I was tired. I was only 22 in the fall of 1988 however I was already worn out and starting to get burnt out. I was a recent college graduate from Sacramento State University and the first college graduate in my immediate African American family. I was in a job I never planned on being in. It was the type of job you do because you need income and this “job” will pay the rent for now. As I tried to figure out how this adult “thing” works, my life revolved around work, church attendance, visiting my parents, inviting friends over to my apartment for fondue nights in front of my 20-inch TV, and occasionally dating.
The one thing I was thrilled about was my new tiny apartment located within walking distance of beautiful downtown Sacramento. I moved there right after college graduation. The apartment was located in midtown Sacramento, Ca. could not have been more than 400 square feet but despite the lack of square footage, I loved it because it was close to the places I wanted to be near. My Neighborhood is lovingly referred to as the “Mansion Flats” district. In Mansion Flats I could walk to my favorite places like the coffee shop that was independently owned/ran that served coffee from all over the world. Walking in there smelled amazing as there were huge coffee bags on the floor from places like Costa Rica or Peru that lined the walls. Located at 17th and J there was a bakery that made orange pecan muffins that were the size of a Sunkist orange. The Italian deli/grocery store that had been there since the 1950s was there for me on those days or nights I wanted a quick bite without having to prepare it myself. This was and is a neighborhood made up of Victorian homes/mansions some dating back to the late 1800s, small businesses, and Apartment buildings. The Victorian mansions were beautiful to behold but the biggest treat was living on a street so old that the leaves on trees that lined each side of the street kissed each other in the sky. You could take a walk on a 100-degree Sacramento, California day under the tree “canopy” and not be aware of how much heat was coming from above.
My weekdays were filled at an Insurance company doing a job that was close to being unbearable. The Insurance Adjuster position paid more than twice as much as the reporter job (I majored in Communications) at the local newspaper but the workload was punishing at best. The weekends I lived for; were filled with taking long walks around my neighborhood visiting antique shops and local art galleries. I met my friend Shana at Capital Park on Saturday afternoons as we lived in the Capitol of California. We had picnics in the Park that surrounded the Capitol Building or went to see independent films at the Tower Movie Theatre nearby. I visited my Mom and Dad by driving to my childhood home which was 15 miles south of my apartment, on weeknights and weekends. Above all, my favorite off-time activity was my long walks all alone.
Since childhood I had always been an introvert so living alone and or walking alone was comfortable for me. When the stresses of the day got to be considerable, I left my apartment and headed west on foot towards the Old Sacramento Waterfront. Downtown and Midtown Sacramento is and were easy even for a new resident to navigate because the streets were in Alphabetical order with the crossing streets being numerical. I lived on the corner of 18th and F street and when I left my apartment and walked west I passed numerous homes so old that they existed during a time when blacks started
what is known by historians as “The Great Migration”. Historians say that blacks migrated between 1916-and 1970 to western states like California from the U.S. South. Millions of Blacks looking to escape the racial violence and/or Jim Crow laws in the American South migrated to places like California for a better existence. As I walked I could always envision my ancestors arriving at California shores and because of them, I now enjoyed the beauty of the west. After I walked for about 30 minutes I was staring at the beautiful Golden Tower Bridge with the Sacramento River sparkling below. It was there walking on the river shore that my stress began to melt away and I could envision a better future for myself just like my ancestors did many years ago.
But this fall was different because not even an afternoon at my favorite place could revive me. My life lacked the fun and the challenges that I had expected after graduating from college. What was next for me? I thought in disheartenment. I dated but with each date being more disappointing than the last, It did not appear that getting married and starting a family was the thing to do? I could go back to school but what would I study in Graduate School I had no idea what was I passionate about. From early childhood, I was told by church members and teachers that I had a “winning personality” so I thought I could work with people and help them in some way. My current job provided plenty of people to interact with in-person and over the phone but I quickly learned that even when you went “over and beyond”, some clients could not be pleased so there was no “helping” them. My caseload was enough to keep 4 claims adjusters very busy, but still, my days were too predictable for me. All files that made up my 250+ caseload all looked the same to me in that someone was demanding to get paid now because just yesterday they incurred property damage and/or injury.
But what bothered me even more than the daily boredom is I yearned to be amid kindness and it seemed it was in short supply. I was blessed to come from a loving family but my Dad had a challenging personality, to put it mildly. With him, each conversation was a debate and I was usually not in the mood especially after dealing with terse co-workers and an obnoxious boss not to mention pushy Insurance claimants that felt the need to “debate” one thing or another. I just wanted a Dad however what I got often was a Dad filled with social awkwardness. Family meals even with visitors over could be made uncomfortable by my Dad’s need to challenge any topic aired at the table. I wanted a dad that would educate me about what I needed to know in life but instead as an adolescent, I was criticized for not being knowledgeable on certain topics like government or politics. As a kid, I internalized the criticism and felt that I must have been flawed, or else why would my Dad say such things like “you must be dumb” when I forgot to close the patio door as a seven-year-old. My mother tried to be a buffer between the quick-tempered young woman I had become and an overly critical father. That job, however, proved to be too much for her as dealing with a man such as him had taken its toll after 23 years of marriage.
The men that pursued me seemed lately to have an agenda that did not include a genuine interest in me. One guy that I thought was interested in me turned out to only want me to fix him up with my best friend. Sheila. Sheila, it turned out in response was not interested in him at all. He had told me that he liked me but then finally admitted that he wanted to be close to me to get close to Sheila. Another guy that asked me to dinner wanted to move into my apartment the same night of our dinner because his roommate was kicking him out! I felt that was malevolent to pretend to be “interested” in someone because you had an ulterior motive from the start. At that time my heart yearned to meet someone who wanted to be my friend and eventual lover/husband so I had no interest or patience in someone who did not share my desire/my goal. I craved kindness, laughter, and joy, along with a soft place to land.
One fall Saturday afternoon I opened all of the windows in my apartment after I had gotten up to spruce up my diminutive home. Off in the distance coming thru the bay windows was the faint sound of music but I could not quite make out what it was? I heard laughter outside at 12:30 in the afternoon so what was going on I thought? I put on my glitter Jelly shoes and walked out my apartment door and locked it. It was the latter part of October which meant in Sacramento the weather was still warm and at 78 degrees I started to stroll down F street in my high waist denim shorts and with each step the faint sound of music greeted my ears. As I walked west I began to hear quietly-
Betcha say that (louder)
To all the girls (even louder)
Is that Gloria Estefan? I thought and I kept walking and the sound got louder –
Rhythm is gonna get’cha
Rhythm is gonna get’cha Rhythm is gonna get you………
Yep just like I thought this was the Mimi Sound Machine with Gloria Estefan and if you did not feel like moving to this music I would have to ask “are you alive?” Before I knew it a Hispanic man who looked to be in his 50’s grabbed my hand and he began to spin my body around and around and then my body faced and joined his in the street and he dipped my body and then back up; a dip and back up again and again! We did the mambo and the cha-cha and I had no idea who this silver and black-haired “young” older man was? Once I began to sweat to the hip gyrating music my dance partner asked me if I wanted something to drink? I said yes and then the Latino man with a generous gray beard said “I’m Frank” “I’m Kasha” I said and we shook hands as I thanked him for the dance. I began to gulp the Corona beer he handed me and snacked on tortilla chips he offered me and then I finally asked him “what is this?” “I love it,” I said but seriously “what is this?” He smiled down at me from his what I think was a six-
foot large male frame and said “I live here pointing at the Victorian behind him and every Saturday my Landlady gives out free bean burritos for the poor that stay around here”. The Sacramento midtown area was and is a mixed socio-economic area filled with “yuppie” high-income residents who bought Victorian homes and restored them to their former glory and then there was the poor who could not even afford a roof over their heads. Frank went on to tell me that the Victorian he lived in is a boarding house for people who are struggling with alcohol abuse and/or mental illness. He said “my landlady’s boyfriend likes to DJ on the weekends and he decided to bring some music for us to listen to while we ate and before I know it we were all jamming!” Looking around the generous front lawn I saw young black women with long French braids like mine shaking and movin’ to everything from the Beastie Boys to Whitney Houston to Duran Duran. Frank pointed out on the lawn a few other boarders that lived in the house with him. There was Ella a 78-year-old woman who he stated suffered from hallucinations brought on by Dementia and there was Elroy probably in his early 60s? whom Frank said has a hard time staying “off the bottle”. These boarders were sitting at a picnic table that was placed on the front lawn that day. I saw other men and women who looked soiled from being on the street. The faces of the city homeless today seemed softer and grateful for the reprieve from their aimless lives on the street. I saw gorgeous Latina women who moved with such grace and confidence to loud street music. Frank told me his landlady always welcomes whoever wants to come to the house on Saturdays whether you were homeless or not. I could see not all in attendance that day were homeless. Frank seemed like a life force as he twirled me around and did the cha-cha that Saturday afternoon. It was hard to believe he needed a place such as
this but how wonderful I thought it is here. The Victorian Frank lived in was a seafoam green with bright white trim. Overgrown trees in the front yard provided a reprieve from the searing sun. Fourteen steps led up to the single baby blue front door and as I looked up at the front door I saw a white-haired Caucasian blue-eyed woman open the front door and step out onto the porch. Below the front door and porch, there was another door that led to the Victorian home’s bottom floor. I would later learn that the property was a Victorian duplex with a top and bottom. She was carrying a large pot and asked my recent dance partner Frank to help her carry the Pot down to the front yard. Frank ran up the steps and took the pot off of her hands and that is when our eyes met. She walked down the steps in a yellow sleeveless house dress with stripes and she said” I saw you in my window upstairs and you and Frank were moving and grooving downright nice” she smiled at me with pink lipstick lips and extended her hand. She said “my name is Dot but you can call me Mrs. P everybody does,” I told her “I’m Kasha B.” I was told that the home was hers and she has several boarders who live here and she stated that she enjoys also providing food for the homeless in the area. I thought she was the coolest to work up meals for people she seemingly does not even know! Here she is a woman with her own home and she opens her door to people who need a warm meal and a place to lay their heads. In other words, I thought she was acknowledging their humanity. As I spoke with Mrs. P I found her to be quite funny as she told one off-color joke after another and I laughed like I had not laughed in a very long time. I never knew there were so many penis jokes.
Mrs. P: What do a penis and Rubik’s cube have in common?
Mrs. P: The more you play with it, the harder it gets!
It was what my Mom would describe as a “blue” joke and I loved it! Despite my conservative Baptist church African American upbringing, I did enjoy a good dick joke and this was one of them!
Mrs. P after I explained to her that I live a few blocks down the street invited me in and I gladly accepted. Stepping into her home was like stepping back into time. She lived on the top floor of this large home and her living room was filled with Burgundy-rolled arm sofas. This Living Room seemed to me to go on forever. She stated, “my borders live below me”. She continued “Kasha I am so fortunate to have been left wealth by my family, so this is my way of giving back” I would later learn that this woman was often applauded by local government leaders for her community contributions.
“ I provide the food and each room is furnished by me and they are charged only a small amount out of their social security checks. As she talked the southern afternoon light streamed into the room through the big top floor south-facing windows. She asked me questions about myself and appeared to be a great listener. She asked questions like “Do you have a boyfriend?” I replied “no” Or “Does your family live in town,” I said “yes” and I went on to say that they live just south of Sac Midtown. She invited me to sit and I sunk into a pink wing chair that she said came with the house. She offered me tea to drink after I told her that black tea with cream is my absolute favorite. The tea kettle soon whistled in the nearby kitchen that had clearly been remodeled and we soon were sipping tea and cream. As we talked I could still hear in the front yard that the
neighborhood party with music was still going strong but I was grateful for the serenity that my host and the historic home had to offer. Mrs. P said to me “ you are such a pretty girl and I can not believe you do not have a boyfriend” I thanked my host and was very grateful as with my size 14 curvy five foot four body I did not always feel “pretty”. I lived in a town; in a state that valued slimness in women above all else and I would never be that. Size 8 and under was the beauty standard along with light-toned or caucasian skin. My skin resembles the color of Sees milk chocolate candy and in high school, I was often told by black boys at school things like “you would be pretty if you were not so dark”. Only decades later my gorgeous teenage niece would be told the same thing at her high school. The words are hurtful but when you step back and look at the history of colonialism in the U.S. the comments are not surprising. I was well- groomed and often wore my hair in a french braided bob for the beauty, sophistication, and ease of wearing. I usually did not leave the house without my Revlon Cherries in the Snow lipstick painted on my brown lips and I was often told “you dress nice”. Like many women, I often made the mistake of not only tying my worth to something so temporary as looks but I also foolishly sometimes thought that if I were truly attractive I could so easily attract not just a man but the type of man I yearned for. I was smart enough to know that this is a lie that has been told to women. I knew that intellectually but my heart sometimes failed to know. Just when I was about to explain to Mrs. P why I was boyfriend-less, the DJ or Howard whom I would later find out was known around the local nightclub scene as GrandPa Jam appeared in the top floor hallway. “What is it hon?” Mrs. P said as she kissed him lightly on the lips. “Well babe I need to get to the club so I need to pack it in” Just then Mrs. P turned to me and said “hey Kasha did you meet my handsome boyfriend Howard? He is 73 going on 33 he plays music at the nightclubs around here!” I extended my hand to the silver-haired fox who had gentle brown eyes and beautiful silver hair. Life had earned him gentle wrinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiled few smile lines were revealed. I thought he looked younger than 73 and I told him so. “Thanks, sweetheart I appreciate it,” Howard said. He turned to Mrs. P “well I’ll see you in the morning” and he kissed her goodbye. “Bye hon be careful”. After he left I commented respectively as I knew how that I thought that it was wonderful he worked as a DJ at his age and it is obvious he loves what he does. “Most people think that DJ work is for the young but now I know better.” I said.“Well,” Mrs. P said “we do not believe in letting birthday candles limit what we do or don’t do” “You and Howard have my respect and I hope to be like you one day”. I said with the biggest smile I had to offer. After Howard left I turned to Mrs. P and told her “I’d love to see Howard DJ some night” and she said “We can go together perhaps” I smiled because I think I had just met a friend as well as a neighbor. She told me how she had met Howard five years ago and how he had been so supportive of her opening the boarding house. “He even helped me get well when I got sick with Pneumonia; he never left my side. Wow, I thought I wanna a guy like that God please bring a guy like that to my life I silently prayed. She asked me about my family and upbringing and I told her that I came from a close-knit family and was raised on the south side of the city. She in turn told me that she had been raised in San Francisco by her father’s family after her parents split up. Her mother she stated was an actress/starlet in the early part of the 20th century and was an heir to the McFee Publishing fortune. She said, “The McFee family never approved of my dad as he did not come from “money”; so they thought he was not good enough”. I was familiar with the McFee family name as in high school I participated in speech and debate contests at the C.K. McFee Senior High School. It is a beautiful alabaster-colored painted brick high school building covered in ivy with the classic California red tile roof. After passing the roman style columns there were three bright blue doors to greet you at the High School front entrance along with aged red brick steps. Established in 1937, it is the oldest high school in Sacramento and was named after the founder of the Sacramento Bee just one year after he died. Even as a youth I had an appreciation for old structures so spending the weekend participating in Speech contests at C.K. Mc Fee H.S. was always a treat. The McFee’s still owned The Sacramento Bee along with countless other publications. The McFee family was not just well off but they were also considered to be California Royalty. She continued about her mother “ well my Mom felt so much pressure from her family because they did not approve of dad so this put a wedge between them and she left our home in San Francisco when I was only 6 and I hardly saw her again after that. My Dad was so devastated about what happened that he drank himself to death so by the time I turned 14 he was dead and my Aunt took me in. I was able to buy this house because of the money I inherited from my Mom’s side of the family”. I was blown away; I had been around so many people who despite being blessed with lots of material wealth seemed too self-absorbed to help others with their expendable income. Since it was almost 6 PM I told Mrs. P that I had to leave to go home to check in with my Mom. “It was so nice to meet such a nice young lady and we will have to get together to go dancing when Howard is working,” Mrs. P said and I agreed and walked out the front door. As I walked back to my Apt. at 18th and F Street, I could not stop smiling because that day I felt like my life had gotten a little bigger and a little brighter.
Just a few days before Halloween that same year I was on my way home when I had a tire blowout in my Yellow Nissan Sentra. The sun had gone down as the car sat still on F Street between 13th and 14th street. I could feel my anxiety rise as my car sat almost in the middle of the street. I finally remembered how to turn on my car blinkers. It was so dark at that time as I tried to get home from a Toastmasters meeting held that night in the downtown area. I could only see some porch lights and Jack-O-lanterns embellishing various porches already laying the groundwork for upcoming Halloween. Walking home did not seem the smartest thing to do as sometimes things do happen to young women walking alone….“Ah shit,” I said to myself thinking about how years ago my dad had tried to teach me how to change a tire because he must have known this day would come. When I seemed to not catch onto the tire changing technique Dad bought me a AAA membership card instead. This being before widespread cell phone consumer usage and sitting at the corner of 13th and F street I thought about asking one of the neighbors if I could use their residential phone to call AAA. Before I could decide which door to knock on I heard a knock on the passenger side of the Nissan and it was Frank from the boarding house! “You need help? Your tire looks bad” Frank said and continued “I used to work at Pep Boys so I know what to do”. “That would be so great I was gonna walk the four blocks home but it is now so dark,” I said. I opened my trunk and got out my donut tire and Frank went to work. Once the donut was secured on my Nissan I gave Frank the biggest hug “I thank you so much; what do I owe you? I said.
“Nothing” Frank said. “ you seem like a nice young lady and I would not want anything to happen to you so I am glad I happened to be walking back home when I saw your tire blow up” I was so grateful I said, “Hey Frank My mom makes this amazing pound cake and I have some leftover from a dinner we had at my apartment so you wanna piece?” Frank said “I won’t turn that down” and with that, he got into my car and we drove east down F street to my Apartment building.
“This is amazing,” said frank after eating his 2nd slice of pound cake at my tiny dining table “I have not had cake this good in I do not know when!” “Yum, Yum Yum!” he exclaimed and he also licked his fingers wanting to savor each bite of my Mom’s buttery sweet cake concoction! His thick silver blackish hair shined even brighter under my kitchen overhead light as I poured him hot water for his tea.
His name was Frank Mendoza the 59-year-old who immigrated from Mexico in the 1960s and for a while, things were fine living in Salinas California. He was wearing blue plaid that night in my apartment and once I commented that I do not see many guys in plaid anymore he laughed and said that his family in Mexico used to tease him about his plaid shirts. It was then that I recalled that when we first met at the boarding house and we danced together on the front lawn he was wearing plaid then. I said, “you must be a plaid man because this is the second time I have seen you wearing it”. He told me he did janitorial work along with working at a tire shop and when he first arrived in this country and he left his family behind in Mexico. He stated that his family said they never wanted to see him again when he told them he was gay and that he was in love for the first time. He and his partner came to this country together hoping for a better life as they could barely support themselves in Mexico. After Frank and his partner, Emilio moved here their relationship fell apart 5 years after arriving, and then all of a sudden Frank started to get sick. He began to have seizures at his janitorial job that would cause his body to make uncontrollable movements which frightened the clients that would visit the large law firm building where he worked at the time. He had no health insurance and put off getting help as long as he could. When he finally did he was diagnosed with seizures and the seizures were lasting more than 5 minutes. The anti- epileptic medications made him sick with dizziness and vomiting and unfortunately, most of his vomiting was done on the job. He begged his boss to keep him on; he was told because they could never tell when his seizures would occur or how long they would last he had to be let go. Loss of income meant losing his home in Salinas a beautiful city just over two hours southwest of Sacramento. He became homeless for a while. He said things began to look up when he was assigned a really good social worker after being diagnosed with schizophrenia as well. She suggested that he move in with Mrs. P in Sacramento and so he did. He said it had been 6 months and he could not be happier. We talked over tea about our love of this city with its Golden Draw Bridge that was a link between old historical Sacramento and the Industrial West Sacramento and then even further west were the California farms that grew food for the whole world. I told him that as a kid I rode my bike all over the Land Park which is a neighborhood South of the central city with refined neighborhoods manicured lawns and red tile-roofed ranch-style homes and wide hilly streets. We both were crazy about McKinley Park in the eastern part of the city with its stunning pond, the flowers, the library in the middle of the park accompanied by a city pool for any kid that needed a rest from the relentless west coast sun. Surrounding the park there were the famous Storybook style Tudor homes complete with arch top entry doors and embellished entryways that were built in the early part of the 20th century.
Despite the huge age difference between us as he was 59 and I was 22, we had so much in common. We both came from families that thought we were strange for loving country-western music. We both admitted to being hopeless chocoholics and he was one of the few people I have told in life that eating chocolate is almost a sensual experience to me and Frank felt the same. We both have suffered heartbreak at the hands of male companions we thought loved us but proved to us they did not. After a break-up, Frank admitted that he would drown his sorrows in a Banana Split at the Leatherby’s Family Creamery. I was amazed because I rarely went to the famous Sacramento ice cream parlor, but when I did it was to drown my sorrows in yes a banana split. I sensed that he did not want to speak of his home life due to the great pain of his past so I did not press him for information. I just wanted to be here to be his friend; to make him smile. After his third slice of cake, he was ready to leave so I drove him back home and we made a date to meet at McKinley Park to go “power walking” etc. once I returned from my trip to L.A. which would be in 2 weeks.
Only one week after Frank and I laughed over tea and my Mom’s pound cake I found myself in the L.A. hills visiting my first cousin Tameica. We grew up together as I am only 2 years older than her. Tameica is a brainiac and graduated from H.S at 14 and graduated from UCLA at 19 and I could not be more proud. She recently left her parent’s home in Riverside, Ca. in Orange County and then moved here to this adorable
apartment that 1 is one of 4 apartments in this very large Spanish Revival-style home. Constructed in the 1920s the owners had divided the home up into quarters to collect the rent. I loved the huge off-white stucco, the curvy windows, and the courtyard right in the middle of the property. My brilliant cousin had struck out on her own and was now working as a screenwriting assistant on the TV show “Night Court”. She wants to be a screenwriter, which was a male-dominated field in 1988. I am just happy that she is working towards her dream! We were sitting in Tameica’s freshly painted butter yellow living room with her boyfriend Stan talking about his favorite subject; music. The cute tall blonde-haired white guy whom Tameica was dating became so animated when he talked about his favorite bands and then he admitted to us he wanted to tell us something he said he will not share with his very conservative Mormon family “Stan what is it? Do tell darling ” I said jokingly. “I always wanted to DJ” Stan was a student
at UCLA in his last undergrad year and that is where he met my cousin. His family he said fully expects him to go to law school just like his dad and uncles but his passion for music has never left him alone, he told us. My camel-skinned attractive cousin Tameica said proudly” Kasha do u know that by 15 he could play 6 instruments including the electric guitar and I love to hear my baby play” she smiled and gave him a smack on the cheek. Then I said “hey I just remembered I know a senior citizen that DJs all over Sac- Town right now and they do not get cooler than him. “Really?” Stan said “can I talk to him ya think? I just wanna know what it is like even if it means that I just do it as a hobby” “of course” I said, “let me give him a call for ya”. I picked my cousin’s push-button Trimline pink phone and dialed the phone number for Mrs. P as she had given it to me about a week before. “Hello” Mrs. P’s high pitched voice answered. “Hi Mrs. P this is
Kasha from down the street I am calling you from my cousin’s house in L.A. I was just wondering if I could speak with Howard? My cousin’s boyfriend wants to be a DJ like Howard!” “He is not here and I have no idea where he is” she said “what do you mean? I thought you two lived together?” I said. “We broke up and he went God only knows where” Mrs. P announced. “Oh wow I did not know that,” I said with the sound of surprise in my voice. “Are you okay? You two seemed so close; I do not want to be nosy but are you all right?” To my surprise, she laughed and then said,” well hon the older you get you will realize that men are like buses once you miss one there will always be another!” She continued to laugh “Oh,” I said “yeah my Aunt Tootie says the same thing; oh well as long as you are all right?” She quickly said, “yep I’m fine as a fiddle well I gotta….” “Oh” I interrupted “before you go can you put Frank on the phone I wanna see how he is doing” and then she said something puzzling she said,” Frank has not been here for about a week he is visiting family in Mexico” “WHAT,” I said shockingly how can that be he has not seen them in decades and he was kicked out because…” she interrupted me “Kasha they must have reconciled I guess now really dear I must go I have dinner to fix for the boarders” “yeah okay well hopefully I can see you and Frank when I get back in town” and I hung on the phone. “Well,” Stan said to me are we gonna talk to the DJ or not?
As I flew back on the plane to get back home from L.A. I could not stop thinking about what Mrs. P said on the phone. How could she be so casual about the end of her relationship with Howard? I had dated jerk guys that I was only so happy to see leave. go. because I knew I deserve better but a break up with a nice guy like Howard has to
hurt I thought. If I ever met a nice guy like him he would have a hard time getting rid of me! I thought to myself. And what about Frank could he have reconciled with his family in Mexico? I hoped so but it seemed so unlikely?
The plane finally touched down at Sacramento International Airport after visiting relatives in Orange County like My Uncle Gene and Gina along with my cousins Tameica in the L.A. hills and LaMar in Compton. I was happy to be going home at last. I loved my extended family but there is nothing like the comfort of your town, your own home, your own bed. By the time I arrived home at my apartment, it was nearly noon and I was feeling hungry. I thought this would be a good time to see if my neighbor Frank is back because the weather outside was perfect walking weather. It was a November day in “Sac-Town” as we locals like to call it; the weather was a comfortable 68 degrees and the sun was shining bright. After sitting in the LAX Airport and then more sitting in the Airplane my legs needed stretching so I thought I would walk down to Frank’s boarding house. I’ll ask Frank and/or Mrs. P to walk with me down to the Bread Store at the corner of 17th and J for one of their amazing focaccia sandwiches piled high with Veggies, Turkey or Roast Beef. Once done eating there we will walk off the calories by driving to McKinley Park and power walk the jog/walk track. It was a Thursday and I thought this is the perfect day to visit the park after all most people are at work so I am almost guaranteed a good parking space.
I walked toward the boarding house and by the time I got to the corner of 15th and F street, I could begin to see at a distance what looked like Mrs. P speaking with a black woman on the sidewalk in front of the boarding house. I began to faintly overhear “what
you are saying is not making any sense to me at all!” said the black woman who looked to be about my Mom’s age. She continued “are you sure you are telling me everything? I care about the people I place and I need to know where Frank is right now!” she demanded with her right index finger pointing down. As I walked toward them Mrs. P’s responses did not match the emotion in the voice of the black woman before her. Her speech was measured and deliberate and did not seem alarmed like the other woman was. She simply shrugged and said things like “I don’t know what you want from me” or “I already told you he is in Mexico and he gave me no phone number to call him” she shrugged. Then I saw Mrs. P rush back into the house tired of the tall black woman’s demands. As she ran up the stairs to enter the front door I could hear the other woman who was dressed in a red pants suit begin to yell up the Victorian house stairs ”If I do not see Frank by tomorrow I will file a missing person report because there is something wrong here but I just don’t know what it is!”. Mrs. P disappeared into the Victorian bungalow and left the woman who was wearing mid-heel black pumps all alone on the sidewalk until I walked up to her. I was raised to always show my elders respect so I did not like the way this woman spoke to the elderly Mr. P who as far as I knew was only guilty of taking in people who had no other place to go. This woman was probably between 40-and 45 so how could she speak with the elderly woman who looked to be in her sixties in that tone? I thought to myself. I said to the well-dressed woman on the street, “How can you speak with her that way…..” I could not finish my sentence or thought because all of a sudden I smelled something in the air I had never quite smelled before. It was foul and strong and reminded me of the rotten cabbage I pulled out of my Mom’s fridge one time when I had to clean out the kitchen fridge as one of my childhood
chores. Sniff, sniff I went I said to this brown-skinned elegant woman I had never met “you smell that oh no what is that!” I said. “Of course” she confidently said, “It smells like rotting flesh,” she said. “no,” my naive ignorant mouth said. She introduced herself as Kennedy Johnson the social worker in charge of Franks’s case. After we shook hands and I told her my name she said “you don’t think I know what death smells like honey please I served in Nam” “Nam? Huh” I said “The Vietnam war” she said. “I was one of the few women on the front lines and I saw and smelled death oh how I saw it” she explained. My mouth was agape as I listened as this was all too shocking for my young sheltered brain to absorb. I began to think about women troops in Vietnam; how badass! and then I thought death surrounding the boarding house this could not be possible! So I said to Kennedy “no you don’t think some kinda harm came to a border as Frank do you? There has to be another explanation after all Mrs. P is so sweet to let them stay with her”. The older woman then said to me “how do you know Frank? He is my client it is my job to make sure he is ok” I explained how I had met him and that I live down the street. I explained “we made a tentative date to go walking together after I got back from my L.A. trip and he mentioned nothing about going to Mexico so this is confusing” “Exactly,” Kennedy said “I am not saying anyone died I just know something is not right here-I can feel it!” She went on “You appear to be a little younger than me so if I can
give you some advice?” she asked “I appreciate it,” I said. “What glitters is not always gold. Mrs. P may be as sweet as you say but I have learned that some people you think are so sweet and kind can sometimes be absolute psychopaths!”. She continued “And some people whom you might think are horrible when you first meet them can be the best once you peel back of the layers of strain that life has put on them.” “I do social
work” she went on “you learn about people in my business and you begin to learn folks are not always what they seem at first glance”. She wore what looked like a slim gold- tone Timex watch on her left wrist with crystals on the face and a faux bluestone brooch on her left suit lapel. We talked about Frank under an F Street tree and I told her how I had just served him pound cake just a few weeks ago in my apartment and she laughed and said “yeah that man has a serious sweet tooth” she recalled a time when the social workers in her office got together and bought a cake for the clients that they had recently placed in homes and Frank was one of those clients. “He must have eaten 5 slices of cake from that bakery you know the one on Freeport Blvd?” Yes I told her I knew which bakery she spoke of because it is located on the same street where Sacramento City College sits. My childhood friend Stacy and I both attended this 2-year college before I transferred to Sacramento State University to complete Communication Studies. Stacy and I loved the college on the tree-lined street and its old brick buildings. The school sat across the street from Land Park, known for its zoo and its golf course. The Bakery is just a short drive down the same street with its elegant wedding cake displays in the front store window. The bakery also sticks out in my mind because it is located just a few miles from my favorite Sacramento neighborhood; The Fabulous forties. The neighborhood got its name because the streets are numbered in the 40s. Driving thru the elegant “old money” neighborhood is like stepping back in time. You will see the generously-sized Tudor home, the colonial revival, or the classic California bungalow. After getting out of class many days Stacy and I would slowly drive down the streets in her Subaru hatchback and swoon at these gorgeous abodes and we both would say to one another “yes maybe someday…someday”. Kennedy finally said “well it was nice meeting you I better get back to my office. I will be right back here no later than 10 AM tomorrow and I expect to see Frank alive and in one piece!” She continued “If I don’t there will be trouble I promise Mrs. P that!” My head was spinning I knew what Kennedy was saying is possible but unlikely as I just did not view the elderly as a threat. She then said, “I want to be able to update my file on Frank and document that he is doing well!”. “I pray that Frank is okay and wouldn’t it be awesome if he did reconcile with his family?” I said. Kennedy said, “I feel the same way but it is not likely that is the case”. Her words left me cold and I said my goodbyes to her and I walked back home and completely forgot about the McKinley Park power walk.
It was a Friday and another pretty day in the high 60s and I was due to report to work for the first time in a few weeks. I could not get Frank out of my mind as I showered in my apartment bathtub. Frank I thought just has to be okay; he just has to be! I was due at about noon at the insurance office and I would only work half a workday. I tried to get Frank off my mind and began to think about my recent travels in So. Cal. Isn’t wonderful I thought that my cousin in L.A. was living her dream working in a screenwriter’s office because she knows who she is! she knows what sets her heart on fire! Tameica tells me she would not have it any other way even though she puts up with sexism and racism (a double whammy) as one of the first black women to work in the field and she is only 20! But what is it that “sets my heart on fire”? I did not know.
It was only 11 AM on November 11, 1988, and I still had an hour to kill before my work- day began. It did not take more than 10 minutes to arrive at the insurance office. I was fully dressed in a green floral dress with beige kitten heels and I thought I have time to
visit Frank down the street. I locked the apt front door and got into my yellow Nissan and headed west down F street but before I could even cross the intersection of 16th and F I saw police cars and ambulances? “Why,” I said to myself “what in heaven is this?” “Please don’t tell me something has happened to someone at the boarding house as my car inched towards the outrageous scene!” I continued to talk to myself “calm down Kasha Frank is okay something else happened……” before I could finish my thought I saw something I had only seen on the news. A body was being carried by first responders into a parked ambulance. The sheet was over the person’s face and then that is when it happened….I smelled an odor so strong and so foul that I could smell it even though the car windows were rolled up! It was a chaotic scene and there was no way I could get close to the house as the intersections of 15th and F and 14th and F were filled with cars and other types of vehicles. I finally parked in front of a Victorian house near 16th and F street. I walked briskly towards the boarding house because before I went to work today needed to verify that Frank is at least okay. As I got near the home I saw what looked like news vans, cameramen, and what looked like news reporters in front of the house. I saw big satellite local TV trucks, with names like KCRA or KXTV blazoned on their side. As I walked further I saw what looked like more news vehicles arriving. Before I knew it F street was filled with media vehicles. As I walked on foot in my kitten pumps and the floral green dress I saw a familiar face “Hey Kennedy” I said recognizing the social worker “this is madness my neighborhood street is being taken over by the media it looks like” I said. Kennedy said “ Well as I told you if I didn’t see Frank this morning there would be trouble and this is trouble, Kasha! that crazy Mrs. Puente took off saying to the cops a few hours ago that she wanted to go to the Clarion to meet her nephew
and no one has seen her since!”.“This is unreal I feel as if I am dreaming” I said “who was that body? It isn’t Frank is it?” “Well the cops dug up a woman’s body out of the boarding house yard but no I do not know where Frank is,” Kennedy said. “the fact that she ran off today is looking suspicious to the cops and they told me they are gonna keep digging!” Kennedy exclaimed. “I hate to say it but it looks like what you said yesterday may have been right and the smell here is awful,” I said to her. Kennedy replied “Kasha death always smells godawful”. I said “wait did you say Mrs.Puente?” Before she could answer me we heard one of the uniformed cops yelling “hey Sargent hey get over here, I think I got another one; this might be Mr. Mendoza!” I saw plain-clothed police in docker beige slacks wearing a tan trench coat rush over to the uniformed cop. Kennedy and I both saw the same thing thru the property’s iron fence; it appeared to be a man’s red plaid shirt cuff encircling a wrist/hand that was now above ground due to the cops shoveling. Kennedy and I looked at each and we realized we were thinking the same thing. “Frank Mendoza loves his plaid oh my Lord,” Kennedy’s words sounded heavy coming from her red-painted mouth. I began to cry because I just knew my friend; my dance partner was gone. A plainclothes detective with a badge on his leather jacket said “you ladies need to clear the area now; this area is for law enforcement and media only”. Following orders, we began to walk away. I hugged the more mature woman while tears emerged on my face. She did seem to care for Frank as much as I did and we both got into our cars parked on F street and parted our ways.
I was much too rattled to go to work so I called my manager when I got back to my apartment and advised him not to expect me. I then sat on my red and white plaid sofa and I thought long and hard about what I had just witnessed. Why did Mrs. Puente take off the way she did after saying she was just going to the Clarion Hotel nearby to visit a relative? This makes it look like she may be responsible for the dead bodies being shoveled out of the earth today by the cops down the street. But most of all if Mrs. Puente did this I wanted to know what was her motive? Why kill people who only wanted the dignity of having a roof above their heads, food in their stomachs, and a warm bed to lay in; do we not all deserve the same? My emotions were a mixture of rage and embarrassment as I thought how dare someone hurt a sweet man like Frank or any other unfortunate soul that lived on F street in that border house. I felt slightly embarrassed for not seeing that a monster may have lurked beneath through her sweet smile. I went into my bedroom and looked out my bedroom window which faced west. I turned my head towards the North. I could now see that F street was still jammed with media trucks parked on each side of the street. Then I began to think that maybe Kennedy was also right about what she said about our first impressions of people. The people that I met during the week that seemed perpetually testy as I talked to them about insurance benefits, may have been hiding their humanity when expressing their discontent. Over time with maturity, I would learn how to look past external appearances and first-time meetings which freed me to show the anguished individual the empathy they needed. In many cases when I got to know the true person, I found beauty in people once the layers of life frustrations were peeled away. Suddenly my mind began to think of my Dad whom I always failed to get along with. He could indeed have a disagreeable demeanor. Decades later after Dad left this life, my Aunt who had studied psychology at the university level would say that she believed my Dad may have had Aspergers Syndrome. My Aunts assessment would explain his social awkwardness and high mathematics aptitude. I realized that my Dad was a consistent husband to my Mom, a consistent provider for a family of four, a consistent jokester who made me laugh growing up more than he made me cry. Suddenly, a wave of guilt came over me as I recalled that I told him I did not want to speak with him only a few weeks ago. I realized I had not spoken with him since. I accused him of lacking sensitivity when I discussed how I felt about the lack of female leadership in the black church or our society period. This is a subject that I was passionate about and my Dad it appeared to me dismissed my feelings at the time. There is an old saying “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!”. I indeed wished my Dad could understand my feelings about female equality and so many other topics but I now realized that he may never agree or understand. The source of my guilt is that I knew when it came to my Dad I had “thrown the baby out with the bathwater” just because he did not validate my strong feelings.
I felt an urgency like never before to go home to see My Dad and apologize now before it is too late. Without removing the floral dress I put on that morning I ran to the apartment complex parking lot where my car sat in its designated space and pulled out of the covered parking space. “Hurry up,” I said impatiently in the car as I waited for the black iron gate that surrounded the apartments to finally open so that I could leave the property. I drove south fast on Highway 99 wanting to evade the California Highway Patrol I tried to stay below 75MPH but it was not easy. I drove to my parent’s south Sacramento home like my life depended on it because I felt like a spoiled entitled brat speaking to my Dad the way I had and he needed to know I am sorry.
I entered my childhood home and when I got past the entryway I saw Dad in his Burgundy lazy boy recliner sleeping and snoring alone in the family den. The TV was on in front of Dad, but he had not been watching it because he was too busy resting. I turned off the TV and that woke my Dad up and it always did. “Kasha?” He said with surprise. I said, “hey Daddy no Mom around?” “Naw she went out to see her friend Charlene and I think they went shopping or something,” he said. I had known my Mom’s girlfriend Charlene since I was a small child as she was a steady pal to my Mom for many years. The words I needed to say seemed to get stuck in my throat as saying “I’m sorry I am an asshole” is not easy but I said just that, and then tears began to flow from my eyes. “I disrespected you and took you for granted…I-I am ashamed of how I behaved,” I said. I continued “Forgive me Dad please forgive me please…” he interrupted me before I could ask for forgiveness for the third time and said “it’s okay it’s okay” Dad arose from the lazy boy and pulled me close to him and said” “I know I am not the easiest to be around,” he said with a light chuckle. Dad and I sat in the dimly lit Den so quiet with my Mom’s absence. This was the place where I had spent my childhood watching TV and eating the amazing meals my Mom had prepared in the adjoining kitchen. I turned the TV back on to watch the evening news with Dad as he was always a news junkie. I turned the dial on the floor console TV that Dad was so proud of until I reached Channel 3. I learned on the news that the full name of my mysterious neighbor was Dorothea Helen Gray Puente. According to the anchor she had already been convicted of committing fraud years before and law enforcement suspects that she may be guilty of murdering her borders because they now know that she has cashed their social security checks even after the boarder was no longer around. “At this time Mrs.
Puente is still at large” the news anchor said. I told Dad about my experience with Mrs.Puente and his eyes grew wide with surprise. We would learn much more about the boarding house at 1426 F Street Sacramento, Ca. 95814, in the many days and years to come.
After Mrs. Puente fled Sacramento she was found days later in Los Angeles and brought back to Sacramento. She would be charged with a total of nine murders: which shockingly included Puente’s boyfriend and eight other tenants who lived at the boarding house. According to Sacramento detectives, her victims had been drugged until they overdosed; Puente then wrapped them in bedsheets and plastic before the boxes were dragged to open a “burial” in the yard on F street. Detectives also state that after murdering the tenants she cashed their Social Security checks. Eventually, the landlady would be convicted of 3 of the nine murders she had been charged with. Under the law, Puente received life without the possibility of parole. She was incarcerated at the CCWF; a women’s facility in Chowchilla, Ca. In 2011 Mrs. Puente died in prison at the age of 82.
On the evening of November 11th, while still in my parent’s den, I told dad I needed to leave to get ready for a picnic at the Sacramento River shore the next day. I apologized again to my Dad for being such an ass. Then he smiled and hugged me and he told me he was glad that after all, I had experienced recently in my new midtown neighborhood, he was relieved that I was okay. He told me that he was sorry about my new friend
Frank and he assured me that from now on things, between him and I would be A-okay. And it was okay.
By Fannie Banks-Wells