by Peter LaSalle
It’s happened to me twice recently. And in light of the ongoing and always loud controversy about gun control turning louder now with our utter political polarization, it seems to haunt me even more.
The first time was in Istanbul, where I’d traveled to meet with the translator and also with the Turkish publisher of one of my books of fiction, a short story collection. I’d set myself up in small family-run hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, a yellow-stuccoed place on a quiet dead-end street thick with flowers blooming and not far from the almost bluer-than-blue waters of the Sea of Marmara. The spot proved perfect for my blending some taking in of the nearby sights of Istanbul’s landmark mosques and the ancient Grand Bazaar, as well as conducting my literary business via a short walk across the Galata Bridge to the city’s commercial center.
There was a shop, the equivalent of a corner deli, in Sultanahmet that sold cold beer. At the end of one day of much walking, heading to the hotel, I stopped by. I figured I would take the can back to my room and relax for a bit, sip a refreshing beer and read some before dinner.
Mustached, toothily smiling, the guy behind the counter asked me with what little English he had where in America I was from. While I am, in fact, from Rhode Island and usually spend summer months in the state, I’ve lived a good part of my adult life in Austin, where I teach creative writing. To make things easy, I replied, “Texas,” as in many years of traveling I’ve learned that to say Rhode Island will only elicit bafflement from most people abroad.
Handing the blue can of Efes Pilsner in a plastic sack to me, the guy grinned, just looked at me with a larger smile; he said “Texas,” nodding, then offered me the universally understood pistol sign with his hand—thumb cocked for the hammer and forefinger out straight for the barrel, nodding some more.
And then, just last summer, I was in Lisbon. I was on another literary errand. This time it was to match up some of the places in that true gem of a city of steep hills, endless red-tiled roofs, and such impressive imperial architecture on the wide Tagus River with the work of Portugal’s giant of modernist literature, Fernando Pessoa, who died relatively young in 1936 and near thoroughly unknown then. I planned to write an essay for a literary magazine of the sort I have been writing lately on going to a place where a favorite author’s books are set, to see, through exploration of the setting, if I can better experience the work that way.
With Pessoa proudly honored by Portugal today, he has emerged as perhaps the defining cultural image for Lisbon itself, site of much of his poetry as well as the eerie, posthumously published prose ruminations of a fictitious Lisbon office worker, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet. There’s now a much-photographed life-size bronze statue of Pessoa seated amid the umbrella tables outside the popular Café A Brasileira. Pessoa had been a regular there, often discussing literature with friends at the ornately classic place in the heart of the city’s Chiado district, today a busy pocket of trendy shops and usually clogged with tourists.
In my reading about Pessoa, an odd fact I came across was that the Café A Brasileira, famous for its literary ties, once had also been frequented by members of Portugal’s feared secret police. During the repressive 36-year rule of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, they operated under different names, the most notorious acronym being PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado); their headquarters had been only a street or so away, back then known as “The House of Torture.” After some checking around online, it was easy enough to find the exact location of that former headquarters on Rua António Maria Cardoso, a narrow street with gleaming rails for the yellow Lisbon trolleys, sloping steeply down toward the city’s extensively redeveloped dockside.
As I stood in front of the building on this hot and deserted summer Sunday late afternoon, I took notes on the look of the place, thinking I might use such details in my future writing. The four-story stone edifice—impeccably sandblasted and with fine, iron-railed balconies—was now, after complete remodeling, the home to (and this is pretty ironic) very chic central-Lisbon condos; an upscale designer furniture store occupied the ground level. Which was when a barrel-chested guy approached me, seemingly of African ancestry and thirty-five or so, in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals. Friendly, quite animated, he asked in his melodically bellowing voice if he could help me, maybe answer any questions.
Bic and little red-marbleized notebook in hand, I said I was just looking at the building, checking the plaque now affixed there by the government, which, with proper repudiation, does fully own up to a most tragic chapter in the nation’s past.
“Yes, yes,” he said, “this is it, and this is where people were locked up in cells, where they were tortured in all sorts of ways for too long, even murdered, and now look at it”—he histrionically waved his hand as if to take in the whole street—”a home for the rich.”
We casually chatted. He explained that his mother was Portuguese and his father from Angola, the former Portuguese colony that suffered in the 1960-70s through a drawn-out war of independence, a foreign conflict unpopular at home and for many the equivalent of our painful Vietnam episode. He said he’d learned most of his English, very good, from TV, and he offered more of his opinion on how the rich were indeed ruining the world, how his dear Lisbon itself was being bought up by the rich, and “Money, money, money!” Eventually he introduced himself as João; I gave him my name. And when he asked me where I was from in the U.S., I again, without thinking, simply said, “Texas.”
And with that it did happen again, more or less an automatic response on his part. He pronounced “Texas” slowly, as if tasting the syllables on his palate, and, yes, slowly he raised his hand to make the pistol sign, now not with a nod but just a rather hopeless, apparently pitying shaking of the head.
I really didn’t know how to answer, to be honest. Or, to put it another way, in Lisbon on such a pristine sunny Sunday afternoon and in Istanbul that other day, both times the exchanges left me embarrassed, if not a little depressed.
OK, here’s where I am going with all of this.
I don’t think that what appears an automatic reaction from people abroad linking guns and Texas can be summarily dismissed and just pegged to the influence of Hollywood’s Western movies over the years, though that obviously is part of it. Still, in a larger sense, it could be more that Texas, loud and brash as it is sometimes seen, does become for many outside our country an icon for much of what they consider wrong in America in general. (It’s a recurring trope in movies and literature, admittedly a cliché, to portray a noisy American buying up artifacts of old world culture, with no understanding of that culture, as a drawling, ten-gallon-topped Texas oil millionaire). And I suppose there is a certain sadness in the way that frequently when those abroad do think of America in general, easily tagged with that stock image of Texas, they readily associate it with guns.
I mean, concerning gun control in general, it wasn’t just these instances. And how often I have found myself with friends in France, where I have taught at universities on faculty exchanges, or in Brazil, where I have gone a couple of times to do research for my writing and give lectures, and when the subject of life in America came up, it was soon accompanied by amazement, or incredulity, about a situation that to those in other countries can be the sheer absurdity of the full availability of firearms here—anything from the cheap Saturday-night specials used to bloodily resolve family arguments to high-tech, military-style assault weapons capable of wiping out entire classrooms of school children in mere minutes. It does little good to attempt to explain the enormous power of lobbies in America, also to say how a good number of my faculty colleagues and I have vocally opposed the Texas legislature’s enthusiastic recent decision to allow “campus carry” at my own university: explanations—or outright excuses—fail.
So, as grateful as I am to a state that has provided me with a fulfilling university job that has allowed me exposure to bright, wonderful students in a long teaching career, plus the so many good people I’ve known throughout Texas and the countless other undeniably fine things about the state, too, I think I’ve learned my lesson—in travel abroad from now on I don’t need an accusatory pistol finger pointed directly at me anymore. When somebody asks me where I am from, I will always say emphatically “Rhode Island,” granting that experience has taught me that my very small New England native state will more than likely be confused with—if recognized at all—New York and, well, Long Island.
Further, and maybe more seriously, I will keep trying, both as a writer—with whatever outlets for words are at my disposal—and merely as an everyday citizen, to take a stand the best I can against the madness of present gun laws, or shameful lack of them, as the effort clearly does become increasingly challenging amid this current political rockiness.
Peter LaSalle’s most recent books are a story collection, Sleeping Mask: Fictions (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017), and a collection of travel essays, The City at Three PM: Writing, Reading, and Traveling (Dzanc Books, 2015). A longtime AGNI contributor, he has a short story, “Where I Was When My Older Brother Died,” in the current issue (84), and his essay “Walking: An Essay on Writing,” which appeared in AGNI 70, was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, both in the English department and the Michener Center for Writers. See all of what he’s published in AGNI here.