The taxis were driving out for the morning. Paulo could hear them honking and revving their engines as they tried to get out of the crowded lot. As they got closer, Paulo heard their various Spanish radio stations blaring as they turned onto 187th street. He forgot about combing his thick black hair and ran to the window to watch the taxis crawling through Washington Heights, Manhattan. The line was like a parade, loud, single file, and blocking the streets.
“Mijo! Quit watching los taxis and get dressed para la escuela!”
“I am getting dressed mamá!” Paulo grabbed his shirt and continued watching.
“Paulo! Come get un batido para el desayuno! You’re going to be late for school!”
Paulo tore his eyes away from the window and thundered down the stairs, as his mother put a smoothie and a plate of steaming mallorca down. Puerto Rican with an American twist, the way he liked it. He ate with a vengeance while his mom did the dishes.
“Buenos dias mijo! How did you sleep?”
“Muy bien mamá. Also, Don’t forget, I’m helping Tony after school.” Almost every day after school, Paulo went to help his friend Tony at his auto body shop. He was fascinated with cars and looked up to Tony a lot.
“Bueno mijo, but don’t stay past dark, and text me before you caminar a casa. That phone bill is steep enough, you better start using that téléfono for its intended purpose, to call your mamá,”
“I will, adios Mamá!” Paulo replied, cleaning off his plate.
“Adios Paulo! Have fun with Tony! Send him mi encanta!” she yelled after him, but he was out the door.
He was walking to the Bodega when he heard his mom yelling from the fire escape to have a good day. He turned to wave but she was walking back inside.
La Vega Bodega was on the way to la escuela. Paulo stopped inside the little store. He said hi to Abuela Carla and Leona from the beauty parlor down the street.
“Paulo!” Abuela Carla said warmly, holding out her arms. “Get over here and give me un abrazo y un poco de amor!” Paulo ran over to her and temporarily hidden in the folds of her billowy yellow sundress. The flowey fabric was a bright yellow jungle, the fabric twisting like vines. He loved the way she smelled, like coffee and a little bit of spray paint.
“How can I help you? How’s tu madre? How’s Tony!” Abuela always asked a lot of questions. He responded that he was good. “Abuela, un café con leche por favor.” Abuela had amazing coffee. Paulo grabbed a few other things from the shelves and got out his dinero.
“Abuela, un boleto de lotería por favor as well.” Paulo asked shyly.
“Lotería? Mijo you are muy joven for that.” Abuela Carla looked at the sheepish Paulo, but as he was walking out she slipped a lottery ticket in his pocket with a hug. He glanced at it and stuffed it back in his pocket to see what the lucky numbers would be later.
The school day was blah. Most of his classes were spent flipping through car magazines from last year or zoning out into a window. When he got to lunch he realized that he left his mom’s Puerto Rican lunch in the refrigerator. He loved when his mom made Puerto Rican food because it taught him a little about her culture. His mom was Puerto Rican and his dad was Portuguese which was where his name came from, but he had never known his dad, he left when he was still a toddler and hadn’t heard from him since.
The metro was full of people when Paulo was on after school, but no passengers went farther than 96th street. In fact, by the time the train pulled into the 167th street station, Paulo was the only person left on board except for Carmello the grocer who was heading to 186th street, one block next to Paulo. As he got off, Paulo said a quick hello to Carmello and told him he would be back that afternoon to buy lemons for his mother’s new American dish she was trying.
When he got to the autobody, Tony, the tall, blond Italian immigrant, welcomed him warmly. First, they worked on a dirty 2004 Honda pickup with a busted up radiator. Second, they worked on a 2014 Toyota Prius that had a shot muffler. Last, a half hour before dark, Paulo took the metro home to the 187th street station and walked past Carmello’s Tienda de Comestibles.
On his way home he saw a lot of neighbors. First, he waved to Leona as she was locking up the salon and she told him that he needed to come in for a trim and was getting scruffy. He laughed and waved. After, he saw Tino and Luca from the Tattoo Parlor. After that, he chatted with Jeanette and Ray from 182nd street who were touring the neighborhood. Finally, he got to his house and exchanged a few words with Abuela who had closed the Bodega and was heading in as well. He headed in for the night too.
The next day was a photocopy of the day before, except for when he got home after working with Tony, Abuela was waiting for him at his house. His mom must have still been working at the Stop and Shop up on 194th street.
“Buenos tardes Abuela! Do you need something?” Paulo asked as he set his bag down.
“Mijo, I have some pretty big noticias. Creo que deberías sentarte para esto. I think you should sit down for this.” Abuela Carla said was chagrine. Paulo sat. “Paulo, tu madre fue asesinada hoy en un accidente automovilístico, your mother was killed in a car crash today. Ella se ha ido, she is gone.” Abuela bowed her head. “I’m very sorry that I’m the one who had to tell you this mijo.” She rubbed his arm as he sat. His mom was gone. He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe that something so beautiful and majestic as a car could end a life and do so much damage. Furthermore, he still couldn’t believe that she was gone.
“Abuela, ¿Puedo estar solo? Can I be alone? This a pretty big loss.”
“Por supuesto mijo. I understand.”
Abuela Carla left and Paulo went up to his room. The familiar cracking yellow paint was alien and not what he was used to. Were all of those cracks here before? He asked himself. His wooden bed frame looked like it was bent at a weird angle. An angle he wasn’t used to. He walked into his mother’s room. Her few possessions neat and orderly, the room as if he had never been before. The potted plant on the nightstand that he had made for her in 1st grade was an different shade of green than he thought. The plant with more flowers than he remembered it having. It was too painful being in this house. Too painful living on this block. Demasiado doloroso in Washington Heights. So he ran. He packed a few necessities and left, the bitter truth of his situation hitting him as he left the Barrio.
Past Abuela’s Bodega where he bought coffee every morning. Past Leona’s salon where he got his first haircut. Past Carmello’s grocery store where he bought groceries for his mom to cook Puerto Rican food every weekend. Past the half empty taxi lot. The streets went by as he ran. 187, 186, 185, 184, 183, 182, 181, he couldn’t get out of Washington Heights.
It was night when he got to 155th street. He crossed it and looked back. There was no going back now. The faded signs of Washington Heights flickered at him. Spanish behind, English forward. He found a bus bench and laid down, using his backpack for a pillow, he drifted off to sleep.
When Paulo woke up, he was on a bed, his backpack by the side. A boy was sitting on the bed next to him. He was staring at Paulo.
Paulo screamed, “¡Oh Dios mío! ¡Dónde estoy! ¡Quién eres tú! ¡Dónde está mi mamá! ¡Cuando Abuela se entere de esto, te va a pegar!”
“Woah! Chillax dude. My name’s Travis, and I don’t speak no Spanish or whatever.” The boy said. He fluffed his covers and closed his eyes. “Besides, I been in this dump for a while, I can answer any questions you got. What’s your name? What’s your story?”
Paulo was shaking, “Me llamo Paulo y solía vivir en Washington Heights hasta que mataron a mi madre en un accidente automovilístico y me escapé. Salí del Barrio pero luego, cuando finalmente crucé la calle 155, me fui a dormir en un banco de la parada del autobús y ahora estoy aquí.” He explained.
Travis still looked very confused, “Uh, sorry dude, I’m from Harlem, so I don’t speak no Spanish or whatever, English please.”
Paulo sighed, “My name is Paulo and I used to live in Washington Heights until my mother was killed in a car accident and I escaped. I left the Barrio but when I crossed 155th Street, I went to sleep on a bench at the bus stop and boom, I’m in this place.”
“Yowza dude, that sucks big time, my condolences.”
“Ai cara, I don’t know what to say, except for that I have no idea who you are. But okay!” Paulo agreed. “To let you know, I speak mucho español. Also, I’m tipo de triste right now so, I want to be alone. I don’t know who I am nunca mas.”
“Well, I have an idea. As your newly recruited best friend, I feel it is my duty to help you find yourself again. I propose a tour of Manhattan!” Travis exclaimed.
“Dude, tipo, you’re a huge bicho raro. Besides, where do we start?”
“I don’t know what a bicho raro is, but I’m assuming it means friend. And isn’t it obvious? We start one 1st street.”
“But I’ve never been past 96th street!”
“Dude, this foster home is on 60th street, LIVE A LITTLE!”
“Okay, when do we leave?”
Paulo and Travis snuck out that night. They went all the way to the bottom of Manhattan.They got off at the 1st Street Station. Travis asked some interesting questions…
“So in Washington Heights, does everyone live on the top floor?”
“No, that’s stupid.”
“Okay, fine, what’s the Spanish word for homey?”
“Hogareño, that’s also stupid.”
Travis kept babbling on and on. He took them all over the Financial District and into Tribeca and the Lower East Side. They cut through China Town. Paulo found nothing, he had never been to Chinatown or any of these places before. This far away from the Barrio, he felt farther away from his mom, and himself.
They went to bed and when they woke up in the morning they took the train to the heart of Greenwich Village and skipped right to Chelsea. They went to Hell’s Kitchen and ran out quick to Midtown. Nothing reminded Paulo of his mom in Midtown, but he still thought it was fascinating, especially on Broadway.
After watching people go in to watch a show, Travis took Paulo to the Upper East Side and after, they went to see Central Park.
“Hey man, how you doin’? You seemin’ kinda glum.”
“Travis, one question, why do you act all gangster, but also use words like glum and get all excited about Broadway?”
“Okay, to tell you the truth,” Travis explained. “I am a straight A student with a GPA of 4.2. I’m not trying to brag, but I am incredibly smart.”
“That is definitely bragging,” Paulo pointed out. “What kind of mala excusa is that? But you have straight A’s? Travis that’s realmente genial!”
They each got a hotdog from the food vender selling from a cart and settled down on the grass to sleep. When they woke up in the morning, they ran quick to the Upper East Side which was blah and finally crossed over to Harlem.
“Me and my mom used to live together in this house! But she left and I got stuck at that foster home too. Let me take you to my house! Come on!” Travis led Paulo down a few streets and took a few turns. They came to an old busted up green house with a half broken porch swing and a light filled with dead moths.
“This was tu casa?” Paulo asked.
“Yup,” Travis looked at it proudly. “It was mine,” Travis’ eyes turned to longing instead of pride and he took his hands out of his pockets and wiped his face. “Anyway, let’s go, I want to show you East Harlem and after that, I have a surprise.” Travis led Paulo to East Harlem, he still thought it was lame. Travis told him to come on and follow him.
Paulo noticed Travis leading him back south, “Uh, Travis, north is the other way?”
“We have to backtrack to make one more stop. I wanted to show you regular Harlem,” he stopped. “Before I show you,” grand gesture. “This!” There was a sign that read WELCOME TO SPANISH HARLEM. Paulo was in shock.
“What is Spanish Harlem? You know I’m Puerto Rican right?”
“Yes I know, but I still thought you should see this, get a feel you know?”
Paulo loved it. They were walking around, Paulo was chatting with people, it made him feel like he was walking down a street in the Barrio, waiting for his mom to get home from work. His face lit up like the sun on a cold day. Paulo got a text from his friend Yaco that lived next door. Abuela Carla was dead. Paulo’s heart was like a heavy rock. He sank into the ground and his tears were boulders, pounding heavily on the pavement as they came crashing down.