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.)

The file man

I’VE MAINTAINED a file cabinet for decades. I find filing satisfying. When I left Houston, I culled wildly, keeping just the bare bones, which I packed over the Rio Bravo.

new-imageI bought a new file cabinet, resuming the habit.

I have insurance files (one for homes, one for cars), bank files (two banks), investment files, three house files (two here, one in Mexico City), receipt file, tourism file, health file, and many more.

But my favorite is the Miscellaneous File where I keep stuff that doesn’t belong elsewhere. Yesterday, killing time at home due to having a cold, I opened Miscellaneous.

It’s a trip down Memory Lane.

  1. Press passes with mug shots. One from my first job, New Orleans. I’m clean-shaven, 24 years old, in a dress shirt and tie. Another for the San Juan Star. I’m 30, My collar is open, and I have Fu Manchu mustache. The third, Houston Chronicle, age 39, shows me in a dress shirt and tie but with the full black beard of a Hells Angel.
  2. Expired passports. Two U.S. and one Mexican. The older U.S. passport shows me in eyeglasses. That’s a no-no now. Both Mexican and U.S. passports were renewed this year, likely for the last time. I’m not immortal.
  3. Air Force shoulder patch. It’s a large circle that says F-106 Dart. The Delta Dart was an interceptor aircraft, and I maintained survival-equipment pods in the ejection seats. Had I not screwed up so much of my youth, I would have been flying the F-106 instead.
  4. A bookmark. On textured blue paper and inscribed with a haiku of my father’s: cajun cabin/the aroma of hot gumbo/floats on the bayou. His name, dates, and the phrase American Haiku Master, which he was.
  5. Air Force discharge. Two versions. One suitable for framing, and the other with dates and mumbo-jumbo.
  6. new-imageA watercolor sketch. Of me, done by local artist Arturo Solis. He just walked over and handed it to me one day years ago while I was on the plaza enjoying a cafecito. We have a number of his works hanging on our walls.
  7. Drug formula. For committing suicide. You never know when it may come in handy. The Hemingway method is messy. Anyway, I don’t own a shotgun.
  8. Texas driver’s license. I arrived with it. It expired six years later, and I never renewed. My DL now is Mexican.
  9. Solo certificate. On the 28th day of June, 1976, I took off alone and returned to the New Orleans Lakefront Airport in a Cessna 152. Suitable for framing. I don’t fly anymore.
  10. A love note. From my wife on my birthday in 2003. We had been married almost 18 months.
  11. Final electric bill. Houston, dated Jan. 8-12, 2000. Amount: $86.02 for just four days 16 years ago. That’s approximately what I pay now in a year at the Hacienda.
  12. Certification card. International Bartending Institute. Dated May 7, 1982. I am a certified bartender. Whoopee!
  13. Flying license. I became a pilot of small planes on Oct. 26, 1976. The license never expires. You do have to renew your medical certificate, however. The last medical expired June 1, 1978. There’s also a radio permit in the envelope.
  14. Cremation certificate. My mother was cremated on Jan. 8, 2009, at Atlanta Crematory Inc. in Stone Mountain, Georgia. She had made it to age 90.
  15. Divorce papers. I had them in this file until fairly recently, but I tossed them into the trash. Two divorces. Two utterly miserable experiences that I’ll never repeat. I would prefer the Hemingway solution.

If you got all the way down here, you deserve a Gold Medal. I also have a Letters file.

Maybe I’ll spill that here some day. That’s where the love notes are stored. I love love letters.

Newspaper days: San Juan

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A PACK OF mangy dogs always loitered about the front door because a kind-hearted employee threw them scraps of food every day.

That front door took you into the lobby of The San Juan Star where I worked in the early 1970s. The newspaper in that time was like the French Foreign Legion of the newspaper trade, and it was really fun, the only journalism job I ever actually enjoyed.

The small newsroom was up a flight of stairs. It was nothing like the monster newsrooms of Houston and New Orleans, places where I also toiled both before and after San Juan. The Star newsroom was kind of cozy, and the people were very nice.

I worked, as always everywhere, on the copydesk, and my boss at the Star was a handsome coal-black news editor named Teddy who was from the island of St. Kitts. Teddy spoke with a lilting Caribbean accent, and he started out being very suspicious of me since I had arrived from Louisiana, and Teddy knew all Southerners were Klansmen who hang black men from trees.

He’d never been in the United States, and much of the news staff were New Yorkers.

But after a couple of weeks, Teddy realized I did not fit his stereotype, and we got along just great.

Handsome Teddy was a bachelor and a womanizer. He was particularly smitten with the Lifestyle editor, a tall, good-looking black woman with big boobs and behind who sashayed regularly through the newsroom on high heels, leaving Teddy with his eyes open wide and a silly grin on his face.

She was married, but I doubt Teddy cared much about that.

The composing room was just off the newsroom, and they played music there which often seeped out into our space. My favorite was Eres Tu by Mocedades. I still love it.

A pack of proofreaders sat in another adjoining room. Though they spoke little or no English, they were employed to correct errors in the English copy proofs. Made no sense whatsoever.

They were unionized.

The cafeteria downstairs that served lunches and dinners also sold beer, which we could buy to sip at the copydesk while working. Even in New Orleans, the booze capital of the world, the newspaper did not offer that perk, something I only did once in San Juan because it wasn’t smart.

Stepping out the front door, down to the right and just around the corner, you’d find a small establishment where you could sit at an eatery bar in dim light to sip black Cuban coffee almost the consistency of good, watery mud. It was tasty.

The San Juan Star was located in an industrial area off the John F. Kennedy Highway nowhere near downtown where I lived, so I traveled, standing, in a sweltering, jam-packed city bus to work every afternoon and bummed a ride back to Old San Juan at midnight with a coworker, or I took a taxi.

That was the routine on my second stint in Puerto Rico. During my first, briefer, stay, I rode a black BSA motorcycle shipped down from New Orleans in the hold of a Sealand freighter.

There were two midnight options. I could drink in a bar, or I could drink at home. At home, a black-haired, freckle-faced Argentine was waiting for me, so that was the more common destination. I had skin in that game. Home was a small penthouse apartment overlooking the sea.

mdI never got a haircut in Puerto Rico. I only cut my hair once, and I did it in St. Thomas in the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands where I flew on a couple of occasions as a passenger in a Goose seaplane. Mostly, however, I stayed pretty hairy. It was the 1970s.

I doubt The San Juan Star was ever much of a money-maker. It was owned by Scripps Howard, and it had won a Pulitzer. It was the sole English newspaper in Puerto Rico, catering to the American community and, of course, tourists. Union activity was a constant problem that finally ran the publication into the ground in 2008, long after I had departed. Such a shame.

It was reinvented the following year by different owners as the San Juan Daily Star. I don’t know where it’s located now, and I doubt that a pack of homeless dogs sprawls at the front door or that beer is served in the cafeteria. And God knows where Teddy is.

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.

* * * *

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.)