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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Crash

Vivid as a cut flower, language fades, loses color, then collapses into a heap of shards. The shards reassemble, into myths, dislodge memories, disintegrate into words. Continents turn to sand.

The signs over shops in the town square had not changed though trees had grown, and peaks around the village seemed closer than mountains I remembered. The few worn notes in my pocket were a wad of lint. They hardly bought a cup of coffee.

The new bills bore the face of Baby Bachala. The old guy had a beard, the son didn't, that's how you knew them apart. In every other way the notes were identical. Old Man Bachala was better looking, and if you talked to residents, the son's reputation tarred the once loved father. Now both were regarded as puppets for a force that tore society apart.

After the elections, "Bachala" morphed into a new meaning. 'Bachala' meant 'a foolish man', one who is easily duped. 'Your dog's a Bachala.' or, 'They Bachala-ed the workers down at the plant.'

Perhaps language became the deceiver, and dollar backed money the new rulers, two marks of a cruel con. Street talk seemed a way to get even, every utterance was political code.

Trade was conducted in dollars, or barter of commonly needed items, a gallon of fuel, bunches of plantains, a quart of long-life milk. Coconuts for fuel, two small fish for a bottle of beer. In barter lingo, green coconuts were the medium of settlement and equivalence for small transactions.

"Ten coconuts for that T-shirt!"

"A six-coconut fish for a liter of oil."

The ten-thousand bill with the portrait of Baby B was worth about a nickel when I arrived. When it became illegal to use foreign currency a new practice sprang up - US dollar notes were glued to the rear face of the national bills. Real commerce was thus transacted in dollars.

Only the cheapest foodstuffs, and government transportation could be paid for in 'Old' or 'Young Men' that weren't backed. The fruit companies paid conscript laborers in the countryside national unbacked notes but you needed a stack of Young Men just to buy a plate of eggs. Field workers hugging bagfuls of nearly worthless cash, fought for bus seats to the capital to exchange funds at the bank.

The local banks employed women with brushes and pots of wheat paste to do the legitimizing. The law stated only national currency was legal tender - dealing in dollars was a criminal offense. But holding your nation's treasured money together with a dollar bill as a backing, that was patriotic. Hamilton, Jackson, and Washington now 'backed' most of the portraits of the Old Man and his son.

The frame might be worthless, but the picture represented a fortune.

Notes of the Republic, affixed to the dollar by wheat glue, further depressed the economy into a state of permanent inflation, weakening the paste bond that laminated the two nations together. Prices clung to round numbers, the suffix 'thousand' was dropped. Plates engraved for the thousand banknote were destroyed, the million Baby B took its place. What mattered was the greenback dollar stuck on back.

"How much is that CD?"

"Twenty Old Men." A million Baby B note backed by a portrait of Hamilton.

Bachala the Younger printed money as fast as he could. Viaduct Estano Diaz stank of solvents and ink. Brick walls ricocheted the machine gun clatter of his money presses.

Worn out Old Men were rolled as cigarettes for workers who loaded trucks with fruit for the border. The appalling injustice was that the exported fruit earned dollars.

The lines at the central bank went around the block, so I bought a wheat paste kit from a kid at the edge of the square.

My kit included a crude brush, a plastic pot of paste, and a hefty wad of young men for five dollars US. There was even a blurry printout with instructions how to do the laminating. These DIY kits made a profit, and downloaded the job of converting dollars earned through export into legitimate exchange.

I sat myself on a bench and started work with a small stack of dollar bills brought with me from the States. The instructions were explicit "All four corners must be glued down."

At week's end, the central bank recovered dollars, by soaking the notes in water. Worn to pulp by rapid circulation, the domestic bills were burned. The elite sent dollars to banks in China and Switzerland. Baby B prepared his exit, with a mountain of stolen cash.

The old woman with berries tied into her graying braids at the lemon colored shack sold me a ticket to the airport, where I'd catch my flight to the mountains.

I thought to myself, 'I am here again. I recognize her. She's the same! Have I changed more than this country?"

No matter. The portraits of Señor Bachala she gave as change were bleached white as sand.


I spent the night in "La Preciosa" in another room that looked to the tile swimming pool filled with leaves. The terra-cotta moldings on the stairwell stirred my heart with a longing. Longing for what?

I took a large wooden rake at the edge of the pool and busied myself gleaning leaves from the surface. Beneath the slick, the water was surprisingly clear. Then a young woman in a blue bathing suit burst out of the hotel and dove in. She swam a lap without noticing that I'd gotten all the leaves off the water for her.

The last time I visited this town I worked on a film commercial. A white jungle villa, backed by steep misted mountains, was rented as a location from a wealthy German owner. This time the producer had another project, but the location was the same.

I carried a small Nagra tape recorder and a case of microphones and cables. The producer hired a plane, and commanded his director and crew to meet him at the airport in the early morning.

The villa was a short flight to the north, through the mountains.

I don't believe in accident, or chance. Were my legs so fond of this place they led me back? Life is a history and system of forgetting and re-discovery. How cluttered we've become by names, places, dates, houses with photo albums, and heaps of useless journals, maps.

Today, this very day, I held in my hands a ticket, on that afternoon, a flight north, through the mountains. Would I visit the same deserted villa, encircled by vines, fer-de-lances hunting rats by the well?

Is literature just shadow play for a fickle and forgetful audience? Words drove my most precious memories into darkness. Truth merges experience with the compost of time, and somehow cheats memory every time.

Yet I did remember.

Some buildings were recently painted, others had fallen to ruin, It is quite amazing how sun, and a salt breeze will contort a piece of wood, split a hanging sign, curl the cedar shingles of an old roof. Memory rusts real property of the mind. Sentiment is the most powerful of all corrosives.

Wait a minute, that square I knew in my youth, wasn't it by the sea? Where is the sea? Is this the same country even? Perhaps my memory put the ocean there, into the picture. As I have been saying, memory is so faulty.

The old woman offered me a chance to enter a lottery.

"I'm flying out of here, why would I join a lottery?"

"But Señor, many who buy from me win. Try it you will see."

I gave her ten Old Men and she handed me a white ticket with some numbers.

How far is the sea from here?" I asked.

"It is two hundred kilometers away Señor."

I tried to calculate, my thirty thousand days of rambling, border to border, language to language. It had been a season of rulers on a rampage, people slaughtered. The town plans and names, those cannot change. Yet when change inevitably moves on, there's always a vestige of the old settlement, preserved by the scent of newly poured concrete.

How vivid it all was, a land outside of time, now just a box of shadows . . .


I met Titanio on an commercial shoot, years ago on the Island. A large estate had been rented. Ford delivered ten new luxury cars with a man in a suit who did nothing but keep the cars polished.

I had been signed by the union as an apprentice grip and electrician. "Meet Bobby V at 59th and 8th at seven o'clock. And don't forget to bring a hammer!"

Dispatch always gave the same advice. If you were a connected guy you could manage with just a hammer. But if you were a bum with no family connections you needed a full kit.

The hammer, as it turned out was the tool for getting things done in the movie business. It had to have a wooden or an insulated fiberglass handle, for prodding the backs of lights and fuse box connections. Handle and a claw at the same time, superb for picking up plywood, and sections of set.

On the Island I was assigned to Titanio. A crane was erecting a platform for lights and crew, on the roof of the big house. Titanio threw a line around four pieces of heavy plywood, then nodded to the crane operator who lowered the hook. Titanio draped the loop over the hook then signaled with his thumb, and as load of plywood started to rise lept on board. 'Take me up.'

Titanio rose hanging from a line of rope, standing on the slim edge of four pieces of plywood. On the roof of the mansion I saw him untie the plywood and begin putting together the platform.

His completely bald head and cold blue eyes and slow way of moving, and of signaling instead of talking, made one think the man lacked humor, or physical grace. This was not true. Titanio had been a gymnast in his old country, and one day shooting inserts for a series of commercials for Budweiser Beer, Titanio drank a few himself and showed us that he could still do some of the old moves he pioneered.

One of these was the standing triple somersault. "Today, because I'm an old man, I'll just do a double." He took one forward step and vaulted into the air. The air seemed to collapse as he hugged his knees, and sure enough came round two times before catching himself on the grass with his feet.


So a recovering man returns to life. Of course that is a choice. A crash is just another crisis, a bad hangover, or an overdose. The death of others becomes an abstraction, in time.

"You're upset. You're depressed," I told myself. Whose voice was that? She seemed to call sharply into my dark head, a bird I never recorded.

A dense forest forgets everything. So I walked, as I had many times, and after an hour when a sweat broke out on my brow I had to remind myself that I survived. Aside from a few bruises, I was the same as a human being walking in the forest. Same as any other.

As junior man in the tail of the plane, I had made it through.

Life's so fickle a game when dealing cards. There, a small warbler pulling beetles from a branch. A snake's tail vanishes under a log ahead of my footsteps. A howler deep in the leaf canopy. None of us can ever know what the major sequence is made out of.

And so I made it back to "La Preciosa". I had money. I had my bag. And the clerk at the desk recognized me and handed me a key for the same room.

"Welcome back Señor. The hotel has had to change it's rate Señor. It is now five Old Men per night."

I reported the crash. The police knew of it, and said many of the families had been contacted. I told them I had rescued passports of two crew members and intended to mail them home.

"Señor, those will be required by the Police." I handed them over.

Five of the crew were from this country. "Regrettable", they said. "Very regrettable."

"You walked out Señor? You are a lucky man. Please stay at 'La Preciosa' Señor for a few more days. We may have some questions for you."

"Of course."

I dug out Titanio's wallet and watch and keys, and put them in a small box. I wrote on the outside: "To the Family of Titanio" then addressed it care of our production office back in New York. Then Ellen's purse and fake pearl necklace. Then a box for each member of the crew. I hurried to the nearby Oficina de Correos.

I sought refuge in the hotel pool. My head ached. I could travel, record birds. I had the Nagra, that had been my plan.

History no longer seemed important. Thoughts of travel collapsed into a lump, merged with a headache that split my skull wide open.

Our book is left in tatters.

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