Sunday, June 26, 2011

San Juan, Dr. Shah, and the Jewish Lesbian Mafia

San Juan Fort Promenade
       I first visited San Juan, Puerto Rico when I worked as a bandleader on the M/S Costa Classica in 1993. Over the years I had revisited it while on board other ships. The last time I made calls to this old city was when I was performing on the M/S Crown Princess in 2007. San Juan was the ship’s turn-around port, the city where passengers  on a cruise to the islands of the Western and Eastern Caribbean embarked and disembarked. San Juan is a quintessentially old, perfectly preserved Spanish colonial city, filled with forts and  grand old buildings, some of them crumbling, built of coral and wood and stone. More than any other city, with the exception of Cartagena, in Colombia, San Juan reminded me of what old Manila, in my home country of the Philippines, might have looked like  had it not been practically flattened by American bombs during the last days of World War II. The city was destroyed in order  to spare American soldiers from having to flush out and engage in hand to hand combat with pugnacious and desperate Japanese soldiers who were holed up in the warren of streets and buildings, ready to do one last stand. The following is an account of one day I spent in San Juan, P.R.
     As  I waited my turn to be checked and admitted into San Juan, I saw how immigration procedures for crew had changed since 9/11. Where before the immigration officials used to go into the ship and check everybody off at the theater, everybody now had to go outside to the ship terminal and stand in line.  Today it took more than two hours  for the whole operation to transpire.  US security concerns after 9/11 had made themselves thoroughly felt in this little procedure.
Street in San Juan
     Duly cleared, I made my way out into old San Juan. Heat bounced off the steel-blue cobblestones of the Spanish city.  Occasionally a  fresh cooling breeze would sweep down the hilly streets and bring temporary relief from the muggy weather. Nothing much seemed to have changed in the main plaza. In fact, it looked a bit shabbier than before.  A Starbucks now lurked off to one street. One of the main department stores, Gonzalez Padin,  had closed, replaced by a Marshall’s Department store. There seemed to be many more boutiques around.  The quaint little Puerto Rican shops of yore were losing out to high fashion houses like Gucci and Fendi.
     Many narrow streets criss-crossed  Old San Juan, but the one street that qualified as  main Street  was the Calle de la Fortaleza (Fortress Street). This street wound up from near the Sheraton Hotel, a short distance from the nearby cruise ship terminal, and rose up to the fortified section of the city with its administrative buildings and centuries-old ramparts.  One of the streets that crossed the Calle de la Fortaleza was the Calle Cristo. It dipped down from the part of San Juan fronting the open Caribbean sea and undulated like the back of a blue-scaled dragon to the other side, ending in a  promontory  occupied by a mottled and crumbling chapel. To the left of this chapel was the Museo del Libro (Museum of the Book), and hard towards its right was a small, narrow park, the Parque de Palomas, that overlooked the bay of San Juan. Dozens of aggressive,mangy-looking pigeons overran this park. Their jaundice-colored shit lay splattered everywhere: on the fretted ironwork, on the pavement, on the domes of the nicely-restored watchtowers. I stayed there for a while and caught sight of a hummingbird sipping nectar from the orange flowers of a santan bush. From where I sat I saw the M/S Crown Princess docked in the port below looking not so much like a ship as a gigantic art deco grill that had floated into an 18th century town, as out of place as Starbucks and McDonald’s were among the turn-of-the century balconies of old San Juan.    I sat on a bench in front of which two pairs of bronze shoes, one a woman’s and the other a child’s where bolted permanently on the pavement. I had the feeling that the  sculptor installed these simple objects to intrigue the viewer. To whom did these shoes belong to: a mother and child?  Obviously nobody ever wore these shoes, but that was the sort of question they evoked. Loss and remembrance in a tropical setting: a subtle sculpture that one could easily miss because they looked like cast-offs left behind in the park.
      I decided to do a watercolor of the chapel at the edge of the bluff..Many years ago, I had  done a quick sketch in ink of this structure but I had hurriedly done it without regard to details. This time I wanted my depiction to be more accurate.
      I found a convenient stoop to sit on. An arm’s length away was an open-air cafe that had tables set right on the street.  A shifty-looking man approached me with a wide, too-friendly smile on his face.
   “ Do you speak English?” he asked me.
   “Yes,” I answered hesitantly. What did he want to sell me?
 He opened a folder that revealed pamphlets detailing the evils of drugs.
      “Do you have $2?” he said. “ I can give you this to read”.
      I politely declined.
    “How about your hat, can I have it?”
      Again I said no.
      He accepted this in good grace then warned me: 
     " Watch out for the bad men about town. There have been 57 murders here this month alone.”
     I suppose he meant the whole of San Juan and not just this old section. It was always my impression that the old city, charming as it was, was not quite safe at night. I wondered how things were when the great cellist Pablo Casals used to live hereabouts. Was it safer then?  Or did this guy give me this (uncorroborated) information because he was one of those men who might just do me harm because I refused to give him my hat?
     “Oh?” I said. “How come so many?”
     “It’s the drugs, it’s everywhere.”
     He did not say “addicts”, just “drugs”, as if drugs were doing the killing.
     “Methamphetamines?” I ventured.
     “No, just drugs in general. Cocaine, heroin....” his voice trailed off.
     He left me, and I could still hear him importune some other tourist with his opening line:”Do you speak English?”
      As I settled down to do my watercolor, a large man with a doleful, furrowed face sat beside me. He looked like Boris Karloff in a guayabera. There was a certain familiarity in the way he took possession of his side of the stoop, a manner that said he had done this before and this stoop must be shared by friends and strangers alike..  I did not feel I was in danger, since people were seated chatting and having coffee nearby, and many tourists and Puertoriquenos were up and about having an afternoon paseo. I minded my own business while he did his. He was selling Dominican cigars, made, according to him,  from tobacco grown from Cuban seeds. Although my sketching engrossed me, I could hear him very politely say to passersby:
     Sir, would you buy some cigar. It’s the best kind. You can try some now, and if you like it, I can send you more by mail. Please visit my shop. It’s around the corner”.
     Sometimes he’d leave the stoop to press his sales elsewhere, and when he got tired he’d return to sit beside me again.
Capilla del Cristo de los Milagros
     By the time I finished my sketch, he was able to sell some cigars to a passing American tourist.
     Now, the inevitable happened: he addressed me.
     “Your drawing is nice. You can sell it, you know. You can put more colors in it.”
“You know that building you’re drawing?” he continued, without any encouragement from me

      “It’s called the Capella de Cristo de los Milagros. People here don’t take care of it, it’s full of pigeon-shit.”
     I had always wondered what that building was. It looked like a chapel..After all it was surmounted by a cross and a belfry Still, it could have just have been a simple gatekeeper’s chapel. In fact, while I was sketching, a stout, American woman accompanied by a younger version of herself, came up to me and rudely demanded:      
     “So what’s the name of that building you’re drawing?”
     “I don’t know,” I replied.
      “You don’t know?” she blurted out, as if it was a sin.” How come you’re drawing it?”
      “Does one need to know the name of a building to draw it?” I replied innocently enough.
      Slightly taken aback, the woman demanded further,” So draw me!”
      I looked at her as if she had gone out of her mind. She took the hint and tramped off with her companion trailing behind her.
      I asked the gentleman what miracle motivated the chapel’s construction.
      “Many years ago,” he said,  “during the Spanish era, a gentleman was riding a horse that got spooked by something and ran uncontrollably down this very street. Just as the horse reached the edge of the cliff there it suddenly stopped and the gentleman’s life was spared. He saw this as a miracle, and in gratitude he built this chapel . They don’t take care of this chapel now. You see that bell? It's bronze, but it shines like gold if it’s cleaned.”
      I looked at it. It looked dirty, tarnished and definitely pigeon-defiled.
      “ I paint what I see,” I told him.” If it was a shining, I’ll paint it that way.”
      He asked me where I was from.
      “The Philippines,” I said.
      “Ah, Filipinos are a good people, very artistic. There was a Filipino who came here, a karate expert who married a Puertoriquena. After a while, they went back to the Philippines. Too much crime and problems here in San Juan”.
      I had no idea who he was talking about. But then, if a Filipino who comes from a crime-ridden city like Manila should hightail it out of San Juan because of the crime here, then San Juan’s problems with law and order must be very severe indeed.
      “And you sir,” I said, “What is your name?”
      “My name is Dr. Shah. But that is not my original name. I am Iranian.  I am a US citizen. Do you know that there are one million residents here in Puerto Rico all on US welfare?”
All the while I thought he was a native Puerto Rican!
      “You’re a doctor from Iran?”
      “Yes, I came over here many years ago and fell in love with this place. I had my brother come over here. He did not like living in America. He went back to Iran.”
      “Why are you selling cigars?” I asked him.
      “I became bankrupt.  My left arm is paralyzed. Twice some people tried to kill me. They were from the Jewish Lesbian Mafia”.
      “The Jewish Lesbian Mafia?” I repeated his words slowly. Was my well-mannered Iranian-Puerto-Rican, Dominican cigar-pushing friend for the day not quite together up there?
      “Yes,” he said in all earnestness, “ the Jewish Lesbian Mafia.” 
      Taking his statement at face value,  I wrote down the name of the chapel on my completed sketch. Some of the water I had used had spilled on the stoop.
      “Oh,” said Dr. Shah,” you must clean that stoop. Others will sit on it too.”
      He handed me a piece of tissue with which I wiped away the water.
      When I was cleaning up and putting my materials in my backpack, Dr. Shah left me to attend to something. As I made my way back to the ship and turned the corner on Calle de la Fortaleza, I saw him at the entrance to a small shop.
San Juan Fortaleza Promenade
   “Hey, Philippine,” he called to me from across the street,” come to my shop!”
      “Next time,” I hollered back.

                                                                             All Artwork: mannypanta©2011     

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