Updated: May 10, 2021
Three—you have to read the story Swap Meet to know why Three was called Three--had an uncle who would ride into Smith Place, talk up a storm, play classical guitar, and declaim memorized poems and speeches, dust storm like, and mesmerize everyone, kids and adults alike. His sudden appearances and disappearances created great welcomes and just as excellent departures. Three’s Uncle Bastòn could receive an embrace at showing up and a kick in the butt sending him on his way.
Three’s uncle liked to be called Bus. The name was easy to remember, and it opened doors through a quick introduction: Hey, it’s Bus. Bus counted on this familiarity because it meant he did not have to waste time on chit chat and could quickly start selling whatever he was hawking on a particular visit.
Bus sold it all: pots and pans on credit, Tupperware on lay-away, music lessons, public speaking classes, letter writing in Spanish and in English, and even taught cooking classes making exotic Mexican dishes that he’d learned at his mother’s side.
His approach to selling at Smith Place was tied to Three’s mother, Doña Rosa. Bus was Three’s mother’s brother and people on Smith Place loved Doña Rosa and thought by buying stuff from Bus they were pleasing her. Though Doña Rosa loved her brother, she despised his conniving ways, ways that estranged him, due to debts and failed promises, from his Mexican family and village.
Bus knew that going back to Mexico was not in the proverbial cards for him. And true to his innate nature he found a way to look north, never worrying if he would ever see his native home. Bus was set on where he was going. Let the villagers and family cry all they want to the local Mexican authorities of his movidas (ploys) he was going to be adopted by his loving Uncle Sam no matter what it took.
Bus got his citizenship much quicker than most. He finagled a Southern California politician who needed a Spanish translator who did not ask many questions and had the political savvy to only translate the parts of speeches that won the politico votes. Bus did the old quid pro quo movida: citizenship for just enough translation to keep people happy.
Soon to be Congressman Taylor did not need a translator who worried about the words that would hold the politician liable for promises, promises he made in English using words that the first-generation Mexican denizens of his precinct might not understand.
It was Bus’s charge to ensure those promissory words were never translated. In return, upon election—as promised to Bus—the Honorable Congressman Taylor ensured that Bus could cry tears of gratitude at his naturalization ceremony.
When told of his quick citizenship, Doña Rosa made the sign of the cross knowing that Bus would need her prayers as he fought being brought through hell’s doors. She thought to herself: not only has Bus moved north, so have his movidas.
As much she would have liked to warn her neighbors about Bus’s proclivities for making promises, taking money, and often failing to provide goods or services, she could not. Doña Rosa had confided in her mother that she wanted to warn her neighbors. Doña Petra would hear none of it and made it clear to Dona Rosa: Bastòn is family and family protect family even when they are stealing their neighbors blind.
Doña Petra was a distinguished member of her Catholic Church in Cuidad Juarez, Chihuahua and it always made Doña Rosa wonder in what part of the bible Doña Petra found that scripture that said family protect family even when they are stealing their neighbors blind. But Doña Rosa knew it had to be somewhere in the holy book because Doña Petra knew her Bible inside and out.
Poor Doña Rosa had to witness her brother’s flim-flam and it pained her to see her neighbors falling, as had other family members, for Bus’s charm. Bus could take you to places around the world, places he had never been, through his story-telling prowess and his ability to form just enough of a tear to swell within the eye but never enough to run down his cheek, giving the appearance of a caring soul who could control the enormity of his feelings and yet maintain masculine control of his emotions like a warrior who must face battle but must carry on.
Three adored Bus. He followed him to every house Bus approached to try and make a sale. They would leave Smith Place in a borrowed car filled with trinkets and kitchen ware galore. Bus also carried boxes of sugar cubes. Which he brought out when offered coffee or tea and which impressed folks as if he were carrying gold.
Of course, I will take a cube or two of sugar, thank-you Bus. The very sugar they had on their pantry shelf Bus was offering, and in their gratitude, ladies would make orders that set back the week’s grocery money by at least ten dollars, if not twenty. The sugar cube boxes cost Bus a dollar.
After a day of selling, Bus would buy beer for Doña Rosa’s husband and they would drink it on the front porch. Bus would bring out the family’s nylon stringed classical guitar and play the only song he knew: La Malagueña.
A guitarist playing the song must have fingering skill but also a sense of drama to play its slow parts with a lamenting tone that brings one to a tearful memory of a love from long ago. If Bus had only one song he could play, La Malaguena gave him a stage to squeeze conniving investment from every note.
Bus taught Three the first portions of the song and told him to practice it often. Three also learned a few basic chords and Bus, for all his bluster, could teach someone to play a song. Three learned that the Beatles and other radio hits we heard could be played with just three chords. Bus taught Three a series of three chord patterns and Three would make the most of those three chords.
When Bus returned for another visit, bringing Tupperware orders from some families and telling others that there was a backlog and they would have to wait, Doña Rosa knew that at least half the families would never see their Tupperware or money again. Bus could not look Doña Rosa in the eye and avoided her as much as he could throughout the visit, and spent much time talking to Three about a talent show idea Three had.
Three loved the afternoon dance shows that were the rage in Southern California in the sixties: Hullabaloo, Where the Action Is!, Shindig, the Huggy Boy Show, and the grandest of them all, American Bandstand. Three told Bus that he wanted to put on a talent show at Smith Place and he wanted it to be hip like the dance shows.
Bus sat with Three and talked to him like a producer for a show talks to another producer. I was near them and could hear them talking about keeping the audience interested, having different acts for different tastes, selling concessions, setting up a stage, getting instruments for kids to play—all kinds of stuff.
At one point, Bus showed Three how he could set up a pots and pans band, even taking an old tin tub and creating a broom stick bass, which Three could not get enough of. Doña Rosa was furious when she saw that Bus had put a nail hole at the center of her tin tub. Bus assured her that she could patch it up with gum and tape and it would still hold water.
Three was so cool with the tin tub bass. He had a rhythmic sense few kids on Smith Place had. He could swing that bass to play the bottom to almost any tune. Three had a nice voice and when he backed his voice with the tin tub string bass, it sounded like what music is supposed to sound like.
Neighbors, like Payton’s family and the Harris clan, wanted in on the talent show. Mrs. Harris had only one request: her son, Randall, had to sing a gospel song. Randall could sing in a high voice and carry a falsetto like the soul singers we heard on the radio, but Mrs. Harris wanted her son to sing for the Lord, no Motown, the Lord. Randall for his part just wanted to sing and he had no problem only singing for the Lord.
Three started gathering all the kids on Smith Place and giving them parts. I did not have talent so he said I would be part of Randall’s gospel chorus and I did not have to sing. I just had to move my lips to the words that others sang. I thanked Three for looking out for me. I wanted to be in the talent show but I did not want to embarrass myself and Three found the answer I needed.
Payton took it upon himself to be in charge of the concessions and said the kids could keep all the money that we made on concessions. He asked all the parents to make cookies or other things that kids who were not going to be in show could sell to the parents and others who came to see the show. On the day of the show, it was our job to collect the goodies from the all those who agreed to make concessions we could sell.
Since I was just going to mouth the words, Payton thought I could sell concessions during the other parts of the show. I agreed. It seemed easy enough to me and the more I sold the more I could get from the money we gathered. When Randall heard of my dual role he put a stop to it quick. When he heard that I was instructed just to mouth the words he put his foot down. No one will just mouth the words to a song we are singing to the Lord! Randall was adamant that we would all sing and that he would teach us to perform.
It’s funny when a kid knows that everything is going to go wrong. A kid can see it coming whether he can voice his concerns or not. And me trying to sing was going to end in an embarrassing failure. I just knew it. I’d been embarrassed in class before, and I could see the déjà vu all over again.
I tried to get Payton to tell Randall that I had to work selling the concessions and could not sing. Payton laughed at me and said: Heck, I’ll pay to see you try and sing. For the first time Payton let me down.
Three decided on the date for the talent show. He set it for the Saturday after we got out of school for the summer, which gave us a month to get ready for the show. I did help with the concessions, going to door-to-door asking parents and neighbors whether they would donate cookies or other things, and surprisingly they all agreed to help.
Three was busy getting his garage cleaned out for the show, and I was busy hiding from Randall who wanted our choir to rehearse every night. He’d gotten younger kids to join the chorus, so it would be me, a fifth grader, and two kindergarten kids. It was going to be embarrassing enough and now I had two kids that Randall wanted me to hold hands with as we sang our song. But worst of all he wanted me to wear a tie.
At our first rehearsal, one of the little kids turned to me and in loud young kid demanding to be heard voice pronounced an opinion of me: you cannot sing! Randall he cannot sing!
I told Randall that even the little kids knew I would ruin the show, but Randall assured me that the Lord wanted me at the show. Eventually, I learned to sing quietly, mostly a hum with hints of words. Not mouthing the words but close. I could live with this.
The day of the show turned into a neighborhood parade. The show was set to start at 2:00 p.m. And at about one-thirty, parents started bringing to Three's garage driveway trays of cookies, popcorn balls, lemonade, small candy bars, lemon bars, and as they brought the concessions some brought chairs to sit and watch.
Three divided the show into three acts. He also put in a few minutes in between acts for the next act to set up. Three’s dad created a stage that had three steps leading up to the stage and in front of the stage Doña Rosa had strung a black sheet curtain that could be pulled across to reveal the acts. As people came to watch the show all they could see in the garage opening was the drawn curtain. The backstage was in Three backyard and acts set up by going into the garage from the side door to the garage.
Randall and his choir (me and the little kids) were the first act of the show. We were supposed to perform for fifteen minutes and I was scared that we would sing our one song and then just mumble for thirteen more minutes. Randall had not told us about this time we were to fill. But I need not have worried. Randall and the Lord were ready.
Three came out to MC the show. He thanked the parents and proceeded to introduce the Reverend Randall Harris. The what Randall Harris? I did not know what was going on. Randall had not told us what this Reverend stuff was about. Again, I should have simply had faith in Randall and the Lord.
When the curtain opened Randall brought us out and had us sit on the second step to the stage. He then moved a little table to the center of the area in front of the stage. He set up a glass of water, placed a white handkerchief next to it, and then brought out a Bible to set on the table, kissing it as he set it down.
Randall then proceeded to bring the house down with roller coaster preaching that took the crowd and the choir on a ride of child driven, Lord inspired, passion that quoted verse like an English actor reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy.
Randall preached of Jesus on the Mount. He said that we the children are the meek of the earth, calling on the parents to see that we would inherit the earth. He demanded that adults fix the earth we would inherit because that was only right. He jumped up and down beseeching the crowd to learn to fish and not depend on the hand me downs. He was sweating, wiping his face dry, taking a drink of water, and preaching with the flow of the spirit of the Lord.
Everyone in that Smith Place crowd started believing. I believed as much as I could and when Randall, as if on God’s cue, said: And now a song from our choir. He came over and took a stick baton that he’d made, tapped it twice to silence the parents who were still whooping and hollering from his sermon, and focused his eyes on us. I can’t remember if I sang or not. I knew the little girls were singing at the tops of their lungs. I just stared at Randall in admiration and respect at what he had just done.
The second act featured all the little girls of Smith Place, including the ones who had been with me in Randall’s chorus. The girls wore into shiny cloth dresses and they proceeded for the next fifteen minutes to lip synch to the Supremes, to Mary Wells’ My Guy, to Heatwave, to the Shirelles, and ended with R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
Sharona had gotten permission to put make-up on the little girls and dress them in matching dresses which Doña Rosa had sown. And eight little girls threatened to steal the show with their cuteness and their precocious charm.
The third act was Three’s band. We did not know what they were going to play. Three had been secretive about what they were doing. The band included Randall’s little brother Terrence and their cousin Little Eddie. Payton had to introduce Three’s band and he simply introduced them as the Smith Place Players.
When the curtain opened, the audience started laughing because they saw Three on stage with his tin tub bass, Terrence with his pots and pans and Little Eddie with a card board box, a small sweep broom—the kind you can hold in one hand—and some whittle wood drum sticks that Grandpa had made.
Payton tried to quiet the parents down. He did not want the kids’ feeling to be hurt. He need not have been concerned. Little Eddie started sweeping the cardboard box to a jazzy rhythm, Terrence was playing the pots and pans, one in each hand, in time to the rhythm that Little Eddie was laying down. Then Three started creating the thumping string bass line that tied it all together.
Everyone got quiet because they were hearing real musicianship from kids with home made instruments. As the beat and rhythm crystalized into an emotional consistency, Three began to sing Bobby Hebb’s hit Sunny. Sunny, yesterday my life was filled with rain. Sunny, you smiled at me and really, really eased the pain. Now, my dark days are done and bright days are here. My Sunny one shines so sincere. Sunny one so true, I love you.
Three and his band did two more songs, each different form the other and which featured their innate ability to create music with simple things. Everyone went wild after Three and the band finished. The parents hugged each other and hugged the kids. Three had brought something special to Smith Place and when I asked Three what he thought he just said: I wish my uncle Bus was here.