“A Great Lesson In Trust, Patience and Humility” (Part 1 of 7)

“A Great Lesson In Trust, Patience and Humility”


“How I Passed The Course, ‘Trusting Your Fellow Man,’ By Jay Milam –  AND- With Flying Colors! “


“My Two-Room, $350.00 Floor Polish” By Robert Leedy


Background info – San Juan, Puerto Rico October / November 1994:

After my long search for a painting studio, I found a great apartment at Calle del Sol #4 in Old San Juan. Calle del Sol is the street that runs from la Casa Blanca (Juan Ponce de Leon’s former home) all the way to Fuerte San Cristobal (The smaller fortress on the hill as you enter Old San Juan.) The apartment is opposite and below the south walls of La Casa Blanca’s lush, tropical gardens. It is the quiet end of the street and the high walls offer cool shade, yet the light is still good due to the railroad layout of the apartment and the bright sunlight that comes in through the back balcony. The apartment is basically a two-room unit with a small upstairs loft that is perfect for storage. The front room is where I paint and the back room is basically a large kitchen. The back balcony is separated from the kitchen by a doorway with a wrought iron gate. There is no solid door here, however, a continual breeze keeps it cool and mosquito-free. I did have a dove fly in and spend a few days trying to figure out how to get out. The view from the back balcony gives you a glimpse of the bay and a pretty good view of La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion. The front door of the apartment is on a steep grade that runs a few yards down to the city walls and curves on down to the left. My front door is also on the street level which will be good for curious tourists looking for art to take home. The studio has another large door in the front that opens up to a small balcony with a wrought iron railing. The balcony floor is about waist high (from the street side) and offers the passer-by a good view of the inside front room when the louvered doors are opened. Inside are the classic high ceilings so typical of San Juan’s old structures. Two old Hunter ceiling fans add to the breeze. The floor is made up of old black and white checkerboard tiles that, combined with the louvered doors, high ceilings and archways, gives you the perfect, surrealistic, architectural background-setting of a de Chirico painting.

My landlady is Mary Benitez, a very dear, widow in her 60’s with dyed-red hair and probably one face lift too many. Mary was born in Puerto Rico and lived in the States before returning to San Juan in the late 50’s. She bought property in Old San Juan before it was fashionable to live there (early 1960’s.) Her penthouse apartment is above the apartment next to mine. It has a spectacular view of Old San Juan and Bahia de San Juan. Her apartment has beautiful marble floors and is filled with paintings, an interesting collection of old mirrors of all shapes and sizes, and a lot of antique furniture. I imagine it is a good example of what fine living in the Old Citv looks like.

Mary is very nice and one of those Puerto Rican women that makes you feel like she’s your aunt and you’ve known her forever. One Sunday, I spotted her picture on the society page of the newspaper. She had attended some charity event. A few pictures further down, and there she was again, at some other social event. When I saw her later, I mentioned it and told her that “two pictures…two social events…on one page…El Gobernador doesn’t get that much press; I didn’t know I had quite the socialite of San Juan as a landlady!” It turns out that her husband was from a very prominent insurance family on the island. She mingles with all of the movers and shakers of San Juan and seems to know everybody (and she loves to tell you about it.) I now often see her passing by the window, dressed in formal attire, over-jeweled, over made-up, and on her way to a wedding, shower, funeral, fund-raiser, etc…

My rent began with the first of November and I immediately began building a large work table. I used a 36″x 80″ wooden door as the tabletop which I purchased at Builder’s Square, my favorite store after The Bookstore. I built a large frame, sanding and painting it white. The tabletop was sanded, sealed, and varnished. After much work, I was close to finishing it; I laid the tabletop on the frame and noticed it wasn’t square. Darn! Just goes to show you can’t always depend on store-bought doors being square! I thought my little joke was cute and passed it by Vicky, who said very seriously: “Take it back and exchange it for a new one.”

After all of the dust settled from wood shop class and a week-long interruption by a watercolor painting workshop I attended, I decided to have the tiles cleaned and polished. One morning while reading the newspaper I spotted an…

advertisement in
The San Juan Star, page 23
Wednesday, November 16,1994:


We Crystalize & Shine all types of floors.
Reasonable prices.


Hmmm . . . I didn’t want to wait forever to get someone to polish my studio floor. That’s usually what happens when you need an electrician, plumber, painter, etc. in Puerto Rico: You call three different guys and pray at least one of them will show up. They all say, “Oh yeah, I’ll be by at 6:30 tomorrow morning to give you an estimate.” If you are ignorant to these labor practices, you’ll be up-early-and-waiting. By 10 o’clock you’re so full of coffee that, if it’s plumbg problems you are dealing with, you can be certain the problem will be compounded!

If and when one shows up after the first call, he’ll definitely be late and you’ll get the normal excuses:

” Mira, este . . . I woulda been here earlier, pero . . . my grandmother died this morning… ” and este…the cemetery was closed… so … este…I had to…este…find a good spot in the backyard…pero…then I remembered I had lent my shovel out to my cousin…and he’s in jail…and his wife has left him, so, she’s not en la casa either…and…cuando me voy a Sears to buy a new one…este…the man told me they had sold out of shovels, so…I went home to find something else to dig with…pero, all I could find was…una cucharita [small spoon] so,…este…I worked all morning and got bad blisters on my hands…and I went to the doctor and he told me I needed to go to the hospital…so, I waited and waited…Ay dios mio, you know how terrible those emergency rooms are…pero, I woulda called you but….este, the man sitting next to me told me when I asked him where the pay phones were…este…that the phone company had cut service to all public telephones…porque un cabro {a goat] had chewed up one of the main cables. . .”

I asked Vicky if Puerto Ricans actually believe each other when they tell these incredible excuses. She says they don’t, but they tell them anyway. I have yet to hear: “Oh man, I’m really sorry I’m so late – I overslept this morning!”

I figured anyone who took out an ad in The San Juan Star – the English newspaper read by impatient, gringos must be a little more attentive to honoring appointments and showing up on time. I called the number and was greeted – not by a receptionist – but a jibara:

“Hallo?” [crying babies in the background and the noise of Puerto Rican soap operas blaring over a television set.]

Shit! This is the wrong number, I thought.

“Buenos días…uh…Prestige Floors?”

“Si!” [she answered with the enthusiasm of ‘hey, I can’t believe someone would actually see our ad and respond to it…’]

“Yo tengo un apartamento en Viejo San Juan y yo necesito limpiar el piso.”


“Uh…habla ingles?”

“No, no hablo ingles.”

I stumbled further in Spanish and she told me her husband could call me back at 6 pm. He could speak English; I gave her my name and number.

It’s amazing how many people try to disguise their self-employment and pretend to be a large company specializing in whatever it is they are doing. I guess that is so people will believe that the large companies will honor appointments and show up on time – well, maybe not all of the time, but at least they have a better track record than the self-employed. There are also many moonlighters who use the name of the company that actually employs them – as well as the company’s tools, trucks, materials, time, etc. – all, I’m sure of, without the knowledge of the company. When our telephone was being installed in the house, I asked the guy to put a phone jack in the office so I could hook the computer’s fax up to a connection. He said he would come back on his own time and do it for less money. It took him a few days, but he showed up in the company truck and did the job. We also had a guy come over to do an estimate for replacing the canvas awnings hanging over our patio; the estimate was so good, we didn’t even wait for another estimate. The guy gave his card to Vicky. I later noticed on his card that the company telephone number was scratched out by pen beyond legibility – only the guy’s home phone number was visible. He gave her two cards – just in case she lost one and had to call information to get the company’s phone number. Then again, maybe there actually was no awning company by that name – and this was his excuse for any crying babies in the background and / or noise of Puerto Rican soap operas blaring over a television set. Ah yes, there’s nothing quite like Puerto Rican entrepreneurialship!

later that evening:

Surprisingly, I got a telephone call from the floor guy at nine o’clock that evening:

“Hello, Mr. Robert?”


“This is Phillip from Prestige Floors.”

Gee, thanks – I was going to have an awful time trying to pronounce ‘Felipe’.

I told him what I needed. He asked what time I could meet him tomorrow in Old San Juan. Wow! I thought; he’s not going to put it off for a few days? I’ll get this job done sooner than I had imagined.

I told him 3 pm. I had some errands to do and wouldn’t be able to get there any earlier.

“Can you make it around 11:30 instead?” he asked.

“Well, I guess I could…” If it means giving up a few things to do to get my floor done right away, 1 guess I’ll have no problem with that!

We agreed on 11:30 a.m. the next day.

Thursday, November 17, 1994
my studio:

Felipe showed up around 12:45 pm. No excuses, no apologies. Hell, I’m just amazed he made it on the first call!

Felipe was a Nuyorican. You immediately pick up the New York accent in their English – that’s how you tell. And a native Puerto Rican will pick up on their strange Spanish accent intemingled with Spanglish. But Nuyorican is also a term for any person of Puerto Rican heritage born anywhere in the U.S.. There are actually arguments between people over who’s more Puerto Rican – someone of Puerto Rican heritage who is born in the U.S. and moves to Puerto Rico -or- someone born in Puerto Rico who moves to the U.S. for the majority of his/her life [I don’t know if there is an official designation for the latter other than, escapee, maybe?] I won’t exactly say the former, or Nuyoricans, are disliked by island Puerto Ricans – it’s just sort of a negative attribute – much like being Cuban, although being Cuban is probably more accepted. But the negativeness of being Nuyorican has little or nothing to do with being [Stateside] American… it’s more of the bad reputation the Nuyorican gives the island Puerto Rican – that the island Puerto Ricans dislike. And to complicate matters further, island Nuyoricans don’t like the reputation given them by Stateside Nuyoricans either…

Felipe was about 5’8″, a stocky 200 pounds in his thirties with short hair, green eyes and a light brown complexion. He looked like he may have been in the Army at one time and thus a possible reason for living in the States. Sweat poured constantly from his forehead and I figured he spent most of his energy running around, trying to catch up with appointments.

As he inspected the floor with a bit of professional manner, he talked of the many possible treatments for the floor and I saw $$$ signs doing the stadium wave.

“Well, Mr. Robert, I can do this job for you for $250.00…

Shit! I knew this was going to happen.

“Look, I’m renting this apartment and using it as office space.  And since I don’t own it, I don’t want to dump a lot of money into it. What’s another alternative?”

“Well, I can do almost as good of a job for $150.00…you just won’t get the full-treatment.”

…You mean ‘the full-fucking’, I thought. My stomach started to twist – that price drop was too fast. Oh well, he’ll probably do a good professional job and at least he’ll most likely show up to do the work.

“OK, when can you start?”

“Tomorrow, but I need to get a $50 deposit from you, Mr. Robert.”

This is the first thing not-to-do when dealing with contract labor, unless there is a major materials expense involved. But I figured he trusted me less than I trusted him and Old San Juan is a pain-in-the-ass to get in and out of and find a parking space, so I gave in – but not fully – for I wrote a check – which these guys hate. They always ask to be paid in cash; I don’t know if it’s to avoid paying taxes or if there is an overabundance of bad checks. I suspect a little bit of both, but perhaps more of the latter.

We agreed he would start the next day at 10 am. I knocked on my landlady’s door to see if she thought $150 was a fair price. Mary is constantly having work done on her penthouse apartment. Those pretty marble tiles look like they are polished regularly. She would know what a good price was….

“Sure, I think that’s pretty good. I’d like him to check my floor and see what he can do. I also need some acid work done on the apartment below yours; ask him to see me when he gets through with your floor tomorrow. “

Friday, November 18, 1994,
my studio:

Felipe pulled a no-show. I wasn’t worried because you always have to allow for at least one day of no-shows. I was in the studio all day and he never came by. He called the house that afternoon and left a message on the answering machine saying that he would definitely make it by on Saturday at 10:00 am.

Saturday, November 19, 1994
Discovery of Puerto Rico Day,
My studio, 1:00 p.m.:

A sweating, hurried Felipe finally shows up: “Ay…sorry I’m late Mr. Robert….and I’m sorry I couldn’t make it yesterday…all of the floor machines were checked out at work…we’re having an especially busy time at the company and I had to wait until one was available….you know what I mean, Joe?”

Yeah? Well, I’m a personal friend of the president of Prestige Floors – we play golf every? Thursday. Maybe I can talk to him on a personal level about getting you guys some more floor machines to keep up with the heavy workload…

I was irritated about waiting and now even more irritated as I watched him bring in his ‘equipment’: a rental floor machine, a used one gallon milk jug with some yellow fluid in it, and a couple of jugs of floor wax.

Hell, I could have done this..’ I argued silently with myself that, no,this would, instead, be a nice, professional job.

“What’s the yellow stuff?” I asked. I was expecting some high-tech, impressive chemical that I’d never heard of.

“Amonia, a small amount of citric acid, and water. This is what I’ll use to strip the floor with, you know what I mean, Joe?”

My fucking name’s not Joe. Another surefire sign of a Nuyorican.

My water was still not connected. The water company said they would have it on by Wednesday and here I was waterless on Saturday. I had called the day before and they said the guy was in Old San Juan at that moment and that he’d be right over – at least that’s what my Spanish thought they said…I never saw the guy. Maybe they turned on the wrong meter?

“I guess you’ll need water to do the job?” I explained the problem we were facing.

“Ay, Joe you ain’t got any water? Man, I need water to do my job…Can’t do these floors without water, Joe…definitely need the water….Where’s your meter – I’ll turn it on!”

I showed him the meter.

“If you don’t pay your bill,” he said, “they turn off the water and take the meter. If it’s just the case of somebody movin’ out, they only cut the water off, you know what I mean, Joe? Your meter’s here. You got any tools, Joe?…I can have this baby on in no time!”

I went for some pliers and a couple of wrenches.

“Oh yeah, this’ll do it, Joe,” he said as he picked up an adjustable wrench and a pair of pliers. “If you see I’ve picked up any of your tools when I leave, just let me know, you know what I mean, Joe? I sometimes don’t know which ones are mine.”

With a little force and some extra drips of sweat, Felipe had the water turned on. I gathered up my tools and put them in my tool box.


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