El Gringoqueño

All a man needs out of life is a place to sit ‘n’ spit in the fire.

Category: Stories (page 2 of 4)

For those writings both fiction and non-fiction that tell a story beyond the banal. They might be banal, but that’s just on the surface. It need not be non-fiction to be true.

RIP, my old TV

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I know it’s a TV, but what a TV it was. That TV was over 15 years old. I bought it my sophomore year of college and proceeded to haul it with me literally all over the world for the next fifteen years. That JVC television went through a lot, but alas, all of this earth ­is mortal and it was handed off to the city disposal last week. It actually hurts a little bit. I’m a dork, I know, but bear with me as I recount our tale of adventure and perseverance.­

The TV started its life off in St. Louis Missouri, at Washington University where it endured three years in a Fraternity house, beer, room fire, smoke, and things unmentionable. It hung in there because it was young and full of life.

After college it traveled cross country in a U-haul to Boston, Massachusetts. It hung out with me for six months while I worked at a new job. We were single and loving it. I was then transferred to San Francisco in December of 1993 and my faithful TV tagged along as it was lofted up to the dizzying heights of Noe Valley, even putting up with my crazy rollerblade antics around town. We were still young and stupid, but we had fun.

Then Laura and I got married and moved to Oakland. She didn’t just get a husband, she got a TV, and what a TV it was. As she will tell you, she has some kind of jinxing field that follows her wherever she goes. Any home electronics equipment found within ten feet of her sphere of influence has a drastically shortened lifespan. I don’t know how, but the TV seemed to take to her, and like her tough husband, seemed none the worse for wear. Experience had made us tough, and we lapped it up.

After a few years, the time to move had come again. This time, we were to head to the Basque country of Spain to complete Laura’s doctoral research in Anthropology. Our NTSC buddy tagged along, never mind he did not speak PAL. It’s all PAL to me, he said, besides they don’t even have my kind of 110/120 V 60 Hz food. But like a trooper, with a weird pinched screen, strained to play VHS tapes of shows sent to us from various family members. Like seasoned competitors we pushed through and survived.

So after a couple of years, we moved to Puerto Rico to start a new life. Laura was pregnant with Olaia, and we moved into a little seaside apartment in the Condado. Our trusty TV was there with us, happy to be back on native soil, but cursing the sea air.

We were comfortable and safe, until that fall when Georges decided to pay a visit, a category 3-4 hurricane that knocked out electricity, water, cable for the better part of three weeks. Mr. TV was wobbly, but like us, pulled through, and we began to think we would live forever. You hit us with everything, and I’m still here.

Fast forward to our new house in 1999, and on into 2000. Olaia, ever our little helper, decided to dump Windex onto the screen of Mr. TV and with her trusty paper towel "clean" it. Mr. TV had had enough, and it was the first time we had indications he might leave us.

Two days, of patient waiting, hair dryer blowing, and sighing (or cursing), and Mr. TV came reluctantly back to life. Why do you molest an old man, he asked. Let me die in peace.

Sometime between 2000 and 2004, after staggering on creaking joints, he stopped responding to our calls for entertainment from time to time. Crotchety he had become, a withered old man who didn’t give a damn anymore. Make me care, he said to us. I could still smile and admire his spirit, but it was getting more annoying by the month. Make me miss one single Buffy episode and I will heave you into the trash.

Next came the trial by fire. Desperate to light a barbecue and without lighter fluid, I pulled out the only flammable liquid I could on short notice, 180 proof rum. Hmmm, rum flavored charcoal for barbecuing steak. In a Tim Allen moment while dumping alcohol onto the open fire, flames entered the neck of the bottle, ignited the vapor and shot fireballs across the patio, through the open door up the side of the TV, and up the side of the house. Airplane pilots mistook it for an SOS call. I quickly smothered what I could but let the rest burn itself out. "Guess what I just did?" I said to Laura laughing nervously. You married folks know the sigh, right?

So fire, flood – we just need plague and pestilence and this would be a complete Biblical tale.

Tropical Storm Jean paid a visit in late 2004, and Mr. TV finally gave up the ghost. I’m done, I’ve had a full life, let one who is young and strong and brave take on this family now. I have given you all my best, and he ceased to function for ever more.

There he lay in state for several months as I contemplated a fitting end. Should he be dumped into a landfill or be properly recycled with his heavy metals? Does Puerto Rico care that TV’s are being dumped into landfills? Well, I’ll keep you around for a little while longer until I figure out how to dispose of you.

And the day finally came. Friday, April 1st 2005, you finally made your way to your final resting place. I know not where, only the City of San Juan knows for sure, but good-bye faithful servant. They don’t make ’em like you anymore.

El Cafecito

The security guard stepped out of the bakery, his wrinkled navy
blue uniform baggy around his tightly cinched belt. He wore
comfortable shoes with thick white socks. He walks a lot during the
day, so comfort remains high on his priorities. He had gone into the
bakery to get a cafecito, a small coffee in a tiny white
styrofoam cup. Soon he would return to patrolling the tiny strip mall.

On his way through the swinging glass door, he jostled the full little cup and spilled
hot coffee on his fingers. Our man held on though, held on for dear
life. I could see the pain in his face, but he wasn’t going to give
up that coffee.

Damn
– now he had hot sticky coffee all over his hand. No napkin – he
checked his pants – clean. He sighed mild relief, the
uniform would go for one more day without washing.  He exchanged the
cup to his left hand and shook off the drops, and turned looking for
something upon which to wipe his little fingers. He reached out to a
bright
yellow metal pole, a parking barrier, its top peeling paint and, after
a quick glace around to see if anyone was looking, wiped his hand upon
its top, down the side, and gave it a slap.

He brought the cup to his lips and gingerly took a sip.

Drowning in Rats

There it was. He had rousted the great
beast, disturbed its slumber. He wasn’t sure if he had meant to or
not. Foolish pride? It glared at him with its steaming fiery
eyes, sizing him up. Its tail twitched in the dim
light. He stood frozen for what seemed an hour, wondering if this
would be the end, if his luck had finally run out. Would this
creature devour him here.

The beast snorted.

That was all.

He had elicited a
snort.

He exhaled, relieved but a bit taken
aback, dare he say disappointed; disappointed not to be dead? He
stood for a moment shaking from the adrenaline and tension. "Beast,
I will make a meal for you yet, " he muttered as he stomped off.

"What was that? D’you say something?"

Billy, glanced back at the news editor,
"Hrmph… nothing."

He knew the story wasn’t worth two
bits, small time political scandal, one where the poor slob
bureaucrat
got a luxury car, a few bucks or other such
nonsense. Small time stuff. Everybody was scraping by. It’s just
one tiny little stupid little story awash in a sea of similar tiring
uninteresting shit. He was boring himself thinking about it. Why
the hell had he written the piece in the first place? He fancied
himself an investigative journalist. Journalist, now there’s a funny
word, conjures up a mythical mission to expose the underbelly of the

beast, be the final check and balance to any system of government.
Billy smiled. He felt better again. Gotta pump myself up, he
thought, as he left the office.

"In a slump, Billy?" a woman asked.

"Yeah… no. Well sorta. Too many
stinking rats around this place. Nobody cares about the damn things.
Oh sure they complain about them, but who’s gonna go clean ’em out?"

"You lost me." She pushed her
glasses against her brow, "Are you trying to get the city
exterminators on your bad side now?"

"Ho ho, you’re a damn
fine comedienne now aren’t you," he chuckled. "No, it’s just
that if I could take all the rats and cram ’em together into one big
unholy monster, I might have a story, that’s all."

Stupid Argonauts, I should’ve staffed the vessel with women

I dismounted my bike, grabbed a couple of dollars from my bike bag, and started into the bakery. Coming up the sidewalk were four young attractive women. A man walking into the bakery ahead of me, stopped short, arching his back and his head at an awkward angle as he gawked. I almost walked into him. I cleared my throat, "Ahem, con permiso." I shook my head, wasn’t that the damnedest thing. He should’ve taken a picture. It would have lasted longer.

I made my way to the line in the panadería. It was just after eight o’clock in the morning, the busiest time. The line was long, the bakery crowded. I tried to get there earlier, but sometimes, you just can’t get out the door.

The young women, stepped into the bakery, chatting loudly, giggling, carrying on. They were noticeable because they were all dressed in filmy, revealing, noodle strap dresses, high heels, and an unusual amount of makeup for so early in the morning. There were indeed hot, and they were about to unleash their wiles on a bakery full of old weak men. Poor devils.

The bakery came to a complete stand-still. It was like a television freeze frame, ala TJ Hooker. A fifty-ish short balding man walking toward where I stood, muttered to his friend, "… e gusta el lechón con gandules." I didn’t hear the first part… Me, te (you), if it was a question or what… but the point was clear. "Pork and pigeon peas" go well together in a sexual way. The innuendo was unmistakable, and I tried to contain a smirk. Only a Puerto Rican can say he likes pork meat and pigeon peas in a way that connotes sex. I mused on comical variations, taking liberty, but couldn’t push it to hyperbole in Spanish. I like marshmellows in my coffee. I like ketchup on my burger. I like little toys with my happy meal. And slowly, with feeling… I like salty… deep fried… artery clogging, pork rinds mashed into gigantic mounds of green bananas. Nope, just cannot push it far enough. Everything sounded sexual in Spanish.

I shook my head to myself, and watched the funny time warp within the bakery. The women were standing directly behind me in line, carrying on, obviously excited by the eyes burrowing holes in their flimsy clothing. I had a good vantage point to observe the leering, as I was directly in its line of site, and despite being clad in a bright red spandex skin suit, bike helmet, and sunglasses, was completely invisible. I was a camouflaged nature photographer, dressed in bright orange, invisible to the color-blind wild beasts. It was absurd. It was hilarious. I continued to watch the reactions from behind my bright blue lenses, the population of older men visually undressing the women with their unabashed desires and their longing gazes. These people have not even the tiniest slice of shame, their decorum thinly dressed in colorful food metaphors.

I asked Esteban for a dozen eggs. "Esteban, I don’t have an egg carton today, do you think you could rig me something up?"

"Sure," he said as he proceeded to put the eggs in a paper bag.

"Um, do you think you could put them in a cardboard container? I’m on my bicycle. They’ll surely break in a paper bag."

"Oh, sorry, he proceeded to break down one of the cardboard trays used to deliver the eggs, and put it inside a plastic bag."

"Um, do you think you could put some plastic wrap around it. They’ll surely fall out. Sorry for the bother. Next time I’ll be sure to bring my receptacle."

"No bother, really. Service is why we are here." And he handed me five eggs crudely wrapped in plastic.

"Esteban, I wanted – Um, nevermind, good day." I wasn’t going to get my twelve eggs today. The sirens had conspired with the gods to keep me from my goal.

Construction Jaimito

Jaimito, leaned his elbow on the window of his truck. It was going to be a long day. He was glad he’d gotten up at the crack of dawn, gathered up his crew and shoved off in the twinkle of new light. He’d roared out over the road in his shiny yellow dump truck, loaded with blocks. He had more blocks than he could haul in one vehicle, so he loaded the excess in a smallish VW beetle, cramming them in through the windows and hatch until there was room for only the driver. He had to get the materials to the project site, and Jaimito was a resourceful fellow. “Can’t be done” was a phrase not in his vocabulary.

The road in the early morning was twisted and bumpy. He down-shifted and roared over a rump shaped mound. He smiled and let out a yip. The morning did that to you, filled you up with so much optimism that even small victories were cause for celebration. The way was filled with craggy opportunities for victory, and Jaimito passed the time pretending that each bump was a great and wondrous obstacle, fitted especially for him to conquer.

Upon arrival at the work site, Jaimito and his crew set about unloading the blocks, and staging them strategically. It became apparent immediately that there was a problem with the grading. There was a large bump where the plans required a level surface. This was not going to do.

“We’re going to need to move this earth!” Jaimito exclaimed. “Let’s get these things out of here.” Large pillow like rocks were quickly dispatched to lower ground. “Hmm, we still have a problem with this giant vein of protruding bedrock here,” he said aloud. Time to get the rock pulverizers.

This was fun work. Crushing rock had to be the best job on the planet. He imagined he was a large ancient elemental force and with a whoop and a holler, the rock crumbled before his hydraulics and explosives. Where others saw obstacles, Jaimito saw opportunities, and where there was drudgery, Jaimito made fun. Perhaps it was no coincidence that his crew was the most productive, the most motivated.

“Okay, men,” he exclaimed. “We’re all through, go ahead and leave the vehicles and material where they are. We’ll get an early start tomorrow.” And with that they headed home leaving the shiny yellow dump truck, and the yellow VW Beetle and the blocks behind in the cleared area where he had dispatched the giant rock.

For Richer or for Poorer

or, "Hanging out in a European Café."

Laura and I had an early morning meeting at a Cyber Cafe here in
Puerto Rico, in Rio Piedras. We arrived early because traffic was
light due to the day of remembrance for President Ronald Reagan.
What are we going to do for half an hour in Rio
Piedras, we asked ourselves?

"You know it kinda feels like we’re in a small European town
square," Laura remarked.

"Yeah," I said, "If you cover your eyes, your ears,
your nose, and your sense of aesthetic." I chuckled at my own
joke. Laura didn’t laugh. I repeated it in a lame attempt to get a
smile at least. She giggled slightly.

Then, in her ever indomitable spirit of can-do, she stated, "Let’s
see if there’s a coffee shop." We took a couple of steps up the
block, passed a stray dog, a homeless man, a coin operated laundry
mat, and abandoned our search.

"Hmmm, Europe, you say?" I chuckled again.

"Let’s check behind this street. I ambled off at Laura’s
heels like the dutiful dog that I am. It was eight in the morning
and already it was hot. I began to sweat as we walked across a large
parking lot to an adjacent street. "Hey, this looks promising,"
Laura said, nodding toward a corner café.

"Yeah and as we walk in, I hope we
don’t startle the grizzled old woman as she finishes her cigarette in
her nightgown." It looked like that kind of
place.

Once we stepped inside, the atmosphere
changed. Gone were my visions of an old woman in her pajamas with a
shotgun and a cigarette clenched between her teeth. No, they were
replaced by the cold grim reality of a couple of college kids in a
sparsely established tiny corner student hangout dump.

"Well, we’re here, I guess. What
should we have?" I mused. I checked out the selection. "Let’s
get quesitos and coffee. That okay with you?"

"Sure." I ordered two
expresos (that’s espresso in Spanish for you snobs out there), and two cream cheese pastry
rolls. We scoped out a clean table near a window with decent chairs
and sat down. We were then next to the street
in front of a large glass window. As the second homeless man passed,
Laura remarked.

"Don’t you just have the feel of a
European café nestled here against the window gazing at the
street?" She started to laugh.

"You know I like hanging out with
you, Laura. We should do these mini dates more often. I’m having
fun in my European café."

Laura started laughing harder and a
tear formed in her eye. "And you know if we put chairs out on
the sidewalk we could drink in the rich aroma of urine." She
started to lose it in a giggle fit, mascara streaming down here face.

With a flick of my wrist and a wistful
French flourish I sighed, "Aahh," and sat back in an
artful recline. Laura could not contain herself as she turned into a
hapless puddle of giggles and tears. She could barely sip her coffee
and eat her pastry. We commented on the buildings, how wonderfully
artful they were, with their square corners covered in mold and
pealing paint, and their imaginative shapes, concrete boxes stacked
one on top of each other for as far as the eye could see.

"This is the
life," I said. "An eternity of European cafes couldn’t replace this one moment I’ve spent with you, my dear."

Hens a Layin’

We recently endured two straight weeks of rain, over 24 inches of
constant precipitation from morning, through the afternoon, during the
night. It has been tough. I don’t think I’ve endured being inside for
so long in a good many years. You get used to being able to go out
everyday and do some sort of activity. In Puerto Rico, you get sudden
cloud bursts, but in a few minutes that tropical sun mops it up and
life goes on.

Monday was my first morning bike ride in over
two weeks, and it felt good. My chain had rusted a bit from the
humidity. Annoying. You leave your keys a couple of days on the key
holder and you get rusty keys. Such is life.

"I’d like a dozen eggs, " I said to Estéban.

"There are none," he replied.

I sighed, drat. No eggs. I got my milk and headed out. It started raining again. Can’t catch a break, can I?

Tuesday
rolled around, and it’s a welcome relief, sunny and mild. Ooops, what’s
this? Black clouds were rolling in. I headed out in a hurry, hoping to
beat the inundation that was sure to come.

"Any eggs today?" I asked.

Estéban chuckled and checked with the guy behind the counter. "Yeah, looks like there’s enough. We can spare a dozen."

I
thought to myself. Weird, they’re still short on eggs. Then it hit me.
Chickens don’t lay when it’s raining hard. It bothers them. An unhappy
chicken is a non-laying chicken. I remembered the last time we were hit
with tropical storms, there was a short term egg shortage on the island.

The guy next to me, curious, asked idly how much they were. "How much is a dozen?"

Estéban,
got a twinkle in his eye. He chuckled and recounted an incident where a
woman asked him that same question.  "’¿Cuanto es una docena?’ she
asked me, "Twelve little eggs, I told her. Doce huevitos. You know she
got mad? Told me that was more than she had expected."

The whole bakery started rolling. Chuckles went all around, and the mood was genial.

Los Tres Viejitos

"Listen, are you waiting for a flood? Man, look at those pants."

"Hey, I like them like that. I’m prepared at all times!"

"And you, look at that old guayabera, VERY stylish."

"This shirt is quality. Q-u-a-l-i-t-y. I’ve had this shirt for over 15 years. You can’t get that kind of quality today."

"Oh, sure," he laughed poking the man’s shirt.

"Man, check that out?" pointing to a sexy bombshell on the morning TV show.

"Ay Dios Mío mami."

"I’d like a slice of that!"

"What are you gonna get?" Another asked.

"Coffee and some oatmeal."

"To go?"

"Hey, let a man finish his coffee and toast. You have some hurry?"

"Well some people have things to do. We can’t sit around on our asses and pretend to be useful."

Chuckles all around.

(Overheard conversation of a group of three 60 year old+ in a local bakery in Puerto Rico).

Sharing of the Pipe

Just got in from a wonderful party, so I’m a little buzzed. Well, actually, I can’t feel my fingers as I type this. Chuckle. My sister-in-law, who is Lebanese, had an Arab-Lebanese party. Wow, what a nice time. We drank, smoked the water pipe, laughed, told stories, ate tabbouleh, babacanush, humus, kabobs of chicken, and a bunch of things that I will never ever be able to spell.

Juan Carlos brought some fabulous Rioja red wine. That got the thing rolling as we took liberally of these fermented red grapes. Todd, an ethnic American, who became friends with Miray’s brother, Lebanon and his party crew, was an old hat with the whole thing. He knew most of the basic Arabic terms and greetings, and seemed comfortable with his assimilation into his adopted context outside of his own. He reminded me a little bit of myself with the Puerto Rican crowd. Something about them demanded my attention. They accepted me and I fell in, eventually marrying into the culture. Todd, Mikey, Lebanon and Rami were a party group extraordinaire.

Then somebody brought a couple of water pipes, one of which was new, being used in a group setting for the first time. They fiddled with it, complaining about the tightness, the newness of the fitting, poking holes in the aluminum foil to aerate the tobacco. No good, and away and away we puffed pulling the heat into the tobacco through the water and into our mouths trying to get a good draw. The cherry infused smoke was aromatic and we were even able to convince most of the women to give it a go.

A dance began with a particularly rhythmic song, as the hostess and her brother, Lebanon began to circle in a traditional form. Arm in arm they circled, laughing and dancing, winding their way through the house.

Most of the evening was spend chuckling, drinking, sharing stories and trying to get a good draw on the water pipes. I spend my fair share drawing deeply. It was truly wonderful, and eventually we began to get a good smoke. "This pipe is smoking good now," they would say, as they fiddled with the other. I came and I went, as I chased down Jaimito, checked on Olaia and Laura to see how they were and what they were up to, but I kept making my way back to that pipe. There was just something about it.

I was an extremely nice time because of how differently the experiences played out from what I’m used to. It was interesting and wonderful to enjoy good times, but in a slightly different context. The brotherhood of man, shared over tobacco, something as old as human-kind itself, takes on a perspective of closeness, seen from an angle that makes me take notice. Sharing the water pipe, puffing, and laughing and passing, gives a visceral and immediate context to our lives. Sometimes we forget about the commonality we all share, and it is a dead dried plant and some spittle that brings it back into focus. What am I talking about? What else could that be? We all come into this life the same way and we all leave it eventually. What we miss is all those wonderful details in the middle, those simple banal things upon which we rarely focus, quickly and recklessly moving onto the next thing, the next destination. The same feeling, I believe, can be found in other rituals around the world, a Japanese tea ceremony, a Basque cider house, Catholic mass, tribal or native dance, or a simple sharing of the hunt, alcohol, or smoke. Taken in moderation and shared amongst people in a certain context they can be powerful rituals of remembrance.

Bah, but I write such drivel. Perhaps tomorrow I will be able to communicate this in a better fashion. I feel like I do it such little justice with these numb fingers and this swirling "mente" of mine.

I Shall Remember You, Little Apple

This is for you, little apple. I write these words of remembrance.

I
was eating an apple while driving home from the Puerto Rico Products
Association today. I was travelling through the urban setting, a
decidedly un-vegetation friendly environment. I reflected that if I had
been in the country, I would have tossed my apple core from the car
into the tropical foliage. Drat, I am here in the city. The apple core
is an eye sore. How would I like apple cores on my side walk, sitting
there, collecting ants and turning brown in the hot sun? The apple that
falls on the concrete of the city has no chance for life, and in the
best of cases is an ugly mess.

In the country, though, it
would have a chance to grow into an apple tree. Ah, but I have eaten
the flesh of the apple, the flesh that would give its small seeds the
nourishment for new life. I have done such violence to these poor
little things. They would stand no chance to achieve life if left to
their own devices. They are done whether on the side walk or the
forest. They were done in by me, by my hungry apple flesh eating mouth.

The poor devils.

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