the first 3 chapters from Manhattan Tropics

 

Chapter 1

“I’m telling you, you won’t change my mind. Juan Marcos’s plane arrives at eleven this morning and I promised I’d meet him at the airport.”

“But in this rain? You’ll catch a cold that’ll last months. You know that when you come down with the flu in summer, it drags on until winter.”

“Never mind about that—I’ll bring the umbrella, the coat, I’ll even wear those darned galoshes just to please you. Heck, I’ll put on the old hat I’ve had in the closet for a hundred years. Anything you want—but let me be—because I’ve got to get going. Besides, I like to watch the planes land.”

On that Saturday morning Antonio was hurriedly preparing to meet a friend who was arriving from Puerto Rico. It had rained all night and the new day was dark, damp, sticky, and insufferable. A ray of light nonetheless shone through the gloomy weather—the prospect of welcoming a beloved countryman with open arms. Finí did not completely share her husband’s romanticism. She had a pragmatic streak born of many years of toil and disappointment in the streets of New York. But Antonio continued just the same as ever. New York, instead of dulling his inmost sentimental nature, had polished it to a high shine. Indeed, he said he felt more Boricua in Harlem than in the peace and quiet of Barranquitas.

“Give me a kiss. I’m going now. You see that I’m setting out better equipped than an explorer. We’ll be back for lunch, so don’t forget to send the kid to the bodega. Rosendo set aside a tin of guava paste for the dessert.”

“Goodbye, you knucklehead. Give Juan Marcos a hug for me.”

***

It was drizzling when Antonio entered the street. He bought the News and La Voz at Lorenzano’s newsstand and descended a few minutes later into the gloom of the subway station.  He was lucky not to have to wait too long. Soon after reaching the platform, he spotted the red eyes of the electric train making a noisy entrance in rhythm with the screeching of the brakes. Antonio took a seat in the last car. He looked about him instinctively and noticed there were very few passengers in that part of the train. Across from him, a venerable rabbi—a traditional Jew with a long beard and sad mien—read a well-thumbed black book.  From time to time, the rabbi lifted his eyes from the page to stare into space. His thoughts were evidently turned inward. He gave the impression of being without worldly cares. Or maybe he had suffered so much that quiet meditation was his last resort. At the other end of the car, Antonio noticed a woman decked out in flashy clothes. Her hard legs were crossed and she had a common, worldly face. When a gust from the electric fan indiscreetly revealed the outline of her thighs, she didn’t even bother to fix her skirt. Antonio looked askance at the woman’s gaudy makeup and appearance. At the first station in which the train stopped, an elegantly-dressed colored man got on. He sat down near the passenger who was pursuing his meditations, and Antonio could not help but notice that he carried an “intellectual” magazine under his arm. As the colored man immersed himself in his reading, the Boricua-observer continued his scrutiny and silent conjectures.

            Antonio tried to read but couldn’t. He made an effort to amuse himself by examining the color advertisements that curled with bourgeois flourishes or wove commercial wreaths about the ceiling of the car—ads for funeral parlors, chewing gum, whiskey, cigarettes, beer, cough syrups, movies and undergarments. But these also failed to hold his attention. He knew them all by heart because he saw them every day. Antonio then thought of Juan Marcos and began to recall afresh his own arrival in New York ten years before. The monotony of the train served as a backdrop for his reminiscences.

            Ten years ago, he had made his first trip under the earth on the very same route—the Lexington line. He looked around and mumbled to himself, “the same people…the same indifference…the same characters.” He and Finí had been newlyweds when they had arrived in New York on a rainy summer day not unlike this one. But no, he hadn’t flown here like Juan Marcos. He had come on the San Jacinto, a fine little ship on which the passengers ate well, got seasick hardly at all, and struck up an easy friendship with one other. Antonio remembered the day in El Barrio years later during the war when he had learned that a German submarine had torpedoed the San Jacinto. It had been as if a piece of his life, a snippet of his fondest memories, had slipped forever beneath the Atlantic’s dark waters.

            Yes, Antonio and Finí had arrived in the big city with little money and high hopes. They had rented a small apartment in El Barrio. It had been on the fifth floor, and naturally there was no elevator. The Board of Health was about to condemn the building, but it was still considered inhabitable. The swollen bathroom ceiling drooped like a piñata. Had some practical joker or scamp poked its plaster belly, so many cockroaches would have tumbled onto his head that not even a dozen baths would have disinfected him. One of the windows in the sitting room—the one with the frosted glass—was jammed shut. But for all that, there were two things in the kitchen that he—and more than he, Finí—had desired for a long time: a gas cook stove and an electric refrigerator that faithfully fulfilled its duty despite being old and finicky.

            Antonio had found a job in the kitchen of one of the big hotels, the same hotel where he still worked today, though he now had a better-paid and more respectable position as the elevator dispatcher in the main lobby. Finí had worked for a few months in a garment shop. She quit when she got pregnant and had—until just a few months ago—wholly devoted herself to raising up the boy and keeping house. They had had a son, Luis Alberto…

            A lurch of the train roused Antonio from his reverie. He glanced through the window and realized he had to get off at that station to catch the airport bus. The rain had stopped. Once again in the light of day, he noticed the sky was clearing yet the wind was unseasonably cold.

            When he entered the airport waiting lounge, Antonio heard voices speaking in Spanish. A group of twenty or so Puerto Ricans were waiting for friends and relatives. Antonio went over to one of his countrymen who was smoking a cigar. “Do you know what time the plane from Puerto Rico lands?”

“Ah, you are also from the island? Well, they just announced it will be a little late because of the bad weather.” After a pause, he added, “Please sit down. Who are you expecting?”

“I’m waiting for a young friend of the family named Juan Marcos Villalobos. The father of this boy is a dear friend of mine. We grew up together in the center of the island. When I decided to marry and come to New York, I suggested we come over together, but he didn’t want to leave behind his business and set out on adventures. He said that kind of thing was fine for newlyweds and people who hadn’t settled down, but it wasn’t for him.”

“Well,” said Antonio’s new friend, “I can’t say I blame him for thinking that way. Here I am today waiting for two little kids who are traveling alone. My wife and I have always been sad we don’t have children of our own, and these two youngsters, boys both, just lost their parents in the fire of Lares. So we decided to adopt them.” The man paused to scratch his head. “Trouble is, now we don’t know where to put them because the house is full. Last week one of my sisters came over with her two kids. She left the island because her husband deserted her and ran off with a girlfriend. But you know what we Puerto Ricans say—donde comen dos, comen tres. There’s always room for one more at the table.”

Just then two very pretty girls entered the lounge and the new friends fell silent. They gave the girls the once-over and offered up smiles of aesthetic approval. Then a lady came back from the information desk and shouted with glee to her companions and anyone else within earshot, “They arrive in ten minutes!—Only ten minutes!”

Antonio got to his feet. He marked time with thick puffs of cerulean smoke while he peered at the sky through the glass.

 

 

Chapter 2

It had been a direct flight with no stopovers. Juan Marcos was a little disappointed because the clouds had kept him from viewing New York from the air, which he had long dreamed of doing. The plane was crammed with anxious-looking passengers; deep within their eyes, strange premonitions were visible. The trip had been tiring. They had passed through a violent storm, and each time the plane dipped in altitude, then rose up again, or when lightning flashed nearby, threatening to split open the aircraft, the travelers gripped their seats and silently lifted up their prayers to God. During the storm, the calmest and most stoic person in the plane had been an elderly woman in her seventies. While the faces of everyone else, both young and old, showed signs of distress and nerves, the gentle face of that little old lady was luminous. It radiated a serenity that could only be the result of a pure and unshakable faith.

            Juan Marcos was seated next to a youth who was also coming to New York for the first time. They had talked over various matters, although they didn’t have much in common. The purpose of their trips to the continent, their attitudes toward life and the invisible codes that governed their lives were diametrically opposed. Nevertheless, when put in a confined space, we often make conversation with people who are unlike us. When travelling, especially when travelling through danger, we forget those emotional or intellectual qualms that are so important in daily life.

“Hey, what are you gonna do in New York?” asked Aurelio when they took off from San Juan.

The unexpected familiarity of address hardly pleased Juan Marcos, but he let it pass. “I’m going to work and study,” he answered. Then, extending his right hand, he said, “My name is Juan Marcos Villalobos.”

“I’m Aurelio Fortes,” replied his seatmate. “Give me five!—but everybody calls me Yeyo.”

They talked for a while about the sensations of air travel. Both confessed that they were a little frightened, but not too much.

“Ah yes, so you asked me what I was going to do in New York,” said Aurelio. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find something to do where I don’t have to speak English. What I really want is to make me some dough and find a nice little sweetheart to keep me warm at night. They say they’ve got some terrific places there to have a good time.”

“And where will you live?”

“That’s the least of it! I didn’t tell anyone I was coming, though I do know a cat who lives in the Bronx. Wherever the heck that is! I’m sure that when I show up, he won’t throw me into the street. Friends have got to be good for something.”

Yeyo shot a glance toward the back of the airplane. A very good-looking girl was seated in the last row next to a man of sixty. “If that old timer wasn’t back there with that cute little trick,” he said, nudging Juan Marcos with his elbow, “I’d go get me an armful of that. Too bad, or like the record says, ‘Mala suerte.’”

The line had been crossed. The more they tried to find points of reference for shared conversation, the more they sought them in vain. Juan Marcos thought it best to shut his eyes and get some sleep. Yeyo, half-bored, since his seatmate didn’t dance to his tune, took out a magazine of lewd jokes and racy photographs. He amused himself by examining the nudes from all angles as the propellers blazed a trail through the dense clouds. Hours later, the airplane prepared to make an elegant landing in the mysterious city of hope.

***

There in the distance Juan Marcos spotted the vertical zigzag of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. He was struck by the width of the avenues. His retinas had yet to adapt to the dimensions of the metropolis. While he rode the bus with Antonio, he was all eyes. Antonio, who understood what he was feeling, saved for later the questions about back home. I’ll let Juan Marcos stuff himself on New York, he thought. In a little while, the novelty will wear off.

In Puerto Rico, Juan Marcos had told himself, I will be so moved when I see those skyscrapers, it will be hard to contain my emotion. In search of that feeling now, he leaned and trained his eyes out the window. But what he had expected to happen didn’t occur. In glimpsing the yearned-for city, he felt a blunted happiness. It seemed to him that he was viewing something ordinary, and not for the first time. The city wasn’t, after all, as big as he had imagined. He wasn’t bedazzled. A certain drabness began to ruffle his hopes. The books and movies, the people who had already been here, had described New York so well to him that everything was already familiar. That is, the appearance was familiar, because what was inside, that, nobody could describe—you had to live it.

In a few minutes Juan Marcos found himself “walking underground” for the first time in his life. The subway captivated him and he began to notice that feeling of mystery and grandeur that the city imposes on its dwellers. He didn’t miss a single detail. Formerly a little tired from his trip, he now felt replenished with fresh energy to look and assimilate all there was to see. At the first station, their subway car filled with passengers. The newly-arrived jibarito noticed a pretty American blonde woman who clung to one of the stiff ceramic straps hanging from the ceiling in front of his seat. Behaving as if he were in Puerto Rico, where good manners have deteriorated less than in New York, Juan Marcos jumped to his feet. In his undomesticated English, he said to the woman, “Lady, dis is a sit for yú.”

The young woman looked him up and down.

“Don’t be a sucker,” she replied scornfully.

Juan Marcos felt like he had been slapped in the face. To be sure, he didn’t quite know what the New York slang “sucker” meant, but judging by the woman’s rude, unwelcoming gesture, he guessed that it couldn’t be anything good. It had, without a doubt, something to do with the translation of the verb “to suck,” which in good Spanish was “mamar.” Juan Marcos fell back into his seat, as if someone had yanked him by his jacket, and for a moment he didn’t dare look at Antonio, who was watching him very intently with a half-smile on his lips. Mira que chica más sinvergüenza! Juan Marcos thought. Could all the women here be like that?

With the devil churning inside him, he felt like standing up again and giving the gringa a piece of his mind. Yet how could he? If the English he knew was no good, not even for selling tomatoes? Yes, he, Juan Marcos Villalobos, first prize in English in secondary school, teacher of sociology in the high school at Ponce, he, Mister Goody Two-Shoes!, who demanded—on orders from higher up—that his students in Puerto Rico do all their lessons in English, he, the young bilingual intellectual, who knew more of Shakespeare, Byron, Carlyle and Dewey than of Cervantes, Lope de Vega or Tirso de Molina. Yes, he, the diligent young man, the product of an unbridled system, who could recite whole passages from The Merchant of Venice, could not now tell, in plain English, this ill-mannered and ungrateful americanucha what she very much deserved to hear. In the midst of the deafening noise of the train, he bristled with anger.

“Look, Juan Marcos” said Antonio, breaking the silence. “This is your first lesson in the city. Don’t offer your seat on the subway or the bus to a healthy woman. We’re not in Puerto Rico anymore. Around here, you show courtesy in a very different way. Everybody fends for himself and is after his own thing. That lady probably thought you were trying to pick her up.”

Pic-up?” asked our confused young man. “What’s that?”

Antonio laughed. “What a lot you have to learn! Pick-up means recoger. I mean, when a man approaches a woman he doesn’t know and starts a conversation with her, to have fun with her later, if she’s down with it. You know, for a good time…. Although around here you have to keep your eyes open, because sometimes it’s the girls who do the picking up, right on the street. There’s nothing that doesn’t happen here, you’ll soon see.”

“I do. I do already.”

“I should warn you though,” added Antonio, “it’s considered your duty to give your seat to a woman with a child in her arms or an old lady. As for the others, if they don’t want to fall down, they better hold on tight.”

            The subway shuttled rapidly and noisily through the dark and endless tunnel. At last, the human moles reentered the light. They were at the corner of 110th Street and Lexington Avenue. A patch of sky was shedding itself of the storm clouds that had caused the previous night’s downpour. Antonio was uncomfortable in his galoshes, raincoat, umbrella and old hat. He felt silly. Seeing the sliver of bluish sky, he had the urge to strip off his gear and pitch it in the first ash can that he came across—but he quickly changed his mind. He had his old lady to please.

***

Juan Marcos had read and heard a lot about El Barrio, Manhattan’s Puerto Rican colony spread across Lower Harlem. After he left the subway station, he stopped instinctively to take it all in, while Antonio politely took hold of his valise. Looking a block’s distance to the east, he discovered the elevated train, the Third Avenue El, which slowly crawled across a gigantic steel bridge, rattling as though all its parts were loose. To the west, he saw an aerodynamic silver-plated train shoot across the sturdy bridge that reclined along Park Avenue. And looking once more toward Lexington, he saw a Puerto Rican greengrocer pushing a vegetable cart, which reminded him—that being life!—of his favorite song “El Lamento Borincano.”

***

Nueva York is the city of commotion and mobility. The noise can be so intense that it numbs the senses, and the person who lives in this environment for a long time loses the notion of silence. The torrent of pedestrians and vehicles is endless—streetcars, buses, automobiles, horse-carts, trucks, trains, bicycles, motorcycles, airplanes, and wheelbarrows; fire engines, with their high-powered motors and ear-splitting sirens; the shouts of children and adults; the buzz of conversation of the human swarm on the sidewalks; guffaws, curses, cries; the explosion of a backfiring engine; wheels that bump over the rails and rend all tranquility; the spinning of propellers boring thunderously through space; noise, noise, NOISE: New York.

Mankind has won a victory over the horizontal. New York aims overhead, is in perpetual pugilism with space. From the hard rock of Manhattan, man has shot up to conquer the clouds. Strapping buildings, as tall and long as the jíbaro’s hope, dotted symmetrically with windows and bordered with aesthetic detail, to silence the critics—austere, linear, devastating. In summer, they give the impression of macabre furnaces where eyelashes burn, bodies melt down and all feeling contorts and loses its sense.

***

Juan Marcos and Antonio set out on their walk. On both sides of the wide street, the newcomer Juan Marcos could only make out two huge buildings stretching from corner to corner—windows in parallel with identical fire escapes that led to the sidewalk from six floors above the street. But no, they weren’t two buildings but many, one jammed next to another, all erected in the same style. In these buildings lived hundreds, thousands, of compatriots who had, like him, abandoned the island to try their luck in “Los Nuevayores.”

Some kids were playing baseball in the middle of the street.

“Pepe, get over here. You’re up.”

Pepe was a sickly-looking boy of about twelve with trigueño skin. He was licking a piragua and had forgotten that it was his turn to bat. He gave the piragua to a slight, dark-eyed girl who was watching the game from the sidewalk.

“Hold it for me while I hit a jonrón. Don’t go and eat it on me, I know what you’re like.”

Pepe had the makings of a good ballplayer. He was riled up when the nimble pitcher, a morenito, threw a strike by him. On the second pitch, he gave the ball such a wallop with the broomstick they used as a bat that if Juan Marcos and Antonio hadn’t ducked, one of them would have sported a goose-egg on his head before reaching home. The rubber ball, warped by the bat’s impact, whistled projectile-like through the air, striking a target when it disappeared into the dim open window of a second-floor apartment. Meanwhile, Pepe ran the bases unaware of the flight the ball had taken; amid the shouts of the other kids, he was more intent on retrieving his piragua than in scoring a run.

Two men were playing a game of checkers on a small table they had pulled to the curb while two others looked on. They were in front of La Cuevita, a lunch counter serving Puerto Rican food from whose door wafted the delicious smell of cracklings, pasteles, and fried codfish. Near the table at which the unhurried gentlemen played, there was a large wooden box stocked with fresh coconuts for drinking and chipped ice. The checkers players said nary a word. In spite of the flurry and ruckus around them, their concentration was total. One of the game’s spectators noticed Juan Marcos and Antonio.

“Here comes another gringón,” he said to his pal. “You can see it even in the way he walks.”

At last they reached Madison Avenue. Antonio lived near the corner.

“Say,” asked Juan Marcos, “does no one speak English around here?”

“This,” replied Antonio, “is our Barrio. People say that we Latinos are in charge here. And that’s how we see it, too. While the Americans scoop up most of the money that flows about, we feel that this part of the city is ours. Look at the signs on the stores: “La Fe,” “La Mallorquina,” “El Nuevo Gardel,” “El Atómico,” “Las Tres Marías.” It’s endless. The bodegas, the barber shops, the restaurants, the butchers, the churches, funeral parlors, lunch counters, pool halls—they’re all puro latino! From time to time, you’ll see a little shop run by a Jew, an Irishman or an Italian, but you’ll notice that even these people know a bit of Spanish.”

They were already on Madison, the nerve center of El Barrio. This avenue is like a reel of movie film stretched across the surface of Manhattan. Following the contour of the ground, it undulates through the upper part of the city. Seen from above, the bluish line, with its parallel dots for buildings, gives the impression that scenes of a live and moving drama lie hidden in each of its blocks. In the lower part of the city, the avenue flaunts its banks and sumptuous residences, imposing temples and cavernous office buildings. This is the stamping ground of the powerful, the rich, the well-to-do, the downtown element. But as the numbers on the buildings go up, the opulence retreats. The heart of the Latin Barrio is uptown. There, in close quarters and in dolorous confusion, a fragment of the people of Puerto Rico finds shelter, in the midst of poverty and hope.

With a few buildings still to pass before reaching Antonio’s home, Juan Marcos saw two disheveled women coming down the street. They carried small bags of provisions and were talking at the top of their lungs.

“They’re coming from the marqueta,” said Antonio.

Juan Marcos, not wishing to pass once more for a novice, decided not to ask his guide what that odd word meant. He would find out for himself soon enough. Indeed, it was for that, that he had come…

 

 

Chapter 3

Antonio and Finí didn’t have a dining room in their apartment.  Fortunately, the kitchen was spacious and they could serve meals at the large table without much fuss.  They had moved to the apartment two years before and even though it lacked many amenities, it was a palace compared to the first place they had rented when they had arrived in the city a decade ago. The kitchen floor was laid with blue linoleum adorned with red squares. The cupboard stood in one corner, the gas stove on the other side. There was an elegant refrigerator near the window, and next to the window, a large sparkling white sink. The kitchen exuded cleanliness and order.

It also smelt of Puerto Rico. Chicken with rice, kidney beans, avocado salad, large, fleshy olives, slices of fried plantain, guava paste with soft white cheese and black coffee blended their aromas in a symphony of nostalgia for the absent country. Juan Marcos devoured his meal like a starving man, without looking up from his plate. He had believed he was very far from Puerto Rico, but now he discovered at a distance of countless miles that he was again on a patch of his beloved turf. The hospitality, kindliness and invisible communion tying him to those with whom he broke bread moved him so much his eyes clouded with tears during his unexpected gluttony.

Juan Marcos was seated at the table with Antonio and Luisito. Finí passed the bulk of her time in coming and going—bringing in dishes, serving, stacking dirty plates in the sink, and making sure that everyone ate his fill. She took pleasure in seeing that others were happy and satisfied. In honor of the newcomer, the radio in the dining room had shed its flower-patterned dustcover. An American hit, whose rhythms clashed with the “pure Boricua” setting, blared from the loudspeaker.

“There’s no Spanish program on at this hour, so we’ll have to make do with this,” Finí said apologetically.

Juan Marcos talked about the old folks, the many new things happening on the island, and even his latest romantic attachment.

“They corralled me like an innocent lamb,” he began.

Finí, who was once more getting up to look for something or other, sank back into her chair. “Caught such a clever boy like you,” she said. “Do tell us more.”

“Very well, you’ll see. I met this girl—whose name I’ll withhold—at a gathering in San Juan. I liked her, and after talking with her for a long while I asked her if I could see her again. She said yes, so I went to her house on the following Saturday and met her mother, father and siblings. I chatted with her family for about two hours, then I said goodbye very politely. The same operation, with the same participants, took place on four consecutive Saturdays.”

“And you never stepped out with her during that month?” asked Antonio, with mischief in his voice.

“Nothing of the kind, my friend. In my visits to the family, we discussed religion, politics, economics and modern youth, along with its excesses.”

“You talked about what?”

“You heard right, hombre. Since I had always assumed the pose of the moralist or the philosopher and had billed myself as such a serious fellow, I was caught in a trap of my own making. But let me go on with the story. On the fifth Saturday that I showed up for the ‘session,’ the mother excused herself and went into the kitchen just as the gab was getting underway. My adorable storm-cloud—though, to be honest, my interest in her was already starting to wane—left the sitting room, as well. And then her two siblings disappeared into the street, with the result that I was left face-to-face with the old man.”

“What happened?” asked Finí.

“It was quite a scene. My legs were shaking. The old man drew up his chair until his knees pressed against mine. After clearing his throat and without other warning, he said, ‘Tell me, young man, just what are your intentions toward my daughter?’ A lump rose in my throat. Swallowing hard, I said, ‘Very honorable, sir.’”

“Aha, so he cornered you!” Antonio burst out laughing.

“Hush, man, let him finish,” said Finí.

“Well, the fine gent wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise. ‘Everyone in the neighborhood has noticed your visits to this house,’ he said. ‘You are the first young man to call here but since your intentions are honorable, there is nothing more to discuss. You and my daughter are a couple, and hereafter you can step out with her whenever you like.’ The world was collapsing around me. Since he was about to get up, I interrupted him to say that I was afraid my finances wouldn’t permit an engagement. But her father countered, ‘You needn’t worry about that. She will wait for you as long as necessary.’ I was going to protest again but he had already stood up to go. As soon as he left, his daughter swished in, all smiles. She took my hand and asked me to sit with her on the sofa.”

“What a coup!” exclaimed Antonio.

“Very well done,” remarked Finí. “That’s how you have to settle things with these Don Juans.”

“Hey,” Antonio said. “Tell us what you did on the sofa.”

“I was sweating bullets,” admitted Juan Marcos. “Never before had I been in such a position. It was as if some spell had been broken; the girl no longer seemed pretty and charming. I told her I had to go, and I left. Forever. Nevermore to return. I stumbled down the stairs in a daze and resolved to never lay eyes on another woman.”

“I’ll believe that one when I see it!” said Finí with a smile.

 “And how did it turn out?” asked Antonio. “They didn’t come after you for your lack of formality?”

“Not exactly,” said Juan Marcos. “But later I received a letter from her father practically challenging me to a duel, even going so far as to call me a dead dog.”

After the enjoyment of the story, everyone moved into the sitting room. In a little while, their friend Baltasar Meléndez stopped by. He had known about Juan Marcos’s arrival and wanted to welcome him. Don Balta lived in El Barrio on 103rd Street. He had lived in New York for more than twenty years. To earn his keep, he worked as a mover and transported goods in his creaky truck for the Hispanic bodega owners. He had two children: Raquel, who worked for an insurance company downtown, and Felipe, an athletic lad who studied at the high school. Don Balta’s wife was from Juncos, as was he, and both had acclimated to life in the colony.

“Look here, young man,” Don Balta started in. “I don’t know much about the arts or that university stuff. But since you just got here, let me give you a small piece of advice. Over here, a person is valued for who he is. You run into some of the best people in the world here, but also some of the biggest scoundrels. You have to know how to choose wisely. When I got here, I had to hold my nose to the grindstone, but I learned quick, thank goodness….”

Juan Marcos listened to Don Balta with reverence. There was something about the fifty-year-old man that inspired respect, admiration and confidence. For the first time in his life, Juan Marcos grasped his own unimportance. He had spent his life among books and intellectuals, and now he felt small. New York atomizes people. When he had entered the subway for the first time, he had felt a sensation of tininess in his chest, but it was only now that he really weighed himself in the new scales that destiny had supplied him. He reviewed his life in a few short seconds and the edge of fear sent a shiver up his spine.

***

Juan Marcos Villalobos was a product of the Puerto Rican middle class. During his years at university, he had been a student leader: the president of innumerable organizations, the director of as many others, an orator, a middling man of letters, and even—on one occasion—a student-striker. He was enterprising, rebellious and idealistic without being impractical, somewhat of a pedant yet cultivated and refined. Physically, he wasn’t bad-looking. He was tall, slim and nimble. His black wavy hair complemented his well-tended moustache, and his friendly nature had always made him the focus of a thousand attentions from the opposite sex. There was in Juan Marcos an exquisite combination of aesthetic and moral points. One of his admirers once told him, “You have deep, dreamy eyes, but your mouth is too sensual.” About Juan Marcos, there was something mystical and something worldly.

He had graduated as a teacher two years before with sociology as his major subject. Certain family connections had got him a position at one of the biggest schools in the southern part of the island. He was an excellent teacher. The community valued him for his initiative and his civic-mindedness; his students liked and respected him; and his bosses praised him for his tireless dynamism.

During Juan Marcos’s time as a teacher, the mania for New York rippled across Puerto Rico. Everyone wanted to leave the island to seek wider horizons in the City on the Hudson. As a sociologist, Juan Marcos began to investigate the causes of this situation. It didn’t take much work to find them. He soon discovered that the Boricua left his native soil for what were fundamentally economic reasons. High unemployment and poverty on the island forced many Puerto Ricans to go “scrape by” on the other side of the ocean. Others crossed sea and air, abandoning their posts on the island, in search of adventures and greener pastures with the “gang over there” in America. Others left to join their families who were already living in ill-lit, cramped, and sweltering apartments in El Barrio. Still others left to broaden their cultural knowledge in the United States; and others left—and of these too, there were many—to flee obligations incurred on the island. The New York Puerto Rican colony offered a wide field for the student of social relations.

At about this time Juan Marcos also conceived the desire to log some hours in the great metropolis. I’m young, he reasoned. I’m only twenty-five. This is my opportunity to go over there. I’ll work and I’ll try to earn my master’s degree and maybe even my doctorate. Then I’ll return to the island better prepared to serve my people.

***

“Juan Marcos is going to live with us,” Antonio announced to Don Balta.

“These people are too kind,” said the new lodger. “I should add that Antonio’s generosity is partly to blame for my being here today. In his letters to both me and Dad, he insisted on my coming here in order to ‘civilize me.’”

Don Balta leaned back in his chair with a certain patriarchal air. He was so stout he almost couldn’t heave his belly, and his opinions and advice were sprinkled with wisdom. Antonio listened to his friend with admiration. “Compadre,” he had once said to him in jest, “you sound like a university professor.” “Cut out the malarkey!” had been Don Balta’s only reply.

Finí cut a trail through the smoke that enveloped the sitting room and joined the men. Even Juan Marcos was puffing on a cigar. Tobacco has the virtue of offering rest and peace. After she made herself comfortable near the window, from where she could keep an eye on Luisito who cavorted below with friends, Finí gave the conversation a new turn:

“Antonio, did you know that Lila had a baby last night?”

 “Lila, Juancho’s wife?”

“Certainly. What other Lila do you know?”

“Over here, things happen in the very building where you live,” Antonio said to Juan Marcos, “and no one is the wiser.”

“But the best part is,” continued Finí, “the baby was nearly born in the police car. Lila’s contractions started at two in the morning and poor Juancho couldn’t find a taxi to take her to the hospital. He was half out of his mind and didn’t know what to do when he had the idea to call the police station. Two patrolmen came to get her in a green car, and they took off flying. I saw Juancho this morning. He said everything turned out well. They had a boy.”

No sooner had a conversation begun about the “growth of the population” than there was a knock at the door.

 “Stay put, Antonio. I’ll get it.” Finí stood up. Her hand on the latch, she asked, “Jú….jú iis iit?

 “Open up! It’s me, Vicente,” replied a voice in Spanish from the corridor.

With the assurance there was nothing to fear, Finí ushered in her two friendly countrymen, Vicente Ponce (El Tumbaíto) and Jesuso Pelayo. They had been friends of the family for a long time and occasionally stopped in for a visit. After the round of introductions, the conversation rekindled like embers sprayed with gasoline. There were jokes, opinions on a thousand subjects, and even the recitation of poetry, but foremost was the steady barrage of questions put to Juan Marcos about how things were going over in Puerto Rico.

El Tumbaíto was one of those characters who crop up in all the towns of the island. He walked with a crooked gait because, as he himself told the tale, his drunkard of a father had clubbed him with a block of firewood when they lived long ago in Coamo. El Tumbaíto was a jovial and harmless person, as well as an incorrigible idler. He lived by his wits yet never lacked for food or clothing. Everybody was very fond of him. He had committed to memory several poems by Gautier and José de Diego, and wherever he went he would recite them with fierce gestures and emphasis that likened him to a firebrand on the barricades. He thought of himself as a philosopher and claimed he knew the exact location of a hidden treasure on the outskirts of Aibonito, but since he considered money to be the root of all evil, he chose to remain in humble and decent poverty.

Jesuso was an unrepentant merrymaker. Pint-sized, with trigueño skin, and an enormous loudmouth, he had more guts than body. He wouldn’t let anyone out-talk him at a party even though he was practically a stutterer. And, to top it all, he was a flirt—a woman couldn’t cross his path in the street without his serenading her with some flattering remark. When he got tongue-tied in the middle of a gallant sentence, he would redden in the face and keep quiet until the words came to him. As the girl, by then, was usually a long ways off, he would kick and curse. The week before he had received a sound drubbing for making a pass at someone at a dance in the Bronx.

Jesuso held Antonio and Finí in high regard and when he visited them he minded his P’s and Q’s. Unlike Vicente who almost always arrived at mealtimes, Jesuso never accepted the slightest hospitality, not even a glass of water. On that afternoon the two had met by chance on the stairs. Don Balta and Jesuso departed after a long conversation. El Tumbaíto accepted an invitation to stay for dinner.

Two more visitors called before seven. Although Juan Marcos would have liked to go for a walk, he had to stay behind to answer another string of questions about the things “over there” in Puerto Rico. At eleven-thirty, he finally flung himself on his bed. Eight hours crammed in a plane crossing through a storm, then ten hours of nonstop talk was enough to wear out even the hardiest soul. In New York, people go to bed very late during the summer. In the wee hours of the night, you hear the shouts and laughter of kids cutting capers in the street. With the window wide open to let some air into his bedroom, Juan Marcos learned his first lesson in getting to sleep in the heat and din of the city. Little by little, exhaustion won out. When he was nearly fast asleep, he felt a pinprick of conscience. Then the sharp boot of a question mark scuttled his dream. He opened his eyes and interpreted the sign that fate had so suddenly shot at him—What awaits me in this new life?

Contributor

Guillermo Cotto-Thorner, translated from the Spanish by J. Bret Maney

Guillermo Cotto-Thorner was born in Puerto Rico in 1916 and moved to New York in 1938. His first novel, Trópico en Manhattan, was published in 1951. Cotto-Thorner ministered to the Fort Washington Heights Presbyterian Church in New York City and remained an active and progressive voice in the Hispanic community until his death in 1983. He published a second novel, Gambetta, in 1971.

J. Bret Maney is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds an M.A. in French from the Université de Paris 7 - Denis Diderot. An earlier version of this translation was awarded the Ezra Pound Prize for Literary Translation (2012).

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