He was an enigma among enigmas. No one was sure about where he had come from or how he came to be. Rumors circled about him. He was an American. Or at least I presumed, as he never spoke Spanish and his English bore no accent. Some had said he was a successful business man who snapped and evolved into this homeless mentally ill man who I had come to watch and study. Others had mentioned that his family had moved there and that upon their deaths he was left alone to wander. I’ve even been told that his name may have been Arturo and that at one point his mental illness hadn’t been so bad. Whatever the truth may be, I’ll never be certain. What I am certain of is that his mental faculties had been frayed beyond repair. He showed signs of schizophrenia and perhaps had multiple personalities. It wasn’t uncommon to see him have a conversation with himself, sometimes shuffling from one side of where he was perched to another as if he was doing a one man play. Nor was it completely unusual to see him bang on walls with all of his might and scream his lungs off in the middle of the night.
Papelón was interesting in his own right. He would take pieces of metal or rocks that he found and rub them on the street till they were shiny and looked like some sort of raw metal nugget. He’d trade his currency for cigarettes and other goods. So it is not to say he didn’t have a little pride. It also wasn’t unusual to catch him masturbating in the street or drinking rusty waters from the gutters during a heavy rainfall. He also had a thing for drinking hot sauce. I at first had only heard about his peculiar taste and thought it to be absolute bullshit. That is until the day I actually had to stand next to him on-line at the grocery store as he purchased a small bottle with some spare change he had scraped up and proceeded to open and drink it as he sauntered out of SuperMax. The dealers in La Perla would even give him some free weed time and again too. As much as he was harsh on the senses, he was in fact part of the neighborhood.
Almost every morning I’d see him in front of Senzala, where I worked. He had a thing for sleeping in front of the shop. I would shoo him away to the next stoop with very little hassle. Rarely did he cause any problems. And, if he did, it was usually during like what seemed to be a bad mood swing. Occasionally he’d leave a bodily function as a present. After a while he’d see me coming from the end of the block and move. It was fairly civil for what it was.
There was one incident that always haunted me with him. I was stumbling home drunk and coked out of my mind, which was my own horrible way of self-medicating my own mental illness at the time, and he was sitting under the doorway of an old abandoned building towards the end of Calle San Sebastian where he would also sleep occasionally, grinning and laughing to himself. As I got closer, his laughing was louder and he looked dead at me and said “You’re gonna be like me” or something to that effect in his usual multi-pitched and comical sounding snarl. It chilled me for some reason and still leaves me feeling rather perplexed. What did he mean? Was he studying me too? Perhaps. He was, after all, a man with nothing but time on his hands.
When I left back for The States, I would think about him and the other motley characters I’d see on the island and wonder how they were holding up. Recently on a visit back to PR I ventured throughout the old city and saw no trail of him. The Cat Lady that wore too much make-up was still around as were The Junkie Sisters (one of whom I thought had died long ago). The Little Brown Submarine, The Cougar, The bum I had mentally named Clancy and even The Iguana Man were still easily to spot, but Papelón was nowhere to be seen. I had felt cheated. Sadly, as I was collecting my girlfriend’s suitcase back in JFK, I got the news. He had died. Part of me was saddened to never see him again. He was pretty humorous in the sense that he was homeless and lived his life like a very twisted permanent vacation. I’ll never see him wearing clothes left by tourists or his paper hats anymore, nor will I ever get to learn his mystery and that, in its own right, is a tragedy.
Sleep well, Papelón, may your new shelter be more cozy and luxurious than your former.