Michael and his brother Manuel have come on board to take down some trees that are endangering the buildings. When I say “buildings,” it probably sounds like we’re on an estate. But no, this is an idiosyncratic house. When Allysen’s parents built it, they could not bear to cut down several big cork trees on the hill, so instead they broke the house into two parts, living area and kitchen/dining area, with the cork trees in the middle, surrounded by wooden deck. Both structures are made of poured concrete and concrete block. It’s the concrete roofs that have tree trunks bearing down on them, one a mahogany and one a cork tree.
These two guys are Paul Bunyan types, fearless and strong as a blue ox. Michael climbs into the trees while Manuel handles the lines. Michael goes up, lines are thrown and cinched, and the next thing I see, Manuel has tied a running chain saw to another rope and Michael is pulling it up. Braaap-p-p-p! Crack! He doesn’t cut all the way through, but leaves enough wood to keep the trunk or branch intact. Then powerful but judicious hauling on the lines breaks the branch or trunk segment away and it swings free to be lowered by Manuel. Repeat. Many times.
The strength of these guys shows even more when they start cutting up the pieces, hefting them onto their shoulders, and carrying them along the up and down and around brick pathways, to hurl them onto a pile in the empty plot we refer to as “the back forty.”
The mahogany tree especially tugs at us—such beautiful wood. We ask Michael to slice us some cross-sections of trunk to take home.
(Coming next in Part 10, a visit to the mineral hot springs)
[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]
This story is Allysen’s. She has several critical tasks involving government bureaucracy, and it’s a while before she’s able to get away from the hill long enough to tackle these. In her words…
I have to get more copies of my father’s death certificate. Death certificates are critical for… just about everything, including gaining access to money in joint accounts that were improperly frozen when he died, or applying for insurance benefits recently uncovered from dusty files.
I head down the hill to the Demographic Authority. Half an hour and every possible wrong turn later, I find a sign—barely visible—pointing to the office. It closed half an hour ago. Sigh. Earlier is better in Ponce.
Next morning I try again. Just outside the long cement building is a large cement… desk? A man and a woman sit behind it, chatting. What are they doing out here—having breakfast? I feel as if I’ve landed on a flyspeck tropical island of the 1940s, not modern Puerto Rico. I walk up to ask the way to the Demographic Authority. Before I can say a word, the woman asks my business.
Nosy, I think, but I explain: I need eight copies of a death certificate. She reaches under the desk and hands me a form. Wait—this table is the Demographic Authority?
I fill out the form and she looks it over with care. How would I like to pay? She rattles off an incomprehensible set of choices that seem to involve the man sitting next to her. Say again? The certificates cost $10 each. Would I like to pay right now or at… (something I don’t quite catch). Or… this man can sell them to me for $2 each. Huh? Sounds like they’re selling me lottery tickets.
Let’s try again. Yes, this man can sell me official death certificates for $2 each. Well, $16 is less than $80; I’ll buy from him. “Okay,” she says. “That will be $96.” Wait. My Spanish is good; maybe my math is lacking? Because at $2 each, I don’t get $96. I ask her to clarify, and we go through it again. I can buy them at $10, the usual price, or at $2 from the man sitting next to her. I can pay either $80 or $96.
What am I missing? Who is this man, and why does he have the power to sell me government documents at a discount? Er, markup?
At last the woman sees the problem. The $80 is the price, she says. To pay only that, you go back across town and line up at some other office, where you will get the seals for the certificates. Or you can pay an extra $2 per certificate to this gentleman for the seals, and get everything done right here, right now.
I pay the extra.
The woman does something magical with my paper, and hands it back to me, plus eight little strips of what look like stickers (from the gentleman?). She waves me toward some unmarked double doors in the cement building behind her.
Inside, I wander aimlessly until someone points me in the direction of death certificates. Stepping up to the window, I find myself facing a man who could well be Methuselah just entering his twilight years. Methuselah examines the paper and the stickers and asks some questions. I am armed with every piece of ID and potentially useful document in existence, including my only existing copy of the original death certificate. His eyes light up at that. Excellent! This will speed things along.
He begins to enter something into his computer… careful, slow, two fingered typing. After a while, he writes down a number—looks like a dozen digits or so—on my magic paper. Then he turns the paper over, and carefully types something from the back of the paper into his computer.
After a while he turns the paper over again and writes another 12-digit number on it. Once more he turns the paper over and resumes typing… turns over the paper… another 12-digit number… turns over the paper… pecks at the keyboard… until he has done this entire dance eight times.
My father died just five years ago. Surely these records are still in their system. Can’t he just press a few buttons and spit out eight copies of a form that already exists? I can just imagine my father’s reaction to such idiocy. No wonder Puerto Rico’s economy is in shambles.
At last the world comes out of pause. The man reaches under his desk and draws out eight pages, one by one.
They look like bad counterfeit copies of my original. If I wanted to commit blatant fraud, this is what I’d use. I show him the original again, and ask why these copies look so different. “Oh, those are the old ones. We haven’t used those in years. Now we use these.”
Numb with disbelief, I thank him—Puerto Rican courtesy is catching—and head back up the hill to talk to the electricians, or the mason, or the carpenters, or the plumber, or the pool repairman, or the tree man, or… anyone who does his job well and lives in the modern world.
Since arriving in Puerto Rico, we have not been eating solely at Subway; it just seems that way. Subway, after all, makes healthy sandwiches, quickly, for a good price. And there’s a Subway close to Home Depot, and another close to Sears. What more can you ask for? Well, variety for one thing, and local color for another. For dinner, we have tried to branch out a little. The results are decidedly mixed.
A place called Sabor y Rumba (Roomba? I like it!) has great ceviche (lime juice on a tasty fish), and I get my first taste of a local (to Boston!) craft beer: Sam Adams Rebel IPA. In Ponce? Yes, in Ponce. And you can buy it at Walmart. A highly recommended tapas place offers the most indifferent waiter service we have encountered in a long time, plus food of variable quality.
Here we again put to the test something we first explored at a chain restaurant called Sizzlers*. Can you ask for a slice of lemon in a Puerto Rican restaurant and get lemon, and not lime? At Sizzlers, I knew they had lemon in the kitchen, because someone’s drink had a slice on it. I wanted some for my shrimp. I asked in my own, poor Spanish, “Por favor, limón?” Allysen backed me up by explaining in Spanish that I wanted lemon, limón, not lime, lima. The yellow one. I was rewarded with a cheerful delivery of lime. At the tapas place, we tried even harder, with Allysen explaining at greater length: Amarillo, yellow. The big one. Not the green one. This time the waiter arrived with a small cocktail napkin which he placed with almost obsequious care on the table. On the napkin: one tiny wedge of lime, just ripe enough to be yellow.
I have not yet asked for lemon in a restaurant and gotten it.
I have, however, learned that the best tostones (fried, smashed plantain) on the island appear to be found at Denny’s. (Yes, that Denny’s.)
*Sizzlers, on the whole, was a mixed bag. The low point was the buffet, where I saw some tasty-looking roasted small potatoes and heaped a serving-spoonful onto my plate. Moments after chomping down onto a piece, I experienced a change of heart. Gulp. Swallow. “What did I just eat?” I choke. Allysen picks up a piece and inspects it. “Looks like fat, to me.” A passing waiter confirms: I have just taken a healthy serving of golden brown chunks of roasted fat. Buen apetito!
(Coming up in Part 8, Bureau of Certificates Bureau.)
[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]
Jayce, known to her immediate family as Julia, has taken on the surprisingly herculean task of scrubbing the kitchen cabinets. This is a tropical clime, and it appears that the aforementioned tenant has not done any cleaning of any kind in the year she was here. The cabinets are frightening caves full of insect and pest droppings of all kinds. Jayce gloves up and moves in. And spends days, literally, and I literally mean literally, scrubbing out the kitchen cabinets.
One last shelf in a series presents a particular challenge: a large, exceedingly flat, fierce-looking spider, tucked protectively into a corner behind a shelf bracket. Poisonous? Carnivorous? Murderous? Our imaginations abound. We (and by “we” I mean “Allysen”) decide it must be a Huntsman spider, known to be somewhat shy and fond of eating cockroaches. Its value in the pecking order shoots up, in our estimation. Besides, it’s probably huddled against the appalling racket the tree guys are making, just outside the kitchen wall.
Jayce names the spider Edith, though Allysen says she’s pretty sure it’s a male. Okay, it’s gender fluid, then. Jayce talks to it quietly, privately. I don’t want to hurt you. I know this is your home. But I have to clean. Can we work it out?
Edith, who had wedged itself between the shelf and the shelf bracket, says nothing. But two days later, this spider is gone, and we have not seen it since. Probably went to find someplace less crazy to live.
Before I leave Jayce’s section, I’ll point out that she kept at the kitchen cleaning right up to about fifteen minutes before she left for the airport for her flight home (a few days before us). I failed to get an action photo, so here’s one of her relaxing between cleaning bouts.
The labors of Allysen
Allysen has been mostly at arm’s length from the physical labor, but she’s arguably the busiest person on the hill. She’s the project manager on a project with a tight deadline. Since most of the workers speak little to no English, and I speak little to no Spanish, she’s the one who has to talk to everyone. She’s busier than a one-armed paper hanger—constantly on the phone, or running this way and that to confer with the crews. I practically need to make an appointment to talk to her, and even then barely ever get more than a half-minute conversation before a phone call interrupts us. I wonder how long she can keep this up without cracking.
A couple of observations
Several things are remarkable about this journey. One is the sheer number of things that can go wrong in a house—and all at the same time. Veronica didn’t help, with her wanton destruction of property. But at the same time, this house requires continuous upkeep against the elements—far more so, I think, than our house in Boston. And for the last few years, it has gotten less than the upkeep it needs. I see now how fast it can catch up with you; Nature is attempting to break this place back down to its constituent elements. Like Downton Abbey, it needs a full-time staff. One person could work full-time just moving around the property reseating and mortaring brick. The house is not large, but it’s built on a hill. It was built by Allysen’s parents around some lovely cork trees, and the trees are not being kind in return. Relentlessly, they are pushing at the brick, and leaning closer, ever closer, to the roofs of the two parts of the house.
One thing you learn quickly in the culture here is the power of who you know. Without our neighbor Frances we would have been dead in the water, trying to find the right people to do this work on short notice. Frances wears many hats on this island, and seems to know everyone who’s anyone. She also manages some properties—and has learned, through years of experience, who will show up on time and do the job right, and she has cultivated working relationships with them. When Frances asks someone to drop what they’re doing to come and help, they tend to do it. Also, when the city accidentally shuts off water to the hill, which they do with some regularity, Frances is the one who gets it turned back on with a phone call.
Then there’s the work ethic. While we have encountered the stereotypical “it’s not my job” worker, none of them are working for us here. I cannot believe how hard these people keep at it. The electricians and carpentry/masonry crews labor for seven or eight hours straight—with only brief lunch and water breaks. While I’m busy with myriad small repairs—or making extended runs to Home Depot, Ace, and Sears—these guys are doing backbreaking physical labor, and guzzling bottled water that we’d picked up as an afterthought. The tree guys will be the most amazing, but more about them in a later chapter.
Finally, a few thoughts on local courtesy. As anywhere, I suppose, it’s a mixed bag. I was a little shocked by how many times people stood in my way in doorways or supermarket aisles, oblivious to my polite “Perdón!” In this respect, the lack of common courtesy seemed worse to me than even the renowned New England brusqueness. And I hate to say it, but women were noticeably more likely than men to be rude in this way. Of course, I was pretty conspicuous as a Northerner, but still. On the other hand, I had many interactions with sales people and so on, and was surprised how pleasant most of these interactions were. Even when we had no common language—the percentage of those who spoke English was really pretty small—most people seemed eager to help, and we always seemed to end our conversations with a smile and a handshake. Explain? I can’t.
This is the day when the sewer line to the septic tank backs up onto the tile floor of the downstairs rooms, which thankfully are unoccupied. Not good, not good at all. I beeline to Home Depot for a snake, and Heri—who has actually has just stopped by to talk about putting in some hours for us—steps in to do the actual work. He snakes a napkin out of the sewer line, and all seems well, and he handles the unpleasant cleanup with stoic efficiency.
Unfortunately, the next day, it happens all over again. Aughh! Call Frances! Our neighbor Frances is on it with a plumbing/septic tank company—not just any company, but the one that will come when Frances calls. Plumber on the way.
Shortly thereafter, the power goes out: Ricardo has gotten the city power company here to cut power to the property so that he can replace the main panel.
By about 10:30, uncomfortably aware that there may not be a working toilet for a couple of hours, I decide to run an errand to Home Depot, which besides many excellent products has working restrooms. Daughter Jayce comes with, and we do a bunch of shopping for supplies. (Q: Didn’t we do this yesterday? And the day before? A: Yes, we did.) Word comes on the phone that we should look for deck stain—exterior mahogany deck stain. Home Depot doesn’t have it. Decks are uncommon on the island, and almost nobody, we are told, carries the kind of stain we’re looking for. Exterior stain. Not interior. Exterior. This becomes a litany, and still people show us interior stain. (So how has the family been buying stain for the deck for the last forty years or so? Never mind. Don’t ask.) Thus begins a day-long hunt for stain in the greater Ponce area.
Guided by Steerie, the trusted voice of my phone’s GPS, we crisscross the city for the next several hours, looking for deck stain. Glidden? Nope. National Ferreteria (hardware)? Nope, but we get directions to Sherwin Williams. Sherwin Williams? Closed. Other Sherwin Williams? Nope, but we get helpful information that a store an hour and a half drive away might be able to help us.
Five hours after leaving for an errand/pit stop to Home Depot, we stagger back up the hill to the house, with sandwiches from Subway, but no deck stain. We find the plumbing back up and running, though. Yay! Turns out the tenant, “Veronica,” had flushed paper towels and sanitary napkins down the septic system, and the system rebelled. The electricians are still hard at work, installing the main box. Turns out the concrete pillar that holds the main panel drawing power from the street has been crumbling year by year under the vines that have grown around it. But the remaining concrete is so hard that Ricardo has melted the tips of three drill bits, drilling holes to mount the new panels. And by melted, I mean melted. He shows us one of the drill bits. Where before there was a cutting edge, now there is a blob.
Finally, after working a ten-hour day on our project (he thought it would take two), Ricardo restores power to the house. Applause! He’ll be back mañana to start tracing all the circuits on the property.
Estevan and Carlos, meanwhile, abruptly change their work plans to build a supporting envelope of concrete around the crumbling electric-supply pillar.
Now the electrical crew swarm the hillside, putting in new lighting on the hill itself and on the brick wall running down the side of the hill, past the swimming pool. It’s going to look great, we tell ourselves.
The pool continues to drain (seen from the kitchen roof).
While we’re up on top of the kitchen, let’s see a couple of other views, to give us hope that this is all worth it—the view down the hill, and across to the living area. Ah, that’s better!
Time begins to take on a liquid quality, generally starting at 7 a.m., which is when workers around here like to get started. Not our best time of day! But making coffee and greeting people as they arrive is something we can almost handle. Not sure what day of the week it is, at any given moment; just aware that the two weeks are slipping by fast.
All of the contractors by now have walked over the property with us, and given estimates—usually with the comment, “That’s a lot of work.” Ricardo the electrician and his men are going to town—rewiring the whole blasted place, starting with the main breaker box up by the street, which is so corroded he is amazed there’s electricity in the place at all. Eventually they will get to some of the more scarily jury-rigged wiring, and replace it with new circuitry.
Estevan and his crew have already fixed the wooden steps down from the parking pad and replaced some old decking. Heri (sounds like Eddie) is working on the brick steps close to the house. Freddie is bringing the local flora under control. A sump pump pumps green water out of the swimming pool. I eye the electrical tape wrapped around the power cord that goes down into the murky depths, and swallow hard.
With the water restored, we try the washing machine, which Veronica moved out of the house in favor of her own, and left sitting in the elements for a year. It stinks of mildew. On spin cycle, it sounds like an airplane. Not promising. Add buy new washer to the steadily growing list. We are destined to spend about a third of our daily waking hours in Home Depot, the Plaza del Caribe Mall (Sears, Macy’s, J.C. Penney’s), and Walmart, with occasional stops at Denny’s, the various ATMs, and Subway. Not very local-sounding, but more of that later. The laundry situation is a little makeshift, in any event. There is only one 220 volt outlet, which means if we want hot water, we have to unplug the dryer, and vice versa. The washer itself is running off an extension cord from another room. The washer outlet, like many others, isn’t working.
Allysen and I have been sleeping on a borrowed air-bed. The sheets slide weirdly on it, and it makes a sound like an approaching thunderstorm when either of us rolls over. It’s disconcerting as hell. More than once I have peered toward the window, wondering how a storm front has moved in without my noticing, only to realize that Allysen has simply turned over in bed.
In spite of all this, we’re doing okay. No snow or ice, and that’s something. (Back in Boston, the unseasonably warm winter has given way to cold, cold, cold.) The cute little lagartijos (lizards) are ubiquitous and adorable. The tarantula probably would have been, if we’d gotten to know it. The mosquitoes are appalling, though; they’re very small, hard to see, and too quick to swat. We wonder how long it takes to detox from daily application of Backwoods Off. But we’re getting there. We are. We have now purchased a new washer from Sears—and new beds. Luxury!
After our success with Acueductos (the water department), we can shower in our own home at last! This seems to cry out for a poetic interlude.
After Acueductos (by Allysen Palmer)
Water flows everywhere.
sleekly satin fingertips running along my hair and body
sweet pleasure, my lover, touching without fear,
sure of my eager consent.
Smooth fish swim against my body,
tiny touches make me gently drunk
on clean, on wet
heavy hair releasing a week of sweat and dirt.
My lustrous dark fur clings slick and delightful
while soap moves in to add its bite
and nip and strip the protective layers away.
Back into the world I step,
nothing between my mantle of cells and the warm morning air.
Clothing rubs pleased against my self, exploring the bare boundary
only my eyes still barriered
protected by their guardian layer of tears
working always, alert to carry away the invading dust of life
protecting that window
straight into my soul.
(The photo is a waterfall on the Snake River and has nothing whatever to do with Puerto Rico. Coming in Part 4, time starts to blur. I know I said that before, but this time I mean it.)
[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]
The harshest immediate reality is that there’s no city water to the house. It was turned off after “Veronica” left, and the bureaucratic obstacles to getting it turned back on are formidable. We’ve arrived on a weekend, and Monday is (we learn to our unhappy surprise) a government holiday—something to do with the eighteenth day of Christmas, I think. And so on Tuesday at 7 a.m., we drive downtown and queue up outside the water department building to be 20th or so in line for service. The paperwork requires a letter of authorization from Allysen’s mom back in Massachusetts, passports and IDs for both Allysen and her mom, a death certificate for her father, her father’s will, and a hasty phone call to get her mom’s Social Security number. I’m not making this up, and I’m probably forgetting a few items. Presto, done!
The following day, some men arrive to turn the water back on at the meter pictured above—but don’t, because of a missing rubber gasket. They don’t say that, of course. They say that water is off for the entire hill. Freddie, bless him, calls someone he knows in the agua (water) department, who comes to our rescue. Finally, we have water. We don’t necessarily have a clear sewer line, but that we won’t discover for another day or so. Here’s one tiny section of the serpentine maze of water pipes that Freddie, fortunately, understands.
During all of this, we are utterly reliant on the amazing graces of our next-door neighbors Frances and Che, who take care of us like family. They feed us, give us the use of their showers, and line up carpenters, brick-repairers, electricians, fence-builders, and tree removal specialists for us. They are astounding neighbors, and blessed with an exceptional ability to make things happen in a culture where much depends on whom you know. Frances, as I think about it, could have stepped right out of the pages of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan novels. Perhaps a blend of Miles’s mother Cordelia and his Aunt Alys (Ivan’s mother). Just add a Latin flair, and you have Frances.
Internet—T-Mobile to the rescue
Folks like us can hardly be expected to survive two weeks without internet and email, can we? Actually, that’s not just pampered person’s luxury; much of the research we need to do here, as well as maintaining some semblance of connection to the world back home, requires getting online. Trouble is, getting two weeks’ worth of internet to the house will cost about $200. Excessive.
The answer comes at the mall, where I stop into a T-Mobile store to ask about getting a replacement for Jayce’s failing phone. There I learn that there’s an app on all of our phones that allows us to use the data connection on the phone to essentially turn our phones into home routers (wifi hotspots). To my surprise, it not only works, but works pretty well. Sucks a lot of power, as does the GPS when we’re driving, but that’s what chargers are for. We’re connected!
I have just returned from another dimension. That’s the way it feels, returning to Boston.
I have been in Puerto Rico for the last two and a half weeks with one wife and one daughter, frolicking in the sun and surf. Oops—no, sorry!—that’s what normal people do when they “vacation” in Puerto Rico. We have been engaged in something rather different. We have been “camping” in the beautiful house that Allysen’s parents built decades ago, when her dad was brought here by General Electric to help set up some industrial plants. The house remains Fay’s (Allysen’s mom), though she moved up to be closer to us a couple of years after Allysen’s dad died. The house has been largely empty for a few years, except for some dedicated caretakers and neighbors—and one rather, er, exceptional tenant. The elements have not been kind to the house, and the tenant has left a swath of deconstruction.
We have come to pick up the pieces. What follows is a chronicle of that mission. All characterizations of the tenant, and of the house, are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of the owner (my mother-in-law).
We fly to Ponce, Puerto Rico, courtesy of JetBlue. This means we arrive at 4-something in the morning. (All flights between Ponce and Boston are red-eyes, via New York or Orlando. This is one of the charms of traveling to Puerto Rico. Another, an actual charm, is the applause that invariably erupts from the passengers upon safe touchdown. Whether it’s applause for arrival back on the homeland, or for the pilot for getting us down in one piece, I do not know.)
Our plan is to rescue and restore the beautiful Palmer homestead on a hillside above the city, both from the depredations of the tenant and from years of the elements, insufficient maintenance, and some squirrelly electrical work (none of it unsafe!) from Allysen’s dad’s later years, when his once-exacting standards were somewhat in decline.
Members of the mission team: Allysen, Jayce (the-daughter-formerly-known-as-Julia), and Jeff. Mission site: an empty house, devoid of all furnishings except a huge stack that the tenant left behind, and a few essentials provided by kindly friends. Goal: to repair and restore, and make suitable for short-term rental or sale.
As always, we are picked up at Ponce Airport and brought to the house by Freddie, the tireless, fearless, loyal, and there-when-you-need-him moonlighting policeman. We notice at once the broken steps, the defunct lighting, the lack of running water (except precious gallons from the gravity-fed cistern), and the condition of the once-gorgeous pool (now slime green). The place actually looks better than we expected, thanks to Freddie’s hours of work in cleaning and carrying out eight 30-gallon trash-bags full of junk left by the tenant, whom we will call, um… Veronica. It was Veronica who failed to maintain the pool, didn’t report broken steps and decking, and who removed light fixtures from the walls with abandon—oh, and installed an obscenely ugly faux fireplace in the living room where once there had been lovely cabinet doors. When we last saw the house, about three years ago, it needed some work, but nothing like this. It‘s all quite a shock.
The pool as we last saw it, in 2013…
The pool that greets us now…
Another little jolt is the tarantula I spot on the side of the pool, right above the carpet of algae. We discuss what to name it. Edith? Ethel? We settle on Ethel. The next day Ethel is gone, and we don’t see it again.
(Coming up in Part 2, settling in with no running water.)
[To read all of The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]