Wherever I puts my hat is my home

Published in the Portuguese Times May 10, 2000.

I recently received a postcard from an old friend mine who, without his knowing it, was always able to offer me catharsis by summing up much of what brings me sorrow and love, joy and loss. I will get to what he wrote below, but the exact words are perhaps not so important as the fact it was Joe who sent them to me.

I first met Joe Leite at the Café São Gonçalo in Ponta Delgada. It is a small cafe bar, across the street from my apartment in what can be described as one of the more modern neighborhoods of the city and even of the islands themselves. By way of describing my apartment house building, I have often asked my friends to picture something out of an Almodovar film, minus the red. The cafe itself is not that modern, and is one of a typical type in the Azores, where men can be found drinking cachaça to “mate o bicho” before 7:00 am and when those same men are drinking beers and whiskeys before they go home to their wives after work, one can see women and girls standing timidly at the outskirts of the bar asking for ice cream and papo secos.

It was on just such an afternoon that I first met the author of the postcard of subject when, I had myself—perhaps somewhat androgenously—just finished drinking a beer after buying some papo secos. The bread was for dinner, and the beer was my reward for having taught a group of predominantly uninterested under grads at the UA a particularly long and difficult class on ethnicity and how it is not a scientific category, but rather a socially constructed one. I had put the glass, empty save for the foam that was climbing up its sides back on the counter and was gathering my rolls wrapped in paper, when in walked Joe Leite.

He had a strange look about him and I could not quite decide whether he was one of the bar’s usual early evening clients in from the construction site down the road or if maybe he might have been repatriated from the US. That he was wearing a New England Patriots jersey did not so much lead me to conclude the latter as the fact that he entered the bar with a certain kind of swagger carried in the confidence that he knew people might not think he belonged but he was not about to change who he was to make anyone feel comfortable. Anyway, with Joe, all prior judgments tended to be constantly reevaluated every five or ten minutes so that with him, you were never really quite sure where his center lay. Or if, in fact, he even had one.

It would not be until some time later, but Joe would tell me he was, as it all turned, out a repatriado. I should add a caveat to that however, because according to Joe, he was not really a repatriado in the sense that he had been forced to the Azores as a result of any government’s action against him, though he assured me that several governments could well have forced him any number of places for an equal number of reasons. But in fact (a word that one takes loosely with Joe) in this case he was not, and was instead what he liked to call himself, “a voluntary repatriado.”

Who knows if that were true. The entire time I knew Joe, which was only about three months, I never once knew when he was telling me the truth. The thing was though, it was virtually impossible to catch him in any lie, because everything he told you about himself, as fantastic as it may have been, had just enough reality in it to possibly, just maybe, be true.

Like the time he told me that he once worked for the CIA.

I thought, right, a spy for the CIA, and as my eyebrow was on its way to being half raised, he told me he “freelanced” for them, as a civilian translator on a US Navy ship off the coast of Brazil eavesdropping on radio transmissions among mid-level military officers during the 1980s Brazilian financial crisis. He said the CIA wanted to be aware of a potential military coup and troop movements. My eyebrow went down. It sounded, well, almost reasonable. And the thing with most of his lies or his half-truths, no matter how much disbelief you had, you could never really dismiss what he was claiming out of hand and he would ultimately give you the feeling that, I don’t know, maybe he was even being honest. I decided anyway after our first few conversations that I would save my sanity and certainly enjoy our time together much more, if I just listened to what he was saying as if I were listening to actors in the movies and suspend all disbelief, allowing myself to fall into his stories as long as they carried with them their fair share of verisimilitude. And, well, I’ll tell you, they pretty much always did.

But these thoughts were yet a long way off as I stood there about to leave the café, looking at Joe and trying to figure out just exactly who he was. As it all turned out I did not have to do too much figuring. He walked in and ordered himself a beer and turned to me where my tweed jacket covered elbow was bumping into his rolled up Patriots football jersey, then looked back to the empregado and asked for one more “for the professor over here.” I thanked him, and asked him how he knew I was a teacher and he smiled, and started telling me he knew who everyone was. I was not that surprised, as the island is pretty small and if you are around long enough you get to know pretty much everyone, but I figured at that point that he must be a repatriado, and I must have talked to him before with some other people. I don’t usually forget faces, though and I couldn’t figure out his. Not really wanting to go into it, I asked him where he was from in the States, and that time he told me he had grown up in New Bedford. Of course on other occasions he told me he went to Durfee and Hope High or that he was living in Fox Point with family friends after he had dropped out of the Upper Cape Voc. Tech. He also would never tell me what country in which he was born nor where, nor what village he or his parents called theirs. He never actually said he was from São Miguel or even the Azores either, but I am not as bad an anthropologist as my initial confusion over his identity might lead one to believe, so I am certain he had a cultural relation with this island, whatever form that relation might be.

There are many stories to tell about Joe Leite. Much of my drunken 25 de Abril celebration on the Avenida with my Angolan friend Firmo was passed with Joe talking about his movement through both Portuguese and non-Portuguese Africa (Joe never traveled, he would say he passed through space, always grasping a little more of it or himself when he left for somewhere else). And on one of my Romarias, Joe walked out of a bar in Arrifes and insisted on walking along with our Rancho, tagging along at the back in the rain, and not chanting or anything but waiting until we next stopped where he pulled a bottle of aguardente out of his jacket, offered it to us and disappeared before the Irmão Mestre could offer his prayers, which Joe asked to be given for all of his ancestors long deceased and all of his descendants not yet created.

As space here is limited and I have yet to discuss his postcard, I will simply say that I am conscious of the fact that these lines describe him as a sort of working class Azorean Jay Gatsby. Although in the case of Joe Leite, he also has a little of his own Nick Caraway thrown in. (I will briefly note that before he last disappeared, his formal good-bye to me consisted of a large and unorganized packet, dropped outside my apartment door, stuffed with all manner of scraps of paper and napkins and backs of printed documents filled with poems “penned by Joe Leite”. Writing in a curt note Joe said that I was among his only non-illiterate friends (high praise indeed) and so he wanted me to be the poems’ custodian, to organize them, and if I could ever find a publisher who thought the poems would have no possible chance of benefiting anyone, to allow them to be printed.)*

I can’t say I was necessarily upset with his leaving, but my life was certainly less chaotic if less interesting after he had gone. His leaving though made nothing but sense. Joe always had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with this place, alternating between calling it the place of his only true family on earth and then wondering how anyone not insane could find any sort of excuse to not flee these islands at the first chance given. In an early morning drunk after being quiet for most of the night, Joe once spoke of the Azores in his characteristically ambiguous way “it is out of frustration’s desire and the isolation caused by knowing you are at a center with potential to lead to anywhere that I am only ever able to feel like I belong when I am here.” Of course shortly after that on the car ride home he said that the majority of the Azoreans he knew “take too much these islands’ cows as their personal guide to how to live a life, and until that changes this place is hopeless. My friend, if your only option to leave is swimming out of here then grab your bathing suit and cap and start stroking. The thing is once you’re not here anymore, this place is like nine raised scars on a smooth ocean. After they have burned in and welted up, they may have healed but they are never going away.”

But those words were distant memory and honestly so too was that packet of poems which was the last I had heard from him until this past week, when, almost a year later, I came home from a trip to Madeira to find that postcard he had sent waiting for me in my mailbox.

The postcard was itself one of those big ones that you have to pay extra postage to mail. The front had a black and white picture of a couple, dressed as rural peasants might for Easter mass or their first child’s baptism (save for the fact they were barefoot) peeking through the same hole in a solid wooden fence so that their backs faced the camera. The grain of the photo gave it a pre-1940s feel though I have no idea when the photo was taken.

Wondering where he might be, I saw that the postmark was from Turkey, but when I read on I realized this was meaningless. The card, as much of Joe’s poetry, was written in gray pencil and filled with his usual, lets say, flexibility with grammar and spelling. He wrote:

“Don’t bother to pay any attention to the postmark, I sent this to be mailed by a fine young couple I met on a train you dont know where nor do I but I am probably on my way far from those destinations. I know I dont owe one but will, my quick excuse for leaving that island was I found work giving tours for a tourguide companny in Europe, but gave the job up when they wanted me to taken the same tours over and over again. I did do it once and I went to the south of Spain. I thought of you as I looked out over gibraltar to Africa and wondered if you would ever make sence enough to make anyone buy your moor thing.”

[Author’s note: we had many conversations about my belief that Portugal should embrace its North African identity synthesizing Africa and Europe with the Latin rather than running from it. And when I became momentarily obsessed last year with Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, as I am often to do with ideas and literature that touches, Joe would mockingly call me Al, short for Al Garb. But this is his letter not mine so to continue...]

“You know I buy it anyway. But then I suspect that you want to make Portugal aware of its Moorish soul because of your constant need to blur lines and then remake them solid agian in your own image. And only say that because that is who I am too. I thought of going to Toledo in your honor but there was a train strike and I never quite made it. That just means it is still there for me. Writing you I dont even know if you are still in that island jailhouse that you call paradise or if you have caught the boat to some other home. If you are still there I know you must be getting to leave. You dont belong there anymore than I did, and not anymore or less than anyone else. Get out before you start to feel like you do. You should get out of anyplace before you start to feel like you do. Perpetual searches for home can only end in the realization that even when home is a real physical place, it is only how you imagine it that makes it have any meaning.

“So fill in your lines with whatever colors you like, but until you throw away the drawing book and know you are your own brush and pots and your canvesses are all in thin smoky air then youll be on to something.

“Say hello to Vera for me and tell her I said I was sorry about Café com Letras that night though I cant say I really am.”

The card was not signed, but included this postscript.

“I keep looking in bookstores for that poetry I sent you. I am not holding my breathe, i know. feel free to do whatever you want if it will help its getting published? I really only want it printed to show off in bars anyway.”

Well. I am still here in São Miguel, and will be at least for another couple of months, though those months feel much more like weeks these days. And I will tell you, I am not at all sure I agree with all that Joe wrote me in his post-card, but I am made much, much less solitary in my existence here and anywhere else by the mere fact that I feel someone understands what it all might mean.

Ponta Delgada, São Miguel

* Indeed some publishers were found. See “The Road to that Place.” In SAAL: Suplemento Atlântico de Artes e Letras. Novembro 2003; “His old man (while drunk) once beat up a cow.” In Neo: Revista Literária. 1(1):50 (2002); “Gualter ‘Gunny’ Coelho.” In Portuguese Times. Three part serial over March 14, 21, 28 (2001); “O Trabalhador.” Suplemento Açoriano da Cultura. February 3, 2000.