Thursday, September 15, 2005

How a Chicana Became a Jersey Girl

By Susan Martinez

(Read at “Glory Days,” a Bruce Springsteen symposium, September 10, 2005)

The first time I heard about Bruce Springsteen was a gray afternoon in 1974. I was a teenager, transplanted to New Jersey from California years earlier when my parents divorced, and I was visiting my Uncle Stan in Monmouth County across the state. Summer had passed, and it was too cool to swim in the ocean, so we went for a drive.

Uncle Stan drove a voluptuous 1950s Mercedes Adenauer limo which floated on fat white-wall tires. It had a leather interior with braided swags dangling on the doors, and between the driver and passenger was a window which rolled up if you cranked a little silver handle. He purchased the car from a widow he'd interviewed for UPI Radio where he was a reporter. The woman only drove around Central Park on weekends, and since she liked him, he got the car cheap. He loved the theatre of driving that limo, New York Press plates on the front and a chauffer's cap cocked on his head. We called him Stanley and in a fake British accent he answered yes m'am and no m'am, poking at our just-short-a-paycheck life, but we were still riding in a used car.

That afternoon we drove to Asbury Park. We walked along the boardwalk, and though the wood was solid under foot the city gave an air of imminent collapse. Uncle Stan drove some more, pointing out scars of the riots, then he pulled the Mercedes to the curb and turned off the engine. We were a ridiculous sight in that beautiful limo surrounded by so much decay. We would have attracted attention if there'd been anybody around. There wasn't.

Uncle Stan tapped on the window between us and I rolled it down so he could speak. He used his real voice -- not his radio voice, and not Stanley -- a father figure intent on making an impression. "I want you to be able to say you were here," he said, pointing to the nightclub outside. "This place might not be here by the time you're old enough to go inside. There's a guy who sings here, you'll hear him some day and it'll change your life." I looked around. I looked at the Stone Pony, at Asbury Park. I figured the music must be sad.

That was all he said. He didn't share any music, he didn't even describe it but I remember the optimism in his voice: if these buildings fell it wouldn't matter, something more significant would stand. Asbury Park had a second fortune teller that day.
Martinez is my married name.

It's also my birth name, a gift from my father, a Chicano son raised in the West where Spaniards brought a second language long before English arrived.

My father met my white mother on her first teaching job -- California sounded exotic, she laughs, but she landed in Bakersfield and married my father against her father’s wishes. My parents were organizers and teachers and fought against poverty and racism every day. Battles raged inside our home as well until mom fled across the country to live with my grandparents in rural Hunterdon County NJ.

Uncle Stan is part of my extended family, not a blood relative but there's no difference. The night my family escaped my father's fists, Uncle Stan met us at the airport in the UPI helicopter. We were exhausted after the getaway and the long flight from California, but instead of whisking us home, he flew us around Manhattan. We flew between skyscrapers and circled the glowing head of Lady Liberty before landing on the roof of the UPI building and driving to New Jersey. The city sparkled at night. I needed to see such a beautiful view, overwhelmed by the sadness that I was never going back though I desperately needed the safety of a new home. I was an immigrant in my own country; it would be years before I returned to the west.

My best friend wrote from California: "Where are you? Where's New Jersey? Are you coming back?" She couldn't find my town on any map.

"West of New York, north of Philadelphia," I wrote back. "We have a beach here but a different ocean..." with a soundtrack borrowed from California except one night a year when Atlantic City mythologized beautiful women with long legs and flat bodies. On regular days no television covered our New Jersey news, our ordinary victories, our losses. We didn't have our own weather -- we extrapolated snowstorms and summer heat from New York or Philadelphia and adjusted for the crook of the Delaware River.

I searched for my soul in that mapless place. My Spanish teacher couldn't pronounce my father's name and I became invisible in my white skin. The only Spanish influence in town was the Catholic church, a red-tiled-roof adobe with rough-hewn beams. I wasn't raised with religion but I begged to be Catholic until one day my mother asked "Why on earth?..." I pointed to the adobe and said "That's where they hide the tacos." I look back now and it seems funny.

Instead, my mother sated me with occasional trips to a Mexican restaurant on Route 22 where mariachi serenaded the patrons on weekends. They'd circle the room, catch my eyes from a table or two before surrounding us with their cologne and sombreros. I asked for the same song each time, about all I knew in Spanish. -- and as the language ran out and before it became uncomfortable, they'd play.

The bass of the guitarron was like an earthquake under the other strings. Guitar notes tumbled over each other, the horns soared overhead. The voices and instruments ricocheted off the paver floor and the tile-topped tables, passion coming from every direction, arrows aimed at my head and heart lifting me someplace brighter.

Pinned to the back wall near the cash register was a floral shawl, the most elegant, feminine thing I'd ever seen. As we left the restaurant, I'd finger the fringe tassles as if they were threads of my own life's cloth.
A year after my trip to the Stone Pony, the local gift shop began racking a few albums -- mostly country or crooner closeouts, but sometimes some just-past-prime pop or rock, and then miraculously one day a brand new copy of the just-released Born to Run appeared. I stashed it in the back of the bin so no one would find it, and I saved my lunch money for a month until I purchased it, my first album. I carried it home in both hands, and as soon as I dropped the needle I knew this was who Uncle Stan told me about.

Bruce Springsteen sang about places I knew and lives I recognized, and the music was anything but sad. Those songs were like photographs. We had lovers and heroes and dark highways down which people disappeared, sometimes returning only in whispers. He sang with love and honesty and his heart on fire, hungry for someplace better. He sang how I felt: on fire and longing for something else.

My best friend stopped asking where I lived. She stopped asking if I was coming back.
Born to Run described my world but another dimension of my life opened when I heard "Rosalita", a gift on my 18th birthday. The opening chords hit me with all the passion and energy of the mariachi in that little restaurant, the guitars rumbling with the keyboards, the sax swimming in a Mexican chorus. Every time it seemed the song might end, it'd rev up another notch.

For the first time, I heard my own story as a latina and for the first time, what I was was good, desirable even, and worth taking a stand for despite my boyfriends' white mothers waiting anxiously at the window. The come-on turned to take-a-stand was my bridge to a new place. I stopped hating who I was. I stopped starving myself in order to change my curva body and I celebrated the torque in my hips. I corrected anyone who mispronounced my father's name and claimed it as my own. I saw my mother's life with my father's life and I understood how their struggle against racism created me. I heard my life in “Rosalita” and I learned to walk tall.

“Rosalita” is a song of longing, fucking, stepping to adulthood, defiance and tearing down the artificial boundaries that keep people worlds apart even as they hold hands. Bruce has said that "Rosalita" was his musical autobiography. How can a white man and a shy Chicana teen make the same claim of one song? When the song is a door and the singer offers encouragement to walk through it, and they do, it is freedom for them both. It affirms the single hope that gives us courage to change: love.

Springsteen could have been asking Wendy or Sandy or Janey or Mary to go to California, but his world opened for a senorita. He wanted Rosie in his world and he wanted her to walk through the door because “doors are for winners.” (And Uncle Stan didn't predict it, but I found love in the back of the cafe where guitars played all night and all day.)

A few years after that fateful day in Asbury Park, Uncle Stan left for another family. I hadn't seen him in almost two decades when he visited me in California recently. He is suffering the effects of end-stage mouth cancer, which was in remission but soon returned with a vengeance. We arrange lunch. I'm anxious to see him, and I know this is probably the last time we'll see each other.

He's returning from 2 weeks in Asia visiting jazz clubs with a series of exotically named women he met in online chat groups. At one point he blushes like he's a younger brother, "I can't believe I'm telling you this!" then continues anyway. The cancer treatments have cost him his teeth and jaw but he still has his appetite for living.

He has an important question for me: what am I writing? He was the person who suggested I put my own words in the little blank books I made when I was 5, just arrived from California. I tell him some of my adventures, I tell him I'm writing about that day in Asbury Park and he laughs at how much I remember. "I never did like rock and roll much," he says, "I'm a jazz man. I was sneakin' in to Birdland when I was a teenager." Then we chuckle. He's always been a sax player, maybe he meant I should hear Clarence...

I have a question for him; he braces, probably afraid I'm going to ask why he left. He and I are kin in that we'd rather regret the things we do, than the things we didn't do.

"Where did you hide when the terrorists attacked?" I want to know. He was one of the journalists in the athlete's compound during the Munich Olympics terrorist attack; I've seen the scars from his escape over barbed wire, I've heard his radio reports, but I can't remember the rest. He tells how he hid with the Puerto Rican athletes across the hall from the gunmen, listening to everything he could through the door without drawing attention. That's how he's lived, even in danger: pressing as close as he could.

After lunch I drive him to the top of the Berkeley Hills for the panoramic view of the bay and the ocean, then I drive down the steepest road I know. He's traveled twice the speed of sound but this hill makes him giddy. This time I'm the chauffer, and I point out local landmarks, show him where lemon trees grow next to palm trees grow next to redwoods on my street. As I leave him at the train station, I ask one more question. "Where haven't you traveled, where else do you want to go?" He doesn't hesitate. "Greece, and Italy," he says. "Somehow I never got assignments there." Then he adds, "And here. I want to come back here to California."
Some people are beacons in our darkness. They inspire us, teach us to walk tall. They show us our fate is the same but our paths are not, and they illuminate the difference between living and not-dying. Parking in front of the Stone Pony was just a plot device in the scheme of my life.

To Uncle Stan, and Bruce Springsteen, thanks for the ride.


Blogger Lauren said...

Susan! I love this! I can't believe I didn't get to hear it in person. It's an amazing story. I can't find the words but I wanted to tell you that I feel ya.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice sentiments, i enjoyed the ride. as someone who is catholic, i have yet to see the tacos in the church.

3:20 PM  

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