For The Love of Cowboy Boots
I met a good friend for coffee last week. We had settled on a little, corner shop across from Precita Park in San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood. He was sitting at one of the outdoor tables, looking at a piece of paper when I showed up. He turns around and tells me that, a minute or so before I arrived, a single, torn page from a magazine flew across his lap, having been blown down the street by a sudden breeze (see pic of OJ Simpson ad for Dingo Boots @ 1974; that's a pic of the actual torn page from last week). He said "Check this out. A three-legged, young OJ." I was stunned. "Guess which magazine this ad comes from?" he asked. "Betcha can't." I answered immediately.
"How did you know that?" he asked, more than a bit surprised. And I told him this story ... which also happens to mark the first time I became conscious of a preference for "American" over "Cuban."
Thanksgiving 1974. My mom drove my sister and my nine year-old self down to Homestead, Fl to celebrate Thanksgiving at my cousin's house. I was excited. Her life seemed so different than any of my other relatives'. For one, there was lots more English spoken at her house. My cousin had married an American guy named Steve. He was one of my favorite relatives; larger-than-life, former college football player, garrulous and funny AF. They had kids a bit younger than me, lots of American friends and a big house located across the street from undeveloped acreage of Florida-style woods: palmetto scrub, pine trees, sawgrass, sugarsan and foot trails. Between the yummy food and the woods I could explore before dinner, I was set. That said, I did have another reason for being excited that particular Thanksgiving.
The holiday meant that I wouldn't have to to school the next day, which gave me a super-welcome reprieve from the harassment and insults I experienced on the bus rides to/from the "Cuban" school my mom had transferred me to that year. Fourth grade had been a friendless blur up to that point, and the hour-long bus ride to/from school a perpetual gauntlet of earlobe flicks, head slaps, ¡Gringo! and "Hey, White Boy's" mixed in with the occasional shove or arm-punch. I hated that school. And I hated those bus rides. But that's another story (which, of course, I'll eventually tell you). Let's get to the boots.
I had been to my cousin's house once before, so I knew how cool the woods were, and got the ok from my mom to take off almost as soon as we arrived. I said my hellos, got all the ¡Ay, que bueno verte!'s ¡Muchacho!'s ¡Mira cuanto has crecido!'s out of the way and took off across the street and into the woods. I stayed close enough to hear my mom shout my name when it was time to eat, but went a little further into the thicket than I had the last time I was there.
It didn't take long for me to find crushed, empty beer cans, cigarette butts, broken bottles and the remnants of a small fire - telltale signs of teenagers or, in my mind, robbers or drug dealers. The latter was a 'thing' back then, as Miami was quickly growing in to a newfound reputation as Cocainelandia. Those were the years immediately preceding (and informing) movies like Scarface and TV shows like Miami Vice. Newscasts were full of drug drop stories taking place in woods like these, along the fringes of unincorporated Dade County. Every weekly local news cycle featured colorful descriptions of small Cesnas dropping bales of weed or parachuting crates of cocaine bricks down to the waiting arms of transporters driving small Toyota pickups with oversized wheels, roll bars and fog lamps. I was hoping to see such a drop but all I found that day was the aforementioned bottles and cans and a partially burnt paper bag containing ratty Penthouse magazines.
I suppose if I had been a bit older, the find would have been epic. But I was nine, with altar boy aspirations (a short 5 years away from sending myself to a seminary, to begin studying for the priesthood...but...as with the fourth grade bus rides, that's another story that I'll tell ya' later!). While the nudity certainly made me blush, what really caught my eye were the ads for Dingo and Acme cowboy boots. It was then that I saw the OJ Dingo ad for the first time. I'm not sure if it was the combination titillation-embarrassment-shock of the porn throughout the rest of the magazines mixed in with the danger-thrill of being in those woods alone, but the boot ads just spoke to me in a way that few things did at that age: THIS is what you need. THIS is cool. Right then and there, I knew what I wanted for Christmas. I just knew that my life would be better if I wore those boots.
What I did- and could not know was how my sudden longing for cowboy boots would alter the course of my life and, eventually, art.