“I thought I could make it. I really love peanuts.” He said this last line as if knowing how ridiculous it sounded.
“I guess you do,” I said. “Next time you might want to take a cab.”
“I can’t afford it. And the bus…it’s just not an easy trip.”
I knew what he meant, having taken the bus a lot as a kid. Sometimes, it was quicker going 12 miles than 2, depending on the routes. I offered to give him a ride home, which he accepted with a thank you.
In the car, his breathing seemed to steady and calm. We chatted a bit, mostly about how the sale was too good to pass up; it was enough peanuts for more than a month, at a fraction of the cost. And he really believed he could make it.
“But I don’t think I realized how far it was. Almost dropping dead in someone’s front yard might be a clue.”
I liked Ted and wanted to tell him to call me whenever he needed a ride, but just then we pulled into the parking lot of a dirty-stucco 1960s North Park apartment complex (Three Palms, Palm Gardens, Palmolive, something with a palm in the name). As I came to a stop, I noticed four or five tough-looking young black guys working on a couple of cars. Now, I’m a good liberal, I even have blood relatives who are black, but these guys were daunting, tall and ripped, with (whether they knew it or not) strangely cold expressions. “Pants on the ground” and angry times ten, or so it seemed. Two of them wore blue bandannas, which my honky instinct immediately associated with the Crips. In other words, I was a scared little white boy.
Ted’s apartment was on the third floor, and I knew I’d have to help him up the stairs, but for a moment, I was afraid to get out of the car. At that point, the crew working on their cars realized who my passenger was, and they approached, smiling and waving, looking relieved to see him.
Ted looked at me. “Thank you again, and God bless. I can get out on my own.”
He opened the door, but the biggest guy in the crew, who had some seriously tight cornrows, jumped to help him out.
“Damn, we were worried about you, Mr. T,” the guy said as he eased Ted from the car. “You can’t be wandering away like that, you scare the hell out of us.”
“You ain’t strong enough yet, Mr. T,” said another guy. “You gotta be more careful.”
“We don’t wanna lose you,” said another.
“I’m sorry,” said Ted. “I just had to get my peanuts.”
“I told you I’d give you a ride. You only had to wait a few hours.”
The big guy walked around and shook my hand through the now-open window.
“Thank you so much for helping him out. We were worried sick. I’m Andre, by the way.”
I introduced myself and told him the story of how Ted ended up on Vic’s lawn. Andre responded with a chuckle, both amused and unsurprised, then walked away to affectionately chide Ted, their beloved Mr. T. Andre and his friends helped Ted up the stairs to his top-floor apartment. It would be a long, slow, joyful climb.
∗ ∗ ∗
Shortly before we moved out of Normal Heights, I was rudely awakened at dawn, barely dawn, by mariachi music so blaringly loud I could not understand how it could be real, so loud I couldn’t hear my wife next to me in bed asking…something. I didn’t know whose stereo was blasting it, or how any stereo could, but I was going to find out.
I put on robe and shoes and walked out onto the empty street. How was nobody else out tracking the racket, the way I was? Helen Keller couldnt have slept through this. I looked around for any sign of where this seizure-grade fiesta of noise was coming from. Then, suddenly, the song ended.
Silence. What a relief.
Out from a house across and up the street came an older Hispanic man, the father of the odd family who lived there. I say odd, because once he moved in with wife and two kids and grandma, he proceeded to build an addition onto the back of the house, and this addition looked like an airplane hangar. Shaped like a long box, it was easily twice the size of the original house. I could never figure out what they might be using it for or what was going on in there.
“Excuse me, was that your music?” I asked politely.
He gave me a playful grin. “Oh, yes, but don’t worry, they’re almost done.”
“Can you maybe turn it down a little? It’s kind of loud.”
“It’s Grandma’s birthday, and she loves the mariachi music.”
“But it’s a little too early, don’t you think?”
“We had to surprise her on her birthday. It’s Grandma!”
I wondered how Granny didn’t drop dead from a heart attack, being awakened like this. But Dad went back to the house and closed the door, and as he did, boom, the mariachi music started again, blaring a new tune.
I stood there and thought about what he’d said. Don’t worry, they’re almost done.
They. As in people.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, the song ended. And like something out of Three Amigos — or a silent-movie comedy — the front door of the hangar-house opened and out rushed an entire ten-piece mariachi band in full dress, spangled sombreros as big as umbrellas, toting their shiny instruments. Within seconds, and with an almost choreographed precision, they all piled into a primer-gray van and drove away. Sputtered away, actually.
And that was that. ¡Feliz cumpleaños, abuela! Unfriggingbelievable.
Yes, there was always something new in Normal Heights. Only in Normal Heights.
Keep your head up, Hank.