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I Remember Ibiza
by Harold Liebow

Part Twenty Three
I Meet Alberto


I Remember Ibiza

See how they run! The school yard was about thirty five meters square and in it were about thirty five galloping mustangs masquerading as boys. The activity was so frenetic that at first I found it hard for my eye to follow any one given youngster because he would be cut off from my view almost instantly by the flying bodies of half a dozen others. There was a vortex of collective activity which seemed to be going clockwise for awhile but which would suddenly reverse itself and be seen to be going anti-clockwise. There was shouting and laughing and wrestling and running and marble shooting and hooting and basket balls being thrown about: In short, there were boys gone mad with the midday island sunlight and the sounds of their own joyousness.

There were short boys and tall boys, slim ones and stout ones, dark skins and light skins, there were all kinds of boys and all kinds of sights and sounds that seemed healthy and youthful and wonderfully innocent. My heart ached when I thought of the dreary school yards of New York, the cement playing fields of that urban jungle. It ached when I compared the robust, animated faces of the boys before me with the unsmiling faces of the dispirited children of my native metropolis, compared their hopeless imitation of vitality with this hive of boundless energy, compared this environmental celebration of air so pure one could almost drink it, with the dour, prison-like atmosphere in New York and its all too frequent endemic odour of garbage. Here there was life bubbling over like golden champagne. Here there was reason to rejoice, even to nourish a dim, optimistic hope for the future.

In the school yard, one boy began to catch my eye as he circled around with the others. Of all of them, he was the only one who seemed to be aware of himself as others saw him, which was not to say that he was not as involved as the others in unselfconscious boyishness. But there was a certain glint of objectivity and humorous self regard which peeped through from time to time. A half smile at himself, a half smile at something else, a half smile at nothing in particular. Here was a boy who, at about age eleven, was able to view himself, and the world around him, objectively. Here was a boy who had insight and style and who soon emerged as the clear leader of the group. Here was the boy who I hoped would become my ‘Juanito’. He had not the trace of an idea, of course, that such a transformation of his identity was about to be offered to him. And I had not the trace of an idea of whether or not he or his family would accept my offer to effect it.

And then the teacher of the class appeared. A more appropriate type to manage these boys would be hard to find. He was bearded, buoyant, brave and bright, and the boys all knew he would treat them right. He was quick to see where my interest lay, and he chuckled to himself and walked away. He went up to my boy and he called him out, and the two of them walked right over to me.

Catalina introduced us all to each other with an adroitness and efficiency of word that one would have expected only from a long time professional translator. It was then that I learned the name of my boy. His name was Alberto, and when he heard my name, he smiled at its foreign sounding quality. His handshake was manly. It felt sincere. The nuances were promising. We had been surrounded by all the boys in the meanwhile, who were consumed with curiosity. They plainly wanted to know what the foreigner was all about. Catalina obliged. She began by explaining the reason for my tardy appearance. The story of the sheep that had plunged into my car was relished. The boys shouted questions at us, giving little time for answers. Into their simple, uneventful, village lives a foreigner whose car had killed a sheep was a diverting event, an incident of titillating interest. They wanted detail, and Catalina gave it to them; she described the sound and feel of the impact as the sheep’s body collided with the car, the blood on the bonnet, the sheep’s feet jerking in pain, the lot. And then, with an apologetic smile to me, she even described my deep distress and anxiety over the affair. This brought instant approval from her audience and, when she had finished, a round of supportive applause. It was all very reassuring to a stranger in San Carlos.

But now we had reached the nitty gritty of the affair. It was time to explain to them the real purpose of my presence in their school yard. There we all stood in a close circle, in the streaming sunlight, in the open air so pure one could almost drink it, surrounded by rolling green hills and distant purple mountains, with the sea only minutes away. And into this known ambiance, into this common treasure, into the lives of these boys there was suddenly introduced the astounding idea of a creative literary project, an idea so new, so unexpected, so revolutionary, in fact, that at first it was hard for them to grasp that I was there to ask one of them to become the major part of it.

When at last it was grasped, when at last they could understand that there would be playacting and directed photography, when they realized that the project could take weeks, months even, their rural sense of the commercially productive use of time seemed to be insulted, and they shied away from the idea. Catalina reported that they felt no family would want their son to be absented from his responsibilities around the farm for so long and for such a non-revenue productive reason. I could see they would soon be playing in the school yard again. I could see that making books was a no-go with the boys.

But, it appeared, that was not so with Alberto. He looked me straight in the eyes and told me he was indeed very much interested but would have to think about it. If he decided affirmatively, he said, he would then ask his parents to meet with me and we could discuss the whole matter. Having said his piece, he said good bye to us and he was off like a shot to join the others who had drifted away while we talked.

Catalina then took me in tow, signalling that it was all over, and I found myself at her mother’s bar where coffee and talk rang ‘round. That was when I met Anita, Catalina’s mother. Her face was doughy white, intelligent and patient, all at once. Her life had been tragically touched by the Spanish civil war and though more than twenty five years had passed since that catastrophic conflict, she seemed still to be living in its shadow. I shall never forget her confidences which slowly came my way as the years passed and she grew to trust me. She seemed in need of speaking of her experiences and I had long learned to be a good listener. So we were, initially, well suited to each other, and I soon had her blessing with regard to Catalina’s working with me on our book

She had an instant grasp of the its purpose, of which she strongly approved, and, having come that far, it was not hard for her to encourage both of us to a full commitment. It was from Anita that I learned of another possible translator, since Catalina could not be expected to be always on hand. He had only recently returned from America where he had been a short order cook in a ‘diner’ for many years. Because of his long residence abroad he could be expected to be fluent in English. His name was Juan den Xico, pronounced, “Chico”, and he turned out to be a colourful and dependable co-worker. He was a much older man, said Anita, with a certain air, who had returned to the island with his accumulated ‘fortune’, and he had married a quite young woman shortly after his return. It was clear that I should make of that what I pleased.

A diner is a curiously American restaurant institution. It developed from the original use of a real railway car as a crude dining room for railway workers. The long, narrow, railway car construction style became characteristic of all purpose-built diners in later years, and to this day, diners are very popular in the country. The food is always hot, plentiful and relatively inexpensive. But most of all it is FAST. Your order sits before you so quickly you lose no waiting time during your brief lunch hour. And so the backbone of the diner’s staff is therefore the chef. He is always of a special breed. He is called a Short Order chef. His specialty is speed and his food-ordering language, which he creates himself and teaches to the rest of the staff, is original. Most of all it is instantly intelligible and time saving. “Burn one!”, for example, is the order to indicate coffee, black. “Adam and Eve on a Raft,” is the order for fried eggs. And so on. Listening to the orders being hurled to and fro in a diner can be a diversion of high hilarity. Some people in America spend a good deal of time sampling the colour of the language among dozens of diners. And so I looked forward to meeting Juan den Xico with nostalgic overtones. I had always loved eating in diners, myself. Would he have the real stuff?

Harold Liebow