It was a World Cup Summer when I met Julio, the famous summer of the Vuvuzelas when every fan that had five bucks in their jeans got themselves a honking plastic horn and joined the buzzing swarms of South Africa in making that plastic factory guy a candidate for the cover of Forbes.
His name wasnt really Julio but I met him on August 8, and calling him Ottavio Augusto sounded over the tops, so I called him Julio Quinto.
The Jaguar took me to get ice cream by the river before he left me.
"Julio's got a big apartment" jag said as we sat at the picnic tables and looked out at the river in the hot August sun.
I had learned to bullshit almost as soon as I learned to talk, because it was part of the way things were.
I realized I was in for another round of bullshitting and that this was what Jag expected, because he had to jump bail or he was facing 7 to 15.
He couldnt' leave me alone because I was only ten, so he figured to leave me with Julio.
My life had always been predicated in some way on the drug trade, or the results of it, from the day I was born, so in some ways this was just businss as usual.
But the situation had changed dramatically a couple of months before, on Memorial day weekend, when the Jaguar had gotten pinched in New York City.
He was one of a million solid bordertown farmers with a knack for anything nature-related who made the switch to dealing so he wouldnt' starve to death.
The police had tailed him for years, ever since he was caught with a duffle bag full of cash and a slew of cell phones camped out in the Arizona desert.
He made his million dollar bail with the help of a village of relatives in Lost Angeles, but he knew his days peddling temporary stupors were numbered.
That whole hot surreal summer in a frenzy of urgency,he had taught me as much as possible about the only legit trade he ever practiced in the US: landscaping.
'How does he pay for the apartment?" I asked him. "Sell junk like you?
No-the Jagaur paused.
Is he a lawyer?
The government pays for the apartment, Jag explained.
He works for them?
No--he--they pay for it so he wont live on the street.
A lifetime of drug abuse had made Julio cunningly daft, not really dangerous but just wacky enough that the welfare office couldnt tell if he was faking, and put him on the dole.
And a lifetime of kicking around on the margins of hunger, that kind of hunger that happens to Latin farmers when they come to an urban environment in the US,
had made him sort of scrawny with a green stamp gut I privately called "plaintain potbelly".
And while this may be offensive and totally un PC, it is true.
Moreover, the smell of chicken, black beans with rice, plantains and thick Dominican coffee was enough to wipe out any pro mexican prejudices lingering in my psyche.
Often enough I blessed The Virgen Julio loved and displayed with joy sitting on his side table as I stuffed myself with mangos and strawberries.
For some reason known only to God, He crafted us such that the paunch screams louder than the psyche when afflicted
INTEGRITY AND PREJUDICE: LAWYERS AND LANDSCAPERS.
The Jaguar's lawyer worked in a high tower building in the middle of the city, the kind of building with paid parking underneath in a cement garage, and some guy at a long desk on the ground floor that buzzes you in after he checks you out for weaponry.
The Padrino's secretary had once been caught with a weapon at a building like that where that person worked, so I already kind of knew the way it went.
I went with Jag once when the lawyers interpreter was out and they needed a translator, and looking back, his lawyer was Jewish, highly educated, very suspicious and jealous as anything.
Why would he be jealous? was it the easy money? was it the self assured manner of the Jaguar? There was a law and order episode about that too, where Ice T poses as a narco and introduces Munch as My Jew. Munch, indignant, back out on the street says, "what so now Im your jew?"
But the Jaguar was no ice T. He was a country boy, who didnt own anything approaching a leather jacket.
I think after all it was loyalty and integrity that provoked the jealousy and suspicion.
The lawyer had made his "suit and tie" living off dishonest deals with the police, so that he could be respectable, and that was understandable.
But he was no match for a Mexican mestizo who really believed in honor, and God, too.
He couldn't get the jaguar to betray his Mexican godfather no matter how much he offered him.
The Jaguar knew too many other guys who had trusted their laywers, and were rotting away for life, far from their families and fields.
When we left, the jag swore under his breath and said he was never going to cave in. He was going to leave.
The Horse is Good
Not many people know that Viggo Mortensen who played Strider has his own book publishing company, or that he also brought to life much less popular but equally haunting role, that of Frank Hopkins in the horse race film Hidalgo.
But the mixed-breed cowboy on his mustang horse, wandering through the desert in the infernal temperatures hunting after a gulp of water,
was not all that different from a Mexican Indian like the Jag, who often told me stories of his horse and the heat that was ridiculously more hot than anything I could ever imagine.
Hidalgo was the name of a Mexican hero.
I watched Hidalgo pull ahead of the Arabian prince in the Nick of time, thanks to a vision Hopkins had of his indian grandmother calling to her "blue child".
I poured over a photo book Mortensen had made of his time filming Hidalgo and dreamed of adventures.
And I can't say my spirit was abandoned to despair, because the Godfather and his friends had taught me about the angels and saints who hung around the churches all over the world. And the church in the inner city was by some miracle of improbability, located in a plain brick building right across from Julio's and right in the middle of heroin row, open all day.
Fast forward a few years and it's August again, and its hot again, even hotter maybe, so hot that steam rises off the river like shimmering ribbon candy, and the ground cracks in the merciless swelter, and the trolley is slow as molasses and even the birds are quiet.
The World Cup was over again, it always ends in July, and the telenovela had gotten boring too.
And just to amuse myself and shake off the suffocating stillness of everything, I wandered further than usual after church, while Julio's cell phone blinged.
I passed the converted mill where the vending machines were always open for business even on Sundays when not many workers were in the building and wandered aimlessly back up toward home, passing through the school zone, through they alleyway, and following the old rail way tracks.
Julio never made me go to school, since he had never been himself, and anyway the notion of going to school past the age of 10 would have baffled him.
In that, he was like the Padrino, but the Padrino's wife had always made sure I did my online homework and she gave it to her son to check.
Julio lived alone, his family from what I could tell from his colorful phone conversations was scattered between the island and New York City.
He simply put me down as a dependent, used my presence to justify his corner apartment to the housing office and sent me down to the rec room on occasion to play pingpong and pretend to be his relative.
And as a result of this arrangement, I knew the neighborhood as well as a cabbie, and even as most cops, because I knew the footpaths and alleyways as well as the streets.
I knew how to dodge the horse junkies in the river thickets where they hung out unseen a stones throw from the university dormitories and the historic park.
I knew all the tables in the public library where nobody ever came because the stacks were full of books nobody reads anymore.
And I knew how to make myself scarce when field trips came with their chaperones to look at all the old mill buildings,
or else to blend in by walking along with them in the middle of the line, far from the teachers at either end, wearing headphones and a backpack with my hood pulled over my face.
The problem was, I was getting older. I was getting taller, and more obvious,
and it was getting harder and harder for Julio to palm me off as some Dominican nieta come to stay for the holidays and learn English for a couple of years.
The everpresent methadone regulars and teenage junk orphans who wandered the public housing district were starting to hoot and holler and ask for my number.
I was no longer a child.
I realized all of a sudden that I was already passed the center of town and headed in a direction I was unfamiliar with.
A brazilian guy was getting into a pickup truck outside a diner and getting an idea I said
"hey do you know where the cemetery is where that poetry guy is buried? I have to do this project for school.
He hesitated, and I repeated the question in the Spanish that so many times had been useful to me. He answered back in Brazilian portuguese.
I dont know about a poetry guy, but There's a cemetery up that way a couple miles, he gestured vaguely. But its far, and its hot. You have to keep going until you get to the church."What church" I said. "portuguese church" he answered simply.
I probably felt as lonely as I ever had in my life as I stood before the grave of the famous junkie who had once walked these streets just as I had, wondering so many things.
In my limited experience I thought the only reason the rich people had befriended him and made him famous must have been that he sold them drugs, or slept with them, or both.
He wasn't bad looking, after all, and had that streetwise attitude that rich people always think is "cool" because they dont know what it really means.
When they find out, they usually fumble like crazy to get as far away from it as possible.
At least the Jag had been direct with me when I asked him one day as we were sweating over a particularly large rock:
This whole thing you getting arrested and all kind of smashed my life, you know?
"Si si, lo siento mucho, he huffed.
It's not your fault Jag, it smashed your life too. pero ?Cual es el punto de la droga?
"Dinero" he panted without hesitation, heaving the rock over a hillock with an immense effort, then sitting down on it and wiping his face with his red bandana.
And now as I stood in the cemetery, so hot there was not a single person there, and looked down at the grave strewn with beer cans and dead flowers, I said to him, "Jaguar knows."
GET YOUR WALDEN ON WITH COUPLE TWO TREE
There was no World Cup in the Walden Summer, and maybe that’s good because there was too much else to do. Some educated people had given me a book called Why I Went to the Woods, and I was trying to Get My Walden On.
I wasn’t just writing about Thoreaus’ experience. I was blending it with a backyard version of “into the wild”. I needed to make his experiment work now that staying with Julio was kind of “yesterday”, and I was trying to build a chimney, grow enough food to satisfy myself and get a roof over my head before the cold weather made sleeping on a mattress under the sky a bad idea. Sure I had basic survival skills, and the Jag had already worked the land I was on with his crew, so enough of the bigger trees were gone to make a clear space to work with. The newly opened spaces were full of young raspberry plants, the wild vines that have so many thorns and so many tiny sweet berries in late summer.
I could use the smaller trees to make pillars to hold up the roof. I patiently put the many skills he had taught me into practice, leveling an 8 by 12 patch of ground, scattering sandy dirt in an even layer to simulate stone dust, removing all large rocks and pesky roots until the ground was smooth enough to sleep on, scavenging unbroken concrete blocks from a pile on the ridge overlooking the street and positioning them just so, to make a floor. I stacked some of them up in two foot rows to make bases for pillars, and felled a few small pines with the ax, throwing an old tarp from the cold garage where I’d been sleeping over the pillars to make a roof for my little mattress.
Elated at my success, I belted out the nortenos’ favorite corridos about Shorty and alternated with corny pop staples like Pumped Up Kicks, White Iverson, and Party in the USA in case the neighbors thought I was a norteno myself. Just as he had often done with his cousins, I cooked pancakes over a fire in a little pit lined with stones which I dreamed would one day be a chimney. I smelled the rambling wild roses that were growing on the ridge and exulted in the summer sunshine, telling the birds that the cabbages Id planted were mine.
It was increasingly obvious I wasn’t working fast enough though, as July crept into August and the days got perceptibly shorter, and the lettuces were just coming, and my roof columns kept falling down. Rain came and soaked the mattress which the sagging tarp left open to the elements. The sun came and I dried out, along with the matters, but I gave up trying to figure out how to run water pipes into the cabin, and realized I wasn’t Thoreau, this wasn’t Concord in 1850, and the house wasn’t going to be ready in time. By Columbus day, I had given up.
That’s the weekend I met “couple Two T’ree.”
AUGUSTO NUMBER THREE
And it was coming around again, a World Cup August, with that particular tang of "its' over" ness that comes, like Leap Year, every four years.
This time I was all grown up and the World Cup had lost a tiny bit of its exotic magic:--but it made up for it in strangeness.
It had been strange enough all on its own, with the players tanking so often and the referees acting so whacked it made you wonder if there was something in the water.
And that joke when I told it to mysefl reminded me that the Jag had wanted to be a professional athelete himself: a Mexican cliff diver, famous all over the world.
"why didnt you?" I said, disappointed in the evaporation of the cool as anything image of him swan diving off a rock into the Gulf of Mexico or whever that is.
"I tried it in a river when i was a kid and bashed my knee."
No hollywood there, I shook my head flicking through tv channels looking for Univision, looking for Jose Luis and Montserrat.
There was no telenovela because I wasn't living with Latinos anymore.
Jag had left me some money, meant to last until I got a job if I ever had to leave Julio behind, which meant I had to live on five grand a year give or take and I had done pretty well with that.
The crew had finally found me a place to stay with running water and natural gas heating and if I was careful I could even use electric lights sometimes, cook on the range, and take showers every day.
Doctors were out of the question; thankfully I never got sick.
I made milk money off fiver gigs, and tried to keep busy with fruit gardens in teh abandoned house I was shacked up in, because instead of rent, I was supposed to make the place habitable for future tenants.
but there was so much work to be done before a garden could take.
--then came the dog day heat--If it had to be hot, this year it was a caldron of steam and suffocation and rain pouring down but never seeming to clean the air like it should.
the worst weather ever, and the full blood moon made me remember the jaguar. The year he had left, he hadn't let on as to the date, so that I wouldnt know in case anyone asked questions.
But one night in late november, I had looked up at the full moon and had a feeling that he was gone.
And ever since, the full moon has made me remember the song of muchas lunas, and the way life goes sometimes.
Even if the moon is obscured by trees or clouds or for some other reason, I know what moon it is, and I know how beautiful the moon is, and how strange the world can be.