For twelve months now, since I first began the practice of law, since I became an attorney, a man who speak for others, a counselor at law who has the power to address the court, that’s right, a big man, a mature person who helps others in distress—for approximately 365 days time has been nothing but a never-ending experience that meets me in the morning just like it left me off the night before. No longer am I the clear-headed mathematician of my college years. I used to have the answers; and if I didn’t, I could always turn to the back of the book or ask Professor Blackburn at Wednesday morning’s advanced algebra class. For a year now, my only conscious concern has been the pain in my stomach, the arguments of Dr. Serbin, and the schedules of the television shows. I know them all by heart. I can quote every single fucking show on Channels 2, 4, 5, 7, and, you won’t believe it, even on the educational station, Channel 9. I am the world’s only living T.V. Guide, that’s really what I am. And they want me to counsel them!
The truth of the matter is that death is a mystery to me. I have no opinion on the subject.
Young, blond fags with powder-blue eyes and soft shoes skipped along arm-in-arm. Chinese girls with long hair and black stockings carried metal pots into Ernie’s Delicatessen for bean cake, barbequed duck, Chinese curds and steamed rice. Art students from the Art Institute, draftsmen from Heald’s College and law students from S.F. Law School walked by in carefree abandon, none of them in pain, all with beautiful girls in red slippers. They had leather, beads and books and pipes and scabs of hair on their interesting faces. Polk Street at night was always Christmas Eve for lonely men such as myself.
I’m an innocent, brown-eyed child of the sun. Just a peach-picker’s boy from the West Side. Riverbank. My father’s a janitor with only a third-grade education and my mother makes tortillas at 5:00 A.M. before she goes to the cannery.
I simply nod, for I have already noticed the short distance between his right and left eyes. It is my secret way of detecting fags. I know he will speak. And the first thing the idiot says is, “Are you by any chance Samoan?” All my life strangers have been interested in my ancestry. There is something about my bearing that cries out for history. I’ve been mistaken for American Indian, Spanish, Filipino, Hawaiian, Samoan and Arabian. No one has ever asked me if I’m a spic or a greaser. Am I Samoan? “Aren’t we all?” I groan.
He reached his hand toward me. “You don’t mind my asking, do you?” “Of course not,” I say calmly as I reverse the lit end of the cigarette so that the flame is cupped in the palm. I reach for his handshake. He screams like a woman in distress with her skirt held high. I puff my meanness as he licks at the burn and whimpers, “You sonofagun. You’ve burned the dickens out of my hand.” “I know.” “But why? I didn’t do anything. I don’t even know you.” “I guess it’s my Samoan blood.” Sal rushes to my defense. He points his finger at the fag. “Out!” “But I didn’t do anything.” “Out, out!” he shouts, his hands stiffly on the bar. The old fag picks himself up and begins to drag himself out.
Manuel Mercado Acosta is an indio from the mountains of Durango. His father operated a mescal distillery before the revolutionaries drove him out. He met my mother while riding a motorcycle in El Paso. Juana Fierro Acosta is my mother. She could have been a singer in a Juarez cantina but instead decided to be Manuel’s wife because he had a slick mustache, a fast bike and promised to take her out of the slums across from the Rio Grande. She had only one demand in return for the two sons and three daughters she would bear him: “No handouts. No relief. I never want to be on welfare.” I doubt he really promised her anything in a very loud, clear voice. My father was a horsetrader even though he got rid of both the mustache and the bike when FDR drafted him, a wetback, into the U.S. Navy on June 22, 1943. He tried to get into the Marines, but when they found out he was a good swimmer and a non-citizen they put him in a sailor suit and made him drive a barge in Okinawa. We lived in a two-room shack without a floor. We had to pump our water and use kerosene if we wanted to read at night. But we never went hungry. My old man always bought the pinto beans and the white flour for the tortillas in 100-pound sacks which my mother used to make dresses, sheets and curtains. We had two acres of land which we planted every year with corn, tomatoes and yellow chiles for the hot sauce. Even before my father woke us, my old ma was busy at work making the tortillas at 5:00 A.M. while he chopped the logs we’d hauled up from the river on the weekends.
In fact the only times we could read funny books was when my father was in the Navy. Nothing would infuriate him more than to catch us browsing through Captain Marvel or Plastic Man. Men, after all, didn’t waste their time reading funny books. Men, he’d tell us, took life seriously. Nothing could be learned from books that were funny.
When we left El Segundo Barrio across the street from the international border, we didn’t expect the Mexicans in California to act like gringos. But they did. We were outsiders because of geography and outcasts because we didn’t speak English and wore short pants. And so we had to fight every single day.
We had to fight the Okies because we were Mexicans! It didn’t matter to them that my brother and I were outcasts on our own turf. They’d have laughed if we’d told them that we were easterners. To them we were greasers, spics and niggers. If you lived on the West Side, across from the tracks, and had brown skin, you were a Mexican. Riverbank is divided into three parts, and in my corner of the world there were only three kinds of people: Mexicans, Okies and Americans. Catholics, Holy Rollers and Protestants. Peach pickers, cannery workers and clerks.
That same night I went into the chicken coop, took my hooked knife which I used to pit peaches with, and carved her initials on the back side of my left hand … JA. Jane Addison. My first true love. The original Miss It. I was in such a fog that I forgot to cover it with a glove or something. At supper, right in front of my mother, my brother Bob said in a loud voice, “What’s that on your hand?” I pretended not to hear. I quickly switched my fork to my right hand and put my left hand under the table. “Hey, mom. Oscar cut himself,” the bastard said. “What?” she cried out. She couldn’t stand violence unless it was part of some beating to teach me respect.
Ever since I’d shown my bleeding arms to my sweetheart we hadn’t spoken a word. I’d simply decided to wait until she told me she appreciated carved tatoos. But she never did. She just ignored my obvious suffering. The pain in my gut, the secret gnawing at my belly didn’t concern her one damn bit. Things got so bad for me I finally took to smoking like all my buddies were already doing. I rolled up whole pages of old funny books and smoked the shit until my lungs ached. I’d cut vines from the ivy that crawled up the sides of the chicken coop and puff on my homemade cigars until my head buzzed.
On the way home from school, I’d go two blocks out of my way to pass by Lopez’ Pool Hall to look for cigarette butts that the veteranos had flicked to the sidewalk. They had G.I. hair cuts, their old, spit-shined paratrooper boots and the same khaki uniforms they wore to fight the Japs. I’d pretend not to notice them leaning against the building. With my head down, I’d walk along the gutter and just casually push the longer butts with my toe as if I were kicking a can or a rock … just a barefoot boy with cheek humhumming along the road on a hot summer day in his Huckleberry Finn strides, oh yes!
I’d kick the butt, without missing a step or crushing it, all the way to the corner, turn to see if they were looking in my direction, then pick it up and run to the little park behind the Santa Fe Depot where I kept my penny box of matches hidden in an old squirrel’s nest. Then I’d light her up and suck up the hot, delicious smoke that made one a man and life barely tolerable.
Even after my old man returned from the wars with all his ribbons and a thousand stories I still struggled for survival without my love. He was so busy rigging up the house to look like a ship, printing the rules of command on little notes which he pinned to the wall above the sink, Attention: Do not waste water … Do not throw garbage in here; in the outhouse and in the washroom, Attention: Toilet paper rules … Use only four sections per use … Do not throw funny paper in commode. I doubt if he noticed my dying condition.
He introduced me to all the intellectuals at S.F. State and convinced me I should be a writer since I had so many fucking stories to tell. Little did he know I was scared shitless of all those guys with the tweed coats and fancy pipes.
Since I was about ten years younger than this crew of alcoholics, I just listened and filled their cups with cheap wine. After they’d had enough, I’d tell them of my escapades in Riverbank and in Panama where I’d worked with the Southern Baptist Convention and Jesus Christ to save the black souls of niggers, spics and Indians. I used to keep my eye on Harris when I told my stories. He had this nasty habit of pulling out a little notebook in the middle of a conversation and jotting down, as he said, “story ideas.” Later on, after I’d transferred to S.F. State and taken his writing course, he asked me if I wanted to read his first draft of Wake Up, Stupid! I kept it for a week and returned it to him at the next short story seminar. I only read the first paragraph. After that, I was no longer afraid of the intellectuals. I knew I could tell a better story.
Before it was over, I had built a mission in Chilibre, a small village with black Jamaicans and brown Panamanians, and one at the Palo Seco Leper Colony. They had been waiting for someone like me all their life. We built a church out of palm trees and mango leaves. We sang in Spanish and in English and occasionally I played my clarinet for them and warned them against civilization. I told them to stay out of Panama City, to lay off their home brew made from masticated corn and to quit smoking coco leaves. In return, I no longer went to movies, quit playing jazz and didn’t touch my penis except to piss for two whole years. They elected me to the Board of Deacons at the First Baptist Church in Balboa after I became so successful in the jungle. They even sent some of my color slides to the churches back home and told them that a “Mexican Billy Graham” was converting natives right and left. In exchange the Southern Baptists sent Pastor Beebee more money to make new additions to the church. It already looked like an old mansion on a southern plantation.
But I was miserable. I hurt inside. I didn’t have the peace of mind that Jesus promised if we did his work. I didn’t have the very thing I preached. Finally, in January of 1956 when I had but six months to go on my tour of duty, I made up my mind to settle it once and for all. I made a final study of the Bible and wrote down everything that sounded true in a notebook on my right. Those things that sounded wrong or inconsistent or that I couldn’t believe, I wrote in a notebook to my left. For three months, between 3:00 and 7:00 A.M., sitting under a single bulb in the attic above the barracks, I made a comparative study of the Synoptic Gospels. When I finished, the left-handed notebook was completely filled with chapter and verse and reasons why I could not believe in Christianity. The right-handed notebook contained about two pages of homilies on love. So I gave up Jesus and the Baptist Church.
I was twenty-one and without God. I had no one to love me and no one for me to love. Since there was no after-life, what then did it matter? I leaned forward, ready to lurch to my doom.
When I have the one million Brown Buffalos on my side I will present the demands for a new nation to both the U.S. Government and the United Nations … and then I’ll split and write the book. I have no desire to be a politician. I don’t want to lead anyone. I have no practical ego. I am not ambitious. I merely want to do what is right. Once in every century there comes a man who is chosen to speak for his people. Moses, Mao and Martin are examples. Who’s to say that I am not such a man? In this day and age the man for all seasons needs many voices. Perhaps that is why the gods have sent me into Riverbank, Panama, San Francisco, Alpine and Juarez. Perhaps that is why I’ve been taught so many trades. Who will deny that I am unique? For months, for years, no, all my life I sought to find out who I am. Why do you think I became a Baptist? Why did I try to force myself into the Riverbank Swimming Pool? And did I become a lawyer just to prove to the publishers I could do something worthwhile? Any idiot that sees only the obvious is blind. For God sake, I have never seen and I have never felt inferior to any man or beast. My single mistake has been to seek an identity with any one person or nation or with any part of history.… What I see now, on this rainy day in January, 1968, what is clear to me after this sojourn is that I am neither a Mexican nor an American. I am neither a Catholic nor a Protestant. I am a Chicano by ancestry and a Brown Buffalo by choice.
Oscar was not into serious street-fighting, but he was hell on wheels in a bar brawl. Any combination of a 250 lb Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach – but when the alleged Mexican is in fact a profoundly angry Chicano lawyer with no fear at all of anything that walks on less than three legs and a de facto suicidal conviction that he will die at the age of 33 – just like Jesus Christ – you have a serious piece of work on your hands. Especially if the bastard is already 33½ years old with a head full of Sandoz acid, a loaded .357 Magnum in his belt, a hatchet-wielding Chicano bodyguard on his elbow at all times, and a disconcerting habit of projectile vomiting geysers of pure blood off the front porch every 30 or 40 minutes, or whenever his malignant ulcer can't handle any more raw tequila.