Back to San Juan

NO, I’M NOT going back to Puerto Rico. I think about it a lot though. I also think about buying another motorcycle, which I’m not going to do either.

I lived on a roof there. Technically, it was a penthouse, but pinning the penthouse label on the place, which I’ve often done, is making it sound far fancier than it was.

The view was spectacular and, if memory serves, the rent was about $100 a month, but this was in the mid-1970s when $100 meant something. Now it’s coffee at Starbucks.

An element of this time that I haven’t mentioned in the past was my neighbors. Directly next door, and four stories down, was a police outpost that included a holding cell.

But just past that was another “high-rise” of about five floors. My building was five floors, but it sat a bit higher on an incline, so I had a view down to the roof of that other building.

That was where the hippie family lived.

We never spoke, and we rarely even waved. They were not Puerto Ricans from the look of them. The family consisted of Mama Hippie and Papa Hippie and a brood of about four or five mini-hippies, ages 8, 9, 10 and so on.

But I’m sure they enjoyed their life in the Caribbean air, there with the green sea and blue sky and almost endless ocean breezes. Off to the left was the El Morro fortress. To the right sat the hulk of San Cristóbal.

Those five stories were navigable only on foot. There was no elevator. This discouraged casual jaunts outside. And the step risers were not uniform, making the ascent more arduous. I usually went out once at midday to shop and again in the afternoon, going to the newspaper.

Five stories high does not provide a true picture because the street ran along the edge of a high cliff above the sea. Actually, I was probably about 10 stories above the surf.

Ascending the steps was up a dank, gray, concrete stairwell. On reaching my door, the topmost, you opened it and were instantly flung into another world. There was the sea, the forts, the heavens, ahead, up, and to the right.

To the left was the living-room door. The living room was tiny, and sparsely furnished. At its far end, to the right, was the kitchen, so tight that the fridge lived in the living room.

Straight ahead was a door where you entered a vestibule that provided two options. Ahead to the bathroom or right to the bedroom. Funny, I don’t remember the bathroom.

SJ
View over the bed.

The bedroom had a double bed and two windows. One was above the low headboard with a view of San Juan Bay and the mountains.

The other window was on the opposite end, just to the right as you entered the bedroom, and it opened onto the large, uncovered patio.

The entire apartment, not counting the open-air patio, would have fit into the Hacienda’s living room easily.

It was a fascinating, booze-fueled, time, often warm because there was no air-conditioning, and there was a hammock out on the patio. But the nights were cool enough.

I never encountered the hippie family, head-on. You’d think we would have passed on the street downstairs on occasion, but we never did in the 10 months I lived there atop the world.

I have quite a bit of history in the Caribbean, having visited also Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgins.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading along. I write this sort of stuff more for myself than anything. Don’t want to forget.

Always a danger in one’s dotage.

Penthouse playmate

Puerto

WITH ABOUT 85 percent of one’s life lived, it’s easy to focus more on the past than the future. I tend to do this especially at 5:30 in the morning.

Two periods in my life stand out as being particularly tasty. During both I was living in the Latin world, and during both I was living with Latin women. I married the second, but not the first though I considered it.

I drank a lot.

The second, of course, is my current, third and final wife who is Mexican and was a civil engineer. The first was Argentine and was a hooker. I rescued her from a life of sin. She found work as a legitimate waitress, and we cohabited in a penthouse atop a five-story apartment building overlooking the sea in Old San Juan in the early 1970s.

Readers who’ve hung around here for a spell have heard all this before — do forgive — but the focus today is the top photo, which I do not think I’ve posted previously. I could be mistaken, but no matter.

I have the memory of a tree trunk.

I do not recall who snapped the top photo. We rarely had visitors there on the roof. There was no elevator up the five floors and the stairwell risers were not uniform, making it an arduous ascent.

We tended to go out no more than twice a day. Once was to go to work — mine at the newspaper and hers at the restaurant, both night jobs — and then there was the second descent for whatever, groceries, lunch.

The likely photographer was Luis Muñoz Lee, a good friend and the son of Luis Muñoz Marín, the “George Washington” of modern Puerto Rico. Muñoz Lee was an artist and he also worked with me on the newspaper out on the John F. Kennedy Highway.

Luis, like me, was quite taken with the Argentine who was not your typical ex-hooker. She was very bright and incredibly rebellious.

She was just 20, and we fussed a lot.

In the top photo, the door to the left was the entrance from the stairwell. The door I’m leaning against, wearing my knockout bell bottoms, was the living room door. I was just inside that same door facing the opposite direction in daylight when I snapped the photo below.

Things come back to you at 5:30 a.m. If you’re lucky, you have photos.

And if you’re really lucky, you have people who will listen to you ramble on about them 40 years later.

silvina

Newspaper days: San Juan

san juan

A PACK OF mangy dogs always loitered about the front door because a kind-hearted employee threw them scraps of food every day.

That front door took you into the lobby of The San Juan Star where I worked in the early 1970s. The newspaper in that time was like the French Foreign Legion of the newspaper trade, and it was really fun, the only journalism job I ever actually enjoyed.

The small newsroom was up a flight of stairs. It was nothing like the monster newsrooms of Houston and New Orleans, places where I also toiled both before and after San Juan. The Star newsroom was kind of cozy, and the people were very nice.

I worked, as always everywhere, on the copydesk, and my boss at the Star was a handsome coal-black news editor named Teddy who was from the island of St. Kitts. Teddy spoke with a lilting Caribbean accent, and he started out being very suspicious of me since I had arrived from Louisiana, and Teddy knew all Southerners were Klansmen who hang black men from trees.

He’d never been in the United States, and much of the news staff were New Yorkers.

But after a couple of weeks, Teddy realized I did not fit his stereotype, and we got along just great.

Handsome Teddy was a bachelor and a womanizer. He was particularly smitten with the Lifestyle editor, a tall, good-looking black woman with big boobs and behind who sashayed regularly through the newsroom on high heels, leaving Teddy with his eyes open wide and a silly grin on his face.

She was married, but I doubt Teddy cared much about that.

The composing room was just off the newsroom, and they played music there which often seeped out into our space. My favorite was Eres Tu by Mocedades. I still love it.

A pack of proofreaders sat in another adjoining room. Though they spoke little or no English, they were employed to correct errors in the English copy proofs. Made no sense whatsoever.

They were unionized.

The cafeteria downstairs that served lunches and dinners also sold beer, which we could buy to sip at the copydesk while working. Even in New Orleans, the booze capital of the world, the newspaper did not offer that perk, something I only did once in San Juan because it wasn’t smart.

Stepping out the front door, down to the right and just around the corner, you’d find a small establishment where you could sit at an eatery bar in dim light to sip black Cuban coffee almost the consistency of good, watery mud. It was tasty.

The San Juan Star was located in an industrial area off the John F. Kennedy Highway nowhere near downtown where I lived, so I traveled, standing, in a sweltering, jam-packed city bus to work every afternoon and bummed a ride back to Old San Juan at midnight with a coworker, or I took a taxi.

That was the routine on my second stint in Puerto Rico. During my first, briefer, stay, I rode a black BSA motorcycle shipped down from New Orleans in the hold of a Sealand freighter.

There were two midnight options. I could drink in a bar, or I could drink at home. At home, a black-haired, freckle-faced Argentine was waiting for me, so that was the more common destination. I had skin in that game. Home was a small penthouse apartment overlooking the sea.

mdI never got a haircut in Puerto Rico. I only cut my hair once, and I did it in St. Thomas in the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands where I flew on a couple of occasions as a passenger in a Goose seaplane. Mostly, however, I stayed pretty hairy. It was the 1970s.

I doubt The San Juan Star was ever much of a money-maker. It was owned by Scripps Howard, and it had won a Pulitzer. It was the sole English newspaper in Puerto Rico, catering to the American community and, of course, tourists. Union activity was a constant problem that finally ran the publication into the ground in 2008, long after I had departed. Such a shame.

It was reinvented the following year by different owners as the San Juan Daily Star. I don’t know where it’s located now, and I doubt that a pack of homeless dogs sprawls at the front door or that beer is served in the cafeteria. And God knows where Teddy is.