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El Barrio del Diablo: A Look Back at Life in the Projects – Catholicism 101

We lived in the projects where Webber Way met Paisano Drive, across from Dudley Field’s parking lot.

As a ten year-old, my weekend options were: go swimming at the Washington Park community pool and subject my eyes to a heavy dose of chlorine burn; roller skate at the rink next to the pool and and come home with bruises on arms and knees; meander thru the City Zoo and stare at lions, tigers, and bears – if they dared venture out from shady dens into 105 degree heat.

Or go to the movies if I had a nickel for the bus there and back, and 35¢ for the movie. And maybe a dime for a dill pickle from the snack bar.

Ruben

RubenRuben Gonzalez lived a couple doors down. He was a couple years older and was a very nice & neat guy. I mean, his hair was always combed and he was always properly dressed. He had a great sense of humor that always caught me off guard. Sometimes we’d walk to school together and best of all, he liked movies as much as I did.

One day he showed me a special edition Beatles movie ticket for “A Hard Day’s Night”. It was bright yellow, about 3×5” with a portrait of the band. It was a whopping $1.25 – I couldn’t afford that on my allowance.

But after a couple months, the entertainment section in the Herald Post showed the Capri theater had dropped the admission price to 50¢ and I jumped at the chance to go see what the British invasion was all about.

The movie was simply a knockout! I expected The Beatles to sound like their singing voices but when they spoke, their accents cracked meBeatles movie ticket up. I liked everything about them; the wacky personalities and great music. To me, John was hysterical and quickly became my favorite.

I liked going to the movies a lot, but very early on I learned there was unwritten house rule about attending mass on Sundays. Gloria, our oldest sister, was in charge when mom and dad weren’t home. She always made sure I went to misa – I was told to never miss any of the services that were held at 7 am, 11 am or 5 pm.

And to reinforce this scenario, only three blocks away on the corner of Findley Ave and S. St Francis XavierLatta Street stood the bane of my childhood: St. Francis Church. There was no excuse for anyone not to attend and that included Vicky and Vince, who followed Gloria in our family’s pecking order.

We usually attended the 11am mass most of the time and on certain Sundays we’d go to the the five o’clock. Either way, I always hated going…I simply didn’t like anything about church.

The waxy candle smell permeated the air and made me gag. The saint’s expressions looked miserable. Without any fans, the hot air hung inside even with the windows open. It was always crowded and someone always fainted.

IMG_9981
Gloria and I in front of the projects office, across the street from our apt.

My parents were not Catholic and shrugged at my sister’s weekly admonishing to keep me from straying from the fold. And, sometimes the folks weren’t around on Sundays. At those times I also wondered where Vicky and Vince were. And why didn’t they take me with them? I’m guessing they would sneak out early Sunday mornings while Gloria and I slept … and they’d go anywhere.

One particular Sunday and I wanted to go see a suspenseful thriller that was showing at the Plaza Theater. Let’s see…a nickel for the downtown bus….35¢ for the show…, a nickel for the return trip…..perfect! I asked Ruben if he wanted to go with. “Sure”, he said, “what do you want to see?” “A scary one at the Plaza”. Ruben said he’d go ask his mom, then quickly turned, “Wait. Have you already gone to church?” A terrible liar, I slowly nodded yes hoping it would work. “I don’t want to get in trouble with your sister”, he muttered. I somehow managed to say, “I already have, really”. He turned away knowing he made his point. I went to get my 45¢.

Ruben and I jumped on the bus and got off at the center of town at “La Plaza de Lagartos”. We walked a short distance to The Plaza TheaterCapri and Plaza and once inside, the theater darkened. The gothic black and white film and plot was way over my head. I watched many a movie like this, not knowing what the heck was going on.

As the end credits rolled, we walked out into the bright sunlight and Ruben asked, “Want to go see another movie?” I said, “Really? I don’t think I have enough”. “That’s okay, I got it”, he said casually. I had no idea what he had in store, and I had never gone from one theater to another in the same day. Our short walk of two blocks took us past the Capri to the State Theater.

I’d been there a bunch of times before. Ruben paid, we went in and got our seats, and before we knew it, it was showtime.

Sean Connery and the Aston Martin

GoldfingerA jazzy theme jolted the silence and a woman sang “Goldfinger”. The big band sound-track was loud and brassy. A collage of images meshed with the opening credits.

As the main character came on screen, the story was unlike anything I had ever seen in an action flick: a car and driver get crushed into a four-foot cube of metal; a card game goes horribly wrong Screen Shot 2016-11-02 at 6.23.15 PMfor Goldfinger who loses a bundle and angrily takes fatal revenge on his blonde accomplice spray painting her metallic gold; an Aston Martin car chase that featured machine guns and an ejector seat; a life and death battle with “Odd Job”, a Chinese man built like a brick house, sporting a lethal edged derby used like a boomerang, breaking victim’s necks like toothpicks. At the end, James Bond got the girl.Screen Shot 2016-11-02 at 6.26.05 PM

It was thrilling and exhausting. I thanked Ruben for the great treat. As we rode the bus home I couldn’t wait to tell my friends at school the next day. I jumped off the bus blabbing away about the action as Ruben listened and grinned. When we reached the corner, he stared ahead and with a concerned tone whispered, “Are you sure you went to church today?”

I turned from him to where he looked to see my sister waiting half a block away…and with the proverbial thousand-foot stare. I froze for a second and then slowed my walk, completely unprepared for this confrontation. Without missing a step Ruben angled off the sidewalk veering away from my side and out of the corner of his mouth said,”I thought you said you went to church!”, then he hurried to his apartment door. I walked alone to my sentencing. The last few steps were the most difficult as I looked into my sister’s penetrating eyes.

“Where have you been?”, she said in a stern voice. “With Ruben at the movies”, I said sheepishly. “Why are you so late?” “We saw two movies”. I felt like I was being watched by the entire neighborhood…like people were looking out their doors and windows at a kid that was gonna get walloped by his big sister…in public. Then came the dagger, “Have you been to church today?” “No”, I said looking down. “WHAT?”, she said with a shock. “How many times have I told you?You do not go anywhere until you go to church first. Haven’t I told you that before? Come with me right now”, she said grabbing my arm. I could feel the entire neighborhood watching.

Gloria was seriously unhappy with me. We walked into the apt and I listened to see if anybody else was home. No luck – we were the only ones there. She laid some newspaper down on the floor in front of a three tier wooden bookcase that held an encyclopedia set on the bottom shelf and knick-knacks on the second.

But the first shelf had a framed image of Mary holding the Christ child. I was instructed to kneel directly in front and say my prayers, but was distracted by the newspaper I knelt on.

Why the paper? Was the floor dirty? Were my knees on hallowed ground? I was confused, humiliated and trapped liked a rat in the apartment and in my body and mind. I hit an all time low…this was a new one on me.

And where was mom? She should walk in anytime now and deal with this irritated pious woman. You see ma, it was all a misunderstanding…my mind tried to justify things as it drifted. I had never seen Gloria like this – her body language said it all as she stood next to me. Just like in church, I dared not move as I knelt there.

After staring at the sad expression on Mary’s face, my head hung down in shame. I had only been there a few minutes and my knees were already burning from the pressure on the floor. Or maybe it was the beginning of the flames of hell. There was absolutely no way out.

Gloria guarded the scene and was determined to see this through. I took a breath and decided to deal with it.

Dear God, save me from this woman! No…that ain’t right…I continued looking down attempting to look contrite, but I couldn’t think of any words to form a prayer. Didn’t I look pathetic enough? A little lost soul with burning knees? Surely my sister can see my inner turmoil. Does she not feel my pain? I do. My knees are killing me!

I was thinking I would never do this again…I am never skipping church. In fact, right after this torture session, I am getting my clothes ready for next week’s mass! Damn that Ruben! You walked away! I had no defense, nobody.

As I looked down, I gave in and embraced my predicament and thought to myself . . . wait a minute. . . did Gloria notice the newspaper I am kneeling on is open to the comics section?

Jose Oswaldo RicoJosé Oswaldo Rico, Guest Contributor

Previous  columns HERE

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