Friday, October 26, 2007

Cruising with Nayto

By Alvaro Huerta

I have always been nervous about visiting my old neighborhood.

One day, my brother Salomon—a renowned artist—invited me and my two other brothers, Noel and Ismael, to meet him at the Ramona Gardens housing project in East Los Angeles, where we grew up.

My brother had to retouch his mural in memory of Arturo “Smokey” Jimenez, who was wrongly killed, according to many witnesses, by the cops in 1991. The killing sparked days of protests and riots from local residents against a long-time history of police brutality and harassment in the neighborhood.

Two days later after receiving Salomon’s invitation, I drive my silver ‘67 Mustang to the projects.

More than twenty years ago I left the projects to go to UCLA.

I’d feared returning to my old neighborhood ever since, not knowing how my childhood friends and local homeboys would receive me.

I’d abandoned them all: Buddy, Herby, Ivy, Chamino, Peanut Butter, Nayto and Fat Ritchie--there is always a fat kid. I left them in a hostile place. Together, we were safe. Separated we became vulnerable.

My heart pounds as I approach the graffiti-decorated projects. I park at the Shell gas station on Soto. I look at the rear-view mirror as I comb my dark black hair slicked with Tres Flores and remind myself that this is where I come from. I regain my composure and slowly don a stoic look. I re-start the engine, cruise over the railroad tracks and speed bumps, pass the vacant Carnation factory and park in front of La Paloma Market—two blocks away from the Smokey mural.

Getting out of my car, I notice that I am early and am quickly confronted by the homeboys.

“Where are you from, ese?”

Before I can answer, a stocky homeboy replies, “Hey man, leave him alone. I know the guy. We go way back.”

“Fat Ritchie, is that you?” I ask, relieved.

“Yeah, man,” he says, as he welcomes me with a bear hug.

“Hey bro, how’d you get so buff?” I say, amazed at his transformation from the neighborhood fat kid to the muscular gangster. “Where do you work out? Gold’s Gym?”

“San Quentin State Prison.”

“Oh,” I say. “Hey, man, have you seen Nayto?”

“I don’t know what happened to him,” Fat Ritchie responds. “Most of the guys are either dead, in jail, on drugs or moved away. Only the dedicated ones stuck around to protect the neighborhood.”

As kids, we roamed the projects without scared parents dictating our every move. Life was simpler back then. We were a bunch of kids hanging out, playing sports and getting into trouble. Every time we got into trouble, Nayto seemed to have something to do with it.

I remember the summer of 1981. Baseball season had just started. It was a hot Sunday morning. We met, like always, in front of Murchison Street School. We had no park to play ball so we played on Murchison’s hot asphalt playground. We brought our cracked bats, old gloves, ripped based balls and hand-me-down uniforms.

One by one, we scaled the school’s eight-foot fence. Most of us climbed like Marines performing boot camp drills. But Fat Ritchie struggled. Like many other times, he found himself sitting atop the fence as Buddy shook it.

“Don’t mess around, man,” Fat Ritchie said.

“Hey Buddy,” said Nayto, “leave him alone or else I’ll kick your ass, again.”

On the playground, we picked teams. As we did, Nayto ran off without a word. The game was never the same without Nayto. We missed his home runs and wild curveballs. But the game must go on, and we started without him.

Short a player, the captains argued over the odd number of players to pick from. They decided that the team with fewer players got Fat Ritchie.

As the game began, we heard a noise coming from the storage area, adjacent to the empty bungalows with the broken windows.

“It’s just Nayto messing around,” yelled Chamino from right field.
In the bottom of the third inning, Nayto finally emerged from the storage area. He raced across the playground with his clothes drenched in motor oil.

“Nobody say shit or else,” he said, as he ran by.

“What did he say?” asked Buddy.

“Nothing,” I replied. “Let’s keep playing, it’s just Nayto trying to scare us.”

“Come on, let’s play,” said Herby. “I need to go home before I Love Lucy starts.”

A few minutes later, a LAPD helicopter appeared over the school’s storage area. Five police cars surrounded the school. Before we could run, the cops cut the chained fence and stopped our game.

We knew the routine. We got down on our knees, put our hands behind the back of our heads and waited to be spoken to. “Did any of you punks see a kid run through here a few minutes ago?” said the tall, white cop. “He’s about five feet tall and full of oil.”

Following the neighborhood code, we all stayed quiet and looked baffled.

“Fine,” said the exasperated cop. “I want this playground cleared before I arrest all of you project kids for trespassing.”

The cops drove off. We slowly picked up our bats, gloves and balls to leave the school. Out of nowhere, Nayto reappeared on the playground and again broke into the storage room. He emerged carrying a large, oily item. Fat Ritchie checked out the storage room.

“Nayto ripped off Toney-the-Janitor,” said Fat Ritchie in a panic.

We all ran home before the cops returned.

Days later, as we played in the parking lot, Nayto cruised by in a gas-powered go-cart. We chased after Nayto in our bikes and skateboards to get a look at what he was driving.

It wasn’t a typical, wooden go-cart that had to be pushed from behind. It was a customized, low rider go-cart—cherry red, with velvet seat covers, a leather steering wheel, and small whitewall tires with chrome-plated, spoke rims. The engine was positioned in the back, like a VW bug. It was a gem.

“Where did you get the go-cart?” I asked with great envy.

“I made it myself,” Nayto said.

Aware of his tendency to exaggerate, I examined the go-cart. The frame consisted of parts from Nayto’s old bike. The seat, under the velvet cover, was a milk crate from La Paloma Market. And I will never forget the steering wheel. Nayto took it from the ’85 Cadillac Eldorado convertible the homeboys left in the parking lot before they torched it. It still had the shiny Cadillac logo in the center. The engine looked familiar.

I couldn’t figure out where I’d seen it.

“Read what is says on the engine,” Nayto said, impatiently.

I took a second look at the oily engine. I read aloud with a look of confusion, “Property of M.E.S.”

“Are you a dummy or what?” Nayto asked with a smirk. “Murchison Elementary School.”

“Oh, man!” I said like a good detective. “You stole that…I mean you borrowed that from the storage room when the cops were looking for you at Murchison.”

“Why do you think they haven’t cleaned the play ground anymore,” he said. “Do you remember that big vacuum cleaner that Toney-the-Janitor drove after school when he would chase all the kids who stayed late after school.”

“Yeah, he almost hit me one time,” I said. “How about a ride?”

“Get on before the cops come by,” he replied.

We cruised the projects in his customized, low rider go-cart until we ran out of gas. Luckily, Nayto was always prepared. He had a small water hose handy and I volunteered to siphon some gas from an abandoned Toyota truck. I can still taste the gasoline in my mouth. But that ride was worth every drop I swallowed.

Those were the days.

I still wonder what became of Nayto.

[Alvaro Huerta is a writer, social activist and doctoral student at UC Berkeley's Department of City and Regional Planning. He lives with his wife Antonia and 8-year-old son Joaquin. One of his short stories is featured in the forthcoming Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press). This story first appeared on Sam Quinones's Tell Your True Tale site. Photo credit: Pablo Aguilar.]


Anonymous said...

With a little more detail, this could become a Chicano "Sandlot" movie.

Loved it,

Daniel Olivas said...

Yes, I loved it, too. I just posted different photos which Alvaro emailed me this morning.

msedano said...

Great reminiscence. Glad to hear at least one of the murals is being kept up. Back in '75 I photographed the Ramona Gardens murals as part of a poetry project. The gente were welcoming, even the homeboys I met. I came with a couple of names to drop, just in case, vatos I knew from Big Hazard and Lil Hazard. Speaking of whom, I wonder what happened to Chops?


Jesus Quiroz said...

Hello from Laredo, Tx.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Loved reading about a return to the old neighborhood....

Here in Chicago, I grew up in a place much like this one. It was a weird sense of dislocation I felt when I went back recently and found my childhood home torn down to accommodate yuppie condos....

Jonathan said...

Great story, sounds like it could be a chapter in a novel, also i can pretty much relate to this one, i grew up on Murchison st. and still live in Ramona Gardens, nothing around here is the same as it used to be, and this story brought back memories. Thanks.