In a freshly pressed, buttoned-down white collar shirt barely visible underneath a green blazer, I walked down the four flights of chipped marble stairs out into the beaming sun. The wind usually blew my green checkered skirt into the air but I was always good at not letting it expose my ivory stockings. Careful not to step on the red and blue crack tops with my polished black loafers that held a shiny, copper penny, I would make my way past the eerie funeral home underneath our building and down the deserted street.
On these brisk winter mornings, the streets were often quiet and my walks to school pretty uneventful. Using the change that was my allowance, I often stopped at the corner bodega. I would duck past the half-open aluminum gate stained with graffiti, past the platanos, onions, and yuca hugging the aisles and sneak into the small space with junk food spilling out of the racks. Knowing well that I would choose the same Linden chocolate chip and crunchy Cheez Doodles, I would still spend too much time glancing up and down the rack, as if it held something that was not there the day before. With my usual selection and two quarters in hand, I would tiptoe to reach the counter.
Machepa, the owner, would greet me, “dime, pa donde va – pa le escuela?” Not giving me a chance to respond, he’ll start giving me advice on staying in school and not falling off track. Never a shy kid, I would engage him in conversation and then remember that I didn’t need another late slip in my life. I would scurry off to make it before the school doors closed, jump past the water blasting from the hose in 204 and half-shimmy, half-sway up the stairs to homeroom.
That quiet morning rhythm did not normally last past dismissal. The streets would then be lined with neighbors carrying bags of groceries, moms and pops zigzagging their way through the crowds of gente making their way home, chamaquitos running away from their abuelas, and addicts making their way to the jodedores stuffed in down jackets on the stoops. Hungry from not eating the dungeon food at school, my friends and I would make our way through the crowd to the pizza shop four doors down. We would sit in its orange greasy tables or play with the pac-man and street fighter games that constantly stole our quarters. Leaving the pizza shop, the smell of talc powder and Old Spice would smack us in the face and occasionally, we stopped to eavesdrop on the viejos getting haircuts who debated topics too hard for us to really comprehend. Sometimes, before going home, one of us had to make a run further down the block to the overcrowded hardware store or to Maria’s cleaners next door that smelled like fresh laundry mixed with slightly burned clothes.
Finally arriving at home meant that I settled into the best place to make memories – a New York City apartment with tias and uncles, a boatload of primas and primos, Abuelita, my grandmother, and of course, mami. The pots sizzling in the kitchen, Telemundo blaring, and that butterscotch voice of Juan Luis Guerra hanging on the walls of the apartment. Outside, I could still hear people shouting, arguing or driving their cars way too fast into the night. At times, I went to sleep ignoring the gun shots, sirens wailing and said a prayer under my sheets.
This was the essence of it all – the buildings, the streets, the businesses, the people, the love and the hate, the hopes and the dreams. But this was before Columbus’ cousin, Gentrification, crept in and tore away the fabric. We’re left with them looking at us as if we don’t even belong.