Writing Home

Rod Martinez

The house I was raised in was built in 1908 in a historic section of Tampa, Florida called Ybor City. Ybor was formed by Cuban entrepreneur Vicente Martinez-Ybor in the 1880s. An influx of Cubans came to the Tampa area to work in the cigar factories and the town grew around the industry. The historic homes lined with palm trees, mango trees, orange and grapefruit trees, and the well-known free run of chickens in the area are a local sightseeing phenomenon. My neighbourhood was about as typical as most in Ybor City. The norm was a row of old homes and brick streets. Watching a rooster dodge traffic any given day was a common occurrence. The local joke among us kids was always, “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because they live in Ybor City.”

But back to my house.

Many stories abound from the house I was raised in. Back in my childhood, Pop told me he bought it from an Italian man who had a live-in butler. Growing up, friends and cousins referred to it as “The Haunted Mansion” or “The Museum”. It stood out on the block of tall wooden-frame houses as it was the only one of its design. The black wrought iron fence was the only one in the neighbourhood, and the fancy Spanish tile roof was the only one on the street. It was something I considered normal – but no one else had it. The smell of the real wood floors was an aroma I grew up with, even today when I smell one, it takes me back. The fireplace, and columns inside always reminded me of the old houses I’d see in Black and white movies back in the day. The yard outside was huge and Mom’s green thumb kept it flourished with the smell of roses and citrus trees. I never gave all of it much thought back then; it was home, and home was the best place to be.

Growing up a child of the late 60s and the formative decade of the 70s, I watched history happen without realising it. A couple of months after my first birthday, President John F Kennedy came to Tampa on a political visit. It was a huge day for the third largest city of the sunshine state. The man was truly loved here. Parades, the media, high school marching bands – Tampa pulled out all the stops. It was like a rock star had landed. Then four days later he would visit the last city he’d ever see again alive: Dallas, Texas.

Just a mile from the house was downtown Tampa, where just two years before I was born, young African Americans from the two Black-only high schools had formed a sit-in at the F. W. Woolworth store. By the time I could visit downtown with my grandmother, I had no idea that brave young students had stood their ground against Jim Crow and made it feasible for anyone to be allowed to sit in the diner at Woolworths and eat. Just blocks from there was the famed Jackson House. I had seen it all my life and had never known that it was the “hotel” at which Black entertainers would stay when they came to Tampa via the train station that was right across the street. They weren’t allowed rooms in the local hotels. The likes of James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway stayed there. When Martin Luther King Jr came to visit my hometown, he stopped there for a visit.

History was everywhere, in and out of the house. On our living room TV, we watched the moon landing, a true test of American grit. During my childhood, the famous Gasparilla parade, Tampa’s answer to Mardi Gras, passed right down the main street, Nebraska Avenue, around the corner from my house, so all we had to do was walk to the block to catch beads and candy from the friendly pirates.

I was raised by my paternal grandparents. My parents died five months apart when I was two. So Abuela and Abuelo (though I called them Mum and Pop) bought the house in 1965 when I was three years old. I never asked, but I think they needed to move away from the side of town where we lived before since it reminded them of what they’d lost – my father, their only son. Truthfully, Mum never got over his death. It was the unspoken thing at home because it was sure to bring tears to her eyes if mentioned.

Both my grandparents came from huge loving families. Losing a family member was bad enough, but your son? I couldn’t imagine the anguish she went through, but I saw the tears. When I hear a friend speak of their upbringing, there is rarely happy talk about how they were raised. I hear a lot of disciplinary talk and tough love. My sister and I were fortunate, I guess. Mum and Pop were devout Christians, devoted to the family and to our home. There was a lot of laughter and music in the big, roomy house. Mum was the consummate homemaker, a job of which she was very proud. Back then, we knew nothing else. She was the best cook in her family, so we would have family soirees that I hated because it meant people coming into my room. Pop was the consummate host. He kept everyone laughing and eating; all without alcohol in the house.

Today, looking back, I can’t even imagine how they could ever afford our home. It would be the equivalent of buying a $450,000 house today on a meagre salary. Even harder for us since we were dark-skinned Hispanics. Tampa, Florida was in the South, where Jim Crow was alive and well, from what I later read in local history. But thankfully, we never suffered from it. Mum and Pop raised us colourblind. It was always more important to speak of cultural differences than about the colour of one’s skin. It wasn’t till later in life that I realised my kindergarten and first grade school was an all-Black school. The colour of the people in school was something I never noticed.

My first brush with “cultural differences” was in second grade at Robert E. Lee Elementary when a classmate, Theodore, complained to the teacher that I was singing all the time.

“What’s wrong with singing, Theodore?” she asked.

“He’s singing in some language that I don’t even understand. Where do you come from anyway?”

I was singing songs in Spanish; it was my first language. My friend Eduardo totally understood, and he sang along with me.

We lived well. Mum and Pop raised my sister and me with love. We truly lived the Beaver Cleaver life – something my contemporaries really had issues with at times. Pop showed me the true example of fatherhood and what it meant to be a loving husband. At times, the affection I saw between him and Mum would make me ask, “Don’t you guys have a room, jeez!”

But he was an awesome role model. It was clear that everything he did reflected on us, in one way or another. He was a truly selfless man, and as a kid, I just assumed that was how all dads were. After all, that’s how they were on TV, right? I was determined to mimic him as an adult.

Growing up, I never liked sports because Pop didn’t. We never watched the Super Bowl, World Series, or National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs. It was never important. Not that I couldn’t play sports; in school, it was a must. But I didn’t make it my hobby to grab a mitt and ball and play catch with anyone. We didn’t even fish. I was drawn to the creative side: drawing, singing, writing.

We all look back in life and can name those who were critical in helping us become who we are, be it bad or good. Who inspired you to pick up that first cigarette (yuck!) or drink your first drink (also yuck!), or ride a bike, decide to do ballet, take piano lessons, shoot a BB gun? I credit two teachers with shaping my path. It wouldn’t be sports, or motor cross or Boy Scouts.

Writing came to me in a way I hadn’t expected. In second grade, Miss Patterson gave us a free day. “Do whatever you want.” I grabbed comic construction paper and created my first comic book, The Boy Who Liked to Read. I was so proud of it; it was about me. She was proud of it too, proud enough to show it off to the class so that I’d later be called a jerk by my friends for doing something productive with my free time instead of making spit balls and paper aeroplanes or trying to see if Amy Shaw thought I was cute.

Miss Patterson told me, “I think you have a future in writing, young man.”

Writing? At the time I didn’t even consider it as writing. I grew up on comic books. Marvel, DC, Archie, Harvey – didn’t matter. I read them all. And then I started drawing them, making up adventures for my favourite heroes. Eventually, it came down to creating my own heroes and villains – Action Lad, Kung Fu Prince, The Junior SWAT Crew…the Atomic Ostrich.

It was to the point that in high school my English teacher got tired of me drawing in her class and told me to write a short story instead, saying she’d give me extra credit.

“Short story?” I asked.

“Yes, all these little stories you make up with your drawing, do the same thing with just words. You can do it. Just go for it.”

“Uh, yes ma’am.”

I thought she was out of her mind. But I listened and created my first short story, which she read and loved.

“This is what I’m trying to get through to you – you can write. Stop drawing so much!”

“Yes ma’am.”

That was my senior year. I graduated, moved on, discovered that I was a musician, and started playing in bands. I forgot about writing. Miss Patterson passed away.

Looking back, inspiration came from everywhere: Mum, Pop, Stan Lee, Miss Patterson, Miss Steinker.

By the time I became serious about writing, it was too late to share it with Pop; he had succumbed to cancer. My hero was gone.

The year was 1996. He died in the house. Truthfully, since my childhood, five people had died in that house. It wasn’t scary or spooky to me; I never felt scared at home except while watching Twilight Zone as a child. But many of my friends wouldn’t come in. “The house is creepy,” I heard a lot. I never considered it so, until that one day—

I was in my thirties, working full time, and occasionally I’d stop home for lunch with Mum. As I’ve stated before, she was known for her cooking, so I knew there’d be something there. I went in, called out. No one answered. Her car was in the driveway but many times she’d get picked up by a friend or relative to go shopping or walking in the park.

“Hmm, no Mum. Well, I guess lunch is on me.”

I proceeded to the kitchen. The smell of home permeated the walls; her perfume, fresh air breezing in through the huge screened windows. The ceilings were nine feet off the floor, so air circulated freely in “The Museum”. Columns and chandeliers decorated the interior, along with paintings and memorabilia that instantly took me back to my childhood. A framed picture of my birth father was in every room.

I stepped into the kitchen and for a brief second breathed in the aroma of youth. Glimpsed back at the time Mum and Pop were dancing near the window as Frank Sinatra sang on the radio. Or the times I’d be seated at the table drawing Superman while she worked on her own creation at the stove. Those memories always brought a smile. Mum looked to me like Katherine Jackson, mother of Michael. They could have been sisters. She had a regal air to her that always glowed.

I stepped in, made a tuna sandwich, grabbed chips and juice. I was done in five minutes. It had been a while since I was totally alone in the house. I smiled, childhood memories of races down the long wooden floored hallway, listening to Mum’s infectious laugh, Pop’s westerns on TV, and my sister playing disco in her room filled my head. I slowly walked to the front door and stared out at the street. Stared out at nothing and remembered the one time back in 1969 when I stood at that very spot and watched a guy walk down the sidewalk with Elvis’ pompadour hair. A huge grin grew on my face back then as I said to myself, “Wow, a Black Elvis. I wonder if he plays guitar.”

Then I felt a hand press against my right shoulder behind me, the sure feeling you get when a palm is placed gently against your skin. I turned. No one was there. It took me seconds to slam the door, hop off the porch and hoof it to my car all in one fell swoop. It felt like seconds. I locked my door, shoved the key into the ignition, then stopped, turned back, and stared at the house. Fear grabbed me just for that brief second. Fear, a feeling I had never felt before while at home. Then I smiled and whispered,

“I love you too, Pop.”

To this day, I can’t explain what that was. I know what I felt and that leap off the porch was a hefty five-foot-off-the-ground-spring without a running start, but I landed running. I impressed myself.

A year later, his first and only great-grandson would be born, the child he would never get to meet. The child that I would have the privilege of showing the incredible example I had growing up. He was going to be raised the way I was. I was going to be Pop.

Writing trickled in and out of my life. I quit playing in bands because I had a family to raise and being “Dad” was the priority.

My son was in the sixth grade when it all came back. That summer we were watching The Goonies, a movie we’d watched over and over, and he said to me, “You should write a story like that about me and my friends but based here in Tampa.”

He knew I dabbled in short stories; I took him up on it. It started as a 20-page booklet but eventually grew into a fully-fledged novel because people who read it kept telling me to keep the story going. I had no idea where I was going with it; I just wanted my son to enjoy it.

Eventually I was encouraged to seek publishing, something I never thought I would try. I was content being a dad and working my nine-to-five. After all, my son was playing sax in a jazz band, and I was president of the music boosters club. I was busy. But I did my due diligence in submitting query letters and synopses and “please read my manuscript” letters. Eventually, that story became my first published book.

The local notoriety of that book garnered a newspaper article, which in turn brought invites to local schools. They wanted me to talk to students about writing. Speaking to a class, library, or auditorium of kids scared the snot out of me.

“What am I going to say to these kids? ‘Hi, I’m Mr Martinez, please tell your mum to buy my book’?” I wrote outlines and prepared the speech. I was as nervous as a hotdog on the Fourth of July. So, what did I do? I winged it. Tossed the speech aside and spoke from my gut. The kids loved it. I had found another niche.

Kids have a way of doing that. They inspire. In fact, inspiration was the key to my speech, starting with Pop, moving on to Miss Patterson, then to Miss Steinker, and eventually to my son. But then a kid asked me “Mr Martinez, who were the writers that inspired you?”

Ask that question to any writer and they will spew off a contact list of names: James Patterson, Stephen King, Betsy Byars, Doug Kinney, Beverley Cleary. I stood there, dumbfounded. I didn’t have a favourite author. Well, I did, but it took that question to open my eyes.

I paused, looked at the kid, then I asked, “Anyone ever heard of The Twilight Zone?” Hands went up. “Okay, how about Marvel Comics?” More hands went up.

“Believe it or not guys, the two guys I credit with inspiring me to write are Rod Serling and Stan Lee.” I went in depth, explaining the episodes of The Twilight Zone and how Mr Serling loved to play with the viewer’s head. What you thought was going on, wasn’t. The ending you perceived was coming was way off from how it would truly end. And as far as Stan Lee? You know that geeky kid that got bitten by a radioactive spider? We’ll call him your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man who swings to the aid of the wronged citizen. The mild-mannered scientist that gets hit with gamma radiation. He’ll burst at the seams into this huge, ugly green monster – no I’m not talking about your principal. We’ll call him the Hulk. The four friends who take off in a spaceship and are consumed by cosmic rays? They will become the Fantastic Four, defenders of justice. Except Johnny – he is always burning up his underwear. On and on I went, and the kids ate it up.

True, I didn’t have ‘real’ literary geniuses to draw from, but the two I mentioned have become heroes to every kid I speak to and all the more solidify me as a writer.

I’ve come a long way from that old 1908 house. Ybor City is still a historic icon lined with old vacant cigar factories, Cuban sandwich shops, and loose chickens running freely through yards and traffic, causing an accident or two. The main street now is lined with clubs and bars, nothing compared to the majesty of the Ybor that was. The houses that stood in my old neighbourhood aren’t there anymore, save one. But not the one I grew up in; the entire house was moved by the City of Tampa because of its historical status. Yes, they moved the whole family house blocks away. I wish Pop could have seen it – but then again, maybe he did.

Rod Martinez, attracted to words at an early age, created his first book in grade school; his teacher used it to encourage creativity in her students. His high school English teacher told him to try short story writing, he listened, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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