Panorama of San Bernardino

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

White Girl

White Girl

 "Nineteen, missing her man for an old girl

Drain every beer left over at home

And listen to ghosts in the other room

Why not you're alone inside his keeping?

Oh I'll replace your drunk old man

Sit in the parking lot and hold you're hand

Easy to fall, part of your skull starts to break away

Drugged and in love out at a club, pulling me outside

She's a white girl, but I'm living with a white girl. 

She's a white girl, but I'm living with a white girl."

X-White Girl

            I was in second grade at Mariposa Elementary when one of the Mexican girls at school called me white girl.  I knew she was wrong.  I wasn't a white girl.  I saw myself as Mexican with some white thrown in.  My Mexican mom grew up middle class in Orange County.  Mom loved country music and cowboys and met my German dad at a honky tonk bar.  My dad grew up dirt poor in Montana and loved country music, drinking and fiery, brown women.  Mom was not the first of his four wives, but she was his last.
            The white girls saw me as Mexican and thought I should hang with the girls they called "the cholas".  Most of the so-called cholas were Mexican girls who wore karate slip on shoes with fitted pants and black jackets.   One of my favorite people in the world at the time was my older cousin Carol from Buena Park who some considered a chola.  I would have liked to hang out with the cholas, but I was a nerd, preppie girl who always sat at the front of the class and the so called cholas made fun of me for not speaking Spanish.   I was never lonely because I had my twin sister Jackie to hang out with at breaks (they had put us in separate classes by this time).

            In second grade, I met a Mexican girl who would become my best friend, Melinda who everyone called Mel.  Mel was a clotheshorse and she made fun of the cholas' outfits behind their backs.   Mel was born in Mexico and spoke Spanish and despite her disdain, the cholas accepted her.  Mel hung out with different groups depending on her mood. 

            "Everyone says you're smart," Mel said with a smile.  "But what are you wearing?" she said with a raised eyebrow as she stared at the green frog t-shirt that I had paired with blue flared Dittos.  The outfit had seemed like a good idea that morning.

            Mel shopped at Mervyn's and she made a face when I told her that my mom shopped for our clothes at K-Mart.   Everyone wanted to be friends with Mel and I desperately wanted her to like me. She was everything I was not.  She had straight black hair that she wore spiked up and perfect bronze colored skin.  She favored jean jackets and tight jeans and even back then in elementary school, she was the epitome of cool.  Mel was also bossy and sarcastic and popular with the boys.  When she invited Jackie and I over her house after school, I tried to act nonchalant by saying, "sure" when I felt like screaming "yes".  Our younger sister Annie tagged along because it turned out that Mel had a little sister named Pam that was Annie's age.

            Mel and Pam lived with their parents in a tiny apartment down the street from us on the corner of G Street and Grove.  Mel's mom Mary was in her early twenties. Mary got pregnant with Melinda at the age of fifteen in Mexico.  Mary was lonely because she didn't drive and Mel's dad Arturo was always at work.  After a couple of visits, Mary started watching my sisters and I almost every day because Mom didn't want us home alone after school while she worked the split shift (Mom called it the fuck you over shift) at a local Chinese restaurant.           

            As an after school treat, Mary would make us posole soup with homemade tortillas on the side which was a sharp change from the prepackaged macaroni and cheese my mom made us or the stews and beef roast that my dad cooked.  "Sientate," Mary would say and all us girls would crowd around her tiny kitchen table slurping our bowls of soup.   After our snack, we would walk to the liquor store on the corner to buy the salted plums covered with chili powder that Mel had introduced us to.

            Mary and Mom became friends.  If Mom got off early, she would come by and sit with Mary in the kitchen drinking cup after cup of coffee talking in Spanish.  Mel would make me laugh by mimicking how Mom put spoon after spoon of sugar in her coffee.

            If Mom didn't get off early, Dad would pick us up when he got off his shift at Mayflower Moving Company.  Dad was often late and would drive up in his pickup truck with the smell of beer on his breath.   Mary would shake her head and say with her Spanish accent, "John you're drunk. Can you drive?"  Dad would wave her off and load us into the car swerving to Johnny Cash the four blocks home.

          My sisters and I didn't bring friends home because if Mom was having a bad day she would tell people off.  Mel and Pam became the exception to that rule because Mel handled my mom's varying moods with ease and didn't react when my mom yelled and called her a bitch.

            Mel and I didn't talk about race at all.  We knew we were brown.  That was obvious.  I loved hearing Mel talk Spanish to her mom even though Mel was hesitant to do so.  She wanted her mom to learn English.  I was jealous of this other world of rolled out Rs.  It seemed romantic. 

            If asked, Mom would say that she didn't teach us Spanish because Dad hated when Mom's brothers made fun of him in Spanish.  My uncles called Dad barracho wedo which we knew meant drunk white man.  In truth, Mom's reasons for withholding her native tongue were much more complicated.  Mom was the only non-white girl in her Orange County elementary school class.  Years later, Mom showed me her black and white elementary school photo and she looked like a small dark spot in a class of white faces.  Mom looked at the picture and shook her head with a frown and said, "It was hard being the only Mexican girl.  They didn't let you speak Spanish." 

            I knew, even at a young age, that color mattered.  Annie was sixteen months younger than us and she had Dad's lighter coloring.  People would always coo over her and say how pretty she was.  All my relatives called Annie bonita. 

            When I was in fifth grade, Mom decided we needed to be in Catholic school.  My sisters and I were upset because we would have to make new friends.  Despite our protests, Mom enrolled us at St. George's.  Mom promised we could visit Mel and Pam on the weekends.  When the school found out that Mom waitressed, they gave her a low income discount charging her one hundred dollars a month tuition for all three of us.  Even with the discount, the tuition was still a stretch and Mom struggled to buy us faded, used uniforms with her tips.  We complained the whole summer before school started.  Mom told us that we were ungrateful brats that needed to stop bitching. 
            The first months were hard in a new school.  All of the other kids seemed well off with their bright new uniforms.  The nuns were stern and church was mandatory every day.  And, I had to play volleyball which I was inept at.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't hold my arms right to bounce the ball off my wrist and I always ducked whenever the ball came at me.

            In sixth grade, Laura McPherson, who was the captain of the volleyball team, invited Jackie and I to a slumber party at her house.  Laura's dad was a doctor and everyone knew she was rich.  She lived in a huge Spanish style house.

            There was a girl in our class who always made fun of me.  I don't remember her name.  All I remember was that she was fat with blonde hair.  We got into a fight at the slumber party and she called me a spic wetback.  I screamed back at her, "Fuck you you fat bitch, my dad's white.  I am Mexican and white." I don't know why I said what I did.  I knew people saw me as Mexican and I liked it that way.  Maybe I wanted her to know I didn't fit in with either side. I also knew spic was a racial slur, but I didn't know what it meant.  I knew what wetback meant.  I had heard Dad's friends use the insult.  Mom hated those friends of his.  Mom said Dad's friends were a bunch of white trash drunks who were a bad influence on Dad.
            The spic and wetback slurs stuck in my mind during my time at St. George's.  I knew that I didn't fit in.  I would sometimes look down at my faded uniform and wish it was bright and new and the right length instead of long and faded.  When Mom put us back in public school for our seventh grade year, I was relieved.  I wanted to hang out with Mel and ride bikes with her after school and go to the liquor store and buy cigarettes.  I felt comfortable with her.  Mel knew my dad was a white drunk man and that my mom was Mexican and crazy.  She didn't care and neither did I. 


            It is thirty-five years later and Mel and I are still best friends.  Last week, I stopped by at her small apartment in Rancho Cucamonga and ate her homemade posole while our moms drank wine and laughed and reminisced. 

            "Remember Judy, when the girls got drunk and Mel came home with one shoe," Mary said to Mom in her Spanish accent. 

            "I remember when the girls stole John's pickup truck and drove around the neighborhood at night," Mom said with a shrug.

            "They were locas," Mary said and Mom nodded in agreement.

            I brought them coffee and watched as Mom spooned spoon after spoon of sugar in her coffee.  Mel looked at me and smiled and I tried not to laugh. I felt right at home. 




Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Knotty and Matted Life

My hair is full of knots.  I place my hand on the back of my head and feel the tangled web of hair.  It is a metaphor for my life right now.  I feel as if I am at a crossroads of sorts.  The last week has been a cold flu hell.  From Monday to Thursday, I stayed in bed unable to move or do much of anything.  I slept and tossed and turned, coughing into the same sweater I had worn for days. I did no laundry. I walked no dogs. I didn't shower or cook or clean. I barely ate. In sum, I had regressed into my most primitive survival state, as if I was in a womb gestating.

On Thursday, I got up and went into work.  I felt guilty as if taking care of myself was not the first priority.  Driving in, I knew I'd made a mistake. I got to court and couldn't stop coughing.  Any progress  I had made was all for naught and by eleven, I was done with my calendar and ordered to go home by my boss. By noon, I was at home back in bed.  I learned something that day.  I learned that that no one will take care of you, but you.  That work is not worth it and that everyone will make do without you.

Today, after downing a shot of apple cider vinegar,  I was finally able to move.  My joints creaked.  I was covered in sweat. But I was up.  Still sick, I cough as I write, but my brain is awake. My dad is on my mind.

 I think back to when my dad bought a bar called the Big O.

To this day, I don't know why the bar had that name. The Big O Bar was located about a mile away from our house in Ontario on Holt between Grove and Vineyard.

 "Why that bar John? Isn't Holt street where all the hookers hang out?" Mom said when Dad first broached the subject with her. "It's a dream Judy. There's pool tables, video games and it already has a beer and wine license. They are even going to pay us to manage the trailer park behind it."

"This could be a moneymaker Judy," Dad said trying to cajole her. Mom was a yeller and a fighter and she didn't handle fools lightly.

 Mom knew that anytime you put the words trailer park and bar together, it was trouble. She also knew that Dad loved his Budweiser which was the sorest point of contention in the debate over Dad's quest to buy the Big O.

 "Dammit John, you are going to end up drunk all day and land us in the poor house. I don't want to lose the house and if you quit your job and buy that money pit, that's what will happen. I don't know," she said, her voice trailing off. My sisters and I could all hear a note of give in Mom's voice. She was leaving the door open just a little.

 Why was she even considering this? I was only ten and could see it was a bad idea. Dad loved to drink and hang out with what Mom called the lowlifes. It may have been because Dad had always dreamed of owning either a bar or a donut shop. Dad had been talking about it since I could walk. Those two businesses may seem like an odd pair but they encompassed two of my dad's favorite things: beer and junk food. It was his dream and he was going to make it happen no matter the cost. 

Buying the bar was just like the time Dad bought a freezer full of steaks from some kid walking around the block.

 When Mom found out that not only had he bought the meat, but a freezer to house it in, she hit the roof.

 "John, you're an idiot," she told him. "You got taken. You're one of those suckers born every minute. The bill is for almost a thousand dollars. Where are we going to get that kind of money? We could have a bought a car. That's almost four months of house payments."

 "I'll make the payments," Dad had assured her with a grimace and a shake of his head. He always made a face like his stomach hurt when Mom started yelling at him. "We will get the best steaks. There's a ton of porterhouses and filet minions." (Dad was not known for his proper pronunciations.)  

"Dammit John, what are we going to do with all those steaks?" Mom asked her skepticism evident.

"Judy, there are enough steaks for an army."

 Mom shook her head. "But why'd you have to buy the freezer? We're not rich John, you're a truck driver, and I'm a god damn waitress."

"We'll eat like kings," Dad said. "The kid who came to the door said everyone on the block bought one. We can have a block barbecue."

 "Block barbecue?" Mom said with a head shake. "No one else bought one. You're a fool. My brother said you were a dumb gringo but I didn't believe him."

"Judy I don't want to fight, send the freezer back," Dad said with his stock sigh.

 "Are you gonna pay it?" Mom said. She wasn't letting up. "I'll pay it. I promise Judy. And I'll make some of my potato salad to go with those filet minions. You'll eat it." Mom had given in like she always did, "Fine John. But you're making the payment."

 Within three months, Mom was making the fifty dollar payment. Then the freezer was repossessed.

Just like with the freezer full of meat, Dad made the bar happen and within mere months of first talking about it, my parents were the owners of a bar on Holt street bordering a trailer park in the worst part of Ontario. ---------------------------------

The first year wasn't bad. Dad would take us to the bar with him every Saturday morning. We would clean the dark green felt of the pool tables with a brush and steal cigarettes from the machine. "What do you girls wanna eat?" Dad asked. "We have frozen pizza or hamburgers and fries." Dad never cared that it was only nine in the morning. I would always choose cheese pizza and Dad let me put songs on the jukebox. He had Alabama and Johnny Cash.

Even though Mom was Mexican, she loved country music. Her favorite was Freddy Fender. Dad's favorite was Loretta Lynn. I loved watching her dress up in her Western jean suit to go out with Dad to the bar. "We met at a honkey tonk", Mom would always remind us. "I always had a thing for white man cowboys."

But, us girls never listened to country. Country was for truckers like my dad and hillbillies. We preferred Pat Benetar, The Go-Go's and Olivia Newton John.

Dad taught us how to play pool at the bar and I still remember the way Dad would hold the pool stick after putting his Kent cigarette out. And we would play pinball for hours. We never wanted to leave. We played our turns in silence, with focus. Dad loved to hit the machine with his hip. "You're gonna tilt it dad" my two sisters and I would scream at him. Dad only tilted one time out of ten but he came close most of the time.

My sisters and I would fight over who got to clean the pool table but no one wanted to mop the floor. Dad would do it grumbling, "Give your ole man a break girls" Dad's knees were bad from moving furniture for years and his legs would swell to the point that he had to wear special blood pressure socks but he would mop while humming along to the sounds of the Oak Ridge Boys. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 My strongest memory of the bar was the smell. It smelled like stale cigs and old tap beer. Mom parents couldn't afford a full alcohol license so all they served was wine and beer. Dad would get plastered every night he played bartender. Patrons would buy him drinks all night and he would stumble into the house at two am and Mom would scream. And then there was the gambling. 

Eventually, all things come to an end and my parents lost the bar in 1984. Soon after, they lost the house. And once they lost the house, everything went downhill and my family spent my high school years moving from rental to rental.

My dreams of attending college at Claremont McKenna vanished in a haze after I dozed and drank my way through my senior year and dropped out of high school five credits short of a diploma.

My mom never forgave my father for buying the bar but I am glad he did. It showed me as a young child that fulfilling your dream was possible. It taught me that even though it might not turn out well as you hoped, at least you tried. It's why I took my GED and how I imagined myself graduating from law school even when I was in junior college waitressing to pay my way through. And, it's also probably why I began dreaming my book into being.

 Dad died eight years ago and my mom, who has mellowed through the years, cannot go one day without saying his name. I am sitting with her in her little one room subsidized apartment in Fontana and she reminisces while looking at one of the many pictures of my dad on her walls.

"Your dad didn't do so bad that first year," Mom told me recently. "The problem was that the rednecks and the Mexicans didn't like each other and we catered more to the rednecks. We should have catered to the Mexicans more but then we would have been a Mexican bar and your dad didn't want that. He was a Montana cowboy and he wanted a honky tonk. He loved that damn bar. It put us in the poorhouse and we lost everything. But he never regretted it. He was a dreamer."