SmilingSince my memory is turning soft around the edges, I am constantly writing stuff down: in the morning notebook, in the afternoon pocket notebook, on scraps of papers at night. It puts one in mind of the doctor in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. He would jot down Truths on scraps of paper and stuff them in his jacket pocket. Over time, the writing would fade, the papers would turn into hard wads. Often, when he was drinking and talking with his buddies, he'd pull these balls of paper out of his pockets, throw them at his friends, laughing all the while. Anderson called them "paper pills."
I note down bits of conversations, fleeting ideas, funny signs, strange personal tics, and --- we are always learning --- the Spanish that is spoken by my teachers, those being my friends and workers who live so far from the English language.
These notes can be a bane. No long ago, I reviewed some, and came up with stuff like Strange words for strange speakers. Like lightning storm. (Storms of laughter). I have to confess that I am baffled. What was I thinking when I wrote those words? Do people around here talk like lightning, and --- consequently, when they laugh --- does it turn into a some kind of storm?
Then: Where does the phrase "displaced symmetry" come from? Beats the hell out of me. It is written in my hand, in a 3x5 card that I found in my pocket, and so, assuming I wrote it, it must have meant something important at the time.
The whores are always smiling. That one I do remember. I was driving with Lilo, and he saw a woman crossing the street, and he muttered under his breath, "prosti." ("Prosti" is short for, what else? "prostituta.") I said, "How do you know?" He said, "Porque ellas siempre se sonrien." (Because they are always smiling.)
I noted that down as a cultural icon, perhaps even as an example of displaced symmetry. To be an honorable woman in this part of the world --- eg, one who is seen as virtuous --- one must never smile. Also, a woman should never look at a male directly in the eye, the way most Americans do. In this culture, it is seen as an invitation to a bedding.
Tailgate on SOL truck. I remember that one well. We were driving home about ten one night, and we pass a truck of the Sol beer company, with the brightly rising sun displayed along the side, in reds and yellows --- and there were about six men, mostly in Sol uniforms, standing around the tailgate of the truck, drinking beer, laughing, having a fine time. And that set me to thinking: when was the last time I saw a driver from Schlitz or Miller's up north, standing around in the dark, around the tailgate of the truck, with their buddies, having a high old time? Not permitted. Poor America.
Peel my love like an onion. That one puzzled me for a few days, then I remembered it refers to a book I read recently which I found rather tedious. My friend Anna, on the other hand, who I loaned it to, thought it witty, funny, delightful. I had written a snotty review of it, said that the title was probably the best part of it. She couldn't find what I wrote, lost in the morass we call the Internet. I promised to look it up for her. That note was my memo to me, to my mind, the one that is slowly peeling itself like an old Bermuda onion.
§ § §
I'm in Mi Oficina Cantina, or at someone's house, or in my huerta, with the workers, I am forever pulling out the notebook. I note down the words and phrases that they use, trying to figure out what the hell they are saying to each other, for future reference. They are my dictionaries of the language of the people, the words that never came up in my Spanish II Class, the street words --- and, especially, the street language peculiar to this region.
"Plato de lengua" and "Caldo de trompa," for example. I heard that one last week, at lunch. "Plato de lengua" literally means "a plate of tongue" --- as if one's tongue were being served up for dinner. "Caldo de trompa" means "soup of snout" (trompa is a slightly vulgar word for the nose of an animal). These, I found out later, are elegant phrases for someone who talks too much, one who is much filled with "chisme" --- gossip.
Or, take the word "pañoso." One of the workers, Juan, has a face that boiling up with teen-age misery. So they call him "Pañoso." In the vernacular of the street, it means "Pimple." "Hey, Pimple --- hand me a shovel."
Felipe has scoliosis, so the word for him is "Pandiado" --- "crooked-back." (At other times I've heard them call him "camello" --- "the camel.") Vicente fell on his arm, it never got fixed, it's perpetually cocked, held out a little from his torso. They call him "Chacál" --- "the Fiddler," those little crabs who live on the shore, the male with one small claw, the other so exaggerated in size to be misshapen.
It all reminds me of my time in another life, when I collected records, mostly southern blues from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. With no apology, the singers would carry names like "Cripple Clarence Lofton," "Blind Willie McTell," "Peg-Leg Robinson," "Li'l Son Jackson," and "Blind Lemon Jefferson." More recently, we had "Fats Waller," "Little Richard," "Fats Domino" and my favorite of them all, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson.
Where does this directness come from? It's something that you and I would shy away from, no? Would we, in these enlightened times, call a plump friend "Gordito" --- "the little fat one?" Would we ever say to worker Manuel, the one with the wandering eye, "Hey, Cross-Eyes, come over here." Scientifically the word is strabismus. To is fellow workers he is the "Bizco."
When a baby arrives, if it has light skin, it will be referred to as "Güero" ---"Whitey." Such a complexion is a cause for rejoicing, for people with the skin color that some of us find so appealing, that characteristic fine mahogany skin of Southern Mexico, seem to end up mostly as field workers, policemen, common soldiers, the drones. The word most used on them is "Negro," pronounced "NAY-grow," or "Moreno" --- "Darkie." In this country, they never appear on television, except in roles as thieves, villains, or the slapstick bumpkin comic. On airplanes, they are the ones in the back who are being shipped north under our America's new wetback program, to work in the tobacco fields in North Carolina, the luxury hotels of California, construction in Atlanta.
And me? Usually, I'm El Viejo --- the old geezer. But often when they are talking about me and my wheelchair, they don't use the formal word "inválido." Rather (and it's spoken with no shame) "jodido." I've heard my loyal worker, the one they call "Bizco," use it when talking of me to others, even to strangers. I take no umbrage --- even though it could be translated as "Gimpy."--- Carlos AmanteaThis article also appeared at salon.com