Gringo at the table
Growing up near 14st in lower Manhattan while walking to school there were various run ins with Puerto Rican young men. They weren't big but were strong, hung in large groups, seemed mean and nasty, had tempers and liked to fight. These were my first recollections of Spanish people. There were a few visits to my grandfather in the Bronx. The neighborhood had turned Spanish. I recall when leaving his apartment someone from a high floor threw some object at us. Decades later, when in California for a year, I ran into a contractor who seemed down on his luck. I forget why. He was a white man in his forties who said he once had a great business but lost it. He blamed his downfall on marrying a Mexican woman who seemed sweet but eventually turned out to be vengeful and with the help of her brothers bled him dry. There were other impressions of the Spanish culture. Old black and white cowboy movies showed hot tempered Latinos sitting at card tables threatening white men eying their dark haired beauties in long skirts. Finally who could forget the 'West Side Story' with the Spanish gang versus the white gang and with a love story inbetween.
This past summer while swimming some laps a Spanish lady in her 50's who I had seen a few times approached me in the pool and in 20 minutes I knew a whole bunch about her life. She was a good swimmer, saying one of her daughters had tried out for the Olympics, and she gave me a few tips. She said she would train me. I tried what she told me, including holding my breath the length of the pool, but later felt a strain in my stomach and was reminded of my limitations.
During the summer, Gloria we'll call her, came to the pool most mornings along with a neighbor who we'll call Juan. I came too. Gloria would do a few laps and some stretching. Juan would do some easy swimming and stay in the whirlpool. Every morning he would go to the beach and walk 5 miles while it was dark. This was his cooling off time. He was pleasant with me but I had heard before he had a physical run in with a security guard over not being talked to respectfully. I would come and do between 10 to 20 laps and some stretching. The snow birds weren't down, the weather was clear most mornings, and it was a good routine. Greg, an African American cleaning man, would work on the pool area around nine. At nights he was a jazz musician and would talk and be friendly with the rest of us. Sometimes Stu would come and do some laps when he wasn't teaching meditation in some far off land. Accepting for him, I was the lone white American.
Gloria was originally from a lot of money in Peru. Her father was German, not too religious, worked in airport security, and married a Catholic local lady from a wealthy family. Her family owned 53,000 acres of farmland. Growing up there she had body guards and servants and maids and lessons and swimming and on and on until the Communist regime took over and took everything they had including the land.. Juan was the son of a military man in the Dominican Republic which also afforded him some priviledge. He came to New York, started out in photography and later got a good government job and now has the sought after pension. Anyhow, back to Gloria. She married a diplomat, lived all over the place, had 3 daughters, and later divorced after her husband went from a nerd and tried being hip and did drugs and eventually lost everything. Now her mother and brother are in Peru but she doesn't get along with them.
Which all brings us to the present. She married a Jewish man who lives in my development to enable herself to become an American citizen. It's an arrangement where they don't sleep together, he gets some help with the rent and they are basically roommates. He is not well off, has had cancer, is 68, and can be cruel. Gloria can be stubborn and very egotistical and self centered, so the match is not great. But she has a plan. The plan is to sell childrens' sweaters made in Peru to snowbirds at a local flea market during the winter months. Her daughter, who we'll call Debbie, has put some money into this and plans to come here to help her starting in November. In the meantime Gloria needs some pocket money.
Seeing this I asked her if she wanted to clean my house for a reasonable amount. She agreed, came here and did an excellent job and even repainted a damaged mirror switch plate in a lovely decorative way. Gloria put together a couple of meals for me, not exactly a Paleo diet, but it was good and a break from my usual. On a few other days she worked on smaller projects which I was happy to have done, such as cleaning my outside closet. She was competent and fast. The trouble was she drank. One time when I was driving to Walgreen’s she asked for a lift and I acquiesced and she came out of the liquor store with 2 bottles of alcohol. Her 'husband' found out and blamed me and even threatened me. Who needs this 'I thought.' I defended myself well and put him in his place but later softened and told him I would not give her any more alcohol and he saw my decent intentions. However the situation was not black and white. She drank partly from the pain of living with him. Afterwards, there were some troubles between the two of them and so I distanced myself.
So where is this all leading? A little more patience on the readers part please. I have gone on perhaps too long and even so many gaps have been left unfilled. I have to remind myself this is not a Victorian novel. In a sense I wish it were because its an interesting story. Instead, this all serves the purpose for a specific point that I'd like to make. But not yet.
Our small group still swam in the mornings and I heard Gloria's daughter would be arriving soon. She expected to bring in about 40 to 45 grand for 4 months worth of work, no small change. Greg and Juan planned a fishing trip, but the waves were 9 ft high so they canceled it. I had been invited but declined as I have my projects to attend to. Then another trip was planned. The morning before this other trip Gloria, who was invited and going to go, woke up early and made so much noise her 'husband' kicked her out and she went to Juan’s place and he had gone to bed at 3am and yelled out 'leave me alone' and she saw my light on and came by here. It was 6 am and I felt bad for her and shared a cup of tea and some small talk. She was sad over her situation. Later Juan said he had been drinking and was not a good sleeper and forgot what he had shouted out. Gloria definitely kept things exciting.
Ok, moving along. Debby, the daughter, finally arrived from England. She was well mannered and reserved in contrast to her mother's outgoing personality. They both started the business and it began to move along decently. Juan had a 16 year old grandson that was visiting and he told me he was going to take Gloria and her daughter out for dinner along with his grandson and would like to know if I would come. He wanted me along because I could help calm Gloria down. I agreed, suggested a fish restaurant, and the next day we were off. The four of us went to pick up Debby, the daughter, and she declined to come because she had a date. Now a big part of why Juan was doing this was to make the daughter feel at home and not alone so I felt this was wrong and said so. I added if she didn't come the night would be called off. She came.
We went to the fish restaurant, got a great table, ordered salmon, some wine, and had a great dinner. Juan's grandson was a nice boy, told me of his interests and talents and plans and I listened. He was from a single mother household, as Juan's son and his mother were separated. The rest of the conversation was mostly in Spanish. Gloria, her daughter, Juan and grandson all spoke it. I was the gringo at the table. Gloria kept drinking and got a little loud and danced in her seat, embarrassing her daughter. To me it all was a distraction and a break from my own mind's entanglements. The night was long and fun. At first when we arrived the place was crowded. When we left we were the last ones.
Just a note on Gloria. While having a German father she seemed to have absorbed the Peruvian culture within her being. She spoke of the Incas and their connection to the land and their connection with life. She often sang Latino music and danced to it. She was all out there with her personality and wore everything on her sleeve, dangerously so. Passion and expressiveness were part of her nature. Somehow Catholicism was also thrown into the mix. She liked Peruvian food, claimed it was natural and from the earth. She loved eating even though thin, claiming it was pure enjoyment. She held there were certain sites in Peru that seemed to be made from other worldly beings. According to her Peruvian people were happy people. I listened without being swayed one way or the other.
Let me insert this note before I wind down. I heard an interview with a young Cuban artist who came to Florida and for a time studied in Florence. He became an excellent draftsman but later betrayed this training and started to work from photos. He wanted to make a statement in the contemporary art world. He claimed he was electric in personality and indeed did seem charged. He referred to his work as 'just art' implying it has its place but it wasn't everything. The interviewer asked him about his scuba diving and the artist said he works hard and long hours but also lives life. Implied is that regardless of how his art does he is here to fully experience life. That is the priority. Such a difference from my thinking which was preoccupied with purpose and so many other things. With this young man nothing was sacred, only 'living' life.
So we come to the finale here. When driving home Gloria and her daughter and I were in the back seat. Juan's grandson was the designated driver and he had the music blasting. It was all Latino and a couple of songs were from a youngish man pleading his heart out. The lyrics were repetitious and simple. I think Gloria said they were 'such a pretty woman, like a flower' or something similar. Gloria, full of wine, was jumping up and down in her seat dancing. This made the daughter uncomfortable and later she let Gloria know this. Gloria said 'the Latino’s know how to live life.' They live it. I then heard the young’s man voice and it was strained and passionate and from his guts.
For the first time I got it. I understood the Latin temperament. Previously I seemed to say to God 'why am I around all this. What has this to do with me?' But suddenly I got it. They let their passions rule, the anger, love, heartbreak, rage, jealousy, appetites, it was all out there with no cover up. But now I understood its genesis. The culture was coming from another place, not better or worse, but just different and unique. Was it a more primitive culture? Maybe but so what. Primitive is not necessarily bad. Another aspect of humanity was being highlighted, full in its own regard. I then quietly was thankful to see this, and was astonished at how there were so many different expressions to humanity. I also quietly thanked God for letting me have this realization, and even said 'you're amazing.'