Thursday, January 22, 2009

Almost Walked To School Barefoot In The Snow

I was born in 1939 in a small barrio in Southside Modesto we jokingly called "Tortilla Flats", a pretty baby, as you can see. (In fact I won a Most Beautiful Baby Gerber's Contest with this photo!) The Barrio was about two square blocks, surrounded by unpaved streets, no streetlights or street signs, and two sets of rail lines, the Southern Pacific and the Tidewater Southern, a local train serving the county. The Toulumne River divided us from the city limits with two bridges connecting, the 7th St. and the 9th St. bridges. My parents had emigrated into the U.S. in the early 1920's and I was the last born of three older brothers and two sisters.

Eight of us lived in a single bedroom house which my Dad had built, with no hot running water. A pipe, with a faucet poked through a hole in the kitchen wall. There was no sink. My mom had a bucket to collect the waste water and when it filled we took turns dumping it in the yard. We had an old wood stove and I remember chopping and carrying wood into the house. To bathe, my mom heated water on the stove and we used a large "tina" or metal tub to sit in. Alongside was a smaller "tina" which held the warm water, and we used a tin cup with which to rinse ourselves with.

In the backyard was our outhouse "El Escusado", a single-seater (some of my friends had two-seaters - I never understood why). My mom would stuff her purse with toilet paper from the cannery where she worked. I hated using it. I would much rather go in the orchard in front of our house, especially after we found that our neighbor had been bitten on her behind by a black widow! When the toilet filled, we dug another hole in the yard, moved the outhouse, and filled the old hole. Using it at night was out of the question because no one wanted to make the trek to the backyard in the dark. My mom kept a "basinica" or bed pan under her bed and in the morning, we took turns emptying it. When it was full, it was extremely heavy, and I tried my best not to spill it as I lugged it to the outhouse. Sometimes, my older brothers would come home drunk late at night, and in the dark, slide the pan from under the bed but miss the mark. I could hear "chorro", or stream hit the floor! We were poor, but as a kid I never really knew it until I visited the homes of anglo friends in town and used their indoor, flush toilets, and sinks with hot and cold running water!
In the backyard was our refrigerator, an old "ice-box" with a top compartment that held the ice. I remember the iceman delivering a big block of ice on his back, opening the compartment, and with forceps, setting it inside. With an ice pick, we would chip ice cubes for our drinks.Inside on shelves, we kept the perishables. Milk was delivered in glass bottles to our door. I would collect soda bottles to get a little spending money.
On occasion, I would visit my dad who lived in a tiny railroad section house in town. I usually found him at Fajardo's, a smelly beer joint on 7th St. The stench of beer and cigarettes was foul. "My mother said for you to give me money for some shoes." He would snicker and growl: "Dile que no tengo dinero! Que te los compre ella!" (I have no money! Tell her to buy them for you!) Pretending to have no money, he would reach into his pockets and give me a few bucks. "Este, es mi hijo", he would say in mock pride to his drinking buddies on the bar stools. Other times, he would put pennies into a coffee can until he filled it and then give it to me. Damn, it was heavy and I had to lug it all the way back to the barrio! My mom would take 7 cents daily, tie it in a knot into the corner of a handerchief so I wouldn't lose it, for my milk at school.
Mom would mend our old pants with "parchis", Chicano slang for "patches". I was embarrassed to go to school with pants that had been mended. We would never have been caught dead in pants with torn knees like today's kids do on purpose! Sometimes, the soles of the shoes we wore for so long, came unglued, and the "lengua", or tongues of the soles would flap on the ground. I remember kicking up sand with them and having sand-fights with my friends.
Yet my poor mom had a motto: "You can be poor, but you don't have to be dirty", and she proved it by keeping her children and her house immaculate. In summer, she would rake the dirt yard with geometric patterns, then lightly spinkle it with the hose. When we went to Mexico, she would save money and give a few coins to every beggar she saw: "Nunca se te olvide que fuimos de gente pobre", she would say. (Never forget we came from poor people) But as long as we had beans and tortillas, we were rich. Oh yeah, it never snowed in Modesto.


#167 Dad said...

I really enjoyed these stories. The black widow in the outhouse and your experience with your dad at the bar were especially engaging. Is this the same Tortilla Flats Steinbeck wrote about?

Rick Rivers said...

Dad: Thanks! Nah, we just called it that. I'm not sure any of us were aware of the Steinbeck connection at that time. Love Steinbeck, especially his short stories like those in The Long Valley. One of those favorites is "The Raid".