The Long Walk Home

The following essay is a rewrite for English 404, Creative Nonfiction of a previously written poem. Unlike the fiction of the poem, the following is true.

Photo by Antonio Pedro Ruiz

It was our parents’ rule: don’t run after fire trucks. “You could fall down behind them and get hurt,” they warned. But when you’re ten years old, and you live in a six-story cold brown brick apartment building in the South Bronx’s Patterson Projects, your options for fun are limited. Playing hide-and-seek in the open stairwells of your building. Pitching pennies against the stoop in front of 2595 Third Avenue. Charging the imaginary soldier’s fort with toy rifles on the patch of brown and sort of green grass next door. You’re always going to dream of something more exciting.

For us, a real adventure was crossing Third Avenue with its constant stream of buses, trucks, and cars headed toward the Third Avenue Bridge or turning west at 138th Street toward the Madison Avenue Bridge. Both would take them into Manhattan’s Harlem and then south into East Harlem, El Barrio.

Once across Third Avenue, we’d run to a couple of concrete squares on the sidewalk next to the Auto Parts store to play Boxball against their wall. Or play Johnny on the Pony, a cruel game where the whole point is to see how many of your friends who are lined up bent over ass to head against the wall you could jump over. Sound like fun? Not if you’re the first pony (usually me). Your back can only hold so many bodies crashing down on you.

When we wanted to test fate, we’d move into the street to play Skelsies with bottle caps pushed around on chalk-drawn boxes or Stickball, where part of the fun is dodging cars driving up and down 140th Street.

The parent rule quickly dissolved into the clouds of that mild weathered June Saturday when three wailing red fire trucks barreled down Third Avenue past 2595. We stopped our street games and headed for a more exciting adventure, chasing fire trucks.

We ran screaming excitedly down Third Avenue toward 138th Street just in time to see the fire trucks, their sirens piercing the air, turn for the Madison Avenue Bridge, getting further and further away.

We stopped, frustration boiling up inside of us.

“Anthony, you slowing us down. You too fat,” Skippy declared.

“Yo momma’s fat,” was my usual response to insults about my weight.

“Look,” Mickey shouted as he pointed, “The fire trucks stopped at the bridge.”

Photo by Antonio Pedro Ruiz

There’s something mysterious and thrilling about exploring a new part of the South Bronx that you call home at ten years old. It didn’t even dawn on us that we were in unfamiliar territory with industrial warehouse and truck repair garages on both sides of 138th Street. It was the furthest we’d ever been without our mothers knowing where we were.

We lost the fire trucks. They were no longer at the entrance to the bridge when we got there. Determined, Mickey, Skippy, and I marched over the Madison Avenue Bridge headed to El Barrio. We found ourselves lost in endless circles running a gauntlet of gangs, winos, and junkies desperately searching for a way back to the South Bronx. We were scared and depressed as we turned into a side street full of burnt-out buildings and old cars baking under the early evening setting sun and saw the sign: Willis Avenue Bridge. The Bronx.

Photo by Antonio Pedro Ruiz

Four hours after we had begun our lost adventure, the three of us, tired, dirty, and hungry, cried with relief as we walked down 140th Street straight into the arms of our crying mothers. Through falling tears, we promised we would never chase fire trucks again.

My mother took my hand, soothing me, as she led me to our fifth-floor apartment, telling me that I looked dirty and should take a bath. She filled the bathtub with warm water promising me a late meal of Arroz con Pollo. My hunger was that obvious.

She closed the shower curtain, the bathroom door, leaving me to soak in the waters rising over my dirty and tired body.

Suddenly, I could hear the bathroom door crash open. The shower curtain was nearly ripped from its metal bar. I almost jumped out of my skin and the bathtub. There stood my mother with a mask of anger, a belt in her hand.

Author: Antonio Pedro Ruiz

Antonio Ruiz is an ex-junkie-alcoholic, former seminarian, one-time radio host-producer, past community organizer, continuing to be a media advocate, retired television reporter, ex-commission executive director, once a street vendor of jewelry and gloves, waitron (waiter to you), a former bartender who drank too much on the job, an ex-motorcycle courier who learned to ride a bike just for the job, ex-airport shuttle driver, former Entertainment news director-producer, the best time of my life, one-time live TV events red carpet producer-executive producer, ex-small business consultant, ex-youth media and journalism mentor, and now a college student who also has been married three times (thirds the charm), and just couldn't help living with two other women because well, that's part of my story.

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