Bobby Sanabria’s memories of growing up in the South Bronx – Excerpt from “Nuyorican Memories”

Nuyorican Memories: A work in progress

Anybody from NYC remember Florsheim Shoes on E. 149th St. and 3rd Ave. in SoBro (da’ South Bronx)? They had the latest Playboys. These shoes were the rage in NYC but only made it to Philly with transplanted NY’ers. Those were the days. Playboys had this crepe sole that was thick. The perfect shoe to withstand NYC pavement and still look righteous. They were expensive for the day. Usually starting at around $14.95, when they first came out, all the way up to $65 by the time they went out of style).

They were worn by pimps, pushers, hustlers, and youngbloods who wanted to style to the max. That meant Boricuas and Brothers.

Ah yes, and the ever present mock turtleneck with an alpaca sweater and color coordinated sharkskin pants that made the young player of the day look like a hip ghetto version of Andy Williams, Perry Como or Patato.

If you didn’t dig your hair, you usually wore a Beaver lid.

Standard attire for the Joe Battaan crowd at Taft High School, Evander Childs, Samuel Gompers, De Witt Clinton and Cardinal Hayes when you left the school.

Afros so big that you could hide your homework, pens, pencils, and of course other things, in them.

And then there were the last remnants of the Italian Street Festival on Morris Ave. in the South Bronx, which used to be all Italian, near the Melrose PJ’s.

Then came “platforms” and then “marshmellows”. If you ran track in high school, like I did, we started using Adidas and/or Nike cross country track shoes instead of “Cons”, “Pro-Keds”, or cheapie “Bata Bullets” with our jeans which we would modify like a Califa modifies a car to make it into a lo-rider.

Then “Clydes” by Puma. Walah!!! The birth of the designer sneaker, straight from da’ ghetto.

The Ghetto Brothers, The 7 Immortals, The Black Spades, The Golden Guineas, among others, were the last remnants of the street gang culture of the 50′s.  The 7 Immortals were seven guys who were all less than 5 foot 4 inches tall. Locos de madre or CMF’s!!!

The language of the day…

“I’m bookin’”. “Gotta tip”. “Tipulate”. “Tipulating”. “Smell ya later”. “He’s breakin’ wild”!!! “Ofi” (Official). “Nice kicks”, “Solid”, “Te veo en la one ten”. “Righteous”. “Weeeeeeeo”!!! (This was an ad campaign that A&P supermarkets did on TV, everyone used it on the basketball court when they shamed you by sinking a long shot). “Fuck you, Magoo”. “Hey Mo’”.  “This is my associate”. “The horizontal mambo (sex)”.  “High Water Huey” (a put down if you had pants that didn’t touch your ankles and showed them). “Next”!!!  (The short version of, “I got next” if you played basketball!!!). “Quien se tiro el maco?!!!”. “Rompe culos” (very small plantains). “He’s a JAMF” (Jive Ass Mother Fucker). “I dig”. “I don’t dig”. “Crazy”. “You dig”? “Dig you now, bury you later”. “She’s a freak”. “Shakin’ hands with shorty” (takin’ a piss)”. “My man is a slushpumper” (trombonist). “Slow drag” (slow dancing really close). “Brooklyn slow drag” (slow dancing with the girl against the wall). “The 500″ (slow draggin’ while you have your knees bent). “The 1000″ (slow draggin’ while you have your knees bent so you’re almost touching the floor). “Cunga” (how our African American brothers pronounce conga). “Pana”.”Loisaida” (Lower East Side). “Brosky”. “Rightsky”. “Leftkowitz”. “Myfunzalo” (broke, cheap). “No doubt, he’s out”. “It’s easier to talk shit than to do shit”.

The sound of two Chinese Cubans in a restaurant cursing each other out in Spanish, English and Cantonese. Multi-culturalism at its best.

The above ground portable swimming pools that the city built in the basketball courts of the projects in order to calm the natives who were getting restless in the summer. The only problem was that they became huge sanitation repositories at night, fueled by the anger of brothers who had lost their beloved b-ball courts.  City planning? No, stupidity at it’s best. The “Johnny Pump” was the real deal.

Making out on the roof of the projects. Making love anywhere, at any cost, when no one was looking.

Black light posters and Lava lamps. If you didn’t have that you brought a red light bulb at the hardware store.

Stepping over “nodding off” junkies in the morning when you ran down the stairs of the projects to get to school on time. The aroma of ghetto chic, urine in the halls. The “old skool” players best grooming friend, Clubman. Wearing a woman’s stocking as a skull cap on your head at night when you went to bed if you had “pelo malo”. The sound of footsteps and your heartbeat racing because you wound up in somebody else’s neighborhood and you had to haul ass because you were being chased.

Stickball, boxball (Chinese box ball to some), off the point (stoop ball to others), skelsies, double dutch, wist, cagao, one on one, johnny on the pony, suicide, punchball, softball, touch football, war, etc. Street games that are vivid memories and developed hand and eye coordination, imagination and comraderie (and in some cases, when there was a dispute, diplomacy and/or fighting skills) to the max.

And then there was the game that was a test of creativity, imagination, humor and cojones. The pre-cursor to “Rockin’ da’ Mic”. It was called “Oh Yeah”.

Two people facing each other head on. A crowd chanting “Oh Yeah” four times in a melodic cadence while they clapped on beats 2 and 4& (simulating a basic conga tumbao). Then the first battler (the chanter and/or challenger) would exclaim a name, thing, place, or object. For example “It’s Julius Caesar”!!! The crowd would chant “Oh Yeah” once. The other battler would then have to instantaneously respond with something that rhymed. “The titi squeezer”!!! The crowd would respond with “Oh Yeah” and the chanter would say maybe “It’s Bob Hope”!!! “Oh Yeah”!!! The battler would respond with “He’s takin’ dope”!!! “Oh Yeah”!!! “It’s Lois Lane”!!! “Oh Yeah”!!! “She is a pain”!!! “Oh Yeah”!!! ‘She’s gotta’ plan”!!! “Oh Yeah”!!! “With Superman”!!! “Oh Yeah”!!!

If the battler could not respond, the original chant of “Oh Yeah”!!! would be repeated four times and a new battler would step up until someone could come up with a rhyme. Or until the story in question came to a logical conclusion. Spontaneous creativity? Hell yeah!!! You could also play the game solo with chorus and just tell the story yourself which is what most of us did. Call it what you will, it was the jazz of the streets. It was our form of urban decima.

Fights were less common. You had to be really pissed off to get to that point. The intellectual art of the put down was raised to levels never before attained because everybody in the neighborhood knew each others mom. And they all talked. You didn’t want to fight a friend or acquaintance because then the parents would get involved.

The worst thing would be if a cop brought you to your mom because they caught you doing whatever. You’d beg “Please officer, no”. You see, it was embarrassing because everyone in the neighborhood would see you walking with him. And so “Da’ Dozens”, the ancient art form that was born during the Slave period in the U.S. from African American culture that combines prose, poetry, spontaneity, wit, humor and pathos, was in full effect if you had a dispute with someone.

A typical exchange:

“I went to your house, I opened the refrigerator and saw a dead roach. Your mutha’ yelled, ‘Save me the white meat’”!!!

“Oh yeah, well your mutha’s like a bowling ball. ‘Always getting fingered, always in the gutter and always coming back for mo’”!!!

It became a Roman spectacle with crowds chanting each combatant on. Two gladiators, male or female, facing each other in the best sense of the word. Using the word to engage hate, anger, jealously, respect, disrespect, in a human drama to gain respect from each other, their peers, their community in a life and death struggle that would leave the winner a champion and the loser humiliated. Shakespeare was always always in da’ house because his art form was alive in this battle of wits that could be as dramatic as Hamlet, funny as Two Gentleman of Verona, or as tragic as Romeo and Juliet.

“Tecatos” (junkies) air tromboning Willie Colon or Barry Rogers solos on a street corner were a common sight. They also would hold the door open for your mom or anyone else’s mom. Chivalry hadn’t died yet.

The great posters done by Dizzy Izzy Sanabria (no relation) right in the neighborhood promoting the next dance like it was announcing a great battle at the Coliseum in ancient Rome.

The Irish guys with red curly hair going to an African-American barber to get their hair conked.

The brothers begging you to show them how to dance mambo so they could rap to a Latina. They were always listening to Cal Tjader. Tjader, the epitomy of cool.

The Italian barber my father took me too when I was very little with the one guy dressed in black always sitting there reading the horse race results. The sound of them speaking in Italian while my father communicated with them in Spanish and them calling him Don José.

Dreamed of a better life? “La bolita”.

The candy store. Where you always went to buy a Spalding or Pennsylvania Pinkie for 25 cents and had to pay 2 cents for a cup of water in the summer.

The boogaloo. The dance/style that brought everyone in the projects that was young, Latino or African American together and told the old mamboniks, “We got our own shit”. No one knew it was Cuban son montuno with R&B combined, and no one cared.

Saying, “Hello, how are you”? took too much time. Yo, was enough. If you were in a a good mood you followed with the person’s first name. If you were in a really bad mood, you just nodded. That was common. Why? Because everyone had some shit they were dealing with.

The two blackouts. Serpico. The Knapp Comission. Rockefeller, Lindsay, Beame, Badillo. The Wedtech Scandal with Mario Biaggi and Stanley Simon, who raped the South Bronx and were part of the reason it became the symbol of urban decay.

Kako (who lived in my neighborhood) walking around with rollers in his hair. Candido Rodriguez’s two little twin boys who were into marketing at a very young age. While walking home from school, if they saw some young rumberos, they would yell at them, “My father can kick your ass on congas, bongo and timbales”!!!

Rumbas in the park till past midnight in the canyons of da’ projects in the summer. Couldn’t sleep? Who cares, you didn’t want to.

Don’t have any drums? No problem. “El buson” (the mailbox) would do fine. And of course cars were made of real metal in those days. Imagine five guys playing guaguanco on fenders of cars. Forget about that STOMP show on Off-Broadway. It was invented in the South Bronx and El Barrio in Manhattan and Red Hook and “Los Sures” in Brooklyn by a people desperate to keep their traditions and family units alive while a madness called “Tecata” tried to destroy it and them.

El Club Cubano on Prospect Ave.

My first pair of imo (fake) Playboys when I was 12 brought from Thom Mcann. My first leather jacket.  Light years ahead of Run DMC. The first set of timbale sticks that I cut. My mother and father stuggling to buy me a drum set and me winding up with only half of one.

The ecstasy of the Fania All Stars at Yankee Stadium.  The real Latino explosion. Except nobody noticed. The cops were shocked. They didn’t know that that many Boricuas lived in da’ Bronx.

And then DJ Kool Herc hooking up to a lampost and the beginning of Hip Hop, and the art of tagging on the subways. How could anyone bomb (spray paint) an entire train and tell a whole cartoon story on an entire elevated subway? Easy, imagination and cojones.

Se fueron Los Judios, Italianos, y Alemanos, y Erin Go Bragh.

Marielitos, Vietnamese, Koreanos, Chicanos, Ecuatorianos, Colombianos, Dominicanos coming to NYC.  Que cosa!!! Cumbia and Merengue in da’ hood? Cool. But Tavito Vazquez and Joseito Mateo are still the men.

The desperate strains of a junkie softly begging a pusher like a homeless, hungry man/child in a Charles Dickens novel, “Dame algo”.

The bravura of someone coming up to a rumbero playing quinto in the park while he’s cooking with gas and asking them, “Dame un poquito”.

The sound of “Cocinando” or “Que Viva La Música” by Ray Barretto exploding from everyone’s boom boxes (which they stole or brought on the cheap while the blackout in ’77 happened) at Orchard Beach. The extra kick that dancers from Brooklyn would do when they danced mambo.

Our sacred temples. The Bronx Casino, The Hunts Point Palace, The Colgate Gardens, The Savoy Manor, Luigi’s, Marina Del Rey…

La Playa De Los Mojones, Orchard beach.

Charlie Palmieri playing solo organ at a small bar on Westchester Ave.

Andy Gonzalez reading Mao’s “Little Red Book” on the number 6 train.

Ismaelo strung out, dealing with his demons.

My father with his eyes closed sitting in a rocking chair smoking a cigar and listening to Sergio Mendes.

My mother calling me “mi negro”.

Tito Puente finally making ocha.

NYC, just like I pictured it. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Oh, but what a time and what memories… :)


Bobby Sanabria

Nuyorican Memories:  A Work in Progress

copyright 6:05am November 2, 2002 Little Cho’Music

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