I was living in a good room in a decent house in a bad neighborhood overlooking the brown sand and black rock beaches of Valparaiso. The room had been renovated. It had been two small rooms, and converted some time ago into a larger room with a closet, a shower, a not-a-closet storage area and a small kitchenette. The local words for these things were quaint and are now lost. These elements were a tight fit, as they were all close together, but the living area was comfortable and I did not use the small bed with its hard mattress and no box spring, spending my late nights and early mornings, sleeping on a very soft, large couch. On the colder nights, which were never too cold, I would sleep on the couch wrapped in a heavy alpaca wool blanket, with the windows open, and listen to the sounds of the traffic dissipating and the surf increasing through the night allowing the end of man and the triumph of nature send me pleasant dreams.
And then just the surf.
And then the dreams, never of the ocean, because that is not how the mind works, but often of other beautiful things, of this life and the next, and then lose those dreams in the morning, as the traffic began again, bringing me awake, and hungry in need of coffee. The air would be wet with the thick marine layer that came from the cold air from the Andes and the differently cold Pacific.
My room was on the top of three floors, which were numbered in the American style so that I was on the third, not second floor. Other places in Chile were not numbered with the same convention, and you would have to occasionally remind oneself they lived on the third floor, and the first floor was indeed the first, and not the ground floor.
The house itself was on the borderline of being once grand. A showpiece on a hill, taking the reach of the port of Valparaiso to the south, up the stretch of coast that included the older warehouses, to the fish market with its flying birds and barking sea lions, to the small canal that demarcated Valparaiso from the nicer urbanity and nouveau riche of Vina del Mar, and from there up the coast, and up the hills toward the even nicer Renaca, with its apartment towers and higher rents full of Santiagoans on their weekends by the sea.
The newer Victorian granite buildings of the technical university blocked my view of one the shantytown villages of the squatters. I knew they were there, but I did not have to be reminded. These towns were in a constant spiral of dying and renewal, being destroyed when the city government was able, and returning as soon as the pressure eased. Sometimes they would appear over night. Not just in the small area blotted out from view by the college, but in other spots too, sometimes ones so perfect you had to ask yourself how the developers had missed such a location. Why were there not condos? Better there are shacks than another concrete and steel behemoth blotting nature. Obscene Babylonian towers sharing the same language of the promises of consumerism.
The home itself was owned by the original family. This fact might have been the norm or might not have but it was how it was even if it should remain this way no longer. The family money had supposedly been made in the previous century in “shipping.” All the money that started Valpo had been from shipping, when this modest port had blossomed as a coaling station, and came to be called, by some, the San Francisco of South America. Perhaps it was the residents who called it such, maybe Mr. Twain’s visit helped. The root of the moniker could still be seen in the older buildings, these thoughts about once was, these buildings showed what had been the promise. There was an internationalism hidden away in the cut stones, and the gridded layout, and the Hotel d’Ville style municipal buildings, now hidden across the bay by ugliness and empty concrete modernity often graffiti-covered and dirty.
The potential had past, leaving some of the spirit and a few of the structures, and then the past became the future and it was not what had been hoped for.
Then came the Panama Canal, and the great route around South America was no more. There was no need for coaling stations and outposts, or the only port of significance after Buenos Areas on the westbound, or Callao on the eastern leg. If one wished to visit the Antarctic or Easter Island, there were daily flights lasting hours. The shipping still came and went, tramp steamers and larger great routes along sea-lanes and rhumblines. The potential for what might be and what was coming had waned leaving what is mixed with what once was.
What the family had been was not now, and the house that once was at the verge of being grand, had been subdivided over the decades to allow the larger-growing family a place to live. Until finally the top floor was cutup into apartments so this same family, once having the potential to own a grand home in a grand city, rented out this dream to draw more, albeit limited revenue. There was one other apartment on the top floor. While I lived in mine, the other was full of people who came and went never staying long. Weeks to my months, a month to my year.
At night I would drink. Sometimes heavily, often alone, not always starting alone, but often finishing so.
I made my beggar’s Pisco Sour, which rather than using refined Pisco, a distilled alcohol of grapes, added with bitters and egg white, I would use any available alcohol adding something tasting of lemon. These drinks were things of terror, and I drank them often because they were cheap and I was not picky, and wanted to save the money I had for the things I could not do without. I think they said something about one can live with art if you are willing to go hungry, or in this case, thirsty for good drink.
I thought that was what I had read, and was sure it applied. Cabot, my dear friend, would have known, but he was not there, so I remembered it and did my best to apply the wisdom.
When I did leave Chile, I had a good sum left, so I probably could have drank better during that time. But the flavor wasn’t the point, the drunkenness was, I thought it would help me be a better artist. The whole thing, the notions, of breaking down inhibitions and letting my creativity flow. Or some crap.
I was forcing myself to suffer through the bad booze and hangovers thinking they too would make me a better writer because I would really be experiencing and really be living and leaving the bourgeois behind and becoming a man of the people, whomever those people might be; surely during that time they were not the people of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. I was among them but I was not of them, no matter how I acted or whom I spoke with, I was apart. They were, but I was becoming, and these things crossed and intersected but did not bind.
I went hungry often, too, to suffer, and rarely bought new clothes, all for creating an affected bohemian look, in the sense of New York and not Prague, which looking back might be an insult to the Czech people that we describe those at the edges of polite society as such.
For a time I thought my writing improved, and there were plenty of people around who said it was “really good” after reading fairly little. For a time I believed them, and put value in the commentary I wished to hear. The question was not whether or not my writing was good or not good, but was it improving. I did not want to write to be popular or to be discussed by those who read the words I found. I wanted to write well, to excel at finding the words to describe the things, the life and the beauty and all of that. I wanted to write well, especially being mediocre at so many other things, things I had loved and had done well, but never well enough. How would they know? Those who read and claim the words good; how would they know or measure the improvement having not read the things from before?
I only wrote in English, and in Chile, this complicated things. “It’s really very good,” some one might say, and when they said it, they said it as “¡Esto es muy bueno!” I would thank them and then ask what they thought of it, not asking if it was good or if they liked it, but for details about what they liked and hoping the truth could be found in the details of the answer so I would know if they found something, or if others were missed by the author; but always they would say banal things about character or setting or structure, and then ask a question that I would answer. “Ah Si! Si! Bueno, bueno,” they would say, enjoying the right to say they knew the young American author who was in Chile to really learn how to write.
I wanted more. The author craves the affection of others. Seeking someone who sees the full clarity of that which is hinted in the words, but obscured in their telling.
The author is trying to find those worthy to share those secrets so they leave the clues hoping the right other will find them and say Eureaka! or ¡Ahi esta!
Scot knew of my writing before, not that he had read it before, he read them after we met, but he had read them. One night when we were drunk on my very slim terrace during what passed for a friendly party of many, drinking the cheap and nasty, he asked to read some of my stuff. From before, and now, which then was that moment, and I was drunk, so I agreed and gave him the run of the notebooks collected about, separated by colors, containing this thing and that. Then I forgot and he took a few with him and brought them back later and wanted to talk of the words and I regretted that he knew about the colored notebooks and the words they held, for now he had seen my innermost and he had read my secrets even if he did not know they were secrets or that they were mine.
Of course I hate to have people I know read what I write. Particularly when they see the thing that is to be, when what it is, is not yet what it will be, but only the fragments and the unformed parts. This state is more-raw, and shadows of what might be but might also not be, and because they are not either, leave the author more exposed than the finished words.
Also of course, authors cannot trust the opinions of those they know, even more so those for whom they care. If they hate it, they will lie, or they might love it and then the author will start to hate the words because those they care for are not those for whom they write.
Those I would write for would never tell me how they felt about the words.
This state of being makes no sense and creates an inability to be anything other than disappointed. But this state of being was my state of being and saying it is not so does not make it less.
I held Scot’s opinions in high regard until that point. Now I would not be able to trust him and his words. It was made worse because he was a pedigree with the right schools, from the right places, who had easily done the right things his entire life, finding the process of life simply lain before him, each step, regardless of direction. In many ways he was what most want to be if they could be what they would. Things came easy to him, not only because the path was laid, but also because he was able.
We called him Scot but is name was MacAllister. His first name, and everyone refused to call him by a last name being used as a first; so we called him Scot.
Scot came close to finding the balance of discussing my writing by saying things about “the notes of maturity” in my “evolving method,” and then lost me during a reading by laughing out loud at one of the jokes. He found the joke “very funny, but odd,” he told me and could not find the words to explain funny and odd. Being drunk at the time, and hungry, and shabby, I explained the joke was not about the joke and not supposed to be funny; it was about the situation in which the joke occurred.
It was not meant to be funny.
“But it is!” he said and he laughed again. He said the whole thing was beautifully absurd.
He was right, of a sort, because it was absurd, although I wanted it to be grotesquely absurd rather than beautifully. Grotesque as in Tennessee Williams mashed with A Confederacy of Dunces. But he was not meant to laugh. No one was.
The reader is the punch line of the joke, and if one laughs they are fully snared in the trap. It is they the reader, the representation of humanity, as the joke.
We are our own punch line.
But he did laugh and then never could let me forget about being let into the world within the colored notebooks because he kept bringing up the words and would not let them lay. He told me once I needed an agent and he would make some calls to New York and ask around. “Surely someone in the family knows someone in the business.” Then he would tell me about how the work had such merit, and should be read, and I couldn’t tell if he was serious or if he just wanted to earn some sort of Blue Blood Scouts Badge of literary anthropology.
There was no way to trust his opinions any more because he said he liked the words.
For my part, I couldn’t tell if I was maturing as anything other than being more drunk, more often. My tolerance was improving. Even with the drinking I was finding time to write lucidly.
My money would hold.
My place was beyond sufficient.
Valparaiso was not, it turns out, Paris, and there were not enough of us to be considered a Generation, lost, found or un-regarded. For who would have regarded us had we been worth their wile to say, “look there, who is that lot?”
There was no art in logistics, but there was a lot of logistics. Most of the Americans, the Norte’s that is, were in logistics. Their work was a tepid as the word. And the word really meant shipping, but they all said logistics to make their duties sound more skillful and important.
Shipping is the business of longshoremen; those who really know are those in logistics.
Like everywhere else on the globe, the Norte ex-pats respond to that inner beacon and were drawn toward one another. We clustered about those who were the same. Maybe it was our fascination with ignoring the metric system.
A great congealing of Americans abroad. And we loved Valpo, and Chile, and we called ourselves Americans and thought of the Chileans as foreigners and never considered we too were in America, the Southern America, and the Chileans were Americans too. This was their America and we were the foreigners.
We also felt superior to those we left behind in America; we were international and had seen the world beyond, even if the beyond was only the America from where we had come and the America in which we were living; we were in a life that was greater and more expansive, beyond those who had stayed and would never know beyond their own line of sight.
So long as that American character is about the USA, because that is the only America for Americans. The only real America! Our group all spoke Spanish, and French – of course! – drank wine as bounty, discussed art and the plight of the oppressed. Chile was a new democracy still, recently emerged, and we talked of those Chilean foreigners in Chile as the oppressed and the recently reborn to the hope of democracy. Theirs not ours, but we would judge them by how close or how far their democracy resembled the City on the Hill.
Yes the oppressed.
Democracy was new in Chile and we saw the hope in the people, and thought how noble, and how terrible the US was when Pinochet had been around, and how our policies were terrible and how the Esmeralda was a torture ship for the regime, and was still at the naval base in Talcuhano.
There were notions about the US and our role in the South and the things that had happened and how we manipulated the markets … oh, and the CIA we always talked about the thuggish arm of American foreign policy. The democratic experiment was alive here, we would tell ourselves, talking about local politics like we might vote and looking for a Washington (George that is, not DC) or Themistocles each time we opened the local paper.
Some of the ex-pats married local, and would forever be between these cultures. They changed the most, being anchored in their life before, adapting as something different after, and giving up being one or the other; always between. The unmarried sought succor with the local Chileans, and tried to find enlightened others who avoided going to Mass, so they would commune quicker to the bedroom (as the theory went), and unable to do that, those within the group ended up together, never pairing up for long.
Needs arose. Sometimes relationships or marriages be damned, and we did what we willed when we felt it right, or when we felt we could get away with whatever it was, or with whomever it was; and we were so very sure of our superiority.
We were a people apart, and completely alone.
And we pretended greatly to be very happy.