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.

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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.)

Living with fruits

WHEN I LIVED in Puerto Rico a million years ago, there was a lime tree in my yard. Whenever I made a Cuba libre, I had only to step outside to pluck a lime.

I don’t drink Cuba libres anymore — and I cannot fathom why I ever did due to their cloying sweetness — but I still live with fruit trees in my yard.

Some were already here when we purchased the lot almost 14 years ago, and some were gifted to us by a friend who brought them up, unannounced, from the tierra caliente.

We have a loquat, two pears, a peach and a sour orange. There was also a fig when we arrived, but it was removed to add a carport. The biggest bugaboo is the peach, which tosses crap on the grass nonstop in summer.

If I had total say, I’d remove the entire lot of them. I’m not a fruit man, but my child bride is fruit for fruits, so there they stay. I would like an avocado, but we don’t have that.

And we’re not gonna.

The sole plus to this plethora of fruit is that if you squeeze sour orange over a bowl of pineapple, yum!New Image

And there’s the organic element. Our fruit is organic, which is to say we do nothing to them one way or the other. It makes me feel like a freaking hippie.

Algiers to San Juan

freighterIN THAT TIME, and I imagine it’s the same now if the Mississippi River hasn’t been rerouted or New Orleans shipped off to better weather in Tennessee, you could stand at the ferry landing at the foot of Canal Street and see Algiers Point on the far riverbank.

It wasn’t the Algiers of Africa — though confusion was conceivable — it was the Algiers of southern Louisiana where I lived alone for a while in a shotgun house with a pressed-tin ceiling, and I had a black BSA motorcycle too.

The day dawned when I wearied of driving a Yellow Cab, and since I had a good bit of newspaper experience and an adventuring heart, I applied for work in the Caribbean — The San Juan Star in the capital of Puerto Rico. I was roundabouts the age of 30, one divorce behind, another waiting ahead like a poised axe.

I got the job, but I didn’t want to leave the BSA behind, so I headed to the shipping area of Sealand freighters and asked what had to be done to sail the bike to the balmy islands. Just drop it off here, I was told.

So the morning of the day I was to fly to San Juan in the afternoon, I drove the BSA to the shipping area and was told it had to be professionally boxed. Now you tell me — I said — there is no time. So they took it, as is.

Flash forward a few weeks. I took a taxi to the docks in San Juan and was pointed thataway where I found the BSA lying on its side atop a pallet. Putting a motorcycle on its side is no better than upending a Chevrolet. Yipes! I exclaimed, or perhaps it was something more nasty.

I jerked it upright and, to my amazement, it cranked almost immediately. I roared off to the beach house in Santurce where I rented a room from a sports writer and his dusky Dominican lover. A fine place to live, in part due to the large lime tree in the yard, which one likes when drinking Cuba libres. And I did.

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THE BIG TOE CONNECTION

Not far from the beach house was a housing project full of neither Swiss nor English but Puerto Ricans and so, I was told, there was a crime problem in the area. The BSA was not insured, so this was disturbing.

I purchased a roll of stout twine, and every night I parked the bike directly outside my bedroom window. Around the front wheel of the BSA I tied one end of the string. I ran it through the window and connected the other end to my big toe. This burglar alarm worked well because the BSA was never stolen.

Five months later, I left San Juan and returned to New Orleans. And I sold the BSA by putting an ad in The San Juan Star. It went quickly, and I never saw it again. It was a beautiful bike, and I miss it still.

* * * *

(Another post about the BSA and San Juan is here.)

(Another post about the shotgun house in Algiers and the pressed-tin ceiling is here.)