See how they run! The school yard was about
thirty five meters square and in it were about thirty five
galloping mustangs masquerading as boys. The activity was
so frenetic that at first I found it hard for my eye to follow
any one given youngster because he would be cut off from my
view almost instantly by the flying bodies of half a dozen
others. There was a vortex of collective activity which seemed
to be going clockwise for awhile but which would suddenly
reverse itself and be seen to be going anti-clockwise. There
was shouting and laughing and wrestling and running and marble
shooting and hooting and basket balls being thrown about:
In short, there were boys gone mad with the midday island
sunlight and the sounds of their own joyousness.
There were short boys and tall boys, slim
ones and stout ones, dark skins and light skins, there were
all kinds of boys and all kinds of sights and sounds that
seemed healthy and youthful and wonderfully innocent. My heart
ached when I thought of the dreary school yards of New York,
the cement playing fields of that urban jungle. It ached when
I compared the robust, animated faces of the boys before me
with the unsmiling faces of the dispirited children of my
native metropolis, compared their hopeless imitation of vitality
with this hive of boundless energy, compared this environmental
celebration of air so pure one could almost drink it, with
the dour, prison-like atmosphere in New York and its all too
frequent endemic odour of garbage. Here there was life bubbling
over like golden champagne. Here there was reason to rejoice,
even to nourish a dim, optimistic hope for the future.
In the school yard, one boy began to catch
my eye as he circled around with the others. Of all of them,
he was the only one who seemed to be aware of himself as others
saw him, which was not to say that he was not as involved
as the others in unselfconscious boyishness. But there was
a certain glint of objectivity and humorous self regard which
peeped through from time to time. A half smile at himself,
a half smile at something else, a half smile at nothing in
particular. Here was a boy who, at about age eleven, was able
to view himself, and the world around him, objectively. Here
was a boy who had insight and style and who soon emerged as
the clear leader of the group. Here was the boy who I hoped
would become my Juanito. He had not the trace
of an idea, of course, that such a transformation of his identity
was about to be offered to him. And I had not the trace of
an idea of whether or not he or his family would accept my
offer to effect it.
And then the teacher of the class appeared.
A more appropriate type to manage these boys would be hard
to find. He was bearded, buoyant, brave and bright, and the
boys all knew he would treat them right. He was quick to see
where my interest lay, and he chuckled to himself and walked
away. He went up to my boy and he called him out, and the
two of them walked right over to me.
Catalina introduced us all to each other
with an adroitness and efficiency of word that one would have
expected only from a long time professional translator. It
was then that I learned the name of my boy. His name was Alberto,
and when he heard my name, he smiled at its foreign sounding
quality. His handshake was manly. It felt sincere. The nuances
were promising. We had been surrounded by all the boys in
the meanwhile, who were consumed with curiosity. They plainly
wanted to know what the foreigner was all about. Catalina
obliged. She began by explaining the reason for my tardy appearance.
The story of the sheep that had plunged into my car was relished.
The boys shouted questions at us, giving little time for answers.
Into their simple, uneventful, village lives a foreigner whose
car had killed a sheep was a diverting event, an incident
of titillating interest. They wanted detail, and Catalina
gave it to them; she described the sound and feel of the impact
as the sheeps body collided with the car, the blood
on the bonnet, the sheeps feet jerking in pain, the
lot. And then, with an apologetic smile to me, she even described
my deep distress and anxiety over the affair. This brought
instant approval from her audience and, when she had finished,
a round of supportive applause. It was all very reassuring
to a stranger in San Carlos.
But now we had reached the nitty gritty
of the affair. It was time to explain to them the real purpose
of my presence in their school yard. There we all stood in
a close circle, in the streaming sunlight, in the open air
so pure one could almost drink it, surrounded by rolling green
hills and distant purple mountains, with the sea only minutes
away. And into this known ambiance, into this common treasure,
into the lives of these boys there was suddenly introduced
the astounding idea of a creative literary project, an idea
so new, so unexpected, so revolutionary, in fact, that at
first it was hard for them to grasp that I was there to ask
one of them to become the major part of it.
When at last it was grasped, when at last
they could understand that there would be playacting and directed
photography, when they realized that the project could take
weeks, months even, their rural sense of the commercially
productive use of time seemed to be insulted, and they shied
away from the idea. Catalina reported that they felt no family
would want their son to be absented from his responsibilities
around the farm for so long and for such a non-revenue productive
reason. I could see they would soon be playing in the school
yard again. I could see that making books was a no-go with
But, it appeared, that was not so with Alberto.
He looked me straight in the eyes and told me he was indeed
very much interested but would have to think about it. If
he decided affirmatively, he said, he would then ask his parents
to meet with me and we could discuss the whole matter. Having
said his piece, he said good bye to us and he was off like
a shot to join the others who had drifted away while we talked.
Catalina then took me in tow, signalling
that it was all over, and I found myself at her mothers
bar where coffee and talk rang round. That was when
I met Anita, Catalinas mother. Her face was doughy white,
intelligent and patient, all at once. Her life had been tragically
touched by the Spanish civil war and though more than twenty
five years had passed since that catastrophic conflict, she
seemed still to be living in its shadow. I shall never forget
her confidences which slowly came my way as the years passed
and she grew to trust me. She seemed in need of speaking of
her experiences and I had long learned to be a good listener.
So we were, initially, well suited to each other, and I soon
had her blessing with regard to Catalinas working with
me on our book
She had an instant grasp of the its purpose,
of which she strongly approved, and, having come that far,
it was not hard for her to encourage both of us to a full
commitment. It was from Anita that I learned of another possible
translator, since Catalina could not be expected to be always
on hand. He had only recently returned from America where
he had been a short order cook in a diner for
many years. Because of his long residence abroad he could
be expected to be fluent in English. His name was Juan den
Xico, pronounced, Chico, and he turned out to
be a colourful and dependable co-worker. He was a much older
man, said Anita, with a certain air, who had returned to the
island with his accumulated fortune, and he had
married a quite young woman shortly after his return. It was
clear that I should make of that what I pleased.
A diner is a curiously American restaurant
institution. It developed from the original use of a real
railway car as a crude dining room for railway workers. The
long, narrow, railway car construction style became characteristic
of all purpose-built diners in later years, and to this day,
diners are very popular in the country. The food is always
hot, plentiful and relatively inexpensive. But most of all
it is FAST. Your order sits before you so quickly you lose
no waiting time during your brief lunch hour. And so the backbone
of the diners staff is therefore the chef. He is always
of a special breed. He is called a Short Order chef. His specialty
is speed and his food-ordering language, which he creates
himself and teaches to the rest of the staff, is original.
Most of all it is instantly intelligible and time saving.
Burn one!, for example, is the order to indicate
coffee, black. Adam and Eve on a Raft, is the
order for fried eggs. And so on. Listening to the orders being
hurled to and fro in a diner can be a diversion of high hilarity.
Some people in America spend a good deal of time sampling
the colour of the language among dozens of diners. And so
I looked forward to meeting Juan den Xico with nostalgic overtones.
I had always loved eating in diners, myself. Would he have
the real stuff?