Waiting in Line
by Silverio Perez
Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell
I considered it, and reconsidered it, and made a decision: tomorrow I am going to get up at 3:00 in the morning to be the first in line at the gas station near the Montehiedra shopping center. When the alarm went off, I considered and reconsidered it again. Am I being swept up in collective hysteria? The governor says there is enough gasoline. Why should I worry? But the gas gauge in my car argues differently. Well, these are unusual times…come on, get up! And I did! And my wife was right behind me.
I couldn’t believe it! The line went on and on, it snaked out of the exclusive residential neighborhood and climbed along Route 842 all the way to the Caimito neighborhood. I stopped counting the cars when I got past one hundred, and, finally, we came to the end of the line. It was 4:02 in the morning. We first moved forward a few feet at 4:22. From the hilltop, you could see the gas station in the distance, illuminated by the intermittent blue lights of the police cars that guarded it. Indistinct human shadows passed on foot alongside my car, heading down the highway carrying orange containers, or candungos –sounds to me like an African word, like calabó and bambú, bambú and calabó, as the song goes.
I already considered myself something of a expert when it came to lines, to waiting around in single file – did that make me a “fileologist?” a “fileanthrope?” Is “fileosophy” the musings on life that come to you while waiting in line? Four days earlier I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Lines at the gas station near the Medical Center on Américo Miranda Avenue. It took me from 5:55 in the morning until 9:54, by which point the heat had made it impossible to remain in the car in between each incremental advance. For this reason, after each small forward movement, we “fileologists” remained outside our cars and, little by little, we became acquaintances, then friends, then allies, confessors of family intimacies, a little club of collective grievances, analysts of the country’s situation and proponents of solutions which, without a doubt, would improve that situation.
Someone spread the word that that a bakery had just opened a few kilometers up ahead. Sandwich brigades were organized that would go to buy breakfast for our newly created car community. And so began the pilgrimage of the Way of San Wich, headed toward the cathedral of bread and pastries, several kilometers down the road. The round trip journey took my wife over two and a half hours, by which point, my resolve to withstand both hunger and my worry for her safety had started to crumble. We finally made it to the station and the graduation occurred a little before 10:00 am.
My Master’s Degree in Lines was accomplished at Home Depot, when the store opened its doors for limited hours between 10:00 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon. The souls of decimated trees surrounded the shopping center and the sun beat down mercilessly on the line of people. This was not conducive to conversation among the people standing in line. Everyone was concentrating on our own particular internal tools for bearing the unbearable: transcendental meditation, fervent prayer, repressive compartmentalizing, veiled frustration or a controlled comatose state.
The unique thing about standing in this particular line was that, once you were within thirty people from the front, you could feel gusts of the air conditioning that came out of the store and you could hear various employees carrying out different communicative missions which were necessary to heed. One of the employees, if you were there to buy an electric generator, gave you three price options that corresponded curiously with the old social divisions of poor, middle class and wealthy. Another welcomed you with a voice like an auctioneer’s and, without pause, rattled off a list of the most sought-after items that were no longer available. This caused several “fileologists” to leave the line amid curses and accusations. Another employee was in charge of explaining to us the procedure by which would make our purchases; namely, that an employee would go with us to find the items we were looking for. There would be no dilly-dallying among the aisles; we were to cut straight to the chase. Several security guards patrolled up and down the line making bipolar speeches in which they variously told bad jokes that everyone’s already heard or else scolded members of the same family who tried to hoard multiple electric generators.
At last I got in, two and a half hours later, and as my guide – the Lord works in mysterious ways – I was assigned a kind and beautiful woman who had read many of my books, who said she never missed a single one of my television programs and who sang in fanatical praise of the videos I occasionally make of my saintly 103 year-old father. With her at my side, my search for hoses, nozzles, screws and door hinges was a delight. When I departed, that elegant grandmother, whom the Universe put in my path, and I snapped photos and exchanged emotional hugs of farewell.
Without a doubt, this line, the one I’m in right now, is the Doctorate in Lines, although I’m still not sure what my thesis will be. It could be: changing paradigms in those who utilized lines in Cuba to argue that Communism was bad. Or a more positive one: Puerto Rico will rise!...frustrated, to stand in lines, to survive, to try to get its hands on a ticket out of the country. Or a more ideological one: Puerto Rico, waiting in line to obtain its sovereignty since November 19, 1493.
5:37 am. Crisis. My neighbors have started waking up and are setting out to try to get to their jobs and are met with the invasion of people in need of fuel who have taken over the right lane of Route 842, and the space that remains available on the road is not large enough to permit the flow of traffic in both directions. There were all are, as in a snapshot: those of us watching and not doing anything; those who don’t know what’s happening; those who prefer not to look so as not to know; and He, the capital letter is well deserved, who left his own comfort zone and walked down the highway in order to convince people to back up, to allow others to get out. The man ran back and forth, organizing traffic, in addition to moving his own car when it was his turn. As Silvio Rodríguez sings in I Dream of Serpents, “those are the indispensible ones.”
The questionably newsworthy news programs began at 6:00 am. The headline: the President of the United States, among the dozens of tweets he had posted in his battle with football players for kneeling in protest of racial abuses, had finally dedicated a single tweet to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Then they announced that he would be visiting the country in the next few days. That’s all we need! First Maria, then Trump. I choose the woman. I switch the station and notice that the newscasters are already changing their tone of praise for the actions taken by our young governor to one of criticism for the lack of diligence with respect to the distribution of gasoline and diesel fuel and…
Who’s that? Norman Santiago, a very beloved fellow actor, passes alongside me, candungos in hand, making his way toward the candungo-holder line. We chat about putting on a theater production about this new country that we are discovering and about enjoying the hallucinatory effect of this new reality. A short time later, he walks back uphill, kicking his empty candungos. The candungo line had closed. That’s the way it’s gotta be, brother! the man in charge explained. The candungos are only filled between 5:00am and 6:00am. We arranged to meet up at Maria the Musical, coming soon to a stage near you.
At 7:02 in the morning, I celebrated the start of the third hour at the intersection of Route 842 and Montehiedra Avenue. Since daylight now allowed for a better understanding of the surrounding scene, I noticed that a woman who was in front of my wife’s car kept walking back and forth among the five cars in front of hers. It turned out that her entire family had coordinated to come with all of their cars all at the same time. Motto: The family that pumps gas together, stays together.
While I was writing that last part on the laptop I held on my knees, I heard shouts, honks and commotion all around me. It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. The problem was me! When the line shifted, I hadn’t moved fast enough because I had been writing, and other cars that were coming down Montehiedra Avenue tried to sneak into the space that I had failed to immediately occupy. Two nearby cars took it upon themselves to preserve law and order and they managed to fend off the opportunists. Then they came for me. Look, man, this is bumper to bumper! They scolded me for having been spaced out, writing, and the muse fled from me in terror.
At 7:46 I was next in line to be served. When I say served, I really mean served. The volunteers with the Gasoline Retailers Association who were running the operation at the Total station, were in total control of the operation. They quickly moved cars to one of the eight available pumps, and did so with such good-natured enthusiasm that when you drove out of there, your tank half-full, you forgot all about the almost four-hour wait.
The muse returned to me when I got home. I began to write Maria the Musical, coming soon to a stage near you where, hopefully, there will be a long line to get in.
This is a part of a series of 24 chronicles that will be published weekly in English and Spanish, as a part of www.24weeks.us.
Read here Report on Puerto Rico's Food Post-Hurricane Maria