“The whores are always smiling”

The Geezer's scribblings are a mystery even to him, but eloquently blunt nicknames like Cross-eyes, Crooked Back and Gimpy need no explaining.


Lately, my memory has turned a little soft around the ages, so I often carry a small notebook with me. I write down bits of conversations, fleeting ideas, funny signs, strange personal tics and — we are always learning — the Spanish that is spoken by my teachers, my friends and workers.

These notes can be a bane, for when I get home and read something like “Strange words for strange speakers. Like lightning storm. (Storms of laughter),” I have to confess, I am baffled. What was I thinking when I put down those words? Do people around here talk like lightning, and when they laugh, does it turn into some kind of storm?

Last week I wrote: “Where does the phrase ‘displaced symmetry’ come from?” Beats the hell out of me. It is written in my hand, on a 3-by-5 card I found in my pocket, so it must have meant something to me at the time.

“The whores are always smiling.” That one I do remember. I was driving with Lilo and he saw a woman crossing the street, and he muttered under his breath, “Prosti.” And I said, “How do you know?” (“Prosti” is short for — what else? — “prostituta.”) He said, “Porque ellas siempre sonrien” (“Because they are always smiling”).

I jotted that down as a cultural icon, perhaps even as displaced symmetry. To be an honorable woman in this part of the world — i.e., one who is seen as virtuous — one must never smile. Also, she should never look at a male directly in the eyes, the way most American women do. In this culture, that is seen as an invitation to a bedding.

“Tailgate on Sol truck.” I remember that one well, too. We were driving home about 10 one night, and we passed a truck of the Sol beer company, with the brightly rising sun displayed along the side, in reds and yellows — and there were about six men, mostly in Sol uniforms, standing around the tailgate of the truck, drinking beer, laughing, having a fine time. And that set me to thinking: When was the last time I saw a driver from Schlitz or Miller up north, standing in the dark with his buddies around the tailgate of a truck and having a high old time? Not permitted. Poor America.

“Plato de lengua.” And, scrawled right next to it, “Caldo de trompa.” “Plato de lengua” means “a plate of tongue” — as if one’s tongue were being served for dinner. “Caldo de trompa” means “soup of snout.” (“Trompa” is a slightly vulgar word for the nose of an animal.) The two, I find out, are elegant phrases for someone who talks too much, one who is much filled with “chisme” — gossip.

“Peel my love like an onion.” That one puzzled me for a few days; then I remembered it refers to a book I read recently that I found rather tedious. My friend Anna, on the other hand, whom I lent it to, thought the book witty, funny, delightful. I had written a snotty review of it, saying that the title was probably the best part of it. She couldn’t find what I wrote, lost in the morass we call the Internet. I promised to look it up for her. That note was my memo to me, and my failing mind.

All the time I am writing stuff down — writing in my morning notebook, in my pocket notebook, on scraps of papers that I save. I recall the doctor in Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” He would jot down Truths on scraps of paper and stuff them in his jacket pocket. Over time, the writing would fade and the papers would turn into hard wads. Often, when he was drinking and talking with his pals, he’d pull these balls of paper out of his pockets and throw them at his friends, laughing all the while. Anderson called them “paper pills.”

I’m in Mi Oficina Cantina, or at someone’s house, or in my huerta with the workers. I am always pulling out my notebook, writing stuff in it. Often, I take down the words and phrases that people use for future reference, to try to figure out what the hell they are saying to each other. They are my dictionary of the language of the people, the words that never came up in my Spanish II class, the street words — and, especially, the street language peculiar to this region.

Take the word for pimple — “pañoso.” My workers and friends are kicking the “futbol” around or cleaning a piece of land or at lunch. I am sitting near them, writing down the words I don’t get. Later I’ll ask Felipe or José what they mean.

The nicknames they use for each other, the insults, are sprinkled around everywhere, raisins in the pie. I don’t remember my friends and I being that rough with names. One of the workers, Juan, has pimples all over his face, so they call him “Pañoso.” In the vernacular of the street, it means just that: “pimple.” “Hey, Pimple, hand me a shovel.”

Felipe has scoliosis, so his nickname is “Pandiado” — “crooked back.” (At other times I’ve heard them call him “Camello” — “the camel.”) Vicente fell on his arm, which never got fixed; it’s perpetually cocked, held out a little from his torso. They call him “Chacál,” “the fiddler,” for those little crabs that live on the shore, the male with one small claw and another so exaggerated as to be misshapen.

It all reminds me of my time in another life, when I collected records of blues singers from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. With no apology, the singers would carry names like Cripple Clarence Lofton, Blind Willie McTell, Peg-Leg Robinson, Li’l Son Jackson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. More recently, we’ve had Fats Waller, Little Richard, Fats Domino and, my favorite of them all, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

Where does this directness come from? It’s something that you and I would shy away from, no? Would we, in these enlightened times, call a plump friend “Gordito” — “the little fat one”? Would we ever say to Manuel, the worker with the wandering eye, “Hey, Cross-eyes, come over here.”

Here in Puerto Perdido, when a baby arrives, if it has light skin, it will be referred to as the “Güero,” or “whitey.” Such a complexion is a cause for rejoicing, for people with that characteristic fine mahogany skin of southern Mexico — the skin that some of us find so appealing — seem to end up mostly as fieldworkers, policemen, common soldiers, the drones. The words most used for them are “Negro,” pronounced “NAY-grow,” and “Moreno,” or “darkie.” They never appear on television, except in roles as thieves, villains or the slapstick bumpkin comic. On airplanes, they are the ones in the back who are being shipped north, to work in the tobacco fields in North Carolina, in the luxury hotels of California and on construction sites in Atlanta.

And me? Usually, I’m “El Viejo” — the old geezer. But sometimes when they are talking about me and my wheelchair, they don’t use the formal word “inválido,” but rather — and it’s spoken with no shame — “jodido.” I’ve heard my loyal worker Juan use it when talking of me to others. I take no umbrage, even though some might translate it as “gimpy.”

Carlos Amantea is the author of "The Lourdes of Arizona." His writing also appears in RALPH.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>