Memoir:  

David Pérez

 

BIO

Born and raised in the South Bronx, David lives in Taos, New Mexico, working as a freelance writer, editor and actor. As former Assistant Director for the Society of the Muse of the Southwest, a literary arts organization, David wrote grants, edited newsletters, and facilitated the annual summer and winter writer’s series.

 

David has written hundreds of articles for Tempo, the weekly Arts & Entertainment magazine of The Taos New, and contributes to New Mexico Magazine. His articles and personal essays have appeared in numerous journals. As an actor, David has performed on film and stage. His website is http://www.davidperezwow.com

This excerpt comes from his recently completed, coming-of-age memoir, WOW!

 

‘Tough as bulls’

1964. Springtime at Public School 65, 141st Street and Cypress Avenue in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx—before the South Bronx became the “South Bronx,” when the ghetto-in-progress still smelled of paint, cheap asphalt and jobs.

Mom picked me up at the school’s front entrance. Across the street stood rows of red brick tenement buildings, laundry hanging on clotheslines strung along the fire escapes. From the windows, the smell of fried food filled the air, like incense.

“How was school today, mi’jo?”

“Fine, Mom.”

“Parece triste.”

“No, I’m okay.”

Actually I was a little sad. The night before, Mom said she was thinking of transferring my brother George and me to St. Luke’s Catholic School, the neighborhood parochial school shaped like a cinderblock and attached to St. Luke’s Church.

“You boys need a better school, yes?” Mom had said.

George was gung-ho. “Yea! I don’t like PS 65 anymore, Mom. It’s getting too rough; too many fights.”

I felt less enthused. I’d made friends at the school and got high grades. In my last report card, I’d scored an Excellent in almost every subject and was “learning to speak in complete sentences.” But George was right about the rough part. That morning in the schoolyard, a girl had punched another girl in the face, calling her a “fucking motherfucker.”

I was already familiar with St. Luke’s, having enrolled earlier that year in catechism, the mini-missionary class where I took my first steps into Roman Catholic citizenry. There, Sister Anne—a pretty nun with hazel eyes and spotless alabaster skin—taught with vigor and enthusiasm, peppering her questions in rapid succession like a television game show:

“How many apostles did Jesus have?” 

“Twelve!” our class chimed.

“And what is the Holy Trinity?”

“God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit!”

It was rote learning for the most part, but endlessly infuriating. Whenever I didn’t quite understand the material, it was explained away as “a mystery.”

Sister Anne: “God has no beginning and God has no end. He is Eternal and…yes, David?”

Me (incredulously): “You mean he just popped out of nowhere?”

Sister Anne: “No, God always was.”

Me: “Always?”

Sister Anne: “Always.”

Me: “But…”

Sister Anne (euphorically): “Such is the Wonder of God! We have to accept that He is a Mystery.”

George had also taken catechism class, but believed all answers to Roman Catholic mysteries could be found in Thor comic books. Aasgard, he insisted, was in another dimension, “like Heaven.” Odin had a white beard, so he was “God.”

**


Mom and I walked the four blocks to our apartment at 600 East 137th Street, which was part of the Millbrook Houses, a twelve-acre complex that ran from 135th to 137th Streets, from Cypress Avenue to the east to Brook Avenue to the west. In 1958, when we moved there, the projects sparkled with newness: a virtual mini-city with nine, sixteen-story high-risers surrounded by crisp lawns, newly planted trees, spacious parking lots, a community center and six playgrounds that George and I explored the area in matching red tricycles. 

The projects were also fireproof, which would come in handy in later years, when the South Bronx ignited into the national consciousness as the arson capital of the United States.

But before we got home, I made my daily pit stop at Joe’s, my favorite watering hole for sweets and egg creams. Mom gave me ten cents and said she’d wait outside.

“Not too much candy, mi’jo.”

Joe was a Mr. Potato Head-looking Arab man with thick eyebrows and hairballs in his ears the size of Milk Duds. He kept eye contact with me when I reached behind the counter to get my usual dosage of Tootsie Rolls and Now and Laters.

“You want cavities?”

“Sure,” I said, smiling at Joe with my crooked teeth. Actually, I’d already paid dearly for my sweet tooth, courtesy of the Guggenheim Dental Clinic, an alleged health facility synonymous with savagery; cavity filling through trauma.

“Stay good in school,” Joe said, as I forked over my dime. “Nothing more important.”

Worries about school and teeth aside, today was a special day. When Mom and I walked through our front door, Dad was unpacking an RCA combination console that included a 19-inch color television, a phonograph and an AM/FM radio. This was our first major league electronics purchase since my parents moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico.

“I love credit,” Dad crowed.

Buying on credit was new for the Pérez family, a result of my father’s steady work history, beginning as a migrant worker at the age of twelve, picking spinach in rural Pennsylvania. According to Dad, he had arrived at the farm with his older brother Ricardo and two other friends. The owner met them at the gate and said to Ricardo, “How many are with you?”

“Four.”

“I see only three.”

Ricardo pointed at Dad. “And this guy.”

“He’s only a kid.”

“He works harder than you.”

Dad was hired. He made $1.50 a day.

After that, Dad toiled at various jobs, from painting houses and simonizing cars to sweeping fish guts off the sidewalks of the Fulton Street Fish Market in downtown New York. Keeping with the food theme, Dad was now working in the meatpacking industry as a “pumper,” draining blood from carcasses of cattle and re-injecting them with water.  The job paid union wages; this allowed Mom to be a full-time housewife, which she wanted, especially after her first job at a garment factory in Astor Place, cutting trimmings from bathing suits.

“As exciting as eating dirt,” Mom had told us.

To celebrate the wonder of credit, my parents went shopping in El Barrio—Spanish Harlem. They purchased the requisite Puerto Rican furniture: a bedroom set made of pressed wood, sofas and chairs with the ubiquitous plastic covering, mattresses on spring metal frames, porcelain figurines ranging from sad-eyed kittens to swirling Spanish maidens, and a painting of The Last Supper.

Now the RCA console. When Dad took it out of the huge box he stroked it lovingly, the same way he did the prime slabs of beef he brought home from work. George, who’d missed school today with a slight cold, came out of the bedroom we shared and saw our new family member.

“Oh boy, it’s a monster!”

George was a year older than me and looked more like Dad, with dark brown eyes and a glower. Unlike me, George was a planned child, a product of grand design, which earned him the affectionate nickname of Papo, a sort of “male heir” title.

My moniker, thankfully spoken only at home, was Chiquitín, which roughly translates into “really little boy.”

George and I bounced up and down as Dad placed the console center stage in the living room in front of the sofa and vinyl recliner, a.k.a. the Daddy Chair. Mom fiddled with the radio knobs as I looked down into the record player.

“You could fit a half-dozen 45’s in there!” I said.

“We don’t have any 45’s,” George countered.

“Now we can get some. We have money, right Dad?”

Dad shooed me away, connected the antenna, and turned on the TV. There in hazy shades of green and pink were Ralph and Alice Kramden having an argument. We all sat down while Dad adjusted the antenna ears and experimented with the horizontal controls.

Dejalo, quieto, Jorge,” my mother complained as my father kept fiddling with the color even when the reception was fine. Itch scratched, he grabbed a Ballantine beer, his third of the young evening, and announced, “It’s an RCA.”

Then we watched The Honeymooners.


During a commercial break, Mom reiterated her desire to have her sons go to Catholic school. Dad took a swallow of beer.

“I like those nuns, too,” he said. “They’re like my mother. Tough as bulls.”

“Aye, Jorge, that’s not the reason I want to change them to St. Luke’s. It’s a better school, punto, end of story.”

“I tell you boys the story about my mother? What she did when I was eight?” Dad asked George and me.

We shook our heads. Dad, like Mom, was born and raised in Tomás de Castro, a country hamlet in Caguas, Puerto Rico (they were also born the same year, 1931).

“I was eight years old, un nene,” Dad began. “It was 1939. I come home from school – five miles I walk every day! My mother looks at me. ‘Go to work.’ So I went over to our bull and…”

“Wait, Dad, an actual bull?” I asked.

“Yeah, no big deal. We have cows; we need bulls. Tenemos vacas, necesitamos toros. It’s a farm!” Dad polished off his beer and continued. “So I say to myself, take a ride on the bull. I get on like a vaquero and start laughing. My mother catches me and bing! hits me with a leather whip. Here, look.”

Dad rolled up his left pants leg and pointed to a scar on his calf.

“Cool,” I said.

He rolled down his pants leg and smiled. Mom sighed.

Aye, I hear that story so many times. Mira, Jorge, the nuns are not crazy like your mother. St. Luke’s is a good school, okay?”

Dad shrugged. “Okay, Lucy, you decide what to do and you tell me.”

He pointed to the television. Ralph Kramden was threatening to send Alice “to the moon.”

“You see, he’s like the nuns,” Dad said. “Pow! Zoom!”

**


On the last day of public school, my mother informed my third grade teacher, Mrs. Daum, of her decision to transfer me to Catholic school. When Mom and I walked into the classroom that afternoon, she noticed an attendance sheet scotch-taped to the wall next to the front door. Posted next to our names were a series of that grand, exalted symbol of elementary school achievement: the Gold Star.

“Look, mi’jo, you got a lot of stars,” she said.

“I guess.”

Mrs. Daum rose from behind her desk to greet us. She was statuesque, with a smile as wide as a canoe. She asked us to please sit, and Mom gave her the news.

“David should do well in St. Luke’s,” Mrs. Daum said. “The teachers here at PS 65 are good, but a lot of kids just can’t keep up. It’s a language thing, Mrs. Perez.”

What she meant was that many of my Puerto Rican classmates’ first language was Spanish. Like my family, they had migrated to the United States in the early 1950’s, spurred on by “Operation Bootstrap,” a massive industrialization campaign that disrupted the lives of thousands of families on the island. A large number of these families settled in the Bronx, and my generation would become the first Puerto Ricans to be born and raised in New York City.

Unlike my third grade classmates, however, Mom and Dad were determined to have their kids learn English. I learned my first English word when I was two. Tugging on my mother’s polka dot apron, I said, “Mira, Mami, puedo hablar inglés.”

After a dramatic pause, I said, “Wow.”

With my parents’ encouragement, I had mastered English mainly through reading Marvel and DC comic books out loud with George. Later, watching hours of TV helped too.


“You’re making a good decision,” Mrs. Daum told my mother as we got up to leave. “Times are changing, but good luck to David.”

Gracias,” Mom said.

Times were changing indeed. In less than a decade, PS 65 would become the lowest-ranking elementary school in New York City. Heroin would seep into my Mott Haven neighborhood like an oil spill, and the South Bronx would become a place where danger lurked at every corner. 

But first there was Catholic school to survive. And it would turn out that Dad was right: Nuns were “tough as bulls.”


August 2010