trialbywater.jpgphoto by Thad McIlroy
Ebb and flow in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
FRI 14 DEC 2007
As I sat outside on my terrace on the third floor at about 8:00 p.m., I heard a truck coming along the street. It stopped, engine running, and next I heard shouting: “Arturo.” Pause. “Arturo!” I looked down and saw the familiar brown uniform of the UPS man, who was holding a parcel. Silence, then a few minutes later he climbed back into the truck, drove along the sidewalk across from my building and stopped (the street is too narrow for the truck, and parking is only allowed on the left side). The driver called out, “Hector Fernandez.” And then again, “Fernandez, Hector Fernandez!” The door of the second-floor terrace across the street burst open and a young guy with long hair looked over his terrace wall and said something in Spanish. “Aha!” said the driver. Hector ran back into his apartment and presumably down the stairs to collect his parcel.
I had just returned from my third shopping trip of the day. It’s nearly half a mile to the cluster of main stores in this part of Old San Juan: True Value Hardware, SuperMax, the only supermarket in the old town, Walgreen’s and its competitor, the Puerto Rico Drug Company, on the facing corner, and Marshall’s, a discount department store where one may purchase a painted kitchen sign that reads “I am in shape—it’s just that my shape is round” for a mere $10, regular price $19.99. I’ve been making two or three trips to the stores each day since I arrived on Wednesday afternoon. I walk over there and carry back as many bags as I can. Charles, the landlord, who lives down the street, had emailed me two nights before I left Toronto to say that his boyfriend José had failed to buy and install the promised additional furnishings, so I might have to make the purchases myself. When I wrote back that I had no problem with that, I did not realize the enormity of the task. I should have done a more professional inspection of the premises before signing the lease and handing over the first month’s rent plus a deposit. The kitchen contained just two glasses, a few bowls and small plates, a frying pan and two ice-cube trays. No silverware or cooking utensils, no pots, no kettle or toaster. I noted the absence of a shower curtain and put that on Charles’s list, but had not yet discovered the worn old mop that might have helped to clean water off the floor after taking a shower.
But it didn’t matter on the day I arrived anyway, because there was no water at all in the building. I called Charles’s number to ask what the problem was. He had only recently paid the electricity bill—the power was off the night José and I signed the lease by the light of our cellphones—and perhaps he hadn’t paid the water bill either, and the city had happened to catch up with him just that day. But Charles wasn’t there when I called, nor was he even in Puerto Rico. A female voice, sounding as confused and desiring to remain out of the equation as José always sounds when we speak, said that she didn’t know anything about the water and didn’t quite know where Charles was or how to reach him, but would try to phone him and get him to call my cell.
At nine I headed down the hill to the Sheraton Hotel, where I had stayed for two weeks during my last visit. Everyone there had treated me like a guest of the family, and now, on my return, they greeted me like a long-lost relative. The casino manager expressed delight to see me there so early, as it gave him the chance to comp me dinner before the restaurant closed at eleven. Jesenia, the young waitress who had served me at the restaurant several times, was on duty, and we were able to get in an order for “the usual.” I kept the cellphone on— no call from Charles. After dinner I played the slots for a while, neither winning nor losing, but also not receiving a phone call. At midnight I went to the front desk and spoke to my friend Alexander (the best-looking member of the staff, although my gaydar has detected not a tremor). He said he’d be glad to get me a room, but didn’t I know: the water was off all over Old San Juan until noon the next day, Thursday—they were making repairs to the system after the recent storm.
It’s funny how getting the real story calms anger and anxiety. Now I felt ready to return to the apartment and get through the night without water or a flushing toilet. When I woke up at nine the next morning, the water was back in service.
The storm Alexander had referred to, named Olga, had been unexpected— hurricane season officially ended on November 30. Charles mentioned in his last email that there was a “tropical storm” in San Juan, and he hoped it would end before I got there. It didn’t. It’s been raining like crazy since I arrived. The pattern is consistent. Torrential downpours for up to an hour, then a few hours of calm. And then the next one. This has continued day and night. I’ve got two big windows facing south, one in the kitchen, the other in the bedroom, and three big double doors that open onto the terrace facing north. The winds generally blow in from the south off the bay, and rush madly through to the north, toward the sea, so no air conditioning is required. Just put heavy objects on everything that may be repositioned by a forty-mile-per-hour wind, and it’s very cool (if not calm).
On the other hand, if windows and doors are open when the rain falls, water cascades through the flat, more or less flooding the place. On the first night without water, I made the mistake of leaving all apertures open and awoke in the middle of the night with the tropical storm filling my bedroom. I stumbled about closing windows and doors, and the following morning I cleaned up the mess with the near-worthless mop, supplemented by a few of my T-shirts. Since then I’ve been careful, battening down the hatches whenever I leave the apartment, and grateful for having done so. The ceiling fan in the bedroom keeps me cool enough beneath my single sheet. The kitchen fan is broken— one of many items that await repair when Charles bestirs himself to return here from New Jersey.
Now I have begun, with my numerous trips to the stores, to add to the (very) basic furnishings. I’ve got two cooking pots. I’ve got silverware. I’ve got a dish rack in which these items can dry after I use them—that is, after I steel myself to try the stove. Last night I used adhesive hooks to install a few bathroom shelves, which fell immediately after I attached them: the humidity is not conducive to adhesion. This afternoon I bought a shower curtain and bathmat.
This morning I was wakened by my downstairs neighbour Amber, the first person in the building I’ve met. Apparently Charles didn’t inform anyone that a new tenant would be arriving. She knocked on my door at 10:00 a.m. because last night’s torrent of rain was leaking downstairs, and she didn’t know that anyone was upstairs. She and her husband Luis had been worried that my apartment was unoccupied and letting in all the rain. She apologized for disturbing me as she stood there in the great puddles on the staircase. I said it was no problem, I was happy to meet someone else in the building. We mopped up the staircase together, and all was well. Their neighbour across the hall, a very dignified elderly Hispanic woman, told me her name—which I could not understand— and then seemed to extend a general welcome, and assurance that if there was anything I needed, I had only to ask. “The telephone,” she offered, as an example.
SAT 15 DEC 2007
I slept all day and then headed over to the SuperMax, where they’ve got a bit of everything at mostly reasonable prices. The fruit and vegetables are dull and grey, as is the meat, and the staff behave as if they are serving a tough sentence for some unnamed crime. But it is the only supermarket in town so it always attracts a crowd, a motley crew of drunks, welfare recipients, tourists, hyper youngsters, and the old and decrepit. The wait to check out is interminable and confused. There’s a rumour that more modern and better-stocked supermarkets can be found in the newer part of town, but I’ve yet to figure out how to get there by public transit.
MON 17 DEC 2007
I was wakened at 9:15 this morning by Luis, Amber’s husband. He was extremely apologetic for disturbing me, but DirectV had shown up to install his satellite connection and, he explained, you never know when they’ll come, and you don’t dare turn them away. I said it was no problem, and the installer went out to the terrace with a ladder, climbed to the next roof and ran the cable over the side of the building down to Luis and Amber’s apartment.
Luis is extremely handsome, svelte, smiling and well dressed (and a slight gaydar reading, marriage notwithstanding, or perhaps it was just his very cordial manner). Puerto Rican men, I’ve learned, can be surprising in their age-to-appearance ratio. The best-looking server at the casino, Ismael, turns out to be thirty-nine years old, though he looks like he’s in his late twenties. With Luis I could only guess: thirtyfour going on twenty-eight. Amber looks great—her appearance does not illuminate the question. They are both artists. Luis has a commercial gallery, and José told me that he is considered one of the great new Puerto Rican talents.
While the installer does his work, Luis tells me that he and Amber have lived in their second-floor apartment for two years now and have managed to adjust to Charles as the landlord. A month ago Charles forgot to pay the water bill and all the water in the building was shut off. The other tenants went into a frenzy. Luis didn’t phone or write or complain. He headed over to the water office, paid the outstanding $700 and went home. It takes the city two days to turn the water back on after such an incident, so Luis found a wrench and took care of it himself. “We never heard from the city,” he said. “They never dropped by. What did they care? They had their money. We had our water.” He then called Charles to report the incident and said he would deduct the $700 from their next month’s $750 rent. Charles said, “Oh, just keep the extra $50 for your trouble.” That, said Luis, is what it’s like with Charles. If something breaks, you just get it fixed and then deduct the amount from your next rent payment. Charles has no apparent interest in playing landlord here. He’s got his legal profession in New Jersey, and seems baffled as to why he got into Puerto Rican real estate in the first place. His boyfriend José helps a little, but he is completing his studies in nursing and has no interest in real estate either.
I once asked Charles why he didn’t just hire a property manager—surely he could justify the expense for the fifty units he owns. Charles said that Puerto Ricans were too unreliable. If he didn’t do things himself, he said, they didn’t get done.
I wrote him my most forceful email this evening, outlining all of the remaining problems and asking why he’s unwilling to honour any aspect of the lease we’ve signed. I don’t mind employing the Luis technique, but I need an electrician to fix the kitchen fan, the bedroom light and the washer and dryer. I need trustworthy transportation and guidance to the suburbs to locate and purchase the furniture required. Luis suggested that I take a taxi into the great unknown. There is a Kmart, he said, and next to that there is an expensive furniture shop and then a cheaper one somewhere nearby—perhaps if I ask in the expensive one they will tell me where it is. In my email to Charles, I wrote: “I still want things to work out, but the task is beginning to appear insurmountable.” I concluded on a slightly ruder note, and I expect him to respond with a number of weak reassurances.
I made a sort of beef stew tonight, not exactly tropical fare but I’m at a loss as to what to do, cooking-wise. Then I headed over to Café Berlin and dined on one of their earnest offerings, a chicken with artichokes that wasn’t half bad (my stew needs another day of—well, stewing). But this ain’t cosmopolitan Miami Beach. The kitchen was closing as I arrived just before ten, so I had to down the meal pretty quickly. The always friendly staff displayed just a touch of anxiety to get the hell out of there.
There were four cruise ships in port today. The town was packed with their passengers—loud, pushy, overweight, forcing one to reconsider whether a cruise should ever be in one’s future. By late evening two ships had departed, leaving the Liberty of the Seas and the gargantuan Carnival Triumph, which features an outdoor movie theatre on its top deck. Tonight’s film has ended, and the screen is showing psychedelic images while a live quasi-calypso band is giving the oldsters a light musical menu to dance to. The screen is so big that I can see it from the terrace, and the music so loud that it is audible inside my apartment. I’m not moved to shake my booty, but judging by the audible cheers from the ship, quite a few passengers are.
Now the Liberty of the Seas is heading out of port to the liberty of the sea. Perhaps it was the music: we just were offered a version of “Red, Red, Wine” and now a sing-along has begun. “Did you have a great time today in Puerto Rico on your way to St. Thomas?” a female enthusiasm-builder shouts to the crowd. “Let’s hear it!” (Loud cheering.)
Will there be one, two or more ships docked here in the morning? I never know until I wake up and open my shutters.
TUES 18 DEC 2007
No word from Charles in answer to yesterday’s missive: I’m still on my own. I walked over to Radio Shack to buy a local cellphone, but then stopped, realizing that if Charles doesn’t do something soon, I’ll probably just leave. I hope it doesn’t come to that. By way of continued semi-commitment I bought a shower caddy and a measuring cup at True Value hardware and an unbreakable plastic cup at the Puerto Rico Drug Company. Went into Walgreen’s to buy the local paper, but the place was jam-packed with tourists, so I read it there and left.
I’ve made additions to my stew—more vegetables and broth and wine. It seems ready for a go, and I’m ready too.
THURS 20 DEC 2007
Charles continues to elude me. He won’t answer emails or his telephone, and he no longer has voice mail. Last night I wrote a note on a pad of yellow paper. It said:
It was sad,
On my way to the SuperMax I slipped the note through the slats in Charles’s front door. Late last night I had also composed a long email message of despair, hinting at lawsuits and general retribution. But I suspected I might not want to send it today and merely saved it, rather than sending it to the outbox. While I stood in the checkout line at the SuperMax, a scruffy, bearded man, the sort who has no fixed address, set upon one of the male clerks in a noisy battle. Blood flowed from the clerk’s nose and the security guard restrained the assailant, possibly awaiting intervention by the police. The argument was in Spanish, though one could easily imagine its slight content. I paid for my groceries and left.
SAT 22 DEC 2007
Still no word or sound from Charles. It’s the annual neighbourhood Christmas street party tonight, organized by the local “godfather” (as Luis calls him). He’s not a crime-style godfather—quite the opposite. He runs a little variety store a few doors down, a dark, dank place that I’ve never seen anyone actually enter. The godfather looks about seventy-five, short and slight but with a wide, friendly smile offered even to me. As one walks by and peers into the darkness, a few bottles and tins are visible—perhaps some folks in the surrounding buildings occasionally make a purchase there. But he sits in his chair out front all day, gossiping with the locals (including the local beat police, who spend an hour or more with him every few days), and generally keeping an eye on things. Luis says that I should introduce myself soon—pay my respects, as it were. The godfather can arrange anything practical that one might need. The morning I met Luis, for instance, he quickly located a ladder for the DirectV installer to use to climb to the roof. The installer apparently didn’t think to bring one—very Puerto Rico, they tell me.
The rain still comes unexpectedly, usually very late at night. I’ll be working on this computer and suddenly drops of water will appear on the screen, blown in from the window ten feet away. I jump up and close the two south-facing windows. By then the rain has stopped, and when I step out onto the terrace, the sky is clearing.
WED 9 JAN 2008
In Old San Juan there are no beaches where swimming is allowed. Is it unsafe? Do they worry about drowned cruise- ship visitors? It was never clear. Another Luis, who works at the casino and has become a friend, had been promising to take me to a good swimming beach. Today he picked me up in his fuel-efficient car and we headed east from Old San Juan at about 12:30 p.m. We passed all the big hotel beaches and travelled far beyond, finally reaching a near-deserted beach, perhaps fifteen miles east of town. Last week, Luis told me, he’d enjoyed a quiet swim here and watched small crabs burrowing into the sand.
The waves were so large we could see them from the road, and Luis remarked on this, surprised that on a quiet sunny day, when we’d had very little rain, there would be any waves at all. But there were a few other swimmers, including two kids, so he parked the car and we stripped down to our swim suits and rambled into the warm waves.
In the ocean all was well for the first ten minutes or so. The water wasn’t deep, and the waves were just strong enough to throw us backwards in a gentle spill. Luis said again, “There weren’t waves like this when I was here last week.” I said, “But they’re fun.” We were able to wade farther into the surf, in between occasional crashes of four-foot waves.
We ventured out a little farther. Still good fun.
Then suddenly we were both pulled out into deep water by the undertow, and the waves were six or seven feet tall and continuous. Neither of us could find our footing in the deep water, though we still seemed very close to shore. The waves engulfed us. When we had first moved into the water it occurred to me that Luis wasn’t really a swimmer. It hadn’t worried me then, but now he was drowning. “Pull me out!” he implored me, in a voice somewhere between a croak and a cry. I tried to swim closer as the waves crashed over us. “Pull me,” he pleaded, his mouth filling with water. I managed to reach him, and grabbed his left arm with my right. Then I began to swim hard toward shore with my left arm, struggling to pull him forward. “Pull me,” he said again. “Help me!”
I tried to swim forward. “Just try to float,” I gurgled at him. “Slow down, Luis, help me.” But he began to panic and grabbed at me, forcing me underwater. I couldn’t breathe in the crashing waves. I knew I would have to let go and try to swim to shore. In that moment, I thought: You are saving your life and sacrificing his.
I rolled over on my back, the path of least resistance, but I could see the panic in Luis’s eyes. “Come back!” he said. “Help me.” If I could just touch bottom, I could catch my breath and try again to reach him. In the next moment a wave tossed me onto a sandy footing and I collapsed, exhausted. I looked back at Luis as another wave engulfed him and he spat out water. I knew I had to force myself to try to reach him. I stood up just as another wave crashed over me and knocked me toward shore. I got up again and tried to push back into the ocean. Luis was panicked, about to be swept under the surface again. Still another wave hit me and sent me careening toward the beach. In a miniature moment I saw it all: Luis would drown, I would search for his body, I would try to figure out how to get help, I would take his body to the hospital, I would notify his family and friends and try to make them believe that I had done everything I could.
No. I needed desperately to be doing more. I got up again, and another wave threw me down. I looked up, trying to find Luis, and a huge wave thundered toward me. The moment of his death. The wave grabbed him and catapulted him to shore, and a second later he was pulling himself out of the surf and walking toward me in the wet sand.
Luis collapsed on the beach beside me. He said nothing. I babbled a bit. A minute or two later he said: “There’s a calmer beach we should go to.”
SUN 20 JAN 2008
On Wednesday, in mid-afternoon, the electricity went off with no warning. The power department had some convoluted story about how the account was not in Charles’s name but in the name of a former tenant, but either way it had not been paid. If I wanted the power turned back on, I’d have to travel to the suburbs by taxi with a copy of my lease and a cash deposit of $150, and they would transfer the account to my name. I moved back into the Sheraton Hotel that night, thinking I’d go and change the account on Thursday. But Thursday was the beginning of the festival of San Sebastian, and 300,000 people were heading into town for the next four days. And I thought: I don’t want the power account in my name—the lease specified that the landlord would keep it in his name and I would reimburse him. I don’t want to be on the hook for the power till the next sucker gets cut off.
I tried calling Charles and his boyfriend roughly a thousand times, but Thursday, no power. Friday, still no power. The Sheraton cost me $275 per night because of the festival. My friends tried hard to find me another apartment, but everything was in poor condition or required a one-year lease. I finally told them to call off the search, that I was going to give up. At least in Toronto the water and electricity work. I read the tea leaves and flew back to bleak, freezing Toronto tonight.
I got off the plane, collected my luggage, went through Customs, got into a taxi, rode home, wheeled my luggage into my apartment building, went to summon the elevator and found this notice posted there:
Notice to Residents:
In order to re-line the domestic hot water holding tank, ALL water to the building will be shut off on Monday, January 21st, 2008 from 9:30 a.m. to approximately 3:00 p.m. We apologize for any inconvenience, and appreciate your patience and understanding in this regard.