1. Visiting the Pastelito Lady
She might be one of the most treasured memories of every South Bronx childhood. Every block had one, mine was named Lydia. Lydia lived next door and would spend her nights prepping savory Latin dishes to cook and sell in the morning. Every day she’d sit on our corner, her small, worn shopping cart filled with homemade pastelitos, pasteles, and alcapurrias, and sell them each for a dollar.
With every purchase of these Dominican and Puerto Rican traditional fares, you received an aluminum foil wrapped item of your choice, accompanied by one napkin. If you purchased a bundle, or called her beforehand, she would always arrange a special deal. My mother gave her frequent business, especially during the holidays.
2. Opening the pumps in the summer
I remember my first pump experience like it was yesterday. My mother always forbade us from opening one — she hated that with every fire hydrant open, our apartments would lose water for the day. But she never prohibited running through one. And as the spring grew warmer and the summer temperatures engulfed us, like a fever in the night, more pumps opened.
I recall walking home after school one day and encountering the most enchanting fountain of water I’d ever seen. Spraying from a street hydrant, the water pressure was not too harsh, allowing for children to play in it safely. Its tall arch billowed into the street. Like a rainbow, the sun reflected off of the water and its glisten blinded me if I stared too hard. I soaked my clothes running loops under its bow, drenching my coiled hair and staining my khaki pants with dirt and grit.
Cars would drive through and pause directly under the rainbow’s spray. Neighborhood children in hues of cream, caramel, and chocolate would sprint to the driver’s window, requesting to “wash” the car for a dollar. A wash inferred wiping the car with a wet sponge and no soap. Needless to say, most drivers just wanted a rinse and would drive off, leaving the children disappointed and without payment.
3. Listening to the volume wars
Before our generation completely removed themselves from the world — retreating to their headphones and smart devices — there was the boombox. It was the catalyst for community celebration and the first thing you turned on in the morning. Portable and light, with an electrical outlet or a set of four D batteries — you were invincible.
With this blessing came the curse of volume wars. Neighbors would place their treasured portable stereos in the window, with the intent of sharing their music with the community. In one home, salsa music would lead a family into joyfully dancing the afternoon away; in another home, hip-hop rhythms would bring heavy bass and vibrating beats to rapping freestyles; in yet another apartment, wailing voices would sing along to soulful love ballads.
As one song grew louder, the second tune’s volume would rise, and then the third, and so on — ultimately resulting in musical chaos for hours. I’d listen gleefully, tuning through the outside radio stations with selective hearing.
4. Buying candy at the bodega
There were no better days than the ones when I was able to collect enough change to go to the bodega. Plastered with posters of scantly clad women and cigarette ads, lotto signage, and beer stickers, you could never quite see through the windows of these corner stores. Their worn “Grocery” signs were barely legible beneath the layers of dirt, and their lively music boomed onto the street, regardless of whether or not the door was ajar.
Most times, I enthusiastically volunteered to pick up milk for my mother, just so I could keep the change. At the bodega checkout counter, guarded by scratched and faded plexiglass, completely concealing the cashier and anything behind him, I’d gaze over the built-in shelves, displaying an array of sweets, treats, and cigarette choices. Jingling the change in my hand, I’d carefully choose three Sour Patch Kids, two cherry Now and Laters, one Jawbreaker, one Nerds, and five Sower Powers. Then I’d drop my well-spent fifty cents on the counter, proudly, and depart.
5. Finding frozen ices on every corner
Coco, Cherry, Rainbow — those are just a few of the mouth-watering flavors offered in quaint frozen ice carts and placed on every other corner of the South Bronx. With a large patio umbrella strategically tied to the structure, these wheeling carts resemble a long awaited response to distress signals: hand-painted in vibrant reds, greens, and blues, rescuing communities from the summer heat waves. Usually a plump Latin woman with leathered skin, burned orange from the sun, sits gracefully, awaiting her customers. With a smile on her face, showcasing a glowing gold tooth, she plops up from her stool, ready to serve.
On the most humid days, dragging my feet with sweat beads dripping down my back, I would spot the ice carts and join my siblings in begging our mother for 50 cents. We’d desperately run toward the stand, and like a desert mirage, it’d disappear behind a crowd of people waiting in line for their frozen fix.
Whether Delicioso Coco Helado or Piraguas, the refreshing flavors of those Puerto Rican frozen ices are forever tattooed onto my taste buds.
6. Visiting City Island for the first time
When my family finally got a car, we joined the driving Bronxite community in enjoying summer visits to our very own, City Island. Whether late night or throughout the day, the 1.5-mile seaport located in the Long Island Sound had one main street offering access to local seafood dining. City Island Avenue led us to my family’s favorite seafood spot: Johnny’s Reef Restaurant. Johnny’s offered cash-only counter service with a waterfront view of the Stepping Stones Lighthouse.
Whenever we visited, we routinely entered the cafeteria-style eatery, separating from each other to find our preferred queues. I’d wait on the short French fries and slushy line, while my family would join the long, bustling crab, oysters, and shrimp line. We often took our meals to sit amongst the rows of picnic-style outdoor seating, dodging hungry seagulls trying to fly through guarding wires installed above us. Every once in a while a seagull would realize he could just walk under the wires, and off we’d run, protecting our food.