Rudy was my best friend. He lived up the street with his mom, dad, and three sisters. Rudy’s father worked as a janitor at the Kaiser Building. One time, Rudy’s father brought home a large cylindrical soap container that Rudy and I were going to turn into a rocket. The plan was to use fireworks to propel us to the moon. We just had to figure out how to get back and how to deal with the oxygen problem. I had a booklet about the space program and a chemistry kit. I was sure I could come up with a workable solution.
I didn’t always know what was going on at Rudy’s house. I think he told me that his father was Spanish and his mother was Mexican. I didn’t learn any words in Spanish until the sixth grade. Rudy and his sisters spoke English, so did his dad, but I required a translator to understand when Rudy’s mom wanted me to go home. Maybe, I didn’t want to understand.
Rudy could watch more TV channels than me. His TV had a UHF antenna as well as a VHF antenna. The UHF reception wasn’t very good, but I was envious that he had access to more cartoon shows and movies than I did. The background music at Rudy’s was usually The Monkees. Rudy’s sisters had all their albums. I was a Beatles fan, but I liked the Monkees too.
Rudy had lots of games. We would play Scrabble (he had the deluxe turntable edition), Yatzee, Monopoly, Sorry, and Masterpiece. I loved the Masterpiece artwork cards, more than I liked the game, especially the one depicting Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. I liked going downtown to the big movie theaters and fancy restaurants. Petula Clark was right, the lights were much brighter there. Going downtown was stimulating. You had to hold your hat on your head or it would blow away. Mine did that once on Broadway.
On hot summer days, Rudy and I would go on comic book quests, but first we would buy Tabs and RC Colas from a machine at the laundromat by the Fairfax Theatre. Sometimes we would be adventurous and try things like Fresca and Mountain Dew, instead of the ordinary drinks like 7 Up or Sprite. We would turn in our soft drink bottles at Safeway for a deposit before we went on to the cigar store where we could buy an entire used issue of a DC or a Marvel comic for just a nickel.
Looking back, Rudy and I had little in common. I took chances and he worried about consequences. I would ride my wagon down the hill at high speed and brake by crashing into a bush. Rudy wasn’t a risk taker. He was a spectator and I was an event. We talked a lot about God and spirituality. That was probably our greatest bound. These discussions were private. We didn’t want adults to know we had deep thoughts. Because we both wore glasses, we were both part of an Elementary School minority. Proximity brought us together. We lived two doors away from one another.
Nana didn’t seem to have anything against Spaniards or Mexicans as long as I played at Rudy’s house most of the time. Rudy would come over to my house to play with my Ouija Board and talk to the dead. We weren’t allowed to talk to the dead at his house. I don’t think his mother approved. The Ouija board worked pretty well. The dead were always willing to answer our yes and no questions, but the board didn’t spell very well when we asked it an alphabetic question.
One of the best things about going to Rudy’s house was when his mom would fry corn or flour tortillas and fill them with real butter. We never had Mexican food at Nana’s and my parents were strictly meat and potato people. A tortilla fried in Crisco with butter dripping out the sides was fine Mexican cuisine as far as I knew.
Rudy was older than me, but we got along just fine. We would ride our bikes all over the neighborhood sometimes going as far as Seminary or 35th Avenue. One day, we went to an abandoned gas station on Foothill Boulevard and started going through the debris. There were plastic letters and numbers all over the place and we started collecting them like Uncle David collected Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer bottle caps with playing card symbols inside. We had been using David’s bottle caps to play card games. We thought we might come up with a new game using gas station signage.
While we were exploring the remains of the garage, and trying to figure out if we could make the car lift work, a black woman went into the phone booth, near the street. We saw her using a wire to fish money out of the coin slot. I can’t say if she was a victim or the original paper stuffer, but she was an inspiration.
After she left, I went over and tried it myself. Money had become jammed in the slot because someone had stuffed paper down it. I found the wire and managed to release the paper which sent several coins tick tick ticking through the machine and down into the bowl of the coin return. We hit the jackpot. There was enough money to buy our favorite flavors at the nearby ice cream store. Before we left the telephone booth, I made sure that all the coin slots were well stuffed for our next visit.
We returned the next day to collect more loot, but our luck had changed for the worst. While I was removing the paper and Rudy was reluctantly playing lookout. A big black car pulled up and a tall well groomed black man got out. He was wearing a dark suit, not a uniform. I tried to be nonchalant like Sean Connery in Goldfinger and just walked away, but the man who reminded me of Sidney Portier, who I had seen in Raisin In the Sun, said, “Stop!” He held up a badge. He asked what I was doing, so I told him the truth. I was just doing what I saw the colored lady do. Someone had told me that honesty was the best policy. Probably my grandmother or Walt Disney.
The officer told us that he was taking us downtown. He told us to leave our bikes in the garage and get in the car. I told him we only lived two blocks away and tried to convince him to take us home, but he wouldn’t budge. We were under arrest for vandalism and attempted petty theft. He told us to empty our pockets. All we had were the little plastic letters and numbers we had collected. Rudy and I didn’t say a word on the drive downtown. In fact, we never spoke again.
We were taken to the Broadway Station where we were booked and put into separate cells. The cell door was made of heavy metal and had a window with crisscross wires running through it. There was a toilet facing the door, a sink, and a metal bench. It was cold, so I curled up on the bench and played with my pocket full of letters. I tried to form words with the letters to pass the time. They weren’t very cooperative and I finally gave up and closed my eyes.
It was my father who picked me up, he was madder than I had ever seen him. My mother was in the car and didn’t say anything to me. As we drove back to East Oakland, my father had only one question, one word, “Why”? He kept asking and all I could do was cry. I may have admitted that ice cream was my motivation, but all I can remember is tears and guilt. My father didn’t have to hit or spank me. Just knowing that I had done wrong in his eyes was punishment enough. He gave up a month of days off to take me to the Broadway Station every Thursday night for a Citizenship Program. Officers would speak about being a good citizen and talk about things like drugs and weapons. I was the youngest person in the room and accompanied by my father each night. After each lecture, me and the other criminals had to write essays about what we did wrong and how we would turn our lives around. I could only imagine the crimes committed by my fellow seekers of good citizenship. I would discretely search their faces for evidence while an officer explained the effects of various drugs. At the end of the month, we were given a tour of the Police Museum where I was give the opportunity to see weapons and drug paraphernalia taken from criminals like me and my classmates. My father liked the tour, it almost made up for missing Dragnet that night.
I received a diploma confirming my attendance and completion of the Citizenship Program. Since I was a minor, my crimes against society and Ma Bell have been sealed. I have tried to be a good citizen ever since.
Rudy’s parents wouldn’t let me play with him anymore. I was a bad influence. I would see him go off to play tennis, racket in hand. He would pretend not to see me. I tried ringing his door bell once, but nobody answered. I was persona non grata.
For awhile, I thought playing tennis might be Rudy’s punishment. I was more into books and movies than sports. Is tennis a sport? In the movies, guys with tennis rackets are usually buffoons or killers. Still I missed my friend, the games, the sisters, and fried tortillas with real butter. I think we could have figured out the oxygen problem and made it to the moon, if it wasn’t for the temptations of chump change and ice cream.