By Miguel Gardel
Everything was changing. It was summer, and school would be out soon. Carlito had become “Chucky.” I wanted to be “Jesse,” but I wouldn’t dare tell anyone. Carlito was in our gang, but when he became “Chucky,” he stopped hanging out with us. He liked rock-and-roll. His father bought him a guitar and mostly he stayed home. In school, we made fun of him. “Look at the white boy! Chucky the white boy!”
I liked rock-and-roll too. Chucky (when he was Carlito) and I used to exchange 45’s, but now I didn’t visit him. He lived in the building next to mine. No one knew I was into rock except Chucky and my sister. I read all the rock rags for fans. There were many. I bought them at Charley’s Gifts, up the block. When it was time to get a latest issue, I’d come out of my building as the Phantom Agent. No one was supposed to see me. And if the gang was crowding the entrance to Charley’s, I’d send my sister to buy it for me. I lived a double life and the pressure began to get to me. I swore that as soon as I turned into a teenager at thirteen, I would free myself of the unnecessary burden. The oppression was not for me.
One day after my birthday, I gathered my gifts–five 45’s–and went over and up to Chucky’s place. Chucky’s room was the first on the left. Further down the hallway the walls were plastered with religious pictures and black wooden crosses. I feared going down there. The hall was dark and spooky. I never went to the bathroom while I was at Chucky’s.
“I have albums,” Chucky said. He held up two that were familiar to me from magazine reviews. I couldn’t afford albums. Everything was changing. Suddenly 45’s meant nothing.
God and baseball meant nothing, not next to the White Album and Electric Ladyland. The gang ceased to exist for me. Girls would now be a reality.
Through the first weeks of summer we listened to the music and dreamed about becoming rock stars. I got a guitar and learned chords from Chucky who went every Thursday afternoon for lessons. We saw ourselves as the hippest guys on the block and we refused to get haircuts.
Chucky ran away from home one day after his lessons and his father called my house to ask if I had seen him. I hadn’t, but I knew he was mad at his father because the day before his father had forced him to go to the barber shop. I mean he pulled him by the shirt all the way to the barber’s. It was embarrassing. I was glad I didn’t have a father. My mother would have never done that. I saw Chucky the next day at the street corner. “What happened? Where were you?”
“Up on the roof,” he said. “I went home at midnight.” And then he said something strange, “My father said you’re corrupting me.” The word registered quickly. I was the one who read the magazines and passed him information. Chucky would never use the word “corruption.” Neither would I. “He said Dominicans are no good.”
“He can go to hell,” I said.
“Don’t say that about my father, man.”
I had thought the influence of rock-and-roll on him was way above his father’s. I now started to doubt his sincerity. Did he have true rock-and-roll convictions like I did? Out of spite I called him “doofus.” Our friendship cooled. He continued taking lessons for the guitar but I lost interest in mine. One day he told me his father had bought a house. His family was going to move away. Before the summer ended, Chucky moved to Queens and I never saw him again.
More changes. Midway through the summer, Eduardo became “Little Eddie.” I wondered when I was going to be man enough to tell the world I wanted to be “Jesse” and not “Jesus.”
Little Eddie now sniffed glue and hung out with white guys. He went to the park to “esnifear” with two older blond-haired guys. They were brothers. I was more into girls than drugs. I was more into looking for girls than looking for drugs. I sniffed one time with them and got high. Then I had a tremendous headache. I couldn’t understand how they could like it.
“I don’t get a headache,” Little Eddie said. “Right, guys, that we don’t get a headache?” The two white guys didn’t say anything. One squeezed out glue from a tube into a small brown paper bag. The other had his bag over his nose and mouth.
I wanted to find a girl. I wanted to be something else. In school I was “Jesus.” “Jeezus,” “Hayzoos,” and “Jesús,” en español, and everywhere else I was “Chacha.” I hated “Jesus.” And “Chacha” was abominable.
I wanted to be “Jesse.”I didn’t want to be Jesús María Del Río but “Jesse Del,” or “Jesse Rivers,” or “Jesse Rios,” or (even) “Jesse Dale.” I was willing to consider “Jesse Riv.” I wanted my name to sound concise and pleasing. Something like “Tony Curtis.”
I listened to music and read magazines. I hung out with El Puro and tried to get him into Rock and got him to buy some albums. Things were changing and I wanted to change too. My hair was getting longer. I considered getting a job. I needed money to buy albums and more magazines. I talked with my friend Jorge, who was now “Georgie.” He was the stock and delivery guy at the bodega up the street.
“Go to another bodega, man,” he said. “I work here.”
I couldn’t compete. He was seventeen, strong, and not too bright. I was about to leave when this very beautiful girl went in and bought something and left. She was so beautiful, I had to rush out and see what direction she’d take. I wanted to follow her and see what would happen. But she was right there. Right there next to the public mail box, under the street lamp, just standing there. What a beautiful sight! What a beautiful evening! What a beautiful girl! She had a small bag of potato chips in one hand. In the other a candy bar or a pack of gum.
I walked towards her. I shook. It was painful. Things got complicated. I wanted to turn back, go back to where it wasn’t complicated. And I walked right by her. Yeah, because things were going to change too much, too quickly for me if I kept going forward. She was beautiful, as beautiful as all the beautiful women and girls I had ever seen.
She looked about fourteen, maybe fifteen. Her long brown hair spread out over her shoulders. She wore white, girl sneakers and tight jeans and her denim jacket was also tight. She seemed perfect. As I walked farther from her I thought of this girl Beverly from school who smelled like pee. I threw myself once on her and managed to kiss her on the cheek. And she smelled like pee. She was very pretty. I thought that if I got very close to this girl she would smell like pee too.
I thought and imagined it. We’d speak and nothing would be difficult or trivial. I’d hold her hand and squeeze it. She’d squeeze back. I’d put my arms around her. Bring her closer to me. Tight. And then there would be the smell of piss near us. The bad smell would grow. Very stinky. But not so horrible that it would stop me. It wouldn’t stop me. I’d squeeze her tight and kiss her. And I’d kiss her again on her lips. If the guys could see me now. Necking at the corner with an older chick. A white one. And then I’d kiss her on her neck. And there it would be. The dry stinky piss would be on her neck. It was not the American experience I wanted to have. Americans smell like piss!
I looked back to see if she was still standing there and right at that moment I heard a voice yell, “Judy!”
I saw her cross the street and meet a guy on the other side. I saw them walk up the block. I saw their backs. I kept my eyes on them walking up the block until they dissolved. I stood there for a long time. The guy looked like one of the glue-sniffing blond guys who hung out with Little Eddie.
I had never seen her before and I never saw her again. But I was going to have a girl, soon. And I was going to become “Jesse.”
There was a park to the east where my street began. And there was a park to the west where my street ended. The park to the east I knew well but to the park on the west I had never gone. I was going to go before the summer ended. One afternoon I walked up the street, going west.
I ran into Little Eddie. He was wearing a Scouts uniform. He didn’t seem to want to talk to me. He nodded and kept going. I stopped him. I invited him to go with me up to the park on the west side. “Why,” he said. “What for?”
“Nothing,” I said. I was going to say, “To pick up girls.” But he looked very unhip.
“I don’t go there,” he said. “I don’t even go to this park anymore,” he pointed east.
He had gotten connected once again with the Boy Scouts. He told me he wanted to go up to Explorer. I knew he had been a Cub Scout and his father had been in a war, Korea or World War Two. Then he said he had to go and we started in opposite directions.
There was no sun out. It was a gray day. I saw El Puro standing and doing nothing on the street corner. He wasn’t with the gang anymore either. The gang was crowding around Charley’s Gifts. “What are you doing?”
“Nada. Checkeando las chicas.”
There were no chicas around. “Why don’t we really go look for girls?”
“Sure, man,” he said. “But where?”
I pulled him to the side and I showed him, “Over there.” I pointed to the park on the west side. He got a little nervous, a little jittery. Over there, he knew, white American catholic school girls hung out. The beautiful Irish, mostly.
He looked over. “No sé, man,” he said.
“You should come with me, man.”
“Tú sabes cual es mi problema,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“El inglés, brother.”
“No, man. Your English is good.”
“A mí me falta,” he said.
He felt his English wasn’t good enough. All I could say was “No,” that I didn’t believe it. (We had gone through this before when I tried to get him into Rock. He went as far as the Doors. He had dug them right away. Something about the organ.) And then I asked him if he wanted to go up half way with me.
“Now, no,” he said.
I began to hum Light My Fire. He joined in. We did the complete song. The short, 45 version. He dug the hits. I segued into Hello I Love You and began to walk. He hummed along and followed. We met no girls at the park. But we sat on benches and sang some more songs. And we talked there under the trees until some sun came to us filtered through the branches.
It was the last week of vacation. I was walking towards the bodega to buy bread and milk, and cigarettes for my mother. I saw Little Eddie. “Hey, Little Eddie!”
“You don’t have to call me ‘Little Eddie.’ Call me ‘Eduardo.’”
“Alright, man,” I said. “Going to your Scouts meeting?” He wasn’t wearing his Scout uniform. He was wearing a suit and tie.
“No,” he said. “I’m going to church.”
“Church? On a Friday afternoon?”
He nodded and began to walk away. I let him go. All these changes.
When school starts, I thought, I’m going to ask everyone to call me “Jesse.” And if they call me “Jesus” I won’t answer. Even to the teachers I won’t answer.