The Cement Mixer

Submitted into Contest #164 in response to: Write a story about coming of age in a big city.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Creative Nonfiction Funny

There were thirty-foot oak trees in my hometown of Mount Kisco, manicured lawns, parks that spanned for miles, and the air smelled fresh and sweet.

Where I was going to work in the Bronx, the scrawny trees were two feet high and were marginally protected by sharpened barbed wire fences. There weren’t any lawns, the parks had more broken glass than grass, and the air smelled of dog crap and urine.

As Senator Carmen Marini’s communications director, I was duty-bound to spend forty hours a week in a claustrophobic, crime-ridden dump. My friends said it would make a man of me if I didn’t kill me.

It took three trains and a hefty hike to get to the office. I quickly discovered that even Mussolini couldn’t keep the Metro North trains running on time. One frigid morning, the first train I boarded caught fire, and the train Metro North sent to replace it blew its engine. The third train roared past my stop, which meant I had to travel south for six more stops to get to Grand Central Station before I could turn around and catch a train going north to the Bronx. It was 12:30 p.m. before I got to the office. To cap off a day of tempestuous transportation follies, the train home that night was late as well. After three months of commuter catastrophes, I decided to drive to work.

Nevertheless, I greeted my first day in the Bronx with enthusiasm. I was bounding up the stairs when the woman behind me yelled for me to move to the side. I turned to ask her why and she pointed to the top of the stairs. A man at the top of the stairs was urinating down the steps.

“Welcome to the Bronx!” the woman said as we parted.

Disgusted but undaunted, I walked on. The sound of fire trucks honking their horns and the wailing sirens from police cars shattered my eardrums as they sped by. I stopped to join the other spectators watching a three-story apartment building disappear in bright orange flames and acrid black smoke. Although I was twenty-four, destruction of this magnitude was new to me. My open-mouth-golly-gee expression caught the attention of a woman who said she lived in the building.

“You look like you never seen nothin’ like this before.”

“It’s my first day here.”

“Well, welcome to the Bronx…They burned it down, you know,” she said sadly.

“They?”

“The owners. They did it for the insurance. You’re gonna see a lot of that around here.”

Senator Marini had vowed when he was elected that he would help bring the Bronx out of its 1980s malaise and back to prominence. He was the type of man you wanted to believe in - tall, with abundant dark hair, friendly, caring eyes, and a fatherly personality. He displayed his willingness to mentor me when he took me on a tour through the Bronx to introduce me to his supporters. They were a diverse group that included political cronies, old-school Italian bocce ball players, Dominican domino players, hard-working Hispanics, and struggling single mothers.

Senator Marini took me to a restaurant in Little Italy for lunch, where he was greeted in Italian by meaty men in black sweat suits and grey-haired men wearing tailored outfits and sunglasses.

I wondered what I’d gotten myself into when the Senator approached an ancient man holding court in the center of the room who was wearing more rings than he had fingers to accommodate them.

Kneeling, the Senator kissed one of the man’s gaudy rings.

I expected a hit squad to come in and rub us out while we were eating cannolis and sipping expresso. After that, I ate lunch at my desk.

It was obvious I needed a trustworthy friend who could help me weather my culture shock. Linda Romero-Ramirez-Rodriguez-Porter, one of our secretaries, quickly stepped to the forefront. Tall, busty, and brassy, with an abundant mane of dark black hair that stood in contrast to her light brown eyes, Linda was a loud and proud Puerto Rican who had burned through three husbands before she was twenty-six. When I asked how Chuck Porter had snuck into the mix, she said, “Yeah, I married an Anglo.” Winking, she added, “And I’d like another.”

Linda’s nickname, given to her by the other secretaries, was “The Cement Mixer.” Walking with her, I quickly discovered that it fit. She had a way of swiveling her hips in a sexy, syncopated manner that was straight out of the how to seduce men playbook.

Linda was experienced and tough, and her wit was as quick as her temper. “I was born and raised in the Bronx with a bayonet between my teeth,” she said. She also bragged that she had an insatiable sex drive and that no man could keep up with her or tame her.

Challenge accepted. Three days after we’d met, I was happy to discover that she was right.

Linda was so strikingly beautiful that she could literally stop traffic. One fall afternoon we were walking along a busy boulevard when a convertible cruised by. The two young horndogs inside let out a barrage of wolf whistles and creatively lewd comments. I was ready to defend my girl’s reputation, but Linda just smiled, swinging her hips as she continued to prance along in her high heels.

The boys were too hypnotized to notice the light had turned red. They crashed into the car in front of them, their heads bouncing off the dashboard. The driver in front of them, a brute who didn’t mind showing off his muscles, was not pleased.

“Did you see that?” I asked. “You’re so pretty you caused an accident.”

“Happens all the time.”

That incident, along with others, showed me that Linda was a woman, not a girl. I’d been dating girls back home, cute, giggly gals in Daisy Dukes who were happy to go to state fairs and didn’t kiss on the first, second, or third dates. Linda had made her intentions clear with her first glance, guided us through more advanced positions than the Kama Sutra, and was already talking about us moving in together.

Being with Linda was a blessing. She would swivel along, snapping out one-liners in Spanish to anyone foolish enough to insult her or her gringo lover. Thanks to Linda, I became much more cognizant of liars, con artists, and heartbreakers.

Even with Linda’s guidance, it took me a long time to get used to the burnt-out buildings, piles of garbage, and the drug-driven denizens who emerged at night. One afternoon we walked past a dead carcass that I thought was a dead cat.

I mumbled something like, “Poor kitty.”

Linda glanced at the foot-long corpse. “That’s no cat. That’s a rat.”

Welcome to the Bronx, indeed.

Linda lived in a neighborhood that looked like an atomic bomb test site. Despite the ravaging rottweilers, pugnacious pit bulls, and street corner criminals, I started spending every moment I could with Linda. Even my mother noticed a change in me, saying Linda’s strong hand was good for me.

I hired a local crackhead, Eddie Spaghetti (so called because his legs would turn to rubber after he indulged in his favorite drug), to watch my car when I was with Linda. Unfortunately, Eddie took Saturday nights off. When I got home the first Saturday after visiting Linda, I noticed my Camaro’s grill was missing. On my way to work that Monday, I went to the local junkyard and bought a new grill for the very reasonable price of fifteen dollars.

My grill was stolen again the following Saturday, and the Saturday after that. I ended up going to the junkyard every Monday for six weeks, and by then I was fairly sure I was repeatedly buying my own grill back. And I was pretty sure Eddie Spaghetti was the junkyard’s supplier.

Playing “Groundhog Day” with my grill didn’t deter me. What finally brought an end to becoming Linda’s fourth husband was her first husband, Carlos. He showed up at the Senator’s office after being paroled, claiming they were still married.

‘You didn’t mention you were still married,” I said to Linda.

“Well, we don’t live together no more.”

“That’s only because he was in jail,” I noted.

“Don’t worry, I’m not taking him back,” Linda replied.

I could tell by the determination in her voice that she meant it, but Carlos had other ideas.

“I heard you been seein’ my wife while I was away.”

I thought to myself, …Why can’t cons say they’ve been in jail? They always talk like they’ve been in Bermuda or on a cruise… But I ended up saying, “Sorry. I didn’t know she was still married.”

Carlos’ knife-scarred features pulled together in a smile. “That’s Linda. She never told nobody we were still together. It’s my fault too. I was supposed to sign the divorce papers, but I never did. So, she thought she was free to marry anybody.”

“You still love her, don’t you?” I asked.

“We were kids together, first in the playground, then on the streets. We married when we was eighteen. There’s no woman like her, but you know that. I told her I’m gonna stay a free man this time and make her a good husband, and I mean it.”

“Do you mind my asking what you were in jail for?”

“Assault. I beat up her future second husband. That was my first offense.”

My mouth suddenly went dry. “There was a second?”

“I beat up Porter. Then Linda and I beat each other up. I lost.”

I came to realize that the people in the Bronx weren’t bad, it was their surroundings. Once people began recognizing me, I was treated as if I lived there, and I stopped having to buy my grill back every Monday.

One factor that helped me gain street cred was my attire. I was a sharp dresser back then – shiny cowboy boots, pinstripe suits, bright-colored shirts, and silk ties. No matter what color they were, one thing all my shirts had in common was that they had white collars.

I soon discovered how fortunate I was to be wearing white collared shirts.

An old Hispanic woman passed by me making the sign of the cross.

“Bless you, Reverend,” she said. “May God be with you.”

Stunned, I could only reply, “And with you, my child.”

So, everyone thought I was a Reverend. My luck would hold as long as no one asked me to say a few hosannas or conduct a marriage ceremony.

My priestly collars may have even saved my life.

Passing the local library, which looked abandoned except for a young punk standing on the steps, I was approached by a young, swarthy-looking street tough with dreadlocks. He muttered something, which I took as a request for a handout. Feeling generous, I stuck a five-dollar bill in his open palm. He gave me a minuscule vial.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s whatchu ax for.”

Realizing it was a vial of crack, I nervously replied, “I certainly didn’t ask for this!”

He quickly took it back, returning my money.

“I should’a knowed. After all, you a Reverend.”

I didn’t bother to correct him, but I did say, “Suppose I was an undercover cop?”

“You see that boy standin’ on the libeery steps? Well, yo’ cover would’a got blown out along with yo’ brains.”

I felt fortunate that I had, for the most part, avoided detrimental contact with the criminal element.

I was walking back to the office one hot fly-ridden afternoon, toting my takeout order of shrimp with lobster sauce when I heard a commotion behind me.

I turned and was run down by a wiry teenager.

He picked up my food, helped me back up, brushed off my suit, and said, “Excuse me, mister. I’m really sorry,” before speeding off like Jessie Owens.

Two husky police officers exited the restaurant. One rumbled past me. The second one stopped and stood next to me, wheezing.

“You all right?” he asked.

“I’m fine. You?”

Sucking for air, he replied, “I’ll be okay, so long as I don’t have a stroke.”

“Why are you guys chasing that kid?”

“He just robbed the restaurant.”

One of Linda’s many habits was smoking. Even after our meteoric affair was over, I sometimes took breaks with her outside to gossip and people-watch.

One afternoon we spotted a man in the distance running toward us. He was noticeable not only because he was running in just his undershorts in the winter, but also because the look on his face registered pure panic.

We kept watching him grow closer. Even though he was running at full speed, it seemed to take him forever to get to us.

“Must be practicing for a marathon,” I surmised.

Linda let out a boisterous laugh. “Marathon? The only time you run around here is if you done something bad, or you’re about to have something bad done to you.”

The man finally made it to where we were. Breathing heavily, holding his hand over his chest, he said, “I think I need help.”

Pulling away his hand, he showed us a gaping hole in his chest, then collapsed.

After two tense hours of surgery, he survived his gunshot wound. When he woke up, the first person he saw was his loving wife – the woman who’d shot him.

I had grown up in a town where stealing a piece of candy was a capital crime. Most of the time, the kid who stole the candy was so guilt-ridden he confessed and paid for what he’d stolen.

In the Bronx during the 1980s, larceny was the top occupation.

The grill incident had taught many valuable lessons, including not asking a drug addict to watch your car. Well, it took another costly incident for that to actually sink in.

Back then, detachable radios were a popular and frequently stolen item. When most people parked, they pulled their radios out and either hid them in the trunk or carried them inside. I had a two-thousand-dollar stereo in a thousand-dollar car. I just covered my speakers and asked Eddie Spaghetti to keep a lookout.

Eddie Spaghetti was on one of his frequent benders one night, so I asked another sketchy neighborhood denizen to keep an eye on my car while I was visiting Linda. My first mistake was trusting him. My second was not paying him upfront so he wouldn’t be tempted to treat my car as if it had a “Take One” sign in the window.

It was beginning to flurry when I went inside. When I came out there was a cement block sitting in my back seat and my radio and speakers were gone, replaced by half an inch of snow.

Hawk, one of the Senator’s aides, so called because of his nose, devised the perfect deterrent for radio rip-off artists. He’d already lost two radios when he came up with the idea of placing razor blades under the stereo.

His idea worked too well. When the thief yanked out Hawk’s stereo he slashed his fingers, bleeding all over Hawk’s carpet, seat, and dashboard. Registering his anger, the thief took a baseball bat to Hawk’s window and dashboard, turning the inside of his car into a bloody Salvador Dali exhibit.

Coincidently, Hawk was a country boy, just like me.

If coming of age meant losing historically at love, becoming a discount outlet for thieves, and facing eternal damnation for impersonating a man of the cloth, then I should have had the wisdom of a man twice my age.

Still, I  felt I was lucky to be working for a conscientious, thoughtful man who was working hard to help the people who’d voted him into office. I often said, “If Senator Marini is a dirty politician, then they’re all dirty.”

I had been working for Senator Marini for three years and was sitting at the dining room table having breakfast on a Saturday morning when I glanced at the newspaper.

On the front page was a picture of a humbled, defeated Senator Marini. He’d been indicted for fraud.

Welcome to the Bronx, indeed.

September 22, 2022 16:56

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