May 12, 2012 – A Day at the Park or Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
As Katrina and her houseguests, Dave and Linda, head out for breakfast and to a museum in Barranco I belatedly decide I’d like to go. The elevator door is already shut and the elevator descending when I stick my head out into the hall to invite myself along. It’s too late to call out after them and I’m not sure that I really want to go badly enough to take the stairs and beat them down to the lobby. I close the apartment door a little sadly and try to talk myself into wanting oatmeal and the treasured alone time I crave so often.It’s no good. I’m not having any of it. Really I just don’t feel like making my own breakfast. I want toasted bread with avocado. Or pancakes. Or something. Anything else.
After listlessly wandering through the kitchen, living room, my bedroom and the study, I make up my mind to go see if the vegetarian place around the corner is open for breakfast and, if it’s not, promise myself I’ll get some bread and an avocado and come home and make that. I’m in the mood for solitude in the midst of activity, for lonely-companionship, for time to read and people-watch, for silent connection with humanity. The apartment can’t satisfy me in this moment.I stuff Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way into my bag, pack my notebook, check to make sure I have enough cash for a meal, change my flip-flops and leave the house.
The clouds are misty and chill. Winter is presenting itself more confidently each day. Behind the haze I see the outline of the summer sun which is still not ready to cede completely to the encroaching garúa. The sidewalks are crowded with people out buying flowers for mother’s day, waiting for buses, footing it to their destinations, talking on phones, pushing baby strollers, or skateboarding. I weave around them, cross the streets and make it safely to the plaza. I’m in luck, the restaurant is open. With care, I read the daily menu, but it doesn’t matter, I know I’m staying. I take a corner table that hides me so that I don’t have to catch the gazes of those who pass by and tell the waiter what I’d like. There isn’t a breakfast fare per se, but I order vegetable soup for my starter and the tossed salad with (what I assume is) seitan over French fries.I pull out my book and stare at the long paragraphs. I’ve been cursing Proust for his tedious wordiness in Combray, and it’s with relief that I head into Swann in Love which is section II of the book. In between sentences I think about the characters I’m creating for my own next writing project. I’m happy now. I’ve got food, ideas and literature. For an hour or so I have the blessed reclused-in company atmosphere I desired.
The lunch crowd is filling the door as I grab up a loaf of bread, pay for it and my breakfast, and leave. The sun has triumphed. Wispy, slighted clouds frown and dissipate into the blue sky. The breeze teases me. I’m not yet sure if I’ll regret the long sleeve shirt I’m wearing. I’ll find out as I go around the corner to the little bodega and get an avocado. Then I’ll sit for a bit in the park.“Excuse me,” a youth, dressed in his school colors, says to me as I walk by, “We’re trying to raise money for our school group and are selling these little cookies,” he shows them to me. I open my mouth to say something nice like, “I’m sorry, no thanks,” and only get part of it out in an incomprehensible muttering.
“Are you French?” he asks me.“No, I’m from the United States,” I reply, as usual oddly flattered by the assumption that I’m European. “Thanks for the offer, I can’t buy any today, best of luck to you.” I scuttle away and duck into the bodega.
One of the three men who tend the store turns as I enter. “Senorita!” he exclaims. “Buenos dias!”“Buenos dias,” I say, “Como estan? I need an avocado that I can use today.”
He yells to one of the other guys, “An avocado to be used today!”A moment later, the guy brings a fat avocado. “How’s this one?” he asks, handing it to me and looking for my approval.
“It’s perfect,” I reply. “Thanks.”Just then the third tender comes around the corner. When he sees me his face lights up. Brilliant. Happy. “Are you here for cauliflower? We have one! A big head, a really nice one!”
I’d been in at least twice before looking for cauliflower to put in a soup and they hadn’t had any. He’d tried to upsell me broccoli in its place. Or potatoes. Or corn. Or squash. Or a mango. “Aren’t these nice?” he’d asked. “Would you like some of these?” I never leave this bodega with just the items on my list. These guys are masters at talking me into buying more produce. They’re bad on my budget. Now that they have cauliflower, I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t want it. Besides, he’s already lopping off the leaves and scraping the black tips from the florets with a bottle cap for me.I pay and leave before he can trick me into getting more vegetables.
With my head down and my eyes to the ground to avoid unwanted human contact, I find a park bench lit by the sun. I place the gigantic cauliflower head and avocado carefully on the seat next to me, set the bread in my lap, turn up my face, and close my eyes.I listen to the children on the playground behind me, to the birds gossiping from the trees, to the one-sided phone conversations of passerbys, to the group talks of friends, to the barking, playing dogs, and to my own thoughts. I try to relax and to be in the moment, to settle my brain into idea-hatching mode, but I’m afraid to truly relax. I’m too out in the open here. When I let down my guard I get talked to. When I forget to be defensive, it shows on my face.
I successfully keep my “leave me alone” wall up for about half an hour. My skin warms under the waning summer sun. My soul gets solar-ly recharged. I pick up my heavy cauliflower, adjust the avocado so it won’t bruise, sling my bag of bread over my forearm and head in the direction of home.
A little pink-shirted, ponytailed girl, somewhere between seven and ten, walks by hand in hand with a guy--her father? older brother? uncle? I don’t know.“Pucha madre!” she exclaims. “Que calor hace!”
I choke. The guy looks at me and I hold back a laugh. Pucha madre is a euphemism for the Spanish equivalent of the F-word. Que calor hace is It’s hot! This little girl is apparently seven going on all grown up.“Hey, where did you learn to say that?” the guy asks her, obviously taken aback but trying not to make a big deal of it.
“Well,” she explains, “My dad always says, ‘pucha madre.’” Then they’re out of my hearing range. From down the sidewalk, the guy glances back at me once more and I don’t hide my smile. He’s probably wondering if I’m French and if I even know what pucha madre (or it’s stronger version) means. I put my face back into the book and try to read. Swann is falling in love in the story and I’m getting distracted by people in real life.An old lady pulling a wheeled cart behind her catches my eye. I smile.
“Buenas tardes,” she says, wishing me a genuine good day and not even pausing as if to sell me something.“Buenas tardes,” I reply, surprised and delighted to just exchange pleasantries.
From the other direction an older couple passes me by. I smile at them. The older man does a double take and smiles back. So I say, “Buenas tardes,” to him too. He nods and goes on. Then three steps later he stops and comes back.Oh shoot. I forgot the rules. Never smile at anyone. Never talk to anyone. Don’t even look. Don’t ever assume an old man is with an old lady. Too late now.
But he’s lonely. Some people just have that hurt aura. As if the person they loved the most has died sometime in the near past and left them with two grown daughters and the world to handle.Of course he asks where I’m from. Then he tells me of two other foreigners—boys—who live in the nearby apartments. “I have an apartment,” he points it out to me, “in that building, 204, it’s for rent. I’ve tried to rent it out before, but I’ve had it empty for a year.”
“I bet it’s nice,” I say.“If you need a place to stay and would like to come see it sometime…” he says.
He’s not coming on to me. He’s trying to find a good renter. Americans are notoriously good renters here. “I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I’m leaving to go back to the States in June. But if I come back, I’ll look you up.”He starts into a new subject then realizing where we are, what I had been doing, he stops, “I’m not interrupting your time?” he points at my book.
“No,” I reply. “This is just fine.” Just then a candy vendor comes alongside him and begins his spiel. My new friend ignores him and I shake my head and say No Thanks. After a little more of being ignored the vendor leaves. The man tells me more about his daughters. Then he bids me good day. A step later, as if he’s just thought of something, as if he’s forgotten something else, he returns.
“Do you know the big park in this residence?”“Which one?”
“The one near the big Metro.”I pretend I know it.
“On Wednesdays,” he tells me.“Disculpa,” a buxom lady says, coming alongside him. But before she can start her selling pitch the man tells her, “Not now, later.” She takes the hint and leaves. I’m impressed. I should write that down for future use. The man continues, “On Wednesdays, there’s dancing in the park. Maybe not this coming week because of Mother’s Day, but the next one from 6:00 to 8:00. I go nearly every week to listen to the music. One time they played a song (he tells me the name) and it nearly made me cry.” He stops talking and looks at me. “My wife died, you see, and the song reminded me of her. It’s a good memory,” he assures me. I nod to let him know I understand the edge of that pain. “Sometimes when I have a partner I dance. If you ever go and need a partner—well, it’s Wednesday from 6:00 to 8:00.”
We shake hands and he leaves this time for good. Sometimes a smile from a stranger in the park helps assuage the sorrow of missing someone you’ve loved.I’m thinking I should get out of the park before I smile at anyone else.
I am not quick enough.A flash of red fills my vision. It’s a guy in a red polo carrying a black satchel. I don’t smile at him, but he talks to me anyways. “Excuse me for bothering you,” he says, “But can I take two minutes of your time to show you my paintings.”
“You can take the two minutes,” I tell him with complete honesty, “but I don’t have any money to spend. I just bought my things,” I point at the cauliflower, avocado and bread, “and that’s all there was.”This does not deter him. “I’m an artist,” he says. He opens up the satchel and pulls out a water colored paper. “It’s hard to get work here and I’m trying to make a living doing my passion and using my imagination.”
“That’s good.”“Here, take it,” he says, putting the picture in my hands. “It’s Machu Picchu. See.”
I see. Pencil lines show through under the water colored green of the mountain, under the yellow he’s used to paint the steps, in the lighter green of the leaves of a tree he’s placed in the foreground. I want him to succeed. I want all people to be able to do what they love to do. But it’s only a fair piece of art, not great.“What do you think?” he asks me.
“It’s nice,” I say. I hand it back.He tucks it under his arm and with his other hand pulls a tour guide brochure with pictures of Machu Picchu from his pocket. He opens it up and points to the images. “You could tell me, ‘Javier, I want this picture.’ And then I’d paint it for you, but maybe use different colors. You know, I’d use my own creativity. For example,” he turns and points to the tree that faces me. “You could say you want me to paint this tree. And then maybe instead of using green I’d use another color, magenta perhaps, to bring out the essence of the tree. You see, I’d use my own imagination to create a new piece of art.”
I’m seeing the essence of the tree and trying not to laugh. I don’t want to laugh off his creativity, but his example amuses me. I should beg off and leave while I’m amused. But I’m cornered there on my bench.“You could think about what you want me to paint for you and then call me and tell me. But if you call me tomorrow you have to call early. I have to be at my other job early in the morning. So you’d have to call before 8:05.”
“Oh. Okay. I really don’t have any money,” I reiterate.“When’s your birthday?” he asks.
I blink at the sudden change in topic. “My birthday?”“Yes. Did it already pass?”
“No, it’s in June.”“Mine is at Christmas. My name is Javier Jesus. All Jesuses are hard workers. That comes of being a Capricorn.” It’s as if he’s suddenly trying to show me his work ethic for personal application, but then he seems to recall that he’s a struggling artist wanting my patronage and switches back to that, “But you know, it’s hard to be an artist. You can’t always find people who want to buy your work. For example if you have two couples, on this side it’s an Asian with a Peruvian and on this side it’s an Asian with a North American.” He uses his hands to place the imaginary couples to each side of him.
“Okay.”“And I do some artwork for both of them. And one of them,” he indicates the sides he’d assigned to the Asian and Peruvian couple, “doesn’t like the work and doesn’t want it. And the other,” he indicates the space reserved the Asian and North American couple, “does like it and buys it. But it’s really hard to find those people who will want your work and buy it from you.”
“That’s true,” I say.He writes his phone number, name and address on a sheet of paper and hands it to me. “Call me and let me know what you want me to paint for you. And you should give me your email.”
“I’ll give you a call if I want a painting,” I say.“But what time do you log online?” he asks.
“You know, it depends on the day. I’ve got your information.”“But what is your email address?”
“I’ll contact you, okay?”
“Good day, good day,” he says, suddenly getting the hint and skipping off to hide his disappointed embarrassment.
I’m alone again and I decide to book it home before I get caught up in any more conversations. I don’t look at anyone as I go. I barely say hi to the front deskman before I rush up the four flights of stairs and let myself into my place. The apartment welcomes me with silence and emptiness. Thank goodness. I’m all peopled out.For lunch I eat avocado on garlic toast and send out a blessing on the head of the bodega man who knows how to pick out a perfectly ripe avocado. He gets it spot-on right every time.
I read for a while and in between pages I capture a scene between my two new characters as it plays out like a video in my head.I plan to have cauliflower soup for dinner.