A stranger I came, and a stranger I left—so begins the most famous song cycle of all, Schubert’s Winterreise. But who am I, and where had I come to?
It’s often said: Puerto Rico hits you from the moment you step out of the airport. Yes, the very air is different: I have lived through a Chicago summer when it was above 100 degrees at two in the morning. Will that ever happen here? Never—the goal is to make it to sundown, and then crack that first beer.
That said, the humidity soaks the air completely—you move as if in water. And I, despite two and a half decades living on the island, still arrive to any destination soaked in sweat. The café where I write, in fact, simply hands me paper towels when I walk in.
I first came to Puerto Rico in 1990, and I hated it. I told my Sonia: “I’m a man of hills, not mountains, and lakes, not oceans. But it was more than that: the sheer electricity of the place unnerved me. Consider—Raf picked me up with his sister, but everyone else? Whole families—from the 92 year-old abuela to the month-old nephew were out in full force, and the greetings were loud and joyful. Tears were shed, pictures taken, hugs abounded, songs were sung.
The sister drove us through Condado—the same tourist area where the hospital was located. It seemed at the time an old thing to do: her own apartment was in the opposite direction. But perhaps she was signaling: see the hotels, the neon lights, the gaudiness and the action? We’re no backwater here! At any rate, we got to her apartment, and I asked, in my tentative way, if there was a bathroom.
“Yes,” she replied, “we do have running water here….”
I was horrified, of course, and apologized profusely. But it was my first introduction to the strange combination of a superiority complex that, in a flash, can morph in to inferiority.
“Puerto Rico does it better,” is the official tourist slogan of the island, and in many ways its true. Daily, I see it. Half an hour ago, the good Santana, patriarch of the clan that will rule the café soon, told me that papaya smoothie that I forgot to pay for was free. Why?
“It was medicine.”
This presents a problem, since I currently want another one—but how can I accept free smoothies? The solution? Put five bucks in the tips jar—and make sure the staff sees it. Then ask for the free smoothie.
It is an island where everything is personal. Perfect strangers call me mi amor, and any interaction of more than two minutes means that you kiss the woman on her right cheek. Once, walking with my friend Sonia, we passed a record store—remember those?—with music blasting out the open door. Sonia began to dance in place; a man approaching did the same. They drifted toward each other, clasped each other, danced for several minutes, until the man danced Sonia in the direction we had been heading. I stood still, watched—of course gringos can’t dance—and then rejoined Sonia, the man having kissed her and gone his way.
“Who was that,” I asked.
“I have no idea,” she said.
In gringolandia, we tend to rely on systems. The government will provide adequate transportation, some sort of schooling for the kids, water that can actually be drunk, police who respond to calls. Does that happen here?
Yes and no. I took the yellow bus from Caguas to San Juan every day for years, and it never failed me. Well, once a car crashed into the bus, and left us all stranded on the side of the road. But then the gods stepped onto the stage: the sent a former student of seven or eight years past who made a U turn, escaped the horrific traffic jam, picked me up, relearned my name, and drove me to San Juan. Then he went back and did the horrific traffic jam again. This act of kindness must have taken him at least an hour and a half.
There are drawbacks, of course. When I worked at Walmart, one of my coworkers was handicapped: she walked on the side of her right foot, though really, it wasn’t walking but lurching. She had a well-deserved reserved parking space, and anybody who dared to park there would have suffered a shunning unto the fifth generation. The very same people, however, would cheerfully park on the sidewalk, forcing me to walk in the street. Not a problem, perhaps, except when the sun was setting, and the light blinding my eyes. Oh, and since I was carrying a cello around frequently during those days, it made me a bit pensive. We can afford to lose a cellist to the on-coming traffic, but my instrument, made in 1835? I’d hate to see it splintered on the pavement.
There is, however, a steep learning curve for the gringo living in Puerto Rico. I once called a government office, and inquired where, on the main drag, the office was located.
“Stop 17 ½” I was told.
I asked for a street number, and the person was completely confused. The answer finally came back: I was to go to stop 17 and walk half a block up.
Time is different as well, since the meetings that were supposed to start a 8 AM tended to start at 8:20. This brought withering scorn from the head of Human Resources, and the meetings started on time—for a while. But it was a constant battle, and not often won.
“You don’t know these people like we do,” said one gringa to me shortly after I came to the island. I was stunned, of course, since the line seemed almost a parody of a skit for the Ugly American. But it lies deep among some ex-pats, who live in enclaves where English only is spoken, and who never learn the language.
They will tell you: the roads are terrible, the politicians corrupt, the schools are shameful, the government bloated and completely ineffective—and will they be wrong? Of course not, since any Puerto Rican of any stripe will agree. The woman who works behind the counter of the café is sending her children to a public school, but that was no problem, since it had been “adopted” by the wife of the governor. But for an entire semester, there was no English teacher: since it was the fall semester, the children had been without English for more than half a year. And so the children cannot speak English, but not to worry, because the governor’s wife? She made a charming appearance, complete with shovels and gloves, and healthy young vegetables. And what did she do?
Planted a garden, as the assembled parents stood by, looking on and being filmed by the television crews.
“Did you ask her about the English teacher,” I asked.
Elizabeth just gave me a look.
Or consider this: there is just across from the University of Puerto Rico an elementary school built in the early 1900’s. The name? Hawthorne—since the gringos who came to Puerto Rico were determined to put their stamp on everything. The school is charming, yes, but there is a drain with sewage running out of it immediately in front of the front door. I mentioned this to Mr. Fernández, and he instantly knew which drain I was speaking about, because it had been spewing sewage even in his days, thirty years past.
“But where are the parents?” I asked.
“The problem is when it rains hard,” said Mr. Fernández, but is Puerto Rico the only place suffering from torrential rains? Of course not. And so it is assumed: whatever stopgap solution the water utility might employ today, the next heavy rain will wash it away. And so the problem continues even today.
The resilience of the people is amazing: situations that would drive a gringo into an utter fury are accepted, dealt with, and forgotten. Zorba, Lady’s brother, recently went to have his license renewed. Could he do so? No, since his car had been reported as stolen. By whom, inquired Zorba. It turned out that the culprit was Zorba himself: he had stolen his own car.
“That’s crazy,” said Zorba. “I’ve been making payments every month since 2013!”
The solution? It involved going to the police, to the insurance company, to the bank for cancelled checks, to the government insurance agency—and all of the visits required a piece of paper that Zorba didn’t have, so the whole thing was a bureaucratic tangle, since there was no place to start the process. How did it get resolved? No one, not even Zorba, is quite sure.
For the simplest affair, a pala is needed. I once told a student working at the governor’s mansion that I had been waiting for weeks to get my telephone installed, even though in Chicago it had never been necessary for the company to come at all: they just activated the box from the office. But the student called the president of the company, and what did I find, when I walked back home? It was less a crew of telephone installers than a convention of them.
Puerto Rico, they will tell you, is in the direst of straits, but did that stop the half million people or so who came into the old city last weekend to party? Of course not—the politicians got us into this mess, the politicians will get us out of it (or so the thinking goes).
It’s an island that embraces the absurd, that cherishes the ridiculous, that revels in inanity. When the rumors of the chupacabra (the mythical creature which sucks the blood of animals and leaves their carcasses strewn about) arose, the mayor of Canóvanas knew just what to do. He and the boys went scrambling around the back of city hall, and came up with some rusty old rejas (the iron bars that go over the windows, here). These they fashioned into a sort of cage, into which they placed a bemused goat. They then spread out and—armed to the teeth—prepared to lure the beast and kill it. Fortunately, the creature didn’t show, since the boys had been drinking quite a bit of beer, and would probably have killed each other rather than the chupacabra.
Such stories abound—another mayor conceived the idea of bringing over an enormous (and supremely ugly) statue of Christopher Columbus. It was over 350 feet tall, and was in the flyway of the airport. Well, it had been turned down by three other cities, but did that deter the mayor? Of course not: he got the statue and he got it free! Of course, the sculptor had learned a retailer’s trick or two, since he got the mayor on the shipping (it was well over a million bucks).
Indeed, the island’s mayor constitute a sort of national treasure. Who can forget Doña Fela, the first female mayor of a major American city, and who ran a tight ship, greatly aided by all her nephews, nieces, and extended family. Churlish tongues tasked her about nepotism, but she was quick with the answer. Who, she pointed out, could you trust, if you couldn’t trust your own family? Well, that took care of that!
García Márquez once said that you couldn’t live long with Puerto Ricans, but it would be impossible to live without them. My mother-in-law, however, has a different take, at least as far as I am concerned.
“You’ll never leave Puerto Rico,” she told me, “you’ll just stay here and laugh at us!”
“I beg your pardon, Madam,” I told her, “I pay homage to Puerto Rico through laughter.”