The Argentine Firecracker

Bouncing down stressed-out streets on a mountainside rimming Morelia, we are visiting relatives.

A new construction is spotted, a poor place but with a porch soaring high, offering a spectacular vista of the valley of Morelia. It brings back memories of Calle Norzagaray in Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.

A stretch of buildings there also offers, from the highest perches, stunning views of the ocean, the old Spanish forts, the slum of La Perla, and at night cruise ships, lit like candles, sailing out into dark seas.

I lived there in a penthouse apartment with the Argentine Firecracker: Silvina of Buenos Aires.

She was 20 years old, and I was 30. She came to Puerto Rico on a tourist visa and let it lapse, choosing to work in a smoky bar.

She was young, beautiful, intelligent and very rebellious. Perfect for me at that time.

But it only lasted six months.

Fading memories bring back breezy tropical nights out on the patio, swaying in a hammock. The Firecracker handed ice-cubed cuba libres through a stained-glass window to waiting hands.

We listened to Vinicius de Moraes or Atahualpa Yupanqui on the record player as the night waves pounded La Perla far below.

But rebellious youth, booze and confusion buried us. I flew off to Florida, leaving her there. Not long after, she had a child with a Puerto Rican waiter.

Then she was deported back to Buenos Aires, babe in arms.


El Morro sunrise

The fellow dismounted the black BSA on Calle Del Cristo in Old San Juan on the coast.

The hour was dark, and there was a bloody rip in his foot. Kickstarting a motorcycle barefoot, especially when the rubber pad is missing, is always a stupid idea. Only a drunk would do it.

He crossed the street of blue cobblestones, made of old ballast from Spanish galleons, and entered the bar El Batey for a cuba libre.

The beefy blond owner with the name of Davey Jones said hi while Jimmy Buffett sang Margaritaville from the jukebox.

The fellow took a barstool next to the deep window, the one where Luis Muñoz occasionally entered when on a bender. Luis Muñoz was the middle-aged, troubled son of Puerto Rican patriot-hero Luis Muñoz Marín, a fact that haunted him always.

Luis Muñóz and the fellow worked together on The San Juan Star.

Now and then, after work, Luis Muñoz invited the fellow home for post-midnight supper of sausage quiche prepared by his girlfriend Ana, a petite ballerina of renown.

They would sit under candlelight at the long table, the three of them. Two were drinking, but the ballet dancer would be half asleep.

The thick-walled building was ancient, and they would dine to backdrop tunes of tiny tree frogs called coquíes, hidden in damp vegetation of the open patio where late-night rain often fell.

Luis Muñoz was an artist, and one soused night he gave the fellow a print of two nude lovers sitting on the step-street next to the Hotel Convento there in Old San Juan.

Three framings and 40 years beyond, it hangs in the Ranchito stairwell, sunlit in daytime via the glass bricks just above.

A few cuba libres later, the fellow lurched from El Batey and limped to the BSA across the cobblestones. He made it home as dawn began to frame the fortress of El Morro.

Later that day the bloody foot throbbed like nobody’s business.

* * * *

(Note: Luis Muñoz Lee died in 2003 in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. He had been born in San Juan in 1921.  I never saw him after 1975. He was a grand guy.)

The Christmas card

The Fancy House was a hair up San Justo Street from the Malamute Bar. I often headed to the House after work, about midnight or so. I went for two reasons:

Amateur anthropology and cuba libres.

The Fancy House was a social study, fascinating in part due to downing cuba libres till the walls started dancing before my eyes. A tango at times. Often a waltz.

Most of the working girls came from the Dominican Republic across the Mona Passage. But some came from South America, flown up by Latino gangsters with a contract to fulfill.

The young lovelies learned to ignore me sitting solo at the bar facing the twinkling lights framing the broad mirror, with cuba libres and the waltzing walls, dancing before my eyes. All the lovelies save one.

South American, she had milk-white skin with freckles and long black hair. She was bright and liked to talk, a rebellious and adventurous lass, hardly out of her teens, there on a lark. The kind of girl to give nightmares to a wholesome mama.

One December night she walked to my bar stool and handed me an envelope. Inside was my only Christmas card that year.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. It touched me.

The walls ceased swinging . . .

. . . and started singing Silent Night.

The sands of Santurce

The fellow sat at the large round table in the dining room. There was the Remington portable and a cuba libre.

He was writing a woman named Lane back in New Orleans.

A ceiling fan blew downward, and the smell of the sea and sand just outside entered the wide Spanish windows.

It was Puerto Rico on the beach in Santurce.

Working nights at the San Juan Star left the days of perpetual summer free. He lived in a guesthouse fronting the sea, the beach being just a stroll across the parallel street.

This beach was nothing to brag about, not like lovely Luquillo up the coast with its powder sands, palms and crystalline waters.

But it was the beach he had, closer to town.

The landlord was an old New Yorker with a yearning for young boys who rode their bikes slowly outside in the soft afternoons. He beckoned them to his boudoir an hour or two every day, different boys, and they left with a few bucks in their pockets.

Another boarder was a girl from Santiago, there without papers. She was short and beautiful with big green eyes. She spoke no English, but there was no need.

Shaped like a porn star, which she wasn´t, with a rack that looked fake, but it wasn´t, she would don the slightest of bikinis, and cross the street to the sand, bringing traffic to a halt as Puerto Rican boys squeezed their steering wheels and howled.

A sportswriter owned the house next door where he lived with his dusky girlfriend from La Republica Dominicana.

He once asked: “Do you think this will be a problem back in Alabama?”

He married her anyway.

His boarder was a Ranger captain stationed at Fort Buchanan, a huge handsome hulk with a red Pontiac GTO, just back from Vietnam where he had slept in the jungle with a Bowie blade.

One night a Puerto Rican ne’er-do-well from a nearby housing project crept through a window and entered the Ranger´s room while he slept. A mistake.

Within a screaming second the captain was cocked with his Bowie, and the shocked intruder ran straight through a latched screen door, leaving his outline like Wilie Coyote.

The fellow met a woman named Mary from Brooklyn. She was blonde and attractive, living alone with her cat Montserrat in an upstairs duplex on Mango Street.

She was a secretary at the San Juan Star.

Across from her apartment was a small diner where they ate chicken and rice and listened to Johnny Nash sing “I Can See Clearly Now” on the Rockola.

Back outside the guesthouse on the sidewalk bordering the beach was an old man with a white cart who sold snow cones, which were always great in the heat.

(Note: Johnny Nash still seeing clearly.)

The taxi ride

He was a capitalist Gentile from New Orleans, and she was a communist Jew from New York.  They stepped from their office around midnight and into the taxi.

The windows were wide open.

Soft Caribbean air caressed their faces as the cabbie sped down the broad Avenida J.F. Kennedy.

She was married, but he stroked her hand anyway. Her husband, a communist Puerto Rican activist of local renown, did not know — and no one was going to tell him.

They got out at the capitalist’s place on Calle San Sebastian. She and her husband lived just a few blocks farther, but hubby believed her at work still.

After a few Cuba libres, her backside was stroked. Then they got up, dressed and walked toward her nearby home facing the sea. Amid the sound of waves, they kissed and said hasta mañana.

Filling the political gap in the Old Town with a twist of limón.