Thursday, May 14, 2020

Most Days

          Dedicated to Eddie Herrera, who was there through the good and the bad, and who will once again be reunited with his beloved daughter, Nancy.  Rest gently, dear friend.                                                              
The old neighborhood pool, closed for good
     He would arrive home from work by 5:00 or 5:30, depending on how far he had to travel. In commercial construction, a job might take him a few miles from his home on L.A.’s westside, maybe to Beverly Hills or Hollywood, other times as far as San Fernando, or east on Pico Boulevard to downtown Los Angeles, brutal work, hauling cement on his shoulders up four or five stories, day after day. There were no freeways at the time.
     Most days, after dinner, out on the front lawn, he’d hit grounders to his son until the last rays of light. He’d go inside, read his newspapers while the kids did their homework, his wife guiding them through the more difficult math problems. Before the kids went to bed, the family would watch television, usually a variety program. There were only six stations, all black and white. Once the kids were asleep, the young wife would finally unwind, talk with a friend on the phone, if no neighbors were clogging the line, or she’d look through magazines, sometimes organize old family photos.
He’d read a book. He liked novels and history.
     Then there was the occasional Friday he would not make it home until late at night. He’d stop at the local bar to see his friends. One drink led to two then three and four until he lost count. His wife would pick up a male cousin and ask him to go into the bar, find her husband, and take whatever money remained from his weekly paycheck. If they arrived at the bar early enough, he’d still have most of the money, if not, it would be a long week.
     The wife, barely in her late-twenties, had little experience with men who drank to excess. Before he died, her father didn’t allow drinking in his house, except on the weekend, maybe a beer with friends in his Santa Monica backyard. Her father didn’t respect men who couldn’t hold their liquor, neither could her older brother who took her father’s place as head of the family.
     She just couldn’t understand how a man could work, come home, spend months with his family, and then, suddenly, take up residence at the bar, no sense of work, family, or responsibility.
     She was too embarrassed to ask her family for help since they had warned against marrying him. Everyone knew he came from a family of drunks, and his parents jumped from one shack to another, always renting near the railroad tracks, unlike her parents, who bought a house when they first arrived from Mexico, even though friends had told them the Yankee government would take it one day and send them back to Mexico.
Jalostotitlan, city center
     In Jalisco, outside of Jalostotitlan, near San Garpar de los Reyes, her grandfather, Juan, the family patriarch, still worked the original family ranch in a village named Mitic. Around 1917, he had encouraged her father to take his young family and flee north during the worst of revolution. It wasn't the first time her father had been north to work and send money home.
     Once the family settled in Santa Monica, home to many families from Jalisco, her brothers and sisters attended school and, as teenagers, found work in the walnut packing sheds in Ocean Park. They contributed all their earnings to the family, which had earned the respect of many in the neighborhood. So, it was a vivid memory as she recalled the day her older brother had come right out and told her, “He’s funny, charming, okay, and pretty smart, but he’ll never amount to anything. Just look at his family, nobody works. My father would never have approved. You will be sorry if you marry him.”
     It wasn’t like she had much choice. After she learned she was pregnant, the two had run off to Yuma to elope. It wasn't how she dreamed of starting a family. The trip across the state-line terrified her. Except when the family headed north, during her childhood, to pick fruit and visit family in San Jose, she’d hardly ever strayed far from the family home.
     Yet, he was so daring, different than any of the boys she knew from her neighborhood. He told her about driving to the Coliseum with his friends to watch college football games, driving to dances in San Fernando and Boyle Heights, or to the Aragon ballroom, on the beach, about listening to the big-bands, and dancing swing and boogie-woogie. He seemed to know everything. Once when she'd said her favorite song was Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," he'd told her Wingy Marone, a trumpet player with only one arm, recorded the first version back in the early thirties. Glenn Miller just modernized it.
     Her older brother listened to only classical music and old-time jazz, her mother to rancheras and mariachis.
     After she had first married and talked to a friend about her husband's drinking, her friend had asked, “When did you know he was an alcoholic?”
     It wasn't a word she liked, nor could she bring herself to admit it. She remembered answering, only partly joking, “The first time I saw him sober.”
     Most days, she could coax him home from the bar, make him eat soup, and sober him up on time for work on Monday. Then there were the times she could do nothing. If he came home at all, he'd be gone by the time she and the kids were up the next morning. It could go on for weeks, and when it got really bad, a month, maybe even two.
     She tried everything to get him to stop, but nothing worked. She was smart and had more schooling than most of her older siblings, the ones born in Mexico but raised in states. She asked her friends for advice. They hatched plans, analyzed the problem, many, of course, suffering the same situation. All she could figure was he wanted to be with his friends more than his family.
     Most of the men in the bar were veterans of WWII. It had only been seven or eight years since they’d been in bars drinking in Louisiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Others had just returned from Korea. The booze had been everywhere, compliments of Uncle Sam. In fact, the more they had drunk, the more invincible they had felt, a bomb, mortar, or bullet less threating.
     When they returned home, they heard about the friends from the neighborhood who didn’t make it, like “Trini,” “Chava”, “Nico”, “Joe”, “Alfredo’, “Sammy”, “Evaristo”, etc. etc., not even counting their friends from across the Valley and the Eastside, a long list of teenage ghosts. They saw the pain in the eyes of the parents and siblings who had lost their boys. The letter had started with a, “We are sorry to inform you….”
The Old Soldiers Home
     Of course, they pretended it didn’t bother them, laughing and holding their beers and drinks up high, but they all knew better. Many of them were lucky to be home. The proof was right outside the bar, veterans, some with empty pant legs and shirt sleeves, stumps for arms and legs, in wheelchairs lining the sidewalk, beer cans beside them. Each day, they'd roll themselves a few blocks from Soldiers Home where they lived.
     Nobody counselled them on how to forget what they’d done and seen during the war, no Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, or Oprah, or how to slip smoothly back into their regular lives.
     If he stayed out too late for too many nights, his wife could see no other way than to punish him and lock the door. He would find a way to sneak into the house, sometimes sleeping with the dog in the laundry room. When it got bad, he’d stop coming home altogether. He knew where the guys like him hung-out, at Rocky Escamilla’s yard, on Cotner Avenue, where Rocky parked his work trucks. Someone would get a fire going and the guys would start passing around a bottle and keep going until there was nothing left. The next day, they'd start again.
     At the very worst, she once caught him drinking aftershave from the medicine cabinet. That time, he let them put him in a straightjacket, lock him in the kids' room, and give him tiny sips of beer from a cup, while he yelled and cried for help. He told them he could die of alcoholic poisoning if they cut him off cold, all a form of family detox.
     She knew she had to get him to stop or she’d lose the house. Already food was scarce. She couldn't bear the thought of burying him at such a young age, like they buried his two sisters, a gaggle of kids left without mothers. It wasn’t fair for the kids.
     Sometimes, she felt like she was losing her mind, but she was strong, and knew there had to be a way. She couldn’t give up.
     One of her Mexican aunts had told her about an old man, a wise man, a cuandero, a real miracle worker. The young wife didn’t believe in faith-healers. She was a modern woman, but when desperation wove a nest in the brain, anything was worth a try.
     She went to see the old-man. He listened patiently to her story. When she finished, he told her if she wanted to cure her husband of his problem, she had to follow his instruction carefully. He told she needed a palm frond and a can of beer. She had to find her husband at his favorite drinking hole, slap him with the palm frond, and pour the beer over his head.
     Of course, all of this sounded absurd. She wasn’t from Mexico. She’d been born in the Santa Monica Hospital, gone to St. Anne’s Catholic School, and finished her education at Samohi. She listened to Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Patsy Cline. Her favorite actors were Ava Gardner and Clark Gable. She never missed the Academy Awards.
A Wise Man
     Her Mexican aunts insisted it was the only way, to listen and do exactly as the curandero said. Her mother told her not to listen to the old ladies, even if they were her sisters, They were crazy, still lived life like they were back on the ranch in Mexico. It was all foolishness.
     Desperation breeds desperate measures.
     She drove around in her 1950 Ford until she saw a street lined with palm trees, somewhere on 12th Street in Santa Monica, where a newly planned freeway would soon cut the neighborhood in two. The greenest palm fronds were high. She’d have to climb to reach them. Fine, she was athletic, had worked at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and stood on her feet all day folding clothes.
     She looked around. There was nobody on the street. She took hold of the tree trunk, put one foot up, pushed, then the other, climbing until she realized the fronds were looking down at her and laughing. She realized it was useless. They were too high. She didn’t have that kind of strength.
     Disappointed but determined, she spotted some dead fronds on the street. The old curandero didn’t say they had to be green. She picked a smaller one and placed it into the car’s back seat, the can of beer in her purse. She drove up Olympic boulevard past factories, vacant lots, and the Olympic Drive-in Theater, right near her own neighborhood. At Sawtelle boulevard, she turned north, drove past the Japanese stores and nurseries, and headed to Santa Monica boulevard.
     She saw a parking spot in front of clothing store, the Lucky-U just up the street next to an alley. The grizzled-looking men in wheelchairs watched curiously as she pulled the palm frond from the back seat, her purse hanging, over her arm. She took a can-opener and punched two-holes in the beer can and put it carefully back into her purse to avoid spilling any. She walked up the street and past the men standing in the alley.
Santa Monica boulevard, just down the block from the Lucky-U
     It was dark inside. The air reeked of liquor, cigarettes, Mexican food, and perspiration, laughter and loud music nearly deafening. Everyone recognized her when she stepped through the door, her friends’ husbands, acquaintances, and her two brothers-in-law.
     “Sister-in-law!” one called. “What ‘chu doing here?” A question to which he already knew the answer.
     She asked if they’d seen her husband. They pointed to a chair at the crowded bar, where he sat among a group of men, his back to her. She wasted no time. She gripped the palm frond, dragged it behind her and moved close to her husband. Just as she was about to hit him with the hard, dried frond, she forgot whether the curandero had told her to first pour the beer over her husband’s head and then hit him with the palm frond or the other way around. Dismissing her dilemma, she grasped the palm frond tightly, lifted it high, brought it down on his head, and started beating him. He turned, raising his arms to protect himself, not really sure from what. When he saw her, he figured she must really be mad at him this time. He started pulling bills out his pocket, thinking it was the money she was after.
     She took the can of beer to pour over his head, but the barstool was too high. The beer ran down her arm and soaked her blouse. She tried splashing him with the beer, but the liquid was flying everywhere, wetting the other guys at the bar. Nobody could figure out what she was doing. At this point, she ordered her husband to give her what was left from his work check, pushed it into her purse, and walked calmly out the door, her brother-in-law escorting her to the car

     As she told me this story, some 60 years later, her husband, now an old man losing his eyesight but becoming a good listener, came into the room. He raised an eyebrow.
     He said, "You keep telling everybody that story. You never did do that."
     “I did too. You just don't remember."
     “You did not.”
     “Yes, I did. I think I even cracked an egg over your head, or maybe I forgot the egg. Besides, you stopped drinking, didn’t you?”
     “Not because of that.”
     "You don't know that."
     They both broke into laughter.
     Whether the story was true, or how much of it was true, we will leave to their memories.

1 comment:

Marilyn Vasquez said...

True or not, we have heard similar stories about the life and times of the young Mexican families during that time in West LA. One thing for sure, they worked hard to raise their families and relied on each other, the men and the women, to make it a good life!