Recommended by Lonely People

Created, written and directed by Alfredo Brant.

Write at the top of the stairs

S&Co.

Window view of the Reading Room @ Shakespeare and Company Bookstore
Paris, France (2011)

Paris de Janeiro (jan. 2010)

Antes de encaixar a cestinha na bicicleta e abrir as janelas para trocar o ar “calefacionado” da casa, rego as plantas da janela Sul, que no inverno conquistam poucas e valiosas horinhas de raios de sol, e as da janela Norte, menos favorecidas luminarmente, mas por essa mesma razão estrategicamente posicionadas por família e reino. Tudo pronto. Na saída, cruzo com o senhor do bigode que, diante de outro insistente e sorridente bonjour, me decepciona mais uma vez com um sonoro silêncio, e desvia o olhar. A família chinesa do primeiro andar cozinha algo de fortíssimo aroma, e a lata de lixo reciclado chega ao limite de sua absorção semanal. É um sábado de janeiro.

Os bons cidadãos de fim de semana e clientes fiéis se espantam, com uma ponta de inveja, diante da calorosa saudação gaulesa que recebo da dame da padaria da esquina. Um sorriso e um “como vai”. Suspeito ser a melhor padaria do mundo, tratando-se da melhor que já encontrei na França e sendo este o reino da massa folhada e assada com muita manteiga. O tiozinho das frutas já separa os kiwis, as bananas e laranjas – “nada de saco plástico, já sei”, ele diz, não sei ao certo se para mim ou para si próprio –, e a garota bem-vestida, acompanhada de um saudável cachorro, ocupa seu posto habitual na esquina, braços em punho, mãos abertas para o céu, como em oração, o ritual diário de seu ganha pão na porta do açougue.

Morro acima, passagem pelo parque; muitas bicicletas neste trajeto. Será por que é sábado? Por que faz sol? Não necessariamente. Há sempre muitas bicicletas, e muitos sorrisos de cumplicidade entre os que optam pelo método de transporte da moda entre os ambientalistas vigilantes. Vovós, fumantes, mães com dois filhos, mendigos, vovôs com guarda-chuvas. Todos sobre duas rodas.

Dia de bicicleta, dia de feira. E é nela que chego à minha. Para encontrar Jean-Michel, o camponês de dedos espessos que, semanalmente, traz nossos legumes e frutas. Cada um pesa o seu. “Um cesto inteiro ou meio cesto?” “Só meio”, respondo, “senão terei que dar batatas e cenouras de presente em todos os aniversários do ano!”, completo só em pensamentos. “Sete e cinqüenta, mademoiselle”, Jean-Michel me lembra, entre suas abóboras e garrafas de mel natural. Quem sabe daqui uns meses a gente começa a se cumprimentar, tal e qual ocorreu com a senhora da padaria. Não há pressa. Afinal, sábado que vem estou de volta, e ele também.

A volta para casa exige novo equilíbrio. A cestinha quando cheia muda o senso de gravidade da bicicleta, mas para baixo… já sabe. Em casa, enquanto as cenouras de orgulhar Pernalonga decantam a grossa terra de molho na pia e as verduras secam sobre o pano de prato, um pão caseiro descansa ao lado da calefação para fazer a massa crescer. Ainda faltam 45 minutos, e enquanto isso aproveito para colocar um chimarrão na cuia e checar a correspondência. Uma carta da prefeitura solicita novos documentos – mais precisos e mais inúteis – a respeito do meu estado civil, minha fonte de renda, meu visto de permanência, meus objetivos a curto e longo prazo neste país. Quanta celulose. Quanto carimbo. Quanta carta de motivação. Burocracia que se cumpre a fim de colher os benefícios em vias de extinção de um Estado maternal. Os livre-empreendedores que me perdoem, mas não deixo passar os auxílios moradia, saúde, transporte, alimentação e ainda descubro os incentivos à viagem de férias, ao retiro espiritual, à prática esportiva. Quem sabe ainda consigo deixar a declaração de próprio punho no correio esta tarde.

As verduras já secaram e o pão, devidamente recheado com nozes e castanhas, está no forno. A vizinha toca a campainha para deixar as chaves de casa, com precisas orientações sobre a quantidade de água e luz necessárias à sobrevivência de cada plantinha, e o leite, os sucos e os queijos que mofariam em sua geladeira durante a ausência são o presente de despedida. Bon voyage. “A prefeitura do quartier já instalou um posto de coleta de pinheiros de Natal em frente ao parque”, ela me lembra, e prometo, na semana que vem, deixar o seco símbolo natalino na caçamba que se enche de tristes arvorezinhas resignadas. “Aproveito também para deixar as pilhas e lâmpadas usadas no recipiente do mercado ao lado”, penso eu; “fica no caminho”.

Começa a nevar. Bem de leve. Tão leve que os flocos parecem traçar um movimento ascendente, girando, como vaga-lumes, subindo ao redor das luminárias de rua – a esta época acesos desde o final da tarde que, confusa, virou noite antes da hora. Agasalhada e com as bochechas levemente rosadas por causa do frio vento que bate no rosto em movimento sobre rodas, brinco em ziguezague sobre o asfalto encoberto. Sinalizo com o braço esquerdo para passar pelo cruzamento, atravesso a ponte sobre o canal, vejo a espessa camada de gelo onde os pássaros passeiam, caminhando sobre as águas, e começo a perder o tato nos dedos dos pés e das mãos.

Paris, para mim, é isto. Em janeiro.  Meu bairro. Minha vidinha.

Aqui fora faz -7 graus Celsius. De relance, vejo um jornal repousando, esquecido, sobre uma cadeira em um café. “Franceses são o povo mais pessimista do mundo, conclui pesquisa”. Uma foto de uma cinza fila de metrô me diz sobre a greve no sistema de transportes da capital enquanto a outra mostra os centros de vacinação contra a gripe A. Penso ainda na Paris dos turistas perdidos ao redor da Galerie Lafayette. Amontoados em frente à fonte de Saint-Michel ou nas filas da Notre Dame.

E fico intrigada com a verdade destas tantas cidades em uma só. Tantas pessoas, tantas vidinhas, mas só uma Paris.

Of silence and men

– “Will you come back?”, he asks in a trembling voice.

His wife is putting away the clean laundry pile that’s over the couch, hiding it from the public eye, is what I suspect. I look back at him, his arms searching for something or someone to lean on as we go over a step to walk into the kitchen together, all of us – family and film crew. It is in this kitchen that he tells us his story.

– “Yes, of course, we’re coming back, on Friday, as we discussed before”, I whisper, lending him my arm for balance. “We can have you sign these papers then.”

I nod to the sheet of paper I have under my right arm, the one I’m using to help him sit by the kitchen table. He then lets go of me to sit down.

Seu Juca lives in a simple house he built himself from scratch and he has a family to call his own – wife, kids, in-laws, grandchildren – all of which stand beside, behind and around him as we come in for each interview. We met him three weeks before the shooting for the film started, during the preparation we conducted to find the right locations, define the best angles from which to film, set the dates for our return with the crew and meet with the other people who were going to be interviewed. A local teacher led us in the right direction, which brought us to him.

– “And you’ll come back, right?”

– “Yes. On Friday.”

He stares me in silence.

– “Not on Friday.”

He waves his hand in slicing motion.

– “All right. That’s fine. Would Saturday be a good day? Better?”

Everyone is quiet.

– “No. Not Friday nor Saturday. Will you come back?”

He meant if we were coming back after the interview, once the movie was finished.

– “Yes”, I reply, “Yes”.

His age unknown to us, Seu Juca is an elderly man with one leg 9cm shorter than the other. The left leg shorter than the right one. He survived a shoot out between workers and the army at a giant steel factory that is the live and pulsating core of the city he lives in, Ipatinga, in Brazil. “The Massacre of Ipatinga”, as it came to be known, happened on October 7th 1963. A young worker at the time, Seu Juca was coming in to the plant as some of his colleagues protested in front of the site against their labor conditions, a quarrel that had begun the night before. To control the situation, the army was called in. Their confrontation got out of hand, the soldiers opened fire and Seu Juca, among others, got hit. In 1963, Ipatinga wasn’t a municipality, so there was still no local police.

Political interpretations of the incident link it to the military coup d’état that took place almost six months later, in 1964. And four weeks after the new government was established, Ipatinga was emancipated. The number of casualties is, to this day, unknown. Many were those who fled town and never returned.

Seu Juca wasn’t directly involved in the protest, but collateral damage. The bullet was never removed, its fragments spread between his shin and his thigh. He went back to work a few months later, but once his contract ended, he was laid off. He doesn’t properly limp, but swaggers in a particular manner, much like a pirate. His walk is accompanied by a fixed yet vague stare some feet ahead of him, down towards the ground. He shows only minor difficulty moving about his small house, like when he goes up stairs or needs to sit down. Outside, he uses a broomstick to shake the branches of a lemon tree in his front yard, but lets the kids pick them up and bring them inside to the kitchen.

To this day, there are roughly no celebrations held in memory of those who either survived it or perished. The local steelworker’s union is an exception. Over the last few years, they have tried to contact Seu Juca on a number of occasions. They saw a possibility there, but Seu Juca wanted no part in it. During the shooting of the film, the union even tried to use us to get close to him, but we refused.

– “No one stopped by to see how we were doing. No help was ever offered.”

He looks around behind his back. We can see the garage, a bicycle leaning against the wall, stairs leading up to the roof, concrete apparent and no cover paint. He raised his family, built his house and lived his life on a state pension.

– “How come they only show up now? We don’t want nothing to do with them. We won’t sign nothing. They’ll just take what they need and never come back.”

When we come back for the interview, the kitchen is bright, which forces our photographer to adjust the lighting. Untroubled by it, Seu Juca sits facing the window where the sun is reflecting. Discrete yet visible, a thin layer of opaque moisture covers his eyes. There aren’t any tears. I never saw him cry.

– “Do you understand why we need your signature, why we need you? Your testimony is truly valuable to the story we’re telling.”

– “What are you going to do with it, with my signature?”

– “Keep it. It’s stays with us.”

– “Oh…huh. You’ll have to talk to my wife too.”

Later that day, from home, I call his house and I repeat my monologue to his wife, who promises to talk it over with him. I stress how important it is that he signs it.

– “I’ll talk to him, ok, we’ll discuss this. You’ll call us back?”

I don’t tell her we can’t use the footage if his signature is not there.

On the day Seu Juca signed the papers, I came back, alone, and he held my hand.

Fourteen months after this took place, Seu Juca died. We got the news by email, one year after his passing. There was a moment of silence, not a solemn one, but one for remembering. He never watched the film once it was finished. We managed to get copies out to all of the others, but no one ever answered the phone at Seu Juca’s place and we weren’t sure if they were still around or if perhaps they had moved.

Before he died, he was given a small sum of money by the government to amend the situation, half a century later. Not nearly what was rightfully his, but a settlement, nonetheless, and a sense of closure, I suppose. He used the money to take his wife to Portugal, where their son lives. She passed away shortly after their return home and Seu Juca followed some two weeks later.

– “For a long time, no one opened their mouths”, he tells, in a scene that made the final cut.

For 21 years, the country was smothered by a military dictatorship.

There is a memorial built and standing in Ipatinga to remember that day. By a shopping mall, it sits in the middle of a turning point of a busy 4 by 4 lane avenue, inaccessible to pedestrians. There’s nowhere to cross or to park. No more than a landmark to, perhaps, help locate the mall. We took Seu Juca there on Sunday, but never made it across the avenue. Not with his bad leg.

– “And now, still we hear nothing… it’s been forgotten.”

Over two years have gone by since we shot “Silêncio 63” and 48 years have passed since the events took place. Seu Juca died over a year ago. There’s a signed contract in a folder at home and, as promised, we’re keeping it.

But we never went back to see him.

José Elias dos Santos ("Seu Juca"), at home in July 2009 (Ipatinga, MG/Brazil)

Visit: www.silencio63.com

10 years of solitude

Back when I didn’t know who Gabriel García Márquez was, I met Richard M. Morse, who channeled one of his characters. Like the Buendía family patriarch in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, he did not care much for childhood or children, thinking it to be a less interesting phase in one’s lifespan. Despite his dislike for infants, Morse had even babysat my sister and me a few times, and countless hours of our first year in Washington DC were spent in his home: four levels of a lonely house, filled with books and dust, shelving the stairs up to the attic and down to the basement. Rarely did we go outside and play in the yard. It was cold and weedy. Out of entertaining options, I thus took pleasure in cleaning and reorganizing his messy office. He would come in every once in a while and make sure I wasn’t trashing his library skills and establishing some color pattern based on book covers. I wasn’t. I would also run down to the basement and discover new-ancient junk, which I still love doing. I found pots, garden tools, books, chessboards, and canned food. There was very little for a little girl to do at Morse’s place. When our uneasiness became unbearable to everyone, we’d drive down in his small baby-blue Honda to the deli and get some sandwiches. I didn’t really like them, they were full of celery and mayonnaise, both of which I dislike until this day, but they helped time go by. When I had finally fully explored the familiar four levels of his Foxhall home, I’d sit at the table where he and my mother discussed books and ideas for what felt like unending hours. And, hopeless, turned to writing.

Morse was a very tall man. Tall and somewhat lanky. He was already an old guy by the time our paths crossed, and yet he gracefully moved about the four levels, going up and down stairs, just to find that one quote or book or chapter he wanted to share with friends, and he knew exactly where to find it. He wore prescription glasses, fake teeth that he could pull out, had very large hands and feet and also this long string of hair coming down by his right ear, which he’d fashionably throw over his forehead and rest behind his left ear. It camouflaged his baldhead, and would fall down every so often. My favorite Morse task was, certainly, replacing that bit of hair back where it belonged, restoring his dignity. I then stroked his baldhead, gave it a kiss and thus had some intimacy with this man who was such an unequivocal presence in my childhood and whom I didn’t know, then, thought very little of the infant class I represented. “It’s for the girls”, he’d say while I adjusted his hair, “I let it grow for the girls. They love it!” I giggled, every time, charmed.

Eight years later, Morse died abroad. I hadn’t seen him in years when it happened, and I wasn’t much up-to-date with his health. It was difficult for my mother. A mentor he was to her. I remember the tip of her nose, red from tears and loss. We flew out to DC, my sister and I, to join my mother for memorial services held some 5 months after his passing. Lots of suited men were speaking at the ceremony that took place at a local university, shaking hands, making compliments and congratulating the family for his work. Shortly thereafter, a reception was held at the old place, home to my first cleaning adventures and writing attempts. In truth, it was only when all other options had been explored that I turned to writing, sitting by the two of them, Morse and my mother. There are no copies of what was produced back then. I remember, however, showing it to Morse, not realizing it was when I was most bored that he’d find me the most interesting. I was quieter and, well, I was doing something intellectual, both of which pleased him.

Morse’s place was the same yet different to me. The smell was different. The staircase was book-free, the pile in the bathroom was gone, the boxes in the basement were closed and shelved, the windows were open, the couch linen had been removed, chandeliers and crystals had been made visible, there was a TV set – which, to my surprise, had always been there, and gone by unnoticed -, a tended garden welcomed guests, the fridge was loaded. Something about his four-story home now made it seem so out of place, like ancient architecture turned modern, like a library turned into a franchise restaurant. The sacred element of his intellectual intimacy; his lack of care for how things actually looked like to possible visitors, a certain drive that demanded, in return, that he overlook the pantry, fashion and even his children; it wasn’t there. His smell was gone. His charisma. His drink and cigarette. His sense of humor. His wit. Morse wasn’t there. His home was taken by guests, yet stripped of what gave it life. So strange. How he had managed to populate all of these rooms on his own.

The party was a lively gathering, which would’ve pleased him. There were drinks and Caribbean food. His family was present and loving. We didn’t stay long, but it meant something to us. Four days later, we went silent in front of our also dusty TV set while September 11th 2001 took place. That year was one of closure and beginnings. I was then a freshman journalism major in college, the seeds of the woman I was becoming flourishing not only in my body, but also in my personality – both of which would have appealed to Morse’s aesthetic, or so I like to think. I was in love, truly in love, for the first time. I had forgiven my dad. I read extensively, discovered new authors, new sounds in music, film directors, changes in myself and in the world around me. I had read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and I knew the Buendía family tree by heart. “This”, I thought to myself with satisfaction, “would’ve been a great time to talk to Morse.” I would appreciate his running up stairs to find that one quote. There’s no sadness or nostalgia in the statement, but rather a sense of accomplishment. I finally dug Morse, and I suspected he would dig me too.

He was the first person I saw when I arrived in the States for the very first time. He picked me, my sister and my mother up at Washington National Airport in his Honda, a messy little corner of the earth, literally no more than means to end, something he couldn’t go around, and that he would, so, accept and practice in his own terms. In it, he drove us back to Foxhall where we were housed for a few days on the top floor of his home at Volta Place. I remember it being very cold up there, it was January and on our first morning, there was snow covering the front lawn. Magical it was, to my sister and me. Morse came slowly up the stairs to wake us up. This happened just a few days before Clinton took office as US president and I was sent to John Eaton Elementary School, in DC, and taught to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. A couple of months later, I was scribbling my first English poems at Morse’s dining table-turned-into-desk. English was becoming natural faster than I could take it in.

It was only recently, ten years after Morse’s passing, that I was given the delightful task of translating his correspondence with British scholar Leslie Bethell into Portuguese for a book chapter in a compilation my mother and a friend put together to honor his work through the work of other authors. And boy, did I laugh. I had the feeling that I was at last able to understand his word choice and grasp his intelligence, his playful use of words, his graceful and refreshing lack of morals, his self-irony. It was most gratifying. And I am now working on a full compilation of all of his articles not yet translated into Portuguese, a language he rejoiced in and that he so dearly embraced in his many trips and his stay in Brazil.

Morse gave me a book as a child that has been sitting in my old bedroom, at my mother’s place. When I first showed it to her, she admitted to never knowing Morse had given me that present, and that it meant a lot to have been given a book from his private collection. Not only that, but the first book ever given to him by his father, in the 1920s, who, alongside his mother, a strict woman, pushed little Dickie Morse to skip grades at age 7 so no time was wasted with lower minds. “A Children’s History of the World”, by V. M. Hiller (headmaster of Calvert School, 1924) still sits in my old bedroom’s bookshelf, close to Gabriel García Márquez and “Morse Code”, with my translation of his correspondence in it.

Almost twenty-years earlier, he had been the first to tell me about Morse code, bragging about his name, and leading me to believe his games. I have a picture of that day, at our place, where Morse seldom came. Between fixing his hair, sharing my scraps of childish poems, buying celery sandwiches, organizing his books and, above all, having been given that book as a present, Morse and I overcame a large age and cultural gap and, in our own respectful manner, became friends. Almost two decades later, I still discover fragments of memories I have from those early years, and new ways through which Morse has influenced, inspired and affected my family and me. In my dreams, I like to think his perspective on children came out transformed by this encounter. In my fantasies, I was the child that made him tick.

In loving memory of Richard M. Morse (June 26th 1922 – April 17th 2001)