Monday, October 29, 2012

Kids in the Alley

There are some kids in my alley that play all the time.

It's great. I park my bike back there in the garage, so I see them several times a week. They are, I estimate, between 9 and 12 years old, unselfconscious and whimsical. I've ridden by them several times on my way out of the alley, but a couple days ago I was out working in the garage and got my first chance to talk to them. They were skate boarding and throwing a football around (sometimes both at once) when one of them spotted a board in the garage that he thought would be a perfect skate ramp. Upon further examination, it turned out to not be a board but a piece of drywall--bad ramp. Seizing the opportunity, I made some little friends.

Sergio seemed to be calling the shots for the boys, so I asked him first. "Sergio!" "And I'm Fernando!" said the one who's eaten the most in his life. "I'M ALEX!!" said one running from a couple garages down. The other I hadn't seen peeked around the tree line: "That's Juanito." "Nooo, it's JUAN!" he said in that "geeeez guys, cmooonnnn" whine that the runt of every group of boys has perfected.

I've seen them a few times since, and though I get the names mixed up a bit, I always talk to them for a few minutes before I go inside. They all speak perfect English with no accent whatsoever, so I've been intrigued about their home situation. Do they have bilingual parents? Do they have monolingual parents and have learned English so well through the school system? Today I found out...sorta. As I got home to put my bike away I heard Fernando running up behind me shouting a very obvious thing. "Hey, I know you!" He had a friend, an even runtier one named Frankie. They had just come from the store with Frankie's mom, and they were waiting while she loaded the groceries from the car into the house.

I saw my opportunity to meet some parents. I started talking with them as we walked down the alley to their parking area when a little girl (3 years?) danced forth in a pink Dora coat. It was Frankie's little sister. His older brother was helping carry groceries with the aid of his mother. She was an Anglo and carried a cellphone in one hand with a 12pk of CocaCola in the other. She hung up the phone as we approached, and motioned toward Frankie and me: "¿Qué haces hablando con gente que no conoces?" ("What are you thinking talking to people you don't know?").

I suddenly felt two-fold defensive: for me and for Frankie, who innocently had just made a new friend--not that his mom could have known that. I launched into: "Pero si nos conocemos de aquí detrás de las casas. Yo tengo mi bici ahí atrás y nos vemos muchos días, ellos jugando yo yéndome. Sí que nos conocemos" (But we do know each other from here in the alley. I keep my bicycle over there and we see each other a lot, them playing, me coming and going. We know each other).

It was a weird moment. She was confused (and white, remember). Fernando and Frankie were stunned. I had also just learned in that moment that Spanish was a part of their lives. It seemed like more than the five seconds that it probably was, but Fernando looked up at me, awed and corpulent. The words dripped out of his mouth like a leaky faucet: "You... you speak ...Spanish? You... speak Spanish.  ...?" "Yeah, I teach Spanish at the university. That's my job," I said loud enough for bilingual mom to hear. Fernando, still reeling, was doing the best he could. "Ok, so... what's 'FOUR' in Spanish!" I laughed. He sorta laughed, too, realizing the silliness of his question in the face of the anterior.

I decided I should probably not push it, and mom was ushering them away, so I turned to her and offered an introductions olive branch. Her name was Shannon. She didn't really change her attitude toward me, but it was probably a complex swirl of pride (at having been clearly understood in Spanish by me when she meant to communicate exclusively with her child) and utter confusion (at the prospect of meeting another white Spanish speaker right there in the alley talking with her kid). Her posture was distrustful, but her face was plain puzzled. She wasn't being a bad mom by any means--maybe a bit presumptive--but we'll get our chance to run into each other again. We'll see how it goes that time.

Until then, those kids can expect me to take even more interest in them now. See you in the alley!


Kyla said...

Not only a great story, but you used "whimsical" and "said the one who's eaten the most in his life". I laughed out loud, and enjoyed the detailed story. I've had many of those encounters and hope you're able to form a friendship with the family. Bake them something - moms always love not having to cook!

jmesserer said...

I love it that you first took the time to write about this experience and secondly took the time to get to know your neighbors. This does not surprise me given the little I know about you but it does challenge me to learn more about who lives on my block.

*Groucho* said...

"confused and white", someone should plaster this phrase on a tshirt

Anonymous said...

Good piece of writing.

"See you in the alley!"

That's what real citizenship is all about.