Scrub Magazine: Frances Rodríguez with Justin Yockel

Frances Rodriguez (right) speaks with Justin Yockel (near left). Photo © Paul Sepuya and Katie Kline.

Scrub was my contribution to a downtown gay zine scene that I found seductive and sexy, but was also conflicted about. So much of it seemed self-promotional and insular. I wanted my version to tell the stories of an underrepresented New York, whose stories are just as fabulous if one takes the time to listen. Scrub ended up being a one-off response. There was only one issue printed, mostly because I didn’t have a business plan. Printing is costly but I wanted the satisfaction of having a tangible artifact. Now, seven years later, I’m happy The Conversant has resurrected these interviews in an online format. It’s interesting so see how they hold up in a new context.—Justin Yockel

In December 2005, Justin Yockel invited Frances Rodríguez—his Jamaican-born, deaf, transgendered neighbor—to converse in Scrub’s Harlem office (pictured above). Conversation flowed from Frances, through Erick (an interpreter who is also deaf), through Edwin (a hearing interpreter), to Justin, and back.

Frances Rodriguez: What happened to the fish?

Justin Yockel: There was an accident, a mishap, and the whole thing fell on the floor face down. I can rinse it off if you want. I just washed the floor yesterday.

Edwin: That wasn’t me that said that. He’s asking: Do you want me to clean it off? Do you want him to do that?

FR: Yes.

JY: [returns with the Zabar’s nova pack] OK. It seems fine. I was disgusted with myself for having dropped it. I’ll even have some to prove to everybody that I have no fear. I just rinsed off the top of it. So help yourself. Do you guys want anything?

Paul: Oh, I’m just going to have a muffin.

JY: Now that you have your family photos, Frances, do you want to use them to talk about Jamaica? This is your mother, right?

FR: Yes. She died 14 years ago. She was 52. I’m 60 right now. She was young. She was younger. She had no white hair. Full, full black hair. Black mixed with gray on the top, like blue-ish. All the black people here had all white hair. They were weaker but she was strong. She had strong, black hair. Most people really fell in love with her. She should have been black but her skin tone was more tannish, so they were attracted to her. She had the most light-colored skin, like glittering diamond skin. How is that possible? I guess God had blessed her. Her mother was white. Her father was black. She knew that she had a beautiful body and smooth skin. The people—the white people, Spanish people, black—no matter what they were—they all had deformities on their bodies, wrinkles on their faces. She was beautiful. They were jealous.

JY: And she grew up in Jamaica?

FR: Yes.

JY: And where did she meet your father?

FR: He fell in love with her. My mother was very young. She was so gorgeous my father met her and fell in love with her.

JY: OK. And then how many kids did they have? You obviously, and—

FR: I have one brother who looked the same as my mother. He looks exactly like her. This is my brother. They really had a strong resemblance. My nose was a little bit long, so I had surgery. They cut it off but she had a very slim nose and a very beautiful face. She was very strict, so her nose was a certain way. Black people, Spanish people, anybody, if they talked vulgar language, she was very disgusted with that. My mother was very strict. She didn’t want me giving hugs or kissing blacks, or whites, or anything. My mother didn’t like people greeting her with hugs and kisses. She would wipe it right off. I think she was afraid of disease and germs. I don’t mind, but my mother was very strict. Very strict. My mother, though, loved me and cherished me. She didn’t want me to be taken advantage of in any way, so she protected me.

JY: And this person—was she born here in the US?

FR: No in Jamaica. She was born in Jamaica, moved here and I helped raise her.

JY: So she’s a half sister.

FR: She’s still living. I see her every so often. She was in competition. She won trophies for track but now she doesn’t run anymore because she had knee surgery.

JY: OK.

FR: I gave her, you know, earrings and jewelry and clothing, you know. I cherish her a lot. We have a strong relationship. She has her own makeup business. She sells makeup and things and, you know, she makes money that way.

JY: These [extended family] pictures were taken here or in Jamaica?

FR: Here. Bronx. That’s Bronx. That’s also the Bronx—Bronx area but they had their own individual houses. Some in Queens. Some in Brooklyn. Some in Manhattan. East Manhattan. Very nice, sophisticated areas in Manhattan. I live alone. I have my own apartment.

There’re so many black people around here involved with drugs and all these dirty things and sexual things. I get very disgusted with that. I happened to meet you. We always say hello to each other as we pass by. But in Jamaica, you know, everything is beautiful and friendly. Here in these boroughs here—Bronx, Staten Island, Queens, Manhattan—you have all these uptight people, but in Jamaica everybody is so nice and friendly. I prefer Jamaica to here.

JY: When was the last time you were there?

FR: My mother decided to bring me to Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. I was placed there in a mental institution, was released and felt that life was disrupted, depressed. My mother just dumped me there and that made me depressed. I feel frustrated. You know, Jamaica was so nice and everything was beautiful and friendly and then to come here, my life was really turned over. I blame my mother.

Here in the US, New York, it’s terrible with money and everything because the government takes your money. It happened that I had to go to the hospital. I had a heart attack. I got pneumonia. All these things happened to me. I was disgusted because the government is not supportive or helpful with the disabled or the deaf. It’s a dirty business. They just take your money. I’m disgusted with the USA. Jamaica was much better. Beautiful. I’m just patient living here. It’s strange. America and Jamaica are totally different. Everything’s beautiful in Jamaica. You’re healthy. Everything’s fresh. Not here.

I see the police, the black people: I see all these things, all this dirty business that’s going on around, this abuse, the drugs, the oppression, but in Jamaica everything’s honest. The police are honest. I’m just really disgusted with the shit here.

My whole family came here, from all over, they all came here. Some families are still living: aunts, uncles. They’re still living. My grandparents and other family members—there’s a total of 20—have died here. It was a long time ago. It was around the ‘70s that they started dying.

JY: But did your father ever come here? Last time, I understood that your father was out of the picture early.

FR: I don’t know. He disappeared. My mother and father divorced and he disappeared. I’ve never seen my father, even in pictures. I have decided that my father was white but I have no proof. My mother didn’t want to tell me what my father looked like or show any pictures of him. She kept it to herself. I asked, Where is my father? and they never told me. I have the gut feeling that my father was white. I think that maybe my father is probably really old right now or maybe he died. I feel he’s dead.

JY: You came here with your mother from Jamaica. How old were you?

FR: I was born in May 1945 and in 1946, I came here. November. During the month of Thanksgiving. Upon arrival, I immediately got ill. They put me in the hospital and gave me all these shots and then I became deaf. I just think that because of my condition, things got worse. I don’t like it here. I like it better in Jamaica. The food’s no good. These foods aren’t good. In Jamaica everything’s good. The air is fresher. Your skin is better. Over there everything’s beautiful and smooth.

I was put in a school in the Bronx and they taught me things. My teacher said I was a terrific—that I was wonderful and that everyone else was terrible. I have the picture of the teacher who I loved so much. I was very sad when my teacher died. Her/his name began with an L. The first school that I went to was in Manhattan and then the second one was in the Bronx.

This is me when I was younger. This is now. I’m older. Over there I was beautiful, young. Here I’m old.

JY: How old are you here?

FR: 50 there. And 60 now.

JY: OK, so this is recent and this is 10 years ago. Were you getting ready for a party? You’re very dolled up! You look great.

FR: Yeah. This was at Christmas time. And this was visiting a friend during Christmas. I lived in Queens before. This person got married, went to Queens. I see her every once in a while.

JY: You want to tell us about these?

FR: This is from Jamaica. This is my—

JY: Passport photo? It looks like some kind of immigration photo.

Frances Rodríguez at 20.
Frances Rodríguez at 20.

E: That’s was it is. A passport.

JY: And this?

FR: That’s me.

JY: At how old? 12?

FR: 20.

JY: 20! Wow. Beautiful.

FR: Wow! I was beautiful then. Now I’m old. On the East Side of Manhattan I paid $550 for some type of laser procedure to make my face look younger.

JY: So, at this age, at 20, you were in New York?

FR: Yes.

JY: What was your life like then?

FR: I had beautiful skin, beautiful body. Everything was smooth. People would look. Men were—White men would want to be with me.

JY: Tell me more! Last interview you mentioned these men.

FR: I had 5 different boyfriends. First was an Asian boy named Rhee and then there was Sammy, also Asian—or half-Asian—and then there was Greg, and he was deaf and then—I’m old—I forget the others. I’m just not with them anymore. People getting high and snorting coke, drinking. I used to drink and have wine and go dancing, but no more. I used to go out in Queens and the Bronx and then also Manhattan, New Jersey, but no more. No more. Forget it. I feel old now. I’ve been married and divorced, married and divorced, married and divorced. They were all hearing. I didn’t want to be married to any deaf person. I wanted to be with hearing people. Now I’m divorced. I’m old now.

JY: So married, meaning you were passing as a woman?

E: He’s asking, Back when you were beautiful and shapely, the men were really gawking at you, were you a woman?

FR: Yes. I represent myself as a woman. I was younger then, but now I’m old. I had beautiful skin. There was no abuse going on but they were involved in drugs and alcohol. I’m waiting for some kind of settlement through the courts because there was a lot of money involved. They were dealing. They were buying. That’s why they were arrested. The ones that were dealing cocaine, drugs, went to jail. After they came out, they left whatever money they had to me.

JY: And this is in the ’70s in New York?

FR: 1969. I was beautiful then. Now I’m happy. You know, men give me things. They look at me. They like me. They fall for me. I prostitute on the side. I give them condoms. I invite them into my home. I show them my apartment and they have to be clean. Their dicks have to be clean. Sometimes they smell. In Jamaica, there they’re much cleaner but in New York here, they’re not clean. They’re very promiscuous and it’s better in Jamaica.

JY: When was the last time you went to Jamaica?

FR: Smell me.

JY: Uh-huh. Nice. Perfume?

FR: In Jamaica, the men, their dicks and their asses are clean! Here in New York, it’s obvious their dicks are dirty. Their asses are dirty. I get disgusted. I say, Did you ever bathe!? I’m disgusted that they want to have sex with me. I always want to be with a clean person. If I have a vagina and you have a dirty cock, no way are you coming inside me! So, I’m always clean. And here in New York, it’s just disgusting! Basically, I can smell their asses.

E: She wanted to impress. That’s why she wanted you to smell her, to impress that she’s clean.

JY: I know that.

E: Apparently, you met in some seafood place?

JY: A street vendor, yeah.

E: And that’s how she first saw you.

JY: Uh-huh. And fish is still bringing us together!

FR: What happened? I noticed that you were with another guy for some time. Were you gay?

JY: Yeah. I am.

FR: And you guys are separated now? What happened?

JY: Well, which guy? The last guy who was here, whom you met? He’s a friend.

E: You weren’t a couple?

JY: Well, there was a tall, black guy who was a date. And then I had a boyfriend who was a white guy for a couple years, so maybe you saw him.

FR: White. I saw you with a white guy.

JY: Yeah. He’s my ex-boyfriend now. We’re still friends but not together.

FR: What happened?

JY: I don’t know. No spark. No love.

FR: There’re a lot of gay bars over on the West Side on 14th Street. You could find somebody. I don’t go there. I don’t go there. No, no! I don’t like that but you could go there and see, you know, check it out.

JY: Well, where did you meet your men?

FR: You can go in these bars and there’re men sitting around having drinks. You can go there.

E: One second. I’m assuming she means that the people who have sex, are going to the hospitals and they’re getting these shots and, um—I’m sorry, I’m lost. I’m waiting for the translation.

FR: Men have sex, and anal sex, but without condoms. I see women having sex. It’s different. I’ve seen all this with lesbians and gays. It’s not for me but it’s up to you, you know. I just draw the line. You can get AIDS and different types of STDs and I’ve seen much of this and it’s not too healthy. I’ve seen people in the hospital. They were doing a lot of drugs, crack, cocaine, marijuana and they got ill and they died. I see black people on the streets and I see them very nervous. It’s because they do so many drugs and they should stop. Wine, beer, liquor: No good. When someone drops something in your drink, you know, they take advantage of you and then they fuck you in the ass. Basically that’s not good. But Jesus protects me. He warns me against all this. Unprotected sex—

I haven’t had sex in four weeks, so it’s obviously Jesus, the Lord, protecting me. Women try to talk bad about me and they say, Oh, you’re chicken! Come on, come on! They go around, they’re promiscuous but, I just don’t listen to them. I feel in New York City it’s obvious that that’s dangerous, so I remove myself from it. The police don’t provide a good service and don’t take care of the women. They’re very oppressive. The police don’t do anything about all these things that happen, so the service the police provide sucks. The police see these things going on, people doing drugs, and they arrest them. The point is, those people, the way they’re living their everyday life with drugs and everything: They should just leave them alone. They know that’s what they do. Why do they arrest them? If we want to do it, then it’s up to us. Rather than all these arrests, just leave them. God knows—When God looks at them, he knows they have the devil inside of them, so they will die. The police, they’re a dirty business. They’re corrupt. The police are very skilled liars and fakers and they take advantage. They arrest everybody just for the money. It’s a dirty business.

JY: So have you been arrested before and have had personal contact and a lot of antagonism?

FR: [getting up to demonstrate dramatically]

E: Hold on a second: A lot of stinky asses, a lot of dirty vaginas, women—I guess she’s actually seen some type of bugs. Basically—I’m sorry—Talking about PMS. Let me just summarize what she just said.

FR: I get disgusted when I see tampons and things on the street. You know they eat—Sometimes, you know, they eat these things, they get dirty and they let out these gases and—But me? I’m just blessed. I’m clean. They’re all dirty. I’m not with that. In Jamaica, you know, we’re very clean. The American people: They’re dirty. I’m disgusted. God has blessed me. I’m clean.

JY: So why don’t we change the subject a little bit.

E: You had just asked before, about her being arrested?

JY: Well, it seems like there was a personal antagonism there. I’m just wondering if she’s had a bad encounter.

FR: Yes. I was arrested for stealing. I was on 34th Street. I was arrested for stealing and there was no proof of me stealing so I was let go. I just had lipstick in my bag and they saw it and said, This is all you have? I paid $5 for it. We had the prosecutors, the attorneys. They had no evidence so I was let go. This was two weeks ago. My cousins, family and friends were very concerned about me. They were wondering if I was OK. There was relay service—you know, it was a free call—and I let them know what was happening. I called and I was laughing on the phone.

JY: You don’t seem too concerned now!

FR: This was when I was locked up. I was on the phone and we were just laughing. A sergeant with a white shirt and blue pants with stripes told me about the TTY on the phones, so I was able to use the phone. When I was in the courtroom, the officer with the stripes and the white shirt asked how I was doing. Two other officers with blue shirts asked about everything and they did their investigation. My family sent me $50. The $50: What was it for? So I could eat and watch TV.

JY: While she was in custody?

E: Oh, I guess it was for bail or something.

FR: I was allowed to pay. I had to pay. I was locked up for one week. They sent the money and then I was released.

JY: What’s your life like now? What you do these days?

FR: I visit friends in Brooklyn. Every two weeks on Fridays I visit a Jewish guy with a lot of money in Brooklyn.

JY: And most of your friends are hearing or deaf?

FR: He likes me so he gives me $100 every two weeks.

JY: Oh, he’s a boyfriend?

FR: What’s the matter with you? You’re very quiet?

Katie: I’m listening.

E: Yes, [referring to the photographers], they’re both hearing.

JY: Yeah, sorry. We didn’t do very good introductions.

E: [translating Erick] I’m deaf too and he’s hearing, yes. I’m deaf.

FR: When I was young I was born hearing in Jamaica and it happened here in New York I became deaf.

JY: You were sick as a child. I think a plane issue?

FR: That Thanksgiving month I was hearing, came here and became deaf. What happened was, there was a tremendous storm. I vomited and became ill and became deaf. I was constantly vomiting. In Jamaica, you don’t get sick. Everything’s fine. We came over here, it ruined everything. I feel New York is very bad. The police are against all men and women. Doesn’t matter. The police are a dirty business.

JY: What—When was—?

FR: What time is it? I gotta go.

JY: Can you give us like 10 more minutes? ‘Cause I want to hear: What were you sick with? Is that what affected your hearing?

FR: I was in a hospital in New York three times. I was very ill because of New York. In Jamaica I didn’t get sick and go to the hospital. My mother was very wrong. It’s her fault that I became ill.

JY: When was the last time you were in Jamaica?

FR: I haven’t been back.

JY: Since you were a kid.

FR: Maybe in the future. In 2006. Well, depends on money. I’d have to spend five to six hundred dollars. I play lotto, you know? I try. My goal is to get a lot of money and go to Jamaica.

JY: And you have relatives there still?

FR: No. The ones in Jamaica died. My whole family is here. When I was a baby, family members took care of me in Jamaica. Mother came here first, got situated, and then brought the family here.

JY: What are your future plans?

FR: Next month, it could be that I’m going to get plastic surgery. I’m gonna have my eyes done, implants. I gonna have implants cause I’m 60. You see that? Look at those bags under my eyes.

JY: You look great for 60!

FR: No! no, no! I’m talkin’ beautiful! You wait and see. You’ll be shocked! You will say, Oh, my God! Forget it! All those other people with their lousy skin. I’m going to be perfect. Not a blemish, not a scar, not a nothing. You wait and see! I’ll be gorgeous, voluptuous and beautiful. I’ll get my nails done. I’m going to have my jewelry. Mmm. Huh. Not like the girls you see with that big gaudy jewelry and horrible nails. That’s not my way. No. That’s horrible. Me? I’m gonna look good and they will be jealous. You just wait and see. They’ll be looking at me. They’ll want me.

JY: And what about this guy in Brooklyn? Is he your boyfriend now?

FR: I like Jewish guys who wear yarmulkes. But when I’m with him, I don’t like him to wear it. I make him take it off. He has money. The other ones don’t have money.

JY: Selective!

FR: Every two weeks—on those Fridays, you know, this guy’s who’s really fallen for me, he likes to see me, look at me. And he gives me $100 just like you.

E: You gave her $100?

JY: Yeah, for today’s interview.

FR: Are you Catholic?

JY: No.

FR: Protestant? Jewish?

JY: Protestant. Not technically now, but I grew up—[Frances makes devil’s horns.]—yeah, a Satan worshipper!

FR: So you are the devil! And he’s Jewish.

JY: Oh, OK. Well—

FR: He drives me around. He talks to me a lot. I touch his legs, he gets an erection. He has strong thighs. While we’re driving, he keeps looking at me and I see he’s a pretty young guy. I touch his leg. I see how quickly he gets an erection. He’s not like the other guys. He has a lot of meat on his bones. He looks good! He’s not married nor has children. He works. He makes a lot of money.

JY: He signs with you?

FR: He waved me on. He waved me over basically, says, You look real good. Get in the car. There’s a lot of gesturing.

JY: Oh, OK. So he’s hearing.

FR: He’s hearing and asked how much money. I said, A hundred. And he just gave me the money. It was $100! I don’t know. I was surprised. I guess he has a thing for me. We kissed. I’m sorry. I said, Can I borrow a dollar? He said, Awwh, please! He took out a hundred dollar bill. I was surprised and, you know, it was very nice, just like when you gave me $100.

JY: He knows how to treat a lady!

FR: When I was born, they noticed that I was very clean and didn’t smell and I’ve been that way ever since. And also, a lot of men are uncut. That’s not too good. But the ones who are circumcised, that’s nice. My mother brought me here and things just got bad for me. I can’t really—I have to put a closed curtain in front of me about everything here in New York. The parents who never had their children circumcised disgust me. They’re supposed to have their babies circumcised so they can be clean. Black, white, Greek: It doesn’t matter who. If they haven’t been circumcised, they’re dirty. The parents who don’t do this are stupid.

JY: Well, do you want to take a smoking break? If you wouldn’t mind staying ’til one o’clock because I hired everyone until then.

FR: I have to leave now.

JY: OK, OK. What about a couple of photos for you? While the photographers are here, do you want photos for yourself?

FR: Fine. Fine.

JY: All right. And do you want to take some food home? Anything?

FR: Yes, yes. The olives and the fish.

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