WordBowl Word-of-the-Day “duende” is considered by linguists one of the most difficult words to translate into other languages. English words associated with “duende” are: magic, genuine feeling, spirit, fiery, authenticity, magnetism, soul — along with something dark.

It was the subject of an infamous 1933 lecture by the poet & theatre director Frederico Garcia Lorca which you can read here (I am learning fascinating things from the words you send!). 

“duende” courtesy of Jody C. Salem: artist. champion. mother.


PawPaw was Algerine — not from exotic French Algeria but from Algiers, the oldest ward in New Orleans — born on the banks of the Mississippi, one of an interchangeable brood of brothers, cousins who played and fought along their bend of the river, dove after paddlewheel boats chugging up the Mississippi.

River Rats.

How my hardscrabble grandfather met, married my aristocratic grandmother a mystery, a romantic notion, for what other than wild passion could propel two people to cross the gaping chasm between their respective classes?

PawPaw & Me (photo of a photo)

PawPaw & Me (photo of a photo)

PawPaw — one-time Merchant Marine, Jack’s Brewery furnace stoker, for-cash bare-knuckle pugilist, father of two sons — survived a fire of murky origins. In recompense, he received complimentary passage courtesy of a global shipping line for the remainder of his life.

According to family legend, PawPaw strode into offices of company presidents — how he became acquainted with such men, again, a mystery ­— persuaded a loan of, say, $50,000, disappeared for a year or two, returned with double the amount in bundles of cash handed over with hearty thanks.

To me, PawPaw appeared as if conjured, visits heralded by middle-of-the-night calls from airports to announce his arrival, my parents scrambling, me waking with bleary anticipation of gifts. And then, there he was, larger than my father, larger than life, although I now know he was a slight man, compact, condensed, skin leathered from a life lived facing seas, sky.

PawPaw was happy to sleep on the sofa or the floor or the trundle bed in the tiny room I once shared with two brothers, which he declared luxurious in comparison to the cramped quarters he occupied during his recent voyage.

Spanish play on the G&T (tarragon, lemon) and Deviled Egg (friend oyster, caviar) at Carta

Spanish play on the G&T (tarragon, lemon) and Deviled Egg (fried oyster, caviar) at Carta

He arrived laden with spoils, a present day pirate: an elaborate embroidered Chinese jacket, a matador outfit when I was five, kimonos before that. I spent these young years defending my Halloween outfits to other kids, insisting my “costumes” were actually real.

PawPaw once took me to an ice cream parlor, smiled as I lapped up an obscene sundae, the fluted glass bowl nearly obscured my face — I was four, haughty in my refusal of a booster seat — asked if I would like more. I nodded, wild-eyed, as he shouted to our waiter to keep the ice cream treats coming until I told them I was done.

We engaged in detailed discussions regarding my dream dollhouse, which he planned to build, died during its construction.

There were hints of another PawPaw, whispers between my parents about the absentee father my father barely knew, at odds with the old man cackling with gleeful stories, fierce and generous in all the ways my father was not.

I learned to play chess with an ivory-and-ebony set he brought back from India, pick-picked my first short story on his immense manual Royal before I could type, embarked on a career requiring international travel.

And I contemplate the possibilities to live as he  — adventurer, entrepreneur, builder of things —lived, without fear and with great gusto, forever in the heart of the moment.

Third Rail Coffee, east village

Third Rail Coffee, east village

As I strive to write thematically, “duende”, was initially scribbled at Spanish tapas restaurant Cata (lower east side, nyc) and edited at Third Rail Coffee (east village, nyc) 

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