Monday, June 01, 2009

Cruising with Mayto

By guest writer Álvaro Huerta

I have always been nervous about visiting my old neighborhood.

One day, my brother Salomon—a renowned Chicano artist—invited me and our two younger 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 murdered, according to many witnesses, by the cops in 1991. The unprovoked 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 phone call, I drove my navy blue ‘67 Mustang to the projects.

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

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

I abandoned them all: Buddy, Herby, Ivy, Chamino, Peanut Butter, Mayto 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 pounded as I approached the graffiti-decorated projects. I parked at the Shell gas station on Soto, near the 10 freeway. I looked at the rear-view mirror as I combed my dark black hair with my Tres Flores gel and reminded myself that this is where I came from. I gained my composure and slowly mustered a tough demeanor. Signs of weakness only attract the bullies in the projects. I started the engine, cruised over the railroad tracks and speed bumps, passed the vacant Carnation factory and parked in front of La Paloma Market—two blocks away from Smokey’s mural.

As I got out of my car, I was quickly confronted by the homeboys.

“Where are you from, ese?” one of the homeboys asked, slowly approaching me.

“Hey punk, what are you doing in our neighborhood?” another homebody demanded to know. He must have been only 13-years-old, but was ready to throw down.

Before I could answer, a stocky homeboy replied, “Hey man, leave him alone. I know this vato. We go way back.”

“Fat Ritchie, is that you?” I asked, relieved to be saved from the onslaught of blows that awaited me.

“That’s right,” he said, as he welcomed me with a bear hug.

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

“Na man, try San Quentin State Prison,” he proudly responded. “There ain’t no Gold’s Gym in the projects.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling like an idiot for asking such a stupid question. “By the way, have you seen Mayto?”

“I don’t know what happened to him,” Fat Ritchie responded. “Most of the guys we hung out with when we were kids are either dead, in jail, on drugs or got kicked out by the housing authorities. Only the dedicated ones stuck around to protect the neighborhood.”

As kids, we roamed the projects without paranoid parents dictating our every move. Life in the 1970s was not as violent. It was a time before crack and high-powered guns flowed into the projects without limit. While drugs and violence existed before the drug business skyrocketed and outsiders intervened in the projects, back then any problem among the homeboys usually resulted in an old fashion fistfight. And since no rival gang or outsider dared to come into the projects, Ramona Gardens was a haven for all of us.

We were just a bunch of project kids hanging out, playing sports and getting into trouble. Every time we got into trouble, Mayto was in the middle of it.

There was something special about Mayto. He was tall and muscular for an eleven-year-old. He had dark-skin and curly brown hair. He had great athletic skills that garnered him respect in the projects. Despite his crooked teeth, he was always smiling. He seemed restless, always planning for his next scheme and adventure. Like many kids in the projects, he didn’t have a father, making it difficult for his mother to constantly keep track of him and his two younger brothers.

Reminiscing about Mayto takes me back to the summer of 1978, when I played sports with my childhood friends all day long. 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 in the projects so we played on Murchison’s hot asphalt playground. We brought our cracked bats, old gloves, ripped baseballs and hand-me-down Dodger T-shirts.

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

“Don’t mess around man,” Fat Ritchie pleaded with Buddy to stop.

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

Once on the playground, we picked teams. Suddenly, Mayto ran off towards the school bungalows without a word. The game was not the same without Mayto. We would miss his home runs and wild curveballs. He would even nose dive like Pete Rose when he stole second base. But the game
must go on, and we started to play without our best player.

Short a man, the team captains argued over the odd number of players to pick from. As a compromise, they decided that the team with fewer players got Fat Ritchie.

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

“It’s just Mayto messing around,” yelled Chamino from right field.

In the bottom of the third inning, Mayto finally emerged from the storage area. He ran across the playing ground with his clothes drenched in motor oil.

“Nobody say shit or else,” he said, as he raced by us during our game.

“What did he say?” asked Buddy.

“Nothing,” I replied. “Let’s keep playing, it’s just Mayto being Mayto.”

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

A few minutes later, a police helicopter appeared over the school’s storage area. Five cop cars surrounded the school. Before we could run, the cops cut the lock on the fence and stormed the playground like a SWAT Team.

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 project 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 stayed quiet.

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

Frustrated, the cops drove away without a clue leading them to Mayto. We slowly picked up our bats, gloves and balls to leave the play yard.

Out of nowhere, Mayto reappeared and ran towards the storage room. This time, he emerged carrying a large, oily item. Fat Ritchie checked out the storage room.

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

We all ran home before the cops returned.

Days later, as we played tackle football on the parking lot, Mayto cruised by in a gas-powered go-cart. We chased after him on our bikes and skateboards, trying catch up to him.

It wasn’t your typical wooden go-cart that required being 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 that low rider go-cart?” I asked with envy.

“I made it myself,” Mayto said without making a big fuss over his invention.

Aware of his tendency to stretch the truth a bit, I closely examined the go-cart. The frame consisted of parts from Mayto’s old Schwinn bike. The seat, under the velvet cover, was a milk crate from La Paloma Market. And I will never forget the steering wheel. Mayto took it from the stolen ’76 Cadillac El Dorado convertible the homeboys abandoned in the projects before they torched it. The steering wheel still had the shiny Cadillac logo in the center. The engine looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where Mayto got it.

“Read what is says on the engine,” Mayto 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?” Mayto asked with a smirk. “M.E.S. stands for Murchison Elementary School.”

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

“Why do you think they don’t clean the playground anymore,” he said. “Do you remember that big vacuum cleaner that Toney-the-Janitor drove after school while trying to hit us?”

“Yeah, that punk hit me one time,” I said.

“I hated that man,” said Mayto. “That’s what he gets for messing with us.”

“How about a ride?” I asked.

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

We cruised around the projects in his customized, low rider go-cart, chasing down the little kids on their way to church and the winos in front of La Paloma market. Protecting their turf, the winos hurled empty Coors beer cans at us, missing us by a mile. Unfazed, Mayto stepped on the pedal. Not paying attention, he ran over a cat. It belonged to Mother Rose, the only black lady left in the projects. Fearing Mother Rose’s wrath, he kept driving until we got drenched from the gushing water coming from the yellow fire hydrant. Lacking a local pool, the homeboys would open the fire hydrant during the hot summer days for the kids to get wet.

Driving for over an hour, we eventually ran out of gas. Luckily, Mayto was always prepared. He had a small water hose handy and I volunteered to siphon some gas from an old Toyota Pickup that belonged to Father John from Santa Teresita Church. Mayto said that he was once an alter boy and that Father John wouldn’t mind if we borrowed some gas. Grateful for the ride, I went along with his story and siphoned the gas before mass was over.

The gasoline left a bad taste in my mouth. But that adventurous ride was worth every drop I swallowed.

Those were the days.


The phone rings. It’s three a.m.. I slowly open my eyes, take a deep breath and nervously answer the phone.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, knowing that good news never comes at three a.m..

“Fat Ritchie’s dead,” my sister Rosa says.

I hang up the phone. I feel numb. I don’t know whether to scream or cry. Another childhood friend is dead. When is it ever going to end, I wonder aloud?

Like most of the kids from the projects, Fat Ritchie never had a chance from day one. He was a short, chubby kid who was constantly picked on by the other kids. Whenever we played handball, the kids would force him to stand against the wall until everyone had a chance to hit him with the ball.

Once, while playing football at Murchison, the quarterback gave him the ball and everyone, including his teammates, dog piled on him until he couldn’t breathe. Once he got up, everyone acted like they were innocent.

Since I last saw him, however, no one dared to pick on him. While Fat Ritchie had the respect of the neighborhood, it was another story with the cops. Pissed that they couldn’t bust him on anything major, the cops busted Fat Ritchie for armed robbery based on the word of a local snitch.

One week later, Fat Ritchie died while in custody. The cops said that it was suicide, but we’ve heard that story over and over again.

Three days after receiving the tragic news, I return to the projects to pay my last respects to Fat Ritchie and inquire about my old friends. I arrive late. The church is full. I decide to wait outside with the other mourners, waiting for the coffin to be taken to the hearse.

Suddenly, I see a tall homeboy with light-skin and curly brown hair carrying the coffin with three other homeboys. They’re all dressed in black with dark black shades hiding their tears.

“Is that Mayto?” I ask the nearest person next to me.

“What, ese?” he asks, sounding annoyed.

“Nothing man,” I reply, letting him know that I too was from the projects.

Once the homeboys gently place the coffin in the hearse, I quickly walk towards the tall homeboy as he makes his way towards a ’67 Impala low rider. He gets into his car and starts the engine.

“Mayto, is that you?” I yell out at the homeboy as he begins to drive away.

He glances at me with without a word, looks forward and makes his way towards the cemetery.

A tear slowly drifts down my cheek.

Guest writer Álvaro Huerta is a visiting scholar at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, and a doctoral student in city and urban planning at UC Berkeley. His story, "Los Dos Smileys," is featured in Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press, 2008). "Cruising with Mayto" first appeared in the Homeboy Review.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Though some of those elements are interesting, the story just reads as bogus. It's way too much to be believable, turn it down a notch.