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Monday, October 31, 2011

Día de los Muertos

In honor of Día de los Muertos, I’ve written a special tribute to honor those in my life who have passed on.
Aunt Lucy: When I think of you, I think of hot summers in L.A., melting popsicles and sticky fingers, playing your piano off-key for hours, and both my sister and I anxious over breakfast while we waited for that sleeping beauty daughter of yours to wake up. (“Maybe another hour, mijas.”) Growing older, I realized the things that had made you gracious (besides your sophisticated collection of high heels my sister and I envied over); there was always coffee in your home, a sweet to nibble on, and conversation that penetrated a layer deeper than the surface—there was a genuine care of our lives. You were elegant, classy, a strong current always at the core of your essence. I keep a picture of you on my vanity; so when I’m powdering my nose and glossing my lips, I’m reminded of how much I love a woman’s glamour.
David: Smile now, cry later—that’s what was tatted on your chest, with the masks that peek-a-booed out to your neck. Mama always said don’t hang out with no thugs, but for some reason I never had a curfew when I was with you. Your natural charm and the polite, yet un-phony way you greeted my mom got me out of the house. Then, it was joints and 40s galore (good ol’ King Cobra and seedy dime sacks). We sat on the porch steps of your hood, talking, indulging, waiting for life around us to happen. But while monotonous suburbia track-homes towered up around me, I grew restless, itching to escape. You came to say goodbye on my last day, to wish me luck in San Francisco. You were a new man. Your eyes shone as you spoke of your newborn; how you’d held him on top of you and drifted asleep as your hearts beat chest-to-chest. “There’s no feeling like it in the world, Sarah,” you confided. And there were tears in your eyes. A couple months later, my sister and I were sitting on the porch of a bar under an orange tree. I’d just gotten the news from back home about the red light you’d run, and the oncoming car… We guzzled through pints of beer as oranges fell down all around us; it was as if someone were shaking the tree by its roots.
Grandma Celia: We weren’t that close because copious years had already washed over you, like waves over a shell in the sand, until one day the current was strong enough to simply sweep you away. But for the one special day in my childhood that you babysat me, I was your only nieta. In your tiny nest of a home, I shadowed you through the natural rhythms of your routine: novelas in the background, a leisurely stroll over to Safeway (you whistling the entire time), tortillas with queso fresco, “Otra tortilla mijita?” I wanted to know you so badly. How had my own mother looked to you the way I’d always looked to her? What was it in our parallel blood that made us Corral? Did you have that same restlessness that ached inside me too? You were an entity of mystery to me. I yearned for something in you that I could not explain. We sat calmly on the sofa together; you watching your novelas, me watching you.

Nick: At first you were just the new guy that everyone at the pizza parlor gravitated towards. But even after many months, the novelty of you never wore off; you were charming and fit into our tight-knit staff of family beautifully. There were jokes on the assembly line and beat-boxing over side-work. At closing time, all of us slipped quarters in the jukebox and video games, ate leftover pizza and raided the beer-taps, with you always at the center of our attentions. Then one day, an alarm of emergency spewed through us; after you’d gone on break, our delivery driver found your orange jacket on the side of the road before the paramedics in a horrific three-car crash. Days later, we all stood on the side of the street where it’d happened. The traffic of cars was so deceivingly innocent in the morning. I looked behind us, struck by the irony of a fully flourished field of weeds. Four teenagers had lost their lives on one street: you, my friend’s brother, your other friend, and a teenage girl in an oncoming car who was learning to drive for the first time. We stood there, shattered, as cars continued to speed by and weeds continued to grow. 
Gustavo: I still choke at the sight of the cherry tree blossoms every spring; earth is revealing her new year of promise to us, and you’re not here to see it. I’d never lived your life, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t understand it. There were many talks about those other years…sometimes you’d cry and sometimes I’d cry with you. On a quest to heal, there were walks in the woods, drives through the city, carne asada at family parties, cookies because my mom always stocked up on your visits, and your favorite: all-day home-cooked meals. There would be beer while you cooked and wine with dinner. Our aromatic laughter seasoned the food as much as chiles and oregano. And now…and now what? Now there is an empty seat at family get-togethers. Now our tamales are missing an essential ingredient. Now I can only love your memory, and love you through your wife and daughter, both of whom I adore. And that love, primo, is unconditional too.
            Also, a special bendición to my suegro, who I never had the honor of knowing. Salvador, I’ve loved so much of what remains of you, it’s as if we’ve been familia all along.

© Sarah C. Jiménez, All Rights Reserved 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Down The Escalator

            The problem with the homeless in San Francisco is that after awhile, the locals become almost immune to caring for them. When they’re zig-zagging the sidewalk like bug-eyed zombies screaming at an invisible dog, we nonchalantly turn up our I-pods and walk past them. When that crazy long haired dude who looks like Jesus flown over the cuckoo’s nest is trying to sell you roses, we politely say no—if we say anything at all.
Today began playing out like any other day as I got on the escalator, coming home from downtown. I saw the same black homeless man downstairs in front of the train station that I see almost everyday. Instinctively, I began to play dumb, looking busy so I’d be too distracted to “see him” as I rummaged through bags filled from my latest shopping spree. Before I could un-wrap a Mac turquoise eyeliner (that I may or may not ever use), something about the man caught my attention: Shuffling nervously, he went up to two other black men—tourists—who were struggling to get their LV decked luggage onto the escalator going up. He cleared his throat…tapped them on the shoulder.
The tourists crinkled their faces like they’d just stepped in dog shit. In front of them, the man was holding up a Street-Sheet. (It’s a monthly paper written by the homeless for the homeless to freely sell for a buck as an “alternative” to panhandling.)
“Street Sheet, brutha?” he asked them. “It’s our special poetry edition.”
The tourists, dressed in ironed polos, black shades, and flecks of silver shining from their necks, swatted at him as if he were a horse-fly in the kitchen. “Nah man, get away,” they thwarted.
“It…it’s only a buck,” he choked at them, clutching lamely at the paper.
The men became angry. They’d just gotten their suitcases on the stairs, and we began to cross each other; me going down, them going up. “Man, get away! Don’t ask me again if I already told your broke-ass no!” “Yeah, man, get your raggedy-ass a real job!”
Their reaction seemed to sting the “bum.” And then, it occurred to me that in all the years I’ve seen him, I didn’t know this man’s story at all; What if he’d had everything at once, and lost it all in one streak of bad luck? Maybe he’d gotten the pink slip from his kindergarten teaching class, and his wife and kids took off with a richer man after the house foreclosed. Without a clean shower, interview clothes, and a legit address to reference, it’d become harder and harder to pull himself back up…and now here he was. I didn’t know this man’s life but what I did know was that he had probably seen himself in those men—with their fancy luggage, polished leather shoes, and Ray-bans, no less. He saw probably what he could’ve been, and maybe who he wanted to be. But the tourists, same skin color or not, did not see themselves in the bum at all. If they had, it repulsed them.
Hollering “stupid-ass bum” and “raggedy-ass motherfucker” all the way to the top, the men’s bodies grew smaller against the backdrop of towering buildings until they disappeared completely out of sight.
I felt terrible as I dragged off the escalator. While people around had gawked and stared, no one made a single gesture of empathy. And then, everything carried on as it was before: Tourists poured out of the station, unfolding their maps and squinting up at the sky; a flock of teens lit up a blunt; a clique of girls smacked me out of their way with their Forever 21 bags.

I couldn’t get just leave and get on the train though. I knew I had to do something. (I wouldn’t leave someone abandoned on the side of the street who’d just gotten hit by a car—how could I leave someone who’d just been emotionally run over?)
            Reaching in my purse, I tapped the homeless man on the shoulder.            
He turned around quickly, not meeting my eyes. I wondered if they had tears in them. I handed him a five-dollar bill—it was the only money I had, and it was supposed to be my Bart fare home.  
            As I waited for my good Samaritan-ness to be rewarded with a filling look of gratitude in his eyes, I was stunned instead, that the man snatched the bill out of my hand and pocketed it without even a thank you. When his eyes finally looked into mine, I flinched away like a bird with a wounded wing. His soul seemed to have vanished. His black eyes were hollow—no feeling or emotion attached—and the only thing that made him human was the jittery twitches of his body. He was a dead man walking, his entire livelihood sold to nothing more than his daily fixes of crack or heroin.
As quickly as I’d given him the money, he was gone.
            Suddenly, the reality of what I’d done kicked in: I’d just assed myself out of a train ride home!
I fought with some rowdy kids and a lady with a stroller to “sneak” on the back of the bus. The driver rolled her eyes at us, and mouthed what looked like “sons-of bitches” under her breath. My no-hassle 10-minute train ride home had turned into a 45-minute trek across town—and, of course, I picked the aisle seat next to some girl yelling at her boyfriend the entire time that he was “hella stupid” for not calling her back last night.
When I finally got home, I must’ve chugged an entire beer down in one standing. The buzz went straight to my head, smoothing out those rough edges almost instantly. I played Scrabble on my I-phone and dug through my shopping spree purchases, while nibbling on leftover pizza from last night’s delivery. Back to my perky self in no time and buzzed off Blue Moon, I thought back on my deed of the day. And that’s when I realized, who was I to judge anyone on how to get their fix?

© All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 17, 2011

Riding a Bike

The first time my dad took the training wheels off my bike was like a classic T.V. sitcom moment: Dad held my cherry red Schwinn as he sprinted beside me. “Pedal faster,” he instructed. I pedaled faster. “Keep going, sweet-heart!” I did! I kept going, pedaling fast and faster until I was no longer a leaf attached to the branches of his arms; it was just me on my bike, streaking down the sidewalk, a blast of Shirley Temple curls trailing behind me. The rest of my childhood, if I wasn’t reading books (the entire Babysitter’s Club series), or spying on my older, cooler sister, I was on my bike. We lived in a quiet serene neighborhood, and I lived for my parents’ instructions of “Go outside and play.”
            For my 6th grade graduation, I was gifted a 10-speed mountain bike...but something inside me had fizzled away. My leaves had changed. I no longer wanted to ride my bike to spy on the neighborhood “crazy” who had about a hundred animals in her backyard (including a very cool llama, and a one-eyed cat). I no longer cared to ride to the orchards of pomegranate trees, where I would bask in the shade and watch passing clouds in the sky. (I’ve always been a dreamer.) Instead, I became more interested in trying to smoke my first cigarette, and of taking those Does he like you? quizzes from big sis’s Seventeen.
My dad ended up taking the bike with him when my parents divorced; a surefire symbol that the ride of my childhood had ended. Years passed. Over 15. Then last year, on a visit up to San Francisco, my dad strapped a bike onto his jeep, drove it up, and proudly boasted, “Here. A present for you.”
The entire time it had served as a lovely ornament in the garage, collecting dust alongside our friend’s bike. But the other Saturday morning, the ruca suggested we take out the ol’ wheels. At first I thought she was crazy. Frisco streets are a parade of pandemonium! I’ve always been terrified to bike the streets and share with hundreds of busses, Muni trains, camera-snapping tourists spilling out of cable-cars, way-agro cab drivers, and pedestrians who take their ‘right of way’ as seriously as their middle-finger. (Just last week, I saw the 14 slice a rearview mirror clean off a Lexus, while a gang of teens in the back of the bus hollered Boo-yah!) Still, my ruca was determined to soak up the few days of our Indian summer, and pretty soon I was determined too, but also a little bit annoyed with myself; Why (and how) had I grown to be such a freakin’ wuss?
Ready to take on a new adventure by the handlebars, I marched my no-guts-no-glory ass outside and did something I hadn’t done in years: I got on a bike. Instantly, my feet re-connected with the pedals, my hands with the brakes. Everything flooded back to me, a déjà vu like haze of my childhood blooming through as an adult. Clearly, this was not a difficult task like recalling the Pythagorean theorem; it was something you could never forget, as easy to remember as—duh—riding a bike.
The wind splashed on my face and whipped at the curls that had escaped from my helmet. Why is that when we get older, we become more afraid? Is it because the more we live in life, the more we potentially have to lose? Or is it because we’ve begun to live long enough to know that we are not invincible? For years I’ve been scared of riding a bike, and even though I didn’t know that fear as a child, it had engulfed me somehow as an adult. I’ll admit that while the thought of eating shit on the Muni tracks is still kinda scary, I was no longer going to let that fear be a reason for not wanting to ride.
The city was the same as any other day, but it all felt completely different on two wheels. I zipped past herds of people packed in coffee shops and sipping mimosas at brunch spots. I watched employees flip their signs to ‘open’ in the window of boutiques. I chuckled at the religious señoras with their Despierta! pamphlets as they stood beside the shouting preachers clutching their bibles. Then, as I pedaled fast and faster, everything became a blur…Yoga mats, grocery tote bags, skaters filming their friends eating shit, pigeons in puddles, murals on schools and liquor stores, a man with no legs and a ‘Jesus Loves You’ sign, Goood Frickin’ Chicken, a tatted-up dude with a pet parrot, the rainbows of Castro, drunks in alleys, March for your rights Oct. 29th, $8 corte de pelo, Shoe Biz, best Bloody Mary’s in Town!, Free HIV testing, men playing dice, howling kids on playgrounds, Naan-N-Curry, hopeful workers on César Chávez Street, pizza by the slice, pastel colored projects next to exquisite Victorians, seedy strip clubs—XXX, GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS!—pupuserías, boba in your fruit drinks, the gated up GUNS shop, cops interrogating cholos while stoned-ass hipsters tapped their badges for a match, BuY $1 bOOks here!, a new show at the Roxie tonight…the city unfolded before my eyes like a thousand Polaroids as I blew past it. It was an early Saturday afternoon and the streets were as alive as after. I reveled in that same glorious sensation of feeling so alive and new—as if my dad had just taken off my training wheels for the first time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

La Santa Cecilia

            We were off to San Jose, that close yet distant town from Emerald City. It was a Saturday night, the car was filled up with our homegirls, and we guzzled down Fat Tire in coffee thermoses with the same merriment as frat boys doing keg stands. (Except for my ruca, who was designated driver.) We were going to see La Santa Cecilia, a Latino band from L.A. who my ruca has been raving about since she saw their last show. I wasn’t thrilled that she wanted to go again, or rather that she wanted to take me with her. Concerts aren’t really my thing. Besides getting nervous in huge crowds, I don’t dance salsa. Or merengue. Or cumbias. Or…well, you get the point. That’s not to say I can’t dance—indeed, I can bootie-shake like no one’s business. But anything that involves a 1-2-3 step with a partner, a dip, a twist and a twirl, and I am lost. I didn’t grow up salsa dancing at home—I grew up listening to my parents’ Beatles and Elvis, and watching my mom bust the Mashed Potatoes, the Watusi, and the Twist!
Needless to say, going to a concert where I’d spend the evening as a cute lil’ wallflower surrounded by flocks of Latinos who really know how to cut a rug, did not sound like a fun night—but I decided to go. While I powdered my nose and glossed my lips, I promised myself that tonight, I would enjoy a different taste of life out of my comfort zone. After all, I am too young to be a 30-year old “square;” a helpless homebody who’s life is consumed only with work and writing. I needed to break loose a little—live. I needed to color in the black and whites of my soul, and feed myself a new adventure.
We arrived at our destination early. Or maybe the show started late, whatever. Sipping cocktails in the lounge of an uppity hotel, I admired the two striking women sitting next to us who chatted with our homegirls. One was dressed in a stunning autentica blusa with brightly embroidered flowers. A long elegant trensa hung down her back like a crow’s feather. The other woman had cute curly hair and chic framed glasses that would’ve looked silly on me, but looked unfairly cool on her. Conversation flowed easily with them, which is how I quickly found out that they had not come to see the band—they were the band! I took a big gulp of my vodka on the rocks, keeping my cool yet completely blown away. These rockeras were down to earth, cool as shit—raza—and they shared awesome stories of their international travels. We congratulated them on their Grammy nomination for their song, La Negra. I was mesmerized by their humbleness. I was in complete awe of their super chill vibe. I was…already a fan.
            When it was time for them to go on, we raised our glasses, threw them back, and made our way inside. Lights simmered low with the spotlights glowing only on the band. All at once, their music filled the room, heating up the hazy club like steam in Mama’s kitchen. Between the guitar and the drums and the accordion, all of the instruments blended together vibrantly, a tie-dye spiral of sounds. The singer’s voice was incredible, switching high notes to low as easy as a snap, her Spanish and Spanglish a melodic sizzle.
The booths along the wall emptied out. Glasses clinked, toes were stomped on. Girls wiggled in their mini dresses and stilettos, their heels skinny as a needle, and eager guys scanned the crowd, searching for whichever girl would say yes to them. Two girls got kicked out for almost fighting, and another girl in the tightest animal print dress I’d ever seen fell face-flat on the floor not once, but twice. (I almost caught her drink on the second timberrr down, but missed.) I was hardly fazed. I didn’t need to know fancy footwork, like salsa or cumbias—my hips were fluid on my body, riding the rhythm of the songs like a surfboard coasting along a wave. Between me and my homegirls shooting up our pulses in sync to the beating songs, a warp of time captured us, and swallowed us away. Too soon they were performing their last song. The slosh of crowd almost turned rowdy, demanding more as they hollered back at them: “Otra, otra!” The band shrugged, giving their fans what they wanted. And their last song they left us with? A beautiful rendition of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields.
Gratified, I reflected back on the night. I’d not only gotten out of my comfort zone and tried something new, I’d genuinely enjoyed myself. I tossed my arm around my ruca, swaying gently to the final song as the mood shifted to a mellow flutter. And in case you were wondering, I did not bust out the Mashed Potatoes, or the Watusi to this song…just a very mild Twist to my signature bootie-shake.

Check out the band! Here’s a link to their homepage, and a YouTube clip of them. Good luck at the Grammys, guys!

© Sarah C. Jiménez, All Rights Reserved 2011

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Night Run

Normally, streams of sunshine pour through the capes of leaves that hang from the trees, but tonight, all I could see were their branches, curling out like witch’s fingers. At my insistence, the ruca and I went for a jog after work, except we waited a little too late. The last rays of twilight had flickered away, and the innocent beauties of day felt tainted by the inability to see them at night. Instead, I noticed all the eerie nuances of night-life that thrived on Bernal Hill: cobwebs drooled across street signs; scampers in the bushes kept me on alert; sticks crackled, and dirt kicked up at our feet like puffs of smoke.
We sprinted up the last staircase that leads to the top of the hill where we run one arduous lap. I led the way since I have the keen eyesight of a cat (compensation, probably, for my hearing that’s gone to shit), and I scanned the bushes rigorously, searching for anything unordinary that might jump out at us. Checking back on the ruca, only a few steps behind, a dull flicker hazed her eyes instead of the warm connection I’ve come to love and need from her. I felt that familiar throb inside me that had been tender all week, but I ignored it. If I kept running, it would all disappear eventually, right? The strain of my lungs would exhaust, and start anew without even a trace of memory to mark that pain. Then everything would go back to how it was…wouldn’t it?
The hill itself was dark, as if someone had blown a candle out in the room, but the lights of the city spewed out in front of us. I like to consider this picturesque view my prize for actually making it to the top without passing out, but tonight, a completely different panorama played out before me. The Bay Bridge lit up magnificently, shooting land to land across the water, which was dotted with several lights that bobbed on the bay. The usual sparks of sound that flare up the city had dimmed to nothing more than a distant hum beneath us. On the hill, few people remained, their faces blurred in the blackness as they made their ways home. Some whistled out to their dogs who’d tangled themselves in trails of the hill, others packed up their wine bottles from their sunset picnic, and a pack of high school kids shuffled away, their 4:20 session now long gone.
Continuing on, we breezed easily downhill and through the streets. We neared the last stretch uphill that circles back to the staircases we came from. I usually love this desolate trek, so close to the finish line, but tonight the cautionary whoo-whoo of owls took on the voice of my two angry parents yelling at me in my head: “Why would you go running at night?! What were you thinking? Where is your common sense?!”
Suddenly, the ruca called out to me, her voice a cracked yelp. “Wait!” she gasped, a desperate hunt for her breath. “Wait!”
“Need a breather?” I halted, not thrilled about her timing.
“I…I have something to… to tell you,” she huffed.
She approached me, the glisten of sweat shiny on her face.
“I…I’m still upset with you. From our fight last week. I’m just…I’m still hurt.”
I let my lungs exhaust too. Just the mention of the fight swallowed me back to the scene, forgetting the trepidation that, a moment ago, had prickled my skin. While it’s typical for the ruca and I to squabble over regular stuff (“Please don’t borrow my lipstick!” “Do you even know where we keep the mop?” “No I will not wake up at 6am to make you coffee!”), our spats usually extinguish as quickly as they fire up. But every now and then, like last Wednesday, we just can’t let up and we explode, firing at each other like cannons. Maybe it was a crappy over-time/underpaid day at work, maybe it was that hormone raging time of the month when the SPCA commercials are enough to make me cry, or maybe it was the annoying neighbors who sounded like they were bowling upstairs. But I was in a toxic mood, bloated with all the crap of my day, and took it out on my ruca for forgetting her keys (again) and making me wait 40 minutes longer than promised when I’d had plans. Becoming defensive, the ruca lashed out too, and the next thing we knew, a mishap over keys had turned into a full out screaming match with all swords being thrown including “And I’ve told you three times to put the dishes away!”
The choleric duel had taken place a week ago to the day. Though we’d grumbled our apologies and called a truce, we’d carried on the rest of the week as if we were ordinary roommates. Intimacy had become an awkward strain between us, and the cariño had vanished from our usual I love you’s. Like two stubborn turtles hiding irritably in our shells, we’d emotionally withdrawn from each other.
 “I’m sorry,” I wheezed. “I was such a (huff, huff) jerk to you. I wish I could...wish I could take it back. But for the record (huff, huff), I’m hurt with you too!”
“I know I was a jerk too,” she panted. “And I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t…fall out of love with me, did you?” I croaked, almost scared to ask the most pivotal question, should one of the answers crush me completely.
“No,” she shook her head. “I just realized I was still hurt (huff, huff) while we were running.”
“We can’t get so out of hand when we’re that furious. (Huff, huff.) We can’t treat each other like punching bags!”
            “Yeah,” she agreed. “No punching bags.”
There was nothing we could do to change what had happened. The feeling of regret had to digest through us, like spoiled milk. For some reason though, just acknowledging that we were hurt felt slightly soothing in itself; like we were officially ready to come out of our shells, and look the other in the eye.
I peered down the dark road that winded through the hill, suddenly longing for the familiar comforts of home.
“C’mon,” I coaxed persuasively. “Let’s run the rest of the way.”
A renewed energy shot through us. My body worked through its motions, expelling the sordidness that had poisoned me the entire week. My heart and lungs were firecrackers exploding in my chest, and my calves triggered with heat, like sticks rubbing together before they catch fire.
We weren’t home when we made it back to the staircase, but we heaved a huge sigh of relief anyway, and slapped high-5s. Clambering back down, the lampposts on the staircase had finally turned on, and lit the way home for us.
© Sarah C. Jiménez, All Rights Reserved 2011