Elvis Romero and the Cosmic White Corvette: ‘Wheels’

- September 18, 2012

A Serialized Novel and Podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato

The following is part fourteen of a serialized novel and podcast. Start at Chapter One.

Rudy and I somehow managed to survive junior high and we were promoted to ninth grade at Santa Fe Mid-High School. This was when my long awaited puberty overtook me with a vengeance. I shot up four inches seemingly overnight and I began to change in many ways. One of these changes could only be described as a curse. Shortly after my fourteenth birthday, I began to notice painful, red bumps appearing on my forehead and chin. My complexion became increasingly oily. It didn’t seem to matter how often I washed my face. Sometimes these little bumps were capped with a white top that burst and a milky fluid was exposed. I was horrified. I felt as if I was transforming into a hideous freak as the small volcanoes continued to erupt. As soon as one appeared, went through its terrible life cycle and began to fade, two more sprang up as if they were reinforcements, intent on keeping me in perpetual misery.

I tried everything on the drugstore counters that claimed to be a solution, but nothing helped. Finally in desperation, I convinced my dad to take me to our family doctor. Dr. Montoya only chuckled and stated that it was just one of those things that adolescents go through and I’d grow out of it in time.

Sometimes I felt so pent up and frustrated with my life that I wanted to crawl out of my skin. My family embarrassed me; they didn’t seem to understand who I was or where I was coming from. When I was at home I felt like a tiger pacing in a cage. I desperately wanted to escape Santa Fe, myself, everything.

I needed freedom. I focused my laser beam of desire on the one thing that would make my dream come true. It was a red Kawasaki twin-jet 100cc motorcycle. I laid my eyes upon it in the display window at Santa Fe Cycles on Cerrillos Road. I conspired day and night about how to make it mine. Its nine hundred dollar price tag was more than I’d ever dreamed of paying for anything in my life. There was no possible way that my parents could help me. It took all that my father earned just to keep our family going.

The only way that I was ever going to get that motorcycle was to get a job and buy it for myself. I scoured the want ads in the newspaper for an employer who was in need of a teenager with no particular skills other than playing the guitar and being sultry. After a couple of weeks I was on the verge of giving up when I ran across an ad that made my heart leap:

“Wanted: Newspaper delivery man for downtown route. Duties include delivery to customers 5 days per week, M-F between 6:00-7:00 AM and collection of monthly subscription payments.”

It was the perfect job. I could make deliveries before school by strapping a carrying bag to the back of my motorcycle. I laid out my plan to my parents who were skeptical.

My dad complained, “Elvis, it’s hard enough to get you out of bed at 7:00 every morning to go to school, how are you going to get up at 5:30 before the sun is even up to deliver newspapers?”

My mother added, “Besides, what will happen in the winter when it’s freezing in the morning and snow is on the ground?”

 They hemmed and hawed but my mind was made up and I continued to hound them until they eventually gave in, not wanting to extinguish any ambitions involving work and responsibility. In the back of his mind, my dad remembered how he had felt about his corvette many years before and he understood my obsession.

On Saturday morning, we went down to the motorcycle shop and negotiated a contract for the Kawasaki. I was responsible for making a one hundred dollar payment each month for nine months until the bike was paid off. This seemed reasonable since I’d be making one hundred and fifty dollars monthly on my route and this meant I’d have money left over for gas. After all of the details were worked out we loaded the gleaming machine on the back of a borrowed pick-up. I stood in the truck’s bed beaming with the pride of ownership.

I learned how to shift gears, use the brakes, and work the throttle by riding up and down the street in front of our house. In a few hours, the machine seemed like a natural extension of me and I was ready to explore the world.

The next few weeks were a renaissance in my life. Although it was not easy to wake at 5:30 and deliver newspapers in the dark, I did it. I’d reach into my saddlebag and toss papers onto the front yards of my subscribers. When I was done, I’d head back home for breakfast just as the sun was rising and ride off to school with no time to spare.

My motorcycle gave me a freedom that was exhilarating. I no longer had to depend on my parents to give me rides; the whole city was open to me. I explored every street and neighborhood and ride for hours with no destination in mind, just following an uncharted course down different parts of town.

I became friends with a couple of other guys at school who had motor bikes, Leroy and Frankie. We cruised the town together, occasionally parking on the outskirts of the city limits to smoke a cigarette or else we hung out at the local bowling alley and played pool or worked the pinball machines for hours. I basked in the glow of my newfound independence. We were mesmerized by the film Easy Rider and we imagined ourselves as Dennis Hoppers or Peter Fondas as we rode down Paseo de Peralta.

If my mom had known what I was up to, she would not have been pleased. Leroy, Frankie and I had discovered a unique way to cut down on our fuel costs. Our system only required a gas can and a short, thin rubber hose.

“Hey, Man this street looks good for a fill-up,” yelled Leroy through the brisk night air as we rode down a sleepy housing development near Casa Allegre. Frankie and I nodded in agreement and we slowed down, preparing to put our well rehearsed plan into action. We rode through different neighborhoods at night looking for cars parked in dark, remote sections away from any lights or activity. Once we had selected our target, we rode past it, circled back and parked our bikes discreetly.

On this particular evening we spotted a blue Ford station wagon parked in the driveway of a house with no lights on. The house sat on a dead end street which made for a perfect location, away from the inquisitive eyes of neighbors.

 Leroy turned off his lights and killed his engine as he rode up to the car while Frankie and I kept a lookout.

“I’ll fill up the can first and then it’s your turn,” Leroy instructed. Frankie and I sat on our bikes with the adrenaline coursing through our veins. It was fun to be bad.

 Leroy removed his gas cap and slid the hose into the tank. He sucked hard on the other end until the gas began streaming out. I knew when this happened because I could hear Leroy spitting and gagging in the darkness trying to expel the gasoline that had coated his mouth before he pulled out the hose and stuck the flowing end into the waiting gas can by his side. When the gas can was full, we poured the contents into our tanks. On some nights we repeated this process several times with different cars until our tanks were full.

Our criminal activity was not only motivated by a desire to save money but also by the thrill of performing such a subversive and dangerous act. It made us feel daring and liberated to step over the line of accepted social behavior. As we became more adept at the routine, Frankie and I also became experts at the art of siphoning as Leroy became weary of his gasoline mouthwashes. Whether it was dumb luck or our felonious skills, we somehow never got caught invading the sleepy Santa Fe neighborhoods.

The motorcycle opened up another world to our juvenile bandito gang. We were now free to visit what the local’s referred to as “the bad part of town.” Now that we were unchained from our peaceful, dull neighborhoods, we were able to taste life on the other side of the tracks. In Santa Fe, the unsavory section was considered to be an area southwest of the Plaza near Alto Street. Good Santa Fe folks shuddered when they thought about being there after dark. It was believed to be frequented by pachucos and winos. We found it to be quite different from the conventional wisdom. Alto Street was to be sure one of the poorest sections of town but it was in many ways friendlier and more full of life than the quiet, suburban neighborhoods where people tended to stay locked up behind their front doors after the sun went down.

Alto Street was mostly populated by Mexican immigrant families who had recently come north looking for new opportunities. Unlike American folks, Mexicans did not retreat behind closed doors after dark. Instead, they tended to venture outside on to their front yards and visit with their neighbors. Night time was for socializing after long days of back-breaking work in the restaurants, hotels, and construction sites around Santa Fe. The street was alive with guitars, accordions, and sizzling meat cooking on grills. Alto Street was filled with the sound of the loud laughter of men clutching Corona “cervesas,” women gossiping in Spanish that flowed from their lips in staccato bursts, and children running in all directions. We found ourselves gravitating to this place more and more as time went on. It seemed to contain the only real life happening in the city.

It did not take us long to befriend the Mexican teenagers. We smoked Camels with the “cholos” and took them for beer runs at Andy’s Liquors around the corner. We also were very interested in the Mexican girls who batted their dark eyes and seemed interested in the strange boys who came from the other side of town. Soon, we were spending most of our time in parked cars in dark alleys learning about the mysteries of love.

I hooked up with a girl named Felicia who had shiny black hair, an innocent face, and a dark, slender body. We sat in her mother’s car in the driveway of her house and kissed in the dark for hours with the radio on. I always worried that her mother would sneak up on us but she was too busy socializing and drinking margaritas to be concerned about what her daughter was up to. Felicia’s father had died several years before and they had traveled up from Chihuahua with an uncle.

Felicia and I enjoyed each other’s company for about six months until one day her best friend Brenda told me that she had gone back to Mexico. I was not so much heartbroken as grateful to Felicia for what she had taught me. Anyway, within a couple of days, Brenda and I took up where Felicia and I had left off.

It was not too long before I progressed from my motorcycle to my first car. I scored a cherry ’57 Chevy body from my cousin up north in Chimayo and went to work putting in a rebuilt engine and detailing it to the max. Ése, that car was my life.

The low rider lifestyle was as natural to me as breathing in the pure Santa Fe air. I’d grown up around cars watching my cousins and uncles spend their evenings and weekends devotionally laboring over their “ranflas.”  Their girlfriends and wives knew better than to complain about the endless hours that their men spent on their rides. They had to accept that they would always come in second when it came to personal attention from their vatos.

From the time I was ten years old, I was initiated into the fraternity and given a wrench to help out. Over time I learned how to turn a stock model, everyday consumer car into a dream ride “carrucha.”

To make a low rider that one could be proud to display cruising around the Plaza on a Friday nigh took patience, hard work and a lot of imagination. It also took a sizable amount of money. Candy paint jobs that consisted of a base coat of gold or silver paint topped with up to fifty more color coats could run into the thousands. Add to that a mural and glass etchings featuring Our Lady of Guadalupe or a Mayan or Aztec theme done by a master “bajito” artist and you were talking some serious “feria.”

The paint job was just one of the steps in getting your ride “cherried out.” Chrome was important to have everywhere possible. Chrome wheels, bumpers and even on the undercarriage were mandatory.

Custom wire spoke wheels added a touch of class if you could afford them, along with twin side pipes and fender skirts.

The interior of the car was a whole other matter. You began with crushed velvet upholstery, red and black being the colors of choice.

A primo sound system with booming bass speakers were important when you were cruising slow with your arm around your “chavala” listening to Al Hurricane or Little Joe and La Familia from up El Norte way. A chrome chain steering wheel completed the package and you were in business.

Some low riders went all out and “chopped” their cars, lowering the roofs by removing sections of metal from the windshield posts and door pillars. They installed neon lights around the windows, trunk, and under-chassis that made their cars look like downtown Las Vegas at night.

As elaborate and impressive as all of this was, the real heart and soul of a low rider “carrito” was its hydraulics. Hydraulic lifts were operated manually to lower and raise the front and rear ends. Once the car could be manipulated this way, it was said to be “juiced up,” and a “chingon” ride.

A good hydraulic job could lower a car within a few inches off the ground, low enough to knock over a pack of Camel cigarettes. Some cars could go even lower and using skid plates, they actually scraped the pavement sending a shower of sparks into the night that looked like sparklers on the Fourth of July.

The car had to be raised as easily as it was lowered to clear speed bumps or when the police were watching to have legal street clearance and avoid getting pulled over and ticketed.

A favorite low rider trick was called “hopping.” By using hydraulics to lift and lower the car, a “cholo” could create the effect of having his ride do “car dancing.” Some cars could rock from side to side as well as up and down.

If a low rider was at a stop sign and he saw a “manito” hit his hydraulics, he had to hit his in response, it was proper low rider etiquette. He also hit his hydraulics if he scoped out a particularly cool car while he was cruising to give “props” or proper respect.

Low riding in Santa Fe and throughout northern New Mexico was not only limited to young vatos. Older cruisers or “veteranos” in their thirties and forties also made the scene on Friday and Saturday nights. For some families, especially up north in Española and Santa Cruz, low riding was a family tradition, passed down through the generations. It was a lifestyle, a part of the culture, and a symbol of ethnic pride. Their cars were pieces of art and labors of love.

The main quality that all low riders aspired to, was to be “bajito y suavecito” that is, “low and slow.” They cruised at the lowest possible legal speed and peered over their steering wheel with as cool a stare as they could project to tell the world, “El mundo es mi chante,” “the world is my house.”

Cruising Santa Fe on weekend nights was something we did at our own risk. Not because anyone was speeding around the Plaza or anything like that, in fact it was not “chingon” to go fast; any low rider worth his salt knew that slow was the way to go. However, downing a six-pack or two with your “vatos” while you were out cruising was a ritual that was a natural part of the scene. As a result, everyone had to keep a sharp eye out for cars that were having a hard time staying between the lines or negotiating stop signs and traffic lights. The cops did their best to keep some semblance of order amongst the chaos.

The Santa Fe Police were not supported much by the local judge. Pancho Fernandez was re-elected like clockwork on the platform that boys will be boys and everyone makes a mistake or two once in a while.

The problem was that some cruisers had made more than their fair share of mistakes and were still the beneficiaries of Judge Fernandez’s leniency. It was not unheard of to find some guys with up to ten DWI’s still in possession of their driver’s licenses, having had yet another warning from the infinitely patient judge. If they happened to have a friend or relation who knew the judge personally, they might not even have to show up for court. The ticket magically disappeared into the bowels of City Hall.

Judge Fernandez’s most popular annual tradition was the turkey food drive. During a two week period sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, if an offender brought a frozen turkey to court, the Judge forgave the citation and tore up the ticket on the spot. Judge Fernandez saw this as a wonderful opportunity to feed the hungry in Santa Fe and also to win extra votes come election time. The fact that this type of judicial behavior was probably illegal and could be grounds for his removal never seemed to concern the Judge. He continued the ritual year after year to the accolades of the citizenry and the consternation of the state judicial system.