Three nights before John Lennon was shot dead in front of the Dakota, and all the fret world mourned el barrio del corpus christi was relatively quiet to the most casual observer, of whom I was one, belly up to a satisfied mind after a quick handful of tacos lengua and a wet burrito at Crackling Rosie’s ended the day shift. A cool cologne of breeze blew in off the sunken moonlit bay, even though the barrio, a feisty, bustling, organizing slum lay, or reclined, exactly 2.3 dusty miles inland. Always remember that lay is a transitive verb and requires a direct object. A transitive verb acts as a conveyor belt, transmitting action or influence from the subject to the object. Pungent proofs of life in bold celebration provided by grilled chunks of marbled meat floated in all directions along the city glaze as the evening hour orange merged into the beads of daily sweat at rest across the brows of language conquered peoples evaporating into the black night noises, sirens and chatter, songs and silhouettes answering any confrontation curious enough to expect one. Women were brightly colored illusions, birds and burros, the men smoked, cutting blade sharp deals with every smile. No living soul was immune to basic movement particles smashing along the streets unfurled, the few lamps the city had posted clashed with colored bulbs strung like witnesses to the crime of another time, another legend. One could spot a few queens squaring up matters. Worker bees buzzed to cock dances splitting their heads wide open on tequila mixed with hoped, ambitions, and nothing else to live for but the moment. There was no thought in these men that couldn’t keep to another day. There was only action. Action. Bold. Italicized. Their inaction called stuttering stupid moments of brutish tongue. These men were kings in search of a kingdom of flesh and blood, a kingdom without a queen but a kingdom with slaves who would not think better or worse of them because they would not be allowed to question, to a new phrase but the phrases these kings would give to them with a fist and a knife driven to a listless inattention to the dangers of losing it all in a split second, but there no literary license in conveying to the reader that Corpus Christi wore deliciously a certain crown jewel around her supine neck, and every man worth his machismo fancied himself a king. Theodore White’s Huey Long would have approved because Rosie served up the best tongue the Agnes Street and Port Avenue corridors knew kept men like Johnny Leal who was in on the secret sacred business of the one called Jesus Christo and Valentine Mancuso the dispatcher and the occasional gringo crackling with bulging platters of refried beans, rice piles typical of authentic Nueces County cuisine swamped with crisp heated slices of onions slithering among snap peppers. Menu envy never found articulation. Her tongue was the only platter I ever ordered after trumping the huevos y choriso of my first trip there months before. After highschool, the steel mill, the sewage & police academy engineers, and the fryer farm at Lofton Creek, these were full-blown Lewis & Clark expedition days, el viejo del hombre que poeta, as I fled informally the overstated corporate fields for the line wrecked pages of the New York School, or so I imagined, not really knowing how the real world processed its finest young talent, and I would soon find myself, not a large fish in a small pond seeking a larger pond, but a fish flopping about without even a thimble of water, when I had to manufacture a paycheck to earn the roof, no matter how meager, I always had earned a roof of my own.
The Bell chain founded in the 1940s had only crossed east of the Mississippi a few years before.
I was still driving the cab. In fact, I was the only Anglo hack braving it for the chicano Red Top Taxi Corporation. In this southeastern Texas town of some two hundred thousand souls, I carved out a specific niche, the renegade poet. Corpus Christi, the Shining City on the Bay, in that era was not vacant of beauty, but neither was it brimming. The lush 80s had just arrived, so Texas was still kicking the Jimmy Carter blues through the black and white lens of this generation’s rear view mirror, and the luscious Go Go’s were just warming up the nightly saddle tramps who were still coming in off the Gulf rigs, unemployed and ready to fight the nearest flea they could stomp. Roadside sensation Mickey Gilley’s was up the road a ways in Houston, Farah Fawcett’s parents still lived in Corpus (as the locals call it), Freddy Fender was still living off a couple of hit singles on the crossover charts, and had made it to the White Man’s Boulevard, or Ocean Drive (as the natives call it) and Hurricane Allen had just blown roofs all over this place. Corpus Christi did give as good as it got. My brother needed me to help him in his roofing business, so I got the call. I was still back in Yulee, taking care of the chickens, but it was a job well-spent, and a period of study that would prpel me through the hard rock of what was coming next in Corpus. We negotiated over the phone a few times, and then I prepared to make my way west once again.
One of the elder matadors of the driving corps, Rivera Diego, had set me up which someone he called his niece. Her name was Consuela.
Sure, I had a gun pulled on me once, but the strange thing was, I felt safe even though the crazed lone gunman, brutal youth in a brutalizing turnstile, my age maybe older, was quivering in the front passenger’s seat with a .38 Special aimed at my heart, my head, the dashboard, the overhead lamp and composite again, but I felt safe because an old Texican woman, maybe his grandmother, maybe not, sat loudly protesting in the backseat of Number 33. Quickly deciphering the difference between fantasy and reality, I knew the odds were against me no matter how much I believed in anything, something, someone, in art, or war, or a shield inside my heart to protect my vitals. Yet, somehow I felt this old woman protected all of this and more. I kept a series of small notebooks, and had prepared for the preposterous, had prepared to talk myself into anything as long as it was quotable. Maybe I just didn’t care if a bullet found its mark in me. Maybe I had already figured out that there’s no success in failure and failure’s no success at all, just like my poet hero had taught me, but the truth is, my faith in this Jewish God heavens to Betsy gave me a feeling. Like a cloak of invincibility. I knew I might be robbed, but otherwise I felt no danger.
Not even the strip clubs, operated by the biker gangs spelled threat in those eager years. Talking Johnny was a witness to a crime.
But I saved a man in the barrio. Then Consuela saved mine. Life is linear. Memory is not.