Joyland

New York |

Through the Cracks

by Yvonne Conza

edited by Michelle Lyn King

Legend has it that three panthers “with slow and sullen steps” once roamed the countryside where I grew up. Landscaped by sweeping farmlands and rolling hills stippled with cow pastures, it’s a place where many townsfolk trace their agricultural roots back to settlement days. Tempest winds made my street waft with the odor of chicken shit from a nearby poultry farm. Patches of unbroken forests still exist and are enjoyed by backpackers.

Last year, close to my childhood home, two hikers found human remains inside a boot. Skeletal scraps turned the area into a crime scene. A Western style Barry Dolan jacket from the 70s, a Wrangler corduroy or jeans brass button and some teeth were exhumed. The body had been buried 15 to 30 years ago. As a girl I ran to those backwoods for safety. After fireworks, high school couples went there to kiss or drink beer purchased with fake IDs. Sometimes boys disregarded NO and tugged down my classmates’ zippers. Other times, girls were the aggressors with clueless, nervous lads more familiar with a cow’s teat than a budding breast.

For several years my parents lived in a Quonset hut on wheels secured in place with cinderblocks. Inexpensive land lured them there to the bedroom community of Buffalo that eased Dad’s work commute. We were the Irish family, the outsiders not considered proper townies because we didn’t have cousins living down the street or an uncle who owned the local grocery store or gas station. Dad carried a castoff briefcase and was clueless about farm tools. His inexpensive suits stood out in contrast to the faded, vegetable-stained, time-softened dungaree overalls worn by locals.

Every day except Sunday, before the sky sprung into shuffling shades of heirloom tomatoes, Pa, a farmer down the street from our house, would start his tractor. Whether you drove, biked or walked past Pa, he’d give a big hello-howdy with his hand unfurled like an American flag on a windy Memorial Day. Over the sputtering rhythmic roar of his trusted John Deere steed, he’d thunder a chipper Good day. Without fail, Dad was Good day’d as he drove by in our rust-speckled, two-door family style Chevrolet to the city for work.

Pa worked his land and supervised his field workers. Asparagus and strawberries were the first of the row crops to be picked and placed into quart or bushel baskets mostly by men who wore bandannas tied around their heads, or knotted around their necks.

Sometimes, as I walked past the fields on my way to play in the cemetery, pickers would look at me with stolen glances as though someone had cautioned them good. Their expressions were familiar to me. I’d learned to do something similar whenever my parents were in rampage and I hoped to disappear, vanish into thin air.

I was four during the 1966 Puerto Rican farm worker uprising when migrant workers organized to protest police brutality and discrimination. Farmers were accused of ignoring poor housing and difficult labor conditions. As a little girl, Mom told me that the dilapidated wood shacks bordering cow pastures I pointed whhat-that at were shanty dwellings for farm laborers. Most of those buildings had no indoor plumbing and were too small to house much more than mattresses on bare floors.

Dairy cows, with nicknames like Buttercup and Daisy, received greater consideration and care. The herd was milked at 5am inside sterilized barns hitched to freshly whitewashed grain-filled silos, then taken outdoors to drink clean water and feed from galvanized steel troughs. Clumsy, cloven-hooved, stout rectangular bodies, with four legs and tufted tails glazed in manure, grazed in sun-warmed pastures wet with morning dew. Shade trees and lean-to sheds shielded the black and white prized Holsteins from the heat.

*

Dad’s first job was a door-to-door salesman for Encyclopedia Britannica. His briefcase had a spring clasp that I toyed with because the sound was intriguing and made me feel clever. Similar to many generational farmers, he didn’t have a college education. But that didn’t stop him from turning a cardboard shoebox into an enterprising Rolodex that built a business. He was a middleman distributer who peddled machinist parts to automotive plants throughout Western New York.

The early years of Dad’s business were lean. We survived on food stamps, shopped at Ames Discount Store, and made do with what we had. But I never felt poor since everyone around us was also scraping by. Over the years though, Dad’s hard work earned him enough money to buyout another company, continue to grow and improve our lifestyle. Our lengthy gravel driveway was blacktopped and configured to park four cars at the main entry point to Dad’s office. Dad bought Mom a Continental Mark VII and drove a Cadillac. Once he purchased a red El Dorado, not realizing it looked like a pimpmobile. Mom thought it was too flashy and kids teased me about it at school.

Townsfolk from our one-stoplight village didn’t stifle their laughter during Dad’s powder blue and shamrock green polyester leisure suit phase. His can’t miss garb contrasted with the agrarian attire of locals and stirred up snickers. Our outsider status also made it a bad idea for Dad to run for town supervisor. The half page ad he took in the PennySaver to announce his campaign included a black and white family photo. Whenever I look at that snapshot it declares our household as you betcha off-kilter.

Dad’s success had been chronicled in our town’s historical record and demarked with genuine pride. His business, a licensed Home Care Agency sold during my parents’ contentious divorce, had expanded to other cities in New York and to Cleveland, Ohio. This fact was dug up while researching the native plants from the countryside of my youth, in a town that was equal parts tumbleweed-fictitious Mayberry-like and one capable of hostility and inequality.

A link I clicked mentions the uprising by Puerto Rican farm laborers. The read contrasts the fable of wandering panthers with English Quakers, who prior to the war of 1812, settled our oft snow-covered rural town, a region 250 as-the-crow-flies miles west of Albany, New York. Germans and Italians from Buffalo came to work on the farms and in the canning factories built near a railroad line. The community saw itself as wholesome and welcoming. It was and it wasn’t.

Our town had benefitted from the work of Puerto Rican farm laborers, but they were weeded out of the archives. On the page they vanished, replaced by a homespun remark about the hamlet’s former prominence in the production of butter and cheese. Public record yanked their roots out of existence. This didn’t sit right with me. Dad’s inclusion and the denial and erasure of Puerto Rican workers from the town’s history felt false. It wasn’t unlike the violence that was often overlooked in the house where I grew up.

On any given night, my parents could get into a heated row. Police would arrive and provide stopgap relief by telling Dad: Jack, why don’t you go for a drive. It wasn’t a question, but an official warning. Behind his back we frequently called him Jackass. I’d watched enough Adam-12 on television to know that if things got out of hand, guns could be drawn. Dad drove off.

Now and then, a second patrol car would idle in our driveway with blue flashers circling and lighting up our front yard. Walkie-talkies, clipped to the officers’ belts or shoulder straps, crackled with jumbled words that were eerily cartoon sounding. Alpha and bravo were the easiest words to discern and remember besides on Shirley Road … repeat, on Shirley Road.

Mom tended to be the one racing to open the door, hoping the officers would enter and see shattered glass on the floor or furniture in disarray. One time Dad punched a hole in the hollow closet door by the entryway and she stood by it with a content Vanna White, Wheel of Fortune hostess expression on her face. Come in, she insisted, as though they were insurance adjusters assessing the damage for her claim. Sometimes, as she picked up glass shards, she’d ask if they wanted coffee. Her bizarre behavior confused me until I was older, say 8, and accepted, not denied, that she had been baiting Dad and poisoning my mind against him for years with Your father bedtime soliloquys. Delineating his manhood deficiencies, she spoke of the dresses he wore, his affairs with secretaries and his odd friendships with men. Left out of her tales was how she helped Dad into his gown and zipped him up. Nevertheless, during altercations I screamed don’t, stop you’re hurting her and dialed 911.

If Dad answered the door, that meant he hit her and we were all frightened. A slap was meant to bring her to her senses, but then he’d get carried away. During a troublesome encounter, he sometimes shoved her. It was a warning for her to stop pursuing whatever they had started brawling about. Enough Tish. Her name was Margaret but everyone called her Tish. Why couldn’t she just shut up?

*

Dandelions and seed heads spackled our yard. Neighbors mowed their lawns into flat surfaces raked free of leaves and removed pervasive weeds using herbicides. Our yard languished long and lazy with an upright fringe that swaggered and swayed—a mishmash of Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass and fescue on full display, garnished with splotches of dandelions, daisies, prickly lettuce, purple thistle, white clover and scattered clumps of wild garlic that wandering deer liked to munch.

Held in my hand, a dandelion turned to seed head and fastened to summer’s soft, slumbered scent. The ray-bonnet crown was no longer the yellow of a rubber ducky afloat in lukewarm sudsy water. The weed had journeyed from a sun warrior shade, the circumference of a quarter, into a white puffball abstraction—a geometric fairy token. Science used terms: taproot, cotyledon, floret, feathery filament (pappus) and seed head—adding actions: emerging, pushing up and dispersing. Puffball. Monks-head. Irish daisy. FFF – FFF – FFF—releasing dreams into the air.

Dandelions are the only flowers that represent three celestial bodies: sun, moon and stars. Sun at their blooming, moon when they are seed heads, and stars when they disperse skyward. Thought of as pesky weeds that take over lawns, gardens, meadows and soccer fields, they are the bane of golf courses. Sink a spade into the ground to dig the basal rosettes of dandelions or pull up a clump with bare hands and find roots that resemble parsnips. Try to eradicate the plant and it will return, springing from its grave to rise upward and face the sun.

*

On July 3rd, 1966 there was an altercation in our friendly town between a Puerto Rican named Carlos and the chief of police. Prior to the scuffle, Pablo, another Puerto Rican, had been stopped and beaten for a traffic violation. Carlos went to the courthouse to bail him out but was denied any information. As he was leaving, he mumbled something under his breath. The judge then instructed the police chief to stop him. Carlos was told to freeze, but he kept going. The chief ran after him and clocked him in the head with his gun. José tried to step in but he would later testify that another white man with a gun told him: Don’t move or I’ll shoot you.

Rumors circulated that migrant workers were planning to retaliate. They had gathered bricks and bottles of gasoline as well as bats and stones to stage a violent riot. Jorge Colón, a migration division officer from Rochester, drove over to meet with town officials and the police force of three men and two additional summertime officers. Colón arrived at Mike’s Rustic Bar on Main Street, an Italian family tavern opened in the late 1930’s. It was one of the few establishments that served Puerto Ricans in the area. He wanted to evaluate the situation and seek a peaceful resolution. A Puerto Rican nicknamed “Superman” boasted that, in addition to bricks, 20 guns and pistols had been stockpiled. Others at the pub discussed the most effective way to burn town buildings and police cars by using Molotov cocktails, the poor man’s grenade.

As a mediator, Colón listened to their grievances: discrimination, poor living and working conditions, denied medical care and education, enforced curfew, a ban against starting a business and police brutality. The mayor mentioned it was the first time he had heard about the farm labor working conditions and conflicts. In an interview with a New York Times reporter he stated: They walk by here on the road and I wave at them and they laugh and smile. One time I was going to throw away an old bed – it was my mother’s I guess – and I offered it to them. You should have seen them, carrying it down the road on their heads. Real happy, you know! His wife added: The place is a paradise compared to what they’re used to living in … Of course you or I wouldn’t want to live like that, but I believe they like it fine .

Fine —meaning a place where shanty shelters were clustered together. The structures were full of holes and lacked running water. At another encampment, a barn had been converted into barracks and cow dung wafted heavy in the air. The New York State Department of Health found violations in 23 of the 33 camps. They were crowded, dirty and without bathrooms, potable water, or mattresses. Some existed with fire hazards and open sewage. None of this information is found on the town’s historical webpage. The town’s truncated history nullifies the fourth wave of immigrants.

The uprising started the day before July 4th, Independence Day. Vague memories of town fireworks still linger with me. Exploding contours of chrysanthemums and fading glittery trails of swishing horse and flapping fish tails diffused high in the air. Twinkling shooting stars, spinning fiery pinwheels and stray sparks of fiber optic balls radiated scraggy, squiggling streams of colorful blazing light, pummeling and punishing dark skies. The crackling cacophony made my heart pound—the same hammering wallop I felt the time I saw Dad straddle Mom’s body on our couch, his necktie wrapped around her throat as she gasped for breath.

Police addressed domestic violence in our home as though it was a private negotiation between consenting adults. It often took a neighbor desiring a good night’s sleep to call in a dispute that nudged an officer to issue the edict: Jack why don’t you go for a drive. If it was the sheriff that came calling, he favored an austere, though muscled, Dr. Phil tactic that suggested my parents cool off and give it a rest. Dad registered the reality not by those words, but by eying the sheriff’s thumb drum-tapping the firearm resting pretty in its black leather holster. Sometimes officers who responded to a “spousal squabble” at our house arrived too late and we weren’t spared the menacing kitchen scuffles between our parents where knives and forks became weapons.

For years, in our household, an assembly line of authorities reacted mostly like embarrassed babysitters giving timeouts to volatile adults. Domestic violence was sidestepped and treated with near slapstick comedy acceptance—think Ralph Kramden’s: One of these days Alice—Pow! Right in the Kisser! Officers strived to avoid involvement and they didn’t think about child endangerment. With their tacit policy of a blind eye to a black eye, they seemed eager for their shifts to end so they could grab a beer in town. Bemoaned into toy-like walkie-talkies, I’d overhear: rowjust another one of Jack’s and Tish’s rows, everything’s fine.

Of course you or I wouldn’t want to live like that, but I believe they like it fine .

*

The police chief and the other man involved in the July 3rd scuffle were charged with second-degree assault, and a niece of the village clerk reported that the police chief beats up his wife occasionally. Regardless, a judge from a neighboring town found both men innocent. He also asked the District Attorney to summon a grand jury to determine if anyone should be charged for inciting a riot. Carlos and José are never mentioned again.

A follow up investigation, relying on the statements of storeowners, concluded that there were no discriminating practices, farmworkers were at fault due to their failure to communicate, and the strife was sparked by a lack of recreational facilities.

Eventually advances in harvesting equipment whittled away picking jobs for crops like potatoes and corn. Pickers were left with strawberry and grape fields and stacking bales of hay in barn lofts. To survive, many took graveyard shifts at a canning factory in a neighboring town while others left for employment at Bethlehem Steel or the New York Central Railroad. Some Puerto Ricans stayed and found solace in drinking. Income often came from welfare and food stamps. Drunkenness, disorderly conduct and knife fights became common, especially among those that had relocated to rundown apartments on Sherman Avenue just down the street from the beer tap. Anyone from that area of row-like housing was considered Puerto Rican.

I had become friends with a girl that lived on Sherman Avenue and whose last name was Sherman. Though her surname suggested Anglo-Saxon ancestry, her skin, hazel eyes and home address left her teased and with few friends. I didn’t tell my parents that she lived there. They used to say that they were open-minded, but I was concerned that they would have discouraged the friendship. One day my mom agreed to a sleepover at my friend’s place. I packed a t-shirt to sleep in and clean underwear. En route, when I told her where to drop me off, she pulled to the soft shoulder of the road and asked: How well do you know her?

As I climbed the rickety stairs to my friend’s apartment, neighbors opened their doors to peek at me, staring in a way that let me know I didn’t belong there. Instead of closing their doors, they kept them opened a crack. I knew I was being defiant. Some people in our town called it “crossing over the tracks.” I tried not to show I was scared even though they too were fearful. It took only one white person to cause an avalanche of trouble for them, and they didn’t want that. They just wanted what everyone else had.

*

During the 1966 Puerto Rican farm worker uprising I was four. And thirteen when Sheriff’s Deputy William R. Dils responded to a burglary-larceny investigation on Sherman Avenue. A 19-year veteran of the force, beloved and respected by everyone, Dils was set to retire at the end of the year. On November 5th, 1977, Sheriff Dils, 52, was fatally shot in the abdomen through a closed bedroom door by a migrant worker who escaped by jumping out of a window. A massive manhunt was set in motion with bloodhounds, helicopters, and door-to-door searches. Barns and haylofts were combed through to hunt down the Puerto Rican assailant. Our town went on lockdown. I was startled and frightened by the mammoth response.

For years I understood that the shooting of a cop would launch a cavalry of law enforcement. But I never pieced it together with our town’s intolerant history—the mentality of them versus us—until now. Yes, there was a killer on the loose, one rumored to have used a sawed-off shotgun that blasted a huge hole in the bedroom door. However, the racial slurs and shunning distance many kept from Puerto Ricans depicted an undercurrent of racism that had always been there. Dating a Puerto Rican would brand you a slut and bar talk often included the local loudmouth mumbling it would be great to run all the Spics out of town. In 1966, the owner of Roeller’s Grill, the next town over, stated for a New York Times reporter: This is America, and they don’t speak American. So they get nothing to drink.

The tension that swept through this tree-shaded village in 1966 is still palpable. In 2010, the place where I grew up again became a breaking news story and again it was on Sherman Avenue. A 23-year-old developmentally challenged woman, with a mental capacity of an 8-year-old, died at the hands of her mother after years of being tortured at home. The town faced an indictment of pubic opinion when the District Attorney’s office questioned whether residents could have done more to assist this girl.

The mayor spoke about it being a tragedy where each and every one of us must look at ourselves and ask ‘How could this have possibly occurred?’ Others talked about being torn and hurt at reading on the Internet what bad people we are and things like that . The murder of Sheriff Dils was again raised. The area is known as a bedroom community for professionals, employees of two nearby state prisons and a smattering of migrant workers . But you’ll not know of Puerto Ricans from the town’s historical documents.

People talked about the town being tainted by one house on Sherman Avenue. They didn’t understand how the girl could have fallen through the cracks of Adult Protective Services. There were rumors of mistreatment. The girl’s mother claimed that her daughter had been molested in the past and she rarely let her out of her sight. A neighbor shared: She (the mother) used to snatch (the daughter) up by her hair every so often if she was outside and not supposed to be outside. Another added I had never seen her (the girl) before. About the family : The kids were fine. They never complained. They looked healthy. They never smelled bad.

So many ways to say: Of course you or I wouldn’t want to live like that, but I believe they like it fine .

*

When I turned 21, I moved to New York City and fell in love with a place where you can get lost and be found. In 1811, an iconic grid plan for Manhattan streets was established. This master plan, created to provide order and convenience while maintaining control and balance, made me feel secure. Even there, between cracks in the sidewalks and broken pavements, dandelions popped up.

Dandelion seeds are dispersed through wind, water, animals, explosion and fire. They are the sun warriors that rise to celebrate summer before turning into seed heads resembling small tufted luminous moons. Transformed, and a child’s heart survived—taproot secured into the ground.FFF – FFF – FFF—fluttered out seeds that smacked of stars. FFF – FFF – FFF—floating possibilities of freedom.