Living Large, Ozzy and Harriet-Style
Norwalk, CaliforniaÔÇª. New Years Eve 1956
We recently moved from East LA into a brand spankin' new ranch style house on a tree lined cul-de-sac in an all white neighborhood that still smelled like the old cow pasture it was built on. We were the only Latino kids on the block and I was the only one in the nearby brand new grammar school. We were living large, Ozzy and Harriet-style and I was a young chubby Ricky Nelson.
Published on LatinoLA: December 30, 2008
Even though just a kid I remember how different it was from Boyle Heights. There we were just another brown face in the crowd. Here they made a fuss over me in school, I thought it was great. We had been indoctrinated, assimilated and maybe even anticipated; our lifestyle reflected our TV mentality. My Dad and brother's Danny and Arthur and I had crew cuts and Mom had the bee hive thing going on while my sister Sandy was made up like Shirley Temple but with a tan.
I was young but I knew I had it made. No one was trying to kick my ass or steal my bike. I didn't have to cross the street every time I saw an older kid and I especially liked the fact that people would say 'hi' and smiled. Even though it was different, life was good.
We'd been there about nine months or so. My Dad bought the house on the GI Bill and was working at the General Motors assembly plant down in Pico Rivera. Things were really clicking. Our young family was living the dream in this new world called Norwalk, California. Other than the obvious accent and Mestiso features, we were in like flint.
Well, my Dad had a 1951 Ford Sedan. He loved that car, got it when he came home from Korea. It had spotlights, white walls, primer spots, bronze baby shoes hanging from the mirror and you could just fit a pack of Camels lying flat underneath it, a low rider in the style of old San Antonio. I never thought too much about it, you saw plenty cars like that back in the old neighborhood.
On this particular New Years Eve in 1956 we had a big shindig. What seemed like a few people coming over to see the new house, maybe help break it in and bask in the white suburbs soon became a torrid of unfamiliar faces. I thought it was odd that Grandma and the old Tias and Tios weren't there. It was a young crowd, friends and acquaintances Mom and Dad's age, in a steady stream, pulling up in cars many like my Dads. Instead of just Mexican music they were grooving to the Jitterbug, R&B and Rock and Roll. It all seemed pretty cool to me but there was something different, something very unfamiliar about it.
The party had the same air of tamales, menudo, beer and such but no heavy perfumed old ladies laughing in the kitchen, no mustached old men sitting on the porch drinking and talking about the good old days. No little mocosos running around reeking havoc.
This crowd was a young bunch, mostly Mexican-American but also white and black working class people partying and dancing, dare I say, like on American Bandstand. The hi-fi was blazing, stacked with 78's as dancers gyrated around every open space, boy and girl, girl and girl and even one drunken guy bobbin' and weavin' and leapin' across the room as the crowd cheered. The house beamed with revelers, drinking and feasting, waiting for the ball to drop, ushering in the New Year.
But all was not jake outside. Dad's friends and their cars were gathering ÔÇª.Hot Rodders, Low Riders, Customs and well, a 'white affluent neighborhoods' worst enemy: Young people of color having fun.
They were everywhere in the backyard, our driveway and garage, parked on our front lawn, double parked in front of neighbor's houses and way down the street. Shnny cars like Christmas ornaments, splashes of chrome and color bouncing from the street lights. Music was blaring; loud little parties in circles and sidewalks, conversation in Spanish, pushing and shoving, kissing and peeing, beer cans littering the well manicured lawns, screeching tires and drag racing in the chilly night. The scent of cigarettes and cologne mingled with the fresh wet sidewalks. Yes, they had arrived, and the neighborhood was lit up like a Catholic Church jamaica.
As the festivities hovered all around us, my brothers, sister and I took refuge in my bedroom, doors locked, toys and crayons scattered everywhere. My Mom would come in and check on us periodically, break up fights, feed and try to answer our curious inquires then just as quickly disappear. I was perched on the bed looking out the window at the carnival atmosphere outside. I remember, even at that age, a tingling feeling as I watched the pretty girls all dressed up with their hair piled high laughing and flirting among the array of far out cars and pompadour boys.
One by one Danny, Arthur and Sandy were casualties of the long boisterous night, slumbering into a deep sleep bunched together on my Mickey Mouse bed sheets that Grandma gave me, covered only by their warm pajamas and close proximity. I soldiered on, staring out that window like a possessed voyeur, in total awe, sizing up the situation and maybe seeing something of my own dreams and future. I was captivated by the spectacle and drawn in.
Slowly I fell asleep, wearing my Davey Crockett coonskin cap and Roy Rodgers six guns strapped to my side, a half eaten candy cane in my mouth. Here in my very own room with newly painted walls plastered with pictures of clowns, light sockets with real covers and a closet big enough to be a bedroom. Little did I know that things would soon change and that this place would just be a memory.
Sometime in the night a New Year made its way, the morning ushering in a fresh beginning. It was 1957 and things were changing.
It wasn't long before I noticed that the neighbors seemed indifferent. Gone were the hello's and how you doing's. They tended to stay indoors more often when we were out and about. My Dad, who never had a bad temper, seemed to quarrel with everyone. It would spill over to the family and even to school where kids would relay things that their parents had said.
Soon afterward, Dad got laidd off and could no longer afford the beautiful brand spankin' new ranch style track home with a two car garage in the tree lined cul-de-sac that smelled like cow shit. We moved back to Grandma's house in Boyle Heights, back to the old neighborhood, the ancient white wooden Victorian house with a big front porch and dirt back yard. I remember not really caring too much about the move. After all, I'd see my friends and cousins again. There was something so engaging about being poor.
I was familiar with the streets and alleys and the 'Cholo Code of Conduct'. I was six and would lie about my age and join the Boy's Club down the street. It would be my salvation.
I enjoyed the family gatherings, especially at the holidays. Everyone would be there cooking in the kitchen, except the old men who were on the porch talking about the good old days and the mocosos running amuck. The over perfumed Tias and Tios singing those old Mexican boleros and Pachuco stories of love lost as my Dad played guitar. The streets full of cars and young people but somewhat subdued by uncertainty.
After a few years Dad went back to visit his estranged neighbors. They were very receptive, sharing memories and beer, as if nothing lingered between them. An almost methodical acceptance of what was meant to be. Later with us, however when the subject came up there were mixed feelings. It all came down to Dad's wild friends they'd say, but somehow Mom knew that Norwalk, California was just not our home.
There's something comfortable about an old sweater or an old pair of jeans, just as in an old house with warmth, simplicity and familiarity. But for a short time, Dad was Prince of the Pasture, Lord of the Manor, living large in a white neighborhood, Ozzy and Harriet-style, and I was Ricky Nelson.
Happy New Year ya allÔÇª.Felix A??o Nuevo!
Just another car dude from South San Gabriel
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