the true stories
My neighborhood in Houston, Texas was called Oak Forest. It sat beside some railroad tracks that run to Katy, Texas and was near a bayou. The bayou was concrete-lined and served to drain the streets after the torrential rains. In the old days there were a few cows grazing off the bayou where we used to play. There were oak and pine trees and it was a great place to catch snakes.
It was suburbia, to be sure but all suburbs begin as open land and vestiges remain. I was born to this neighbourhood and after living many other places, I found myself back on the very same turf when I was fourteen that I had left at age three or so. One of our high schools there had a good band that played at the grad ceremonies. They were called Moving Sidewalk and you may know of some of them today as ZZ TOP.
I was going to grade eight and my elder sister was already in high school. My school was called Black Junior High. I shall never forget my first day. I showed up fairly fresh from my six-month sojourn in Lynn Valley, British Columbia and my five and a half years of living in Louisiana. The building wasn't overly impressive or large but the first thing that struck me was the ten-foot high chain-link fence surrounding the property.
As the area was inundated with heroin, this was done for our protection. The school also had armed personnel on campus at all times and there was a short time window wherein the gates were open for ingress and egress. At all other times we were locked in. I was in time to get in the gate and proceeded to my homeroom for roll-call. I found it with little difficulty. I took an available seat around the middle and a little toward the front to compensate my vision.
The crowd assembled was at first distinguished by the vast range of ages present. Some of the kids looked my age but many of them looked like they were somebody's parents. The ethnic mix was broader than it was on the streets outside, reflecting the large catchment area and the legislation in place at the time. It was a wild crowd.
There were mostly males and some were still dressed up from the fifties in studded black leather jackets, Beatle boots and sporting impossible side-burns under pomaded duck-tailed haircuts. Others had pachuco pants like they had landed from 1930's Havana or L.A. in a time machine. A very few wore simply clean old jeans and a clean white cotton tee-shirts. I immediately recognized the poor people's kids.
After a loud five minutes, a young teacher walked in and asked us to please stand. He called the roll and requested that we all sit in alphabetical order as our names were read. We were arranged from front to back and from left to right. I wound up in front of Juan Juarez. The purpose of the homeroom was a method of taking attendance for the day. Anyone missing and unaccounted for would be sought by the Truant Officers outside in the world. A paper form was need for every absence including temporary absences within the gates from a class. The duration was forty minutes and we were welcome to do any unfinished homework at this time.
After this was accomplished one tall black jacket rose from his seat. There were titters and giggles and hoots as he swaggered up to the desk at the front. The star looked a few years older than the teacher, who looked about twenty-four or so. Jacket walked up and picked up the teacher's briefcase and undid the latches while the teacher looked on with horrified anticipation.
Jacket looked inside with the expression of a dog looking at its reflection in a pond. Then he slowly emptied the contents in a grand arc across the desk and the teachers head. He cracked it over his knee for good measure and placed the two halves on the desk in a neat stack. The crowd went wild. Jacket turned for a short bow and emboldened by the applause, he reached into his black skinny jeans and pulled out a switch-blade.
With a deft click under the nose of the seated teacher, he proceeded to cut the poor man's tie in half and placed it into the empty briefcase half. He turned for another bow and sauntered back to his appointed seat. The teacher gathered up his belongings and hurried off. A security officer came not long after and told us that we would not have the privilege of a homeroom teacher. There would be roll-call though and he would conduct it before closing us in til the bell.
I got to know Juan. He was thirty years old and from Monterrey, Mexico. He was married there and had a wife and two children. He worked in Houston at night and went to school in the daytime to get a diploma. Friday nights he drove home with the bacon and spent time with his family. He wore clean old jeans and a clean tee-shirt. He was passionate about the Beatle's songs and I was passionate about learning some Mexican songs.
We spent our homeroom time writing hand-written lyric sheets for each other. We had only one class together and that was math. I wrote English lyrics for him and he wrote Spanish for me. Many years later I sang a ribald song Juan had taught me in grade eight.
I was getting drunk in the Pyrenees Mountains with a group of Basques. We were in an outdoor cafe a few miles on the Spanish side and the waiter was a Frenchman. He was very nervous and suspicious of these rowdy Basques, fearing that they might have been Separatists. Given the area we were in it was not an unwarranted fear.
The group of three men had a drinking game going on when I chanced upon them. One guy would sing a song at the top of his lungs and if it was deemed a worthy performance, he would be rewarded in one of two ways. If the song was brava, he would be bought the next beer and if the song was epic, he would have earned the right to “shoot” the waiter with a plastic cap-gun. This usually caused the high-strung server to drop a glass or two.
I opened with El Rancho Grande and it went over well. I was clapped on the back and given a fresh tankard. When my turn came again, I sang a song about Solomon that is quite too crude to translate here which Juan Juarez had taught me. This reduced the three Basques to tears of joy and they damn near knocked the wind out of me in congratulatory slaps on the back. I was handed the plastic gun and
I confess here that I made the waiter jump like a cat trying to catch a grasshopper. I can still sing that song to this day.
Back in Houston, that first day I eagerly headed for the cafeteria at lunchtime. The Louisiana school system fed me the best red beans, rice, cornbread and back-fat on the planet for five years and now I knew I was going to be treated to the best chili con carne a man can get. I hurried into the long line. An Italian kid who reminded me of some of the guys in my old neighbourhood in Baton Rouge tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey, kid. You're new, huh?”
“New to this school but not to the neighbourhood.”
“Lookit, this is a very dangerous school, huh?”
“Yeah. Lookit, you ain't getting out of here alive without protection, huh?”
“No you ain't. Lookit, twenty-five cents a day and I can take care of everything for you. Whaddaya say?”
He pulled out his switchblade and began digging some dirt from under his thumbnail.
“It's your funeral, kid. Change your mind, look me up, huh?”
“I'll do that.”
The chili was all I thought it would be and I miss it down to this day. I traded Juan a matchbox full of yerba buena the same week for a ten dollar switchblade. They only checked for sidearms at the gates and knives were easily smuggled in. It was like the comb in your back pocket, one was simply not dressed for school without it.
Within a month Juan and I started to figure out ways of escape. One was internal and one was external. I came up with the former and Juan, the latter. I had discovered a loose ceiling tile in the boys changing room. One could shinny up the toilet stall, push this tile aside and hoist oneself up into the ceiling structure. Up there a person could travel all over the building. The walls were constructed of concrete blocks and they were made to have a two foot wide void behind in order to accommodate the pipes, wires and ducts.
Once inside the pipe-chase I could waltz around to any classroom and peer through a grate which was installed at the front centre wall just under each blackboard. I could hear every word of the teacher and class and see the entire class as well as the teachers legs from the knees down to the shoes. To prove it to Juan, I navigated one day to the math class we shared and waved a long piece of grass through the grate and tickled the teachers ankle.
The guy kept slapping and scratching his legs and muttered something about having the place sprayed for ants. Only Juan knew the cause and a few times we sat in on other classes together as intramural auditors. Juan shared his method with me and it was a bit more complicated but gave total freedom for the day.
The punishment at this school was of two main types. One was to be whacked with a sturdy wooden cricket-type bat with holes drilled into it to lessen the wind resistance. The other was to be made to either run laps in the sweltering humidity or worse, to crab-walk back and forth over the football field. It was covered in dutch clover and thus home to millions of bees which stung you as you did your penance. On any given day there were always a few guys running laps and crab-walking with the bees.
You simply sneaked into the changing room between classes, donned your kit and put your jeans in a bag. At the right moment, you burst out onto the track from the changing room and commenced “doing laps.” During lap one you deposited the bag over the fence, where the cinder track came closest to it. A few more laps limbered you up and gave you a chance to check for security, teachers or the coaches.
If any were present, they saw nothing more than a couple of pachucos doing their punishment laps. When the moment was ripe, you used the momentum from the running to leap halfway up that chain-link and haul-ass over the top. The hard part was getting into the jeans and avoiding roaming truant officers and police on the journey home. I spent most of my “spare time” at the railroad track and trestle near my old street.
Another friend of mine and I were training ourselves to ride the rails. It was step by step process and required much research and practical applications. Step one was getting used to walking on the ballast and then running on the same without stumbling. The trestle over the bayou had to be negotiated without vertigo in the dark as well as the light. We had to learn the signal of the lights in order to know what was coming through when and how fast it was traveling on any given sector.
I did the book learning and shared this with my pal and he coached the physical drills. Next we had to get acclimatized to huge chunks of steel whizzing by at close range, We would stand nearer and nearer to passing freights until we were completely used to the noise, vibrations, air currents and fumes. At the end of our training we could stand within inches of a passing iron horse and tap the ladders with our hands as they went by in a blur.
The next stage was mounting and dismounting the ladders while running alongside. The wrong grip swings you out and the right grip swings you into the ladder. Before I moved again to Canada we had progressed to running and jumping the cat-walks on top of the moving boxcars. We used to go on Saturday mornings to the switching yards and make coffee and stew over creosote fires. We befriended an engineer and were gifted with hiding inside the switch engines for a few miles if the coffee and stew was good enough for the old man's palate.
During these exercises I was T-Bone Slim and my partner was Mike Swaine (Swaine with an E). The engineer taught us a lot more about trains. The only girls we would hang around with were girls who liked trains and we always found some. They hardly make them like that anymore. We never spoke about it but Swaine and I knew that all this training was leading up to a great escape someday.
My day came first. It was a Sunday and I had had enough of everything. I took a rucksack and my ten speed and rode to the tracks. I waited for the whistle I knew would come and threw my bike into an open boxcar and joined it. The train kept fairly slow until it got past the grade crossings and started out of town. I listened to the diesels and I knew that they would pulse up to about seventy miles an hour soon.
I processed scenarios of obtaining ID, enrolling myself in school and such and at the last possible moment, flung my Raleigh out of the boxcar into some tall grass and then followed it. I realized as I rode home that I was just too damn practical. It wasn't time yet. It was getting close though.
One other Sunday I was sitting near the street crossing not far from the trestle. In front of me was the back of a strip-mall. The buildings were hollow block concrete and there was only some garbage bins and a few rusty cars to be seen. I was practicing rolling Bull Durham tobacco and smoking it without coughing too much.
I saw a guy dressed all in white come around from the front of the buildings I was looking at. The only thing he had on that wasn't white was his boots. He looked like a baker or a cook except that he carried a ten pound long-handled sledge hammer. As I watched, he began to swing into the back wall. The walls were painted white and all you could see was his black hair, his dusty boots and the hammer.
In about ten minutes he had a man-sized hole drifted into the blocks. He disappeared inside and emerged about two minutes later with a big white sack and headed straight for me. He sat down on the rail beside me and suggested that we move a bit closer to the trestle. We did. I let him roll a Bull Durham.
He showed me his loot. Cigarettes and prescription drugs. He was a Chicano and about twenty years old. He was between stints in the Texas Prison System at that time and he gave me the best lecture I have heard to date about not stealing and the horrors of going to jail. He specially emphasized the ghastly quality of the coffee, while praising the chili. I told him it was the same at my school and he laughed. He went over the trestle and I went home.
We moved a mile or so away to an apartment complex. It was owned by the Consulado de Costa Rica and managed by my mom. There were three hundred units, three swimming pools and three laundromats. There was also a nightclub on premises. The building complex was named after the owners daughter, Princesa. I entertained the man's three sons when they were in town for their annual school holidays and they were planning to have me down to San José one summer.
My father came into the living room one Saturday where my sister and I were watching TV.
“You and you. Itchy and Scratchy, get your asses off the floor and out the door and don't come home until you both have jobs.”
We knew he meant it and went out immediately. I remember being shocked at the time and somewhat concerned. When I look back now, I cannot imagine why. My sister and I had been employed since as long as I can remember. Our typical Saturdays were spent detailing cars, keeping lawns and gardens, washing down algae covered patios, grooming chow-chows and polishing ten pairs of black and ten pairs of brown dress shoes. Our beds were made up military style. All work was inspected and redone if deemed unworthy.
We both were employed by our father at his workplace as well. I worked cleaning three display houses and whatever outdoor work needed doing. My sister worked inside doing clerical chores. It was here I learned to mop, vacuum, do windows, scrub toilets and sinks and polish furniture. I got fifty cents an hour and she got seventy-five.
I was stacking some old lumber outside in the sauna-like heat one weekend and my sister was stuffing envelopes and licking stamps inside. I had to move some two by fours from one location to another. When I got down to the last few boards, I was startled when a copperhead snake I had surprised struck and landed its poisonous fangs onto the board right between my hands. The snake got a whiplash and slithered away and I got a donkey-load of adrenaline.
I stormed into the air-conditioning and up to my dad.
“Why in the hell”, I ranted, pointing at my sister at her desk, “am I out in the God-damn sun fighting snakes for fifty lousy cents and she's in the air-conditioning getting seventy-five?”
My father looked up from the retired couple he was pitching and calmly said, “You're fired. Go wait in the car.”
Even with these experiences, I remember having much angst that day when we “had to get jobs.” We started off in the direction of a mall nearby and soon split up. I was fourteen and my sister was sixteen. I went through the mall store by store and approached anyone who looked official enough to ask for employment. I exhausted the entire mall and found myself disconsolate on the pavement outside. It was getting dark and all I could see was some tire shops, car lots and a few restaurants down one of the side streets.
I went from place to place like a sad bumble-bee barely able to fly. It became dark and I became hungry for my supper and equally desperate. There was a small restaurant left on the street I had been working. I decided to really try to be convincing. The place was called El Patio. I went in the door and was greeted by a black man. I told him my predicament with much emotion.
“We don't really have anything for you.”
“Mister, I can't go home without a job. My dad doesn't joke.”
“How old are you?”
He went over to a booth and leaned in to the ear of a man sitting there. He was a Mexican guy in a fancy suit. There were three pretty young senoritas sitting with him. The man was about my dad's age. The gals were much younger. They all looked at me and smiled.
The black man came back and said, “I'm Peter. That man owns this place. He said you can start tonight as a busboy. Do you have any black pants?”
“Good. Wear some black pants, a white shirt and some black shoes and come back here at seven o clock.”
“Yes Sir. Thank you.”
I ran home and scoured the neighbourhood for the clothing items I did not possess. My sister was back and had scored a job at a drugstore in the mall. I returned to El Patio at seven and was trained by Peter. I worked there for a long time. The food was excellent and free. I was so happy, I whistled all the time. They even had a guitar player to serenade the diners. All the staff save Peter, me and the bartender were illegal aliens. They called me Palomito. It meant little dove on account of my whistling. I was the early warning for the immigration officer raids. I would give a special whistle and we would all disappear down the alley until the coast was clear.
I finished up at night after good folks were asleep. On the way home I would pass by the back door of a strip club and watch the tassels until being chased away by their kitchen staff. Next stop was the three laundromats in my complex. I went through all the washing machines and using an Allen key I carried I would remove all the agitators and scoop the change that had fallen out of peoples clothes. It took a while but was a good warm-down from work and very lucrative.
My pay at the Patio was fifty cents an hour and when ever I wanted to be paid I simply approached the owner and his ladies at his regular booth and stated my hours to date. There was no paperwork, due to my being under-age. The man would peel off some bills and sometimes I got a tip. I kept my money in a Quaker Oats can and cashed the laundry coins in regularly to add to the wad.
I was saving up for a Yamaha motorcycle. I never counted it out except once when my grandma was over visiting. In time I got a job at a grocery store bagging groceries and carrying them to cars. I mopped and stocked shelves and arranged the produce. The food was free and there were tips. All my companeros at this job were Chicanos. We all carried blades and none of us would hurt a fly unless he started it.
One day the owner of the apartment complex, his wife, sons and daughter came over to our place for the little girl's birthday dinner. It was at this time he offered to have me spend my summer vacation in his country as his guest. I was thrilled and wanted to impress them all with my command of the Spanish language garnered from Juan Juarez and the workers at El Patio and Foodland.
When the dinner was over and we were being served the cake, I decided to make my move. I was a bit nervous and also excited with visions of my tropical summer only months away. I turned to the beautiful little Princesa and asked in perfect Spanish if she liked her shit. The error was due to my not knowing the term for “cake” and trying to improvise by Hispanizing the English word.
Princesa turned deep red, her three brothers spewed cake across the table, their mother gasped and their father's deep hearty laugh was the only thing that kept me from melting into the scenery. I recovered quickly due to his nobility and began at once to apologize in Spanish to those assembled. In flawless Spanish I told the little Princesa that I was sorry and that I was very pregnant.
Princesa looked down at her plate and now her father and mother spewed cake. The Consulado recovered from a long bout of belly laughs and made me promise to come visit them after he wiped his tears. As it turned out, I came down with Mononucleosis the very last day of school and was bed-ridden for the entire summer. There is a perfect balance in the universe and it is fluent in all tongues.
One day my father came in my room and asked me how much I had saved up in my oat can. I took out the wad and counted out six hundred some-odd 1970s US dollars. He told me that we were moving to Canada again and that he needed to borrow it for our travel expenses. He asked me what I was saving it for. I told him a Yellow Yamaha 90 CC. He said he'd buy me one after we got settled.
I went to the motor vehicle license office in North Van as soon as we got settled. I handed them my Texas drivers license and gave them my new address. I was expecting to be handed an interim paper license and a shudder went through me as I watched the lady pop my license into a shredder. She told me that the legal age was different than in Texas and that I would have to wait. I thought of a few Spanish words I had learned at the Patio.
The lump sum was never recovered by me from my dad. I got ten or twenty bucks from time to time with no accounting to keep track of the balance. I often remember a line from Shakespeare he was fond of quoting when I was growing up.
“Never a borrower or lender be, for both ofttimes dull the edge of husbandry.”
That is how I came to understand that children don't learn from what their parent's say, rather they learn from what they do. Muchas gracias, Papa.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.