The book lady of the barrio

THE east side of Tucson, Arizona, is strictly ``Anglo.'' You can tell by the liberal use of Spanish place-names (streets in the barrios to the south and west of the city are called Oak or Jones or Fourth). You can tell by the houses on ``horse acre'' lots. The east side is Western swank. It houses orthodontists, insurance executives, and field-grade military; but not Mexican-Americans. Not, that is, except for an isolated but long-established barrio overlooking the Tanque Verde Wash where mesquite grows thick as oats on a prairie and roads are dirt and have no names at all.

I had not seen this place, but I knew it was there. Occasionally I'd see a truckload of Mexican men emerge from the mesquite on their way to the 49ers Golf Course where they kept the greens emerald oases in the taupe desert. More often, I'd see some of the children.

Within walking distance of this barrio was our local convenience store, which marked up every other item 150 percent so that it could offer cheap gas for those of us who drove huge Ford station wagons as little as possible in those ``gas crisis'' years of the mid-1970s.

It seemed ludicrous to me that the shabbily dressed Chicano children bought staples there. Then after some months, I realized they had no transportation to reach the cheaper grocery stores where I shopped. It made me angry to think about that.

Even closer to the barrio than the store was the Tanque Verde Elementary School. There perhaps a dozen Chicano youngsters went to classes with my three and several hundred other Anglos.

I was waiting to pick Ben up from morning kindergarten one day, when a handsome little boy with a thatch of black hair walked toward me carrying a colorful work of art, obviously his own. I commented on its vividness. The smile he flashed at me made his face into a cherub's. That smile explains how I became the ``book lady.''

That, and the unique persuasiveness of Wilda Postel.

Wilda was a social worker of the sort that seemed to exist only within a decade of the best of the ``flower children.'' She was about 30, wore her long brown hair in a single fat braid, and could organize anything and anyone. She introduced parent effectiveness training to our community center.

Every Saturday morning, she made tamales from scratch with several of the Mexican women: women who were visible to the rest of us only through the evidence of those tamales, which we bought at the center's ``farmer's market'' later that day.

One of Wilda's most successful ventures was our ``Klutz Class,'' a women's group where we discussed whatever was on our minds. On my mind was that little boy's smile.

``Ah,'' said Wilda, never one to miss an opportunity, ``that would be Arthur! How would you like to see more of him?'' She knew how to overcome my hesitant excuses. Wilda really knew people, and she knew I was a sucker for children and for books.

So I became the ``book lady'' of the barrio - a sort of mobile juvenile library. On Thursdays, I overcame real sensations of anxiety for the love of something vague called literacy. Arthur and his sisters must have felt the same. They were shy for many weeks, but the simple repetition of my visits began to break down barriers.

One day they greeted me with squeals and hugs, their brown feet skipping painlessly over shards of glass. We walked single file down the trail and I counted Arthur, Joanne, Debbie, Veronica, and Sonja, but not Lupita.

We ducked under the barbed-wire fence, ran the last hundred yards of the path, and stopped just outside a floorless, one-room house. I was grateful to put down my armload of books and was just straightening up when Lupe bounded out of the doorway to surprise me with a limp tortilla.

I tore off a big chunk. ``Delicious, Lupita. Who made this?''

``Mama!'' A smile of great pride broke through crusted dirt on the beautiful three-year-old face.

``Can I thank Mama?''

Lupe disappeared into the darkness beyond the doorway. I waited a few minutes, then began to read. We were halfway through ``Mr. Pine's Mixed Up Signs'' when Grace appeared.

``Book Lady?''

She seemed to cling to the weathered door frame for support: not with her hands, but with her whole heavy form. Her full cotton skirt had never been shortened for our styles, so it was perfectly in vogue now. Hers was a gentle heaviness. Gentle. Graceful. Grace. The gentleness was in her eyes, too, and in her well-proportioned face.

She smiled just a little. ``You liked the tortilla?''

``It's the first food I've had all day. Thank you,'' I answered truthfully.

She turned into the doorway and returned with two more tortillas. ``The children are happy you come.''

``The children make it happy for me to come.''

A thin cry came from within the house. Wilda had told me there was a baby and that the baby was not well.

Grace moved her slow gaze over the bent heads of the six youngsters busy with the now-dusty books and looked at me with quiet apology.

``Jessie needs me,'' she said. I RETURNED many Thursdays. I never had a long conversation with Grace, but we always saw each other. We reread those books until they were made almost illegible with smudges: I still smile at the mention of a ``dirty'' book.

The military has moved us to the East Coast. In this Florida humidity, I like to remember the surprising coolness of that mesquite thicket. I like to remember those children excited to hear a simple story. I like to remember Grace by the dark doorway moving into the light. I am grateful for such memories.

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