Sunday, March 8, 2015

Alone at Last

Yesterday I walked alone to Old San Juan, and spent the day browsing, chatting with people, and generally decompressing. Alone, with nobody to look after, no decisions to make on behalf of anyone  but myself, I felt free and relaxed. I do better on my own, am more social.

I went into a sort of junk shop, with warrens of old books, tea sets, clothing, and yes, a bust of Adolph Hitler (?!?)

In a case an antique woman's watch caught my eye. It was unusual and, for some reason, I was drawn to it. After explaining that it didn't work, the man got it out for me. Neither he nor I could make out the name on the face. The body and clasp, which was small like for a child, was gold, including pink gold, and there was a stone of some sort on the winding knob. He estimated it as being made in the '40s. I bought it, wondering whether this was my Antiques Road Show moment. ("And how much did you pay for it?" "Sixty Dollars." "Well, I can tell you that, properly restored, at auction I'd expect this to go for about one hundred thousand dollars!" "Wow, who'd have thought that a watch from a junk shop in Old San Juan would be such a find!")

When I got back to the hotel I saw it was missing a hand, so maybe this was just a dumb purchase.

I went into the Church of St. Francis. St. Francis has always been my favorite saint because of his love of animals.

I walked and didn't get lost. I bought some cheap earrings from Velma at a great vintage shop. I walked through a small book fair at what looked like a parochial-school courtyard, and came out to a street where at least a half-dozen cats were lying around. There are a lot of street cats in PR; at the visitor center at the Camuy Caves, two sweet cats were lying around, full of fleas and ear mites. Not neutered. It kills me.

These cats were well-fed and very friendly, including one large black guy who let out a long "MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEow!" before sauntering over to have his back scratched. A sign on the door to an upscale house asked for donations to help "fix" and care for the cats. As  I was rubbing my third cat, a man came out of the building. We started talking -- he's born and bred Puerto Rico, full European blood, by the looks of him, perfect English. He talked about how they took care of the cats, and how people were starting to drop theirs off, knowing they'd be cared for better. The downside of success.

"That's Paz," he said, when an orange-and-white guy flopped down in front of me. "His name means 'Peace.'" He also pointed out a cat who was 14 years on the street. The cat looked ancient, and as the result of an ear infection (since cured), his ears looked like two kettle-cooked potato chips on his head. Didn't stop him from being a love.

We talked about cats and their unfortunate lesser status, I gave him a little money, and got his email and address to give to friends who might also want to help. He continued on to do his errands and I hung out with the cats a bit more before, with a final scratch to each one, I was on my way.

I had a homemade popsicle, found another snow-cone vendor and had my coveted Anise-flavored ice, wandered to a book store, practiced my Spanish, then headed to Cafe Berlin, the only place I'd found that had a full vegetarian/vegan section that rocks out loud. ("Authentic Puerto Rican Food" is not vegan-friendly. On our tours, at the roadside eateries to which we'd been brought, my option was basically fried plantains. I love fried ripe plantains, don't get me wrong, but when it's 85 and humid, fried carbs don't really work.)

I parked myself on a bench in Christopher Columbus Square with a book, and read peacefully while a pigeon who'd adopted me rested in the shade at my feet.

I then walked back, and was addressed by a middle-aged woman who asked whether I spoke English, and when I said yes, explained that she was "a native New Yorker lost my husband two years ago thank you V.A., and I haven't eaten in two days I go to the beach to talk to God and my dead husband and collect things to make these out of (indicating a conglomeration of shells and sea grass), sober fourteen years do you think you can help."

I sensed the entire story was a fabrication, but she was tiny, well-dressed, in great shape, and the gravelly voice, New York accent and cigarette dangling from her hand only underscored the theater of her story, so I explained that I feared her creation wouldn't make the trip in my suitcase, but I had a couple of dollars I was happy to give her, and we both parted a little happier. The exchange felt all "Treasure of The Sierra Madre."

Back to the hotel, where I met up with my family, had a sandwich in my room, then -- as promised-- went with my sister to the casino where she showed me her favorite slot machine, a Bally-created device called "Better off Ed," Ed being a cute cartoon zombie who shows up to bestow wild cards and free spins. There are lots of lights and music, and various bonus exercises ("pick three graves!")  Music plays and bells ring, which is fun, even though it happens when you win ten cents. So entertaining is the machine that you don't mind going basically nowhere.

Then my uncle bought my sister and I drinks at the bar (her selection of pina colada is as predictable as her orders of burgers, french fries, and Sprite), and I had a chocolate martini. My uncle had a dirty martini, and we listened to the live Salsa band in the lounge across the way and shared our opinion that there is, in fact, only one salsa song, played over and over.

We crashed, and this morning I was awakened by the sound of my sister snuffling and her breath catching. I waited. It continued.

"Jane." (not her real name)


"Do you realize that there has not been a single morning this week that you have not woken me up?"

It's true. The various ways in which she has woken me up include turning on the light, turning on the TV, and waking me up to ask when i want to be woken up. I wish to mention also that my sister wakes before the sun is up, and that I haven't yet raised my voice or thrown her off the balcony.

My sister snuffled. "I locked the bathroom door and now I can't get in."

This is the kind of mind-bogglingly stupid thing my sister does all the time. She can find her way up and down a busy San Juan Street, remember all the signs, figure out how a slot-machine works while I'm still staring, stupefied, at the screen, but door locks have always been a stumbling block.

"So pick up the phone, press 0, tell them what room you are in, and explain that you locked yourself out of the bathroom. They will come up and open it."

She didn't move. Louder snuffling. I was not going to fix this; it was on her.

"What does Ma say about problems?"

Teary-voiced. "That they can be fixed."

"Right. So call 0 and tell them, and they will fix the problem. You can do it."

"The thing is, I've never used this phone."

"It's like any other phone. Pick it up and dial 0. You've worked in hotels. You know how it works."

She still didn't move. I realized I'd need to take a different tack to get her moving, because I felt my patience, like my sleeping in, reaching an end.

"Or you can go downstairs to the front desk in person and explain it."

Pause. "Maybe I'll do that."

"OK. Put on your Muu Muu and go down."

The sniffling stopped, she went down, and was pleased with herself.

She told me later she was crying because she knew I'd be mad about the lock. She was sort-of right, but what she didn't realize is that it's not the situation that annoys me, it's her refusal or inability to fix it that drives me up the wall, her randomly unimaginative reaction to new situations. And most of all, what annoys me is that I haven't slept in one single morning this trip without being woken several times by her or other members of my family.

But like I said, I haven't lost my temper. Yet. We still have a morning to go.

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