“The great secret is not having bad manners
or good manners… but having the same manner
for all souls: behaving as if you were in heaven,
where there are no third-class people, and one
person is as good as another.”George Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion
It started when I was ten, maybe eleven. My mother took one look at me as I came into the house after a long day of playing in my front yard, with frequent dashes out into Avenida Universidad to retrieve overthrown balls and small rocks that had gone astray. I was drenched in sweat one hundred percent of the time, this being the tropics, and by the end of the day I usually wore a couple of rings of dirt that circled my neck. My mother used to call them my “collares,” or necklaces. Other than ordering me to run into the bathroom and not to come out until I was clean, she never made me feel dirty or disgusting: I was a boy and she was proud that I was showing it.
This day was different. Before I walked into the bathroom (and we only had one, as almost all of the apartments on our street) her look lingered.
“He’s ready,” she said.
My mother’s cousin, who lived with us and helped to raise me, nodded, to indicate that she agreed.
I walked into the bathroom with a bit of concern. I was happy. What did they have in store for me? Read more books? Add to my chores?
The next day they explained their plans to Angélica, the neighbor who lived upstairs. I was to get a guayabera. I overheard the conversation, like I listened in on hundreds of others that a young boy had no business being privy to. It must be a Puerto Rican thing, to speak about your money problems or your husband’s infidelities in front of the kids. Somebody else’s kids.
I was thrilled. I had no idea what a guayabera was, but it sounded a lot like guayabas, the Spanish term for guavas. I was sure that I was getting a guava tree for the back yard, replete with ripe fruit and easy to climb on. People in temperate zones may have trouble understanding this, but there are few pleasures in life that compare with eating a guava or a mango that has been recently plucked from its tree. Besides the unique sweetness of these fruits there was the pleasure of getting your clothes and your face messy beyond recognition (much more so with mangoes).
I followed my mother and her cousin downtown with a huge smile on my face. It did not occur to me to think that the urban area was a peculiar place to go buy a tree. When we walked into Padín, the local department store, I figured that we were stopping to buy women’s underwear (another humiliation that I was often subjected to). There was some befuddlement when I was directed to the men’s department after we asked for guayaberas, and utter, severe disappointment when the salesman brought out three shirts for me to try on. No leaves were hanging from them.
I was fitted, and reluctantly clutching my new purchase I was ushered to the jewelry department, where they bought me a gold chain and a gold ring that spelled out my initials. Next came the Catholic gift store (it was called La Pilarica), where I became the proud owner of a “medalla” (a gold pendant) of the virgin of Perpetual Help, meant to hang on my new gold chain. My Sunday Mass outfit was complete.
The humiliation would have been a lot worse had I been the only one who was forced to go through this ritual. Fortunately all the mothers in the neighborhood reached the same conclusion about their sons at about the same time. It started with me, and there was a chain reaction that must have made the owners at Padín jump up and down with joy. We learned to look at this invasion as a positive. Soon we were comparing jewelry and shirts with each other. As an unexpected side effect of this transition we began to learn about how good quality cotton felt like when you wore it, and what constituted nice gold and craftsmanship. We began to wear our jewelry when we played.
Maybe a year later I was lying on the floor of our living room watching TV (it was concrete; very few people have carpeted rooms in the tropics) when my left armpit began to itch. When I scratched I felt something strange there. I scratched again: the same finding. I became concerned that I had an unwanted growth. I snuck into the bathroom, turned on the light, lifted up my arm, and to my horror realized that there was hair in my armpit.
What had I done wrong? I did my best to hide this new ornament from the rest of the world, to no avail. This time it was one of my older sisters who turned me in, in a very blunt and not subtle way.
“Paquito is growing hair,” she announced to the whole family at dinner. Second older sister immediately began to tease; father smiled; mother developed a look of concern. No one bothered to ask me how I felt about this invasion.
The next day I was hauled back into Padín. First came the deodorant counter, which I swore I would never spray on (yes, Right Guard came in a spray bottle). Then there was the hair gel, which they called brillantina (I guess for brilliance) and which was nothing other than thick, perfumed Vaseline. You could make a piece of hair a foot long stand straight up once you put that stuff on. I picked the Yardley brand. Then a trip to pick up handkerchiefs. They had to be linen, not cotton, and they must be embroidered with your initials. I decided to add my middle “J” to the FG. Last came the scent.
This was potentially overwhelming, because there were a dozen to choose from. By this time I was into the process, though. For the first time ever I was being asked what I wanted and I was allowed to make the choice. This opportunity I would not waste. I ended up with a Spanish cologne, the name of which I do not recall.
Next came the classes. My mother mandated daily use of the deodorant immediately after a shower (which meant that I had to shower every day, a novel experience). A sister explained about the hair gel and its use, and suggested where I could part my hair (I had forgotten to say that I was told I had to comb my hair from now on). My mother’s cousin took me aside to explain how to use a handkerchief; that I always must have a clean and freshly ironed one on me; and that it has to be dabbed (sometimes soaked) in my scent.
Martha, the upstairs neighbor who was a year older than I was, was given the task of teaching me how to dance. I was not about to hold any of my sisters in a dance embrace. There were boleros (the slow romantic dances), and the faster merengues and plenas. I did OK with these, but to this day I’m not as proficient as most Puerto Ricans.
Then everyone pounced on me about Being a Gentleman. Literally every woman who had any contact with me added a nickel’s worth. Maybe a hundred dollars’ worth, because there were many sessions and I distinctly remember them all.
Introduce yourself. Shake hands, gently. You do not squeeze a girl’s hand too tight. Smile. Talk to them. Open doors, even for the older women. Listen, always listen. Become interested in what they talk about. Learn about dresses, and purses, and jewelry. Learn to like babies.
Again, all of my friends were going through the same instruction (although I think mine was more thorough, maybe because I had so many women surrounding me and no brothers). I did not feel marginalized.
Before my first dance there was a big production. We rehearsed the dance steps. I had to learn how to walk up to a girl, and slightly bow as I extended my right arm to ask for a dance. I had to walk her back to her seat after the dance. I had to thank her.
Eventually we were old enough to go to formal dances, with dates. The stakes were higher. My father realized that it would be a lot cheaper for him if I bought my own tuxedo. My mother found a cousin who grew orchids an arranged them in corsages. That was also cheaper, because you never showed up for a date without a flower. Orchids were the most expensive ones. Most guys could only afford carnations, so my family connection gave me an advantage. I learned that I had to call my prospective date and ask what color flower I should bring that would match her dress. Whether the corsage had to come with an armband in case that she was wearing a strapless gown. I was taught how to talk to the girl’s parents, to always sit down and make conversation even if everyone was ready, to thank the girl (again) for going out with me at the end of the evening.
The handkerchiefs became a must. Yes, plural. Few places had air conditioning. One of the handkerchiefs was heavily soaked in my scent; I had to softly dab the girl’s sweat after a fast dance. I was taught how to gently squeeze the girl’s hand during a bolero; how to sense if she got just a little bit closer if she liked me. If things went very well, I was told never to kiss her in public. And how, if this had been a successful date, I could let the girl take my perfumed handkerchief home with her, so that she could smell me as she went to bed (she always returned it a few days later, immaculate and well ironed).
When my son got ready to go on his first date, I had a list for him. I was shocked, then furious, to find out that there were no flowers, and that he had no idea who her parents were, and that maybe they would switch partners at the dance and that no, they all met at the place and you never picked the girl up. The crowning blow came when I took one of my prized handkerchiefs out, and he told me that this was a “disgusting” habit.
I got online. I contacted all of his cousins. They all felt the same way.
There goes my gentleman’s training. I realize that it sounds patronizing, but I was never taught to see girls as sex objects, or as puny helpless beings. The thing about opening doors and learning to listen was about treating your potential mate with honor and respect. Today’s generation will find its way. As far as mine is concerned, my wife enjoys it when I buy her a purse and I actually know about the brand and the style. She keeps me well stocked with embroidered linen handkerchiefs, even if we don’t sweat when we dance. She loves it when I open the car door for her. She says that it makes her feel as if I care. She thanks my mother and sisters and neighbors for taking the time to make me a gentleman.