We lived in the projects in central El Paso during my grade school years of 1 thru 5. From our apartment at the intersection of Paisiano and Webber Way, the low-income buildings stretched a couple blocks south and southeast.
Our address at 405 Webber Way apt 130 was directly across from the property office. From this location, about one block east on Paisano Drive past the big playground, was the gynormous El Paso Coliseum.
And about three blocks further was my elementary school – Burleson.
We lived about three blocks from Washington Park which at that time featured a more basic version of the city zoo compared to now. Close by was a huge community pool with a sixty-foot high dive. I jumped off it once on a dare. My friends Sammy, Choppy and David watched, with the agreement that they would take the plunge after me.
As I leapt into space, I tried to remain vertical so my feet would hit first but momentum tilted me backward slightly, enough to make the back of my thighs take the impact. It stung like hell. When I popped up out of the water my friends were laughing. Of course they were…what are friends for? My backside felt like I had received two hard paddlin’s by a teacher.
A roller skating rink and an amusement park were next to the pool. I learned to skate there and would come home with black and blue bruises on my arms and legs from falling left and right. But I got pretty darn good after a week or two.
Mom would ask, “Where have you been?” I also went swimming so often que llegaba bien quemado and had bloodshot eyes from the chlorine. Again, mom would tell me not to go swimming for so long. Papa would call me “nalgas prietas”.
So I would frequent Washington Park when I had nothing else to do – and that was often.
It was there that I got to see the legend Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants, in an exhibition game against the Kings – a rare baseball game outing for me.
All this just walking distance from our front door.
Papa had a tough job as a millwright at Border Steel Rolling Mills, in Anthony TX. He specialized in welding and machine repair and had a 50 mile round trip commute.
I’d worry for her since she always got home late, around midnight actually.
On Sundays, we would visit familia in Juarez. The first stop would be our abuelo’s home. We seldom visited without my mom and dad leading the way, but I recall one of those weekends when both of them were busy. Papa must have been working a different shift and mama was noticeably absent as well.
Our older sister Gloria arranged the day-trip to our abuelo’s house in Juarez. Vicky was next in line age-wise, followed by my brother Vince. I am the youngest, about nine years old at the time.
From downtown we caught one of those funky trambias that traveled to the Stanton Street Puente, then transferred again to one of those red Juarez camiones to get within walking distance to our abuelo’s house.
They lived along la Cinco de Febrero, past the century old pila with the four lion heads on the cement column that spouted water into the pool below.
My mom’s dad, Abuelito Rosendo, a Villista during his heyday, lived across the street from la pila. On certain Sundays when we went to see him, matachines would dance to drummed rhythms while the guy in the skeleton costume that roamed the crowd, kept me hiding behind my sister.
The dancing took place on a side street alongside my abuelos apartment.
As we got off the red bus, Gloria and Vicky would walk in front of Vince and I. On any busy city sidewalk, Vince would guide me alongside him by placing his right hand on the back of my neck. Like using a horse’s reigns, he would steer me right or left depending on what the foot traffic looked like up ahead.
During our walk Gloria would glance back occasionally to make sure we were keeping up. There was no lolly-gagging – we walked a good clip.
We arrived at our grandparent’s modest little house and one by one took turns greeting them as we hugged them and kissed them on the cheek.
Abuelito Antonio was a quiet man, but abuelita Kika always talked to us, handing out dollars just because it was a tradition to do so on Sundays. A retired El Paso railroad mechanic, Abuelito was a tall man, wore glasses and had salt and pepper hair.
On a previous visit, I noticed abuelito sitting out on the patio, so I walked over and sat next to him. He glanced at me and looked away saying nothing; his expression never changed.
Then he reached for a red can of Prince Albert tobacco, and took a tiny sheet of rolling paper from its wrapper. He held it open and carefully added a pinch of the brown stuff and evened it out. I sat there curious and partly entertained. I didn’t have anything else to do, nor did I have anything to say.
Abuelo rolled the paper carefully, licked the edge and brought a match out all in one motion. Lighting up, he glanced ahead at a passing car, some people in the distance and life itself as it went by. I wondered for a second if he was going to ask me something, make small talk, but no. I looked down the street like he did, then glanced back at him and noticed his relaxed pose and solemn face. I don’t recall how long I sat there, but I still have those series of images in the recesses of my mind. I was only 10 when he passed away in the summer of ’64.
A heavy-set woman with piercing eyes and a smile that could light up the room, abuelita was a generous woman and always looked happy to see us. Gloria did most of the talking and the rest of us would listen quietly…and as patiently as possible.
Vince and I loved a local taqueria at the end of the block, so it was only a matter of time that abuelita would let my brother and I excuse ourselves – and we’d make a mad dash to the taco joint.
We always ordered the same thing: beef flautas. A batch of eight were served on a bed of lettuce, with a dollop of guacamole and sour cream and were modestly packaged in butcher paper; Vince would carefully carry the order while I toted two big 16 ounce Coke bottles by their necks.
As we walked back in, our abuelita would be smiling and shaking her head at us. We were so predictable. Abuelito would be reading the paper and at times he’d casually glance out the window – oblivious to the mini-feast his grandsons had set up.
We settled at the kitchen table enjoying the flautas and drank up our cold cokes, trying hard not to belch out loud. We listened to my sister and abuelita and when I looked over at abuelito he was getting his shaving kit out.
It was time to say goodbye; abuelito set up his round stand-up mirror and his razor. Then he lathered up the soap brush in the cup. As he worked the lather on his face in a circular motion, I heard my sister saying adios to abuelita. I stood to wait my turn to hug her goodbye.
We gathered close, took turns kissing her on the cheek and said we would be back next Sunday. Her eyes watered.
As we turned to say goodbye to our abuelito, we looked at one another. “How are we gonna kiss him with all that soap on his face?”, we whispered to one another, wondering what to do. No one had a solution. I was volunteered to go first.
I walked slowly and stood next to him, and in a soft voice said, “adios, abuelito“. He nodded without a word, leaned over just a tad, not taking his gaze from the mirror. I had no idea where to aim, so I got close to his ear and kissed and … got soap on my lips. I turned and wiped on my shirt sleeve as my brother took his turn. He got soap on his lips too. My sister Vicky was next.
She tried a different approach but also got soap on her lips. I stood there with Vicky and Vince – the three of us wondering what Gloria was going to do. We watched her every move.
As if choreographed, Gloria walked over to him and said “adios abuelito”, then she reached down and kissed him on his forehead. We all groaned. Why didn’t we think of that?
As we headed out the door, I turned and waved to abuelita. She smiled and shook her head.