Bon Bon and her Magic Wand

If you were/are a late-bloomer like I was than you know what I’m talking about, those frustrating moments when your mind was bigger than your body and you wanted to unzip out of it like some cartoon to reveal something older, more mature, yet fresh.

On the flip side, my older brother, Steven, was the opposite; he began shaving as a fetus.

Looking like an 8-year-old in junior high was cool when I wanted a free kids meal, but for Steven, looking like a father of five netted him one of the coolest jobs in the history of my universe when he was only 14: Crew member, Fillmore Fingers, Inc. That was the official title, at least. In reality, he and my cousin Michael got to work concerts at venues throughout the Bay Area, doing everything from picking up major rock stars from the airport to making sure Eddie Van Halen’s milk was the right temperature.

It was a coming of age summer for Steven, littered with girls, under-aged drinking, sex (although to this day I think he was bullshitting me) – all of these cool exploits unfolding to a soundtrack consisting of music from every genre. And while I sat back home in the West Texas desert sweating like a cheese, the highlight of my summer was listening to every story he had to tell during our weekly phone conversations.

“Ever heard of some singer named Sting?” the fucker asked me one day. “Yeah, I got to meet him before his show yesterday at Shoreline Amphitheater.”

This is where my cousin Bonnie comes into play. Bonnie, Bon Bon to all her friends, was the magic fairy that yielded the golden wand, making this incredible summer happen for my brother. She was the one that made all things happen, it seemed, as she had all the connections and access to all the right people. And when I tell you that she knew everybody, I’m talking everybody. She needed a place to stay for a few months and one of her friends, a member of Pearl Jam, told her she could stay at one of his pads for as long as she needed. No shit.

Needless to say, by the end of Steve’s Summer of Magic Tour, Bonnie had been elevated to rock star status to us back in El Paso. And I think that part of the reason that made Bonnie so cool, and ultimately such a good friend to many people, was that she wasn’t consumed with trying to be cool at all. She was just Bonnie, Bon Bon, a girl that was short in stature but humungous in heart. Maybe had I known her secret as a late-blooming punk ass, junior high wouldn’t have been such a bullshit time?

It would be an epic understatement to say that Bonnie was a survivor. As a kid she was stricken with polio and several years later, was shot while working a counter during a robbery attempt in Oakland. I still remember my brothers and I huddling around the phone every time my parents received a call from my aunt and uncle updating us on her condition.

At a time when Oakland was becoming the birthplace of gangsta rap and living up to its reputation of murder and violence, the fact that my rock star cousin got shot and SURVIVED simply made her that much more of a badass to me, elevating Bonnie to mythical status.

And I think what made Bonnie such a badass was that she had the audacity to march to her very own beat no matter how out of tune the rest of the world could be at times. Polio? No sweat. A bullet? Screw it.

My emotional challenge as I write this, is using the past tense. The thing is, at this very moment, Bonnie’s family and her husband Dan are watching over her as she prepares to enter the next world. Despite having that humungous heart, other failing organs will take her away from us. And she could leave us at any time. Of all the cool stories my brother told, of all the incredible experiences and people that Bonnie knew, there’s one conversation that I had with her recently, like a month or two ago, that I will remember the most.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer a few months back, Bonnie made it a regular habit to call and check in on me for updates. We’d talk for hours – if you spoke with Bonnie you now that she got her money’s worth from a conversation – and it was during one of those long talks that I asked her the inevitable question.

“Have you forgiven the young man that killed my uncle in the DWI accident?”

She told me that forgiveness was a process and that although she was slower than some, including my aunt, she had forgiven the kid, knowing that putting him in prison could equal two lost lives instead of just one.

And that’s the thought that gives me the most solace right now, knowing that she could truly rest in peace.

And here I thought Bonnie’s magic only rubbed off on Steve all those years ago. Today, at this time of reflection, I realize now that it looks like Bonnie waved her magic wand for me after all…

Phillip D. Cortez writes Monkey C Blog mostly every week and is the author of Night Rhythms, a children’s book for people of all ages. His next book, When I Close My Eyes, is due out in the Fall. Follow on Twitter @monkeycblog and LIKE at fb.com/monkeycblog

In Defense of Gary Soto

I hadn’t heard anybody mention Gary Soto’s name in quite a while, nearly 20 years, in fact, until this afternoon. I was hanging out at The Bookery, the only independent bookstore in El Paso County and a treasure I’ve written about in this blog before.

A group of old women were perched like pigeons along the front porch, chatting up a storm as I made my way into the adobe building. They were talking about Gary, one of the stable of writers I’ve enjoyed reading since I was a kid, and from the sounds of their squawking, poor Gary was taking a beating. To further illustrate the point, piñatas don’t get pounded the way Gary was.

“He read a few lines from a book and then said, ‘There, I read to you. Now go home!'” one of the women said.

Another one chimed in, “He was so rude that even his illustrator was embarrassed.”

That’s when I felt compelled to step into the fray, first of all because these women were talking about one of the people responsible for me becoming a writer in the first place. Secondly, the man wasn’t able to defend himself, him living in Northern California, and all. Third, and equally important as the first, is that I revel in getting a rise out of certain people, especially those old birds that bask in the pool of ignorant bliss. I have no idea why, it’s just fun.

“I was 14 when I met Gary Soto,” I interrupted, knowing that the women would want to hear more. “He asked me if I wanted to write books when I grew up and I told him, ‘yes.’ So he signed his book, Baseball in April, for me. It read:

To: Phillip, future author.

Sincerely,

Gary Soto

“He couldn’t have been nicer to me. In fact, thanks to him, Margaret (she runs The Bookery) has already sold 70 copies of my book – in February.”

And, of course, my little spiel was followed by that awkward silence, the one where I usually regret something I’ve said or wonder how much of a douche I may have sounded like. Not this time.

On my way back to the office, I thought about what those ladies had said, about how Gary was rude when he made his way down to El Paso for a book signing. I thought about how rock stars and actors get excused for such behavior. Hell, some are like Teflon – Winning! – They keep getting work and we end up liking them the more they misbehave.

When I was 14, to me, meeting Gary Soto was like meeting a rock star; if he pulled a jerk move to anyone I didn’t see that side of him. And thank God, too, because maybe that would have turned me off to this whole writing thing. Gary even invited me (more as a courtesy, mind you) to tag along to some posh invite-only reading someone threw for him in the Sunset Heights part of town, some 18 years ago when he was promoting his children’s book, Chato’s Kitchen. I’m sure he didn’t think I’d show up, but somehow I found the nerve, pulling up to some huge house on a hill in a beat up Mercury Lynx. Gary made sure they let me inside.

Since my children’s book, Night Rhythms, came out late last year, I have thanked many people, including Mrs. Scott, my old third grade teacher. But I hadn’t been able to thank Gary for writing what he wrote in my book and helping me believe in myself.

That is, until now.

A Prayer for Juarez

Note: This was written in April of last year. In your opinion what has changed since then? Have things gotten worse? Or do you see an increase of proactive behavior from both sides of the border? As the political season heats up South of the border, is there a candidate(s) that offers some hope in offering real solutions? Let me hear your thoughts below, through facebook or tweet me @monkeycblog.

Where we grew up you could sit atop the rock wall on the side of our tangerine-bricked house and watch the sun slowly go down, a fiery red and orange explosion slowly cooled by the night sky. The night, it seemed, would begin to blanket the sun the way a parent puts a feisty child to sleep, soothing the sky with hues of orange and pink and red. And no sooner did the feisty sun go down that a string of sparkling lights to the south illuminate the horizon. I remember how clear those lights looked, and if you squinted your eyes they almost looked like they were dancing.

The southern lights of Juarez have been a beacon to many people, whether they’ve lived on the border, the frontera, all their lives or just passing through. Today it’s easy to dismiss Ciudad Juarez as a gun-slinging, lawless border town where people die every day. In a time where US forces engage enemies half a world away, thousands of people have died in a war right in our backyard.  But if you grew up in this area, Juarez represents so much more.

It was the place we’d visit every Friday night for a good meal, where my dad took my brothers and I to get haircuts. I still hear the nicotine laughter of those old men in their white shirts, still smell the aftershave they wore and how it reminded me of my abuelo. I can see the shoe-shine kid sitting atop his wooden box and the way he made that rag snap the shine into countless pairs of shoes. An old radio spat out Mexican music through a broken speaker that crackled like a candy wrapper.

As a kid growing up we’d often here stories about Juarez, the kind you could hear in front of your parents and the kind you only wanted to hear with your friends. There was a blanket of mystique wrapped around the northern Chihuahua city every time its name was mentioned. As young teenagers we yearned to here about our older brother’s stories of partying on “The Strip,” “Drink and Drown,” slow cops, fast women, and the smooth-talking taxi drivers that promised to take you to see the fabled donkey show.

For me the allure of Ciudad Juarez is similar to many US-born Hispanics of Mexican decent. Cross any point of entry into Mexico and you’re crossing into your own personal history, stepping right along the footsteps of your own culture. This is the pass that generations of immigrants took to get to the United States and if you go back far enough, the El Paso border area was actually part of Mexico prior to the Mexican-American War.

What people living in Middle America and especially Washington DC fail to realize is that there is no clear divide between Mexico and the United States, not for communities along the US-Mexican border. For people living in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, the border divide is as blurry as the murky waters of the Rio Grande. It’s not uncommon for American families to cross into Ciudad Juarez to celebrate a birthday with their own relatives. People from both sides of the border cross any one of the major points of entry to go to work every day. Ciudad Juarez’s own mayor, Jose Reyes Ferriz, lives in El Paso. And Mexican shoppers are responsible for about 40% of El Paso’s economy.

Like it or not, the fabric of the El Paso and Ciudad Juarez communities are woven together tightly. Some would prefer to see the violence in Ciudad Juarez as simply “their” problem, but the truth is there is nothing simple about it nor is there a simple resolution.  Juarenses do not feel safe, distrust their government and take anti-violence rhetoric from Washington with a grain of salt, as what’s happening on their streets is the result of drug supplying entities fighting a bloody turf war to better serve their American consumers. And it’s for this reason, above all others, why the deadly violence is not “their” problem.

Me, you, people living on both sides of the border are left powerless, save for a protest every now and then. Do we become desensitized to the daily news of bloody murder or do we just stop listening to the news altogether? I don’t know about you, but I miss Ciudad Juarez; I miss the way it used to be. And so now, whenever news hits of another brutal killing, the only thing I can do is say a prayer.

Hearing the Good News in a Cynical World

From the moment we get out of bed until our heads hit the pillow, our days are filled with headlines, news, information and links begging to be clicked. In some way, shape or form we’re all junkies for information, whether its sports, entertainment, politics or a Facebook news feed.

In my world I might see more headlines than most, the majority of which aren’t necessarily positive. And I don’t mean to sound trite (because God knows the word “jaded” is over-used) but I’m finding that I have become numb to such headlines that are meant to shock, make me cringe, shutter and reflect. They sort of carelessly slide right off of me like Teflon.

That’s not necessarily a good thing, you know. Our ability to feel and have empathy for others is what makes us human. When you hear about a family getting killed during a Christmas Day house fire and you’re more concerned about that wrinkle in your slacks that you can’t iron out, well, that’s alarming.

That takes me to last Tuesday. A colleague of mine walked into the office to introduce me to her new co-worker. Said colleague has worked with me for roughly five years. Outside of work – and my colleague would agree that this is a mutual assessment – I haven’t a clue about who this person really is.

That’s not to say I don’t give a damn, mind you. Think about the people you might encounter every single day, the UPS delivery person, perhaps. The second that guy walks out the door you’re back on the computer. Maybe you’re upset because the package was late. But you don’t really care how his weekend was, right?

“I’m leaving my position in February,” my colleague told me.

“I’m sorry that you’re leaving,” I sort of lied. “What will you be doing?”

And her response stopped my world for a beautiful moment.

“I’m going to become a nun,” she said matter-of-factly, as if she had just decided to order wheat bread instead of white.

I was moved, probably more than I should have been, given that I was standing next to my boss and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I’m almost ashamed to admit, but I became a little emotional (allergies) in my happiness for her. She’s been on my mind ever since.

Although I attended Catholic school and used to be an altar boy, I don’t know too many people my own age who have decided to become a priest or a nun. It’s just not a common choice people make. I’m intrigued with anyone who answers such a profound calling in life.

Personally I want to believe that hearing my colleague’s good news was just the sort of headline I needed to hear at a time when I was risk of becoming fully engulfed in a permanent state of Lidocaine-induced numbness and cynicism. And at a time when everyone is making resolutions for the new year, being a bit less cynical is a pretty good place to start.