"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.

Published January 26, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

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."

By Carlos Amantea

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

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