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 zone....you 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 .....how 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.