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in Puerto Rican: A Hearing Son and His Deaf Family|
“STEP LIVELY, STEP LIVELY.” The conductor’s command came sharply over the loudspeaker as they jumped aboard. Life had taught them to regard punctuality as a vital habit. Too often they had been overlooked or left behind, so they were already poised at the doors as the subway slowed to a halt. My parents were going downtown to the Friday meeting of the Puerto Rican Society for the Catholic Deaf. Together with their friends Isaura and Oliverio, they were riding the A train to the meeting hall, located in the central office of the New York City Archdiocese, near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I was with them as usual. The year was 1960.
Pop worked as a stock clerk in the garment center where his weekdays were spent packing men’s shirts into cardboard boxes. His hands were callused from the daily handling of those boxes, and the years of lifting and lugging molded his body into an athletic frame. He arrived home gritty and tired, but on those Friday evenings of the Deaf Society, of which Pop was president, he was a transformed man. In his grey suit and blue tie, his face sweetly scented with his favorite lotion, he could have passed for someone well beyond his true station in life. As president of an organization, he might as well dress up for the role. Like most Latin men, Pop sported a mustache, finely trimmed and clear of his upper lip. His thinning dark hair was combed back.
The five of us worked our way through the busy car and in the far corner Mom and Isaura, dressed up and perfumed, found seats. They fit snuggly in a double seat, while I grabbed an empty spot some distance from them. Mom, short and chubby, occupied more than her fair share of space, which presented no problems for Isaura who was slim as a rail. Fortunately, I had already convinced my parents that a twelve-year-old boy didn’t need to be making a fashion statement for these meetings. With my blue striped polo shirt, unadorned cotton slacks and Converse sneakers, I was good to go. Pop and Oliverio stood nearby, holding onto a silver pole where there were already two men. As the train pulled out of the station Pop and Oliverio faced each other.
“Do you think there’ll be many people tonight?” Oliverio wondered, in signs.
“Maybe twenty-five to thirty. It will be a good crowd,” Pop responded with his hands.
Signing on a subway that alternates between a stop-and-go crawl and a bouncing sprint is not the easiest thing to do. Elbows and knees were in constant motion, as the men braced themselves against the gleaming silver pole. Each would’ve been grateful for the use of a third arm.
“We have a lot of business to discuss: the credit union and planning for the dinner, and Monsignor Lynch wants to talk to us. Then we will have the movie. I hope we do not waste time on silly arguments.” Pop liked to run the meetings efficiently and leave time for socializing.
They kept the signs to themselves, trying to conceal the conversation like poker players sheltering their hands. Pop didn’t like to verbalize loudly or put his gestures on display, as did other deaf people I knew. Nevertheless, the other two men at the pole were startled; they weren’t sure what to do. I had seen this before and I knew what they were thinking: Is it wrong to look? Or do you just pretend they’re not there?
These two just stayed where they were, fidgeting and looking away. Pop had been through this often and he didn’t care. He wasn’t going to be a zombie on the subway. On he went, signing with Oliverio, discreetly, but without shame. Next to me Mom and Isaura were gossiping too, chismeando with their hands. As soon as we’d jumped aboard they’d gone straight for the corner seats, to avoid the view of other passengers. They conversed with their hands down on their laps, making only the subtlest of facial movements. I was accustomed to this scene: watching my parents sign in the subway, and watching the hearing people watch them.
Pop and Oliverio continued, as did Mom and Isaura, oblivious to the attention gathering about them. By now the other passengers, not just the two men at the silver pole, noticed the deaf people talking. Then, toward the center of the car, a group of young kids had noticed:
“Hey, look over there,” one of them said. “Look over there at the deaf and dumb people!”
Then came the bulging eyes and giggles.
“Oh yeah, look.” Another chimed in, pointing at my parents.
A third one let out, “Hey I can do that, can’t you?”