By Bernard Morris
When I set out to walk in Bela Vista, one of the city’s downtown neighborhoods, my wife’s friend, a Brasileira who speaks excellent English, said, don’t get lost.” She and my wife were at the Hospital Sirio-Libans with my friend’s father, who was recuperating from a stroke. I said I would just follow the streets and she warned me that streets in São Paulo have no discernible or regular pattern. It would be easy for a foreigner to wander into oblivion. Appreciative of her warning, I set out, careful to note landmarks as I strolled. The street I chose to explore curved up a steep hill, then across a bridge that spanned the large boulevard, down, around, over another narrow bridge, back along the street that was heavily trafficked in three or four lanes. In the middle of the six-lane street, dozens of people waited quietly for buses that roared by every now and then.
As always, the question of safety came to mind, but my wife’s friend said this neighborhood was safe enough for me, and it was. I encountered a few indigents as I crossed the upper bridge, but they looked non-threatening. One was a woman sitting against the cement side of the bridge on a blanket looking hungry and unwashed, a black dog huddled beside here. We ignored each other as I passed. Another was an older man, unwashed, too, but he paid me no mind, either.
I normally walk along a route one way for about thirty minutes, then turn around and retrace my steps. So I traverse the same course twice, seeing it from two perspectives, one each way. I am therefore able to study details better twice over or see something I’d missed on the way out. Ideally, I am ignored as I go along, undisturbed, undistracted, and unmolested. I stay on public sidewalks and streets so as not to attract unwelcome attention or encroach onto private property.
On this day, I noticed that the people in this area varied considerably in their appearance. Some were dressed like hospital personnel, wearing a linen cap and gown over their clothing. Others were young people who may have been going to or from work or school. While crossing the lower bridge that sloped upward through a small park, I saw a man in his forties off to the side. Though he was turned toward the wall, it was clear that he was casually relieving himself. No one seemed to notice, though busses and autos roared nearby and several people crossed the bridge along with me. I gathered that Paulistas are on the whole commendably easy going.
As I passed the lady with the dog on my return trip across the upper bridge, she this time addressed me, in Portuguese of course, in an insistent manner. I ignored her and kept walking but she continued. Her gestures suggested that she was offering me something I did not wish to purchase. Farther ahead, the other homeless-looking person began shouting angrily as I neared, shouting to no-one in particular. I ignored him too and increased my pace. Some kind of security man was seated in a vehicle nearby, ignoring the shouter, who quieted down a moment or two later.
Toward the other side of the bridge, I looked over the cement railing and saw, along the side of the street, two men lying on some blankets stretched out on the grass. I figured they were preparing to spend the night there, though it was early evening still. All the while, people walked to and fro, busses and trucks, and autos roared by, and people still waited for the bus. For me, it is both interesting and reassuring to find that life continues in ordinary ways in far away places. It is all new yet in many ways familiar. Human nature is universally uniform, and when circumstances change, people adapt to them without becoming themselves very different. When the visitor encounters new ways, they are always logical, at least in Brazil they are, and often are interesting and innovative. For instance, the practice in some restaurants to charge by the weight of the food on your plate I find to be both practical and pleasing and, for me, new. Fancier restaurants still rely on the traditional waiter-delivered order, but even there the waiters now use hand-held electronic devices to take your order and calculate your bill.
Paulistas have had to find ways to accommodate a tremendous influx of people in the last twenty or so years. The population has swelled to seventeen million, and no doubt the city has spread farther out into the countryside, but also it has reached upward and increased the number of high-rise buildings. As I walk about the city, however, I do not feel crowded, although everywhere I turn, houses, high-rise apartments, and other buildings line the streets and most of the streets are filled with vehicles and people. The city may not have been laid out according to an engineer’s orderly master plan, but a kind of order exists, mostly because people in the city are on the whole considerate of others and live sensibly, peaceably, and practically within the limits of their private world.
Biography: Born July 25, 1935, in San Antonio, Texas. U. S. Marine Corps, 1954-58, Attended the University of California, Berkeley, 1958 to 1973. Ph.D. in English literature. College English teacher at U. C. Berkeley, 1965-1972, and in Modesto, CA, from 1972 to 2003. Publications: Salem Press has used dozens of my essays on the works of Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emerson, Denise Levertov, and Louis Simpson. More than fifty literary journals and magazines have published my poetry. Harvard Review has also carried many of my literary reviews. My critical study of the poetry and prose of X. J. Kennedy, Taking Measure, was published in January, 2003, by Susquehanna University Press. You can contact Bernard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previous articles by Bernard: