I left San José when I was still a kid, exactly half my life ago this week. Now I am as much here as there, and nowhere in between.
Sometimes I think that it has taken this much space and time for me to be able to look at it and untangle. Sometimes I think that it will never untangle.
Now when I go back, it is like an empty, abandoned movie set from the Reagan years. I see other people there doing their thing, but it’s like their movies are playing in another theater that I cannot fully access. The sound is muffled, the images are out of focus. Everything I see here is time-warped, filtered through the scrim of 1980s videogame soundtrack electrodream. See, that house—we lived there while my dad did time. See, that corner is where I would pick up newspaper rubberbands in the morning on my way to school to add to my rubberband chain. Big, fat ball stuffed in my pocket.
No cars. Silent. Empty sky. Abandoned soundtrack.
Up there, those yellow hills. I would wander up and look out over the city. Little nature boy, little mexicanito whiteboy sitting alone under the trees.
Right there on that corner, we were nine, my friend brought out two Tecates from his refrigerator and we sat there on his frontyard drinking them like little men, watching the cars roll by. His dad was a trucker, gone. All our dads were gone. His family was white and not rich but not too poor either.
See, that motel—we lived there for two months.
See, these landscaped rolling little hills, this park, these memories buried underneath. Wormholes in the mud. Aerated dreams.
This is the land of the Tigres del Norte, man. This is where they came from, like me. Puro norteño via silicon chip off the old block.
Do you remember how they made those calendars when the 80s hit, shiny silver mylar, bright rainbow colors? Back then, this was the future, and I would collect it. In 1985 I still had 1981 rolled up inside 1983.
See this palm tree?
An owl lived up there and in the cold gray morning when I walked to school, I would find tiny mouse bones and tufts of gray fur scattered at the base. Delicate slivery ghost-trace of violence in the night. And I would gather them up and collect them in a long, thin, black steel box that was like a pencil box but really I think it was for drill bits, greasy and metallic, something I swiped from my dad’s wrought iron shop.
That fence? Those windows? That door? We made those. See that house? We put that iron up. See these cages? See these ornamental scrolls? One-way screws, rusted edges. Records of our passing. Records of brute force. Records of blunt trauma.
This ideology is inscribed in the deafness of my mother’s left ear, the silenced echo of a shattering blow. It is written on the contemptuous face of my sister’s abusive, self-hating boyfriend. It is the wild-eyed fiending of my dad chasing coke, pussy, pisto, weed, and now Jesus Christ. It is the massive brick silence of my other sister’s pain. It is the blood on my forehead and fingertips. It is reality gutted.
Memories gutted. Neighborhoods gutted. Social services gutted. Prop 13 schools gutted. Our family gutted.
It is a ghost town for me and I am a ghost when I return. Alum Rock & White. Story & King. We drive slow past James Lick High School, and the new Alum Rock Library—the small, squat brown library where my self-education began replaced now by a shiny new windowed structure looming over the corner—and I look in the reflective glass from the street and see myself reading everything they had in order to start mapping a way out. Nearby: a group of young cholos, rolling toward downtown. They don’t look like East L.A. homies. More hyphy here or something, a different style—a little more hip hop, a little rocker, XIV, PURO NORTE, etc., etc., all that shit. I remember this.
See that Orchard Supply Hardware, I remember my dad stuffing drill bits in his pockets, using me as a lookout.
See that cemetery, that’s where my homie’s dad is…
Halfway through, I get tired of this rolling narrative. Bored. I have done this tour too many times. It is empty, empty. It is inside me now and nowhere else. I am mapping memories onto a landscape that has shifted, that is shifting, that means nothing to anyone but me now—
(Remember the earthquake in 1989, we were sitting at a long table recycling basic computer chips that looked like little plastic and steel cucarachas, wiping the surface clean with alcohol on cotton swabs, wiping the memory clean, reprogramming them with simple functions, and suddenly the fluorescent lights start swinging overhead, wildly, we duck and cover under the table…)
Underneath, I flash forward almost twenty years and I see myself passing by all the old landmarks, visible only to me, and I start to realize that not only have they shifted, but they’ve been replaced with simulations, wiped clean. Like me. Like my memories. Like my family.
I see myself there still thinking that if I just keep driving around these streets and telling myself these stories, it will come, I will find it, finally, I will gather it all up and sort the bones and days, dried blood under microscope rays, stray fur, scraps of tattooed skin, greasy entrails under fingernails, iron boxes, gas on my tongue, 5/8x5/8 tubing, 1/4-inch flatbar molding around a scroll, a broken yellow measuring tape recoiling suddenly, whizzing jagged over concrete twenty feet in two seconds, slicing open the webbing between my forefinger and thumb—
But this is not the way that it works.
The way that it works is that you must give it away to see it. You must keep nothing and give it all away. It’s all there inside already anyway.
You must gut yourself and give it all away.
+ + + + +
(Later that same day, in a Monterey motel, I pick up a distant radio station after midnight. Broadcasting lost soul oldies out of Cupertino, it cuts in and out of static in waves. It’s like a faded tattoo, some ghost vato’s memory of 1973. The DJ is from East Sanjo, too. He spins the rarest of the rare in underground cholo oldies. He dedicates his show to the Shakey’s Pizza at Story & King, R.I.P., closing now after all these years (hey, that’s that corner I was showing you! the old WIC office! the Tropicana! the heart of it...) Damn, Shakey’s gone. Later, on the phone, I tell my homeboy. Of course I know that Shakey’s, he says. Everybody knows that Shakey’s. Outside, there’s this crazy storm with near-hurricane force winds and cold ocean rain slicing up off the Monterey Peninsula. Old oak trees cracked in half, snapped power lines whipping at the ground. The windows shake. The station fades in and out. I fall asleep dreaming of these crazy-ass giant lowrider ships drifting out to sea, an entire fleet, all calm and slow and suavecito. All of us on board.)