Shared Stories: Conversations with winos

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Vince Madrid finds the reality in a wino’s dictum, “Everyone has a palace.”  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Vince Madrid
Time spent with winos at the streetcar depot across the tracks from mom’s house was surprisingly rich. Not the sort of moments that are generally taken to be rich, no great occasions, just plain old fashion good times. 

Decked out with meticulously ironed khaki pants and Sir Guy shirts with stylish French-toe dress shoes spit-shined like a mirror, dressed to impress, my friends and I craved acceptance, and for the most part we got it.

Our parents, bless their hearts, worked seven days a week cooking and cleaning to make ends meet. No time for philosophy. 

Thankfully, for the price of a cheap bottle of booze, neighborhood wine drinkers who loitered at the train depot entertained us with fascinating conversation. 

The most vocal of the group was cara de huevo. He acquired the name after participating in so many street fights that his face looked like scrambled eggs. For a generous donation cara de huevo would ceremoniously remove his glass eye from its socket and display it on the palm of his hand like a sports trophy.

Even though his speech was slurred, cara de huevo spoke with the confidence of a university professor. “The important thing,” he said, “is to find your palace.”

“What palace?” we asked. He smiled with the few teeth he had left, leaned toward us as if he was about to reveal the greatest secret. 

“This is important, Boy. Don’t you know that each of us has a palace somewhere?” He took a deep breath, squeezed his nose with his index finger and blew out a wad of snot while we stepped back respectfully, giving him space to aim for the rail tracks.    

“Yes, don’t look at me with that face like you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Everybody’s born with a palace assigned to them so they can live there and do whatever they want, or desire or aspire to do.” 

“Every, everybody?” I asked?  Cara de huevo took a swig, wiped his chapped lips with the back of his hand and widened his smile as if he was having a great time.

 ”All’s quiet on the Western front,” he said in a tone that implied the conversation was over.

“Where’s my mom’s palace and my pop’s?” I insisted.

“They got palaces, but that doesn’t mean they’ve found them. You have to search for your palace, search good and hard. Maybe lots of people never find theirs.”

“Have you found yours?”

“Don’t ask so many questions boy.”

“Where will I find mine?”

”Listen to you, all you ever do is ask–don’t ask so much. Shit, whoever said it takes so many questions to find something? Look for it and you’ll find it.”

After a lifetime of searching, I found my palace filled with miracles and sweet memories at Willowbrook Avenue, on the north side of Compton. Dad lived there, my brothers and sisters lived there, Great-grandma Cuca lived there, Grandma Carmen and Mama Sarita lived there.
Together they left an oasis of peace, knee-deep with love so thick you could slice it with a knife, divvy it with neighbors and still have left-overs. 

My palace had been there all along in a barrio with nopales and graffiti and Spanish-language music blaring from powerful speakers in competition with the metro passenger train which broke the sound barrier every hour, on the hour, in front of the house where I grew up.