A man in San José

  (photo by Ryan Moss)

 

 

It may appear imprudent that a story that takes place in a Spanish-speaking city should be told in English. First, and partly, because the English-speaking readers will have a hard time grasping the culture in which the story takes place. Secondly, and conversely, those that can relate to the story are few since the story is narrated in a foreign language. But I will remind the indulgent reader that my situation is a hopeless conundrum. English-speakers constantly visit San José but do not have enough time in the city to experience its routine and tradition. Anglophone foreigners might have come to live permanently in Costa Rica but it is highly likely they have stayed outside the capital due to its ordinariness and its dangerous crime. Likewise those that were unwittingly born in this country have avoided the city because of its pollution, recklessness and delinquency. Finally, those that have actually managed to live in the heart of San José year after year are unlikely candidates to enter this blog and squander a few minutes to the reflections of an (Anglo-phony!) Costa Rican.  I have therefore taken the liberty to entertain only a few at the risk that much of what will be said will be lost in the abysmal gap between dissimilar cultures. Also, it may not be superfluous to add that the message will apply to Anglophone first-world citizens and the English-speaking high-class citizens of Costa Rica, which so eagerly emulate the ideals of foreign societies. 

It is common to step down from the bus and abruptly wake up from your daydreaming as you enter the rowdy streets of San José. Those inevitable reveries that take place while you sit silently on an old American school bus come to an end when the smoke, heat and noise startle you back into reality. The images of the outer world that were streaming like invisible currents in the fabric of your mind become concrete and your attention is no longer floating in careless thoughts. Your vision is attracted to the large enchiladas on your right, the kiosk man selling newspapers and mangos at the corner, the pretty girl with a low-cut skirt, the taxi honking at that young woman, the bus almost crashing into the sidewalk, a big dog followed by three smaller dogs. Your head turns to and fro unless you are already too numb to notice the riot of any ordinary day. Your pace accelerates as you cross the street when the pedestrian light is red or slow down as you inspect the imitation sunglasses in every third store. People cross by you as they speak on the phone, scold their children or speak to themselves in a sometimes delusional manner. The stores’ windows have merchandise in every conceivable quality with prices tags in bold colorful numbers: ¢5,000 for a tank top, ¢800 for lipstick, ¢13500 for wide legged jeans, ¢250 for a pair of earrings, ¢18000 for a new toaster oven. Small cantina bars have brown and white beads-on-a-string hanging from the entrance, palm trees are easily spotted at street corners and if you venture a bit outside the crowded pedestrian streets you may even find trees ripe with mangos, bananas or jocotes. You get on an inner city bus that costs ¢100. When you pay make sure you don’t stand in between the electronic bars that count how many passengers get on and off (a rather recent feature), and then, quietly take your seat and distract yourself with the view of the sidewalks. It was on this Sabana-Cementerio bus that I saw for a quadrillion time the old bespectacled man that takes notes on his clipboard.

He has been working for the bus company for 37 years, out of those he has been in the same position, every weekday, for 35 years; keeping track of how many buses pass by his position, how many passengers were on the bus at each particular time, and making sure the money the bus driver has matches with registered passenger count of the day. It seems the electronic bars are not foolproof, and a good pair of scrupulous eyes is still warranted.  I have seen him so many times I was bound to ask him one day about his job, but as it is common in our country to tattle once we engage in a conversation, I ended up knowing much more than I initially wanted to inquire.   

It may seem strange that a man of sound judgment would choose to work in the same unchallenging job for 35 years. Not unless, we could argue, it was very high paying. But the truth is that a salary of under $325 a month is not very much. Our modern avaricious conscience would rebel against this inhumanity; but our initial repulsion might subdue with what I will now tell. 

It has been the fortune of many of us to never have dealt with the misfortune of poverty. Even if some of us have endured the hardship of unemployment, most of us, I venture to say, have always had enough food on our tables. In this country many have to strive for a decent meal every day and sometimes circumstances are not in favor of poor families that battle just to survive. Our protagonist grew in a similar condition. His mother had to support his whole family because his father had become blind from an accident at a construction site after some deadly chemicals had fallen on his face. Her mother worked in middleclass homes as a maid and on weekends sold knitted sweaters at a street corner in San José. Having four brothers and a sister, they had a very harsh time growing up. One brother ran away when he was twelve, the remaining three had to drop school to help their mother earn a living. Our friend never reached beyond third grade. It was clear from his expression that his early years were tremendously hard, yet I could perceive a certain satisfaction in his eyes. I assume he is now proud that they survived those tumultuous years.   

As a young adult he carried out many different kinds of jobs. He didn’t go too much into detail but he had enough to live on and support his family until the unavoidable crossed his path. He had gone out one night to a salsa/merengue club. Never having a radio or TV at home he grew up unfamiliar with the dexterous moves of Latin dance although he enjoyed greatly listening to the music. (He jiggled his rusty hips, I laughed). He would envy every corrongo male that would sweep women by their dance abilities. That night he was drinking a cold Tropical, a new beer that had just been released in the market by Cuban entrepreneurs, although he hardly had the habit of drinking beer. Eased by the alcohol, he ventured to take out a girl to dance. If it wasn’t for those beers, I would have never asked Yelena out for a dance– he commented. Not very romantic, I know. There’s a common misperception that we Latinos are all desperate romantics. They got married next year and started raising a family. His wife’s father had been working as an administrative director in a bus company and the rest seems logical. 

I didn’t dare to ask him why he settled for that simple position. True, it’s a higher position than being a bus driver but also very monotonous. However, when I was just about to bid him goodbye, in an unusual expansion of lucidity, he reflects on his humble circumstances and pronounces thoughts that have answered my tacit doubts: 

 “No puedo culpar mi familia, mi cultura, mi sociedad, mi país, ni la civilización mundial actual. Mi vida fue la consecuencia de una sencilla decisión: vivir sin la ambición de conocer otros continentes o poseer una abundancia de posesiones. Yo viví así y declaro sin arrepentimiento mi total conformidad con la rutina y singular angostura de mi vida. Me conformo con ser el señor que trabajó 35 años en la misma parada de bus, repitiendo la misma labor día tras día, arruga tras arruga, sin la ambición de buscar algo más que tener la comida en mi hogar mientras veía mis hijos crecer.” 

This can be roughly translated thus: 

I cannot blame my family, my culture, my society, my country, or this modern civilization. My life was the consequence of a simple decision: living without the ambition of knowing other continents or having great material wealth. I lived this way and I affirm without regret my complete conformity with my routine and singularly narrow lifestyle. I’m comfortable being that man that worked for 35 years at the same bus stop, repeating the same activity day after day, wrinkle after wrinkle, without having the ambition to look beyond the meal of each day while I saw my children grow up. 

The end.

Scavenger of the Rare

 

Be careful, o’ solitary wanderer
Of what the night might do to you
-Forgotten proverb

 

(a short fictional narrative)

Under the asphalt of the night when the city streets have become a monotonous geometry of angles and straight lines, where a few strangers roam free in silence and private thought, it was then when the Scavenger of the Rare was struck by an indisputably bitter truth, a truth so bizarre and easily forgotten that none seem to notice it. As all mortal days have it, today was simply a cascade of neglected events (meaning that little or no attention had been paid to the events of another perishing day), the Weight of Time had unstoppably dissolved every single phenomenon of the decaying present into an ambiguous mist of past: the world is burning, slipping away and nobody cares! But to return to this already desultory narrative, the Scavenger of the Rare having spent the whole day seeking among the Fragments of the Impermanent for signs and symbols of a meaningful and trustworthy existence, but had by some unfortunate circumstance stumbled upon quite the opposite evidence. The truth he discovered, perhaps re-discovered for it is easily forgotten, was that…

A brief parenthesis is here peremptorily required. The “truth” that will soon be expounded is by no means easily understood. Millennia of ineffective thinking have putrefied the meaning of the word truth and therefore some elucidation on this matter is necessary. Even though in this day and age faith in the possibility of truth has nearly disappeared, there still remains the concept of truth as a statement made in language that accurately reflects the state of affairs it refers to. A more ambiguous definition is virtually impossible, but a general sense can be rescued from that definition. In other words, Truth is equated to words rightfully employed. But my long conversations with the Scavenger of the Rare and our long (frightfully long) speculations into the nature of truth have convinced me that mankind has been deceived for far too long in this matter and a serious revision is needed in the world of epistemology. However, the Scavenger of the Rare nor myself are at all interested in clarifying human existence, instead I believe we prefer to obscure it. But for the purpose of this short narrative I’ll have to explain the background of the words here employed so as to convey a wider context of meaning.

Words. They are close to being the most elusive phenomena of human existence. Words don’t have a meaning in themselves, I recall the Scavenger once saying. We impart meaning on them by constantly associating them with our perceptions. After long years of repeating words after the same objects of perception we arrive at a stable vocabulary. But when we have a novelty in our perceptions, a never-before experienced feeling or intuition, we are unable to communicate this new experience in terms of an old (and therefore inadequate) language. The truth of the experience precedes the statement of the truth. This is how Scavenger’s experience should be read, we’re reading into his state of mind rather than a statement of his mind.

So to continue… He discovered in himself a truth that made him shudder and nearly vomit in that dismal revelation. The street light was red and he waited rather impatiently for it to change its color so he could cross the street and examine an abandoned shoe on the other side (he had a peculiar pleasure in spending time with the most trivial of human objects). Two cars glided in front of him as he remained magnetized with the sight of that footwear, pondering perhaps the history of its wretched condition. But as the time came closer when the red light would fade out and in its stead a green caricature of a man would magically appear, an uncomfortable sensation sprung at the kernel of his being. In the complexity of an instant: red-light, impatient-waiting, shoe-on-the-other-side, cars-passing-by, breeze-on-the-face, twinkling-bright-stars, quiet-thinking-strangers, parallel-streets, right-angled-corners; in that jumble of sensations that occupy the minutest millisecond, a volcanic revelation took place that challenged his sturdiest notions of human reality. Oh! I wish I would have the ability to fully recall my friend’s eloquent recounting of this episode. Here I can only rescue a few scraps from the tenebrous archives of my memory.

The Scavenger of the Rare approximately said, “It was as if the entire planet had split into two and I was suspended between the two halves, lingering in a dumbfounded state, relentlessly asking myself if I were not dreaming or altogether dead! I conceived it clearly, nay, FELT it lucidly how mistaken we all are. Slowly I recovered my senses to find myself still standing at the edge of the sidewalk. The city, if city I could call it, had transformed itself into an enormous chessboard and every individual walking in their quiet monologue I saw as hollow puppets following invisible commands that the authority of routine had imparted upon them. I understood to the very marrow of my bones how gullible we all are, how we’ve demolished all potential in the human realm by reducing our lives to this civil existence, believing too firmly that we ought to live for this type of civilization, as if human life could only strive in the conditions we now find it. The question of why we find most of us walking on sidewalks, going to work every Monday and talking to ourselves endlessly is most naturally answered by our submission to the authority of tradition, an authority whose power comes from our believing in it. If we didn’t believe in it, it would cease to have control over us.”

The Scavenger uttered such words in terrific excitement. I remember his wild eyes soaring from one end of the room to the other as he practically relived the earlier portion of that significant evening. Before his sudden departure, he added,

“I had to come here and tell you all this for fear that I might forget it tomorrow and return to the sidewalks and crosswalks. I might wake tomorrow and return to the same systematical squandering of time, through barren alleys and among neglected benches under clouded skies. But since the revelation, I feel these, also, to be utterly meaningless activities even if they remain outside the stock of normality. No matter what activity I choose for my life I will make it a tradition and inevitably become a slave to it. I would care less if a lightning struck me dead right now. Yet in discovering this so-called truth there is one reason that still makes me laugh in despair and it is this: how little is solved with the discovery of our mental slavery.”

In haste he disappeared from my sight and left me in a prolonged state of silent bafflement. It has been a few weeks since I last saw my friend, the Scavenger of the Rare, yet I’ve kept a rigorous watch on the weather conditions of our locality and fortunately there have been no electrical storms since his disappearance.