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.)

Christmases past

(I wrote the following a few years back. It describes a Christmas Eve I experienced 46 years ago in a San Juan, Puerto Rico, bordello. It is a true story. The video above was shot just a couple of years ago here at the Hacienda. And it’s true too.)

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The Fancy House was a hair up San Justo Street from the Malamute Bar. I often headed to the House after work, about midnight or so. I went for two reasons:

Amateur anthropology and cuba libres.

The Fancy House was a social study, fascinating in part due to downing cuba libres till the walls started dancing before my eyes. A tango at times. Often a waltz.

Most of the working girls came from the Dominican Republic across the Mona Passage. But some came from South America, flown up by Latino gangsters with a contract to fulfill.

The young lovelies learned to ignore me sitting solo at the bar facing the twinkling lights framing the broad mirror, with cuba libres and the waltzing walls, dancing before my eyes. All the lovelies save one.

South American, she had milk-white skin with freckles and long black hair. She was bright and liked to talk, a rebellious and adventurous lass, hardly out of her teens, there on a lark. The kind of girl to give nightmares to a wholesome mama.

One December night she walked to my bar stool and handed me an envelope. Inside was my only Christmas card that year.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. It touched me.

The walls ceased swinging . . .

. . . and started singing Silent Night.

Songs from an old lover

WHEN I WAS far younger, I lived for a spell in a penthouse that overlooked the sea in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. It also overlooked the supposedly perilous slum of La Perla, but that’s a story for another day.

I lived in that penthouse with a black-haired, freckle-faced Argentine girl of 20 whom I met in a bar just a few blocks away. Our relationship was often iffy, but always fascinating.

Returning once from a flight to her home in Buenos Aires, she brought two record albums, the old style you played on a turntable. Here are two songs from those albums, tunes that have remained in my mind for decades, and I now have the compact disk versions.

The first singer is Atahualpa Yupanqui, whose real name was Héctor Roberto Chavero. He was considered Argentina’s most important folk singer of the 20th century. He died in 1992. I like his style.

The second video is Vinicius de Moraes, a Brazilian. The song is my favorite from that album. He is singing with Maria Creuza and Toquinho. I think Portuguese is the loveliest of languages. I wish I spoke it.

Either of these songs immediately takes me back to the hammock on the terraza outside my very small apartment in San Juan. The sea breeze was always soft. The music was always marvelous. The Cuba Libres were always strong, and they were handed to me by the lovely, young Argentine through the window from the living room.

I lacked for nothing that mattered.

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:

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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.

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(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.)