Monday, March 30, 2015

The Peak at El Yunque

    I hiked a rainforest for 5 hours.
I was between 2 (million) ferns. It was 50 Shades of Green.
And like the movie, it was a blur.
I just couldn't read it.
Isn't that what we do? Read a place? Into what we see, what we pass by, insert a narrative, the stories we've heard, the books we've read, the songs we know?
A place sings with its history. Or we sing that history at the place and it echoes back our designs??
But if you don't know that history what have you got? You're like Helen Keller: someone's making shapes in your hand - it feels good- but there doesn't seem to be a point. Let me go play. Feed me.
And what of Puerto Rico came to me as I climbed its second highest little mountain?
I know there must have been original souls, the first people, the Taino here who finally climbed this mountain to get away from the Spaniards who would destroy them. So at the peak, is this where a native nation died?
And then what of five hundred years?
When the Dutch tried to take San Juan and then came the English 200 years later did some poor sot from Portsmouth survive the latter battle and end up wed to a blue eyed Spanish girl with the last name Robben?
What of Puerto Rico's poets do I know? Her novelists and her singers, her artists and her thinkers? Where are they in the syllabus of America?
Where was Deburgos born, and what of Davila? Did Raul Julia wake up and think Yeah I'll rock Hollywood? And Rita Moreno - I'll win an Oscar, a Tony, a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a Grammy. Jesus. Them I know.
The tip of a cultural iceberg, with a yearly average temperature of 72.
I wonder did my childhood legend Clemente climb up El Yunque to see his island, his hometown just off to the left, or like most rabid athletes did he glance up and think "Hell with that, I've got a game to play?"
Eat, play, sleep, repeat. Oblivion for most. Immortality for the few.
I just didn't know what to do with it all. The jungle makes no sense. It was all of a sameness though I am sure it is as multifaceted as any hardwood forest I wander in wonder.
I thought of Klaus Kinski being interviewed in Burden Of Dreams, stunned by the massive rapacity of the Amazon, its "endless fornication". All that seething, squelching life, all that water endlessly pumping. After an hour I was soaked. I sweated out half the poisons I'd taken in all year. The next morning I drank three bottles of water at a blink. It evaporated within me.
And for what? To walk a green path for 5 hours. To view two more views of green below. A peak with a generator on it and a graffitied plinth. Some orange mud, a couple of bright flowers and the tiniest of petaled moss. And maybe there was a kind of wild mint, or possibly poison ivy. I didn't hazard the difference.
The only thing I wondered at were these sturdy butterflies, a dark brown with umber somewhere upon them -where I couldn't tell- as they never settled, would never land and let me look.
And frogs which sounded like soft alarms, and a bird which spooked then shook the tall palms like a mammal but remained unseen.
I think I saw a squirrel. He moved not like the ones I know up North.
I was contained by a place I couldn't codify. I moved for 5 hours in a kind of sodden meditation.
I complain now as I have no more story to tell than what it told me, but possibly that is an apt rebuke or a kindness. A message to any colonizer. And peace for any over denotative self and its need for the subject, verb, and object in every mystery.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Puerto Rico

    Old San Juan is a wing of land that guards a perfect harbor. Arched up against the sea to the north, it slopes down into the quiet water. If you squeezed San Francisco into a jewel box and abandoned it in the 1880s. If they'd built San Diego up on the cliffs that defend its anchorage and not down in the swamps where it belongs. San Juan's a film set. It's a tourist's dream. Not even a mile square you can walk the whole thing in an afternoon. Pile off the cruise ship and be back in time for the on board performance of Frozen.
  Puerto Rico. What did I know? I knew there were lots of Puerto Ricans in NYC. I knew not to head to mid town during the parade. I was born in Pittsburgh when Clemente still played and Im pretty sure my brother took me to a game where I saw him play but I can't say for sure.
  But I'll tell you, simply saying I might have.....damn did I not get some discounts at the deli on B and 3rd. Wear a Pirates hat in the East Village in the Nineties and you got some bro nods.
  And then I come here.
  I hate 80 degree weather, I hate humidity. I'm dying on the walk up an alley of multicolored antique homes and then I reach the high street and the winds hit me. They never stop, they're as cool as water. They comb your spirit. Heaven.
  And somebody tells me these are the winds that brought Basque and Portuguese sailors, and then the Spanish and the Dutch and the English to the New World. They were the current you had to take. The Trade Winds. And the first safe place they brought you after you left family and friends and sanity and certainty was Puerto Rico.
   Two months alone in the Atlantic - if you'd been lucky.
   There's a fort at the mouth of the harbor - more a piece of historical art than architecture- where you can look down and watch the tide come in. Through that channel flowed the wealth and power of the entire Spanish empire. That half mile of calm green kept the Hapsburgs rolling in the dough for 300 years. Ponce de la fucking Leon, Vasco Da man Gama, Hernando Deville De Soto, Cabeza Da Vaca who put the vaca into vacation, all these guys landed in San Juan. They walked the streets, they probably drank in the same bar (which of course isn't there anymore but there's probably a newer version on the same spot.)
  San Juan was where you knew you'd made it. You'd survived. Restock the water, bathe, get some vitamin c, a hooker, a deep harbor, a haven.
  And I gotta say it still kinda feels that way. When you walk around the old town you know this was a place where when people arrived they kissed the ground. They'd been delivered.
  What a heritage to have. To share.
  "Our visitors arrive in ecstasy." La Isla del Incanto.
  And then the steam engines came. And oil. And the boats just sailed right by.
  How long would it take for you to realize they weren't coming back? Like a port town left behind by the railroads. Like a rail town by-passed by the interstate.
  The Spanish got bored and became Puerto Rican and then the Americans assumed the lease to something they didn't own and tried to make it into Hawaii. Plantations, no indigenous economy, no one's allowed to speak Spanish, take the coffee and sell it back to the locals, a bulwark against Communism, a tax haven, a union free know the story. Or maybe you don't. I'm happy to say the people here are more than willing to tell it. Caught between being Americans or just owned by America. A devil's bargain. They'll lay it out for you when asked.
   I walked from el condo/resort centro - a barrier strip called the Condado- where you run a gauntlet, the stations of America's consumer cross: Starbucks, Denny's, Baskin Robbin, CVS, Walgreens, Subway, parking, parking, parking- until you escape to the peninsula of Old San Juan. You cross an emerald inlet. The light is uncanny. It all seems colored. Like there's no neutral to it. There are scores of deco and mid century mediterranean hotels and apts and offices left to rot in half repair but still glorious to the eye. A long street park hemmed in by access roads. A gallery selling Warhol polaroids. "Im from Pittsburgh!" So?
  I reached the old town and wandered in its alleys and by ways and walking streets. You can hear tourists coming from half a block away. You can see their signs on the busier streets - the ice cream cooler in the entrance way, the "free wi fi" placard - but if you duck away, even in this tiny little place you can be alone. (Not unlike the French Quarter - you'd think it would be overrun but two blocks from Bourbon st you can still sit by yourself in a bar for an hour.) The uncut dogs are strays and the cats half wild. The facades of each and every building look like color samples from Farrow and Ball. It's like Barcelona, it's like new Orleans, it's like Macau. It's magical. So compact, so embraceable, teetering on one side over the Atlantic and on the other into an industrial harbor where 1000 foot cruise ships sit in a watery trailer park.  RVs on nuclear steroids.
  I found a place called the St Germain. (One of my favorite names. Cool part of Paris, fine hotel in Montreal, Germaine Greer...) got a perfect sandwich and a coffee made by an arty crew of women. Proud to live on the island, sharp as tacks, perfect english, spoke Spanish when they wanted to make fun of the customers like me. They told me where to find some galleries, where to eat to avoid the cruise folks, what not to miss. They told me about the riots that happened in the sixties, college kids asking why the US army had an office in their campus: molotov cocktails, fences torn down, students shot and killed. Puerto Rico, who knew?
  The debt we've required they assume is larger per capita than Brazil's. They could declare independence and default but their main trading partner would be.....the country they owed the money to. They're citizens but they're not. They can vote in the US elections if they live on the mainland for a year. The remittances sent back to the island from the continental US are larger than any other group - more than the Mexicans, more than the Palestinians.
  Maybe they're the new Irish. As the big cities become more hispanicized, LA, NYC, Houston, Chicago, Miami - the Spanish islanders will become the power brokers, the politicians , the indispensable middle men to whom the old guard has to pay a tithe.
  A kid who ran a gallery up by the cliff side told me there was another gallery down by the harbor where some of his work was being shown. So I hiked down, dodging the Americans in their running shoes and college Ts, and the Dutch in tech gear I wouldn't wear unless I was crossing Patagonia, got down to the first piers of the port where the city wall ends and found this great quadrangle of an old Spanish fort where the University kept its art dept. Good freaking stuff. And a docent who railed about colonization for 20 minutes. I felt like I was back in class in 1988.
   International museum closing time is almost always 4:30, so I walked out and ended up in an enclosed plaza which opened into another enclosed plaza within the old fort - it turned 5 ish and I kinda hoped I'd get locked in, there were some cats lounging about and a bathroom, the light was perfect, the geometry of the fort's walls made the sky into a caribbean Turrell, what more did I need?
   And this is kind of where I've found for myself the last couple years. I like getting lost. I like not having what I think I might need. I like being cut off. I don't care anymore if I make it back before the sun goes down.
   Of course the fort opened out and led me onto a quay. A cruise ship sat like a giant billboard for itself across the water. I followed the university security guard through a parking lot and out onto a street that came to a dead end at the gate of the United States Coast Guard base.
  And I froze. Well. I stopped.
  I took a picture of the gate.
  A guy in black emerged and spoke that lovely phrase you hear only from Americans, "Is there something I can help you with sir?" which invariably translates into "Even though you're on public land, I could arrest you right now if I wanted to." What Orwell would have done with that.
  I told him, you know my dad was in the Coast Guard. And I think he landed here once. He died a couple years ago.
  If there's a way to escape casual fascism it's mention your lost patriarchy. He said, "well you're not really supposed to." And I wondered what that meant, but he nodded and went back into his purple art deco gate house.
   Was it the same color when my dad was here? Was that some surplus battleship interior paint they'd gotten slightly wrong and an officious Admiral demanded they dump it on the Guard?
   I remember when I was 15 or 16 and I was expanding further my disappointment with my father, I asked him "Have you ever been out of the country? I mean, ever?" and I think he said Portugal but I know he said Puerto Rico and I laughed because it seemed such a meager claim. Puerto Rico...? What the Hell was Puerto Rico? Some island in the middle of the sloppy Caribbean we made fun of and which wasn't even "out of the country". How embarrassing, my dad had been to Puerto Rico. The shame.
  I walked the access road to the base like I was casing a crime. Which buildings were new and which had been here since my father's shore leave 60 years before? How old was the road work? What views were still the same? The top of the Banco Populaire had been built in the 30s- he would have seen that. The huge USCG crest over the back door to the customs house- he would've walked right by it. Did he want to run his hands across the wrought iron like I did? The city wall from the 18th century was surely the same. Did he marvel at the construction so long completed and unnecessary?The casita in the middle of the harbor park was 19th century, he probably sat down in front of it and had a beer, and looked across the harbor at the boats at anchor. He walked the length of the boardwalk I'm sure, inspecting ship after ship in his encyclopedic way. Did he take any photographs of them with that old Nikon we never got fixed when we dug it out of his closet in the 90s? Where was the film? Did my mother ever see it? What did he keep of this place that I'd seen all my life and never noticed.
  And there it is a place suddenly echoes with someone's voice, how it fills up with them and every time you focus on something, a gabled house, an ancient tree, the curve of a particular street you feel maybe your gaze slotting into what was once theirs, the click of recognition, the hope for once that desire is in the genes and might lead you the same way it lead them. The sameness, if I lay my hand where his might have been.
   But it's really just ghosts. They rise up out of the stones to catch your imagination, grab you by the heel and say "Im here...Im here".
And of course you can't turn around and find them.
So you tell them stories.
  I smiled a lot as I walked back into Old San Juan and up and down its hilly streets because a man, a boy really, barely twenty, had walked around this magical city of deliverance and beautiful visions, walked bar to bar, storefront to storefront, I'm sure trying to avoid the tacky tourists of 1949, and that boy was my dad, a decade or two before I was even a thought to be bothered with.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

My local paper went tabloid.

  In response to the link below, I wrote this to the editorial desk at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. If you're not from Pgh it isn't going to make a lot of sense to you so my apologies. 
  My goal here Pghers is to SPREAD THE WORD.

 The PG editorial team dropped the ball running Jonathan Silver and Melissa McCart's article about Kevin Sousa. It sounds off like an expose but it's really a hatchet job. 
  There's no news to it, no journalism. Nothing uncovered but a queasy sense that the Post Gazette is trying to challenge the Trib for getting things "Right" in Western PA.
  The article baits bias against "charity" and non profit people being somehow soft or wasteful because their driving impulse is not a market profit. "How dare Kickstarter not do a financial study of its awardees?" Well, take it up with kickstarter or hear the deeper message- do your own research. 
  How we've again rebounded from the hilarity of anyone championing the free market system, 7 years after the managers of that market got caught with the country's pants down and everyone but them lost about a trillion dollars, I can't quite imagine. You'd think after the banking collapse folks would listen a little less to lies about fair playing fields and have some respect for individuals who want to make change and not a fortune. 
  But - brass tacks: 
  The piece foregrounds Sousa's "debts" and then mention 20 paragraphs later that both the new owners of Salt and Union Pig and Chicken -his former restaurants- assumed most of these these debts willingly. Professionals who'd known Sousa, and worked with him, made an analysis and bought the businesses. 
  So...I know I'm an actor but doesn't that mean it's not his debt anymore?? That's called "business" right?  (Good God, is the PG anti-business? Let's hope next week they go after all those young debt dodgers polluting this nation's cities. Otherwise known as college graduates.)
 How many restaurants run without debt? Damn few. They're accounting dance is up their with Hollywood's.
 But does debt make a business unattractive to investment? In both these cases, obviously not. 
 I can think of a few major corporations, several banks, and a construction company or two in Pgh still standing which if debt was an obstacle to development would have gone down long ago. It must be all the good work they do for the community that justifies the corporate charity and public money they get. Too bad the public can't do background checks on them.
  I forget sometimes that debt's a bad thing until it's really huge. 
  In the article, every foundation who'd given money to Sousa (and THEY do financial background checks) said they still fully supported him and his work.
   Did they respond, "We're deeply concerned, we're looking into it." ? No. 
   Again- where's the news here that's fit to print?
  John Fetterman's family gave 50 grand to the non-profit that's working with Sousa? (Full disclosure, I gave 10) So what?   Should they be using that money to expand the kitchen or put an infinity pool in the backyard?
Is that what we expect our "wealth creators" to do?
Like Dick Scaife floating the Trib for 20 years with his kids' money? 
I sure hope the PG doesn't have similar problems. They might have to accept charity too. 
Now that would be a story.
  I kinda like when the wealthy folks I know support a tough cause rather than paying their golf club dues or expanding the mansion in Peter's Township. 
  A legit issue, something worth taking up an entire page in a major newspaper, would be has Sousa been on the take? Has he siphoned off funds for his own benefit? Nope. Did he pay off his house with the money? No, in fact he took out a second mortgage and invested the money in his own business. 
  Oh and then he moved from a cushy up and coming hipster town to a place that's lost 80% of its population, tax base, and building stock. Because he believes he's capable, it's capable, of major change. 
 He walked away from the celeb chef, tv show, bbq sauce, cook book route to work in this town. It's a hard thing to do. An astonishingly brave move. 
  When Richard Branson blew a couple hundred million dollars during his first attempts at building the Virgin Empire did people call him irresponsible? No they called him a visionary because in the end what he wanted .....was a fortune. He wanted to be rich. And we'll excuse anything as long as the ambition behind it has a bottom line. Driven by ideals and dreams we find it somehow offensive. Uncomfortable. A waste. 
  I find that astounding. Because in the end it's simple envy. It's the worst instinct in the American psyche. Why aren't my dreams worth as much as yours? 
  Call Sousa a dreamer, call him nuts, call him willing to run a deficit. Don't write an article which for 500 opening words makes him sound like a minor felon. It's cheap writing. It's beneath the tradition of the Post-Gazette and truly for the first time in my life as a Pittsburgher I was ashamed to be reading my local paper, the one I delivered as a kid.
 The only article about Sousa that matters will be written in 5 years. Is Superior Motors running, is it not?
 Maybe by then, in the new media economy, the Trib and the PG will have merged. 
 Sounds like they already have. 
 ALCOSAN's going to raise water rates 600% over the next 20 years, two major foundations in this city know our air quality is about the worst in the country and can't talk about it - even in their own board rooms- because of corporate pressure, fracking's happening 100 yards from major County water supplies (which will actually SHORTEN PEOPLE'S LIVES), developers get tax breaks for affordable condos which are never affordable, the Strip's being held hostage by a for-profit company owned by its own non-proft foundation (explain that one Neo Cons) and what do we get in a full page article, a serious investigation into the dark underpinnings of Pgh's power brokers?
 A guy from McKees Rocks owes Sysco 25 grand. 
 Roll press.