“Any Puerto Ricans in your neighborhood? Carlos wants to know at lunchtime.”
“Some – in the apartment houses,” I tell him.
“In dis country my people haf a loucy reputation. We do mostly the same things as your people but we seem to look bad. When a bunch of Puerto Ricans gets on the train all dee Anglos look worried.” He looks down at my work shoes. “Dose are no good,” he says referring to the quick lace hooks that are where the top holes should be.
“Why are they no good?”
“Cause one tine I’m sitting on dee train minding my own business. There’s a bunch of Puerto Ricans a few seats away with a loud radio. They’re jumping around the car and making a lot of noise. I’m not like tha. I sit up straight in my seat and cross my legs like a gentleman. I don’t want no part of these noisy people. The radio is almost jumping off the seat where it is playing. My stop comes up and I have to pass the wild group to get to dee door, only when I stand and try to walk I fall on my face because my shoe laces are caught in dos loucy hooks, the right shoe stuck to dee left shoe. I try to pull them apart but they don’t give. The door is going to close any second. I don’t want to miss my stop. I crawl past the noisy group like an alligator. The floor is filthy from spilled soda that has mixed with the city dirt. They’re quiet now and the Anglos are looking with their mouths open. I’m sure they’re saying what’s with dat cracy Puerto Rican! I steal a look to the noisy group, not for help but just to see their stupid faces. It’s quiet except for dat loucy radio. I get to the door as it’s closing and only manage to get my head and shoulders through before it shuts on me. Nobody helps as I lay there kicking and kicking for a long tine. Finally dee stupid conductor opens the door and I crawl out onto the platform as the trains pulls aa--way.”
A piece of apple I’ve sliced with my new knife gets stuck in my throat and I cough and cough until I slide off the bench and onto the ground with tears rolling down my cheeks.
“What’s a matter, Maestro?” my friend wants to know.
“I choked on a piece of apple.”
“Maybe you think what I’m telling you is funny?”
“Well . . .”
A lady walking a Lhasa Apso nears our bench. Carlos makes a sucking sound for the dog and rubs his thumb and index finger together. The lady looks at my Puerto Rican friend with the gold in his teeth and pulls her dog away.
“I can see you on the F Train,” Carlos says. “You sit there in your seat, innocent like a log with eyes so a lady like tha,” he points to the woman who pulled her dog away, “will feel comfortable sitting next to you; you with your open face and innocent eyes, so seevilized. And you sit there like an alligator with your narices . . . “
“Yeah, your nostrils just above the water. How you know what tha meant?”
“Maestro, how come you didn’t study Spanish in school?”
“I studied French and German.”
“But, nobody speaks French and German around here.”
“So, you sit there with your eyes still – like an alligator – with steam coming out of your narices.”
“Nostrils,” I say again.
“Yeah, waiting to strike.” There’s a lull in Carlos’ monologue. Then he looks around the park and quietly begins to sing, “ I see you every morning on dee sobway . . .”
On the train home the alligator image sticks in my mind and by the time I get to my stop I have a new song to teach my kids. That’s how I keep from going crazy when I’m behind the wheel and they’re fighting on the backseat of the car – I teach them songs. Maybe I should have been a songwriter. At least they don’t have to commit so much time before knowing if a piece is good or not. The first stanza goes “Albert the alligator/ Has sharp teeth/A long pointy tail/And four muddy feet./When he opens his mouth/Everybody runs/’Cause alligators/Like to bite buns.”
Of course the kids start pinching asses at the end ‘til I’m sorry I taught them the damn thing.
At lunchtime a few days later, Carlos begins with, “My brother says I’m trying to steal his kid, not really steal him but make him love me more than his father. When I go to my brother’s garage I see that he never has tine for dee kid, just for fixing cars, always yelling at him and pushing him aa-way. Little Paco’s only four years old. He loves his father and likes to break his cookies. I talk to dee boy, buy him ice cream, take him for a ride to Peachead Bay.”
“You mean Sheepshead Bay.”
“Yeah, Peachead Bay. We go fishine. The kid loves it. When I leave him he cries ‘I want to go home with Uncle Carlos!’ My brother says to me, ‘Are you trying to steal my kid?’ ‘You haf to spend a little tine with him,’ I tell my brother. He thinks I’m cracy. Do you think I’m cracy?”
“Like a fox,” I say, thinking of the “only one year” routine he pulled on the Pole. Up until now I haven’t pried into Carlos’ personal life, only listened, but curiosity gets the best of me and I ask, “How long were you married?”
“I tell you about tha sometine.”
Working with Carlos has been a soothing break from the routine at home but I’m beginning to miss writing. I have the recurring thought that I’m selling my time, my life, for money. I think if I tried to type now I’d hit two keys at a time because my fingers have gotten stiff and thicker from the work. Somehow in the past, when I quit construction it all came back, the words, the ideas, the sensitivity. I worry that someday I’ll stray too far from writing and then I’ll be one of those over-the-hill guys telling some kid to go for it, saying “Don’t be like me and let money or family stand in your way. Just go in and take a bite and don’t let go until you get a piece of the bull.”
We get called off the job to handle an emergency. There’s a water riser leak in a building on Sixty-first off of Madison Avenue. I’m outside a Dentist’s office hammering a hole in a wall to pinpoint the leak when I hear a familiar voice, “Now this ain’t gonna to hurt, is it?”
I look into the office and meet eyes with the actor Van Johnson. He says “hi” to me while the dentist’s pick is still in his mouth. Later, when leaving, he slaps me on the back and says, “My old man was a plumber.”
I’m taking all of this in and, apparently, so is Carlos because now every time he’s hammering or drilling he, like the dentist, stops to say, “Do you feel any pain?”
To be continued.
Terry Berkson is an author, living in Richfield Springs.