Middle Brother

Thanks to Him, I Got My
First Yellow Plastic Bus

Norris Coll would’ve been 68 today. Eighteen years since he’s gone, I still struggle to place his life in a coherent timeline, one that would make him justice, and ease my heartfelt emotions.
Fact is, I could never draw a decent portrait of my brother, whose sharp wit I still hear at times. Like a blade sliding through soft butter, even in the most casual of the moments, there was always a chance for bleedings.
And there were quite a few of them, along with flareups, recriminations, little betrayals, and several years squeezed between our times together and apart.
Fortunately, there were laughter too, and joy, and discoveries shared and explored. And much of what I am today, I thank to Dois, who at least once, played the big brother to my advantage, and chased some bullies away from me.
In the perforated fabric of my memories, none forms a complete picture, but many have an underlying narrative of challenge, of daring to be bold and get away with it, or almost. He certainly would’ve never looked back, like I’m doing now.
***
I was there the morning he got married by a judge. And we were together in the afternoon too, when he decided not to show up for his own wedding. Once he made up his mind, I couldn’t change it back.
Somehow, he made me his emissary to the puzzled guests crowding the sidewalk in front of the church. Even though I managed to face them all, I never had the guts to ask his wife why she stood by him as she did. Till the end.
There must be some measure of irony and good karma in the fact that their baby girl is now an accomplished trapezist, an aerial performer, and the only certified artist of the whole family.
***
In the early 1980s, we would often walk down a busy São Paulo avenue, smoking joints and watching thundering planes passing overhead on their way to land at his neighborhood airport.
That’s when his volatility would run the gamut, reaching its highest point even before a single airliner would touch down. But our sibling fights never lasted too long, and we’d wake up the next day with no hangovers.
Because we were so different, they could never be as vicious as the ones he battled with our old man, who was truly his double in candor
_______
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* Son & Sister

and determination. I’ll never know who broke the other one first, but neither quite recovered from their clashes.
In hindsight, he must’ve treasured our times together, as I did, since he always knew he could trust me like no one else. Things I’m telling you now I’ve told no soul for all these years. It was a thought I had the day I became ‘older’ than him, too.
***
We both also knew when the last of those times finally got behind us. We’ve cried our goodbyes in a cool hospital corner, a few months before he left us. He was gone before the first dawn of the 21th century.
It was the year my first born came to this world, and a decade from Dad’s own passing. Numbers can never make up for missing words, though. And about this great guy, there are so many. In all his youthful eloquence, when the end came, he didn’t care to say much.
***
We were with father once when I got one of the toys that defined my childhood, a bus. We used to make constant short trips to the countryside, where Dad would tend to small missions, as a pastor.

So I loved buses back then, and immediately got attracted to one at the children’s section. It was yellow and plastic and, gosh so simple, and so beautiful. Naturally, I had to have it. Not so, said Father Heitor.
That’s when Norris, still a teenager, stepped up and pleaded my case, saying something like, come on, Dad. I think that was my puppy eyes moment, because the pastor looked at me and actually asked me, do you really want this?
And how? I’ve kept it, and played with it even when it’d lost its wheels, was always covered in mud, and its once bright yellow had all but faded. I don’t think I ever got to thank my brother for such a gesture.
***
So, if you don’t mind, let me take this moment to say, thank you for that bus, Norris. Thank you for your life, for giving me this moment to share with the world, for having been such a loving and caring partner.
You’ll always be missed. Happy Birthday, my ‘little’ brother.

(*) Originally published on Oct. 4, 2012.

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Marvelous City

At 450, Rio de Janeiro Does
Not Look a Day Older Than Me

According to family records, Maria and Heitor were watching the Carnival parade on a Rio de Janeiro street, an early Ash Wednesday, when she went into labor. A rush to the military hospital was all it took for her third and last son to be born, a couple of hours later.
That’s probably why I never really liked Carnival. As for Rio, whose 450th anniversary is Sunday March 1, is not just Brazil’s premier party town – even when Cariocas decide to have fun with you – but where physical beauty and pleasure are steeped into its DNA.
The Saturnian nature of that night, and the subconscious background of music, rhythm and drums, was all I took from the city by the sea when we left it five years down the road. Oh, yes, I took something else too: in 1960, it ceased to be Brazil’s capital, a title transferred to Brasília.
Still one never really leaves Rio. I went back a few times – as if some insatiable thirst could only be quenched at that source -, lived there again for a few years, but since then, the city and I went our separated ways. One side misses the other more but there’s no bitterness.
My place of birth is no longer, anyway. From its then 2.5 million, it’s metastasized into a megalopolis of over 6 million people, pollution, urban violence, extreme income disparity, guns, drugs, corruption, you know, the full range of ills most South American cities know so well.

NATIVE FOREIGNER AT THE FAVELA REALM
But there are mysteries worth probing, hiding in its plain, 100 degrees average heat. The name, for instance: River of January? That’s got to be an inside joke: it’s not a river, but miles of seashore just a walking distance from downtown businesses. How do they mix? Don’t ask.
Also, it was officially founded on the third month of the year, not the first. Again, someone must have had a laugh about that. And for all the good vibes it inspires on people all over the world, reality on the ground in Rio is often more brutal than in New York. Now, go figure.
On a day in February I’ve left the 50s for the second time in my life, just like I’d done with Rio. As a dragged my own private Rio around the globe, mostly being a heavy-accented foreigner wherever I went, when I settled in the only city I’ve consciously chosen, New York, I finally knew where I’d come from.

TWO FEET IN THE 50S, TWICE LIVING IN THE CITY
Guanabara Bay will always inform everything feel about this life, even if now we speak different languages, and natives admire my perfect pronunciation of Portuguese, better than many a legal alien. But this transitional state is the ground I’ve made of by now, and will probably be laid to rest onto it too, someday.
I was born to the syncopated sway of Bossa Nova, Continue reading