On becoming a man


Are you a man?

If you had the (mis)fortune of being born a male, you know that you must endure certain rites of passage to manhood. However, no one ever asked me if I wanted to participate in these rites. They were not optional. But they were thrust upon me. Unfortunately, no manual exists for these rites of passage. Sometimes, I didn’t even know I was undergoing one of these rites until after I had passed it.

The real question about all these rites of manhood is, “Is there a defining moment when you pass from boyhood to manhood?” You know, one moment you’re a boy, then something, je ne sais quoi, happens, and suddenly you’re a man.

I bring this up because my friend Jim, according to his father, had such an experience. Let me explain. Jim and I met at Gage Park High School in physics class, and he encouraged me to join the chess team. We soon became good friends. In fact, we’re still friends to this day.

Anyway, we would visit each other’s home and occasionally play chess. I got to meet his entire family because I visited them so often. Once when they went to a family reunion in Kentucky, I got to tag along. Actually, I think they needed another car, and I was willing to go on a road trip with them. I really liked Jim’s mother because she always laughed at all my jokes. And I do mean ALL my jokes. So, naturally, I always enjoyed talking to her. Jim’s father, on the other hand, sometimes made me feel a little uneasy. He always exuded this high-testosterone manhood, even when he fell asleep on the sofa with a beer in his hand while watching TV.  He was a hard-working man who enjoyed a beverage or two (especially ones containing any amount of alcohol) after work. Sometimes, he would talk to Jim and me. He enjoyed telling us about his work history. He was truly a working man. He was always employed the whole time I knew him. He always worked and he took extraordinary pride in that. Once, he didn’t like how he was being treated at work, so he quit his job and found a new one the very next week.

When I started working at Derby Foods as a manual laborer, Jim’s father was so proud of me. He held me up as the ideal role model of a working man. Suddenly, in his eyes, I had achieved manhood by virtue of being a working man. I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t like to see Jim be put down by his father. “Jim,” his father would say, “Dave and I are working men. I hope I live to see the day that you work.” Despite what he said, I felt very much the same as before, like an overgrown boy, but I wasn’t about to tell Jim’s father. I was a working man and old enough, at age nineteen, to buy my own beer and wine in the state of Illinois. Jim’s father was proud of my manhood. He soon started telling Jim, “If you ever worked a full day’s work and then drank a six-pack after work, you’d probably drop dead!’ He really wasn’t happy until one day Jim was working at the same factory as his father. But he would not concede to the fact that Jim was now a man.

One day, I went to visit Jim and his father answered the door. I could tell that he was either hung over or drunk, or both. He was smiling like never before. I had never seen him in such a mood. I asked him if Jim was home, and he smiled proudly. Jim came down from his bedroom just in time to hear his father say, “Dave, you should be very proud of your friend Jim. Today, Jim is a man!” He then put Jim in a headlock that looked potentially fatal. Jim immediately freed himself from his father. “See!” his father said. “Jim is now a man!’ He tried to explain further, but neither Jim nor I could fully understand him. But I had never seen him so proud of his son before. He soon decided that it was time to go to bed. Jim thought it would be better if we left the house.

Later, he explained that the night before his father had gotten really drunk and he was looking for a fight. He started up with his wife and he was holding her so she couldn’t get away. So, Jim grabbed his father, which totally surprised him because Jim had never had a physical encounter of this sort with his father before. So, his father turns to assault Jim, but Jim managed to throw him to the floor. Jim really thought his father was really going to tan his hide. At first, his father was angry as he got up, but then he realized that his son was no longer a boy. Jim then yelled at his father to go to bed and go to sleep. Surprisingly, Jim’s father obeyed.

For a few months after that, Jim’s father would beam with pride and tell me that his son was now a man. Jim had stood up to his father–who if you believed his father’s stories. he had never lost a fight–who was a real man. Jim had knocked him, a real man, down. For a while there, I really envied Jim. He was a man now!

Happy Father’s Day!


4405 S. Wood Street, Chicago, Illinois

Happy Father’s Day!

I would especially like to thank my father Diego for being my father. He’s holding my baby brother Joey in the picture and I’m standing next to him. Seated are my brothers Danny, Rick, my sister Delia, and my brother Jerry. My mother isn’t in the picture because she was the photographer. She loved taking pictures of the family!

I can honestly say that the happiest days of my life were when I was a boy living with my family before my parents got divorced. Both my parents were always there for me, although we did have a few misunderstandings. My taught me some carpentry and how to use tools. I would always help fix his cars because he was a mechanic at the Curtis Candy factory. He was proud to be a mechanic. My father respected anyone who was a good carpenter or mechanic by calling them maestro. Thanks to my father, I’m now able to perform many fix-it projects around the house.

As a father myself, I often think of all the things my father did with us and I try to do some of the same things. Sometimes, just being with his children was enough satisfaction and joy for my father, especially after my parents divorced. Even we’re not doing anything together, I’ll often sit in the same room with my sons just to be with them. Occasionally, we’ll start an unexpected entertaining conversation.

My father always asked me for suggestions for trips we could make, and no matter how crazy I thought the idea was, he would take us on the trip. He never made any excuses for not going. So, now I follow my sons’ suggestions. One time, my oldest son was writing a report on Mount Rushmore and we all became interested in the report. My son suggested that we go to Mount Rushmore and we went the following June. Every time I go on vacation with my sons, I always think of my father.

Pilsen


Pilsen, Chicago, Illinois

The first place I ever lived in Chicago was Pilsen. I hate to admit it, but I’m not a native Chicagoan. I have always regretted not being born in Chicago because I love Chicago so much. Yes, I’m not happy to admit that I’m a foreigner. I was born in Perth Amboy New Jersey. We moved to Chicago when I was about one and a half. We moved into my grandparents’ house at 977 W. 19th Street. We lived in the second floor rear apartment that didn’t have its own bathroom. There was no back door either. There were wooden stairs leading downstairs to the backyard from our rear window. I’m sure this didn’t meet the Chicago building codes, but it was very practical. My brother Danny and I always went down the back stairs to play in the yard. We lived there until we moved to Back of the Yards shortly before I started the kindergarten at Holy Cross.

I still drive through Pilsen when I go to UIC because it’s an interesting neighborhood. I’ve been taking pictures of the neighborhood for years now. Every time I take a different route I find something I have never seen before, like the mural in the picture above. I’ve driven on 16th many times, but I only recently noticed this mural of the Aztec calendar. I know this mural has been there for at least twenty years. Parts of it are slowly fading away into obscurity. I plan on walking through Pilsen and taking more pictures.

Driving lessons


My father's camioneta

When I recall that I learned to drive from my father, I consider myself very lucky to still be alive. I took driver’s ed at Divine Heart Seminary, but I only got to drive the minimum required hours. My father loved teaching everyone how to drive. The only one who ever refused to take lessons from him was my mother. She didn’t like him telling her what to do. Especially, since she knew his every bad–and dangerous–bad driving habits. My father had some very dangerous driving habits that he tried to teach everyone he taught. Including me! Since I was only sixteen, I had to follow his instructions carefully or risk never driving again. I had a permit and I wanted to drive!  

I was a very poor driver in driver’s ed. The first car I drove was a 1971 Pontiac Firebird with a manual transmission. We were all excited about driving a sports car! I stalled the engine every time I drove. The instructor told me I would be fine once we started driving the Chevy Caprice with an automatic transmission. Everyone was happy about the automatic transmission because the engine stalling stopped. Until I got behind the wheel. Somehow, I still managed to stall the engine! But that was the least of my worries. I didn’t know how to yield at yield signs, and from years of watching my father drive, I didn’t come to a complete stop at stop signs. I thought stopping was optional. My father never came to a complete stop at a stop sign. Now that I think of it, he never completely stopped at red lights either! Whenever the light turned red, he would slowly stop a couple car lengths from the intersection and slowly creep forward until the light turned green.  

I was surprised that my father wanted me to drive his brand new lime green 1971 Ford Maverick. He was so proud that he was teaching his oldest son how to drive!  I was even more surprised at some of the driving maneuvers de demanded of me! For example, he would tell me to take short cuts through alleys. When I came out of the other end, he wanted me to lay on the horn in case any car or pedestrian was at the mouth of the alley. He taught me about lane position when making right turns. If you make a right turn, my father told me, you have to get in the right lane. Then, when you get close to the intersection, you swing out wide to the left before you turn! I almost crashed the very first time I tried my father’s technique. My father always made his right turns like this. I’m surprised he didn’t have more accidents.  

He also told me to use a turn signal when changing lanes. But sometimes, it was better not to let the other drivers know your intentions. I’m not sure why. I never really understood his explanation. If you got to and intersection without any traffic controls and the other driver signalled you to proceed before him, my father told me to never go. He just wanted to crash into you. To this day, I always give the other driver the right of way.  

My father always had trouble staying in his lane. On the expressway, in the right lane, he would exit on the right if he didn’t focus on staying in his lane. Before I started driving, I thought staying in your lane was probably the most difficult driving feat possible. My father would make everyone be quiet whenever we approached exit ramps. In the picture of my father’s station wagon, you can see the result of his not staying in his lane. he was driving northbound on Damen Avenue at 47th Street. That was the site of the infamous Damen overpass in Back of the Yards. The left two lanes took you over the overpass. However, the right lane allowed drivers to veer right and avoid going on the overpass. Well, my father was in the right lane when the exit lane pulled him to the right. Unfortunately, he crashed into the concrete barrier dividing the lanes despite the flashing yellow warning light and warning sign. Luckily, he was alone while driving.  

He parked for about ten minutes to calm down from the trauma before he came home. I was the first one to see him and his fender damage. I was sorry I asked him what had happened. It took him about five minutes to explain this two-second traffic crash. Then, he told me to get in the car and he took me back to the scene of the accident. He did a reenactment of the accident. I was riding shotgun, not wearing a seatbelt because back then no one wore seatbelts because most cars didn’t have seatbelts. As he was showing me his path before the accident, he almost crashed into the concrete barrier again! That really shook him up and he had to pull over for a few minutes to calm down before we could drive home.I still have some of the driving habits that my father instilled in me. And that’s why I say that I’m lucky to be alive!  

Basketball


My son is a blur!

 I was never good enough to play on my high school basketball team. I never even played any sport in any kind of league. That may have been due to a lack of opportunity, but I might not have been good enough anyway. Now, as a father of three sons, I play sports vicariously through my sons. I have always encouraged them to try out for every team sport at their school. I enjoy watching them play because they enjoy playing sports so much. They have played little league baseball and basketball and football for their teams at Most Holy Redeemer School.

One of the main reasons that I encourage them to play team sports is that if they didn’t, they would be playing video games in their free time. This way they get some exercise while they’re having fun. Their basketball team usually loses most games. I don’t really mind because they’re getting plenty of exercises whether or not they win. They enjoy playing despite losing. I always tell them that we’ll play more basketball over the summer vacation so they get some practice in. But they never want to. Perhaps that’s why they lose so many games. In fact, whenever I drive around in the summer, I see kids playing basketball in the driveway all over the south side and the neighboring suburbs. In Evergreen Park where my sons live, no one plays basketball in the driveway during the summer! They must all be inside playing video games. Well, that explains why the other teams are so much better.

When I was a boy, we played sports, too, but not as part of any organized league. We literally played baseball all year-round. It’s a great feeling to slide into second base with snow on the ground! In the winter, I loved playing ice hockey. I was a fearless goalie! I was usually picked first or second. We played basketball, but my friends were so lazy! Even when we had five players per team, they stilled wanted to play half court so they wouldn’t have to run as much. Yet they claimed to be great athletes!

My father always want to play soccer with us whenever we went on a picnic or paseo. Actually, he called it fútbol. None of my friends played soccer, so I never wanted to play soccer with my father. Sometimes we would play basketball together, but I didn’t know the rules very well the first time we played. I didn’t know that once you stopped dribbling, you couldn’t dribble again. I would dribble. Stop dribbling. Start dribbling again. In fact, I would do it several times. My father told me that was double dribble. I didn’t believe him because I didn’t know the rules. I remember telling him, “We’re not playing by Mexican rules. Let’s play the American way.” “That is the American way!” he told me. But I didn’t believe him until I asked some of my friends who confirmed that my father was, in fact, right. Imagine that! I was stunned.

Sometimes when I watch my sons play basketball, I remember how I played sports as a boy. I remember how fun my friends and I had playing sports even though we didn’t play in any leagues. I feel as I made up for that by watching my sons play.

 

Burritos


I’ve mentioned this before, but burritos are not a traditional Mexican food. My abuelita never made even one burrito in her entire ninety years on the face of this earth. Not even my mother made burritos. My father didn’t make burritos either and he used to cook up some weird combinations of ingredients that no one in our family ever ate even though he said it was delicious. Only my father would eat his concoctions, which were only made palatable by adding profuse amounts of salsa and/or jalapeño peppers. And sometimes even he didn’t finish the entire serving. Despite his creativity, he never neared anything resembling a burrito. I guess because no one had invented giant tortillas back then.

Flash forward to the present. Somehow, mysteriously, burritos became American fast food. Yes, I’ve been known to eat a burrito or two on the go. Unlike traditional Mexican food that must be eaten sitting a table–picture yourself eating tostadas with all the trimmings on top–the burrito is the perfect driving food! It is one of the staple foods of American youth today. Including my oldest son. I think my son loves burritos almost as much as me. I think I once saved his life by throwing away a three-week-old burrito he had in the refrigerator. So, last week, he says we should go out to eat together. You know, so we can catch up on things, which usually means we hurry up and eat and then pull out our smart phones and ignore each other. However, we really do enjoy our time together.

Anyway, we ate a place called El Famous Burrito¡ with the exclamation point upside down at the end of the sentence instead of the beginning!  We were in a hurry and there was parking out in front, at Madison and Peoria. The most eye-opening revelation of our whole fine dining experience was learning that burritos could come in different sizes! They were offered in large, medium, and mini. But the mini burrito looked more like an egg roll! When I used to eat burritos before my son was born, they only came in one size. Large! I would usually eat one burrito along with three tostadas. Now, I don’t always finish a burrito. So I ordered a medium. Well, the medium was just right for me. Although back in my younger days, I’m sure I would have ordered something else. But these burritos passed the most important taste test of all. They tasted Mexican!

2009 Chicago Auto Show


2009 Chicago Auto Show

Last year, I wrote about going to the Chicago Auto Show. This year I actually went to it. I wrote about how my father used to take my brothers and I to the Chicago Auto Show. This year, my oldest son dragged me along against my will. I find this amazing because my son doesn’t even have a driver’s license. He’s nineteen and he’s never taken driver’s ed. I gave him the Illinois Rules of the Road book to study twice with the promise that if he studied I would take to take the written test to get his driver’s permit. But he never studied and he still doesn’t have his permit. He’s just not that interested in driving or he would have gotten his driver’s license by now. Which reminds me of my friend Vito who has never–to my knowledge–ever had a driver’s license. My life would have been so different if I would have never gotten my driver’s license. I can’t even imagine how could exist without one.

Anyway, the Chicago Auto Show was fun even though I didn’t really want to go. I enjoyed it vicariously through my son who seemed to enjoy looking at the expensive cars that I cannot afford and probably wouldn’t drive even if I could afford them. I took some pictures of the cars. And then I took some more pictures of some more cars, but this time my son was in the pictures because he insisted on being in pictures with him in some of the cars. Of course, he offered to take a couple of pictures of me, for which I posed begrudgingly because I don’t really enjoy being photographed. One thing I did miss was the celebrities that used to come and sign autographs. And they no longer had beautiful models in evening gowns posing for amateur photographers near the new cars. There were plenty of workers continually wiping fingerprints off cars and keeping them shiny. But overall, I did have fun and was glad I went.

Casa de Obama


Hyde Park, Chicago Illinois.

The other day, I had the strongest urge to visit Barack Obama’s house. I don’t know what came over me, but suddenly I had this great desire to visit a famous place in the news. I told my sons, “We’re going to President Elect Barack Obama’s house!” At first, I thought they would they would look at me as if I were crazy, which is their normal reaction when I suggest any new and exciting activity. I was wrong! They actually thought it was a great idea. Only that they somehow imagined that his house was very, very far away. I explained that he lived less than thirty minutes from us.

So off we went in search of Barack Obama’s house in Hyde Park. I knew the security would be tight because I watched the news and I saw the concrete barriers around his house. There were many, many Chicago police officers around his house–a two-block radius around his house. I told my sons before we even set out on our trip that we might not even get close to the Obama house, but we could at least visit the neighborhood of the President of the United States of America.

Surprisingly, I was able to park legally at the corner right near a police car that was guarding the closed off intersection leading to his house. As we approached the corner, the police officer exited her squad car and asked if we lived on this side of the block. I said no and she said we would have to walk across the street. Before I left our house, I had no idea where Obama lived other than in Hyde Park, but I figured I’d find his house once I saw all the police cars blocking off the streets. I really thought we would have to walk several blocks. But we were extremely lucky to park so close!

There were multiple police cars and police officers standing out in the middle of the barricaded street. I saw a group of gawkers taking pictures of a house, so I asked, “Is that his house?” and they responded in awe, “That’s his house!” Lo and behold! We had arrived at Barack Obama’s house. As seen on TV! My sons couldn’t believe I had taken them all the way to the front of Barack Obama’s house, albeit across the street. I took some pictures and then we walked away. The police officer who directed us across the street smiled at us and asked if we enjoyed our visit. We said we did and walked back to our car.

As we were getting into the car, I realized that this was exactly the kind of trip my father used to take us on when we were little. He would see something on the news and then take us there. He wouldn’t tell us where we were going. It was just like, “¡Vámonos!” and we would all pile into the car and go. Once, my father saw a chess master playing 25 boards simultaneously at a restaurant in Little Italy, so off we went to play the chess master! The next day, my friends at school told me they saw me playing chess on the news!

When the plane crashed before reaching Midway Airport in 1971, my father took us to the crash site despite the fact that on the news they told everyone to stay away. We were less that a quarter-block away and we could see the actual fuselage and tail of the plane that crashed! However, no one saw us on the news that time. Many people saw my father on the news many times over the years. He just loved the limelight. On the IRS tax deadline day one year, I was watching the news and they showed all the last-minute filers going to the downtown post office to get that coveted April 16th postmark in order to beat the IRS deadline. They interviewed several last-minute filers and all the while I thought, “What idiots! Waiting till the last minute to file their tax returns!” Suddenly, I saw a familiar face. It was my father! He was being interviewed by the news reporter. Somehow he always found a way to get on the news!

I guess by taking my sons to Obama’s house, I was keeping my father’s tradition alive. I didn’t get on the news during our visit to his house, but I realized that I did inherit my father’s thirst to go to where the news is. Ugh! I’ve become my father! ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!

Pop


This is my father in about 1976.

Pop. Just Pop. That’s what I call my father now. My brother Jerry’s children who are half Irish call him Papa Diego. I still call him Pop because when I was little we only spoke Spanish at home and my parents were mami and papi. When you’re very little, say up to about five or six years old, calling your parents mami and papi is still acceptable. When I started playing at the Davis Square Park, other kids called me baby if they heard me call my parents mami and papi. So, eventually I began calling them Mom and Pop. Definitely more acceptable by my peers of preteens. But I could never write pap because everyone would mispronounce in English. So that’s how he became Pop, just plain Pop.

I remember, once when I was at the park, Bobby–I never did learn his real last name–started a fight with me. I must have been about six at the time. I still had not learned the protocol that if someone hit you hit them right back or they would forever pick on you. Bobby punched my face and I ran home crying. I got home quickly because we lived right across the street from the park at 4501 S. Hermitage Avenue. Both my mami and papi were home. My father was somewhere in the apartment; how someone could disappear from his family in a four-room apartment is beyond me. Anyway, my mother wanted to know why I was crying. I said, “Bobby hit me!” but in Spanish. “¡Bobby me pegó! My mother thought I had said papi hit me. My mother immediately began scolding my father–who was forced to come out of hiding. It actually took a couple minutes for me clear up the confusion and prove my father’s innocence to my mother. My father took me to the park to look for Bobby, but he had left. Somebody was probably trying to beat him up for some prior transgression. As I would learn later–mainly because Bobby was always in life no matter how I tried to avoid him–no one liked Bobby because he was an all-round  troublemaker. Once someone tried to shoot him, but they missed him and shot the person sitting next to him on the park bench. Luckily, the bullet went through the fleshy part of his thigh. Everyone was troubled by the fact that such an act of violence had failed to restore peace to our neighborhood by ridding everyone of Bobby for good.

But back to my father. Pop. When I started calling him Pop, no one made fun of me anymore. One unintended side-effect was that my little brothers stopped calling my parents mami and papi. That was rather sad because everyone knows how cute little children are when they call their parents mami and papi.

That's okay if you don't have salsa. I brought my own.

Moving to Mexico


Could I actually live in a condo in a tourist area? I don't think so!

Over the years, I have had one identity crisis after another. The identity crisis recurs most often is the one in which I can’t decide if I should live in Chicago or Mexico because I’m not sure if I’m Mexican or American. Sometimes I feel as if I don’t belong here in the U.S. because I feel so Mexican and like a foreigner here. When I’m Mexico, I feel very comfortable there. Of course, that could be merely because I’m a guest there and the excitement and the newness of my being there hasn’t worn off yet. If I stayed much longer, everyone might not be as friendly toward me. I’ve mentioned to some of my friends that I was thinking of moving to Mexico and they immediately offered to help me pack! Wow! What friends!

I went to Mexico when I was 22 and I seriously considered staying there. But then I realized that I would have to get a job in order to support myself. But Mexicans don’t really want foreigners coming in and taking away their jobs. Besides, I didn’t really want to work a back-breaking job in Mexico when I already had a back-breaking job in Chicago. So I went back home to Chicago. However, I often daydreamed about living in Mexico.

Now, I am actually in a position where I can afford to move to Mexico since I have a small pension. I now have to work a job in order to live comfortably in Chicago, but I could live more than comfortably if I moved to Mexico. And I won’t have to work at all if I lived in Mexico. I could sit at home all day writing blog entry after blog entry. Wait, that’s what I’m doing now! But I have to teach in order to supplement my pension. In Mexico, I would always find something to keep me busy since they do have the Internet down there. And I wouldn’t be lonely because I have a lot of family in Mexico in several cities. Our family, both on my father’s and mother’s side, was very prolific. That’s why Rodriguez and Martinez are some of the most common Spanish last names in the world. So I wouldn’t be lonely. And even though I’m American, Mexicans–my family in particular–consider me Mexican, sort of. Since I’m American, everyone in Mexico was surprised that I spoke Spanish and ate tortillas. I’m glad that Mexicans thought of me as a Mexican, at least most of the time.

When I go back to Mexico in July, I’ll take another look at where I could possibly live in Mexico. I really love Celaya, Guanajuato, the home of my father’s family. It’s a fairly big city with a small-town feel to it. And, I have an uncle, two aunts, and fifteen cousins who live there! Plus, there’s a university in the city where I could possibly find a teaching position if I ever have the urge to teach again. That would be quite an adventure for me. So now I’m struggling to redefine myself and resolve my latest identity crisis. I’m sure that this time I’ll find myself. Or, maybe not.

¿Dónde debo vivir? ¿Chicago o México?