30 June 2008


When I first saw him, he was a slim, gray-stubbled man wearing a fading brown suit--vest and all--and a folded paper bag hat, atop a broad-backed horse. He rode with shy dignity as some kids called out to him: ¡Sombrillita! ¡Sombrillita! He sat atop his large horse, surveying the growing midday traffic jam and humphed softly as the policeman made a hash of the situation.

When traffic had snarled to a standstill and with some drivers yelling at the policeman to let Sombrillita handle this, the slim man sighed, came down off his bareback ride and held out his hand to the policeman. Without hesitation, the policeman handed over his whistle and Sombrillita started directing traffic. Within ten minutes, the parking lot had become city streets with moving cars. He surveyed the movement, nodded in quiet satisfaction and after cleaning the whistle with a bright white handkerchief, Sombrillita got on his horse and rode away. 

He collected newspapers, carefully folded into burlap sacks and slung on his horse, or later, after his horse died, carried in a heavy embrace through the streets of Cayey, a central mountain town on My Island. He walked with a steady, almost regal pace, eyes straight forward, his small face a picture of concentration. But ever so often, he'd wince at the catcalls and slurs. I never saw him react in any other way to them. And, surprisingly, I never called out to him.

My dad did, as Sombrillita had a habit of walking past Our house in the late afternoon, with either newspapers or his trademark umbrella collection in his arms. The exchanges between them began after a few months, when they nodded to each other, a blip of shared time. After a few weeks, Sombrillita said "Buenas tardes" to My dad, and a couple of weeks after that, a shy "¿Cómo está usted?"--How are you?

My dad wasn't very sociable, so I was surprised to see him standing at the low fence in front of Our house at about 4:15, in time to greet Sombrillita as he walked by. As I watched from a living room window, they exchanged greetings and suddenly, Sombrillita carefully set down his newspapers and umbrellas and started talking to My dad. He spoke with a soft voice and a rhythmic cadence that sounded both old-fashioned and elegant. Slowly, his gestures grew more expansive and animated and that rarest of sights, a smile, dropped years from his stubbled face. After a few minutes, he shook My dad's hand, gathered his belongings and walked away.

My dad watched him go, then came inside. I asked him about Sombrillita and he said "You never really know about people. That man is well-read, a lover of classic literature and history. He isn't a bum." I waited for more, and when nothing came I asked "Will you talk to him again?" My dad shook his head slightly and said "He wants privacy. But if he wants to talk to me, he'll know he can."

I saw them talking a few more times. A few months later, I left for a boarding school, then college and a few years later found out that Sombrillita had died. When and how I didn't ask. What I remember are his conversations with My dad and his knack for clearing traffic jams in minutes.

When I started this post, I wanted to end it by saying We need more of Sombrillita's "oddness" to help Us sort out Our Island's jams, but now I simply want to remember a quiet man of strong intellect and goodwill who did his best despite his flaws...and Sombrillita.

The Jenius Has Spoken.


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