Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood

Late one afternoon I was sitting on the curb of Rio Grande Street, near the University of Texas at Austin, waiting for the Number 12 bus to collect me and convey me home.  It was spring, and the purple Texas mountain laurels planted throughout UT’s grounds perfumed the air.  I had just left a Latin American Lit class and was still drunk on discussions of time, infinity, and identity.  A man sat next to me, not a foot away, and asked me for $5.  He told me he was homeless, had recently endured some kind of surgery on his right knee, and pointed to the scar to prove it.  I gave him the money, though it wasn’t mine to give since my parents, loans, and a small scholarship were paying my way through school.  I couldn’t help myself, though.  I’ve always found it difficult to say no to people. 

Once I had given him the $5, he remained seated beside me on the curb.  Everything about him sagged toward the ground.  His body spread over the pavement, his eyes drooped, the corners of his mouth pointed downward as if they were attached to the ground by strings.  Even his words tumbled downward from his lips when he spoke. 

This man told me about an ex-wife and kids whom he never saw and couldn’t support.  He exhorted me to appreciate the quality education I was receiving and to use it to do good things.  Maybe he was lonely.  Maybe he could tell that I was lonely and he derived purpose and satisfaction from keeping me company.  Maybe a man like him, alone, homeless, in his fifties, with bad knees and a broken body, regains some of his youth when he is in the company of the young, to whom men like him are often invisible.  They amble down alley-ways; they sleep in doorways and beneath bridges.  Some of them while away their days in public libraries. Others lie on the green lawns of university campuses and divert foot traffic by their presence.  Do we see them?  Yes.  Do we talk to them?  Do we know them?  No, and so they are invisible in the way plastic bags and newspapers blowing down the street are invisible.  We know they’re there, yet we know nothing of where they come from or where they’re going, of who set them adrift and who forgot about them.

I’ve had so many encounters like this one.  Once, a man with long red hair and a thick moustache, carrying a guitar and wearing bell-bottom jeans cornered me at the back of the bus (again, the Number 12) and mumbled something about what Austin used to be like in the 80s.  I heard him say something about how back then the police didn’t harass people, and you could sleep where you liked, but in all I understood maybe a quarter of what he said to me over the roar of the bus and the wind howling through the opened windows.  I tried my best to listen, but eventually the man grew angry and told me I hadn’t heard a word he had said and that I must not care. 

On two occasions I talked to just-released prisoners, once while I waited for a Greyhound in Fresno, California, and once on that same Number 12 bus in Austin that so reliably served up interesting conversations.  I remember their joy over finally getting out of prison, their eagerness to get things right this time, to see families in Montana or to pursue a talent for art they had only discovered while they were locked up.  What joy could be more real than that of a man who has served his sentence and has just regained his freedom? 

If they could have seen their own faces, naked with the wonder and hope of children, they may have recoiled from themselves and the unmanliness they beheld.  But they could not see what I saw.  They didn’t know that tears glistened in their eyes.  They didn’t know that they giggled like little boys who had stumbled upon some squirmy creature for the first time and were taken with the novelty of their discovery.  They were lost in themselves, lost in the world that was new to them again, forgetful of the manliness society told them they had to project from a young age.  There’s something wonderful about watching a grown man return to himself, seeing him shake off the costume of masculinity and toughness in which he usually clothes himself, and listening to him as he expresses the complex mixture of hope, confusion, and fear that our culture tells us to suppress.

Puerto Rico, Who Are You?

Sunset over the bay, from Old San Juan.

Latin America encompasses parts of two continents, hundreds of islands, and peoples and cultures too numerous to list.  Yet we use catch-all words like Latin American, Hispanic, and Latino to refer to anyone born anywhere in this vast territory.  The theme of layered and overlapping identities courses through the literature of Latin America.  You find it in the fiction of Borges, in the poetry of Neruda, and in the tirades of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who nevertheless dreamed of unifying these peoples with their varied origins and experiences of Spanish colonial rule and foreign imposition.

Cemetery below el Castillo del Morro

The people of Latin America are Colombian, Mexican, Argentinean, Chilean, Bolivian, Guatemalan, and Puerto Rican.  They are Incan, Aztec, Mayan, Aymara, Quilmes, and Olmec.  They hail from Europe, Africa, North America, South America, and Asia.  Their cultures are at once young and old, their religions indigenous and imported. 

The people of Latin America are complicated and multifarious.  They express their multiplicity of identities through their art, their architecture, their language, and their religion.  I have felt this complexity in Mexico, Perú, Chile, Argentina, and the United States.  Now, I’ve felt it and seen it in Puerto Rico, where in a single day in Old San Juan one may set foot on Spanish forts that date back nearly five-hundred years, stroll along narrow blue cobble stone streets that would not be out of place in Europe, eat lunch at McDonald’s, speak Spanish and English in the same sentence, and mail a letter via the United States Postal Service.

The beginning of Condado Beach, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Little evidence remains of the original inhabitants of this island.  Their blood courses through its people now, but one sees little in the way of ruins left over from the days before Europeans sailed toward Puerto Rico’s shores, unleashed themselves on this fertile land, and enslaved the people who variously welcomed, resisted, and fled from them. 

Spaniards have conquered this island, the British have bombarded it, pirates have marauded it, and Americans have occupied it.  Disparate tribes have mixed, tourists have invaded, and what emerges from these vicissitudes and whims of history is what we call Puerto Rico.  Ask me to describe Puerto Rico and though I may attempt to trace a rough outline of the country and its people, in the end I’ll throw up my hands and say, “Go there.”

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

Condado Beach, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

From el Castillo del Morro, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Youth is Wasted on the Young?

I’ve heard three times this week someone say, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I’ve never understood this statement when it’s uttered out of scorn.  Sometimes I think the translation of it would be: “If I could, I would rob the young of their youth,” in which case it springs from jealousy. But how can anyone know the wonders of youth without first having been youthful, without having been ignorant for a while of the distinction between feeling young and feeling old, or really just feeling older? It makes perfect sense to feel from time to time that youth is wasted on those who have it, but to repeat the phrase as a mantra, as some universal truth? Really?

If I ever come to believe that youth is wasted on the young, then the only rational conclusion would be that my youth was wasted on me. Because it would mean that I begrudge those who have it. It would mean that I’ve failed to see that good things come of having been young: certain childish appreciations you never lose, fascination for simple things, a love of life that flows out of unreason rather than originating in calculations of cost and benefit. What is the value of a soap bubble? That it floats. That it reflects a rainbow. And a blade of grass? What does it do for me? It glows green, it seeks out the sun, and it will do this 100 times out of 100. What more do I need?

I don’t think we lose these insights gleaned when we were kids. We just wish we could experience them again for the first time, when we lacked context and didn’t know how unusual they were, before we understood that we were supposed to deconstruct everything, even what is indivisible and perfect as it is.

Yeah, well, I’m not that old, right? Sure, but at some point you do become aware of the process. Which doesn’t mean I know much about it.

*This is a re-post of something I wrote as a note on Facebook.

The Ocean as Sculptor: The Old Forts of Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico

On most coasts the ocean batters and tears down rock indiscriminately, so that along an extended coastline like that of the Western United States sea stacks jut out of the water here, eight-hundred foot cliffs tower over the Pacific there, while elsewhere, in coves hidden in the shadows beneath precipices and along gentle shorelines that attract bathers by the millions, the ocean laps at sandy beaches, some white, some brown, some black and grey and striated with purple or strewn with smooth pebbles.  But here, on the north shore of Old San Juan, in Puerto Rico, atop cliffs overlooking the Atlantic ocean, there meander a series of walls eighteen feet thick, connecting two of the largest old Spanish forts in the Western Hemisphere: El Castillo del Morro and el Castillo de San Cristobal. 

Watch Tower near el Castillo del Morro

It would be easy to imagine that human minds dreamed up these forts and that human hands quarried their rocks, shaped them, and fit them into place with an eye toward repelling invaders.  But although this of course explains the presence of these massive fortifications on a lonely island in the Caribbean, the ramparts and towers of Old San Juan are so massive that we might as easily imagine that the ocean itself chose to direct its erosive energies to sculpting a work of art rather than to pulverizing an island; that it hurled so many crashing waves here, sprinkled so much salty spray there, and through patience and care crafted watch-towers and cannon niches, erected walls and dug out tunnels.  No lonely fins of stone rise out of these waters; random outcroppings of rock do not line these shores.  Only order reigns.  The Atlantic whittles away at its project to this day, showing off its delicate touch, its million white hands that now caress, now pound, now pull back from their creation so that the ocean that guides them may admire its elegant work.

More to come about Puerto Rico.  I hope everyone is having a good weekend!

El Castillo del Morro

 

View of Catholic cemetery from el Castillo del Morro

 

Watch Tower at el Castillo del Morro

View down the coast from el Castillo de San Cristobal

Infinite Morning: Waking Up With the World

Sunrise over Monument Valley--this is the best I've seen.

It was the morning of my first day of middle school. I had just woken up and was thrashing through a heap of clothes on the floor, searching for the right shirt and the right shorts to wear. I wanted to be cool, because you were supposed to be cool in middle school. Somewhere, from someone, you were supposed to have learned what to wear, how to walk, how to talk, and by then you should have known to throw in a cuss word and a “dawg” here and there when conversing with your peers. I had yet to learn any of these important lessons, least of all what clothing pre-teens considered cool. I decided on a Michael Jordan theme because I was twelve and Michael Jordan was cool. That morning I dressed in Michael Jordan shorts, a Michael Jordan T-Shirt, and Air Jordan basketball shoes. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and left the house in my Jordan attire.

It was late August in Austin and the muggy air clung to my skin as I walked toward my bus stop half a mile away. I noticed then that the air carried the sounds of my neighborhood a little better than at other times of day. I heard the cars streaming down Slaughter Lane. I heard the squeal of their brakes, the barking of their horns, and the screaming of their tires on the pavement. I could make out disembodied voices floating on the breeze. “See you this evening,” said one. “Remember your lunch,” said another. “Go to hell,” yelled a woman’s voice from a house somewhere down the street. With each step I took the volume rose all around me. The gaps between sounds shrunk until they merged into one loud murmur. I remember thinking that the world was waking up with me and that the cacophony around me was the earth issuing a long sigh as it shook off a night’s slumber.

I liked waking up to go to school because then, in the early morning, I felt in tune with the world, as if we breathed together and moved together. Every little act gained in meaning and significance when I realized that I did it in concert with the whole of creation. Sometimes I felt like I stood on the back of a giant whose size and shape I could only guess at. When the giant moved, I moved. When the giant stopped, I stopped. If I fell out of synch, if the giant sneezed and I failed to sneeze along with him, I would tumble off into the abyss.

There are days now, eighteen years later, when I wake up and I feel the same sense of synchrony with the world. I walk out the door and the car horns, the squealing brakes, the disembodied voices float to me on a light breeze. Again the saturated air clings to me and again it’s as if the world is waking up along with me. When this happens I’m both here, going to work, and there, a twelve-year-old kid walking to the bus, afraid of being unpopular. I’m also a teenager waking up early on another muggy morning to play basketball with some friends. And I’m a twenty-year-old college student dangling my legs from a cliff in Yosemite National Park. The sun is rising and throwing dagger-shaped shadows across the valley a mile below me. A smell of pine permeates the air. Again I feel that I’m sitting atop a giant whose form remains a mystery. Again I feel that we breathe as one. We move as one.

These experiences exist outside of time. They can be packed into an instant like a trillion particles crammed into a singularity a moment before the Big Bang. All of them are there, together, in the same space, in the same mental moment, occurring forever.

Explaining Myself

For some reason people who don’t know me very well think that I’m an organized person both in thought and in action.  My apartment must be clean and tidy.  My filing cabinets must be filled with well labeled folders whose contents are accessible within mere seconds should I need them.  Yet what these people see is only the outer manifestation of an inner chaos.  But how can chaos give way to the appearance of organization?  Let me explain.

I am a pack rat in the truest sense.  I collect words.  I collect thoughts.  I collect feelings and memories.  I discard nothing, at least not with intent.  On my computer I have every document I’ve ever saved since I was in 5th grade.  My physical surroundings are no different.  Throughout my bedroom books lie in thick disorganized stacks.  Others rest neatly on shelves, yet without any discernible system of classification by author or discipline. 

My outer and inner worlds are essentially the same.  In my mind conflicting ideas float around and clash continually.  No one idea is able to claim any permanent victory over the rest.  These ideas play off of each other and merge and recombine like DNA molecules that lack an overall blueprint, so that the general appearance is of chaos and confusion.  Out of this disordered morass of contradictory and competing thoughts and beliefs a few particles of clarity percolate to the surface.  It’s as if through incessant recombination some ideas were able to glom onto others that are compatible, thereby forming the beginnings of a system of thought that can be applied to the outside world.  Yet most of what is in my head remains mere noise that threatens to destroy the conceptual edifices that have taken so long to erect. 

Example: for much of my childhood I grappled with the task of organizing and defining my personal philosophical system.  I had a vague sense of direction throughout, but I lacked a complete system that I could articulate and formalize.  All I had were a lot of questions, many more possible answers, and an ineffable feeling about the world and my place in it that I couldn’t convey to others.  It wasn’t until high school that my thoughts coalesced so that I could work out an organized framework that I might convey to the outside world.  This framework that I had worked so hard (or waited so long—I don’t know if it’s accurate to call the process “work”) to form was far from solidified.  It would undergo continued modification and retooling, but the core of my outlook on the world was there, and finally I understood it. 

How I came to my philosophical outlook is an extreme case, but a similar process is in motion on a smaller scale with nearly every conclusion or claim that I make.  When I say that a mountain is beautiful, I say so not only out of a spontaneous sense of awe that is unavoidable when I’m in the presence of something so immense.  I apply a notion of beauty that I have formed over twenty-seven years.  It is a notion that has been informed by science, literature, philosophy, the arts, pop culture, experiences with friends and family and strangers.  Everything I’ve come into contact with, whether frivolous or serious, has played a part in my definition of beauty. 

 Yes, the mountain is beautiful because it is enormous and is covered with bright white snow and threatens to tear the sky in two with its jagged ridges.  But more than anything it is beautiful because it is a visible record of the immense past.  It speaks of earthquakes and uplifting events, ice ages, and rivers and streams cutting through the land to form deep canyons.  It is a record of extinction events and the rise of new species to fill niches that come and go as the mountain changes in character.  Particles of the mountain exist in all of the oceans of the world and in fertile valleys that yield crops which are essential to our survival.  The mountain represents ubiquity and interconnectedness.  Such beauty exists in all things, but not always so immediately as in a majestic mountain. 

Such is my thought process for a lot of things, not just beauty, which I grant is actually quite a heavy philosophical theme.  What I’m trying to convey is that even simple decisions like how to engage in small talk can be just as involved as determining what constitutes beauty.  I’m selectively methodical and meticulous, not because I’m a master of organization, but because it’s all I can do to overcome my intrinsic sense of confusion.

Random Kindness on a Plane

Sometimes people say things so strange and so nakedly positive that you smile and carry their words with you for the rest of your life.  On landing at DFW at the end of a flight from Detroit, as a procession of passengers and I passed by the cockpit and deboarded the plane, a woman whom I had sat next to for the entire flight turned to the pilot, smiled, and said, “What a beautiful experience.”  She didn’t thank him mechanically, as I did; she commented on the pleasure of flying.  She complimented the pilot on his art.  She experienced the flight as a child might, with innocent wonder, yet she spoke of it with the gravity of an adult who has seen many wonderful things and who comments only on those her experience tells her are transcendent. 

Moments before her comment to the pilot, this woman had turned to me as we began to file toward the front of the plane and told me to “take care.”  On this three-hour flight from Detroit neither one of us had uttered a word to the other.  Yet despite this lack of any connection, even a fleeting one, this woman felt compelled to wish me well.  She smiled so tenderly at me.  I don’t know why.  She did so even after I dumbly made her repeat herself because I didn’t understand what she had said. 

And hers was the middle seat!

—–

Recently I got back from a trip to Puerto Rico.  I haven’t had time to write anything of quality about it, but I did want to share a few pictures. 

Castillo del Morro

View down the coastline from el Castillo de San Cristobal

Sunset