A few days ago Rick and I had occasion to drive by what used to be the site of a high
school in my hometown. Now it's just piles of dirt. It wasn't my high school, but my sister Patti's. She made lifelong friends there, had a lot of fun, and it was a big part of her life. She's sad, noting that now, all three of the schools she attended have been razed. No more Palm Avenue Elementary, no more Whittier Junior High, and now, no more Admiral King.
I went to Whittier and Palm Avenue, too, but by the time my brother and I were ready for high school, the city decided we South Side Kids deserved our own high school. Yet, if that school was knocked down tomorrow, I wouldn't think twice about it. I had a great high school experience there, but to me, it's just a building. It means nothing to me. What I remember when I think of high school are the people, and when I do remember them, in many cases I miss them.
Esther was one of my more unusual friends, and not because she was Puerto Rican. Where I lived, if you didn't have Puerto Rican and Mexican friends, then you simply didn't have very many friends. Esther's mom spoke very little English, and her dad's English wasn't very good. Esther had a motorcycle, and she used to ride it over to my house, nine blocks away, to hang out. It took a ton of begging for me to be able to ride on the back, behind Esther, just to go back to her house.
Over at Esther's house, I got treated like a celebrity. Apparently, at one point my father, who was a security guard at US Steel, did her father a favor when he was coming in or leaving by the gate Dad was stationed at. My dad's badge had only his last name, and Esther's dad unfailingly called me by my last name whenever I was there. I'd come in and say, "Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Rivera. Nice to see you!" Their faces would light up, and a double-barreled barrage of Spanish would follow, interspersed with my last name and "Esther!" in varying degrees of intensity. A whole menu of dishes and drinks would be translated and offered to me via Esther, her eyes rolling, and I would usually smile and refuse gently. Once in a while, something too good to say no to would appear, and when I'd accept, Mr. and Mrs. Rivera would be thrilled.
Esther's mom had a pet mynah bird named Jose who spoke English and Spanish, but his best trick was impersonating an airplane taking off. It was uncannily accurate. Mr. Rivera had a pet rooster who was downright vicious. Until the neighborhood kids got wise, Mr. Rivera used to put a heavy string around the chicken's ankle and then sit on the front step. He'd call out to passing kids, asking them if they wanted to come and see his rooster. As soon as the kid would come up the front walk, he'd let the slack out, and this Tasmanian Devil of a chicken would go tearing down the path wildly, squawking and flapping. Those were the best Sundays of his life, I think.
We'd spend hours sitting on the Rivera garage roof when the cherries on her three trees were ripe. She'd yell down to her baby brother to hand up her guitar sometimes, and we'd eat cherries, spit the stones at the robins, and then she'd play (and sing) the only two songs she knew on her guitar, Something Stupid and Spanish Eyes. At one point, I think she started working on getting Strangers in the Night, but I don't remember exactly. I do remember her mother being really upset about the whole garage roof/cherries thing. She was sure that I would either fall or get sick. She didn't seem too worried about Esther.
Senior year, one of the best-looking boys in school started paying a lot of attention to Esther. A bunch of us were, unfortunately, surprised. We always knew her as a tomboyish, quirky, brainy friend. If we had paid any attention at all, we'd have seen what he had been seeing: cute figure (stacked even), big dark eyes, long eyelashes, great smile, smart, effortless confidence and fun. They started going together, but it didn't change a thing. She was still just herself.
Esther once made a Time Capsule during a slumber party. Our friend Patty ended up with it. I talked to her a few years ago and she mentioned it. I think it was in a Tic Tacs container, or maybe even a Sucrets tin. I don't remember. Does it matter?
I doubt it. But again, I don't care about the container. We had lots of slumber parties, each one more fun than the last. And I have the memories of them still, even though Esther, Patty, Lana, and I have all moved away from our hometown and each other, and whether they knock down our school or not.
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