In late May 2002, a regular customer requested personal favor. Donna had become property manager for 27 rental houses and needed introductions translated, since most tenants were Hispanic. Stopping at one house, blinds were drawn, but it was obvious somebody up and moved. Needing to confirm, stepping through the door, I knew the house was empty, and it was mine!
Don't ask how. It was precise for vibrant visions that I had finally found a home. I picked up my keys on June 3rd, raising blinds and windows, to begin a thorough cleaning. Time had slipped away when I heard pounding on the front door, followed by a rapid request to turn the music down. It was after-hours. Sure enough, when checking, my new neighbor had been prompt at 10pm.
Hispanic Panic is the equivalent of White Flight when African-Americans start moving in, but I undoubtedly helped seal fate for ending up the only Caucasian on my side of the block for quite some time. Blastin' Latin music never warranted another meeting, but she was always lurking, waiting for any opportunity. There was an unlikely mix of family and friends frequently visiting. Using a cordless outside while talking 'hoodish with NYC comrades probably only confused things. Too tanned to be white? Not dark enough to be black? Always keep 'em guessing, or so I'd like to think twisted the neighbor lady during those first months.
A couple of friends joined one early November Sunday for raking and burning. The outdoor boom box gradually escalated in volume as morning wore on. By noon, Hispanic neighbors on the other side began stirring. What erupted was a spontaneous block party disguised as the annual autumn ritual. Eventually, a monster stereo system came out three doors down. Scents of freshly lit grills now mingled with smell of burning leaves. Using a rake as a torrid dance partner only recycled the chore into a fiesta.
All was well until about 4pm, when a car door slammed from other side of the privacy fence. Making a furious beeline, raging about the music -- according to her, "no one would ever want to buy a house on this block" -- she yelled that she had prospective buyers arriving shortly, and something had to be done about the music! With the blankest face possible, I repeatedly asked, "cómo?", causing her to writhe even more until spewing a rapid-fire volley en español that sent her packin', literally!
A young black/Hispanic couple with two rowdy boys eventually moved in, rounding out the block, but raking day was pivotal, beyond learning she was leaving. I met my other neighbors for the first time beyond a "cómo estás" and was rather satisfied. They may have also been perplexed about my identity, but there was no mistaking coming to their defense. After 10pm that night, when finally putting out the fire, Latin music could still be faintly heard from somewhere down the alley...
First semester back in classes, a faculty member suggested meeting with a 6'8" forward from the basketball team. Not only was he from Puerto Rico, there ended up being three of them! Carlos, Michael, and Hiram turned out to be almost 20-feet worth of island "hoop"-la. There was instant connection, but something greater transpired after my first invitation for dinner at the house.
Lost and out of sorts, these athletes had slipped through the cracks as Americans not eligible for international student perks. English was barely a second language. Cold weather and bland dorm food had them pining away for comforts of home thousands of miles away. My substitute haven, a 15-minute ride from campus, became their private island hide-away. But even more inspiring was the link to home their presence provided, beyond my neighbors' best efforts. Their familiar zest for living founded through dance, food, and thirst for rum was mutually nurturing while reviving my role as surrogate Dad.
The last of the Ricans had flown home for summer when I received a call I'd been waiting almost two years for. Antonio, youngest of the three boys I'd taken off the streets and raised while in NYC, was ready to make good on my ever-standing offer. Within 48 hours, he arrived with all his possessions including a GED; my only requirement for permanently staying.
The scrawny 13-year old was now 6'5" almost 8 years later, with a 94mph fastball that had area coaches drooling over a mythical Dominican pitcher never seen in these parts. Getting him a full ride at the local junior college was no problem. Convincing him to get a job while instilling self discipline in joining the real world was not as easily accomplished.
Calling Emilio over from next door, he agreed to take Antonio to the turkey plant as summer hire. He got the grueling job but called about halfway through his first shift, saying he'd now have to stay until at least 3am. Of all my panicked reasonings, I'd have never guessed a transfer to the graveyard shift's wide-open basement department, because he kept banging his head on processing lines set to accommodate the pint-sized Central Americans!
Lucky for Antonio, my original plans to spend the second half of summer in the islands gave him a free pass for exiting the poultry business early. He headed back to NYC for baseball while I stopped off to visit the Ricans on my way to DR. Before leaving, Emilio agreed to watch the house and personally guard the bottles of Mama Juana.
Beautiful Days in the Neighborhood
Perhaps if Señor Rogers had left the house more, he'd have realized there was a whole other world beyond all that putzing around inside. With the start of another school year, I got Antonio settled into the dorms with a Venezuelan teammate/roommate, only adding to our diversity. The Ricans' basketball season, between fall/spring baseball, made for busy schedules and frequent needed escapes back to Isla de Kevo.
Sundays are Hispanics' traditional family day, with feast and fiesta, while catching up on chores for week ahead. Open houses up and down the block became the norm, sometimes lasting entire weekends. By the time spring 2004 rolled around, few introductions were needed between neighbors and the towering island versions of Latinos. Even more curious were life-long residents and co-workers who might have watched a game or stopped by during the quiet mid-week but petitioned weekend invitations, which proved their closest encounters with foreign travel experiences.
Basic Spanish and English were readily practiced, as were numerous dance steps to ensure that no one felt excluded. Teammates, classmates, and international students only complimented the growing entourage. Gravity proved to have no favoritism for the short or the tall, thanks to neighbors' stockpile of beer and my caché of island potions. Celebrating life is one thing. Having respect for elders is quite another, and it never ceased to amaze me how everyone, regardless of age or race, could put such a lid on things when my parents or 94-year-old grandmother happened to drop in.
Beyond fiestas, the greatest endearments came from quieter, simpler times – sitting on milk crates under a shade tree while talking with Emilio, listening to the sounds of restful sleeping when someone needed a night home, away from the dorms. My created island sanctuary served a purpose far greater than my own, but even a bird's refuge lasts only for a season.
Feather Traces in the Nest
Restlessness had triumphed over studying for the following day's Spanish presentation. Hiram, also in his senior year, assured we'd have no problem on the joint project, discussing cultural comparisons and differences between the islands known by heart. Actually, we'd been rehearsing since the day we met over two years ago, but voices of input were now limited. A bored peek into the refrigerator was postponed when magnetized photos from days gone by commandingly seized abandoned attention.
As a lottery pick in the 2004 draft, the Braves wanted Antonio closer to Atlanta, justifying transfer to a Florida school. Request for more playing time from Puerto Rico's semi-pro basketball league had scattered Carlos and Michael to Pennsylvania and Iowa. Reuniting with them or the white, toothy smiles on display from my Bayahibe crew would happen again, but not anytime soon enough.
Symbolic hunger bypassed food in lieu of wide-open solitude on the back porch. The house on the other side, where I'd met my original neighbor, had been empty and for sale this entire year, but I was looking head-on towards Emilio's, now darkened for weeks. He'd stashed the family before turning himself in for an extended holiday season back in Guatemala, compliments of INS. He assured me not to worry; they'd all be back within a few months. The damp autumn air had set my mind to roaming. Collected raindrops were splattering to the ground from breezes rustling the trees. Every now and then, a car would pass along Oak Street, familiar Latin tunes increasing with approach, before vanishing into the silence of darkness. Perhaps Mr. Rogers had had similar disquieting experiences for why he always stayed sheltered away inside, and with his unwavering petition...Won't You Be My Neighbor?