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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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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Elvis Karaoke

Lonesome King Wins
a Night in Koreatown

I’d spent the whole day with that song playing on my mind. But had no idea that I’d wind up singing it late at night to a room full of Koreans. It was fun, but let’s be clear: it was not the highlight of my life.
The disclaimer is apropos of a coda that my wife always finds a way of inserting, whenever the story pops up at family and friend gatherings. Which, I must quickly add, it’s hardly ever mentioned anyway.
She says it with a sweet smile insulating the blade of her tart tirade. A certain imagined past she swears by I’m still stuck at, can be squeezed out of it, like blood from a surgical scrub. In my defense, I invoke happier times that I’ve spent on stage, to no avail.
For that usually happens only later. No matter how many times I get stung by the putdown, I can never think of an equally sharp rebuff to throw back at her. There, in just four brief paragraphs, I’ve given you all the wonders of married life, warts and all.
There had been a few bar stops before we wandered into this splashing island of colored lights at the heart of Koreatown. In a city full of towns, one can hit Africa and Latin America, skip Europe, and duck right into a dive out of Seoul.
Back in my waiting tables days, I’ve worked for James, a friendly chap whose real name I wouldn’t dare to pronounce. He was the one to educate me on the nocturnal habits of single Koreans, once they’re in a striking mood for finding mates.
Guys sit on one side, and girls on the other, and the waiter is the go-between. You like that gal? tell the waiter and, for a tip, he’ll deliver your message to her. Which may be a flower, a fancy drink, or an entire bottle of Scotch for her and her giggling friends.
SONGS TO GET WASTED BY
Hey, I could do that, I thought, for a moment forgetting that with my looks, I’d never make it as far as the frame of the front door. But couples do get together and fall in love, their secrets safe with the go-betweens. And the tips are outstanding too, I’m told.
Give it a few years, and some of those guys and gals are hitting the karaoke bars, after work. Overtired and thirsty, it’s unreal how well Billy, from Payroll, and Janet, from Receivables, can duet a Whitney Houston tune into a late night epic apotheosis.
Stats may exist somewhere, about what are the most popular songs, and artists, karaoke enthusiasts prefer, but I suspect that none in the top 10 list is among my favorites. Celine Dion comes to mind. A few-octaves-lower Maria Carey. The theme from Ghost.
Lack of scientific method never stopped the Internet: some lucky keystrokes and voilá, dozens of sites pop up, with popular karaoke lists. And best fits for when you’re drunk. Or throwing a birthday. Or simply out, lonely, searching for a new hit.

LOOK, MY BROTHER IS ON TV
Which was probably not what Daisuke Inoue had in mind when he created the machine. It made him famous, but not rich: he’s still not credited as its creator and doesn’t seem to mind. Karaoke exists in its own space and time, and the usual rules hardly apply.
In my book, Elvis is perfect for just such a space and time: his catalog is immense, full of wild rocks and mid-tempos and high-octane semi-standards, and there’s no risk of playing a bigger ass than the 1970s Las Vegas version, or rather, pastiche of his.
Of course, I grew up with the best and the worst (more)
_______
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Continue reading

Long Live

For Elvis at 80,
Immortality Hits

Surviving is not that hard; outlasting your own life is. Elvis Aaron Presley would’ve been 80 today but everybody please calm down: we’re not about to add to the cacophony of essays and tributes that soon will surely shower the world. No one needs our spoon in this stew.
His legacy, however, is chockfull of durability and strength. After almost four decades from his Memphis death, and twice as many years since his birth in Tupelo, both in the heart of the segregated south, someone’s bound to add a spicy pinch of race to the mix of his legend.
People will certainly talk Hands Up! The Day Elvis Died by Joining the Army (Mar, 24,1958)about his lifelong habit of dying his blond locks, and how his joining the Army in 1958 all but buried the rebellious image of his most brilliant year, 1956, still one of the greatest explosions of raw talent to ever ignite American music and culture, by any standard.
They’ll compare his instinct to step up at the right crossroads of time in the country, combining his boy-next-door looks with the incendiary fuel of black music, to another master of cross references, born across the pond 68 years ago today too: David Bowie.
Gladys and Vernon, and Priscila, and Lisa Marie, may be mentioned too, possibly even Michael Jackson. The Memphis Mafia, his 1968 Comeback Special, and maybe two fine screen performances, as Pacer Burton, in Flaming Star, and Danny Fisher, in King Creole. Just please not a word about a phony colonel.
They will make valid and absurd points to be corrected by those who were there from the start, while those who came after may wonder what’s with old people and their memory manias. It won’t matter: Elvis will only be 80 today and won’t even care one way or another. But there’s still no expiration date for what he means to the world.
_______
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