With an hour to kill, I slid my ample gringo butt onto the low stone wall. The stone was polished smooth by thousands of butts before mine. There were benches too. People sat on them alone or in pairs, and on the walls. Massive trees cast a thick shade.
I was at the southwest corner of Parque Central, in San Jose, Costa Rica. If there had been any doubt, the life-sized bronze statue of a guy sweeping up a pile of bronze litter confirmed I was not in New York. A broad cathedral spans the whole block on the east side of the plaza. Midday sunlight exploded off its flat white facade lighting the shade of my corner without heating it.
The ground rose from my wall toward the church. The rise began with three broad steps a few feet in front of me. At the top of those steps a man was preaching in a loud, strong baritone.
He was short and dark, almost swarthy, with a square jaw and white, straight teeth. He dressed plainly in clean, colorless clothes. From under a thatch of glossy dark hair his black eyes scanned the crowd for lost souls. He proclaimed the glory of Jesu Christo.
He held a small black Bible in his left hand. A battered blue metal toolbox was on the ground at his feet. As he spoke he paced a few steps away from it and back, chopping the air with his right arm as he spoke. His voice carried clearly over the noise of the traffic. To my untrained ear he spoke wonderful Spanish.
The Spanish language is still largely incomprehensible to me, though I strive daily to learn it. Here I had stumbled on a chance for a live Spanish lesson. Right away I could pick out a few words. He spoke as I so often ask locals to speak to me — slowly and distinctly, as if to an imbecile.
The preacher spoke Spanish the way I do in my dreams — like Antonio Banderas coaxing a dark eyed beauty out of her lacy shift or Richardo Montalban admiring “reech Corrreenthian leyther” in his native language.
His r’s rolled deliciously, not with the exaggerated flutter of the soccer announcers, but with the warm roundness of good red wine in a big glass. He pronounced d’s with that smooth, mysterious not-quite-a-lisp that makes words sound like the speaker is smiling.
As the sound of his voice washed over me, the force of the preacher’s words carried me along despite my incomprehension. He was riveting. He spoke with passion and power. He was smooth and articulate. He switched seamlessly from the Bible to his own words. The people sitting scattered around him rarely looked at him, as though pretending not to listen. But they were sitting there for the same reason I was, to hear the preacher.
He spoke with a hypnotic rhythm, repeating simple verbs and nouns. I began to pick out phrases as they came around again and again like the refrain in a hymn. I understood just enough to recognize the timeless themes. Amor…Love. Muerte…Death. Vida…Life. Pecado…Sin. The multisyllabic Spanish softened and romanticized the hard Anglo-Saxon — sins became wonderfully trivial pecados. Amen to that, amigos. You can count on the romance of a romance language.
The preacher kept talking and pacing, away from his toolbox and back. The box’s two parallel handles could open left and right to expose tiers of trays. The box’s blue paint was chipped and worn. The centers of the handles were worn to bare metal. They shone dull silver in the shade.
I wondered what tools a preacher would lug around with him. I had visions of blessed lures, custom painted for trolling in this lake of unsaved souls, special spoons and plugs handed down from Christ’s first dozen fishers. Mystical tackle passed from them to the Roman soldiers who a thousand years ago slowly turned Latin into Spanish. Spiritual tools handed finally to this preacher who now cast a glittering net of melodious Latinate words, seining for sinners in San Jose.
His words spread out in a sacred chum slick behind the fishing boat of salvation. I imagined a golden stringer in the bottom of the box ready to bind saved souls together until it was time to take them home.
I decided to go before he opened the box. A little salvation is good for everyone, but I’m not ready to be pulled from the school of sinners just yet. His Spanish alone had drawn me up behind the boat. I feared the Holy Gaff.
Our eyes met as I left, “Se llama Jesu Christo,” he said, loud and strong. He had come to his refrain with perfect timing. "He name is Jesus Christ." I wandered off mumbling to myself, trying to sound like him, carefully repeating Spanish words of hope and redemption.