Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Miami Girl Wins Gold

Is it just me, or are we living increasingly more in the land of narrative?

I’m not against narrative: what writer could be? But there is something about the intersection of sports and narrative that I don’t get.

If you don’t know, Mónica or Monica Puig succeeded in getting a tennis ball over the net fractionally more often than her opponent. She went on to win a gold medal, the first gold medal by a player representing Puerto Rico. That’s a crucial difference: Gigi Fernández, who won two gold medals in women’s doubles tennis, was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but represented the United States.

“So tell me about that again,” I asked Mr. Fernández—no relation to Gigi, but definitely related to me (he’s my husband).

“Well, she got some flak at the time, but she said she wanted to represent Puerto Rico, but there was no one for her to partner with…”

Is that true?

I have no idea.

OK—back to Mónica / Monica. No one can deny her personal triumph, and no one can deny that tennis is a superbly difficult game. That she was not expected to win, and that she did, is a gripping story. And even I, as the game was playing out, and Mr. Fernández was cooking dinner, guiltily snuck onto ESPN—quite a novel experience—to check in on how things were going for Monica.

Or Mónica….

Then dinner was served, and one does not, in Mr. Fernández’s house, engage with electronics at table. Fortunately, though, there were people engaged with electronics, since the cigar bar across the road had both the doors open and the game on the large screen. So every time Fernández scored, the street erupted. Sometime just before the end of dinner, the crescendo peaked, and it became clear—the crowd outside was going crazy.

“Well, either Monica won, or Dayanara won the Miss Universe contest again,” I said to Mr. Fernández. Dayanara Torres was the Miss Universe of 1993, and her win was announced by similar street fanfare.

So I checked in, and sure enough, Monica Puig was there , standing on the center and highest dais; the Puerto Rican flag was rising higher than the two others, La Borinquena was playing.  And then Monica Puig was tweeting. Well, after getting the medal, of course. And what was she tweeting?


“We did it, Puerto Rico,” is a poor translation. “We achieved it,” is literal but equally  poor. So maybe it’s best to say that Monica was saying, “this is Puerto Rico’s win.”

This is the gracious thing to say. It is also emotionally true, since Puerto Ricans, whether living on the island or living elsewhere, feel an amazing connectedness to home.

But is it true in any real sense? Did everybody on the island take turns driving Monica to her tennis lessons? Work a second job to get her the best coach? Hold her hand when it was needed, and tell her to keep her dream alive? Or were we smoking cigars and watching her win, and celebrating our victory?

To some degree, any individual achievement in any endeavor belongs to the community which fosters that achievement. A Puerto Rican singing at the Metropolitan Opera—Ana Martínez—was raised on the island, studied for a time on the island, and then went off to the Boston Conservatory and Juilliard. But still, Puerto Rico has some claim to her. But what about Monica Puig?

Although the 22-year-old moved to Miami as a baby, has spent virtually all of her life living and training in South Florida, and sheepishly admitted she doesn’t know the words to the Puerto Rican anthem, she was overwhelmed with Puerto Rican pride during and after the match. She said she considers herself a true “Boricua” (Puerto Rican) and was energized by the many Puerto Rican fans in the stands who chanted “Si se puede!” (yes you can) throughout the match.

She says more:

I still have family in Puerto Rico. It’s my favorite place to go when I just want to go to the beach and be with family. That island has given me so much love and support my whole career. I just owe this one to them.”

I totally believe her. But take note: she comes to the beach, she visits her family, and
“that” island has given her so much support….

What isn’t Monica experiencing? Well, she isn’t waiting for her tax refund, which the local paper has just announced isn’t coming any time soon. She wasn’t the victim of a murder on a court in a community center at 8:50 PM in the small town of Las Piedras. But there is good news, according to today’s paper: the medical evacuation by helicopter service, which had stopped providing service when the government stopped providing funds, is now up and running again!

I have nothing but praise for Monica Puig. I admire her fidelity to her roots, I applaud her huge personal achievements, I salute her grace in thanking Puerto Rico.

So what’s my problem?

There are things—many things—that Puerto Rico can be proud of. Consider the fact that the students of the engineering school of the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez routinely win first place in national and international competitions. In fact, the school is ranked number four nationwide.

So when a student or graduate of the university goes on to work for Boeing as a senior engineer responsible for “all electrical wire design, integration and equipment installations on the 747 and 767 programs, including the new 747-8 and the 767 Refueling Tanker Programs”—well, we can be proud. We built and maintained that university, recruited the faculty, nurtured the talent. And while it may not be an Olympic gold medal, well, which would you prefer, as you step onto a 747?

Am I being a killjoy? What’s wrong, after a decade of horrendous news in Puerto Rico, with feeling—at long last—a little pride? Joy, at seeing a hometown girl make the gold?

We live by narrative. We tell ourselves stories about who we are, who they are, what our world is. And the truer those stories are, the better we get on with our lives.

I wouldn’t be writing this if it were just Monica Puig. But while researching this, I found out that Gigi Fernández is the cousin of José Ferrer, the famous actor, and where was his fame achieved? Oh, and he went to Princeton, where he wrote a thesis on French Naturalism, and was a member of the Princeton Triangle Club. He died in Coral Gables, Florida, but he did donate his Academy Award to the University of Puerto Rico. Will it soften the blow if Wikipedia tells you, not I:

The award was stolen after being misplaced during the remodeling of the university's theater. 

Ana Martínez—born and raised in Puerto Rico, graduated from Juilliard—stepped in at the last minute to replace an ailing soprano in Madame Butterfly. The Observer called it “a triumph.”

And now Monica Puig? Or remember all that business of Mónica / Monica Puig? Isn’t it fairer to say that this island produces great talent—Ferrer, Fernández, Martínez, Puig? And that they go off, leave, and make their successes elsewhere?

And if that were the narrative we embraced, we would have to look at ourselves, and wonder what we could do to have…

…our very best stay at home.


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Unhappy Days

We were two deeply hurt persons. I was in that curious space of fearing that I was gay, knowing that I was gay, being absolutely convinced that I couldn’t be gay, worried that my parents would find out….

…that I was gay.

How was all this contradictory thinking possible? That, Dear Reader, is precisely the point: I was all over the map, which meant that confusion and fear ruled the day. Or rather the long days that stretched into years.

A young man showed me, some years ago, the photo his mother had taken of him and his boyfriend sleeping together in a hammock in their backyard. It was remarkable on many levels: that he had been comfortable enough to expose his intimacy so casually to his parents. That his mother had thought it charming, and had taken the photo. And lastly, for me, was that the young man had found nothing remarkable about his mother taking the photo. He valued it for nothing else than the memory of that day, and of that love.

For those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties, it was all very different. We enjoyed the doubtful pleasure of being both sick and criminal. So you got it from both ends: you were going to have bitchy, short-term relationships for the rest of your life, since everybody knew that male homosexuals had fragile egos, and could never sustain a relationship permanently.

That, of course, was for the liberals, who were pitying us. Ah, but the conservatives knew better: we were not sick, we were disgusting, and if caught had to be taken away, put before the judge, and charged. That, then, would get into the newspapers. So there would come the knock on the apartment door: hadn’t you signed a lease in which you agreed not to engage in “immoral behavior?”

You probably hadn’t, since who ever reads a legal contract? You were busy trying to figure out how you were going to pay for the apartment, and how you could sneak in your lover. Yes, that’s what we did, and if you were slightly effeminate—or he was—the tongues would wag.

In fact, I had read the contract, and protested the “immorality” clause. Which had led my landlord to demand just what in hell I was planning to do? Surely I didn’t do anything immoral, nor was I planning to, right? Or did I?

I caved and signed the thing.

One stopped noticing it, after a while. Friends would make fag jokes—you would laugh. People who were more obviously gay would be singled out, and jeered at—you would join in. The people who were most homophobic, of course, were most likely to be secretly gay.

There weren’t many places to go. There were the parks, but that was tricky: that really good-looking guy—was he really gay? Or was he a cop. Oh, and he’s early twenties and got the body of a Greek god, and you’re mid-forties, and your belly shows it. But he’s definitely cruising you, and what if he just is into older guys? Are you going to pass up….

Wait—another possibility. What if he’s straight? ‘Cause then it was two things: he’s going to jump you, slash your face up with a knife, break some bones, and—worst case—well, remember Matt Shepherd? You know, left to die on a barbed wire fence in Colorado?

Oh, but then again, it may just be a robbery. Which, of course, you would report if you were out at night returning home from your church’s choir practice. But do you really want to explain to the police what you were doing at Hoyt Park at 11 o’clock at night. So it was, as the old saying had it, easier than stealing candy….

Of course, now you think maybe it’s too complicated, too risky, and besides, Hoyt park in the middle of the night in January? You’re going to expose your private parts to that?

The bar! Oh wait—wasn’t it raided last week? You know, the typical scene: cops coming in the front door, the gay guys rushing out the back door. Oh, or jumping out the bathroom window, since it’s surprising how agile you can be when the cops are at the door…

That left the dirty bookstore, since by the sixties, there were two or three in Madison, Wisconsin. The first, on the main drag, had the glass windows painted out, and also the First Amendment painted in full on one of the windows. Yes, it was a heady combination of high-minded liberal thinking and good old-fashioned smut.

The front of the store sold the magazines, the paraphernalia, the “novelties” and, later, either the 8 mm films or, later., the VHS tapes. And you had cruised the Goodwill store for a film projector, undoubtedly donated by some suburban dad who had no more use for home movies. Had the children grown, or had the divorce occurred? Anyway, it was there, and even on your student budget, you could buy it.

Or, of course, you could go into the backroom of the porn shop. There, the management had put in booths. You would close the door, put the five dollars of quarter you had bought by your side, and then stick the first quarter into the slot of the machine on the wall. The projector was behind you; the grainy film would unravel on the white screen on the back of the door. After a minute or two, the film would stop: it was time to insert another quarter or two….

This is not that sort of blog, so I won’t be too explicit. I do bring you, however, two facts: there were large holes cut between the booths, and do I have to tell you they were at waist high? Oh, and the management at one of the joints had thoughtfully hung up a paper towel rack—it even occasionally had the towels themselves!

That was your life, and is it any wonder that many of us just decided to skip the whole thing? My cello teacher was a beloved conductor of the local youth orchestra, he never married, and he lived with his mother. I am sure his mother is dead, now. I’m also sure that he is still living with his mother. In one sense at least.

So one misstep, and you lost quite a bit. There was your job, of course, since even if all you did was add up sales figures, well, who wants to work with a fag? The apartment was gone, too, and that would be interesting, explaining the reference of you past landlord to your potential future one. You family would be appalled, and you tried to imagine, would it be moral indignation, shame, social ostracism, or horror? And which would be worse?

In the midst of all this, it occurred to me: I could just fade away from the family. After all, if I didn’t call, didn’t visit, wouldn’t they just, well, forget about that third son? Oh yes, now what was his name? So I began priming the well by being just a bit cool, when my mother called.

She, of course, was in panic. Was I on drugs? What had she done? Or had I, as I finally came up with, just awoken from a nap, and was groggy?

The depression started. I planned my suicide. And I told my friend—yes, that friend from the first paragraph of this post. Well, I told her about the suicide, even though I knew or sensed….

…that she was in worse trouble than I.

Friday, August 5, 2016

They who Walk Among Us

They walk among us, but do we see them? No—nobody would imagine that the man in the café playing a classical guitar version of the Bach chaconne would imagine that the guitar is virtually the only thing he own. The rest? Well, he was carrying that in the bag that squash players use to carry their rackets and their change of gym clothes.

Well, he stopped carrying that around a few days ago. He had found, you see, temporary shelter at the Salvation Army, since for the last nine months he has been homeless. Some of that time he was up in the mountains, staying with friends. But there’s a problem: he has, very likely Asperger’s—or so it seems to me—and it’s hard to imagine he has many friends.

“It’s been the best thing for me,” he told me. “They gave me a room, and they told me how to get a free cell phone, which they call the Obamaphone. And I had to go to the police station for a certificate of good conduct, as well as several other agencies. They even drove me to one agency, since there was no bus service at that way. They only thing is that I can’t play my guitar at night, since I have to be in the shelter by a specific time….”

He’s not the only homeless one in the café: there’s Norman, who makes his presence known even before you walk into the café. Why? Because if you see a white Styrofoam cooler attached to some red wheels, you know that Norman is in the house. So Norman has his little business as well: he sells bottles of “the coldest water in the Caribbean,” on the corner of the street where I live.

Of course, I see homeless people in other places, as well. When I go to the beach, I very frequently see a man soaping up the jeans that he is wearing. Makes sense—doesn’t it? How else is he supposed to get them clean? The, the jean still dripping, he moves away, sits on the rock, and shaves while looking out at the sea.

There is the old lady who dives in dumpsters, especially outside Subway—that half-eaten sandwich must be a godsend. And then, of course, there’s the street porter—who makes what living he can by “helping” park cars. Oh, and then protecting the cars, since anything could happen, right? Oh, and you don’t want that to happen, do you? Do you?

Of course, there are the panhandlers, one of who passed me with his cardboard sign, “tengo cancel!” Which would be more help: giving him my spare change, or teaching how to spell “cancer?”

For those panhandlers who have a drug habit, it’s not uncommon for them to exhibit was are the nastiest, most suppurating wounds I have ever seen in my life. I look away, and try not to imagine the real horror: many of these people have veins so bad, after years of drug use, that they are injecting drugs into the exposed veins of those very wounds.

I wonder: what do the tourists think of us? Because on virtually every block, there is another maimed and discarded life presenting itself. Our island has many problems: superbly beautiful, it is also afflicted with trash at every glance. And what about the trees that are so desperately needed? So after we cleaned the island up, and then planted the trees, we could start in on work of watering and maintaining them.

The guitarist has finished his Bach, he is now playing one of De Falla’s pieces for guitar. He’d probably play for the hell of it, of course, but now I know: he’s playing as if his life depended on it.

And it does.

But should it?

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Archbishop Has the Answer!

It feels sort of like an entire island is suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome. OK—cancel that, maybe it’s just that everybody is too stunned to react.

Take yesterday, for example: a weak tropical wave passed over the island. So there were periodic blasts of lightening, a few showers, and…

…the light went out.

Not for me, thank God, but for my neighbor, and for the café, and for the pharmacy.  In fact, half of Old San Juan had no electricity.

“It was a transformer on San Francisco Street,” said Taí, and maybe it was. So that makes sense, right? Obviously, if a transformer blows, well, you should expect to be without electricity for most of the day—anybody can see that!

But wait—it was just a tropical wave. It wasn’t even a storm, much less a hurricane! So what happened?

The morning paper has the answer: today, the cost of electricity is going up, and power outages have increased by 449% over the last three years. In fact, the average customer is without power for an hour every month.

Lady comes by, and put a more human and terrifying spin on the thing.

“I was talking to an electrician,” she said, “and he told me: imagine a giant spider web covering the island.”

“OK—that’s what we should have. But what do we have? Just a single thread. So if a major hurricane hits, Old San Juan will be 4 or 5 months without electricity….”

That’s how fragile the system is….

It’s just one thing of many to worry about, since it now appears that the president has addressed the entire island, and told us that we need to take Zika seriously. So I decide to go back to Lady, and inquire….

“Of course I’m not wearing insect repellent,” said Lady. “I’m not going to get pregnant, so who cares?”

“Well, Barack Obama….”

“There goes our high season,” said Lady. “Do you know, they cancelled an entire convention? I had an order for 130 casitas and now, poof! It’s gone! That was our mortgage payment!”

“Well,” said Jack, “I think this has something to do with the fiscal control board…”

He’s gringo, but he’s picked up the island knack for paranoia.

Or is it paranoia? Because the news is unremittingly bad. Last week, for example, we had to worry about the doctor situation, since we’re losing a doctor a day—and remember, this is a small island. OK—that’s bad, but more worrisome are the doctors who are leaving, since many of them are specialists.

So now the president wants us to wear insect repellent, but it has to be said: why? I know—do it for other people, if not for yourself. Unfortunately, this hits us in our weakest spot, since Puerto Ricans will do anything for their friends. We do friendship great down here.

What don’t we do?

Curiously, we have a word for it, this thing that tends to go by the wayside. It’s called el prójimo and it means the person you don’t know, but have an obligation to. So that means that you don’t park in handicapped parking if you’re hale, you don’t litter the beach that someone will visit after you’re gone, you take off the door of the refrigerator because while no one has a child, well, suppose someone did?

So am I wearing insect repellent?

Of course not. Because there is a little secret that nobody wants to talk about: I can drain flower pots, dispose of tires properly, and do absolutely everything that the president wants me to do. But what am I supposed to do about my roof, which like every other roof in Puerto Rico is flat?

“That’s one problem,” said my friend Manolo. “But what are you going to do about all the swimming pools in abandoned properties?”

Yes, it appears that people are abandoning properties: packing up their stuff, locking the door, and moving away.

How bad is the problem? Who knows, since there’s no register for such things, but here’s El Nuevo Día on the subject:

“Las casas abandonadas van en aumento en Puerto Rico. Es como una enfermedad, un cáncer dentro de la comunidad”, expresó Rolando Ortiz, alcalde de Cayey y presidentede la Asociación de Alcaldes.

So the abandoned houses, says the president of the mayors’ association, are a disease, a cancer in the communities. And now, they are perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way: Cuba, every bit as tropical as we, in late June reported that they had had no Zika cases since March. So what have they done? All the sensible things: screening people from Zika-infected areas at the airport, organizing neighborhood groups to go house by house to eliminate breeding grounds, fumigation where necessary. Oh, and they also got the military out to help as well.

We, on the other hand, have over 7,000 cases, and 788 pregnant women who have been infected with the disease. Oh—and 80% of the island is Catholic, and what are we getting told? Put off having children until we get the situation under control. So that spurred New York City to send one million condoms to the island in early May. So then we got a little fight between the health department—which had received the condoms—and the Archbishop of San Juan, who has, in fact, a sure-fire solution to the problem!


So that’s a problem, since I live just a few blocks from the archbishop, and it really that somebody should tell him: if we can’t do anything about flat roof and abandoned houses and swimming pools….

…do we really have a shot at abstinence?