Give Me Bread And Call Me Dumb  

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We were just stupid in those days.  Like ‘laugh out loud’ stupid or ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ stupid, or even about to ‘pee in my pants’ stupid.  Everything was possible to us in those days.  And no, we weren’t actually dumb enough to believe we could do anything we wanted to, but we knew for one reason or another, a las buenas o las malas, we could almost always make things happen or get a hold of the things we wanted, just because.  We weren’t gangsters or wannabes like the other kids walking around trying to look all hard with their pants down low and their shoulders all tilted down to one side, but just by default because of where we came from, how we talked and the way we dressed, people were scared of us – probably not even scared of us, just more cautious about their surroundings when we were around.  They’d clutch their purses closer, stare at us every few seconds, or just make it clear we were not welcome in their environment, which always made us want to stick around even longer.

Harmless really is what we were.  Too cool to ride the yellow bus all the way to middle school so we’d take the metro transit buses instead.  Yet not cool enough to know what to do other than ride the metros back and forth to Paul Revere Middle School.

In all honesty, I was the most pathetic of the bunch.  My pants didn’t sag any lower than my waist.  I could barely squeeze into them.  My shoes were winos like everyone else’s, but my flat feet made them look more like tamalotes as my parents would say, their excess skin always slouching over the soles of my shoes.

My cousin Ruben was the looker of the bunch.  The one all the girls always wanted me to inform them about.  Tell your cousin I said hi.  Give him this letter.  Does he have a girlfriend? His eyes were green, almost hazel, light skin, tall as me, but slender, and always dressed in nicer clothes.  His polo shirts added definition; mine defined embarrassing rolls of fat along my upper body.  Frank, better known as Football Head, literally had a huge head that was shaped like a football. His shoulders were broad like a linebacker, more muscle than fat, dark brown skin, dirty-looking black hair covering his eyes.  He was the crazy one of the bunch, always up for whatever, louder than all of us put together, and he lived just down the street from Ruben’s house, with a whole other half dozen of loud and dark, broad-shouldered brothers and sisters.  Our neighbor was Francisco, my brother’s best friend, who for some reason we called The Rat.  We all lived several blocks away at the Bali Hai where it seemed everyone from our rancho ended up.  That’s how we knew Francisco.  His parents were from the same place as ours, and that made him like family.  Dark and slender, with beady eyes, he looked like Master Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I guess is why we’d call him The Rat.  Francisco was calm and collected, always smiling no matter what, and wherever he was my brother was always close by.

My brother, he was the badass.  An inch shorter than me and about 50 pounds lighter, he was always the one plotting, thinking of new ways we could all get away with something.  Even before anyone else knew what he was thinking I could always tell when he was up to something.  Usually on our walk over to the bus stop, he’d start getting that smirk on his face, those giddy eyes full of mischievousness, telling me in their silence to keep up.  The sad part was I could never keep up.  Not with his long and fast steps, or their inside jokes and friendly insults, most of the time I’d just pretend I knew what they were talking about by laughing, which always seemed to work.  In our barrio of Eses we were just like everyone else.

Because of my size, stocky and tall – compared to them anyway – I commanded a certain level of respect in our circle.  Man I bet Juan can do that.  Don’t mess with him.  He’s all calm and shit, but wait till he gets mad… They were my friends and for them I would have done anything.  We were transforming from boys into men together, counting every hair on our chins, fibbing about the hairs growing out of the other parts of our body, literally bubbling with pimples, some of us more than others, my brother especially, and yet we were just stupid kids trying to figure out who the hell we were.  None of us knew.  We couldn’t have.  But it didn’t matter.  The only thing that really mattered in those days was that we were inseparable and having a blast.

We would have all the rest of our lives to think.