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Professor Manuel Hernández
Essays Collection

Address: : 2012 Ernest St. Kissimmee, Florida 34741

Manuel Hernandez was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York in 1963. He completed undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus and finished a Master�s in Education from Herbert H. Lehman College (CUNY) in the Bronx in 1994. He has coordinated symposiums, produced and coordinated television interviews on the literature written by Puerto Rican and Latino/a writers from the Diaspora. He has done numerous presentations, workshops and seminars on how to integrate latino/a literature in the English classroom. In 2014, he participated in a TedxTalk (Connections) at Southern New Hampshire University. He is the author of three books, , Latino/a Literature in the English Classroom (Editorial Plaza Mayor, 2003), The Birth of a Rican (Imprenta Sifre. 2008) and Living the Kingdom with purpose (Imprenta Sifre, 2013). He is a Language Arts teacher at Osceola School District in Florida.

The Revolving Door Chapter 3: The Umbrella Factory

by Manuel Hernández

It was a dark and gloomy night when the plane landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York at twelve midnight. I momentarily saw flashes of a headless horseman and remembered the story, Sleepy Hollow, read to me as a sixth grader at Winfield L. Morse Elementary School. According to the legend of Sleepy Hollow, the headless horseman terrorized Tarrytown people and committed crimes by cutting off the heads of his victims. The fasten seat belt sign started lighting on and off. The passenger who sat next to me threw up when the pilot turned off the seat belt sign. He had been drinking all through the flight and the sudden stop turned his stomach upside down. The smell was like rotten garlic, and I nearly fainted. I barely escaped the disaster and was able to quickly stand up and join the dozens of people running down the aisle of the 727.
It was the first time I was traveling alone, so I was somewhat anxious and nervous when I went to get my luggage at the baggage claim area. I immediately spotted my light blue suitcase, but a fellow passenger claimed it belonged to him. We argued, but much to my dismay he ran off with it. A few minutes later he returned my suitcase apologizing and saying it was not his. An hour later, my aunt Isabel and a friend of hers arrived and drove us to Brooklyn. It was a long drive to Brooklyn, and I was dazed at the sight of the city. As I noticed hundreds of abandoned buildings and lots of garbage out on the city streets, I felt my heart burning and for a minute I had visions of the Island beaches. When we got out of the car, I observed a couple of drunkards sleeping on the steps that would lead us up and in to my aunt’s apartment.
My aunt lived in a small two-bedroom apartment on Huron Street, Brooklyn. She lived in a Polish-neighborhood full of old run-down houses. You could hear the house squeak as you walked up the stairs. Her apartment was on a block of three-story buildings. All the houses were exactly alike and only the colors distinguished each one. Her apartment was a two-room second floor walk-up. Nothing about it was particularly interesting except for the fact that all the rooms were connected to each other. If my aunt wanted to go to the bathroom, she had to walk pass my bedroom. The very first night I was introduced to the world of cockroaches. I woke up at about three o’clock in the morning to go to the bathroom, and I was in shock when I turned on the lights. Literally thousands of cockroaches had invaded the kitchen. I let out a scream.
“Titi, why so many cockroaches in the kitchen?” My aunt put on
a sleeping robe and came to my rescue.
“Muchacho, go back to bed. They were here before Christopher
Columbus discovered America,” my aunt replied. After a while, I got used to cockroaches. Every time I felt them on my back, I would shiver all over, and the cockroaches would fly. Other creatures would also visit me during the night. Big fat rats seemed to enjoy a roller coaster ride on my ass every so often, but I got used to that too. I learned to adapt quickly.
The very next day my aunt told me I had to get a job. I thought I was going to have a week to settle down. I was fifteen years old, but I looked older. I was already six feet tall and weighed about one-hundred and ninety-five pounds. My aunt Nerida came by at six in the morning, but I was still sleeping. My aunts woke me up by dropping a cold glass of water over my head. A steady drop went right in to my but, and I woke up immediately.
Nerida took me to about forty factories, but there were no jobs to be found anywhere. I went home a little depressed, and my aunts calmed me down by assuring me that I would find a job the next day. The next day I woke up at five-thirty and was ready by the time Nerida knocked on the door. At the very first factory, we were told that there was a position available for me. My aunt left but said she would be back at 5:00pm to take me home and show me how to take the train.
It was an umbrella factory. The smell of cigars and tobacco filled the air. The constant tic-tac of a hammer hitting the umbrella together with a lath was an every second sound. The factory workers came in different colors and nationalities. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Ecuadoreans, Polish and Italians were just a few of the nationalities found in the factory. I was making $2.63 an hour, not bad for a fifteen year old. I took home about $80.00 and after giving my aunt $20.00 and sending my mom $20.00, I was left with $40.00 which I spent at McDonald’s and with my cousins.
My working buddies were all hooked on something. Quique was always sniffing cocaine and rush. Quique was crazy, and he talked about hanging out in “El Barrio”. I remembered my aunt’s warnings about “El Barrio”, so I always brushed him off. He wanted me to go with him to the Lower East Side. He insisted that I needed to know what street life was all about. Quique was a nice guy, but his drug use was destroying him. One day he sniffed rush so hard he was knocked unconscious for five minutes. Pedro smoked marihuana and ate cocaine for breakfast. His teeth were white as snow, and his breath smelled like wet grass after a spring shower. I enjoyed the smell of marihuana. I worked right in between Quique and Pedro, so I got hooked on the smell. There wasn’t a day that I was not offered drugs, but there wasn’t a day I accepted the offer. Pedro called me a preacher, but I laughed and turned him down again. My aunt thought I was hooked on drugs, but the truth is I never accepted Pedro and Quique’s offers. The factory women also noticed the new kid on the block, but I did not give in to their sexual innuendoes. My working area had the Penthouse and Playboy centerfolds of the month all over the wall. The first few days I stared gracefully but after a few days I didn’t even notice the beautiful babes on the factory wall.
My aunt Isabel went to a small church around the corner, and I went too. It was a small Pentecostal church with about twenty members. The pastor spoke about the coming of Jesus and the end of the world in every sermon. Reverend Caratinni was an easy going, outspoken and loud-speaking pastor. He was five feet three inches tall and weighed close to three-hundred pounds. He was bald and had a bright spot that shined right on the top of his head. Reverend Caratinni screamed and yelled from the altar, and his hair would fly up and down with every swing of his words. He had my aunt crazy with the coming of Christ, but I had too much on my mind to worry about the end of the world. Going to church was always important for me, but Caratinni exaggerated every word. They had nine services a week, one each weekday, including Saturdays and three on Sunday. I sometimes went five and six times a week. Out of respect to my aunt, I visited quite frequently but when there were three services on a Sunday, I would negotiate two with my aunt. It was too much church for a fifteen year old.
I spent my weekends visiting my aunts. Aunt Isabel thought I spent too much time at Aunt Nerida’s house, so I started visiting Aunt Barbarita. On a Saturday afternoon, I was visiting Aunt Barbarita and smoke started coming into the apartment. In a matter of seconds, smoke and fire burst all over. I tried saving the new camcorder, but the smoke in the bedroom was suffocating. When I tried getting close to the camcorder, I saw shades of black smoke crawling through my aunt’s bedroom wall. I ran back to the living room while my cousins flew down the fire escape. I grabbed my aunt’s Chihuahua and jumped down the stairs. It was so frightened that it pissed all over me. The fire destroyed everything. We barely got out alive. The fire was like a wild horse in a rodeo. Its fury was devastating. The backdraft almost killed two firemen.
My aunt lost everything. She cried her heart out. It was a desperate scene, but I only watched in disbelief going over the fact that we barely got out alive. People from social services got her a new apartment, and brothers and sisters from church got her furniture and clothes. When we called our uncle, he asked for the Chihuahua.
Towards the end of my ordeal at the umbrella factory, I was carrying boxes of beach umbrellas into a truck, and a box slipped out of my hands and cut one of my fingers. I asked my boss, Mr. Fergosi, permission to wash out the blood from my hand.
“Hey, Mr. Fergosi, can I wash my hands I’m bleeding?”
“Sorry, boricua, if you go to the bathroom, you’re fired.”
“What are you talking about?” I reacted.
“That’s right bozo. You stay where you are or you’re fired.”
I took five minutes to meditate. This was my moment of truth. What would I do? Was the umbrella factory going to be part of my future? Should I go back to school? These questions came back and forth in my mind while I wrapped up my hand in a co-worker’s handkerchief. I promised myself that from there on I would change my attitude towards school, get good grades and study at the university.
A few weeks later, I was laid off from the umbrella factory. I had a few days off and decided to call my buddies from Tarrytown. I had been in New York City for two months, but I had not been able to visit Tarrytown. I was anxious to go back to my hometown.
The Metro-North train ran right across the Hudson River, and I anticipated what my hometown would look like. My heart beat heavily when I got off the train station at the old Tarrytown train station. The train station was on the other side of General Motors, so I spent a few moments looking at my father’s old working place. The cars were stacked up like giant sardines in a can. The plant where my father had worked for fifteen years of his life to build a future for himself and his family was still standing strong. My buddies were running a bit late, so I gathered my stray of emotions. David and Marshall came around to pick me up. Marshall was one of the old bullies who had smacked my face as a young boy. I asked him if he remembered little Junior:
“Hey, you remember Little Junior,”
“No, I’ve never heard of the guy,” he nervously answered.
“You sure, I’m Little Junior,” I said defiantly.
“First time I ever see ya,” he said while a thick piece of sweat
“down his forehead.
“You like just like a Marshall I knew a few years back.” I was a couple of years younger than Marshall, but I was taller and heavier than him. I decided to drop the subject because I didn’t want to spoil the homecoming. Tarrytown had not changed much in four years. There was a McDonald’s on the corner of Madison and Sampson Street, but I did not recognize other new businesses or buildings. My old schools were still there, and I wondered how beautiful and attractive Karen would be by now. I asked Marshall to drive around her house, but the house looked empty, and we continued our drive through Tarrytown. In a matter of seconds, David was smoking pot and Marshall was sniffing white powder which I later identified as cocaine. I was sitting in the back of the car. The year was 1978, and my buddies were smashing It Feels So Good by Chuck Mangione on the radio. Marshall asked if I wanted cocaine, and I said no. They laughed at my response, and I felt uncomfortable and uneasy about coming home. We went to see Felix, another of my neighborhood buddies, and he was selling and pushing drugs at the corner of Valley Street. All my buddies were using drugs. They offered drugs again and again, I refused.
“Come on June, try some weed,” said Felix with a sarcastic
smile on his face.
“Na, that’s not for me.”
“Hey, Junior, you come here and you don’t do drugs
with your old-time buddies,” yelled Marshall. The pressure was building, and I was almost ready to give in. Instead of doing drugs, I bought a bottle of Bacardi and drank half of it to prove that I was part of the group. The very next morning, I hopped on the first train back to New York City.
I stayed in New York a few more weeks working in construction but when August came around I was ready to go back to Puerto Rico. My aunt Isabel wanted me to stay, but I did not feel completely at home in New York.
It was a smooth flight back home. It was an early afternoon flight, so I got to see the light blue green sea and the tall palm trees as the plane flew above the northern Island sea shore. The landing was perfect, and the passengers applauded when the captain announced the arrival. I was told by a European couple that sat next to me that they had traveled all over the world and had never heard passengers applaud at a landing. I said it was an old Puerto Rican tradition, and they nodded in disbelief. The passengers were ecstatic with joy and euphoria. I stayed quiet but shared their emotions.
My parents and sisters came to pick me up. I hugged them and was happy to be back home. I promised my mother that I was going to get good grades in high school and was going to study at the university. I was relieved when my father opened the door of the old Nova. I was thoughtful and quiet during the drive home.