Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Labyrinth That Was My City

Today I saw San Salvador as a comprehensible entity for the first time. Today the haze of my memories, which ran like yellow smoke over my present vision, was dispelled for a moment, and the real city that lived underneath emerged in all its grimy glory. Today the walls became more solid, the houses became older and the streets themselves grew in their treasure chest of details. Today, the present assaulted me like a thief in broad daylight and I invited it in, offering my assumptions in exchange for ripped up clothing and twisted roofs made of plastic. Today the moment gave me the gift of clarity and it came wrapped in old newspapers and oily rags covered in dirt. Today I saw the city and it was complete and unified and it made no promises and it refused to hide its scars and diseases. Today I saw the city naked and I kissed it from its lonely crown to its murky crotch with the clicking circular lips of the lens of my camera. Today I saw my city and it was true and shameless and I let it touch me with its rancid tongue.
It had never been like this. For so many years, I had been a hidden stowaway riding in the secret hold of a ship on its way to nowhere. Growing up, I had always been driven from one place to another, a na├»ve and comfortable passenger in the hands of more knowledgeable drivers. Without the real need for understanding, I would go from place to place, from house to house, from store to store, and I was never sure where I was in the city or how I got there. The names of landmarks and streets just bounced upon each other and got diluted into a vague translucent gossamer that left me lost and helpless in the strange labyrinth that was the city of my birth. Each space was complete in itself, recognizable but unknowable, and completely separate and disconnected from all the others. From the Hula Hula, one of the two main parks in the center of the city, a place I had heard mentioned a thousand times in regards to shows, parties and political rallies, to the Flower Clock, where my uncle crashed many years before I was born, to the Ruben Dario Avenue, which I knew to be significant as a border between worlds but I didn’t understand the nature of the worlds that it divided, to the Boulevard of the Army, which I remembered as a place to drive away into forgetfulness, into airplanes that took you to faraway places from which you never returned. All these places and more, they all interconnected in some mysterious logic that wasn’t clear or open to my limited vision. The areas I knew, the areas I could connect without trouble, where the ones I had walked, from my Dad’s home in the heights of Escalon, in the skirts of the volcano, where the streets were slanted and quiet amid a false sense of safety that permeated the elegant mansions like a violet cloud of subtle poison that couldn’t be detected until killers emerged from the shadows and by then it was too late; to my Grandmother Antonia’s home by the Salvador del Mundo plaza, where I saw couples kissing and grinding against each other in my childhood and where I encountered Dilcia on the second day of our love affair and it was the first time we were alone together and she called me "my love" with a great grin of open happiness and she made no attempt to hide the extent of her surrender, and the movie theater was there ("El Caribe") where I used to go with my friend Rodney when the afternoon was long and hot and there was nothing else to do and the McDonald’s where we ate skinny little burger after skinny little burger, trying to forget the rumors that the meat came from stray dogs captured in the middle of the night; to the boy’s school that I attended for one year, the Garcia Flamenco, where I first comprehended the nature of male culture and where I first realized I had a clear role in that world, a role that I did not know existed but which I fulfilled easily and without hesitation, to the Metro Center ("El Metro Centro"), the one and only big shopping mall that I knew in my Salvadorean teens, where we walked around for hours without purpose, looking at window displays and girls in short skirts, and where we ran into people that we knew who were also doing the same thing that we were and nobody questioned its usefulness; to the little low middle class neighborhood, the "Satelite", where I finally found enduring friends (that lasted through three decades, even though most of that time was spent in silence), where I had my first real kiss and where I truly loved a girl for the first time, and it all happened in a long blur of parties and jokes and games and lazy windy mornings when all I needed was a friend by my side and a cold chocolate milk in my hand and an open window of empty time to talk and tell stories. Outside of my known routes, which connected my safe known chambers to each other, the rest of the city was utterly dark and incomprehensible, like a dark jungle of cement and pavement that threatened to swallow my paths in its moist and growling darkness.
Today, I ventured into that jungle, into a new awareness of the maze of asphalt and buses and old houses and screams that was San Salvador beyond my known realms. For the first time, I acquired a true sense of the city’s dimensions, of its nature as a double labyrinth and of the true extent and progress of its slow and unstoppable decay.
To begin my exploration, I crossed the city sideways, from West to East, from one end to the other, from the Masferrer Park which crowned the Paseo Escalon with a huge blue and white flag and a promise of green shadows and peace which was only partially fulfilled, where young men and women, wearing fashionable clothes and dark glasses, drove around in brand new cars while shoeless kids ran to their windows and asked for money; to the metal bridge which extended above a crowded and noisy corner and a banner hung from the handrail that said "Welcome to Soyapango" (the small suburb just to the east of the capital) and the streets here were covered with grime and the air was thick with dark exhaust fumes and smog and the people themselves were a thick dark brown which was only partially genetic and the noise of horns and screeching motors was continuous and unforgiving. Here, at the eastern end of the city, was a glimpse into the chaos of necessity, carelessness and disdain from which I had been lovingly rescued by two generations of smart hard working women. I could now see that there was a single clear spine that ran from the heights to the depths, a spine that began as El Paseo, the long wide main street that I remembered as peaceful and safe but was slowly turning the same gray color of the eastern neighborhoods, which turned into Alameda Roosevelt, where I could first see the signs of the desperate agglomeration that was the city center, which then turned into Ruben Dario street and its parallel companion, Arce street, both in my mind forming a double pathway into the labyrinth’s heart, the Hula Hula, the Cathedral and the Plaza Libertad. From there, the crowded streets turned into Calle Delgado which then made a leftward turn into Independence Avenue, the land of the brothels and fat old prostitutes eating mangoes in their open windows while they threw kisses at the passing cars and laughed in great bursts of barely hidden hopelessness, and that turned into a long wide street of factories which was the Boulevard of the Army, a long row of big fat buildings protected by tall walls and tall slanted lawns, which eventually reached the border of Soyapango, where the little bridge waited with its dirty sign.
We took that long straight route twice, from one end to the other and back again, my Dad and me, and then we made a great circle around the city’s perimeter which solidified my basic discovery: San Salvador was big and complex but it was not infinite, it ended at distinct points that could be located and measured, it ended with the great volcano that had been the backdrop to my childhood and it ended with a pedestrian bridge that smelled of urine and smoke, it ended with thick green bush and small piles of garbage, it ended with promises of dark jungle over the hills.
Along the way, I saw many fragments, many iridescent scraps of life that I managed to freeze into my memory like old paintings that call out from a distant past. I saw a little boy playing with two soda cans on the sidewalk, maybe imagining that the cans were cars and the sidewalk was a great speedway, and the walls were great mountains filled with excited spectators. I saw a pair of girls in stylish high heels who raised their heads in an act of dismissal yet turned around to make sure that they had been seen, noticed and admired. I saw a giant thick building with walls of glass and beams of silver steel, a modern monument that signaled the new era of privatization that had come to El Salvador several years ago, where a French company now owned the telephone network and the very dreams of Salvadoreans were quickly transmitted and translated into money and power that resided far across the ocean, in air conditioned chambers that peasant eyes would never see. I saw political banners that announced that this time everything would truly be fixed and repaired and happiness would finally come to the people, if you only voted for us, after so many years of waiting, this time it was true they said, and some of these banners were covered in graffiti that in its snaky incomprehensible writing simply stated, in terms that went beyond language: "no, we don’t believe you, we can’t believe you any more. You, all of you, you have lied too many times." I saw a fat woman in a camouflage shirt who laughed uproariously at a joke that a younger woman had told her, as they both walked towards a crowded bus stop where little skinny men sold blocks of ice covered in artificially flavored syrup. I saw more screaming men and women, with their arms full of little plastic flags, encouraging the people to show their love for the country, to show their loyalty, to show their respect, and cover their cars in little flags, hanging from each of the windows, wrapped around the antennas, stuck in the edges of the rearview mirrors, the more the better, there could never be too much patriotism, "you need another one!". I saw a decrepit old bus that was slanted sideways with the weight of too many people inside and outside, hanging from the open doors and the sides, as it moved down the crowded street, spilling black smoke from its vertical exhaust pipe and, on the back window, there was a sign that read: "In God We Trust" in English with glowing prayer hands on either side, letting passengers know that Jesus would look out for their safety and the smog and the broken bus could be set aside as distractions from the true word of the Lord. I saw more security guards with black and silver gunshots at their sides, standing by open doorways, greeting customers with a smile and waving them goodbye as if they were old friends, as thin wrinkled old women walked by, looking down, their eyes lost in the cracks of the broken sidewalks. I saw two sleeping drunks whose brown skin looked almost black with dirt, with smog and with many years of sadness, using little bags as pillows which they rested against a wall covered in graffiti and a thousand little gaps of gray and black where the white paint had peeled away. I saw two young girls in tight jeans and flowery shirts who walked side by side along a very narrow sidewalk, laughing at their own private jokes while looking carefully all around themselves for any present sign of danger. I saw a thick middle aged woman in a bright green shirt that was riding up her back, revealing rolls of brown flesh underneath, sitting by her booth of illegal CDs, playing loud music on a beat up stereo while her young son read the newspaper on a high stool to her left. I saw a young thin boy pushing a large heavy cart full of open metal vats full of horchata and tamarindo, offering his refreshments to a mass of flesh that walked around him, avoiding his offering, all of them lost in their own worries while the ice melted in the metal vats and the flies descended on the moist edges. I saw a young boy playing with a plastic whistle in the open doorway of an empty shoe store, while an old woman in a red dress looked up and down the sidewalk, hoping for new clients. I saw a booth full of masks and dolls, Spider Man, Batman, Bart from the Simpsons, Annie, all roughly made copies of American icons, some of them easily recognizable, some of them wildly inaccurate, and I could see that the salesman, a short thick man with short black hair and a wide compact noise, was completely unaware of their meaning, their origin or their significance, seeing them purely as cheap things that some people might want, for unknown reasons, and he was here to sell them and bring back money to a little lost home where his wife and children were waiting, somewhere outside the city. I saw red shirts in plastic bags with the image of Che Guevara, of Fidel and of the current candidates of the left wing party, images that had been incendiary and forbidden in the recent past, the past I remembered, but which were already moving fast on their way to becoming as powerless and irrelevant to the Salvadorean crowds as Bart or Batman or Annie. I saw a uniformed policeman standing in a corner with his hands intertwined, his eyes a mask of boredom, a living symbol of weak organization imposed on a rumbling loud strong current of chaos. I saw a soldier in full camouflage fatigues lecturing a poor dark man in an old dirty blue shirt, who responded calmly with subtle nods of his head, his eyes slimmed down to allow no expression, a full pink plastic bag in his left hand. I saw a thick man in a straw hat and a colorful striped shirt pushing an ice cream cart, tinkling the tiny bell with enthusiasm, while a little skinny boy in a soccer uniform stared at him with angst and hunger. I saw an old man with a straw hat, leaning back on a metal bench in the Hula Hula park, his wrinkled hand laid over his crotch, his legs wide open, his eyes alert and alive, following every movement around him, his mouth stretched into a knowing smile. I saw an empty lot overgrown with tall leaves of grass and green trees, surrounded by broken down, unpainted walls and roofs of curved gray metal. And down the boulevard of factories, where the crowds were thinner and the air was clearer, I saw the silhouette of the San Jacinto hill in the distance and a glimpse of an entire neighborhood made of cardboard and tin, built within a giant hole in the ground that stretched for several miles.
From the heights of the Escalon, where the calm quiet streets were losing their silence, to the chaos of the center, where the hints of mass desperation became an overwhelming roar, to the ingrained decay of the east side, where the noise was losing its purpose and its ancient melody, the edges of the labyrinth had now been determined and that made the labyrinth knowable. The city had passed from a state of dream-like confusion to a new state of clearly defined margins and a half visible structure that I could now begin to unravel.
As I explored, I came to realize that the city was truly not one labyrinth but two: one made of brick, cement and steel, and one made of tin, plastic, wood, dirt and wild bush. At the side streets of the first, you would encounter the gateways to the second. I stared down long narrow dirt pathways, outlined by little tin houses and semi-naked dirty little kids, and my eyes got lost in the distance, where short skinny shirtless men walked in loose old blue shorts and women washed clothes with buckets full of rain water and little transistor radios played the latest cumbia and Reggaeton. I had known this world all along, I had even gone into these areas as a kid and as a teenager, but I had always perceived them as exceptions, as tiny imperfections in a city made of cement. This time I stared down these long corridors with eyes wide open, I let their reality sink into me, I allowed the dirt pathways to speak to me in their own language, and they told me that they were a true city as much as the one with the pavement and the telephone poles and the guards and the shopping centers. I suddenly came to understand that these places had their own connections, they had their own secret pathways which extended all over San Salvador, under the bridges, behind the rows of little brick houses, over the green and brown broken hillsides, even to the bottom of the huge thick walls that protected the mansions of the most powerful men of the country. Through the snaky little dirty rivers, the "arenales" (sand swamps), the "quebradas" (the breaks in the earth), this second labyrinth extended like a subterranean spider web under the asphalt of the known world. From any place in this hidden labyrinth, you could go to any other, without ever walking on a paved sidewalk or watching a car drive by. Here was the true underground labyrinth of El Salvador, hidden in plain sight, and living by rules of its own, beyond the reach of policemen, guards, politicians, diplomats or idealist rebels with dreams of justice. Like the green weeds that grew out of the cracks in the pavement of my garden, this was life in its purest form, finding the gaps in the solid structure and recklessly reaching up towards the sun, without fear, without reason, without anything left to lose.
At the city’s center, these two labyrinths came together and fused into each other so tightly that they became indistinguishable. Here the oldest buildings were covered with the graffiti of anger and desperation, here the sidewalks were thick with swarms of illegal vendors, selling everything from bras and panties to unauthorized DVD copies of the latest American movies, illegal CD copies of pop music, Reggaeton, salsa, rock, electronic, even an entire booth devoted to Japanese Anime in all its many forms, tended by a short dark brown man in a deep red sports shirt. Here there were no trees and the sunlight fell without mercy on the shoppers, on the workers, on the students going home. Here, at the center, the two labyrinths became one and maybe this final union was accomplished in the plaza where an old man with a light brown hat strummed the guitar lazily while two policemen laughed and the great statue of the hero that lead the founding of the country went completely unnoticed, except by the few pigeons who used his extended stone arms as a place to rest. Here the old thick walls trembled with all kinds of loud noise, insistent rhythms clashing against the roaring of old motors and the screeching of car shops and the screams of vendors in need of more sales. Here was the great Cathedral of San Salvador, the religious center of a city that had found its savior wanting, a building that I knew as a labor of many years, slowed down by corruption, greed and military conflict, and witness to the ultimate horror of an indiscriminate massacre and a cold blooded betrayal. Here there were tanned skinny girls with full round asses and very short skirts, that laughed in a rough disdainful way that betrayed their true profession. Here there were men in short sleeved shirts, covered in several layers of dirt, that slept in the gutters and couldn’t perceive anything beyond their own skin, for the world had left them with nothing to see. Here was the heart that brought the two labyrinths together, the light and the dark, the visible and the hidden, the image and the real, and its pounding lustful pulse of raw life brought them all together into a rumbling drone of laughter, anxiety, decay and undying hope.
From this center, full of need and lust and envy and sadness and memories and tears, from this heart of black smoke and dirt and music, the great decay spread out, like a bubble of dark oil making its way over an ocean of gray and green. Even at the farthest edges of the city, this bubble of decay showed its presence, in the sound of a distant grumbling bus, or in the peeling paint of a store wall, or in the cracks of a wide quiet sidewalk, but here in the center, the decay was pure, profound and complete. Here was the compost that gave the city its most needed nutrients. Here is where the dark earth worms lived and died. Here is where the new life forms evolved. Here was the birthplace of the Other.
From this long trip to the underworld, I came back tired and drained, but with a sense of much delayed discovery. In my own dirty hands I now held the old labyrinth that I first encountered when I pulled back the curtains of my parent’s house, the one I saw from the polarized window of a golden Mercedes Benz, the one I briefly touched when I walked to the Metro Center with my friends, looking for fun, girls, adventure, and dreaming of other places and other people, somewhere out there, beyond the unknowable edge of my world. Here then was my first and most incomprehensible labyrinth, the one that had first defied me, the one that had first pulled at my mind like the sticky strands of a spider’s web, and today it had opened itself to me, eager and unashamed, showing me its inner secrets, its most private chambers, unveiling itself in its full naked glory before my eager gaze, for the very first time. I embraced this ephemeral vision and I swallowed it whole. I could now feel the city itself within my cranium, no longer pulling from the outside to force my skull wide open, but pushing at the edges of my brain from the inside, getting adjusted to its new home behind my eyes.

An old man waits for his bus
in the city center,
holding onto his valuable possesions
safely stored inside a black pastic bag.

A young drunk sleeps away his sadness,
leaning against a wall marked with
angry graffity and peeling paint.

A business woman carries her store on top of her head,
her bank is in her apron,
her strength is in her eyes.

An old man with his hand at his crotch
and his eyes on the noisy life
that screeches and screams and laughs
all around him.

An old house covered in moss and scars
and faded dreams of a past
that has almost been forgotten.

A statement of undying faith
that is also a hidden warning.

An old thin woman bent over by the years,
who has walked so long and so hard
that she no longer needs to look
at where she's going.

A tinkling bell and a cold cart full of ice cream,
a sign of colorful hope
in a gray city lost in unspoken resentment.
Two young women wait for a ride
by the eastern side of Calle Arce,
to their right are the smog and the dreary endlessness
of a regular life of paychecks and repetition,
to their left is the cackling laughter
and the dark corridors of the old dirty brothels.

A young man offers horchata to his fellow pedestrians
while the sweet drink slowly gets ruined
in the open and vulnerable metal pots.
The giant factories that hide
behind tall walls and black metal gates
and a thousand crimes left unpunished.
A small house made of tin, plastic,
random pieces of wood, trash bags, cloth
and pure raw defiance.

A woman battles the growing forces
of carelessness and decay,
sweeping the broken sidewalk
littered by years of neglect.

A young boy plays with a plastic whistle
in the doorway of a shoe store downtown,
while Britney Spears looks upon him
from behind the cover of a fake leather purse.

A wall made of an extended trash bag,
a silent gateway to
the secret labyrinth that lies beneath.

A baby looks upon the labyrinth for the first time
and the nature of his impressions
is as mysterious to me as
the creatures of underwater caves
and the thoughts of the beings from distant galaxies.
An angel stands upon the world
making an offering to heaven
and a pigeon comes to take the gift.

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