Terraza of San Juan

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View out bedroom window toward Bay of San Juan.

YOU NEVER take enough photos when you should, probably because you’re too busy doing other, sometimes stupid, things like drinking.

I have too few photos of the 16 months I lived in Puerto Rico in the mid-1970s, something I sorely regret. But plenty of memories remain. Though relatively brief, it was one of the better periods of my ever-lengthening life.

The 16 months were split into two stays, first, 11 months, later, five months. The first was cut short due to a strike at The San Juan Star, the English-language newspaper where I worked. The second ended because I saw another strike on the horizon, so I left.

The two periods were close together. Following the first strike, since I spoke no Spanish at the time, finding other employment in Puerto Rico was next to impossible, so I packed my bags and flew to Haiti. After a few days in a Port-au-Prince guesthouse, I continued to Mexico City. I had no clear plan. I was just bouncing about.

What I remember most about the next few days in Mexico City was a meal in a second-floor restaurant downtown. It came with a salad, which I had almost finished when I noticed tiny snails creeping among the lettuce leaves. They were alive.

Then I bought a sleeper on a train to Ciudad Júarez across from El Paso, Texas. At Júarez, I walked across the border, spent the night, and flew American Airlines to New Orleans, which is where I had started my Puerto Rican adventure 11 months earlier. It was there that I received word that the strike had ended.

I flew back to San Juan where my job remained available.


silvinaThe penthouse apartment where I had lived before going to Haiti was still vacant, so I moved back in. An Argentine girlfriend returned too. It was almost like nothing had changed if you ignore that she was really pissed at me for leaving her.

Initially, on my first stay, I lived in an “apartment” in Old San Juan that had been carved from a colonial building on Calle San Sebastián. There were no windows. The walls were a foot thick, and the ceiling towered 20-plus feet above. It did have skylights. The plaster shed like a light winter storm, and I woke each morning with its “snow” littering my sheets. Sweeping was a nonstop chore.

A sportswriter who owned a large home on Park Boulevard in suburban Santurce saved me. His home was square on the beach, and there was a lime tree in the backyard to garnish Cuba libres. I rented a spare bedroom, but I soon moved next door to a better bedroom in a guesthouse owned by two aging queens from New York.

Then I found the penthouse apartment overlooking the sea on Calle Norzagaray in Old San Juan. That was the sweetest of all, and it was the place I abandoned when I flew to Haiti. And the home to which I returned from New Orleans. And the Argentinian too.

The penthouse, which was very small, had a terraza that was about half the entire space. That’s the Argentinian standing on the terraza in the photo. The bedroom faced rearward to the Bay of San Juan. The terraza faced the sea.

I remember three things about that rooftop terraza. One was the hammock. Another was the small police holding cell on the first floor next door. Past that was another rooftop apartment, but one floor below me. It was where the hippie family lived.

Mom, Dad and three kids, and they often were on their roof. We would wave now and then, but we never saw each other down on the street. It was an aerial connection. I envied those kids and wondered why I had not been raised that way, footloose and free on a rooftop in the Caribbean. But I was there then, which was what mattered.

And I had done it myself.

Labor strife was boiling again at the newspaper, and I saw the proverbial writing on the wall. I found a job in Florida and flew away. The Argentine later got pregnant with a Puerto Rican waiter in the restaurant where she worked. I never saw her again.

norzagaray
Calle Norzagaray as it looks today.

(Juicy details: The visit to Haiti is touched on here. More on the Argentinian here. A drunken night painfully barefoot in San Juan here. An unrelated night here in a brothel. The rented room in the home of the two New York queens where there were nonstop shenanigans of a sexual nature.)

Southern Roots

beach
Florida, 1961. Father on left, me in middle, friend on right.*

MY FATHER was born in North Georgia on the edge of Atlanta during the First World War.

I was born in Atlanta during the Second World War. My father’s parents were born around 1890, which means I am just two family generations south of the Victorian Age.

My father’s parents’ parents were born shortly after the end of the Civil War. I’m not sure where, probably North Georgia. If they were not born there, they moved there.

My father was an arrowhead collector, a newspaperman, an excellent writer and poet, a boozer who shunned coffee and tobacco, and he wasn’t much of a father either.

For a while, he was a chicken farmer. He was drafted into the U.S. Army late in the Second World War and sent to Korea on a troop ship. He didn’t like that one little bit.

Yes, he was in Korea during the Second World War, not the Korean War, which came later. He never fired a shot at anyone, and nobody ever shot at him. He was a typist.

pop
1987

The war ended, and Uncle Sam shipped him back to Georgia. He never traveled anywhere again if he had anything to say about it.

He was not an adventurer.

As I said, he wasn’t much of a father. He had no interest, and it showed. About the only things that interested him were my mother, booze, writing and arrowheads.

He died in Atlanta of a heart attack in 1991. Coincidentally, he was lying in a hospital bed due to some unrelated issue, and was on the verge of being discharged.

He died just moments after brusquely hanging up the phone. He was talking to me. I had called.

He had not called me, of course. He never wrote me a letter in his entire life. He never wrote my sister either.

Those were pre-email days.

Minutes later, my sister phoned to say he was dead.  Age 75, three years older than I am now.

It was Mother’s Day.

I didn’t much like him, but I am just like him. I look like him. I think like him. I sound like him. I think I was a better father, but my daughter might tell you otherwise.

I did make an effort. He never made an effort.

He and I both stopped drinking in our early 50s, but for both of us the damage had already been done, irreparably.

My father was a lifelong leftist. He had witnessed Pinkertons shooting at strikers during the 1930s. For most of my life, I was a leftist too, as was all our family.

Unlike him and the others, I wised up late in life.

Will our many similarities include dying at 75? I hope not because I’m having way too much fun.

* * * *

(Note:  The inimitable Jennifer Rose recently noted the 20th anniversary of her mother’s death. This got me to thinking about my father, which led to the above. I wrote about my mother after she died at 90 in 2009.)

* The lad on the right in the photo is John Zimmerman. We were good friends. He went on to become a pilot in the Vietnam War and later a captain for a major airline. He sent me this photo a few years ago when we reconnected on Facebook.

The final adventure

hourglasssIt was a dark and balmy night.

Fifteen years ago today, I began my final adventure.

I stepped off a Delta jet from ice-bound Atlanta that landed in warm Guadalajara around midnight. I went to baggage claim and picked up my two suitcases. From the taxi kiosk I took a cab to a downtown hotel, the name of which has faded from memory. I was 55 years old, alone, and spoke no Spanish.

deltaTwo days later, I took a bus on the posh ETN line to a state capital high in the middle of Mexico where I lived two months in a frigid, thinly furnished room above a garage and studied Spanish in a private school. After the two months, I rented an almost empty house nearby for another six months.

That capital city is a 40-minute drive from my current colorful, Colonial mountaintop town which I happened upon by pure good fortune. I moved here after those eight months in the capital.

* * * *

PHONES, ROADS AND STUFF

In the past 1.5 decades, Mexico has changed dramatically, mostly for the better. We were still a one-party oligarchy when I arrived. Now we are a democracy. The downtown of the nearby state capital, a beautiful Colonial city, was hidden behind thousands of street vendors who clogged sidewalks. They have been swept away.

Cell phones were primitive and service was sketchy. Service is now excellent. The internet was only available by telephone modem. Now we have wireless. Highways were usually bad, and directional signs were just not there. Highways now are often better than above the Rio Bravo, and signs are clear and informative.

sombreroAt that time, you could drive neither to Mexico City nor the border — which is 700 miles distant — nor the beach on nonstop autopistas. Now you can. Driving to San Miguel de Allende, about 140 miles away, was slow and cumbersome, averaging about 45 mph.

The autopista to the beach is now just a three-hour jaunt. And San Miguel takes fewer than three hours. Mexico City takes under five hours. And soon a new highway bypass will be completed that will allow us to circumvent the state capital completely.

That circumvention will reduce the time and hassle to most points north, east and west significantly.

The state capital back then was likened to Topeka, a dull backwater. There was one Walmart, a Costco, and a few movie screens. A couple of humdrum shopping malls were available. Now there are four Walmarts, Starbucks, shopping malls that rival Miami or Rio, massive cineplexes with cushy seating.

* * * *

NO OBAMACARE HERE, GRACIAS

There were a couple of relatively small but reportedly good hospitals in the state capital. Now there are huge health complexes that serve our every medical need with modern facilities and reasonable prices.

The manner in which we get our healthcare hasn’t changed much. It was excellent 15 years ago, and it’s excellent today. Two systems, two levels: Government-subsidized for the needy or anyone who wants to use it, free or very low-cost. Private system, also for anyone who wants to use it. Level Two costs a good bit more, but still just a fraction of what medical care costs above the Rio Bravo. And nothing is coercive.

stethSince most folks use the public system, that does this to the private system: Little or no waiting. Speedy appointments. Next day? No problem. And no sitting endlessly with hordes of other people in waiting rooms or little cubicles. Very personal service.

Since we are not a litigious society, doctors don’t need to pay astronomical malpractice premiums, so they can afford cushy waiting rooms, high-tech equipment in their offices and reasonable charges.

You don’t need medical insurance.

* * * *

MY BEST MOMENT

PatioThis patio is where I got married in 2003. There were a surprisingly large number of guests.

And the bride was beautiful in a blue dress. She later regretted not picking white.

* * * *

GETTING ABOUT, PAYING BILLS AND STUFF

Fifteen years ago, public transportation was plentiful and cheap. That has not changed. What has changed are the vehicles. Here on my mountaintop, apart from taxis, the public transportation, 15 years back, consisted of aging Volkswagen hippie vans and rattletrap, belching school buses recycled from above the Rio Bravo.

vanThe belching school buses are all gone, and so are most of the VW vans, replaced by late-model Nissan and Toyota vans. And all remains plentiful and cheap and fast.

Back then, we milled about in mobs in a government office to pay our annual car taxes and get license plates. Now we print the forms from a website and pay online or in a bank. Getting a driver’s license is relatively fast and painless. I hear horror stories of DMVs in the United States.

Mail a letter? Go to the post office. It’s cheap, courteous and usually no wait. Mail is slow, but it gets there. I’ve experienced U.S. post offices, the long lines, the surly service. Pay property taxes (generally very low), water bills, phone bills, electricity bills? Can be done online from your bank account. We now live in modernity.

For years, after we built the Hacienda in 2002-03, our water came from periodic visits from a tanker truck that filled an underground cistern. Now our water comes automatically from the town just like yours does.

We still don’t drink it, however.

* * * *

STUFF TO READ

kindleFifteen years ago, finding books to read in English was dicey. Our town’s library had a few shelves of novels that tourists had dropped off, available for borrowing. Sanborn’s in the capital city would have four or five popular novels in English at sky-high prices.

Most of my reading material, and I still only read books in English, came down in box-loads from Half Price Books during our then-yearly visits above the Rio Bravo, usually from San Antonio, Texas.

Kindle to the rescue. Amazon will send a Kindle to my front gate in three days. I have three now. One for me. One for my wife, and a spare. Problem solved. About any book I want comes via cyberspace.

* * * *

PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT

ponytailI never grew a ponytail.

Nor a stubble, and I never started dressing like a hippie.

And I don’t smell of patchouli.

* * * *

GRINGO DOINGS

All is not positive,  however. When I arrived in my small mountaintop, lakeside city, there were about 40 foreigners, mostly Gringo* crackpots, living here. Now there are maybe 400, significantly more normal people, and they are setting up art galleries and saving pooches and feeding old folks.

In short, turning the place into another San Miguel de Allende. This is a mixed blessing, mostly negative.

Soon, waiters will respond in broken English; burglars will move here from all over; rents and housing prices will soar; and everybody will dress like an artist. Then some wiseacre will start a blog to make fun of us.

* * * *

NOISE AND ACCLIMATING

One of Mexico’s most notable characteristics is the racket the natives love to make at all hours. In some respects living here is akin to living among millions of unsupervised children.

This long drove me nuts, but not anymore. Amazingly, I am now used to it. When the lunatics light explosives a block away on the plaza at 6 a.m., sometimes I don’t even wake up. If I do, I go right back to sleep.

This is a positive development. And it’s not the only way I’ve changed. Mexico is incredibly different from the United States and Canada. The language is different. The way of thinking is very different, all of which unsettled me a lot when I moved here, in spite of my previously having visited fairly often.

But after 15 years here and — perhaps as important — not having set foot in the United States in seven years, this Mexican world has become the norm. If I ever visit above the border again — which I very well may not — I will find that old Gringo world of mine strange and unsettling, I am sure.

* * * *

MY LOVELY COMPANION

Giggle

The absolutely best result of my moving south is pictured above. My child bride, caught in the middle of a giggle in our Mexico City apartment about four years ago.

Note to the guys:  You can do something similar if you are reasonably presentable and didn’t move south with a wife in tow. If you did, there’s nothing that can be done for you. Sorry. You’re out of luck.

* * * *

15 GREAT YEARS

These 15 years have been kind to me.  And I live in a cool, refreshing world of green, mountain beauty. It’s been my final adventure, one that has yet to end.

It started as quite a challenge. The first couple of years I would have returned to the United States in a nanosecond had I been able to afford it. Now, however, returning is unthinkable. Mexico has greatly improved while the United States has significantly worsened. This was the best move of my life.

* * * *

* Many people will tell you Gringo is disrespectful, an epithet. They are mistaken. It is simply what Mexicans call us, usually behind our backs because they don’t know how we’ll take it. It is a neutral word that can be disrespectful depending on the tone and intent. But, basically, it’s just the locals’ name for us, and has been for ages.

(For my first five years here, I was a pretend Mexican. In 2005, Mexico made me a bona fide citizen and gave me a passport. No more visas, and I can vote, which is great fun.)

(TOMORROW: Drinking, smoking, drugs.)

The Mexico option

Much malaise grips the once-great United States of America, and with good reason.

The elites, the ruling class, the educators, now live in la-la land while one person in seven gets food stamps, and the legions of “disabled” people getting government largess increase daily.

mexicoSoon, nobody much will be working anymore. This is unsustainable. Everything and every place has its time, and the American time has passed.

But I have good news!

As your country declines, the one just to the south is rising. The Mexican economy is heading generally upward. Our people are not multicutural and diverse, so we have the lovely peace that brings.

We do not embrace illegal aliens. We deport them.

Our health-care system is excellent and affordable. Your chances of getting mugged are far less. You can tell ethnic jokes without losing your job.

Rents, utilities and taxes are low. Avocados are fresh and tasty.

Many of you can seize this superior option. Here’s how:

There are three income methods. (a) Independent resources, (b) online employment, (c) Social Security and/or corporate pensions.

Joining the Mexican workforce is mostly verboten.

We want jobs to go to our citizens.

Moving to another country requires nerve, which most folks lack. To this I paraphrase FDR: The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.

When I sold all and moved south, going on 14 years ago, it was a pure lark. The United States still appeared to be a going concern, but it’s not anymore. You must take action to save yourself. Your ship is sinking.

And I’m here to help, no charge. The Mexico option.