Terraza of San Juan

sj
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.)

Penthouse playmate

Puerto

WITH ABOUT 85 percent of one’s life lived, it’s easy to focus more on the past than the future. I tend to do this especially at 5:30 in the morning.

Two periods in my life stand out as being particularly tasty. During both I was living in the Latin world, and during both I was living with Latin women. I married the second, but not the first though I considered it.

I drank a lot.

The second, of course, is my current, third and final wife who is Mexican and was a civil engineer. The first was Argentine and was a hooker. I rescued her from a life of sin. She found work as a legitimate waitress, and we cohabited in a penthouse atop a five-story apartment building overlooking the sea in Old San Juan in the early 1970s.

Readers who’ve hung around here for a spell have heard all this before — do forgive — but the focus today is the top photo, which I do not think I’ve posted previously. I could be mistaken, but no matter.

I have the memory of a tree trunk.

I do not recall who snapped the top photo. We rarely had visitors there on the roof. There was no elevator up the five floors and the stairwell risers were not uniform, making it an arduous ascent.

We tended to go out no more than twice a day. Once was to go to work — mine at the newspaper and hers at the restaurant, both night jobs — and then there was the second descent for whatever, groceries, lunch.

The likely photographer was Luis Muñoz Lee, a good friend and the son of Luis Muñoz Marín, the “George Washington” of modern Puerto Rico. Muñoz Lee was an artist and he also worked with me on the newspaper out on the John F. Kennedy Highway.

Luis, like me, was quite taken with the Argentine who was not your typical ex-hooker. She was very bright and incredibly rebellious.

She was just 20, and we fussed a lot.

In the top photo, the door to the left was the entrance from the stairwell. The door I’m leaning against, wearing my knockout bell bottoms, was the living room door. I was just inside that same door facing the opposite direction in daylight when I snapped the photo below.

Things come back to you at 5:30 a.m. If you’re lucky, you have photos.

And if you’re really lucky, you have people who will listen to you ramble on about them 40 years later.

silvina