JOSÈ ROLDAN, JR.
I can say that pain has made me pious. But, not in the Godly sense. I was a devoted person. However, my devotion was to my nostrils that have proven to me that they can take years of abuse without any repercussion. My family calls me an alley cat, because I’ve come so close to death a number of times. But, I keep getting up and going back to what keeps me going… Perico.
When I was a kid, my family left the island of Puerto Rico and moved to New York. The South Bronx. There was a lot for us to learn. You see, although there were tons of Puerto Ricans around us, this was not Puerto Rico at all. We arrived in late November and it was fucking freezing. I had never experienced weather like this before. Everyone seemed to love it, except me. We had to cover every inch of our bodies and looked like robots trying to walk down the street from all the layers we had to put on. But, despite the that we didn’t have the Palm trees surrounding us or tropical weather all year long, there was nothing but Puerto Rican culture all around us. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing Salsa music or without smelling Rice, Beans and fried chuletas. There wasn’t a window that did not have the Puerto Rican Flag waving from it. Puerto Rico was alive and well in the South Bronx. Those that were born on the island talked about nothing but “la isla del encanto.” We missed it terribly and mourned our lives back home on the island. But things were different. Life was different and New York brought hope, dique. Apparently, life was better for us here. Work was plentiful and we weren’t starving. Well, that’s what they all said. Because, no one wants to face reality. No one wants to admit that coming here maybe wasn’t the best idea we all thought it was. There may have not been a hurricane that ran through this town. But people were living in conditions far worse than after Maria hit my island. The lobbies of our apartment buildings were filled with garbage just thrown on the ground. The elevators reeked of dried urine. The roaches and mice owned the building and came to collect their rent on nightly basis. It was horrific to say the very least. Within a matter of months, Papi, had used up all of the money he had in the bank. He didn’t get work at all aside from some side jobs painting and cleaning apartments. So, in order to get food on the table, he sold Marijuana. Actually, our apartment was the last stop of the Marijuana factory in the building. Our next-door neighbor Miguel, used to grow the shit out of an extra bedroom he had in his apartment and then cut, dry and bag it in his living room. He had a three bedroom for him and his brother. The other bedroom was turned into the botanical fucking garden. The room even had a green light y todo. One day Miguel needed my father to stop by to pick up some finished product to store in our apartment.
“José, tengo que ir a casa de miguel a buscar algo. Ponte pantalones.” Papi didn’t like any of us in the house alone. So, he always demanded that we get dressed to accompany him for any of his errands.
“Pa, I don’t want to go his house. I’ll stay here and play with games.” My cousin had lent me his playstation and I wanted to play God of War.
“No no no no. Ju go wit me.” I immediately sucked my teeth and threw my hands in the air. “Oye, ponte te bien.” Papi said with that look in his eye that made me second guess everything in life. I knew I wasn’t going to win this fight. So, I just went into my room and decided to take my time. I hoped that he would get annoyed and just go without me. But I wasn’t so lucky. He eventually came into my room and didn’t even say a word. He stood by the door and watched me as I dressed. Completely horrified, I got up from the floor grabbed my pants, and got dressed. I never even made eye contact with my father. I knew that looking at him would create a weird moment as he would have felt obligated to say something profound to me. Ever since he had to step up and watch us, Papi felt that he needed to drop some pebble of knowledge on us every once in a while. None of it was useful. Just some old Puerto Rican nonsense. There are times that I just wish that I had nothing to do with my family. Especially, my father. I mean, they didn’t do anything to me at all. But, at times I just feel like I needed to be away.
Far away from it all.
As we approached the hallway that we shared with eight other apartments, you could hear the sound of the radio playing in someone’s apartment. It was always the same, Freestlye music. Cynthia, Johnny-O, Coro and George Lamond were played so much, you would think they all lived in the building with us. Miguel’s apartment was completely unlocked so, we just walked right in. Miguel wasn’t the typical dealer in the neighborhood. He took care of the building and looked out for his neighbors. So, he wasn’t afraid of getting robbed or losing anything because he knew that the building would look out for him. That also included letting him know if the cops were on their way as well. The minute we walked in, I saw a thin cloud of smoke that surrounded the entire apartment. The apartment smelled like an old stale sock that needed to be thrown the fuck out. There wasn’t much furniture in the house besides a beige loveseat and sofa that was covered in plastic and a cocktail table that had stacks of VHS tapes, empty dirty glasses and completely filled ash trays. As we sat there, we can hear Miguel singing from the kitchen.
“Jack, Jack, he’s a Lego maniac…. Jack, Jack, he’s a Lego maniac…”
Miguel constantly sang this song and it was annoying as all hell. Papi called out for Miguel as we sat down in the loveseat.
“Miguel, estamos aqui.”
“In the kitchen, ya voy.” Miguel yells back and then continues his Lego song. Within seconds, Miguel walked through a colorful beaded curtain that separated the kitchen from the living room. In both hands, he held the mother of all calderos filled with both nickel and dime bags. Now, Miguel was an extremely thin light-skinned Puerto Rican with an extremely large afro. Which made the caldero look even bigger in his hands.
“Bueno, here it is. I’ve been up all night getting this ready for you.” Said Miguel as he walked towards us from the kitchen.
“Since when do you bag your own shit, Miguel?” Papi said shaking his leg like he always did when he was high as a kite. You see, Papi started getting high a while back and we all knew it. But what Papi doesn’t want us to know is that he started on the harder shit. We know he’s using dope but, ain’t nobody going to disrespect Papi and bring it to his attention and since Mami is half crazy, we can’t rely on her to say anything. My sister, Xiomara, constantly cried about it. But no one her paid any attention to her or us for that matter. I mean no one really gave a fuck about another bunch of Puerto Rican kids from the island. That’s why Xiomara ran away from home at least four different times and each time she came back home kicking and screaming.
“I started bagging my own since my bullshit ass primo got caught selling to a cop. You ain’t gotta be scared little man. My snake is in his tank in my room.” Miguel said as I immediately got up and moved across the room. You see, Miguel would let his pet garter snake sliver through his hair most times and it would always freak me out because when the snake moved, his hair would move around as if his skull was caving in. One time, his snake poked his head out of Miguel’s hair and almost touched my ear. I panicked and everyone laughed at me.
“Papi, I have to pee. Can I go back home?” I asked my father as an excuse to go back home and not come back.
“Little man, you can use the baño here. It’s right there in the hallway.” Miguel said to me as he rolled up a joint for him and my father. Defeated, I got up and walked down the hall and opened the second door on the right. When I opened that door, I smelled the most heavenly smell I could have even imagined. Every inch of the room was covered with plant life. The room was completely dark except for a few green lights scattered all around the room. The room could have been an extension of the Botanical Gardens, there were so much greenery there. The smell was so strong in that room that after five seconds of having the door open, the aroma snuck into the sala where Papi and Miguel sat. They immediately knew that I had walked into the wrong room.
“Little man, not that room. Close that door!” Miguel said as he got up and walked in my direction. I slammed the door and went into the bathroom. I couldn’t believe what I saw, and I couldn’t get that smell out of my head.
Later that evening, when my younger brothers Edwin and Mike got home, I told them what I saw.
“We have to take some of Papi’s stash. You won’t believe the smell that came out of that room.” I told Edwin and Mike.
“Tu ta loco? Do you know what kind of trouble we can get into?” Mike said as he changed into his PJs.
“You’re such a pussy, Mike. Come on José, you I will get some and take it to school tomorrow.” Edwin was always down to do some crazy shit with me.
“Bet, when Papi and Moms go to sleep, I’ll go into the closet and get a few bags and put it in your bookbag.” Edwin and I shook on it and went about the night.
The next day, Edwin and I couldn’t even wait to get to school. We skipped breakfast and ran down the stairs.
“Show it to me.” Edwin said.
“Not here, loco. Let’s wait until we get to school at least.” As soon as I said this, Mike comes over with a fucking pancake in one hand and a boiled huevo in another.
“I’m not saying shit to ya’ll. When ya’ll stupid asses get caught, don’t say shit.”
“Shut the fuck up, you fat bastard.” Edwin yelled as he walked away from him.”
“It’s alright, Mike. We’ll be fine.” I said as I put my arm around Mike and made our way to school.
After school, Edwin and I met up in the school yard and found a place that we felt was discreet. We decided that behind the bleachers in the field would be a perfect place to light up some grass. I immediately open my bag and pulled out two joints.
“When did you roll it up?” Miguel asked.
“During lunch time. Pedro came out with me and showed me how he does it. I gave him one and left two for us.” I said.
“Shit, I don’t have a lighter.” Miguel blurted.
“Don’t worry, I got that covered too.” I shouted with all the pride in Puerto Rico. I let Edwin take his first pull. He immediately started coughing and I could not stop laughing.
“Oh, you think you could do better?” He said in between coughs.
“Fuck yeah, I can.” I handed him the lighter and put my joint to my mouth. He flicks his thumb and brings the flame towards my face. As soon as I’m about to take my pull, we hear
“Hey, what are you two doing?” We immediately drop the joints and lighter and begin to run as fast as we can. But the minute we got to the end of the bleacher, we were met with Mr. Abreu and Mr. Torres.
“What were you guys doing?” said Mr. Abreu as he grabbed Edwin.
“Were you two smoking grass?” Said Mr. Torres. We both said no in unison. But, they didn’t believe us. Both Mr. Torres and Mr. Abreu grabbed me and Edwin and dragged us back down the direction we came from. The joints were still there laying on the floor.
An hour later, we were sitting in Mr. Torres’ office with Mike who was pissed at the both of us. We weren’t saying a word to each other as we waited for either Papi or Moms to pick us up. Mr. Torres got up from his desk and walked out of the room.
“You two are complete idiots.” Mike screeched.
“Oh, shut up.” Edwin and I said.
“Shut up? Ya’ll got me in here with you. Papi is going to think that I was involved in all this. I told ya’ll to leave Papi’s stash alone but no, you gotta go and take his shit and try and smoke it at school!!!” As soon as he says this, Mr. Torres walked into the room. At first, he stood there just staring at us. We didn’t utter a single word.
“Mike, where did your brothers get the grass from?”
“Shut up, Mike.” Edwin yelled.
“I didn’t ask you to speak, Edwin.” Said Mr. Torres. “Where did your brothers get the grass from?” Mr. Torres said again with a sterner voice. Edwin stared Mike down as if he was about to kill him with his eyes.
“He didn’t do nothing, Mr.” I said softly to Mr. Torres.
“Mike, come with me please.” Edwin and I both look at each other and then at Mike. Mike looked like he was about to cry as he got out of his seat and walked out of the room.
The next week, we were all sitting in the living room eating dinner when we hear a sudden knock on the door.
“Quien es?” Yelled Papi from the dining room table.
“Police, open up.” Papi jumped up out of his seat and ran to the room. The knocking got louder.
“Open up the door, now. We have a warrant.” We could hear Papi moving shit around in the room as the door swung open and the cops came running inside the house. Xiomara immediately started crying and screaming while Mami just sat there knitting a scarf. We started to scream as a cop grabbed each of us. The next thing I remembered is Papi being dragged out of the apartment in handcuffs being read his rights while a social worker sat with us and told us that we would be placed in a group home for kids and that Xiomara was going to be sent to a girls home, while my brothers and I will be sent to an all boy home. We all held one another until the social worker grabbed Xiomara and ripped her from our arms. I watched as they took her in complete disbelief. That was the last time we saw her, until Papi got out of jail, years later.