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Caló: The rolas de aquellas


The Caló word for this episode is ‘rola,’ which means song. It comes from the juke box brand that launched in the 1930s, Rock-Ola. Each song in the Rock-Ola came to be known as a rola, over time so too did the songs that played on the radio or were accessible from vinyl albums, compact discs, and electronic playlists.

The two-hour drive from the out-of-town game was coming to an end close to midnight. The bus crossing the railroad tracks into the Southside rousted the marching band awake. Everybody reached for their instrument, but Boy, trumpet already in hand, he was focused on getting a ride home. Unless he caught one, he was looking at walking home in the dark. Nobody was waiting for him like the other kids. His cousin Leon had said he’d be there, but it was a low probability promise.

Boy scanned the high school parking lot and spotted a clustered of cars parked underneath a streetlight. A yellow GTO stood out. 

“Pelucha’s crew, no ride home there,” thought Boy. 

He started walking down the main drag in his clunky band uniform. The Friday night vuelta was still happening but thinning out.

A short while later, Leon cruised by in the opposite direction in his gold Eldorado. He looked over at Boy and slowed down.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey,” said Leon impersonating a Bill Cosby cartoon character.

“Turn around or hop on now?” he asked.

“I’ll hop on,” Boy responded.

The Eldorado stopped.

“Qué onda, what’s up?” said Boy when he got in.

“Just cruising. Seeing what’s going on,” said Leon in the rhythm of a popular Marvin Gay tune.

“Glad to see you, primo. Thought I was gonna have to walk home,” said Boy.

They cruised in silence.

“Yo, wanna hear something cool?” asked Leon.

“Órale. What?” asked Boy.

“Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes,” said Leon as he dropped a cassette tape into his stereo and kicked up the volume.

“If you don’t know me by now…,” crooned Harold Melvin.

Boy had never heard anything like it. The slow but driving rhythm sounded otherworldly to him. 

“What kind of music is it?” asked Boy.

“Ya’ll country folk call it a rola,” said Leon sarcastically and chuckled.

“We call it gospel.”

Then he stopped the car in the middle of the road astride the lane marker, shifted the Eldorado to neutral and leaned back deep in his seat.

The traffic went around them. Boy looked around nervously. Should a cop car appear, his walk home would take all night. But the call and response of the Blue Notes drew him away. They were talking to each other and to everybody listening—everywhere, ever.

Boy slumped in his seat and listened.

When the song ended, Leon put the Eldorado back into drive and cruised on. After a while, he looked over at Boy and rocked his head backwards to ask what he thought of the song.

“The rola’s real de aquellas (great),” said Boy.

“Hah! You crack me up,” snickered Leon.

Oscar Rodriguez is the creator and host of Caló.