Rocket men, the Caribbean and deviancy

IN THE MID-1970s, I was sharing a home with a sports writer directly on the beach in the San Juan, Puerto Rico, suburb of Santurce. There was a lime tree in the backyard that supplied my rum-and-Cokes with a nice, free squeeze.

For reasons I cannot recall now, I later moved next door where I rented a room in a home owned by a couple of gay guys from New York City.

Both homes were spectacular, not least for being directly on the beach. Well, you had to cross the two-lane street outside, the one that paralleled the ocean’s edge, before you actually set toes into the sand.

Elton John’s Rocket Man was popular at that time, and whenever I hear the song, it takes me back to San Juan. So does I can see clearly now by Johnny Nash.

But I associate Nash more with the second of my two stays in San Juan, the one where I lived with a blonde from Brooklyn named Mary. We did not live right on the beach but three or four blocks inland and right across the street from a small restaurant where I often ate chicken and rice.

Nash’s song was on the restaurant’s jukebox. I had Elton John’s LP with Rocket Man, but I only heard Nash on that jukebox, but I heard it a lot because I liked chicken and rice a lot. Still do.

Speaking of Rocket Men:

* * * *

The Waco Spaceman

Billy Bob deployed one iron anchor and then the other. The wooden space ship was bouncing loonily.

Moments earlier, before skidding onto the moon’s surface, he opened a big silk parachute he had purchased at the military surplus in Waco.

The parachute and two anchors combined to slow the ship down pretty darn good, and he was skipping along the moonscape now at diminishing velocity.

Billy Bob was a deacon at the Second Baptist Church in Waco, so he was praying to God Almighty.

He had built this spaceship out of wood planks, and he’d shellacked it 37 times for re-entry protection. Billy Bob sat in a wicker chair inside the wooden rocket in a steel septic tank he had uncovered in a Waco junkyard.

The tank was kept intact by a compressor he’d purchased at Home Depot. The blastoff from his backyard was done with dynamite. The trip had taken two days during which Billy Bob dined on Cheetos, Moon Pies and RC Cola.

Suddenly, the spaceship stopped.

Billy Bob opened the septic tank, then the wooden door, and stepped out. He had a goldfish bowl over his head, duct-taped at the neck. A scuba tank — full of mesquite-flavored Texas Hill Country air — sagged on his back.

How you doing, honey?

The voice startled Billy Bob, and he swung around. There was a hole in the ground, and the most dazzling woman he had ever seen was standing there, half out of the hole and half in. Her smile was stunning.

Billy Bob later learned that millions of Moon People lived below the surface, and that 95 percent were lovely women whose average life span was 32. Men, being in critically short supply, were highly prized.

Billy Bob never went back to Waco. And he quit being a Baptist too.

(I wrote Waco Spaceman many years ago. Billy Bob was a Rocket Man.)

* * * *

But let’s return to the sands of Santurce.

The second home in which I rented a room was owned, as I already stated, by two gay guys from New York City. I never met but one of them, a little fellow who was likely about 45 years old at the time. He liked adolescent boys, and some adolescent boys liked him too, especially the money he paid them.

They would ride their bicycles up and down the street in front of our house in the warm, breezy afternoons — almost all afternoons were warm and breezy — and my landlord would walk out and bring one in. They would disappear into his bedroom for a spell, and then the boy would leave, mount his bike and depart.

This happened very often. I asked the landlord how much he paid the boys. It wasn’t much, just a dollar or two. Of course, that was four decades ago when a dollar meant something.

As I write this, I see a black-vented oriole on the fan palm in my yard.

* * * *

(Postscript: Here’s another version of life on the beach of Santurce that I wrote over a decade ago. It addresses not only the New Yorker and his boys, but a beautiful girl from Chile and an Army Ranger who slept with a Bowie knife beneath his pillow.)

The tower view


ATOP THE LAVATORY of the kitchen/storefront under construction out near the street is a space enclosed by brick that will house the water tank. We have dubbed that high spot la torre, the tower.

I ascended by ladder yesterday, camera in hand, and was pleased by perspectives I’d never seen before. Above, you see the Hacienda house. Long-time passersby know that I’m inordinately fond of bragging on this place that we designed ourselves on graph paper in 2002. We hired no architect.

We’ve had fun decorating it over the years (I am an artiste!) and I was amused when John Calypso once commented that the living room looks like the lobby of a Turkish hotel.

That ivy-covered wall is stone. Its top is formed in the shape of the Alamo, and it was my idea to build it there to block the view toward the house from Nosy Parkers in the street when the main gate is open.

The orange edifice at the far right is the third story of the sex motel next door, its laundry room. If you click on the photo, it should get larger. That smoke at the rear is from the kiln of a family business that makes clay roof tiles. It’s farther away than it appears here. They made the tiles of our house way back when.

The yellow paint around the upstairs terraza is fresh, part of the work the construction crew has already done unrelated to the kitchen/storefront. Our second story is basically one huge room though it also has a walk-in closet and a bathroom with shower. The left-most window is where my desk and computer sit.

Downstairs, the window nearest you, is the bedroom. It’s the only actual bedroom in the house. We also have a bed upstairs for emergencies, but that big space is more than a bedroom. It houses my “office” in the corner, a gym set, two recliners and a nice Samsung TV for watching Netflix. The room isn’t cramped, due to its size.

At the right side of the archway entrance downstairs, a sharp eye will detect a stalk growing out of a tequila maguey. That stalk ascends higher than the second story of the house. I see it directly outside the window above my computer screen, and it’s a favored sitting spot in the mornings for a couple of black-vented orioles.

Things grow like mad here at 7,200 feet ASL. That fan palm behind the ceramic swan atop the wall is huge, and I planted it years ago when it was a tyke in a plastic pot. Same goes for the nopal tree at the far right and the yellow-green maguey to the left and the monster aloe vera a bit more to the left.

I planted them all when they were about the size of my hand. Stuff never grew like this back in Houston even though the climate is not all that different if you don’t count that Houston summers are far hotter.

That red wall you see extending to the orange property wall at the left, rear, is just a barrier I had built a few years after we moved in. It simply hides what I now call the Garden Patio. It has a concrete floor beneath which is a 9,000-liter cistern, another large above-ground water tank, and it’s where I keep yard gear.

It appears to have a tile roof, but that’s actually a neighbor’s house across the street back there.

The tower also provides an interesting view of the street out front. I should have photographed that too. I was going to shoot it this morning, but there’s too much fog. Maybe mañana. I want to get this item into the mail.

Clarinets and orioles

HERE’S HOW the unemployed live:

Partly cloudy day but plenty of blue above, I sit on the outdoor patio on a web chair, next to the glass-top table, feet up on another web chair, big brown umbrella keeping me in the shade. Cool air. Around noonish.

orioleObjective: Read more of Henry Kissinger’s book On China. But, as often happens, I read nothing. I look at the flowers and fruit trees. There is a black-vented oriole in the fan palm. They are very skittish birds, so I must hold still. Leave the book on the table.

Someone starts playing a clarinet out back.

Two hummingbirds take umbrage, one with the other and then the other back again, in the vicinity of a purple bridal bouquet. That requires more of my attention. And then my eyes close as I listen to the clarinet. I doze, which was not my intention.

clarinetTime passes, and I feel a little chill. My eyes open to note clouds have blocked out the sun a moment. Gotta get up, I tell myself even though there is no reason to get up at all apart from feeling the little chill. I doze again.

Henry Kissinger must wait for another day. Or maybe this afternoon downtown on the plaza with an espresso.

This is how the unemployed live. If they get lucky.

The Olden Days

Georgia road

I‘ll soon chalk up another in a long, growing line of birthdays, and I marvel at how the world has changed in nearly seven decades and how I can recall another time and place.

My family visited my maternal grandparents often in the 1950s, far more than we saw my father’s folks who lived twice as far from our Florida home.

My mother was an only child, and attached to her parents. My father was not so fond of his parents who were a staunch Baptist and Methodist who listened to gospel music every morning on the radio in North Georgia.

Yes, they attended separate churches. Isn’t that odd?

My father wasn’t like that. He was not religious, plus he was a boozer, a fact that was hidden from his parents, or at least he thought so.

We actually lived with the maternal grandparents in the late 1940s for six years before moving to Florida. My father wrote short stories and raised chickens on the farm while chasing a literary fame that never came.

It finally arrived late in life in the small universe of haiku poetry.

My grandmother would twist the necks of hens, killing them, and later those chickens would be dinner after being fried. Those same grandparents had a big meat freezer in a place in downtown Sylvester (like the cat) that rented such spaces, much as businesses rent storage lockers today.

herefordThere was a big freezer on the back porch too, but when you kill an entire cow and cut her up and package her bloody pieces, perhaps along with a fat hog, it won’t all fit into a standard freezer.

I don’t remember ever seeing a cow butchered, but I recall the death of pigs and what happened to them after, stuff that was done in the pasture in a big cauldron of boiling water, things that were fodder for kiddie nightmares, which perhaps I had. I don’t remember any nightmares.

A murdered hog makes a terrible sound.

Granny often had up to 25 cats living in the back yard. I doubt it was intentional. There were simply cats doing what cats do, which is to multiply like bunnies. We also had bunnies, which got sold and/or eaten.

And there were cows and a bull. You don’t need more than one bull, and since there were maybe 30 cows, he was a satisfied bull, one supposes.

They were Herefords, which are meat cows, different than dairy cows such as Guernseys. We were not dairy people. We were beef people.

We didn’t mess with pigs much.

And before we moved away, the chickens were sold. Grandfather wasn’t interested in thousands of chickens. However, the two huge chicken houses, almost as large as football fields, sat abandoned for years after.

There were sprawling fields almost literally as far as the eye could see of peanuts and cotton. The tractors — I recall at least two — were those gray Fords whose look never changed year after year after year.

There were two black servants, Willy the housekeeper and Cap the handyman, who lived half a mile down the red clay road in a dreadfully rundown shack owned by my grandparents.

The unpainted shack, which looked like a stiff breeze would upset it, was ancient. There was a porch, a big room with a fireplace, and an adjoining kitchen. The entire, leaning shebang sat atop brick pilings.

Willie washed clothes in a cast-iron pot over an outside fire, and Cap got drunk on weekends, sometimes during the week too, which did not very set well with my grandmother. Sometimes he had to be bailed out of jail.

Willie always seemed happy. Cap always seemed sullen. They were a permanent fixture of my childhood, and they died in the 1960s. Now they’re buried somewhere in the woods in what once was a black cemetery.

That graveyard is long abandoned and overgrown, and it’s as if they never existed, though they live on in my mind.

The summers were hot, and starry nights were filled with fireflies that flitted though the field that sloped down from the house, across the dirt road.

The winters were cold, and there were fireplaces in every room, save the two bathrooms, one large and one very small.

Along the way, father died and mother died and all the grandparents before them, buried in their graves, and I stepped into their slots as the decades vaulted over Louisiana and Texas, aiming at Mexico.

* * * *


orioleThere is no future now.

The present has expanded from one horizon to the other, and all is now here where I have moved far, far away.

The present is filled with hummingbirds and black-vented orioles that sit on maguey spines, and the night sky shines again with stars, and summertime sometimes brings fireflies just like before.

The Olden Days are gone, and I awake to mornings that are always cool in bed with a beautiful woman under warm blankets, and this present is better than the past, and the lack of a future just doesn’t matter.

* * * *

(The same story can be told a thousand ways.)