The photo that goes with this column was taken two weeks ago in Parque de los Periodistas Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or “Journalists’ Park,” named in honor of the great Colombia-born author of “100 Years Of Solitude” and for the journalists, poets and writers who worked in media offices that surrounded the popular communal square in the 1960s.
At the center of the square sits a statue of Simon Bolivar and not much else, but I spent a lot of time with my family there the first week in April, since the park sits directly across from our hostel, the Platypus hostel in La Candelaria area of Bogota. It was our third trip to Colombia since we became a Colombian-American adoptive family in 1995 and 1998, and while I’ve always said I’m grateful to Colombia for giving me my kids, these days I’m grateful that my kids gave me Colombia.
During our stay, Journalists’ Park provided me with some of the best people-watching to be had on the planet; a front-row seat to a ridiculously vibrant and seemingly endless parade of beautiful smiling souls, business people, high school students, elementary school students, college students, vendors, desperately poor beggars, stray dogs, musicians, ranters, ravers and all sorts of characters holding forth in animated Spanish and English.
The neighborhood hosts dozens of bars, pubs and several music-themed clubs (one in particular, the Doors Rock Bar, provided me with a couple nights of blissed-out American ’80s metal), and I savored every morsel of it, delighted to be out of the USA and far from its dimwitted politics and culture.
Our last morning in Bogota, I was missing Colombia already, wistfully minding my own business and taking some last photos when a group of about 50 field-tripping school kids engulfed me. Moments before, they’d been standing quietly in the center of the square as their teacher spoke of the significance of Marquez and Bolivar and the written word, and now the kids wanted some action.
They saw me and seemed to make a beeline for me. There was no escape. They started laughing at me, the only obviously non-Colombian in sight. I was doomed, so I went with it.
I started fist-bumping the kids, which proved wildly popular. “Hey, maaan,” several of the boys said to me as our knuckles connected, like they’d watched too many American gangsta movies and wanted to test my Caucasian machismo. I returned their adolescent jive, which amped them up more and inspired more laughs, more fist-bumps. I spoke a little Spanish and flashed my “This Is Colombia, Not Columbia” t-shirt to cheers, and they started taking selfies with me like I was a giraffe at the zoo.
“I am Gringo Jimmy!” I told my new friends, raising my arms in mock surrender, and before I could tell them that I indeed was a real-live writer, a journalist, wandering around Journalists’ Park here before them, the goofball chant went up: “Gringo Jimmy! Gringo Jimmy! Gringo Jimmy!”
Half a dozen selfies with Gringo Jimmy later, the group’s teacher took my camera and took this photo and then they were on their way; the class marched up the street and out of sight and were gone for good. Poof. I actually shook my head, looked around and said out loud, “Did that really just happen?” Our Parque de los Periodistas encounter all happened in under four minutes, I don’t know a single name or person in the picture, yet I cherish it and I’ve lingered over the pure joy it brings me ever since. Why?
Where are those kids now? Where are those selfies? Part of me pines for that connection, to know more, to insist to them that our chance meeting was meaningful and unforgettable and what life is all about and that I wanted to have a chance to say a proper goodbye. Alas, my Gringo Jimmy moment with those random kids went by like so much does in life — too fast — but hell if it didn’t lift and continue to lift my heart as an example of a wonderfully pure connection, a moment of hilarious harmony, a fleeting few minutes shared between happy humans who will never see each other again.
Part of me hopes this photo and column gets out there and some smart teacher or student in Bogota will recall that morning and discover that a journalist in the United States is still thinking about them and wants them to know that he will always be grateful for the brief but beautifully impactful time they had together.
Look at those smiles, for heaven’s sake.
Lord knows I need them now. Upon and shortly after arriving home, I learned of the tragic sudden deaths of my friends Dan Fobbe and Stella Blue, both of whom I came to know through playing and loving live music together. Did I know them well? Yes, as well as anyone joined by late nights and loud guitars knows one another, but not as well as their families and relatives and lovers, though the times we shared together, and the community that was stoked by their great spirits and flames, remain as ineffable as they are unforgettable.
I’ve pored over photos of Dan and Stella over the last few days, along with the one of the Jimmy Gringo crew, and I can’t help but think that losing people you love is like my encounter with the kids. I want to hold my loved ones close, keep all of it forever, but the truth is that that’s impossible, you can’t do that, and to try to do so is almost anti-life and -living.
So here’s to life. Cheers to life. I’m sad about my friends and Prince and how fragile life feels and, note to self, you can’t know your impact on another person’s life and vice versa because the truth is we’re all just floating through one another’s lives, trying to live and love and learn, and today’s lesson is to be sure to tell your loved ones how you feel about them and say muchas gracias and “it was so very nice to meet you and know you and love you and you mattered so much to me” while you can because in the end you might not get a chance to say a proper goodbye.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org