“What ARE you?”
I was young, maybe 20, hanging out at The Treasure Chest, a vile bar on South Beach in Miami. I was taking a break from ignoring assignments handed out in the course in English Literature at the University of Miami. I’m not sure how it happened that I was in Miami making up the credits I had vaporized in my junior year at Kenyon, but I think I was also “house sitting” and “caring” for the garden while my father and step-mother were in Finland.
I’ll get back to the “what are you” in a bit, but I pause in reflecting on yet another shabby chapter in a portion of my life that is swampy and indistinct. Some of the artifacts from those years remain, and I can fill in some of the blanks, but sometime after leaving 4th grade in the tiny public school in New Preston, I wonder where I went.
So, some claque squatting at this wretched bar began guessing. Greek? Italian? Filipino? Turkish? Asian? Persian?
My genetic soup is actually characterized as Anglo-Iberian, pretty much 50/50, although the Anglo features must be recessive as I have what my mother called an “olive” complexion. The olive, I have discovered, is a “drupe” or stone fruit, information that is of no use in characterizing my hue. I’ve researched the pigmentation, however, and find this description –
”Olive skin is a human skin color spectrum. It is often associated with pigmentation in the Type III to Type IV and Type V ranges of the Fitzpatrick scale.It generally refers to light or moderate tan skin, and it is often described as having yellow, green, or golden undertones … Type III pigmentation is frequent among populations from the Mediterranean (i.e. Southern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa) as well as some parts of Latin America and Asia. It ranges from cream to darker olive skin tones. This skin type sometimes burns and tans gradually, but always tans.”
I was concerned at the outset, wondering if this Fitzpatrick had been one of the quasi-scientists the Nazis so admired, but it turn out he was a well meaning dermatologist trying to determine the ratio of burn-to-tan for people of various skin colors in his research on melanoma and UV exposure. Type I and II tan minimally and burn like crazy. I burn but brown up quite nicely in the course of a sunny summer, so I’m squarely in the Type III cohort.
In an unlikely turn of events, I was born in Bogota, Colombia, a city racked with gunfire and explosion in the two years I spent there as an infant. Violent conflict in Colombia is apparently not uncommon as I have to specify which unrest raged around my crib. Mine was known as “La Violencia”, a battle between liberals and conservatives which resulted in the death of 300,000 Colombians and led to the military dictatorship of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a dictatorship still in place when I was sent back to Colombia as a boy of 10. I remember nothing, of course, of the first years in Colombia, but the unaccompanied trip to Bogota and various Colombian attractions looms large in the series of “Who thought this was a good idea? ” events that shaped what passed as a childhood.
There are so many questions I did not think to ask my mother as I was put on a plane to Miami and from there to Jamaica and Barranquilla before landing in Bogota. In fact, this month-long excursion to a country in which I knew no one was just one in a series of off loadings appearing without warning or room for discussion. We took off, landed, took off, landed, took off, and landed in Baranquilla. I was to transfer then to a flight to Bogota, but unaccompanied as I was, and not speaking Spanish, I had some difficulty in negotiating the connection. I must have worked it out somehow as I did eventually end up in Bogota where I was greeted by someone. I spent some weeks in the home of an uncle and aunt, neither of whom spoke English, and with cousins (I think) who came and went wherever. The details of the home stay are blurred; I read anything I could find in English, a collection of Open Road for Boys magazines published during WWII and Mickey Mouse comic books. After dark, guard dogs were turned loose on the grounds of the very large house, virtually an entire city block in a section of the city known as Chapinero, today the hipster quadrant, but in the 1950’s very sleepy. This family had obligations of their own, of course, so during the week I walked some distance from the mansion to a movie theater where I watched a western, Chief Crazy Horse, in Spanish. After the fourth of fifth visit to the theater I pretty much had the plot down and learned the word for traitor -“triador”.
Since my father had a profusion of brothers and sisters, the burden of entertaining me could be spread among the various unidentified branches of the family. I was taken to swim at the Country Club my father had designed, Los Lagartos, the alligators. Bogota is a cloud city, over 8000 feet over sea level, and July is a winter month. I was alone and chilled in the pool until my hosts moved me on to the next adventure. Those outings are muddled in my memory, but I know I walked in a salt mine 600 feet below the city and visited a country retreat, a finca, in the department known as Antiochia, the region from which grandparents I never knew had traveled before settling in Bogota. It was an unremarkable visit until they put me on a horse that bolted. I remember two elements of that disaster. The horse’s name was Caramello, and I was terrified.
Two outings remain vivid in memory.
One of the clan owned a tannery, where the hides of cows and horses were dehaired, degreased, desalted, then soaked in tannin. I will never get the smell of that tannery out of my nose. I tried to escape by running to the barns where living animals were kept. Barns also have a strong odor but I quite liked a genuine farm smell. I was safe until a child of about my age appeared with a bag of kittens. He spun them, one-by-one, and threw them at the barn’s roof. Before I ran away, I’d seen one slide down only to be spun and tossed again.
No trip to Colombia was complete, I found, without at least one visit to the Santamaria Bullring. I had seen bullfighting before, of course, in cartoons, but had no idea how terrible the death of the bulls would be in reality. Terrible and often slow. I do not read Hemmingway’s celebration of bullfighting and bull fighters without revisiting the long afternoon hiding from the action taking place in the sand below the cheering crowd.
Ok, we’ve settled the “What are you?” question; Anglo-Iberian is as close as I can come. The same query is often more delicately delivered as “Where are you from?”, presented with nothing like the same intention as “Where did you grow up?” I can count on one hand the number of people who have asked where I grew up, a question I often ask people I meet. I don’t grill new acquaintances, but I ask about their lives and remember their stories. I don’t remember ever delivering the “what are you?” conversation stopper, and I suspect fewer people do; in these combative times skins are thin and sensitivity to political affiliation is always the subtext of any early encounter.
As to the legitimate “where” question, I spent my school days in Connecticut and have returned to Connecticut in this later chapter, but my attachment to Kenyon is deep, I remain devoted to Michigan football, I long to return to Tuolumne Meadows and the trails in the Upper Yosemite, I treasure the years we spent in Carpinteria and at Cate, and I miss the pear trees and green mountains of Oregon.
Oh, if the question becomes, “What season are you?”, I’m a Winter; wrap me in anything pink, yellow, or orange and I look near death. Anything pastel is off limits. Black, blue, green, that’s me.