“Teacher, Anna is pretending to sleep again!”
“Anna, pay attention to my lecture! You dare ignore me! I’m marching you down to the principal right now. Read your text books students until I return!”
“Mrs. Diaz, Anna’s teacher removed her from class. She’s remained unresponsive to me. Anna has learning difficulties. In geometry class, she placed her head on the desk between her arms and ignored her teacher. She’s bullied because her clothing with cartoon caricatures is age inappropriate for a teenager. Anna is seventeen and there isn’t anything more we can teach her. I have no choice but to expel her from school. You might take her to the armed forces recruiting office who may enlist her. She might earn a GED. Ask for ‘Sergeant Diaz’ who may help her pass the aptitude tests.”
“Senora Principal, I want Anna to have a better life than me. I sew clothes by day and clean offices by night. I’m a single mother. Anna never knew her father. Anna has a big heart but didn’t receive the gifts of beauty or smarts. I fear she’ll never leave our crime ridden, poor neighborhood in the South Bronx.”
“Good luck to both of you Mrs. Diaz.”
They call me a “special ed” student because I can’t read well. The words appear jumbled to me. My teachers never inquired about my reading disability. I was too embarrassed to say anything. I learn easily with pictures. I liked Geometry class because the teacher used different color chalk to draw the triangles, squares, and circles. I knew the teacher was seeking the answer to the area of an Isosceles triangle she drew in pink, green, and blue chalk. I visualized “Heron’s Formula” from the textbook picture and calculated the answer in seconds. I buried my face within my arms and pretended to be sleeping because being bullied for being smart is worse than being bullied for being a “special ed” student. I’m bored watching television and sitting on the stoop all day waiting for Mama to come home from sewing clothes in a “sweat shop.” She warned me not venture off the stoop, fearing the crime and drugs of the neighborhood lined with boarded up stores, abandoned cars, and trash. I looked forward to our mail carrier, Mrs. Washington’s arrival.
“Hello, Anna. How you doing today? I heard they don’t want you in school anymore, darling.”
“Yeah, I miss school but it doesn’t miss me. Any mail for us today?”
“Just advertisements. Let me tell you a secret I’ve learned delivering the mail for thirty years. Some folks receive good mail and most people receive bad mail, but, sooner or later, good mail arrives in everybody’s mailbox, even yours! Someday good mail will come to you. I hope I deliver it to you, honey. I’ll see you tomorrow, Anna.”
Mama gave me $5 every day to cross the street to “Dreamz Burger.” I enjoy their juicy burgers, fries, and a strawberry shake. The owner, Mr. Morales, is a nice man.
Although I was hungry, I didn’t want to spend Mama’s hard-earned money and would return it to her when she arrived home with groceries. We looked forward to enjoying a homecooked meal together before Mama rushed off to her evening janitorial job on Wall Street, a long subway ride from the South Bronx.
“Hey ‘Zombie’ girl! Why do you dress like a kid in those ankle high sneakers, overalls, and cartoon shirt? You got kicked out of school because you crazy!”
“I might have been ‘kicked out of school’ but I didn’t drop out like you jerks.”
“Come off that stoop. I’ll buy you some lipstick and be your ‘special ed teacher’.”
“Come on Jorge, let her be, man!”
“Don’t forget whose boss, Alberto!”
Our neighborhood gang is named the “Los Muertos.” Alberto is a new recruit. I don’t think he’s a bad boy like the rest of them. He has a kind face and is cute. As they continued down the sidewalk, Alberto turned and smiled at me. One hot, muggy afternoon, I saw an elderly man struggling to carry an old movie projector along the sidewalk. He stopped several times to catch his breath and cough. I was concerned about his safety. Even though Mama warned me never to leave the safety of the stoop, I ran across the street, dodging honking cars, to offer assistance to the old man.
“I’m Alma. Can I help you, Sir”?
“No necessito assistancia, Chica.”
The old man took a deep breath, and resumed carrying the heavy projector to the door of the long since shuttered “El Viaje” movie theatre. He carefully placed the projector on the sidewalk while reaching into his pocket for a key which opened an alley door into the theatre. I noticed a steep set of stairs leading up to an apartment. He picked up the heavy projector, and, as he attempted to climb the stairs, fell backwards. I immediately steadied him.
“Sir, please let me help you.”
“Gracias, Chica. You lift from one end, and I the other.”
We reached the top of the stairs and door to the apartment. The old man had a persistent cough. He opened the door, and we carried the projector into an unkempt apartment above the movie theatre. The walls were adorned with vintage movie posters, and the apartment was stacked with metal film cannisters from floor to ceiling. Piles of books about cinema were strewn about the apartment. A movie projector was sitting atop a podium and pointed towards a white wall serving as a screen.
“Gracias, Chica. I have no money to pay you.”
“My name isn’t ‘Chica.’ It’s Alma. Even though we’re both Puerto Rican, I don’t speak Spanish.”
“I apologize, Alma. I’m Domingo.”
“What’s all this stuff you have in here?”
“I rescued this old ‘Simplex’ 35mm projector from a closing theatre. I started as an usher at this theatre at sixteen. I was promoted to projectionist which earned me a union card, and a small pension. I rent the ‘El Viaje’ from the Bloom family. Let me show you around.”
I noticed a meager kitchen consisting of instant coffee, Ramen noodles, canned ravioli, chili, and saltine crackers with only a hot plate. A small cot was the only furniture above which he tacked the original movie poster from the 1958 movie “Around the World in 80 days” co-starring famed Mexican comedic actor, “Cantinflas.” He ran to the sink and coughed up blood.
“You’re sick Domingo. What’s hurting you?”
“I have lung cancer. I’ll show you the projection room.”
We entered a room with two large metal projectors, each having a top and bottom reel the size of hubcaps with a lens pointed out rectangular cut-aways in the wall.
“Look through those windows and you can see the theatre below. It’s dark now because I can’t afford to put on the electricity. Let me teach you to thread the film through the projector. It took me a better part of a year to learn it so don’t get frustrated.”
He turned on a switch, and the reels began to turn on each projector.
“Each of these two reels hold about two thousand feet of film and require six to eight changes during a film. The upper reel is the ‘feed’ reel and the lower is the ‘take up reel’.”
“Why do you need to run two projectors?”
“After the first reel runs about eighteen minutes, two dots will appear on the screen, alerting me to begin the second projector which will commence where the other projector left off without the audience ever knowing.”
I watched Domingo thread the film which caught the sprocket and quickly began to wind through the projector like a rollercoaster ride. Suddenly, movie credits for “Snow White” appeared on the giant screen below.
“You try, Alma.”
The reels were heavy. I secured both the “feed reel” and “take up” reel. I opened the hatch to the side of the projector to thread the film which caught the sprockets. The film left my fingers darting towards the lens at “24 frames per second” according to Domingo.
“Anna, you’re a natural.”
“But how does the audience see and hear the film, Domingo?”
“It’s the ‘gate’ and ‘shutter.’ The gate holds the film still while the shutter is open. The shutter interrupts the emitted light during the time the film is advanced to the next frame. The audience doesn’t see the transition which tricks their brains into believing a moving image is on screen.
“Look at the film stock including two-channel audio signals recorded as a pair of lines which creates the sound. One day, we disassemble the broken ‘Simplex’ projector, examine all the parts, and I’ll let you put it back together. Let me show you how to splice film.”
Domingo placed white cotton gloves onto my hands. He held my hands and was patient, slow, and deliberate in placing the two exact frames of film atop each other onto a metal film splicer. He lowered the lever with the blade down onto the film, splicing it, and applied a clear cement to bind the two ends of film together. Domingo’s cough was becoming more intense.
“May I bring you some cough medicine, Domingo?”
“I’m tired and need to sleep.”
“May I come again, Domingo?”
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“The school doesn’t think I’m smart enough and kicked me out.”
“Not smart enough? ‘Putos’. It took me a year to learn to become a projectionist. You come back tomorrow and I show you more.”
“May I read the Simplex projector manual tonight. I’ll bring it back tomorrow.”
“Sure, take the manual but know it’s the original operator’s manual and irreplaceable. Lock the door behind you, Alma.”
After returning home, I studied each image of the projection manual. I closed my eyes after each image and could clearly see the details of the illustration showing all the parts. The operation of the projector was committed to my memory. The following evening, after Mama left for her evening janitor job, I took a plate of left overs to Domingo. Domingo spliced together yards of “Traveltalks,” short films from the 1930’s about faraway places played just before the movie began. He had me thread the film through his projector on the podium, and we watched the wonders of the world projected against his barren old wall.
“Anna, make certain you see the world! These short movies take me to places I’ll never see. You still have the opportunity.”
“I read the ‘Simplex’ operators manual last night, Domingo. Would you allow me to disassemble it, repair, and reassemble it?”
“You kidding me, Alma?”
“I know everything about the projector, Domingo.”
“Let’s see what you learned. Use these tools.”
I quickly disassembled the old projector, tightened a loose sprocket, and reassembled the projector like an easy jigsaw puzzle.
“I fixed it, Domingo.”
“You have a talent, Alma. This working vintage projector is now worth good money! You can make a career repairing projectors if you choose! How did you learn to do this overnight?”
“I memorized the illustration within the owner’s manual showing me the workings of the projector.”
“Your school did you a favor. With your talents, you’ll be making more money than the principal!”
So began my relationship with Domingo; eating dinner together, watching films, and talking movie history.
One evening, I decided to treat Domingo to a Dreamz Burger. I clutched the five-dollar bill in my hand and ordered the usual, hamburger, fries, and strawberry shake.
Los Muertos entered the store, and just as I was ready to pay, the leader, Jorge, grabbed the five-dollar bill from my hand saying,
“That’s mine, now, Zombie girl!”
The gang laughed but was interrupted by the store manager, Mr. Morales, shouting,
“Get out of my store you punks and don’t come back!”
“Let’s get out of this dump!
“Hey customers, there’s rats in this joint!”
Alberto was the last to exit, and he reached into his pocket, handing me a $5 bill. Our eyes met, and we shared a smile.
“Take this bottle of cerveza to Domingo, and say it’s from his old friend, Morales at Dreamz Burger. No charge for anything.”
After eating, I asked Domingo if I could make an attempt to organize his collection of films, posters, and books.
“Go at it, Alma. I’ve long forgotten what I have. I’ve been collecting films and equipment from closing theatres all over town for decades.”
I learned about film by organizing Domingo’s collection according to film styles depicted in one of his cinema textbooks. As I delved further into Domingo’s collection of cinema books, I saw beautiful images of many different types of films including, Hollywood, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, silents, and many more. I dreamed the El Viaje could share these films from throughout the world with the neighborhood. Movies showed me a world beyond the South Bronx. The thought provoking images, themes, acting, lighting, locations, and directing brought me happiness. I wanted to share this with Mama, but working day and night, she wouldn’t have the time. After months of organizing Domingo’s film collection, he approached me with an announcement,
“I have a special surprise for you. We’re watching a movie the way movies are meant to be enjoyed.”
Domingo reached for a switch, and the lights of the spectacular old theatre flickered to life revealing an ornate ceiling, red plush seats, and a balcony.
“I chose a special movie for you Anna to express my gratitude for all of your hard work.”
We spent Saturday afternoon sitting in the dark theatre, hearing the pitter patter of rats running about, eating popcorn, drinking soda, and watching one of my favorite films, the original 1950 Disney classic, “Cinderella.” Domingo allowed me to change the reels throughout the film.
The months passed quickly spending time with Domingo. It was Halloween night. Domingo planned an evening of selected horror films beginning with the famous silent, “Nosferatu.” I brought Dreamz Burgers, fries, soda, and a beer for Domingo. When I knocked, I heard no answer. Domingo gave me a key for entry in case of emergency. I unlocked the door, ran up the stairway, and found him sweating and shivering under the blanket in his cot. I noticed bloody paper napkins he coughed into strewn about the floor.
“Domingo, what is wrong with you?”
“It’s my time to pass.”
“I’m calling 911!”
“No! I have no phone and won’t die in a hospital charity ward!”
“Mama won’t let me have a cell phone. I’ll run to Dreamz Burger and call 911.”
Domingo began to cry,
“No! Let me die amongst these films I love!”
Just at that moment, we heard the back door to the theatre being pried open. The theatre was pitch dark. Los Muertos entered with the goal of stealing anything valuable and setting fire to the theatre which they were suspected of doing throughout the neighborhood. The nitrate film stock collected by Domingo would burn down the entire block.
“It’s Los Muertos, Domingo. What do we do?”
He raised his feeble, shaking arm, pointing towards a stack of metal film cans.
“Pick the one titled, ‘Don’t Break the Law Children.’ Thread it and keep the lights off in the auditorium.”
I hurried as the Los Muertos crept about. Alberto muttered,
“Let’s get out of this creepy place.”
I watched the black and white film thread through the projector. Suddenly, sounds of iron doors rolling shut and locking filled the pitch-dark theatre. A frightened man screams,
“Please release me from this hell!”
I viewed a filthy prison cell with a body lying in the corner covered in blood, and prisoners kicking the helpless victim. Los Muertos watched the screen with horrified expressions. A gruesome image showed a man strapped to a chair in a gas chamber suffocating from the poisonous gas as he pleaded for mercy,
“Please, let me live!”
The screen went black but the sound track warned,
“Break the law and you might also die in prison. We’re waiting for you boys and girls!”
Domingo pointed to an empty, glass soda bottle, and mumbled,
“Roll this down the aisle, now!”
I quietly opened the door to the projection room, crawled to the aisle, and rolled the glass soda bottle down the concrete sloped floor making a startling clanking noise.
“Hey, man, what’s that rolling down the aisle?”
The rats who lived comfortably within the theatre didn’t appreciate the intrusion and crawled over the gang seeking escape out the open door.
“Damn, a rat just crawled up my leg. Let’s get out of here!”
The horrifying film and rats frightened Los Muertos who ran for the exit door. I returned to the projection room and peered out the tiny glass window and saw only Alberto remaining, looking up at me with a smile. I turned to Domingo who was unusually still with a happy grin on his face.
“Domingo, they’re gone!”
He didn’t respond. I laid my fingers upon his wrists and felt no pulse, then placed my face against his mouth. There was no breath. He had passed. I gently placed the blanket over his head and a reel of film within his arms. I pulled the switch lighting up the beautiful theatre. Even the rats were silent in memory of their fallen friend. I joined Alberto who accompanied me to Dreamz Burger where we explained the situation to Mr. Morales who called 911.
I missed Domingo. Mama was worrying about my future, and I realized I’d have to take a job soon. Mama joined me on the stoop, handing me a soda pop.
“What are you going to do for work? I won’t have you sewing and scrubbing floors like me. I’m taking you down to see Sergeant Diaz at the recruiting station. He’ll get you enlisted in the service, and maybe they train you to type, and when you leave military, you get a job with one of the Wall Street ‘big shots’ whose office I clean?”
“Hey, Mama. Mrs. Washington has mail for us.”
“Special letter addressed to Alma marked ‘Return Receipt Required.’ Please sign here, Alma.”
I couldn’t read very well and English wasn’t Mama’s first language, so I asked Mrs. Washington to open it and read it aloud.
“I’ll read it. These big shot law firms don’t scare this old mail carrier! The letter is from a lawyer representing the estate of Domingo inviting you to a meeting regarding the will and asking you to call to make an appointment.”
“My English not good, Mrs. Washington. Please make an appointment for me and Alma.”
Mrs. Washington dialed, and began speaking,
“I’m calling on behalf of Ms. Alma Diaz and her mother who received communication from your office regarding the last will and testament of Domingo Sanchez. They wish to make an appointment.”
“I start my janitorial work on Wall Street at seven. Alma can meet me at their Wall Street office at 5:30 pm.”
“Alma Diaz and her mother can arrange to meet at 5:30 any weekday. Thursday at 5:30 pm. Confirmed.”
Mrs. Washington knelt down and hugged me, whispering,
“I told you ‘Good mail’ would come to you. I’m blessed to have delivered it to you.”
Mama and I entered the attorney’s office on the top floor of a high-rise office building. The heavy walnut doors opened, revealing a commanding view of New York. The thick red carpeting was like walking on a cloud. We were immediately greeted by the receptionist.
“Hello, Mrs. Diaz and Alma. The attorney and Mrs. Bloom are waiting in the conference room.”
She opened the door revealing a large conference table surrounded by green leather upholstered chairs. The walls were covered in beautiful panelling with framed oil paintings of important people. The attorney and an elegantly dressed woman my mother’s age both stood and approached.
“Hello Mrs. Diaz and Anna. I’m Heidi Bloom, the Executor of the estate. This is my attorney, Elliott Gold. It’s our pleasure to meet you ladies.”
I was transfixed by the beautiful diamonds on Mrs. Bloom’s fingers and neckline which drew me into them like a movie screen recalling scenes from many of the movies I watched with Domingo:
“Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”;
“Here’s looking at you, kid”;
“May the Force be with you”;
“I’m Charles Foster Kane”;
Each of the diamonds within her tennis bracelet shined like a movie marque.
“I’m the attorney representing the estate of Mr. Domingo Sanchez and his Executor, Mrs. Bloom who was his landlord and employer for many years.”
“Elliott, please allow me to take it from here.”
“Of course, Mrs. Bloom.”
“My grandparents loved Domingo like a son and taught him to become the projectionist of the El Viaje. My parents and myself chose corporate careers and weren’t interested in operating the theatre. Once my grandparents died, El Viaje fell into disrepair and closed. I maintained Domingo as a caretaker to watch over the theatre which hasn’t shown a film for over a decade. I inherited the property and have considered selling it. None of the interested buyers are movie theatres; mostly condo developers and tech retail giants who will change the neighborhood, they say, ‘for the good.’ My grandparents loved your neighborhood and knew many of its neighbors by name. It would break their hearts to see your neighborhood become gentrified and overpriced. Domingo willed you a life insurance policy from the projectionist’s union which will get you started, and, along with ‘sweat equity,’ you can complete a substantial rehab of the El Viaje, if you choose. Alternatively, you may take the insurance money, the films, posters, and books he willed to you. I suspect many of these possessions are valuable. However, if you choose to open the theatre, I’ll rent it to you for $1 per month for 12 months.”
Mrs. Bloom began to weep.
“Look at this old photo, Alma. You look remarkably like my grandmother when she opened the theatre with my grandfather. She ran the ticket booth, concession stand, and grandfather operated the projection equipment until Domingo came aboard.”
It was an old black and white photo of two young people standing in front of the theatre as the neon “El Viaje” sign was being installed above the marque. They were happy and in love. I saw Mama wiping a tear from her eye.
“After the first year of successfully operating the theatre, I’ll sell the building to you with no down payment, and carry the loan at a very reasonable mortgage payment so you afford to stay in business. Domingo told me how you organized the priceless nitrate films which are disintegrating, the movie posters, books, and projection equipment. He told me you had a ‘photographic memory’ for images, and are a ‘wiz’ with projection equipment. If you choose not to open El Viaje, in addition to the insurance proceeds, I can arrange an auction of the films, posters, projectors, and books if you would like the proceeds, or, you might consider ‘paying forward’ and donating them to a film preservation society.”
“Excuse me. May I speak with my daughter alone for a moment.”
“Certainly, Mrs. Diaz. Mr. Gold and myself will step out of the room while you speak.”
The heavy walnut doors closed, and Mama spoke.
“You’re a teenage girl. Do you believe you can open that old theatre again?”
“I’m very good at operating projectors and editing film.”
“Where did you learn this, Alma?”
“My friend, Domingo. I need you to help me with the ticket booth, concession stand, and maintenance. It will be our business, Mama! You can quit your two jobs. I’ll need you full-time.”
“What if you fail? I don’t think you find a good job in movie theatres today?”
“I won’t fail and Mrs. Bloom will sell El Viaje to me when I make it a success. I have so many special films the neighborhood will pay to see. We’ll live comfortably. We can fix up Domingo’s apartment above the theatre and live rent free. I need your help, mama, please! It’s the only passion I have.”
Mama held me tight, whispering,
“I’ll work my fingers to the bone to make the theatre a success, Alma.”
As we began renovation of El Viaje, Mr. Morales paid for a “Coming Soon” banner which was hung over the marque. Many neighbors offered donations and skilled tradesmen donated work.
The disbanded “Los Muertos” gang boys, missing Jorge who was jailed, donated their time, learning building trades from the skilled workers.
Mrs. Bloom provided legal and accounting services for the many contracts we were required to sign with vendors and movie distributors.
In ninety days of around the clock work, the El Viaje marque was glowing, and a line formed around the block to watch our opening premier of the documentary film, “Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It.”
Mama worked the ticket booth, recently retired Mrs. Washington ran the concession stand, and Alberto, so handsome in his red uniform with gold epaulets, greeted each of the guests as our usher.
I hung a copy of Mrs. Bloom’s grandparents’ photo within the lobby along with the original movie poster of Domingo’s beloved film,
“Around the World In 80 Days.”
It was the only poster I retained, “paying forward” Domingo’s possessions to film preservation societies, film schools, and libraries who “paid it back” by selecting El Viaje for prestigious film festivals and the premier of independent films selected for international award recognition.
New restaurants, markets, and curio stores opened, revitalizing the neighborhood.
School taught me to calculate the “area” of a triangle. Staring from my stoop towards Dreamz Burger and El Viaje, I learned I lived within a triangle with a small “area.” El Viaje taught me the world was a big beautiful sphere, and the only “area” to know is the size of your heart. My “area” included Domingo, Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Bloom, and of course, Mama.