Sunday, December 23, 2007

Checking Stocks in Hato Rey

Back in the seventies, when I was not so young, but still stupid, I did some time in Puerto Rico. I worked there with a guy named Pitts, who had been stationed previously in Nepal. I remember, when Pitts got off the plane from Katmandu, I had to hold him down at the sight of so many women with so little on. I, on the other hand, a veteran of a year with such scenery, was more interested in checking my stocks every day. Mild-mannered types we were, but, on one occasion, I managed to become a party to a local dispute, in which I was cast as the Ugly American, with Pitts as my hapless sidekick.

We worked in downtown San Juan, near Fernandez-Juncos, but the local Merrill Lynch office was all the way out in Hato Rey, in a square-looking, six-story building with an attached five-level garage. There was a drive-through between the building and the garage that led to the garage entrance.

The modus of our operandi was to find a place to park in the garage and then go across to the Merrill Lynch office to watch the electronic tape or ask the clerk for quotations on our stocks. Back then, I owned things like Tri-State Motors and DPF&G, which was a company that leased mainframe computers to other companies in the hope of making a profit. It never did. I don't remember what Pitts owned. He was trying to parlay the extra pay he got for working overseas into instant wealth. Pitts wanted to be a millionaire.

Back then, we had a couple of government-gray GSA automobiles at our disposal, but we usually drove to the Merrill Lynch office in Pitt's car that he had shipped in from Katmandu. It was a fading yellow Mercedes Benz that he had paid $1100 for, used. We could never get lost in this car because the black smoke from the exhaust could be seen all over the island.

On this particular day, the Mercedes Benz had broken down about ten miles south of San Juan, on the road to Ponce. Pitts tried to hire somebody to tow the car to a Mercedes Benz dealer in Bayamon, but nobody wanted the job. He was desperate about it for a while, but eventually desperation gave way to sentimentality. In one of the GSA cars, I would take him out occasionally to visit the car. Every time we went there, there was a little less to see. First, the hubcaps disappeared, then the fenders and doors. After six months, nothing remained except an oil spot on the side of the road.

So, on this particular day, we had to take a GSA car to Hato Rey to check our stocks. We were a little late getting out there because Pitts wanted lechon for lunch and the bar-rest. we went to was crowded. By the time we got to Hato Rey, it was after one.

Pitts was afraid that the garage would be full when we got there, but I could see empty spaces on the top level. We drove through, but at the entrance to the garage, a chain had been put up to block entry.

We stopped in front of the chain, pondering what to do. Pitts noticed a Puerto Rican man leaning up against the side of the garage entrance. I beckoned the man to come over and I explained to him, in the best Spanish I could muster, that we parked in the garage every day. He replied that the garage was full. I said that, undoubtedly, it had been full at one point, but cars had left, and now there were several empty spaces that were plainly visible from the street. He said again that the garage was full.

I continued to reason with the man, but all he ever said was that the garage was full. I pointed to the government lettering on our car door, but he was not impressed. At some point, the tenor of the conversation turned toward invective and I began speaking in English, as I didn't know the Spanish equivalents of some of the words that I wanted to use. When I suggested that I would let the chain down myself, the man began shaking his finger at me, saying, "No! No!"

By that time, several cars had pulled in behind us. Pitts, who was beginning to look uncomfortable, suggested that we forget about checking our stocks today. But I was seized with moral dudgeon. I decided that an example should be made of the man. I told Pitts to wait in the car while I went to find the manager of the place. I took the keys with me, in case Pitts' courage deserted him.

I sauntered into the building and went in the first office I saw. After a little friendly banter, I asked the person there for the name of the building manager. She didn't know. Then I went up to the Merrill Lynch office and checked all our stocks. All in all, It took me about twenty minutes. Then I went back down the elevator, stopping at every floor.

Even before I got back outside, I could hear the horns blowing. I could see through a window that the line of cars stretched out of the drive-through and into the main thoroughfare of Hato Rey.

When I arrived back at the car, the horn blowing increased. A small group of pedestrians had gathered to watch. The Puerto Rican chain attendant was standing in front of the car, holding firmly to the chain with both hands.

I got into the car and said to Pitts, "How's it going?" Pitts gave me a look. He said that one of the pedestrians had come up to him and said, "Yanqui, go home!" He said again that we should forget about checking our stocks. I told him not to worry - I had checked everything.

There was nothing left to do, but get out of there. As I turned the car toward the exit, a great shout went up from the cars and the crowd. I looked in my rear-view mirror on the way out and saw the Puerto Rican man, pulling down the chain and waving all the cars into the garage. The pedestrians were waving their fists in the air and cheering.

After that, word began to circulate in the barrios that there had been a popular uprising in Hato Rey, in which the people had emerged victorious over the wicked government. It became known, far and wide, as El Grito de Hato Rey.

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