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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Fernández

Does he treat you well? (New York, 1971)

In mid-1971, I went to the United States for the first time in my life, together with 7 more selected/invited guests of the USIS (United States Information Service) within a program on “Problems of Big Cities” which I will refer to as “Bolsa ” (I think that's what we called it). This program was controlled during 1969 in cities where there were American consulates, with a series of specialists speaking on the most diverse subjects of interest to the cities. If my memory serves me correctly, the coordinator was named John Reed (from USIS). Those selected were all recent graduates: two architects from Rio Grande do Sul and one from Brasilia, a sociologist from Paraná, an engineer from São Paulo and another from Maranhão. I apologize to the others but I only remember the names of the man from Paraná (Orlando Pilati) and the man from Maranhão (Joaquim Guimarães Ramos). I was very proud to have been one of the 9 selected among about a thousand applicants.


There were about 45 days visiting Miami (FL), Washington DC (and Reston in Virginia, a landmark), Pennsylvania, New York (NY), Hartford (Connecticut), Boston, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles. In each of these places we had field visits and lectures with architects, engineers, lawyers, police, social workers, urban planners from city halls, universities and specialized firms, community representatives, politicians, journalists. Very interesting! In the end, they left us back in New York with a ticket back to Brazil to use whenever we wanted. At that time it was much rarer to travel than it is today, communications by letter and telephone via an operator are unimaginable today. Besides, it was all very difficult and very expensive. Such an opportunity had to be made the most of. The fact that I had known about the “scholarship” well in advance (it was supposed to be a year before when we would be in the last year of our schools, but it was postponed) allowed me to plan the trip well. So I organized myself to stay another 4 months in New York.

I had two first cousins ​​(Spanish, sisters: Alejandrina and Lidia) living on the outskirts of New York (Long Island, Northport and Brooklin) married and with children between small and teenagers, and whom I had never seen, moreover it was the Hippie era, Woodstok had just happened, I really wanted to stay in Manhattan, the center of the world, if possible in the epicenter: Grenwich Village.


Mas como, sem dinheiro?


But how, without money? The first step was to talk to the company where I was employed, working in São Paulo as a newly graduated engineer, an American company headquartered in Passadena, California (Engineering-Science, owned by the Ludwig brothers), which also had offices in New York and in Washington and asked for an internship at the New York office (which was granted but without remuneration, although I later had some allowances because I think I managed to produce and thanked the staff at the NY office). The second step was to find a place to stay. I had heard that the son of a couple my parents knew (very humble people) got a job at a Brazilian state company (Lloyd) with an office in New York and went to live there. I didn't know the parents well, much less the son, Arnaldo (fictitious name because I don't know where he goes or is authorized). In the "face of shame" I went to talk to his parents who supported and wrote letters to Arnaldo, who also responded receptively. He informed me that he lived in a comfortable apartment big enough for me to have my own room. It was agreed that I would share the expenses of the apartment with him while I was there and that I would call him when I was in New York because the schedule was intense and I didn't master the language, which made me afraid to get around efficiently. When the “purse” was finished then I would appear. I would let you know by letter or by phone the day and time. All OK, life-going-on.


Once the tour of the “Bolsa” was concluded, which lasted about 45 days, I was back in New York, this time to stay for 3 to 4 months, at my own risk. I arrived and went to show up at Arnaldo's apartment, as agreed. It was late afternoon, early evening. I rang the bell and Arnaldo came in, very nice, we introduced ourselves and then he introduced me to a group of his friends gathered there celebrating the birthday of one of them. At that time I had not yet seen (I don't even know if there was) a play that also became a movie, in Brazil called “Os Rapazes da Banda”.


Se foi escrita depois, foi inspirada nessa minha chegada no apartamento da Rua 14, no GreenwichVillage. Ali estavam 4 ou 5 casais hoje ditos homoafetivos, e eu hetero. Eles tentando disfarçar o indisfarçável e com isso a situação foi ficando cômica.


If it was written later, it was inspired by my arrival at the apartment on 14th Street, in Greenwich Village. There were 4 or 5 couples today said to be homoaffective, and I was straight. They were trying to disguise the undisguised and with that the situation became comical. Installed in a comfortable room, I closed the door and was alone thinking about the situation and what to do, how to behave, etc. ... I had some experience in living with this type of diversity in a good way, without any problem from part to part: for two years (1967-1968) at the Central Bank of Brazil, I had a “boss” Paul, and before that, since 1965 at the Clube de Regatas Guanabara, he had started sailing with a german-bahian engineer (it's not just the architects!) who was also homo, Gerths. Both me and my girlfriend at the time, Enian, became friends. Returning to Arnaldo and his friends, I remember Philip a lot, a black librarian, tall, with a good-looking personality and who exercised leadership in the group and in other groups that I got to know with him. Philip knew the people and nightlife of Manhattan like no one else, and he introduced me to countless beautiful and friendly friends. He had a white poodle dog and he made a point of walking down the street, dressed in his extravagant and elegant fashion, leading the poodle by a long silver chain that he "scandalously" held with the pie-piercing finger pointing to the sky and the current making a catenary scraping the ground. Often at night I would go along because it was a guarantee of a good program, either because of the music from the places he unearthed, or because of his friends, because of the dishes that friendly cooks insisted on offering to the “leader”. At the same time, I was afflicted that someone I knew here would see me in such, shall we say, singular company... prejudices of mine that I had to manage. Miss that time.


Arnaldo had a Puerto Rican companion who, I believe, after so many years, was called Jorge. Everyone earned well, but they spent a lot “for showing off”, that is, for appearing, and for that reason they lived in tight quarters. I was a fresh graduate and on unpaid leave, so we had similar issues, and we understood each other. And we helped each other. Arnaldo didn't share the apartment bill with me at the end of the month as agreed, which forced me to go shopping trying to compensate for the benefit, but it was impossible. At that time, Brazilians would go to the US and come back with three or four blue jeans (Lee or Lewis), if possible a leather jacket like James Dean, a camera, a stereo... I was no exception, but I had to choose and even due to lack of resources, I kept the pants and really wanted an “antelope” jacket but it was too expensive. When it was time to return, I took the last week off for farewells and shopping. Arnaldo took a day to take me to some stores he knew (I believe it would be in Soho) and which today would be equivalent to what is conventionally called “outlets”. Specifically, we arrived at a chic men's clothing store for the region and only with top quality items, but at a really attractive price. Let's take a moment to explain that the main purpose of staying longer in the US was to improve my English. Improve wouldn't even be the right word, it would be better to learn English. After all, for many years I took courses and more courses and I didn't feel the least bit comfortable to face a dialogue in English. But after 3 to 4 months there, my ear already picked up a lot of previously unthinkable things and I communicated. I barely communicated. That's why I could understand what I tell you next, laughing now, but at the time embarrassingly pissed off:


While I was looking through the hundreds of hangers with leather coats, I noticed that Arnaldo was admiring a beige gabardine overcoat, English style, extremely elegant. From afar I imagined the price. I kept looking for one that I liked and at the same time had a good cost-benefit ratio. Arnaldo put on “the overcoat”, disconnected from the world and started to parade in front of the store's mirrors. When I say parade, it was d-e-s-f-i-l-a-r. The store stopped to watch Arnaldo in a trance looking at himself in the mirrors and back and forth, on an imaginary catwalk. To the point that the manager couldn't resist and maliciously interrupted Arnaldo to mockingly say that if he spent the whole week doing that fashion show in the store, he would win the overcoat. This took Arnaldo out of the “trance” and ended the “parade”. By that time I had already chosen my leather coat and, at the counter, I discreetly had my overcoat wrapped as well, as a surprise for Arnaldo and to try to compensate for the apartment expenses not shared during that period.

I hadn't quite realized what I was doing until the cashier, an elegant black man, discreetly asked me: "does he treat you well?".


Paralyzed! I remember the situation well because although it was not unusual, at the time I stuttered a lot until I managed to say something like “don't get involved” which was frankly inappropriate and made me stutter even more. Anyway, it entered the list of unforgettable things that happen to us. I would love to meet them all again. And thank you for the hospitality, the respect, the camaraderie, the moments lived.

Miguel Fernández y Fernández, consulting engineer, chronicler and columnist written between 2016mar23 and 2016may02

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