Freddie Fender himself dropped by our city to play a restaurant/nightclub on the edge of the concrete island that overlooked the Santa Ana freeway running beneath it. It shot out in a red and white stream below the bridge.
“Man, that dude was good.” We happened to be there in the bar when he took the stage and strummed on his guitar and broke into some good, Tex-Mex stuff. Afterwards he partied down with us in the back of the restaurant.
“Till he almost couldn’t walk, man,” we reminded ourselves. We caught the show for kicks that night, my friends and I. We ended up at Alfonso’s Restaurant and Lounge after a movie and didn’t expect to see Freddie Fender or anybody special, let alone a world-famous recording artist. That’s what the sign said that we laughed at outside, but then went in anyway. “Fuck it,” we said, “let’s check out this dude.”
“Maybe we can get a few drinks.” That’s if the cool waitress who called us ‘honey’ was on. She placed coasters under us and never carded. We’d drink cokes and eat fries if the other one whisked up to us with her pad out already, ready to take a food order.
“What’ll you have, boys?” is what she said.
“Freddie took the stage and got down, man.” We couldn’t get him out of our minds. “He was wearing that black shirt with rhinestone buttons but he didn’t look like no Okie or nothing, just like a dude who’s seen some hard times, man, de veras. A tejano, I guess you’d call him, kind of like a cholo but a little country.”
“Like an old pachuco, man,” somebody said, “with a twang.”
We sat in a car in a cul-de-sac, laughing and partying. A joint made the rounds, and bottles clinked under our feet. A neon sign advertised the Commerce Club across the freeway, a blinking ace of spades bringing them in.
Everybody agreed his songs were good. “Bad, man.” As the show went on, with the star smiling and smoking between numbers, a big husky Chicano with curly hair slumping forward on a small stool, telling a little about himself to the few people scattered in the audience (“My name is Freddy Fender and I’m from Taxes,” we imitated him when he first spoke. “I’m gonna play you a few of my songs. I hope you like ’em.”), we got absorbed in him. We scooted up in the chairs around the candle-lit table in the middle of the bar to watch him more closely.
We wanted to get a good view of him because he was really working, sweating, pouring his soul out, Freddie Fender de San Benito. The Río Grande Valley was where he hailed from. “Down there, en el valle.” He shared more about himself as he got loose and the bartender replenished his drink whenever he wanted, jiggling his glass in the air, catching the bartender’s eye. The bartender placed it at his feet himself, as if he was proud to be serving this man who was baring his artistic soul.
We didn’t get quite so eloquent, but we came close, stumbling with words to describe him. “Puro corazón, man,” somebody summed it up.
“I’m gonna buy his album, Okie or not. That dude gets down. With ballads. With Mexican. With country. Whatever. He’s bad.”
He gave us his all that night. Afterwards he set his guitar down on the stand and bowed a little, more like hunching his shoulders and dipping his head forward. “Thank you very much,” he spoke into the mic. Then he stood up and turned his back to the audience. He lifted two fingers to the bartender behind the bar and exited through the service doors into the kitchen. Yeah, we ended up back there.
We still couldn’t figure out how, exactly, that had happened.
“We just kind of followed him in after he threw his arm out and said like come on in.”
“‘Come on back here, boys, let’s have a party,’” someone turned Freddy’s thoughts into words for him.
We had all seen it in his face. He wanted to party with us.
“He was lonely.” Silence hit the car, an uneasiness growing because nobody admitted to those feelings. And afterwards, when everybody was done rehashing the story, when our own little party was over, we drifted back into our heads and didn’t say much more.
They dropped me off at home and I said, “Later, dudes,” and they said, “Later,” and we didn’t talk about it again.
It was just a dumb night we spent getting high and listening to a Freddie Fender story from our own mouths. But I think of that dude, sometimes, giving it his all. That’s all.
“We were sitting across from him, man, drinking.”
“And drinking,” somebody else said, and we laughed again.
It almost made us drunk to bring it up.
“Us, man,” two or three dudes from City of Commerce outside L.A., near the big barrio East Los, “sitting across from Freddie Fender.”
“Right there in the back of Alfonso’s where the prep cooks cut and shit.”
We sat at one of those prep tables where the onions and bell peppers get sliced and diced for the evening meal.
“One of those silver tables is where we sat at, man.”
Freddie rested his elbows on the tabletop and chain-smoked and yelled out for drinks through the swinging doors to the bar, but respectfully, not like he was a big shot or nothing, trying to prove something.
“He was just cool, man,” we agreed.
“We got so fucked up, man. I’ve never been so drunk in my life.” We let Freddy take charge and take charge he did. He kept the drinks coming and coming.
“Scotch on the rocks for him. Gin and tonics for us.” But he had been drinking a lot longer than we had, so he had a jump on us. “I could tell he was getting too fucked up, man, way too fucked up.”
Then he pulled something out of his shirt pocket, an imaginary joint he kept twisting in his fingers, saying: “¿Quién tiene la mota, ése? Where’s the good weed around here?” He patted himself down showing everybody he was empty and making a funny face like saying me no know.
“Where’s the good stuff, ése? Who’s got the good stuff?” He spread his arms out at his sides, pretty desperate for a high we didn’t have.
We didn’t have shit on us.
But Freddy wanted to get high. “Quería fumar.” He brought out a little Chicano in us, a little Spanish we wouldn’t normally use.
Freddy put us on the spot. “Man, I felt bad for him.” Frank spoke for all of us.
“Like a freeloader or something.”
He had gotten down on the guitarra for a good three hours, unplugged y todo, captivating us, and now he craved a small joint to get him through the night and we couldn’t do anything for him but cry poor.
“Sorry, Freddie, we ain’t got nothing. But we’ll go out and get you anything you want, man, anything that you want. Just tell us what.” We sat waiting, staring into his eyes.
“Naw, chale,” Freddie said. He flung up a hand, not pissed, just giving up on maybe a stupid idea anyway.
He started talking, as if to himself. He hung his head and his lips moved slowly.
“I been put in the big house, man, in Louisiana, in 1960, for a stick of marijuana. They put me there because I was a Mexican. ¿Comprendes, Mendez?” He scanned us in a circle.
“I did two and a half years, three,” he rocked himself in the telling, “for a stick of marijuana.” He sat bolt upright and pursed the words. “Mary Jane.”
We moved uncomfortably, sitting around him at the silver table with the dishwasher clanging away in the other room. We listened to him singing in Spanish. He got into it pretty good, reaching for the impossible notes, banging the pots and pans but singing clearly to the great producer, God.
Freddy’s face turned mild and gentle. Then it hardened and almost broke. “En el cárcel, ése, for three fucking years. Three pinchi years behind bars like a perro, un animal, que no era.”
“We’re sorry, Freddie, we didn’t know.”
He looked up and grunted. “You guys are all right, man, you’re my partners.”
Then he started warbling, softly at first and then a little louder, “Wasted days and wasted nights…” and laughing a little, everybody, loosening up in the kitchen of the restaurant, Freddy with his sad eyes staring at us, me and my friends helping him up and getting him to the motel next door.