Man on the Corner – Late Afternoon in Latin America

Early in the morning, fog muffles the urgency. Street vendors with carts of vegetables and fruits call to the people on pre-Hispanic horns and flutes. To the slap of rags maids clean the rooms, and songs of doves on windowsills can still be heard. There is hope.But soon traffic fills the streets, and on crowded sidewalks we feel how dry the capital really is, how taut with need.

Noise saturates avenues, spills into houses, sucks freshness from our breath . The sun grows bright behind a curtain of fog and dust ramshackle buses, black exhaust, everyone pushing, inches from the rushing wave of oil and steel, while radios repeat: elections are approaching, elections are approaching.

Elections to the drumbeat of traffic on colonial streets. Heat rises, clouds build, fireworks burst, but no rain follows, only hot winds; the corn gods wait and men stand hopeless with seeds in hand. Politicians fill rallies with promises while only colored confetti rains down. Distance between reach and grasp growing, and the middle class is fearful, racing angry engines behind buses carrying millions who block passage to better tomorrows . The ground is shaking, elections are coming, crowds with machetes and Molotov cocktails, peasant uprisings, history surging up to block streets where engines are roaring . elections are approaching.

 

And there he sits everyday, at a busy intersection beside a run-down park, our witness, the bearded man on the corner, scribbling in his notebook an indecipherable chronicle beside traffic that everyday rises to crescendo, more tense, more agitated, on the brink but never quite exploding.

Man on the Corner

“Why don’t the rocks rise up and throw them off? the Indian boy asked when he first saw the Inca walls of Cuzco, on top of which Spaniards had built their colonial edifice. “Why don’t the rocks rise up and throw them off?

 

The bearded man speaks to no one, but many in the sidewalk cafes tell his story . Years ago, they say, he was engaged to be married, happy, very much in love. Then, the day before the wedding, his bride was struck down and killed by one of the speeding cars that pass daily this park, struck and killed while crossing at that very corner . Overcome by grief, he refused to move, remained even after the traffic had resumed its mad transit, and though finally helped away by friends, he returned every day, deranged by grief, to relive loss on the corner where his future had ended.

Later, they say, he began to bring the notebooks in which he writes every day. And there he grew old, speaking to no one, dressed in the suit intended for his wedding day, beard down his chest stiff with grief, facing the roaring stream.

As his pencil flies across the page, tears slide down his cheeks. None of those who tell his story know what he writes.

Sometimes he gets up from the bench, pockets pencil and notebook, and paces the sidewalk. Never far, though, as if chained. Hands locked behind his back, he paces and then returns, sits again, and resumes the work of page and pencil, as if to make sense of blind collision.

His story must be apocryphal, tragic folk tale of love and loss, theme of a sentimental song. He must be a madman, endowed with dignity by storytellers who cannot accept the madness of their own lives, hopeless traffic, unfulfilled promises a whole history that has yet to be addressed.

From across the street I watch him, early in the day, at the height of late afternoon, after the sudden sunset, and sometimes he looks back, alert but unseeing. Is he waiting to plunge into the fatal stream of steel and heat, to find the future there? No, he remains, on the brink of avalanche, future forever suspended.

 

It’s always late afternoon in Lima now, always more agitated, elections always coming; perpetually late afternoon, elections always coming, ruling parties sound the alarm: beware the candidate with an Indian face, beware rocks that rise up; and over again they defeat the vote of hope with fear.

In the late afternoon, the man on the corner always leaves his bench, stands at the curb, hands half-open, and begs for something to rise from beneath the asphalt.

 

“Why don’t the rocks throw them off? the boy asked when he first saw the Inca walls on which the Spaniards had built a world of traffic and loss. And for a moment, I understand why the man on the corner is writing, why Jose Maria Arguedas wrote about that boy who saw the rocks rising. For a moment, the rocks do seem to move, to rise up and dance.