Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Christmas 1974 - 1975. Miami.
His name was Pérez. He was a school bus driver and the first person to ever call me "Cowboy." He could have been drunk, and his English wasn't very good so he pronounced it /Cow/-/Woy/. I was nine, in the middle of 4th grade, and I had finally gotten the cowboy boots I'd hounded my mom for that Christmas. It was the first day back from winter break, and he noticed my boots straightaway. He slurred(loudly) "¡Vamos, Cow-woy, monta(el) caballo!" which means, basically, 'C'mon, cowboy, ride that horse." The kids who were already on the bus that morning heard him, and by the time we arrived at school that day, "gringo" and "white boy" had given way to "Cow-Woy."
Pérez. That's the only name we had for the guy. No one called him mister or señor. Just Peréz. We could all smell the alcohol on his breath and the cigarettes on his clothes as we got on the bus each day. He wore short-sleeved, collared shirts with a pocket-protector and had a green, faded tattoo running down his hairy right arm. The rumor was that he'd been a cop back in Cuba, and had served time in prison after Castro took over. My elementary school mates and I were just plain scared of him. The high schoolers on the bus were wary but wildly amused.
Pérez would stand outside the bus door after school, waiting for us to start piling in. The bus yard was part field, part parking lot and happened to be rat-infested. At least once a week, Pérez would have a dead rat impaled on the end of a nail-spiked baseball bat; the same bat he kept at his side while he drove. No one fucked with the guy, and he had a decidedly laissez faire attitude about maintaining order on the bus. He rarely, if ever, broke up fights, and he certainly never once yelled at the high schooler boys for picking on me. The high school girls were my sole defenders, dubbing me their hermanito and/or gringuito. I relied on them like we do on gravity or physics: with a reliable, silent ignorance.
Pérez drove like a maniac, swerving, speeding, drifting into medians, jerking the wheel to overcompensate and sending many of us kids flying in to the aisle or atop each other. It was a free-for-all. There were no seatbelts on busses back in those days. I learned to use the crazy driving to get myself out of beatdowns or, at least, hoped the older boys would be distracted enough to focus either on their own safety or impressing/annoying the girls directly; even as they secretly wished the bus' high-speed lurches would somehow send them falling on to a girl.
Loyola was the name of the school. My mom sent me there for 4th grade (see previous blogpost). My freckles, light skin and light brown hair marked me. At home, in my new neighborhood, the kids called me "Spic." At Loyola, especially on those bus rides, everyone called me "Gringo" or "Whitey." I couldn't win for trying. But those boots. Those boots made me feel different, better somehow.
Maybe it was a combination of a sexual power surge caused by all that surrounded the the OJ ad (re: half-burnt Penthouse magazines I'd found that Thanksgiving), and/or an outgrowth of an ever-growing set of positive associations with all things "American" since the start of 4th grade, but I loved wearing those cowboy boots. And I definitely preferred "cow-woy" to "white boy." I loved that pair of boots more than life itself. I just didn't realize how much that love would cost me.