I first met Alejandro (alias ‘Jano’) in Punta Arenas, Chile in the beginning of January 2011 in the Plaza de Armas while killing time before I went to squat under Avenida Chiloé for the evening. I was leaning against the monument to Hernando Magallanes and eating dry bread with ham paste when I first saw him; a sinewy, leather-skinned fellow with waist length hair and a pencil-thin goatee that simply screamed Latino.
Perhaps the first thing I noticed about Jano was the fact that he was missing his right arm; since it was rather a chilly evening, he was wearing a tan corduroy jacket with the right sleeve folded up and tucked under his stump, as well as a Bolivian felt hat and a bedraggled black scarf. Jano walked up the flat concrete steps at the corner and proceeded to mimic me, leaning against the ‘Tierra del Fuego’ side of the monument a few feet away and propping one foot up onto the concrete edge like a Depression-era day labourer back from another meaningless odd job. Using his one good arm, he reached across himself into the right hand pocket of his faded pair of blue jeans and extracted a battered pack of Pall Mall Lights; he coaxed out a smoke and was soon puffing away contentedly, staring up at the sky with a glazed look in his eyes. I took no notice; this time of night, the Plaza was always full of winos, horny teenagers, drifters, and no-name travellers like myself with no particular place to go and nothing in particular to do.
We leaned in silence for a few moments, until the cloud of blue smoke drifting lazily out of Jano’s mouth gave me the itch to smoke too. Being inconveniently out of cigarettes at the time, my only option was to bum one from my immediate neighbour, who was entering into such advanced stages of angular posterity that you could have set a plate of gumbo on his chest and not lost a single drop to collateral spillage.
I finished chewing my last bite of dry bread and paste, swallowed, and asked if I could bum one of his smokes. Jano looked up from his stargazing and said,
‘I said, could I bum a smoke, brother?’
‘Ah!’ Jano shuffled his feet a few times and returned to the posture of a normal human being. ‘Yeah! Yeah, sure you can, brother! You like Pall Malls? That’s all I smoke, cause they’re dirt cheap and you know what the flavour reminds me of?’
‘Raisins. You know why the flavour reminds me of raisins?’
‘Cause they’re sun-dried, just like raisins! Says so right here on the pack, see that there?’ He pointed a bony finger at his pack of cigarettes. ‘”Sun-dried tobacco for a smooth taste.”‘ He gave a raspy chuckle. ‘I got me a gringo to translate that for me once, I don’ speak a word of that nonsense. Here ya go, brother!’ He shook the pack and proffered a filter my way. I pulled out the cigarette, clamped it between my lips, and lit up.
‘Thanks, brother.’ I held out my remaining two or three bread-and-paste concoctions.
Jano shook his head. ‘Naw brother, I’m all right, thank you, I just got my dinner over at the Hogar de Christo. Clam soup this evenin’, best I had since I was in Puerto Montt, ver’y satisfyin’, yessiree.’
‘Good to hear. You sure you don’t want any to save for later? I usually only eat one in the mornings.’
He waved his hand dismissively. ‘Naw, I’ll pass on that, I’ve got me some cheese stashed away with my stuff. Swiss-type. It’s the only thing I can stand eatin’ with my breakfast wine.’ He took a huge drag, and then turned and looked at me. ‘Say, you’ve got a funny accent; you from Brazil?’
I grinned, happy at least that I wasn’t pegged for the gringo I was, a useful characteristic in a country where George Bush is generally viewed in much the same light as most Americans view Fidel Castro or Kim Jong Il.
‘No, I’m not Brazilian.’
He screwed up his face. ‘Hm. Well then you got to be English. Oooor Italian. Or…mmm…Greek. Or…’ he stroked his goatee, pondering. ‘Russian,’ he decided finally.
‘I’m from the States.’
‘The united ones.’
‘Oh! A gringo! Well, I knew you wasn’t from here, but you don’t seem to have a gringo accent to your Spanish. It’s somethin’ else, I don’ know. Well, anyways, welcome to Chile, my home country, my name’s Alejandro, but you can just call me Jano ’cause it’s shorter.’
I shook his outstretched hand awkwardly, due to the fact that I wasn’t used to using my left for handshakes. ‘Good to meet you, Jano. I’m Patrick, Patricio in Spanish.’
‘Patricio? That’s a good name! You know what’s short for Patricio here in Chile?’
‘Pato.’ (Which is Spanish for ‘duck’.)
‘That’s right! Pato! I’m gonna go ahead and call you Pato, Pato, ’cause I like nicknames and I talk real fast so the shorter the name the better!’
‘Sounds all right with me. What part of Chile you from, Jano?’
‘Oh, me? Well, I’m from a place up north; it’s a city called Iquique, in the middle of the desert! Real hot, but I like it cause I don’t have to wear these dern jackets and pants. Shorts and T-shirts, all the way, and you ain’t never seen the sun ’till you’ve been to Iquique!’ He gave a toothy grin and blew smoke into my face. ‘You ever been to Iquique?”
‘I’ve passed through.’
‘He’s passed through!’ Jano proclaimed loudly to a pair of teenagers eating each other’s faces on a nearby bench. He turned back to me. ‘You’ve passed through!’ he said happily. ‘Well then, you can prob’ly imagine how I feel in this cold weather! I’m a desert man, I don’ do this tundra nonsense! I don’ know how anybody manages to live here all year ’round! It’s freezin’!‘
‘I’m in agreement with you; isn’t this supposed to be the summertime?’
‘So they tell me, brother. So they tell me.’
‘So Jano,’ I started, ‘what are doing so far south? So far from the heat?’
‘He gave a shrug and stamped out his cigarette. ‘I’m just movin’ around, same as always. I never been this far down, and I had me the opportunity to get here once I got m’ID back, cause without it I couldn’ get through Argentina an’ I’ll be damned if I could afford the ferry from Puerto Montt.’
‘Travelling around, huh?’ I said, nodding in approval. ‘Travelling doing what?’
He cracked a smile. ‘Oh, nothin’ really. Just bein’ a vagabond, y’know. They got vagabonds in gringolandia?‘
‘They sure do,’ I said, smiling. ‘You’re lookin’ at one.’
Jano’s eyes lit up. ‘No kiddin’? Yeah, I was wonderin’ why you didn’ have your pack all stashed away nice’n pretty up in one o’ them hostals. Yep, I knew it from the first moment I clapped eyes on you, I said to myself, “Now, that there’s a Brazilian vagabond,” is what I said, an’ that’s the truth, brother, I swear it on my momma’s grave, God rest ‘er soul.’ He chuckled. ‘Well, since it’s pretty late, an’ we both bein’ vagabonds an’ all with nothin’ productive to do ‘cept stand around and shiver, how’s about we go get drunk and take the edge offa this damned cold climate?’
‘Sounds like a top notch idea.’
‘All ri’gh then! Off we go to the liquor store! You like red wine, Pato? I love red wine. Lemme tell you why I love red wine; you know what the flavour of red wine reminds me of…?’
Half an hour later, we were back at the Plaza with two boxes of red wine and a couple of plastic cups. Before we went back to the monument to sit, Jano demonstrated to me his ‘foolproof policy’ on how not to get caught by the Carabineros drinking in public.
‘You’ve got to be tricky, you know? Look, ‘eres what were gonna do now. Watch real close, Pato, real close…’
Jano walked over to the nearest trash container. ‘Now, ri’gh now, we got two boxes full ‘o wine, you see? Now, if the pacos make a passover and see us, they’re gonna make us dump it out, and I just spent four lucas to get these, so I don’ want that to happen.’
Jano held up the two boxes. ‘Righ’, now gimmie your cup.’
I did, and Jano filled it to the brim.
‘An’ now mine.’
He filled that one up too, then set it carefully down onto the pavement. ‘Now, we’re goin’ to take these two boxes…an’ hide ‘em.’
Hardly a revolutionary idea, but I had to admit that he had a pretty good spot: inside the trash can. Jano pulled out a few plastic bags from the bin and then lowered the boxes onto the bottom. ‘You just set ’em down, nice ‘n easy, an’ now when the pacos come rollin’ by, we only lose what we have in the cups! Even the most dedicated police ain’t gonna go rootin’ ’round through the trash can!’
I had to admit, it was a good idea, and I told him so.
‘Foolproof!’ he replied, beaming, as we walked back to the monument and squatted next to the giant iron foot that belonged to a fourteen-foot indigenous person of Tierra del Fuego.
Now, after spending a few hours with Jano, I had come to the realization that he was one of those guys who had a true passion for talking, and didn’t seem to care one way or another if you were listening or not. Fortunately, most of his stories were entertaining. He had a seemingly endless stream of tales from his vagabond lifestyle in Chile which, apparently, he had been living since a very young age. Tales of drifting around Santiago just after Pinochet stepped down after more than a decade of persecution, tramping Valdivia and swiping bottles of German beer from unattended semi trucks, and generally living life as a traveling street person in Chile. At one point the conversation turned to his arm, or lack of it, and his mentioned it in passing, something like, ‘…an’ I woulda done it, too, if I still had my arm. I ever tell you about my arm? I lost it in 2001.’
I had been wondering when it would be prudent to bring up this question…I had been curious as to where his arm had run off to.
‘What happened to your arm, Jano?’ I asked, hoping I didn’t say the wrong thing.
‘Ah, well, tha’s a long story, my friend, and there ain’t enough time in the world to tell it.’
‘All right then. In any case, you seem to get along just fine without it.’
He gave another raspy chuckle. ‘Yessir, I shore do! Makes it so much easier to beg for coins an’ such. You know somethin’, Pato? Since I lost my arm, the vagabond lifestyle has been a lot easier on me! Back when I had m’arm, I’d get into fights a lot and got arrested a couple o’ times. I was a real bad apple, I was. But now nobody pays me no notice, I’m jus’ a one armed begger, don’t nobody pay me no mind. An’ I’m super efficient! I can open bread with one hand, see, look ‘ere, gimmie one o’ yours…’
I fished out one of the breads from my bag and handed it to Jano.
‘Now see here, you gotta put these two fingers in the middle o’ the bread, right? Then set this other end on your leg or somethin’ like that, an’ you push down, move yer fingers ’round a bit, and bam! You’re all ready to smear on some mayonnaise or paste or whatever you like. Ain’t too many people in the world who know how to do that, heh heh! Give it a go, Pato, an’ pass me some o’ that paste, I’ma gettin’ hungry…’
I extracted the last bread and did as Jano instructed. After a few slips and screw-ups, I was able to slowly work the stale bit of bread open. New Skill of the Day Number One: Open bread with one hand.
‘Now, I’ll bet you think I wear them shoes that just have the straps an’ such, dontcha Pato?’ said Jano as he munched away on his sandwich.
I shrugged as I smeared warm, two-day-old ham paste onto the bread. ‘I guess so.’
‘Ha!’ said Jano loudly, so that some of the stray dogs sleeping in the nearby grass woke up and gave him a dirty look. ‘Nossir, no I do not use them types of shoes. I got me regular laces, jus’ like anybody else. See?’ He rolled up his pant leg to reveal hiking boots, lace-up style.’ I’ll bet yer wonderin’ how ole’ one-armed Jano gets these fellers laced up every day, eh?’ Without waiting for an answer, he pulled the battered black laces of his equally battered boots untied and launched into an explanation.
‘First, you gotta kinda make the X, you know, like normal. Then you make yer two loops, and then you gotta utilize some other parts o’ yer body, namely, yer other foot. You gotta hold the X down like so, an’ then just loop ’em on through with yer free fingers over here.’ He proceeded to whiz his fingers around in some sort of complicated ballet, and soon, somehow, ended up with a tied up boot.
‘All righ’ now, Pato, I showed you how it’s done, you give ‘er a shot!’
‘Um..all right, then.’ I undid the top lace of my right boot and began trying to mimic Jano’s technique. First the X, then something about holding the strings with your other foot…Nope…no, no this wasn’t working out. Hm.
‘You gotta loop ’em Pato, loop ’em with yer fingers. It’s real simple.’
I imagined that it was; still, the one-handed shoe tie continued to evade me. Every attempt ended with two sad, untied laces hanging off the side of my boots like dead garter snakes.
‘Aw, don’ you worry, Pato, you’ll get it! Here try one mor’ time, jus’ like I said…’
After a full hour of relentless coaching from Jano and nearly a box and a half of cheap red wine, I managed to successfully tie my boot using just one hand. It was tied very loosely and looked as if it would explode into untied-ness at the slightest breeze, but still, it was tied.
‘All righ’ Pato! Now we can go ahead and lop yer arm off, you got the skills!’ He collapsed into a fit of delirious laughter and polished off the last of his wine. I unconsciously held my arm a little closer to my body.
Jano took a look at his empty cup, and then looked into the garbage can. ‘Well, Pato, it seems we’re out o’ wine. Guess that means it’s time to turn in! Where you off to crash tonigh’, brother?’
‘Under the bridge at Chiloé and Ignatio Carrera Pinto.’
‘Under the bridge? Brother, it mus’ be cold as dead pussy under there at night!’ (Yes, he really did use that expression; I found it extremely funny and used it several times in conversation until I learned, to my embarrassment, that the actual saying was ‘cold as short pussy;’ the Spanish word for dead (muerto) and short (corto) sound the same; in my defense, Jano talked very fast and with a heavy Chilean accent, and I misheard him. Everybody probably thought I was some sort of gringo serial killer…dead pussy. God.)
I agreed with him. ‘Yes, the wind blows really strong here at night, and in the mornings too. But, you know. That’s life.’
Jano shook his head vigorously. ‘Nossir, no, you ain’ gonna do that tonight, not on my watch. I got me a sweet little spot righ’ here in the Plaza; it ain’t roomy but I imagine it’ll be better than under that bridge. We’re friends now, Pato, an’ now that we’re friends we gotta help each other out. You crash with me tonight.’
‘Well, all right then,’ I said, shrugging. ‘Where we off to?’
Jano pointed to one of the numerous small wooden cabooses parked around the Plaza. They were used during the daytime for street vendors to sell trinkets to tourists. At night they were locked up, and I never thought of them as a place to squat for the night.
Jano stood up and began walking to one on the far side of the Plaza. ‘Yep,’ he began, ‘I made friends with the owner o’ one o’ these cabooses, he gave me the key an’ lets me sleep inside durin’ nights. Nice fella. I’m sure he wouldn’ mind one extra body, on account o’ the cold an’ all.’
‘Well, I sure appreciate it, Jano.’
He grinned. ‘No problem, Pato, no problem at all! We vagabonds gotta look out for each other, y’know.’
We arrived to Jano’s caboose, and he fished out a small silver key from his pocket and popped open the lock. Jano worked with the handle for a moment, and swung open the door of the caboose, which revealed itself to be filled almost to the brim with junk of varying type and origin. There were a few metal frames, stacks of 5 gallon buckets, rolled-up carpet, and a cow skull that had been painted in an rather eerie way with glow-in-the-dark paint.
‘Home sweet home, Pato!’ ejected Jano happily. ‘Now, you jus’ hand me yer bag, and I’ll get it stashed away somewhere back here…there we go. Pull out yer sleepin’ bag, will you? Yer gonna need it…’
Jano stashed my pack away under some bedraggled tarp and what looked like an old stoplight. He then lay down on the floor and beckoned for me to come in.
”Fraid there’s no more room on the floor, but you got a good spot up there on them metal frames! Need a pillow, Pato? I got pillows…’
‘No, I’m all right. Let’s see here…’ After several minutes of awkward maneuvering and getting stabbed in the side by unforgiving metal a few times, I finally managed to squeeze myself into the tight space in the metal frame.
‘You all settled, Pato?’ asked Jano from below.
‘I think so,’ I replied. The horn from that wierd cow skull was stabbing the back of my thigh.
‘All righ’ then, I’ma go ahead an’ close the door, all righ’?’
‘Okay,’ I said, trying to maneuver the cow horn to a less soft and vulnerable location. Jano swung the door shut and returned to his spot on the floor. He sparked up another cigarette and blew smoke all over the caboose. It smelled like wine, somehow.
‘Nigh’, Pato!’ See you in the mornin’, I got some more red wine in my bag that’s jus’ to die for Pato, jus’ to die for…say, I ever tell you why I like red wine so much…?’
The next morning I awoke warm, but rather sore from the cow horn, which had returned in the night to stab the base of my skull. Jano snored and talked in his sleep, usually about clams and their mysterious origins. I bid farewell to my new vago friend the next morning, promising to keep in touch. We did meet again several times in Punta Arenas, and as soon as I got my English teaching job and actually had money, I bought him a box of red wine, two packs of rasien flavoured cigarettes, and new shoelaces. Last I heard, he was headed off to Coyhaique with a couple of crazy Frenchmen in a 4X4.
And so is the story of Jano, the one-armed travelling vagabond from Iquique, who taught me how to do things one-handed, how to hide booze from the police, and remains to this day the only man I’ve ever met who can make cigarette smoke smell like red wine.
May he travel far.