Summers in New York City’s Barrio were unbearable.
Even when there was a cool spell, it seemed a long time before the dry fresh air could find a way past the concrete and asphalt, into the crowded buildings which had become blazing furnaces. As Nilda played outside, she could smell the heat mingled with the odors coming from the tenements and sidewalks. Tiny beads of moisture settled in her nostrils, making it hard to breathe.
She was playing on the sidewalk where she had discovered a small patch of shadow. The side wall of the stoop steps of her building created this small island of comfort which now became her turf. With a small piece of white chalk, she began to draw pictures on the sidewalk. Getting even with her friends, she decided to scribble who loved who and which one stank. Pausing, she impulsively reached out to touch the unshaded concrete and jumped back, sticking her finger in her mouth to let the saliva take out the sting of the burn. She looked up and saw two of her friends.
“Man, it’s hotter here than in my house,” said Petra.
She was with her younger sister, Marge, who nodded in agreement. Nilda moved over and the two girls sat beside her, sharing the patch of shade.
“Paco is going to camp, lucky thing,” said Petra.
“I wish I could go,” said Marge.
“I’m going,” said Nilda. “My mother got me a place in a camp someplace in the country.”
“Is that the Catholic camp?” asked Petra. “Because if it is I sure won’t go there. They beat you up there.”
“They do not!” Nilda screamed. She had heard this before. Shrugging her shoulders, she said, “You never even been there.”
“But I know some kids who did go and they told me some stories, you know. They said—”
“Don’t tell me no lies,” Nilda interrupted. “Where is the place they went to?”
“In the country,” Petra answered. “Upstate or someplace like that.”
“Well there! This place where I’m going is in New Jersey, very far away, so you don’t even know what you’re talking about!”
“Oh, I think it was New Jersey.”
“Aw shut up, stupid. You are so dumb you don’t know your ass from your elbow! Talking a lot of garbage.” Nilda stopped talking and looked around her.
Up to that moment the block had been very quiet; people had been trying to keep off the hot street as much as possible. Now small groups of people were gathering about. The focus was on several men being led by Jacinto the grocer. For days everyone had been hoping that they would open up the fire hydrant. Jacinto was the only one who had the kind of wrench that could open the hydrant. He was afraid of the fine he might receive from the police, and he had refused to listen to everyone’s pleas. “You gonna pay the fine?” he had responded. “You know they’re gonna get me because I got the store.”
The intense heat had gone on for many days. Nilda knew now, just by looking at Jacinto and the group with him, that they were about to open the hydrant. All three girls jumped up in unison. Like an ant colony with antennae, it seemed, the entire block was informed immediately. People started to come out of the tenements or looked out of the windows asking, “Are they going to open it?” “Look, there’s Jacinto; they’re going to do it.” “¡Mira ¡Mira! There they go!” Their sluggishness seemed to fade, and with renewed vigor people appeared in the street. Nilda turned and ran into her building. She was anxious to tell whoever was home what was about to happen and to get into her bathing suit. She climbed the four flights of stairs, racing all the way. Pushing open the door, she yelled, “They are doing it; they’re going to open the hydrant! Hurry up before the cops come.”
“I know. I see, I see,” said her mother.
“Mamá, I want my bathing suit.”
“I got your bathing suit and a towel right there on the kitchen table. Now I’m going down,” she said.
Her mother and Aunt Delia started out the door. Nilda ran after them.
“Mamá, where’s Paul and Frankie?”
“They’re out, but they will probably be back soon enough to see the water,” her mother said.
Downstairs everybody was waiting and watching as Jacinto and some of the other men started to turn the large wrench which gripped the round cap on the side of the hydrant. It got quieter and quieter with each turn. As they removed the cap, complete stillness followed. A small stream of water dripped out of the round dark opening and a hushed sigh traveled the length and width of the onlooking crowd. Quickly, Jacinto turned the
knob at the top of the hydrant with the wrench. Suddenly with a burst, tons of water came gushing forth, cascading onto the hot melting black tar of the street like a magical waterfall. People plunged right into the onrushing water with their clothes on, arms outstretched, mouths open, drinking in the cool liquid. Laughing and screaming, they pushed each other out of the way to get nearer the water, their clothes sticking to bosoms and bellies, buttocks, arms and muscles all glistening with wetness.
Young women who were too shy to jump in were grabbed by the young men and pushed in. Their cries of protest resounded with happiness and relief as they ran laughing and jumping, covered completely with the cool water.
As automobiles turned into the street and passed in front of the hydrant, the young boys tried to get the drivers wet. When a driver forgot to close his windows and got soaked, the crowd would laugh and clap, ignoring his angry cursing and cries of protest.
The children skipped around, hopping and weaving in and around the adults. Some had bathing suits and some wore their clothes. The very small children had underpants or were naked. Except for the very old, who sat and watched with joy and amusement, everybody got drenched. Nilda yelled, “Come on!” and ran in and out of the spray with her friends. At times she would stay put in the water long enough to let the spray embrace her until she could feel the wonder of a chill traveling all over her body, a sensation she had forgotten in the long weeks of the heat. She was caught up in this mood of elation until she heard a low whining sound. In a few seconds everyone heard the clear sounds of the siren. The police patrol car turned the corner. She saw the car heading toward the hydrant. “¡La jara!” someone yelled. “¡La policía!” “The cops are here, man!” Swiftly, people began to scatter, backing up and running from the water.
Nilda stood among the people lined up against the steps of the tenements and in front of the small shops. The water gushed forth onto an empty street. She saw the two tall white
men in uniform step out and look around. Everyone was silent, watching and waiting. One policeman held a large wrench, the other had one hand placed on his gun holster and the other hand wrapped around his nightstick. They looked menacingly at the groups of people that lined both sides of the street, and slowly walked over to the hydrant.
“Okay. Now, who’s responsible for this?” There was a dead silence. The two policemen shook their heads and began to close the hydrant. Round and round they turned the wrench and finally it was closed. Shut tight. Quiet grumbling and whispered protests emanated from the onlooking crowd.
“God damn you people,” yelled one policeman. “You got no sense of responsibility. What if there’s a fire?”
Someone responded from way back, “Coño, leave the water on, man. It’s too hot here! Have a heart.” Everybody clapped.
“Shit. God damn you bastards, coming here making trouble. Bunch of animals. Listen, don’t pull that shit again. You’re acting against the law. If this happens again, one more time, I’m going to arrest all your asses! The whole God damned bunch of you spics.”
“Animals!” the other policeman added. Turning around and looking directly at the people, they waited, as if daring a response. Then the two policemen walked over to Jacinto’s grocery. Some of the children followed. Nilda was with her friends.
“You coming, Nilda? Let’s see what happens. Come on,” said little Benji.
“No, I’m staying. I’ll see you later, Benji.” She did not want to be near the policemen; she wanted them to disappear.
A few minutes later they walked out of Jacinto’s grocery. Each policeman had his own particular defiant swagger as he walked over to the patrol car and got in.
“Dirty bastard cops!” yelled a young man.
“Jacinto got another fine, man. Bendito.”
“They know they can get him because he got the store, you know.”
“That’s a God damn shame.”
Nilda saw the crowd dispersing. People reluctantly returned to their tenements, feeling the heat overtake them once more. She stayed in the street with her friends, enrapt in amazement at the river that flowed by the gutter. They were all fascinated by the things that floated along. The children waded in the cool stream, collecting lots of treasures. Nilda found a piece of comb and Petra found a paper cup. Marge and little Benji found some good bottle caps. They collected all these items with great interest. Little Benji put some water in the paper cup and drank it. “Ugh!” he yelled. “This tastes terrible!”
“Don’t, Benji. Don’t drink it; it’s got shit and germs in it,” said Nilda. “You’ll get sick and it tastes awful.” She knew because many times before she too had spit out the foul-tasting liquid.
The gutter river narrowed, slowly disappearing; and once again the dry hot concrete and black tar streets began to take command. Nilda looked down the street and saw the puddles of water begin to evaporate and the oppressive feeling of baking alive overtook her again. She turned to Petra who said, “Maybe it will rain,” as if reading Nilda’s thoughts. Benji picked up some of the bottle caps and said, “I’m cutting. See you.”
Nilda looked from Petra to Marge. “I’m tired of this game. I’m going home. See you later.”
She walked home, trying to step only on the areas where the pavement was wet. Nilda started thinking of camp and what it might be like with all kinds of trees and grass and maybe a lake. Like Central Park, she thought, or something like that. She tried to guess what might be ahead for her, maybe something better. These thoughts helped erase the image of the two big white policemen who loomed larger and more powerful than all the
other people in her life. ●
Excerpt from Nilda by Nicholasa Mohr is reprinted with permission from the publisher (©1972 Arte Público Press - University of Houston).
NICHOLASA MOHR was born in Manhattan’s El Barrio to Puerto Rican parents. She is the author of numerous books for adults, young adults, and children, including In Nueva York, Nilda, Rituals of Survival: A Woman’s Portfolio, A Matter of Pride, El Bronx Remembered, Felita, and Going Home. She is the recipient of the Jane Addams Peace Award, the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature, and the Raúl Juliá Award for Creative Commitment, among others. She received an Honorary Doctorate from the State University of New York, and the Bronx Public Library named the Nicholasa Mohr Reading Room at the Sedgewick Branch in her honor.