The city of Sao Paulo clogs daily with its refuse, and sits idling for hours with its buses, trucks, and cars. On a sidewalk just west of the bridge where the Rua Brigadeiro Tobias crosses the Rua Alvares a group of young men squat and gather. "Tell us a story, eh, Sebastio. Another story, man. Tell us about Martinho, about Antonio, about the light."
Sebastio sits on an overturned orange crate in a recess where the bridge meets the Banco Holandes. The youth surround him. At 3:00 pm the river of cars and trucks becomes a reservoir, hopelessly damed somewhere downstream. The traffic stands still, a perfect chance for Sebastio to sell his 200 copies of the O Estado. There's even a bomb in the headlines today. The traffic sits. The only movement now the exhaust eddies smoothing over the gum-stuck and well oiled pavement. At his back the stone wall of the bank slowly corrodes. The cars fluke exhaust. Sebastio says fuck. His papers sit on a flatbed upstream somewhere, avoiding him, on purpose it seems, like wise fish.
"A story, man."
"Fuck." At seventeen, Sebastio is already the favorite of the idlers. The loose youth and other Boia Fria daily gather near his crate and hear the stories.
In 1919 Santos hummed with the buzz of the port city during an explosion. It was not unusual to unload the industry of twenty ships a day, all the while sending out the coffee that fueled the violent growth. And each evening as the fish-mist settled with the darkness, the new peasants, street urchins and other Boia Fria would take a heavy comfort in the gold the departing sun splashed over the shapes of the eastern horizon's approaching ships. The ships brought the goods for the inland city of Sao Paulo. Pulleys. Gears. Steel rail. And the so much sought after and talked about turbines, cables and bulbs that would supply the power and bring the new light.
They even called it "The Light." The Sao Paulo Tramway Light and Power Company, the private consortium from Canada, had bid and won the contract to transform Sao Paulo's streets from mud, dung and dust into something from Paris. "When The light comes, Sau Paulo will be translated." The authorites knew that by widening the Avenida Do Estado, and by lighting it with the new electric bulbs, not only would they improve the street, they could tranform the very symbols of poverty that oppressed the city. Never mind the Corticos where five six or eleven families shared a room, the Favelas where, like in the story of the wolf and the pigs, the homes were built
from little more than straw. Never mind that the new roads would not reach the Favelas, or that bridges would not be built if they cost more than a simple road. Never mind the mud, dust and shit, the city and even the people knew that when "The Light" arrived, Sao Paulo would be renewed.
Today in Santos a ship unloads a press. Standing by is Antonio da Silva Prado, a coffee baron from Araras. He's been four days waiting for his press and now he speaks to the Boia Fria and the driver of the useless new truck with the impatience of a missionary. "Come on. Bring it out easy. Don't knock it. Hey!" The dock crane has already dropped a load of pipe and the pallet holds Antonio's breath with it as it sways gently above a waiting flatcar.
He can't help but think of coffee as the press hangs in the blue air. The breeze brings with it the moist scent of the inland flowers on the coffee trees. The trees already in blossom and sending forth the unmistakeable sign of the bumper crop to come. "Finally I'll have power to speak my words," Antonio tells the driver of the new truck, "fuckin Correio Paulistano, that paper tells only lies. It is the Partido's paper." The driver shrugs. Antonio looks at the press still swaying heavily above. "The Fazenda used to have some say. Some power. Now the industry speaks. The Partido pretends to be for Big Coffee, but really they're from outside. Foreigners. Industry." They both sit now on the flatbed of the useless new truck parked by the tracks. "And that road, shit, its useless."
The road to Santos was always no more than a mule trail, but a franchise to rebuild it had been given to the Serra Road Improvement Corporation. So Antonio and the driver had taken the train to Sao Paulo and bought the new truck to come and get the press. Antonio cringed at the feathering metal grate as the driver learned the clutch and gearbox. Then the road. The toll. The first few smooth miles, then the shivering impact with the fist pothole. Then the next. The dust blankets the truck and the cloud traces along the jagged edge of the plateau as the road clings its way down to Santos. Antonio watches the sea through the chalky air outside the window. "I remember my father's stories about the voyage."
He always began with the the paper. He even tried to sound like the paper. "On February tenth 1898," he would say, "I saw an ad in the Diario Milan. This was my chance." He had been married to Angelica a while and I was already born and Martinho felt the weight of the world upon him. There was no room at his family's and no work in Milan. Mother and I were strong, but hungry and Martinho felt
thin. "This is my dream," he told Angelica, "land, work, a new beginning."
Listen: the voyage to Brasilia is one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences since sails were put to sea. As the wind fills the sheets, the dolphins dance around the prow of the ship and shimmer a rainbow up from the depths and through the mist, as if to say follow us to the new land and light given by God. The milk. The honey. In Brasilia, the revolution, the new system of free labor, and the giant coffee industry mean that there is work enough for ten thousand men. The land is so abundant that each man who works for the plantation receives his own farm as well. The soil is so rich that a man can feed his family ten times over. All this and you sail with free passage. So easy.
"Angelica, listen. We can grow our own food. We'll farm, and the work."
"But the passage. How can they send people without money?"
"The planters are patriarchs. They pay the passage and we pay them later as we work."
"But then it's not free, what if there is no work?"
"But there is. When they pay our passage they must have work for us to get back their money." Martinho is aglow. "Imagine, Angelica. We sail together. The voyage is so peaceful and when dark we can feel the light warmth of the stars as if they were night fires in heaven. And the sunsets. The sunsets paint the sky and color the clouds that gather up the horizon purple like the robes of God. Like signs, Angelica. Like signs."
Outside the truck window the sun jewels the sea. Ships on the edge smudge the day with the soot that trails, almost spoken, from their smoke stacks. Antonio blows an old idea through his tightened lips. Rubs his face with his palms. the truck slams against another rut. Antonio turns to the driver, "shit. This road's useless."
So they both sit on the back of the truck and wait as the crane groans its motor and finally begins to lower the pallet toward the waiting flatcar. "But the boat was a steamer. Instead of the dream of the dolphins, Martinho slept with the drive of the piston. The turn of the screw. And leaky too. The rivets beneath the water line seeped constantly and two or more of the passengers would at all times work the mechanical pumps, and another two would busy themselves at the hopeless task of gumming the bolts. On mid-deck, the livestock, sheep, chickens rats and people. Angelica and I spent the days holding onto the three by five foot hatch where we slept at night. Where, for fear of losing the hatch, like nesting birds, we sat for the whole trip, listening to the mechanical Rhunng of the engine room below. We sat because the deck was unclean. A stickiness of piss and rust water that seemed to seep cooly into the skin whenever touched.
One morning Martinho went above to see the much talked over storm. A blackness gathered to the west and the sea flung back and arched its surface into foam which hung dirty like raw cotton. The wind picked up and then the boat began to push its nose through rather than over the waterwalls which lurched to life all around. Soon all below and the rise and fall. The water fills into the belly. Pumps. Pumps. God damnit Pumps. The rise. The fall. Then a frozen moment. A short lived hiss and shudder as the filling water licks into the boiler. The grey safety lights flicker. The scream of the dying boiler. Then darkness. That panic. That scream. Then, again, time and the rise and fall. Morning." Antonio sucks in a last breath of the moist air of Santos. The pallet now safely strapped onto the flatcar, he sends the driver on to Araras and boards the train home with his new press.
On the train Antonio watches the tall palm and Brazil trees float by outside the window. He recalls his father's voice. In Santos we were put on a train and taken up the newly opened Noroeste line to work on the coffee Fazenda of Arlindo Piedade. The train grudged up the slope of the Serra do Mar escarpement toward Sao Paulo, then onto the Rio Claro spur, and past the new cotton and cane plantations near Campinas. Martinho saw the Fazendas through the train's smoky glass. The use farms of the colonos in the distance. The long drawn spaces of the drying terraces, the seas of beans in each section raked into rows to witness the sun. The mature coffee trees, round and shaggy, their leaves fuzzing down like shavings of iron gathered on a magnate. "Look Angelica, the farms." Martinho squeezed his eyes toward the window and pressed Angelica's hand. "The coffee. The homes." A thousand palms stood at the edge of the drying terraces in a line five trees thick, shielding the big Fazenda house from the work which built it. The house two-storied. Squat and controlled by a lawn squared around the columned porch which ran the length of the house on all four sides. Martinho said, "this is now part of my dream. That house. See, Angelica how it's spread out and separate. The parts. The House. The tall trees." But the train poked deeper into the new land. More coffee. Coffee. Where were the houses? Some workers. Native brush. Rubber. Palm. Brazil. The train wheezed to a stop a hundred yards past a newly planked building. We step into the slick soil and stare toward the rough vegetable world on both sides of the tracks. Soon a wagon takes us over mud-ruts and through some newly cleared fields dotted with colonos and coffee shoots. Then again to the vegetable wall. Another wagon brings tools unloaded from the train's flatcars. The work begins.
At Araras Antonio met the driver again. They loaded the pallet on the new truck. They bought some cassava from the station, then began the long grind up and through the the fringe plateaus and smooth U-shapes of the Parahyba valley. On the drive to the Fazenda Antonia gathered his eyes on the green that moved outside the window. The coffee trees hung heavy with beans. The Mandioca, sought for its root. Maize. And, of course, the Palm. "It seemed as though my father measured our lives with these Palm trees. Fan Palm. Sega palm. Pigmy. For the first years he cared most for the Fan Palm. For a long time our only joys were the small shoots. Martinho learned that the coffee from his new trees wouldn't be produced for four to six years. To live on the farm they would have to supply the Fazenda with enough coffee each year to meet the terms of their lease, and since the only place one could pick coffee was the Fazenda, this meant that at least five years of his life would be spent in free labor. So we planted between the rows of our coffee shoots. The trees started so far apart that there was room for rice, maize, beans. Here we had room for expectation. The sprout. The growth. Soon we sold food to the cities. My father leased more land. 'Look at those Palms.' He pointed my glance toward the line of Palms along the road one day and said, 'look at those Palms. Already they are tall and stand as a mark for my Fazenda.'
When I was fourteen we went to Santos to deal with the wharehouse. The Commissario who bought our beans was a crook, so we went to Santos. Martinho sold beans to The British Export Commodity Corporation. The new deal would give us the money we needed to really expand. Martinho talked about the new Fazenda house, the coffee machines, more colonos. When we walked the long beaches of Santos, the hills that came down to the ocean ended in an earth wave. The bluff tumbled down to the sand and formed a wall opposite the sea. We listened. The sound over sound. The sweeps of the wave's breathing, returned by the hill's still rock. Ocean. Stone. The breathing sweep. Fhweeaesheough. The waves. The hills. The gathered sands.
In the distance the hills over the shore formed curved eyelines where the escarpement skirted his green thumbs out to meet the water, and said, "nothing more than the assertion of my
receeding coves," then broke over the sea. And the palms above each cove were distinct as faces, not severed, tethered to the ground on trunks too distant and straight to be anything more than imagination." The truck noses its way through a small stream. The driver squeezes his eyes toward the road now dimming in the lengthening shadows of the day's close. They pass the Fazenda of Narciso Lacerdo Franco. Trucks load coffee. Antonio massages his eye area with his thumbpads. "Where's Franco selling beans. Fuckin' Partido. When I finally print O Municipio I'll fight with the truth. I remember when Martinho fought with the Coffee Institute. They said he couldn't be a member. He was foreign. Shit, so were they. They laughed. So he went to Ataliba Tavares, who was the registriero for Araras, and bought the leases for some of Franco's Colons. In the morning, our Grileiro came with his security guards and some Colonos. They picked Franco's beans and sold them for 1500 reis. At the next meeting, when Martinho offered the money they still refused. 'I must try one more thing,' he told the Fazenderas and he pushed the new leases under the eyes of Franco. 'Fucker,' cried Franco, 'you mother fucker.' In Sao Paulo the last lease is valid. The registreiro is very powerful. When Martinho left he still had the 1500 reis, he still had Franco's Colons, and he was the newest member of the Coffee Institute.
When he returned from the Coffee Institute, we walked among the Palms. My father told me how his life had been measured.'See the Fan Palms now. They stand tall, but their beards are shaggy and sometimes torn. But not these here. see the top here.' He shows me the cabbage tip of a Sega Palm that even after five years is little more than a big bulb with delicate fronds. They grow new leaves but once a year. The growth is so fine. See here the brown velvet of the small leaves still wrapped over the tree's fruitful core. And see the fire yellow fruit of the end-bud beneath the velvet, which acts as a sun bursts and powers the plant. And Antonio, these are the new ones we bought from Santos, when we sold the coffee. Now see the old. From the first years they've grown now too high to see the crown. But see how they stand more precise. No shaggy beard, but straight and strong as flags.'" The flags stand tall as Antonio and the driver see them now. They both arch their backs and squat in the dirt beside the truck to ease the bones. "Go get some colonos," Antonio tells the driver, "then start unloading this thing."
In a few days the press is running. It is an old Hoe Type Revolving Machine. Antonio himself locks the type for the first page in the steel frame of the chase and fastens it to the print cylinder. Now with each revolution the type will touch the sheets drawn around the paper cylinder and print the first edition of O Municipio. The headline reads Habeus Corpus. The story reports on the fire last month at the Registrie:
The Correio Paulistano has mistakenly concluded that last month's fire at the Registrie in Araras was set by Martinho da Silva Prado. O Municipio has learned that several foreigners, including the capangas and the grileiro who work for Narciso Lacerdo Franco, were seen running from the Registrie just before the fire. The arsonists may have been connected with the Partido Republicano Paulista, of which Franco is a member, and which has recently been said to have threatened Ataliba Tavares, the Registreiro who was killed in the fire. Based on this new information, O Municipio calls on the Judge of Law to issue a writ of Habeus Corpus immediately, which will bring about the release of the now proven to be innocent Martinho da Silva Prado.
"There. We fight now with words. Fuckin Correio can't print their lies so easily any longer. We'll bring the papers to Araras next week. To the carnival." The carnival at Araras was a yearly event. The highlight was the Fazenda parade. The floats were like a sign of each Fazenda's standing. The pecking order was played out with the colors of the uniforms and the volumne of percussion blasting from each Fazenda's marching bands. For the past month Antonio watched over the Fazenda float. The wagon's spokes were woven with strands of bright paper. Gold, green, yellow. Red. The side boards were a field of green dotted with the delicate paper-like purple folwers of the bouganvilla vines piled in the wagon and flowing over its sides.
In front of the wagon stood Antonio holding the banner: Habeus Corpus. As the float came out from the line of trees that sealed the ends of the Rua Do Bom Jesus, the words seemed to stand alone for a moment. Then the people recognized the headline. The banner seemed to float toward the crowd, as if the words carried forth through the air on their own special power. Habeus Corpus. As the float passed the last in the long row of Palms that lead the road into Araras, the sun blasted over their crowns and seived through the downfolding tissue of the fronds; and the light was so strong and pure behind Antonio and the banner that, though the band jangled in front and the float wheels creeked over the mud-ruts in the road with their bright paper spokes, it seemd as if the idea of Habeus Corpus itself was pouring into the Village. "Finally," breathed Antonio, "finally I feel my voice."
Then, PBOUPkiow. PBOUPkiow. Two shots. The head in the sun snaps backwards. A hush. A knowledge. Then the body crumbles over the straggled vines and stickers in the front of the wagon. The banner floats down, covers his head and chest, and folds over the edge of the sideboard. Beneath the mess, sweeping out from under the words and the body a stray vine of bouganvilla curves in the bottom of the wagon. The delicacy of its purple paper flowers thickens and sticks in the growing puddle of Antonio's blood.
Sebastio emerges from his tale. The urchins and men gathered around his crate stand and stretch. They seem nourished, returned. The stream of traffic on the Rua now oozes forward. Two men cluck Sebastio on the back then move on. Street sounds. A thin man, maybe seventeen, unfolds his arms from a dirty t-shirt. "Sebastio, you dog. What you doing here? Antonio, Martinho, they tried to fight the system. You just telling stories."
Sebastio shrugs, "What you doing? just listening, man. You don't know shit. Look at this Americano. Now he's listening too." Sebastio jerks his head toward me. The thin man seems unmoved. I fidget my ass on the lathe of my orange crate. Sebastio turns his face full towards me and nods, "what do you think, Americano?"
"It's a powerful story Sebastio."
The thin man spits, says fuck, then turns to leave. The traffic flows now, punctuated only infrequently by the sounds reacting to any hesitation. Whonk. Mheeep. "Come on!" Sebastio watches the thin man walk away. "That dumbshit. Antonio wasn't any hero. He wasn't shit. He didn't fight against the power, he fought for power."
"What do you mean?"
"His own fucking press, man. What did he write? No more Partido. Municipalto control. His father came here to grow man, to escape."
"But he fought for power too."
Sure, he forgot his story, man." Sebastio rubs his palms over the top of his thighs. We are alone now and our talk becomes more of the interview I came for.
Me: What do you mean he lost his story?
Sebastio: The dolphins. Growing the land. The voyage.
Me: But there were no dolphins. The paper was bogus. The voyage was hell.
Sebastio: That's just it, man. The shitstem always spoils the dream. The dream is all. Why do you think these fucks hang around here? The story. The way out.
Me: So what should they have done. Martinho, Antonio? How else could they fight the system?
Sebastio: You can't fight it. But you can. That's what I do. Escape. You resist by denying it. I tell the stories. Martinho pumps the sea from the hold and the blisters in the palms of his hands turn to bone. The water seives through the very pores of the boat and pours through the hatch, buried beneath the sea in swill to his waist, in the darkness with the bilgerat. But while he rolls beneath the ocean I crack the sky and light it with the fingery yellow lines of the words. The Palms. The banner. The light. The cars the trucks, the stink of Sao Paulo far below and paper to my fire. The dream is all. The story. It cannot be controlled."
Me: that's beautiful, Sebastio, that's just right.
The traffic has disappeared. Only a few cars hurry by now. I rise from the orange crate and press my hands into the small of my back. As I turn to leave a flatbed truck screets up to the curb. A boy junks a stack of useless papers at Sebastio's feet.
On the plane home I finish my Vodka and suck on my pen cap a moment. It's a good story. If I make my deadline I'll probably get my first Sunday feature. I replay the story once more, then rewind the tape as we touch down and thrust reverse. It's a good story. Push play. "It cannot be controlled."