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El Barrio del Diablo: A Look Back at Life in the Projects – El Popo

In the early 60’s, at the northeast corner of Hammett and Paisano, there was a little one-room candy store called El Popo.
Hardly a landmark for such a hectic intersection, the place was an unassuming blink-and-you-miss-it tiendita. Inside, there was about enough space to take a few steps and look around.Screen Shot 2016-07-03 at 7.11.14 PM
Four of us matchstick-type kids could fit in there – with no extra room to swing a cat. Aluminum Coke-Cola ads hung on the wall along with Dr Pepper, Squirt, Vess & Fanta signs.

And Royal Crown cola signs too ( the soda nobody bought .)

A quiet, slender old man with white hair ran the place. Our silent transactions consisted of me pointing to what I wanted and he’d reach inside the glass case and placed the item on the counter. One stop in-and-out shopping!

For a kid, it was the place to go for penny candy, bubble-gum cards, sodas, snow-cones and ice cream cones.

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 8.49.04 PMFrom Webber Way, it was just a couple blocks west on Paisano. It was there that my brother Vince started buying crazy Weird-o bubble gum cards and movie Monster cards. We both started a card collection.

Then, unbeknownst to me, Beatlemania invaded the U.S. I walked to El Popo one day and inside the glass case amongst many other items was a carton of the fab four’s bubble gum cards. I stopped in my tracks and had to have them.

The packs were 5¢ each and came with four cards and a 1 x 2 inch piece of pink gum. I’d chew the stiff cardboard–like treat and as it softened, it lost its flavor just like that. That gum would have been better used as a book mark.

After a while I had a stack of about 50 cool collectable Beatles cards. Did I read the backs and learn some British music trivia? Nah…I was happy just to have them.

My tios from Las Cruces stopped by our apartment one day. I asked my cousins Luz and Cecilia “Want to see my Beatles cards?” “Yeah”, Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 8.47.27 PMthey said in unison. I ran to my hiding place upstairs at the top of a cabinet, grabbed all the cards and raced back down.

“Look”, I said proudly as they wowed and smiled. “These are great”, Luz said. “Can I have some?” I gulped…I didn’t expect that. Luz was about 2 years older and I couldn’t say no. They were very nice primas and I adored my Tia Tila. “Uhh, sure…how many?”, I nervously asked as I thumbed through my collection like a pint-sized card dealer. I pinched about fifteen cards. “This many?”, I said timidly, biting my lip. “Yes”, said Luz happily. “Thank you.”

Cecila stepped up next. “Can I have some too?”. “Okay”, I said with a shrug. I liked my cousins. I really couldn’t say no to them. But I was sure having second thoughts about letting another small batch of cards go. “Thank you” said Ceci. “Ugh”, said my mind regretfully. My collection shrunk in seconds.

My tios and primas made another visit weeks later. I saw them out the window as they drove up. When I heard their knock, all I recall is my mom’s puzzled expression as I ran past her and sprinted out the back door with my Beatles card collection.

Like the bubble gum cards, El Popo’s snow cones were also 5¢. But one day I spotted a neighbor from two doors down. It was our building’s trouble-maker, Hector Glover, munching on a different kind of snow cone as he walked past our apartment.

I’d never seen such a cone.

It was a genuine El Popo creation: soft serve vanilla ice cream on top of a snow cone. These were 10¢. Like the Snagglepuss cartoon character on tv, I exited stage right and made a bee line to the little store. I had to have one of those. Was it good? Not so much.

Screen Shot 2016-07-03 at 7.34.44 PMBut ordering a snow cone was like a watching scary black and white movie…the part where the scientist is performing a lab experiment:

The old man opened up a small ice chest. He grabbed a picahielo and began chopping up a big chunk of ice, breaking it into smaller sections – then he’d grab and place fist-sized pieces inside the grinder section.

With an evil laugh, he’d flick the switch to start the grey cast metal machine and it made a weird buzzing sound. Ok, there wasn’t an evil laugh but there should’ve been. Then the ice started breaking and churning, splitting into smaller pieces. It got louder than a vintage jackhammer in that small room.
“WHRRRRRR-RRRRR-RRRRR-RRRRR!”

As the store’s walls trembled and shook from the machine, I could’ve easily yelled out loud, “Hey old man, make it snappy!” It was tempting, cause there was no way he could have heard me. But I stood there with my mouth open, transfixed by the sounds of the crushing machine that soon produced cool, moldable ice shavings.

I’d always ask for the blue flavoring and the old man would generously lather the snow cone with a healthy dose. The challenge was to enjoy it before it melted in the 100 degree heat outside. Sometimes I wasn’t wearing my chanclas, so I hot-footed back home and tried not to spill.

Back then, it was common to see barefoot kids running down Paisano. They hadn’t stolen anything, its just that their feet were on fire.

After I’d finish my snow-cone without getting a brain freeze, my body temp would drop several degrees and I’d end up with a blue tongue for the rest of the day.

Jose Oswaldo RicoJosé Oswaldo Rico, Guest Contributor

Previous Column HERE

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