were part of a third-generation local gang, CYS, aka, the Crazies, a mix of Latino and Filipino youth. Robert, a white guy who lived a few doors up the street and had a reputation for meddling in neighbors’ mailboxes and asking for money, was also part of the gang. Yet something guided me to purchase the house.

Before moving in, I had some workers restore a bit of the Craftsman charm, take out the concrete to landscape the backyard, and move a few walls inside the house. Then I had the fun, yet challenging, job of dressing up 39 windows.

One day I stopped by the house during my lunch hour to check on the construction progress and noticed a gang tag on my side porch. Etched into a thick layer of dust were the initials ‘CYS’. Instead of waiting another few weeks for construction to finish, with my 5-year old in tow, and another sister and niece who were living with us at the time, we pulled the bare necessities together and moved in the next day. I too was staking claim to territory.

Frankie was the oldest and most involved with the CYS. Freddie was more of a follower. Fidel had two young daughters both under the age of 5, who were sometimes pulled along for the ride at night when the brothers would go out, and return with stolen car stereos they’d pass through their side gate to one of the brothers who stayed behind.

I introduced myself when we moved in, and regardless of their disruptive activities, I always said hello, called them by name, and engaged in conversation whenever they were hanging out on the low concrete wall that divided our driveways. They were hard to avoid.

The gunshots soon unnerved us. They were the norm on weekend nights. Helicopters hovered, sometimes for hours, with their bright spotlights lighting up the street and shaking all our windows as they moved from yard to yard. Sometimes we could hear sounds in the bushes up on the hill in our back yard. I never got used to the echo of bullets flying through the silence of the night.

One evening when I returned home from work and pulled into my driveway, a dozen CYS members blocked my way. They were hanging out with Frankie. My sister panicked; I realized we had to take a different strategy. I got out of the car to take my trashcans up the driveway, asked how they were doing, and would they mind letting me through. They moved. I got back in my car, a bit shaky but relieved. A couple of days later my front wall was tagged.

The tagging around the neighborhood never ceased; they were like cats marking their territory. I joined the Silver Lake Improvement Association – SLIA. I started going out with crews to paint out CYS and Temple Street graffiti along Sunset, and on the walls surrounding Mayberry Elementary School that became a canvas for the tagging wars between the CYS and ExP, the Echo Park gang. Their tags went as far as Glendale Boulevard, and spilled over into the more upscale hills off Benton Way. Before long I had a bucket of paint, brushes and some overalls in the back of my car and was often inspired to stop and paint out graffiti wherever I found it in the area.

The SLIA was a great resource for me as I settled into the hood. I started going to more meetings. Over time, though, the group’s rhetoric felt unrelated to neighborhood issues.I was invited to a meeting at the house of SLIA President. Lining her mantle were volumes of L. Ron Hubbard books on Dianetics. She was attempting to recruit SLIA members into Scientology. Around the same time, a series in the L.A. Times exposed the organization’s cult-like tactics and their problems with the IRS. I asked them not to call me anymore. I didn’t know which cult was more dangerous: the CYS or the Scientologists?

Yet through the SLIA I met LAPD Officer Joe Writer. He was the Senior Lead Officer (SLO), a job he held from 1986 to 1999 at the Northeast Police Division. SLOs are the bridge that unites the LAPD with the communities they serve. They help residents create a system of vigilance to discourage burglary and other crimes. The Rampart police scandal was then front-page news; stories of criminal cops were daily headlines. Neighborhood policing was an effective way to work in tandem with neighborhood leaders known as Block Captains, and build relationships to offset some of the bad blood.

Joe encouraged me to become a Block Captain. My sister and I worried about retaliation, and envisioned slashed tires, more tagging on our front wall, and danger to our lives. The brothers next door happily spoke with us in our driveway, attempting to disassociate themselves from any crime in the hood. But their theatricality started to wear thin, and their cohorts felt much less friendly.

Another Filipino member, Jake, who lived with his family next door to Robert and was especially known for his bad temper, was shot down at a party only a few blocks away. The mourning played out on our street with a hundred gang members all in black jackets with CYS emblazoned on the back blocking traffic for two days. We worried about more gun battles from rival gangs.

These guys were heavily armed, which Frankie openly bragged about to my Italian boyfriend, Paolo, who they thought, because of his thick Italian accent, must be associated with the mafia. They liked him and invited him over one day to show him them their arsenal.

I was scared but soon learned to trust Joe. He knew all the CYS members and their families. He had a magic touch; his soft blue eyes communicated empathy, while his large, strapping build and no-nonsense personality commanded respect. He knew each of them by name and visited their homes to mediate conversations between the kids and their parents. I remember him talking to one mom about her son, offering to get funding to put him in art classes to channel his tagging habit more productively.

The CYS was openly dealing drugs, which attracted even more shady characters. From our second floor windows we saw what looked like drug deals go down. Mr. and Mrs. Flores didn’t seem to care, and when Joe approached them I could hear their excuses and laments as to how they wanted to send their sons back to the Philippines, and insisting they were not aware of their sons’ CYS activities. I observed otherwise. I often saw Mr. Flores, a plane mechanic for the Americans during the Vietnam War, drinking with CYS members in their backyard, often for hours.

The first of many Neighborhood Watch meetings I organized drew 40 people to my back yard. With Joe’s support, the CYS slowly got the message that we’d no longer hide behind closed doors and windows. I strategized with Joe and some of the neighbors, and we decided to coordinate with a few phone calls as soon as we heard Frankie and friends congregate in front of the house when they’d return from their escapades late at night. We would come outside at the same time, to socialize, and walk our dogs, big and small, throwing them off guard and disrupting their gathering. It worked. They soon shifted their hoodlum activities a few blocks over; we helped those neighbors organize as well.

The years that followed were not easy living next to the Flores family. Apart from the junky cars and hoarding, there were many nights of family feuding and shouting, or Freddie overdosing on god-knows-what, screaming for hours. Nevertheless, we always chatted with Frankie, and though conversations were peculiar since he was usually either drunk or stoned, we stayed on good terms.

I babysat the block for nearly a year and a half, and then grew weary of mediating petty complaints between neighbors. Pilar, a landscape artist and set designer for the film industry, took over the Neighborhood Watch. She revived the meetings and also brought in the French muralist, Didier Guedj, who worked with the Mayberry Elementary School kids to design a mosaic mural. Now a young magician’s wand brought words of encouragement to the neighborhood and to the school kids: Integrity, Non-Violence, Friendship, Justice, Love, Wisdom. Neighbors who were meeting each other for the first time went on to collaborate for months, filling in the design with tiny pieces of broken tiles.

The Flores family eventually sent Freddie back to the Philippines, an arranged marriage awaiting him. Fidel finally got his life together and left the neighborhood, moving to Valencia with his two daughters, older teens by that time.

Frankie was in and out of jail for theft and dealing drugs. Every time he’d get out there would be gatherings with some of his prison buddies out in the street or in their backyard. These characters seemed even more menacing than some of the CYS bangers, who were growing older, while the next generation of younger members stepped in. Over time, Frankie was more low-key and appeared to be less involved in gang activity. At one point we thought he might be cooking meth in his bedroom garage that bordered our backyard wall.

A month later a dozen drug enforcement officers swarmed the house, entering Frankie’s room in the back. There was no meth lab, but I later found out that he had been stealing neighbors’ credit card correspondence from mailboxes; they found blank checks that he was trying to falsify. A black cloud lifted when they carted him off to jail. That was the last I saw of him.

The Floreses finally lost their house, which was foreclosed and bought by a Cypriot Armenian who renovated it – a project that lasted a year – and sold it for almost $1 million to a young actor who plays a vampire in a TV series. The house where Robert lived, the white kid involved with CYS, was renovated by an Iraqi developer who sold it for $1.5 million, to the Oscar-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Next door, Jake’s family still lives in the same house.

Today, crime is still happening, but it’s more underground. Property values have risen; many in the neighborhood are sitting on gold mines, me included.

I don’t miss the boys next door, but I’m saddened by the neighborhood turning into a homogeneous hipster community. The newcomers refer to the neighborhood as the “East Side,” as if Boyle Heights and East L.A. don’t exist. I miss a community where neighbors watched each other’s backs. It’s starting to remind me of my time living on the west side, where the new folks moving in keep to themselves. Airbnb rentals are bringing in occupants who have no roots in the community, many of whom think they can party well past midnight.

The tagging continues, but rarely do we hear gunshots. With the gang gone, the biggest threat now is the coyotes, especially for the owners of those little dogs.

Heaven Knows

I remember my brother Oscar and his friend Richard sneaking into Richard’s bedroom with the album under his armpit covered by his jacket.

My parents decided to visit the Garcia family for a while on that Saturday afternoon in March of 1976. We kids attended Our Lady of Soledad School in East Los Angeles.

“Hey Oscar, there’s a record player in here,” Richard said.

Then I heard music and snuck a peek to see what they were up to.

“It sounds so nasty, play it again.”

This went on for about 20 minutes, the moaning and groaning accompanied by the erotic synchronization of “Love To Love You Baby,” by Donna Summer. This was the first time I heard her name.

Raised in East Los Angeles in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, we lived in the barrio with gangs and violence. Prejudice and bullying at school and home made life unbearable for me most of the time. My mother had an iron constitution and my father was an alcoholic. They were dedicated to their family and did their best. But a dysfunctional, traditional Mexican Catholic family home was not a place I wanted to be.

I escaped through disco dancing.

I struggled in academics, but excelled in art, sports, and dancing. Disco gave me an anchor of hope. It was like I plugged my body and soul into the electrical socket that provided climax without end.

Donna Summer became more to me than a superstar. I felt that she helped people heal. There were stories of a young boy who helped his mother hear for the first time while she was vacuuming after he kept playing “I Feel Love” at maximum volume. She miraculously began to sing along with the album and made the connection to sound. A girl who was a fan of Donna’s was in an auto accident and comatose for days. The doctor gave up hope for her. The young girl’s parents played one of Donna’s albums continuously in the hospital, which later helped the young girl regain consciousness.

I found her voice soothing and asked God for a blessing to meet Donna in person so that I could thank her for helping me cope with my turbulent teenage years.

Two of my brothers were DJs during the Disco era and went by the names of Circus Disco and Levissio Disco. During the week, they would practice for their weekend gigs by dimming the lights in our home, setting up the turn tables and the rainbow strip lights then blowing the referee whistle to the beat of Donna’s “Heaven Knows,” “Sunset People,” and “Once Upon A Time.”

My middle brother became my dance partner. We won several contests. During the summer of 1978, while at the annual carnival at my grammar school, a European film company videotaped us for their documentary on Disco in the United States.

Later that evening, we competed in the festival’s dance contest before about 500 people.

We danced to Cheryl Lynn’s “Star Love,” with six other couples as the disco lights fluttered across the dance floor. Finally, he and I were competing with only one last couple. With our every twirl and dip, the crowd cheered us on in rhythm with the thumping disco beat. A shouting match ensued as the disc jockey stirred up the crowd with a succulent deep voice.

“What do you think, people? Number One or Number Five?”

The crowd bellowed for minutes. Finally, a judge tapped the other couple on the shoulder, and the DJ announced us as the winners. A mob of friends and community members charged at us. We were surrounded by people pulling at our clothes, hugging us and shouting. For a brief moment, we felt what it’s like to be a celebrity, with people out of control. All I remember is a tall man yanking us out of the crowd and escorting us onto the stage, where I finally caught my breath. The song “San Francisco” by the Village People played as he announced our names and placed medals around our necks. It felt like an Olympic moment. Then Donna’s “Last Dance” packed the floor.

In 1995, Donna Summer gave her usual August concert at the Universal Amphitheater. I never understood how people went hysterical for groups like the Beatles or Elvis until I finally saw Donna Summer in person. I screamed so much that by the end of the concert I could barely hear my voice.

My friends and I lingered on and chatted inside the concert hall.

“I just want to meet her once and then I’ll die in peace,” I said to my friends.

Out of nowhere two white, gay young men in their late twenties put their after-concert reception party passes on each of my thighs and said, “You go girl, and meet Donna Summer!”

I froze.

“Come on Fab, this is your chance,” one of my friends said.

My heart began to race as fast as the beat to “Once Upon a Time.” I made my way down the stairs from the concert hall to where double doors lead to the back stage courtyard. My hands began to sweat, my legs to tremble. I almost hyperventilated. I was alone among music-industry folks, the press and media. I said a little prayer.

Donna was being interviewed about a hundred feet away by a film crew. It was a separate section from the immediate crowd and guarded by security. I turned to my left and bumped into her nephew. His pass was different than mine, which caught my attention. So I asked him about it. His pass allowed him entry to the family room. Only God could have sent me this angel. After telling him how important it was for me to meet his auntie, I convinced him to lend me his special pass and get closer to Donna.

I made my way into the family room and stood by the water fountain alone. No one asked me a single question. How could anyone miss me? I was the only Chicana in the room. Everyone else was black or white. I learned after reading her biography that her nanny, Rosa, was Latina, so I guess that’s why no one questioned me. I kept praying, hoping that she would come into the family room for a quick minute so I could say hello and get her autograph, or a hug.

Minutes passed. I continued to pray. Then with a gentle push, she opened the door and peeked her head into our area, calling three little girls to come to the dressing room. They were standing near me – her daughters or nieces, I think. I froze and then on impulse I followed the girls. My entire body trembled as I made my way four feet through the backstage door.

And there I was — Donna Summer, her bodyguard, and me.

“Mrs. Summer, can I please have a minute to share something very important? It would mean the world to me.”

I told her how important she had been to me during my turbulent teen years and how her music and singing had been a true complement to my life. She took my hand as I continued to share and tears rolled down my face. For years, I told her, that I had prayed for this meeting and that I believed in miracles because of this special moment. She gently took my other hand and with a soothing voice looked into my eyes and told me that everything I said was very important to her and she really appreciated me, too.

I felt like I was talking to a friend I hadn’t seen for years. After a few minutes of warm exchanges, I finally asked for her autograph. I only had a pen so she removed the hospitality sign from the wall and signed it.

With tears in my eyes, we hugged and I thanked her for making my dream come true. The moment felt so wonderful that I didn’t want to let her go. Her bodyguard finally gently touched my shoulder and told me that I had to let her go. She handed me a tissue as I collected myself and took a deep breath.

She thanked me for coming to the concert and said that it was nice to have met me. As she and her bodyguard watched me leave, I said thank you and found my way through the double doors alone. As I got to the base of the staircase, I began to sob and thanked God for a phenomenal gift. I felt as if I had gone to her house to visit, leaving very peaceful, happy, and validated.

I climbed the stairs holding on to the railing as my legs trembled and my heart beat as fast as the rhythm to “Heaven Knows.” All I could say was, “Oh my God, this was like a dream.”

My friends were waiting for me in the lobby. They shrieked as I showed them Donna’s autograph, and hugged me hard.

“You did it, Fab, you really did it!”

I filled them in on the details over dinner at Denny’s and it was about then that I was sure that when I’m cremated, I want Donna’s autograph to go with me, while “Last Dance” plays.

Sonias

1984

“I bought a theater for the house,” Manuel beamed.

He had been waiting outside the apartment complex to catch Sonia when she pulled in.

“What’s that?,” Sonia asked eyeing the huge box Manuel was holding. Manuel started for the door with an impish grin. Once inside he tore open the box and began connecting the contraption to the TV, “it’s a VCR!”

They had two kids named after themselves – Manuel Jr and Sonia Veronica. Sonia worked at a cafeteria downtown. Manuel drove a furniture truck. Sometimes he took four year-old Sonia Veronica with him. He never came home late and always helped with the cooking, the cleaning, and the kids. The family was close to leaving their small yet happy, $170-a-month apartment in Huntington Park. They had been saving to buy a house for four years. The neighborhood wasn’t bad, but Baby Jr.’s clothes were always being stolen off of the clothesline.

As soon as Manuel finished he realized he had no idea where to find VHS tapes. The young family piled into their car, excited to find movies for their magic VCR machine.

Eventually they found a VHS rental store on Atlantic Blvd. The place bustled with recently VCR’ed patrons, everyone clamoring to find something to use on the gadgets. Sonia and Manuel rented “Escape from Alcatraz,” and were required to leave a $70 deposit for the privilege.

Later, in the afterglow of the excitement, the couple pondered what they’d seen at the store.

“Why don’t we open our own VHS rental store?” said Sonia.

The store on Atlantic had lines of customers, and there were no other rental places for miles around. So they took a chance with the house money to start a business.

“Where can we buy VHS tapes for ourselves?” Manuel asked nicely, as he returned their rental the next day. The tapes weren’t available at any store he could think of and he didn’t know anyone else who could possibly know. The video rental shop-keep was wary, but ultimately relented.

“Well, there’s a warehouse…”

Later that day, Sonia and Manuel were digging through large boxes of tapes in a nondescript warehouse. She was from El Salvador; he was from Mexico. They didn’t know if any of these old American movies were good. Most of the movies were in black and white, from the 50s or 60s, and starred actors they didn’t recognize. They picked their tapes based on the pictures on the boxes and hoped for the best. They walked away with 70 tapes, 16 of which were marked “XXX,” and each costing between $60 and $150.

They rented a space in a small shopping center near the Anthony Quinn Library. Manuel built two racks to display the empty VHS boxes; the tapes themselves would be tucked away behind the counter. The 70 boxes were placed far apart in an effort to make the place seem less bare. The one-time membership fee was set at $100; the rental fee was $2 per movie with the movie to be returned the next day.

On the first morning, Manuel affixed a handmade 12’x8’, red, wooden “Video Rental” sign to the front of the store. They made $2,000 from membership fees alone that day. By that afternoon all the tapes were out. They began telling the customers that if they returned the tapes within the day they would get $.50 back. The tapes started coming back within two hours. No customers dared steal or not return the precious tapes because no one wanted to risk losing their membership to one of the only video rental stores around.

Every day Manuel traveled from Los Angeles to Orange County looking for places to buy VHS tapes for his anxious customers. Sonia minded shop with Sonia Veronica playing in the foreground and Manuel Jr tucked into a baby-swing in the back. The provisions for the day were in a small ice chest packed with snacks and baby food. Customers called constantly.

“Do you have any movies?”

They didn’t ask for a specific movie, just something to play on their VCRs. People weren’t sleeping – they would rent 10 movies at a time, only to bring them back the next day, jonesing for more. Manuel loved to call and ask, “Have we rented anything yet?” happy to be reminded of their success. Every night Sonia and Manuel were hungry and exhausted. Between watching the store and driving between warehouses there was no time to eat. They often ordered burritos from the Apache Café.

In the early days they experimented with fashion. Manuel built changing rooms and brought in a shipment of lady’s clothes to utilize the extra space. Sonia noticed that the neighborhood cholas weren’t interested in buying the clothes, just trying them on and staining them with their heavy make-up. The clothes were quickly out.

Five months in, they found a better, higher-traffic location at Eastern and Brooklyn. The new store was christened Sonias Video, as the family contained two Sonias. They were making $8,000 a week, about half of that was made on weekends alone. Other stores sprang up, but none came close to Sonia and Manuel’s selection. Quickly they opened a second store, V&M Video, named after their kids Sonia Veronica and Manuel. Next came Happy Video, named by Manuel because he was so happy. The last store of their empire was Sono Video after the city of Sonora in Mexico.

They hired family members to run them. Soon they were in a position to undercut any new competition and they had long since established customer loyalty. Blockbuster barely threatened them. Sonia dressed for work in a smart business skirt with a matching blazer; Manuel generally opted for a leisure suit with a jacket. They were in love with each other and partners in a lucrative business.

Once, when Manuel was minding the shop alone, three men hog-tied him and left him in the bathroom. They took his wallet and his car keys and drove to his home. They rang the doorbell and told Sonia’s mother (who had moved in to help care for the children) that Manuel had told them to come into the house to wait for him, and as proof he gave them Manuel’s wallet and car keys to show her. Sonia’s mother glimpsed at Manuel’s prized Corvette parked outside and knew the men were lying. She locked the door and called the police.

On a separate occasion, when Manuel and Sonia were both in the shop, Manuel noticed a suspicious man trying to steal empty VHS display boxes. Manuel locked the door and politely asked the man why he was stealing his boxes.

“No, no, I’m not stealing!” the man stammered.

Manuel took a gun from behind his back and fired a warning shot into the floor.

“Who told you to come here and steal these boxes?”

The man shouted his answer in panic and peed his pants in fear.

“I’m going to give you the opportunity to leave. If I see you within five blocks of here its su pajaro o su huevos!” Manuel barked.

Leaving Sonia to mind the shop, Manuel raced to a rival video store owned by a couple whom Sonia and Manuel thought were their friends. Unknown to these rivals, the insides of Sonia and Manuel’s videotape boxes were marked. Manuel opened various boxes while proclaiming, “this is mine, this is mine, this is mine” and promptly left the store with what was his.

Still life was better than a dream. They bought a house with a pool. Everyone had their own room, and the neighbors were white. Sonia Veronica was their princess, with rows of white leather shoes, puffy socks, and fluffy dresses. Manuel Jr. was their angel. He had all the action figures he could ask for. Sonia had a GTA Trans Am, new from the dealer, paid in cash. Manuel was able to comfortably spend his Christmases in Mexico with his parents without worrying about missing income. Each Christmas away, Manuel would call to say “I have a surprise for you!” then he would hold the phone over a tape player singing the Chipmunks’ classic hula hoop song.

1994

Friends from Manuel’s hometown began to migrate to the United States and soon Manuel found himself enjoying their company. The dinners he used to have at home with his family were replaced with drinks at the local seafood restaurant with his hombres. Manuel went from dressing like a Bee Gee to dressing in cowboy boots and hat. He started coming home with lipstick disgracefully smeared on his collar.

Winter came and Manuel made his yearly trip home. As he was driving back from his Christmas in Mexico he looked out on the horizon.

“I’m going to stop cheating on Sonia. I’m going home and we are going to be a family again.”

When he arrived, the house was half empty. Sonia had taken the kids and every piece of furniture she deemed hers. She made no announcement. She just left.

Sonia gave him his two-store share of their empire and forced the kids to keep visits with him because he was still their father. She would not let either of them disrespect him.

To this day, Manuel insists he was the victim of witchcraft. He claims it was Sabrina, the woman he cheated with, who lured him away from the family he loved because she knew he was married. On days when he is more honest with himself, he knows he was weak. With the success of the video shops and the panache of a Corvette he began carousing with men who inflated his ego. They told him he shouldn’t just have a wife, but also a girlfriend.

 

2014

 

Sonia and Manuel have been on the phone for over two hours.

They talk about their kids who are now in their 30s. They talk about his kids, the ones he has with his ex-wife Sabrina and with his latest wife, Vanna. Before Manuel got on the line, Sonia was saying good night to little Harold, Manuel’s second youngest, who he had with Vanna. Sonia and Harold are very close because she used to babysit him. He calls her My Tia Sonia.

Manuel and Sabrina’s relationship withered away in the deserts of Arizona. Soon afterward Manuel met Vanna. Manuel and Vanna seem happy but she frequently jokes, “When Manuel dies, he isn’t going to run to me at the Pearly Gates; he’s going to be looking for Sonia.”

Sonia tells Manuel how her ice cream shop is doing.

In the early 2000s the people who once paid $2 for rentals on Brooklyn Avenue now preferred paying $5 for burned DVDs on Cesar Chavez Boulevard. The travel restrictions imposed after the 9/11 tragedy resulted in fewer immigrants crossing over for work, and hence fewer Mexicans to rent films. Netflix and Red Box joined forces against her. The 2007 recession was another blow. Customers who were used to renting a half dozen movies had to cut back to one, or none at all. Sonia converted half of the space into an ice cream counter. She hoped that the ice cream would be a temporary life raft to weather the storm, and people would embrace their love of home theater again.

Sonias Video closed in 2009. She was heartbroken. All of her family members had been employed there at one time or another. All of the neighborhood knew her as The Sonia of Sonias Video. She had started with 70 VHS tapes and had ended with 40,000 DVDs. Sonia keeps a quiet pride that her shop outlasted the local Blockbuster.

Sonia now runs Two Scoops of Fudge. American ice cream, Mexican ice cream, bionicos, raspados. Her customers still love her. When they come in for treats they reminisce about way back when they had a neighborhood video store.

After Manuel says good night and hangs up, Sonia thinks about why she still loves him. She smiles about how Manuel never said a bad thing about her mother.

After Sonia’s mother passed, and they had been separated for many years, Manuel came back to California to visit the cemetery with her. He stood before his suegra’s grave and vowed, “I promise I will never leave Sonia alone – every time she needs me I’ll be there.”

My Okasan

There I was butt-naked in all my glory. All of my fullness on display to behold. Though I dug deep to exude some composure, I moved as graceful as a mother seal sliding past a flock of watching seagulls. I pushed myself forward, head high. Being fully exposed with nothing to hide behind, I sensed that this was going to be a moment to remember.

I was in Japan, spending the day at a local “onsen,” – a natural hot-springs bath house — in the “female-only” section. Surrounded by women of all ages, a naked communion was taking place, creating a sacred time to be with others, with nature, and with oneself. I should have tried to lose ten pounds before this trip.

*  *

I was here with my Japanese girlfriend, Takemi. I was giddy. This was another country that I had dreamt of visiting. As a child, every Saturday morning I would run to the television to see my favorite cartoon, The Adventures of Johnny Quest. Johnny explored foreign lands, along with his dad, Dr. Benton Quest, Race Bannon (his bodyguard), Hadji (his adopted Indian brother), and Bandit, their fearless little bulldog. They often ran for their lives from native warriors, walking mummies, or large one-eyed spiders. They always looked forward to their next adventure, just like me. I wanted to be Johnny.

Takemi was enjoying her time in her homeland. She no desire to live there, mostly because of the many earthquakes. Takemi had lived in New York City for 20 years, and only periodically returned to visit her mother Yoshika. Also, at 5 feet 9 inches, Takemi felt like a giant in Japan. Fortunately, her height and natural beauty allowed her to travel the world as a model before becoming a fashion photographer. She is also left-handed. Growing up, her teachers frowned when she used her left hand. Takemi was told to use right-hand for everything, especially when writing and using utensils to eat. Japan appears to be gentle and peaceful society, but also inflicts an “invisible rule” upon its people— the subtle expectation of conformity. Wear the poker face, hide your feelings, don’t speak directly about your intentions, and if you’re a woman, don’t expect your opinions to be acknowledged.

Now we were on a seven-city tour, courtesy of Yoshika, and I was grateful she was excited to share her homeland with me. It was in the mountain city of Kusatsu, a famous Japanese resort, where I visited my first onsen.

After a dinner of soba noodles, sushi and sake at our hotel, moma-Yoshika, Takemi and I walked into the night, down a narrow path to another building. Inside a small steamy pool awaited us. “What better way to get to know the mother-in-law,” I thought. And then she called me “fat.” The commentary was a loving gesture of course.

*  *

I was in the land of volcanoes, thus steam. This steam created the heat that warmed the underground springs on which onsen were built. I entered the changing room, which was outfitted with red wood lockers, carpeted floors, terry cloth bathrobes. I noticed that none of the women chose to wear robes, so I didn’t either.

I stand at 5 feet 8 inches, and let’s just say I am “full-figured.” When I enter naked, well I command attention. My feet are big, my breast are bigger, and my butt is biggest. The Japanese are polite, quiet and are often shy with their eyes. However, what is one to do when you’ve never shared an intimate space with a black woman, especially a naked black woman? You look. You peep. Maybe stare. Maybe smile, but mostly you look away quickly not wanting to appear rude.

Just before going to Japan, I shaved all of my hair off. Though I loved my hair, I am most comfortable with its natural texture as opposed to permed straight. I wore either a short afro, big afro, or dreadlocks. Now I was bald. The naked Buddha.

As I walked around the grounds to enter the pool area, totally exposed and watching women attempt to hide their glances, all I could hear inside my head was the theme music to fit this occasion. It rose to a thunderous “Bada-Boom, Bada-Boom!” I actually laughed out loud. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do but “jiggle-it,” and get into the water a quickly as possible.

As the three of us immersed ourselves into the earth’s champagne, personal inhibitions slowly dissolved. Since I wanted to capture every moment of the trip in photos, moma-Yoshika actually took pictures as naked as we were, and we all giggled.

I sank into the healing, warm, welcoming bliss and steamy bubbles. I felt my joints and muscles relax into an almost soft-noodle state. There was a faint scent of sulfur and lavender in the air. Soothing sounds of string instruments added to the bath’ house’s ambience.

*  *

I had watched the love of my life and hoped she wasn’t uncomfortable in my presence. I also wondered what she was feeling as she watched her mother watch me. From our first meeting when she visited us in New York, mom always received me with gracious open-arms. Though Takemi and I were not introduced to her as a couple, I saw in her eyes that she knew our truth. I sat in the nakedness of the moment.

I moved from the hot bath to the cooler pool, dipped my bucket and poured what felt like ice water over my head. As I exited this exclusive bath, I stepped as gingerly as I could knowing I was bringing thunder. “Bada-Boom” was playing at full volume as one woman giggled out loud. She later shared that she loved the curvature of my hips and big butt in a well-intentioned way.

*  *

Mom did not speak much English, nor I much Japanese, so Takemi was our translator (which she did not particularly like doing).

I found that the Japanese do not seem to engage in much light conversation (at least not with non-Japanese). At the dinner unless I started a discussion, no one would converse. Once started though, we would talk about history, women, men, food, astrology, and of course my favorite subject, Takemi. Mom enjoyed that we could chat for hours on end; banter became an easy flow with us, much to Takemi’s dismay because of the time it took to translate.

Mom came from a lineage of large land owners dating back to the Shogun era and she had inherited some of the family holdings; she fought to get more. She was the oldest of her siblings and believed she was entitled to more. This was unusual because custom dictates the elder male child to be first heir to any family succession, and it is recognized in the Japanese courts of law.

Japanese women hadn’t been allowed to work outside the home. Mom, however, was successful businesswoman. Although separated for many years from her husband, Takemi’s father, she also had a boyfriend (another taboo which she dared)- with whom she operated a successful construction company that built schools and condominiums. Finally, she also moonlighted as a psychic. She gave astrological fortune-telling readings to paying clients, using shengchein bazi, the Chinese zodiac. She also wrote a monthly magazine column that featured her predictions.

Takemi’s father, whom I never met, was an international businessman who traveled a lot. He came from humble beginnings, and after he and Yoshika married they moved into his mother’s home. According to Yoshika, she was treated like an unwanted stepchild because her mother-in-law resented her family’s wealth. She was forced to do meager chores while her mother-in-law ridiculed her. However, once her husband became successful Yoshika traveled with him to New York where Takemi was born. From there, they spent several years in Hong Kong before going back home to Japan.

Takemi was young when her mother and father separated. Although Yoshika never gave her husband the divorce for which he asked, she insisted on his continued financial support. This was when Yoshika’s boyfriends, lies and manipulation began.

While Yoshika kept one Tokyo apartment for Takemi and her brother, she had another apartment across town where she lived with her boyfriend. The young siblings raised themselves well into their late teenage years. They were left to feed themselves, get themselves to school, and protect each other. Yoshika would show up several times during the week to make sure they had food. As Takemi grew older she came to resent her mother. It was only a few years before I met her that, she and her mother began to mend their relationship. I suspect the damaged relationship played a role in Takemi’s move to New York.

Mom would buy Takemi excessive, expensive gifts that were sometimes rejected. Yoshika supported more with money than with affection. I witnessed the strain between them. Mom would often comment that she thought I was more Japanese than Takemi because I would want to assist her and walk with her. She still hoped Takemi might marry a wealthy man and live happily ever after, but in reality knew otherwise.

Yoshika spent money lavishly. She would go on wild shopping sprees that bordered the ridiculous. In New York she would shop non-stop for hours. Several people were needed to carry all of the large shopping bags up our fourth floor walk-up.

She would invite Takemi to join her for shopping in Hong Kong, Guam, and Hawaii. Often took she took the attitude that everyone could be bought, including me. Once, when she visited us in New York I slaved over the perfect dinner, but Yoshika took a sleeping pill just before it was time to serve. She slept through dinner. Takemi was furious, I was disappointed. The next day Yoshika bought me a beautiful cashmere sweater. I accepted the gift, but was still upset.

We traveled on to the city of Kobe, where we attended a show of the all-female theatre group Takarazuka. Similarly to the world-renowned all-male, Kubuki theatre group, its members performed all gender roles. It all felt very Las Vegas; there were big dance routines, dramatic songs, flashy lights, and over-the-top wardrobe changes with huge feathers, and rhinestones. The actors and dancers paraded down wide staircases, and performed in a Rockette-style kick line. Yoshika once auditioned to join this troupe. I guess it didn’t work out.

Mom loved ballroom dancing though. She was graceful as she glided across and twirled around the dance floor in her costume gowns, diamonds, and high heels while in the arms of her younger, male dance partner. In many dance-off concerts, she danced the waltz to the delight of hundreds in attendance. She had a flare for drama which always surfaced in the music she chose – long, moody orchestrations. Her expression was her pride, as her collection of trophies and other awards attested to.

Yoshika was not a complicated woman, though with secrets, she simply dared to live going against the winds of cultural tradition. She was a business owner, she lived and loved outside of her marriage, and she left her children to grow up on their own (her one regret). She traveled, paying her own way.

*  *

At the airport before our departure home, moma-Yoshika turned to me.

“Now I have two daughters.”

We all cried good-bye. It was the last time I would see her alive in Japan. Yoshika died in 2007.

In our home in Los Angeles, there is a small altar to Yoshika, with a photo of her, a miniature tombstone marker, and some incense. Feeling her presence, I still say hello to my Japanese okasan.

Fire

The average house fire burns at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

So I am in San Francisco having dinner; gorgonzola penne with shrimp, clam chowder, and sourdough toast at Cioppino’s on the wharf. My cell phone rings. It is my younger sister.

“You have to come home! There’s been a fire. The house burned. Please hurry.”

“Is everyone OK? Mom?”

“Yes, she made it out. But …the house, our things, all burned. We can’t stay there anymore.”

Is this really happening? I thought.

No one hurt! Still, my mind went to the insurance. Was it current?

I have been in San Francisco the previous few weeks, a choice assignment for a young government physicist from East L.A. My job is to protect people from harmful radiation. I am there to intern at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a leader in health sciences, and to investigate possible radiation hazards in the area.

Mornings, I walk from my apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district to the campus of UCSF at the foot of Mount Sutro. The campus is massive. Some 16, 000 very smart people — studying and practicing medicine, dentistry, nursing, and pharmacy — convene here daily.

Ionizing radiation, its harmful form, is widely present on the campus, used for healthcare, teaching, or research. That’s the type of radiation that concerns me. And that’s why I’ve come to this school — to learn more about it.

Ionizing radiation is too elusive for our senses. It can damage human cells covertly. So, handling it safely requires specialized knowledge, skills, and instrumentation. Because most don’t understand it, accidents can come easily.

None of that matters tonight as I scoop a final spoonful of clam chowder and take a bite of my toast, pay the bill, and dash out, while dialing the airline’s number to find a flight the next day.

Back in my room, I can’t sleep, as I wait for morning to take the first flight to Los Angeles. My mind toggles between worrying about what I would be leaving behind and about what I was going to.

I have unfinished work at the medical center. Patients with thyroid cancer are given radioactive iodine ablation therapy. The radioactive iodine is administered orally to kill the spreading cancer of the thyroid gland. Beta particles emitted by this radioactive concoction bombard the cancerous thyroid cells, destroying them without ever leaving the patient’s body. That’s a good thing.

But radioactive iodine also sizzles with another type of radiation, gamma rays. Too much exposure to gamma rays is harmful. These are ghostly, can travel several yards, and easily penetrate matter. They can exit the patient’s body, and potentially injure unsuspecting persons nearby.

This is the same radioactive iodine produced by nuclear reactors and atomic bombs.

So the gamma rays must be monitored. After a few days of radioactive iodine treatment in isolation rooms, patients are surveyed to make sure they can safely leave the hospital. That is my role.

Any extra radioactive iodine administered that is not absorbed by the thyroid gets excreted from the body, mostly in the urine, but also in saliva, sweat, and tears. So I survey the patient’s hospital room to make sure that any bed sheets, towels, gowns, clothing or other items the patient come in contact with aren’t released if contaminated.

But by my leaving UCSF in such a hurry, the patients’ release to home can be delayed if I don’t show up to measure their radiation levels. I like to help people, almost as much as I like to chase gamma rays.

I got into gamma rays because they were mysterious packets of energy akin to light. Ever since, as a little boy, I pointed a flashlight into the dark of space. I imagined riding on the beam traveling out at the speed of light, slowing time and only bending for gravity and Einstein.

Fire, however, terrified me. It was the destroyer.

As a kid, my grandfather would tell me of the volcano Paricutín, which rose from a cornfield near his ranch in the Mexican state of Michoacán, ejecting stone, ash and lava in the early 1940s. Flames of fire climbed thousands of feet into the night sky. It rained fire. His fields were peppered with burning rocks lobbed from the volcano.

Waiting to fly to Los Angeles, I worry about fire the destroyer because it had found our home.

How did it start?

What did it burn?

I feel guilty. Why did I leave home and come to San Francisco? I could have done my internship nearer to home, probably at UCLA. If I had stayed, this tragedy might have been avoided. I always check the batteries on the smoke detectors and look for frayed power cords.

But I know why I came. The opportunity excited me. To live, work, and study in San Francisco seemed so thrilling. I love seafood, Chinese food, the waterfront, rolling hills, fog, the wharf, history, storied penitentiaries, and panoramas. Add gamma rays to the mix, and the dish was irresistible.

It is exciting the moment I arrive in San Francisco. I walk to the sidewalk outside the San Francisco airport terminal to wait for a taxi. Within minutes, a tall man in a black leather jacket and boots stands next to me. It is Nicolas Cage, the actor, one of my favorites. I say hello. We share a cab ride. He tells me about a place he liked to eat. Next chance I get I go there – Yuet Lee Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for the fish in black bean sauce.

In the business of radiation, work, too, is exciting. Radiation is a beast of burden when tamed but a dangerous wild animal when loose and uncontrolled. Every once in a while, it gets away and I pursue.

One day, a radiation alarm goes off at the local waste transfer station, where trash trucks drop off their garbage for temporary storage or sorting pending further processing. The station has radiation monitors to screen incoming trucks for radioactive materials hidden in the garbage truck waste loads.

When a radiation alarm goes off, transfer station staff detain the truck until it’s cleared by the government radiation control authority. Me. That day, I grab my emergency response gear and head over to the transfer station. The truck is parked in a corner of the lot away from others, isolated behind yellow and magenta barricade tape.

I am in a Tyvek ® protective coverall suit, shoe covers, two pairs of gloves, and face mask. I approach the truck and survey radiation levels with my radiation meters. I tell them to dump the truck’s load onto the pavement and spread out the waste with shovels. I keep one eye on my watch and another on my radiation meter. The more time in this radiation field, the more exposure to gamma rays.

I work quickly, swinging a radiation meter in one hand and a shovel in the other, sifting through 12 tons of garbage. I wish I had my father’s strong arms. The sweat trickles down my forehead into my eyes and burns. An hour passes.

With a sensitive scintillation detector connected to my radiation meter, I walk through the pile methodically trying to ignore the foul smell. As I get closer to the source, my meter’s audio alarm chirps faster.

I come upon a plastic bag, which I separate out from the rest of the garbage for closer inspection. I turn on my radiation isotope “identifier” meter, an instrument that can read the type of radiation and identify the radioactive material producing it. Radioactive iodine. I look inside. Diapers.

It’s a story I know too well. A hospital patient undergoing radioactive iodine treatments for thyroid cancer urinates out much of the unabsorbed radioactive dose onto disposable diapers. These diapers are supposed to be segregated, isolated, and secured to decay in storage for three months until the radiation dissipates. Sometimes, this isn’t done and the contaminated diapers leave the hospital too soon.

My alarm clock goes off. It is 3 a.m. and I have a plane to catch.

I arrive in front of my childhood home about 8 a.m. The windows are boarded up; walls blackened, and burned furniture sits in our front yard. At the entrance, the metal security door is damaged, a large cut made vertically at the door locks, no doubt from the fire fighter’s rescue saw. I peek inside. Everything I see is black, either burned, charred, or covered in soot.

The vertical vinyl blinds in the living room window hang twisted, melted by the intense heat from the dining room where the fire started. A line on the walls of the living room demarcates how far the smoke descended after it spread up from the point of ignition. Everything above that line is sullied. Everything below it is clean. I suddenly remember a grade school lesson: to escape during a fire, fall and crawl.

In the dining room, our wooden dinner table is charred. The plastic table cover was simply fuel to accelerate the burning that ignited when a lit candle fell over. From there the flames reached up to the chandelier and ceiling, spreading horizontally to the walls and kitchen.

My mother brought her love of devotional candles from Mexico. So she had lighted a candle for the Virgin Mary, placed it on the dinner table, and left it unattended, forgetting about it when she opened a window on a windy day.

I look to one corner of the dining room where we kept many of our most treasured family valuables. Dozens of old family pictures are burned. Me as a kid in a purple suit, my father playing with us at the park, me sitting atop that garage where I imagined traveling on a beam of light—all are gone. Some look burned around the edges. Some look burned from the inside out, as if they self-ignited. Some I can’t find.

I search the remains for one picture in particular. For my first birthday my parents took me to Mexico for the first time. My mother sat me all dressed up in front of my birthday cake, a single lit candle adorning its center. Nothing.

By 9 a.m. the first of many suited men begin to arrive at our front gate. Some in business suits, some in protective coveralls, one after another they come all morning, to urge us to immediately hire them to restore, remediate, rebuild or adjust our fire loss. They are there to help, they say.

I take their business cards and stuff them in my pocket, oblivious to their rattling voices. I figure I paid the premium because our insurance adjuster would come by later, too, and hand me a check for $10,000 dollars so we could start to replace the things that burned.

Can he really do that?

They say people fear what they can’t see. That’s not me.

I’m terrified of fire, the destroyer.

The average photograph burns at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.