Under Curley Top’s Protection
By way of contrast and for the purpose of introducing you to Curley Tops, my barrio mentor and spiritual avatar, it isn’t really necessary for us to dwell on my short lived lusting over Beatrice, who always made it a point to sit in front of me in class and open her legs or Liz and her incredibly voluptuous breasts that seemed out of place in the sixth grade and inspired countless fantasies and dreams. The bottom line of my sexual knowledge was that as a twelve year old red-blooded American boy I was not exactly experienced in the ways of women or in the differences among women themselves. There was, of course, my flirtation with Connie, a beautiful young Black girl that was my elementary school classmate in the third grade but ours was a relationship that was mostly played out in my imagination. It wasn’t until my two year long infatuation with Rosa Navarro in the fifth and sixth grades that I was able to experience the true pleasures and pains of being in love. For example, I can still remember the anticipation of having Rosa as a partner for our annual May Day dance. The excitement was more than I could bear. In fact, just the thought of being able to hold her hand was enough to send my spirit soaring through the roof. My point, then, is that at this stage in my life I still saw women in terms of love and romance.
From the first time I sat alone with Curley Tops on the front steps of her house I discovered that my knowledge of women was completely misguided. I learned two very important lessons on that first day we shared together. My first lesson involved a car that was passing slowly by the front of her house with a guy in his twenties that kept looking at her. I was taken by complete surprise when she started yelling at the guy in the car asking him what the fuck he was looking at and calling him a pervert. As it turned out, Curley Tops was very clear on one thing; all the guys wanted to fuck her, show her their dicks or countless other assorted acts of sexual perversions and she, in turn, wanted to cut their balls off.
It’s a good thing I tend to be quiet by nature because I was at a loss for words. I had never heard a girl talk like that before and I had never even thought about the things she was talking about, at least not in those terms. I began searching myself for answers and trying to make sense out of what had just happened. Was it true? Did I want to fuck her? While it would be ridiculous to say that those kinds of thoughts never entered my mind, it would also be fair to say that for a boy of my age and background, my sexual thoughts would run the gamut from sheer fantasy, that generally presented itself in my dreams in the form of a hero saving a damsel in distress, to an obsessed focus on curiosity that generally took the form of exploring the sensation of holding hands or accidentally touching a young girl’s budding breasts. Yes, I did want to have sex with her but I still wasn’t ready to visualize what that actually entailed and I would have never used vulgar language to describe how I felt.
The second lesson of the day came when one of the guys that were standing on the corner across the street and down the block yelled over to Curley Tops and asked her who her new girlfriend was. It was obvious that he was referring to me and all of the guys started laughing. Curley Tops yelled back to remind him that she made him cry last summer when she kicked his little bitch ass and she could do it again in front of all his boyfriends if he didn’t shut up. It was clear to me that I was completely out of my element. Not only had I never heard a girl talk like Curley Tops but she actually meant what she was saying. When I asked her why she was willing to protect me from the guys on the corner she said that in the little time she has known me I had always spoken to her with respect and I was kind to her. She told me that she grew up with the assholes on the corner and that they knew better than to fuck with her.
My summer with Curley Tops was the first of many that I would cherish in my days of youth. The hot summer nights were always my favorites and spending them with Curley Tops was one of my greatest joys. We loved listening to Huggy Boy on the radio playing the oldies and the new Motown sounds. In retrospect, I now realize that she always found a way to bring our discussion around to sex and, more importantly, gender differences. She once asked me if I knew that Huggy Boy was gay. I asked her why she said that and she looked at me as if to say, “open your eyes, pendejo”. She asked me why I thought that his radio tag line was, “Dick Hug, Huggy Boy, All Night Long”. I told her that I thought that was his tag line because his name was Richard Hugg, which it was. She just stared at me and gave me a look that seemed to mean, “You sure got a long way to go, baby”.
For the remainder of the summer Curley Tops and I would sit together in front of her house listening to the radio and talking. Listening to Curley Tops was like what I have always imagined a briefing session for a CIA black ops operative might be like. First we began with a review of each of the dossier of the neighborhood gang bangers. Black Raymond was basically a kind and fun loving spirit that was not afraid to fight if he had to and loved to drink to get high. He lived directly across the street from us and I would see him more often than any of the other guys. Ray-Ray, who was given that name because we already had a guy named Ray in the neighborhood, was the unspoken leader. In addition to being twice the size of Black Raymond, Ray-Ray was genuinely evil and mean spirited. He was the type of person that took pleasure in the suffering of others. In fact, Ray-Ray’s entire family, including their cousins that lived in the neighborhood, were all mean and vicious. Palillo was the guardian of traditions and keeper of secrets that were always related to something illegal, immoral or just plain ugly. Palito, the trickster and Lone Ranger to Palillo’s Tonto, was the bad apple that contaminated the lot. Although I always felt that the relationship between Palillo and Palito entailed one of the biggest secrets that Palillo kept, I never pursued the issue because, in the final analysis, they were both evil spirits at heart. The rest of the guys came in and out of our corner hang-out less frequently and it would take me a long time to get to know them.
There was also a practical side to the lessons that Curley Tops shared with me during our first summer together. One of the things I learned was that Champ, a guy from our gang that lived on 3rd street on the way to Evergreen Park, was a good mechanic. If somebody in the barrio had car trouble and didn’t have money to pay a regular mechanic right away, they could always count on Champ to fix their car and they would pay him later. Every time Curley Tops shared this kind of story with me I could see in her eyes that she felt fully empowered in her environment and she was helping me, the new kid, by sharing some of her social strength with me. It was even with a greater sense of strength that we shared restricted knowledge. I learned, for example, that if I ever had any money and wanted to buy some drugs, I could go and see Smiley who lived on Breed Street just south of 4th. Smiley too was from Primera Flats and only people from our neighborhood could be entrusted with knowing he sells drugs.
We followed our examination of the neighborhood roster of hardened children wanting to be men, with my introduction into the topography of the barrio. As it turns out, neighborhoods are defined by gang affiliations. I was living in a barrio called “Primera Flats”. As a rule of thumb, our neighborhood was said to run from Boyle on the West, Wabash on the North, 4th Street on the South and Evergreen on the East. Further to our West was Aliso Village, and Pecan, the primarily Black inhabited HUD complexes in our vicinity that included members of our gang but the complex was understood to be part of the Black gang territory and we had an unspoken agreement with them on our desired arrangements. On our South side we had El Hoyo Soto where our schools were located and we considered many of the gang members our friends. On our North side we had City Terrace and on our East began a series of clicas known as the Maravillas, the most prominent of which was El Hoyo Mara. There were other gangs that we had to be aware of that extended further out from our neighborhood like White Fence or Florencia or Clanton, to name a few. Girl gangs were another story all together. As far as Curley Tops was concerned, the female counterpart of our gang was Clanton 14. Apparently, I didn’t need to know any other female gangs because that was all she taught me.
Curley Tops had an older sister named Armida that served as a lifeline to the activities of the older teenagers of the neighborhood and provided us with a wealth of information for us to share during one of our hot summer night sessions. Although we weren’t old enough to drive, we knew that Whittier Blvd was the place to cruz. We also knew of the gang fights and who was doing what with who that everyone was talking about. This was how we learned that Dora, Santo’s girlfriend, was servicing the neighborhood now that her old man was in jail. That meant that the guys from the Tiny Dukes, a clica of Primera Flats, could go over to her house and have sex with her while her husband was in jail. Our clica was known as the Midget Dukes since we were a generation behind the older crowd. It still amazes me how our way of being involved with our community and these types of stories that Curley Tops and I got from Armida, were always something that we looked forward to sharing.
To complete my theoretical series on Barrio Survival Tactics 101, Curley Tops concluded her counsel on the issue of Barrio Ethics. There were two primary concepts that everyone from the neighborhood was expected to know and honor. Specifically, the symbol -.-, which stands for life or death and “I’m from Flats and I don’t give a fuck”. The first concept was to be my introduction into living life to the fullest, to the absolute. The implied meaning here is that if you don’t have the balls to go all out in representing the neighborhood then you would be branded a coward and nobody would have anything to do with you. Give me life as I want to take it or give me death, there are no two ways about it. The second concept, “I’m from Flats and I don’t give a fuck”, is intended to be the lesson that governs our social interactions. That is, I don’t need to play by anyone else’s rules. I set my own rules and if you don’t like it then tuff shit. What I learn in the neighborhood is all I need to know, the rest is bullshit.
The summer went by very quickly and before I knew it August was coming to a close and the wonderful hot August nights I spent with Curley Tops were about to end in favor of getting to sleep early for school and supposedly having to do homework. The last piece of advice before Curley Tops felt that she had given me all she could was to make sure she bore her eyes into mine and stared deeply into the recesses of my soul until I understood that what she has given me was purely abstract. The true test of my resolve would be very real and very much a reflection of who I am as a man; it would be live and it would be physical!