Do Good And Don’t Worry For Whom
Unless you peeked through the floor-to-ceiling double curtains in our one bedroom apartment, or one of the younger kids in the house raced through the makeshift clothe doors you couldn’t really see the bunk bed in our dining room. Neither could you tell my mother’s more than six foot tall brother, his wife, and their two children – one boy and one girl – were living in that space. The Bali Hai Apartments were a small complex by all accounts. At most, 30 odd units, all either one or two bedrooms, circled a small eight-shaped pool in the center of the compound. Two months out of the year the water inside the pool was clean enough to swim in. On those days, all of us kids would take turns diving into the murky blue water from the top of a large, black, cave-looking rock, the kind you might find in Hawaii or some exotic place like that, but ours was old, dirty and manmade. The other 10 months of the year the water was green and slimy.
Next door, an abandoned apartment complex sheltered at least a dozen homeless people who pretty much kept to themselves unless we ganged up and provoked them by throwing rocks and calling them names. Our parking lot was our playground where we’d play basketball, blow up hair spray cans in the garbage can, fight with each other, and built imaginary club houses in the bushes. To the east of us were several small skyscrapers and the largest building in the city, the Transco Tower; to the north, across several acres of green grass, the world class shopping center known as The Galleria, the same one my brother had first thought was a giant hen house; on the west side, more untouched acres of land before a neighborhood of poor little houses; the abandoned apartment complex was to the south of us.
My boy cousin was especially bad. He was just about the same age as my sister Linda, about two years old, but he was spoiled rotten. My aunt didn’t believe in corporal punishment, something I had hoped would rub off on my parents, but never did, and would let her son run wild. We’d just hear wails and whimpers every time he had bitten my sister again. This was a constant source of grief for my mother who didn’t understand why she wouldn’t just slap him in the hand a few times to let him know what he was doing was wrong, but she tolerated and bit her tongue for the sake of peace. So my brothers and I took matters into our own hands. If we saw or heard him making Linda cry we would walk up to him, look around to see if anyone was looking, give him a quick pinch, and walk away as if nothing had happened. He couldn’t speak very much so that made telling my aunt on us pretty unlikely, but eventually he figured out how to get back at us. Out of nowhere an entire apple on a fork would come flying at us when we least expected it, usually when we were watching Duck Tales or Looney Tunes after school, and we’d race after him through the tiny apartment in a mad rage.
At night, our family of eight slept like sardines on two beds. Shoulder to shoulder, laying sideways, my two brothers and I slept on one bed, with my two older sisters taking turns sleeping next to us. On the other bed, my mother, Linda, and whichever teenage sister wasn’t on our bed. My dad slept on the floor or in the living room on a sofa. My uncle and his wife slept on the bottom bunk, while their two kids slept on the top one. Sometimes we had other relatives spend a few days or weeks with us and they’d sleep on the floor or on whichever couch was free in the living room.
We weren’t well off by any means, but we never went without.
By that time both my parents and my older sisters were working. My dad had found a steady job in roofing, and except for the days when it rained, he was working pretty regularly. My mom was working at The Galleria part time in the daytime and then would head over to the skyscrapers in the evenings with my two sisters – they must have been 15 and 16 at the time – to clean business offices and cubicles. I was 10.
Eventually we moved into a two bedroom unit at Bali Hai, which was pretty much the same situation except my uncle and his family were no longer living with us. Instead a few of my cousins from Mexico were now here and they were staying with us until they got on their feet. We didn’t have to sleep so tight anymore, but we always understood that at any moment we might have to return to one bedroom if that meant my parents could help someone out. Mainly my mother was the one who would argue and battle my father down until he agreed to help the next wave of family members. It was as if she could not turn anyone away. How many people she actually helped from that apartment complex turned sanctuary I’ll never know.
Her reasoning, though, was always plain and simple: today for them, tomorrow for me.