It wasn’t until we were at 51,000 feet in the Lear jet that I realized there had been a terrible misunderstanding. I thought Tião Maia – the 52-year-old Brazilian cattle baron sitting next to me – was taking me directly to Salt Lake City to spend the holidays with my family. But after we reached our cruising altitude, the billionaire produced a map and pointed out all the places we would be going first – a two-week adventure that included a stay at a luxury resort in Acapulco.
My stomach convulsed. The word “parachute” entered my mind.
How did I keep getting into these uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous, situations? I was saying “Oops, I Did it Again” ten years before Britney Spears was even born.
Since Maia spoke virtually no English and I spoke virtually no Portuguese, and we each spoke only a little French, the confusion was understandable, but the plan wasn’t acceptable.
I took the map and pointed, “New York-Salt Lake City.”
“No, no, no,” he repeated: “New York, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Acapulco, San Francisco, Salt Lake City.”
The cabin was starting to feel very claustrophobic. I was having a hard time breathing. How was I going to get myself out of this predicament?
It all began innocently enough, as everything always does. I had never been to a formal ball before – but it was about time, I was 25! – and my doctor had invited me to a gala hosted by the Brazilian Consulate.
My dear doctor – who had grown up in the horrific poverty of Brazil’s favelas – was a dazzlingly handsome Ricardo-Montalban-sort-of-guy, except that he was even more gorgeous, with his tan skin, lustrous hair and long, thick eyelashes.
Serra never admitted to me that he was gay, and I’m not sure he ever admitted it to himself or acted upon it. He was an ardently devout Catholic, who went to Mass at least once a day. It was evident to me in his interactions with other men that signals were nervously shooting back and forth, often amid uncomfortable, inexplicable laughter and the intermittent adjustment of trousers.
I’m sure he was tormented, and it pains me to think what he was going through. He was wonderful friend and a fine physician.
But I was happy to be enlisted as his platonic “date” over the years, and we roared around Manhattan in his frosted blue Mercedes convertible to both fancy and casual events.
I was honored to be exposed to the warmth and vitality of New York’s proud Brazilian community. It was they who introduced me to the brilliant concept of rice and beans, which has been the centerpiece of my diet ever since.
Rice, Beans and Collard Greens
They served me their version, feijoada, which they call “soul food,” because it was basically invented by poor people, who added whatever scraps of meat and seafood they could scrounge up to the richly sauced black beans. It was served with finely shredded, sauteed collard greens and a liquor made from sugar cane, cachaça. This drink will blow your head off, so please sip it judiciously.
I had nothing remotely resembling a ball gown. Serra waved off my concern. “We will really fix you up. I’ve got friends who have party dresses coming out of their ears,” he said.
Serra had a small office in a fancy building near Fifth Avenue. His clientele consisted of two extremes. On the one hand, he cared for the minimum-wage Brazilian maids and service workers, whom he adored, and who paid their bills on time, usually in cash.
He had also become a sort of “pet” in the way that Truman Capote had been, to the city’s elite ladies, the heiresses and socialites who were followed by the media for their style, their parties, their restaurant favorites. They did not pay their bills, unless he pleaded with them over and over again. I’m sure he wouldn’t have put up with it if he hadn’t been so flattered to be their “special friend.”
Serra was their confidante and luncheon escort, as well as their general practitioner. I went to a soiree at Gloria Vanderbilt’s fabulous place with Serra, and there I met her son, the five-year-old Anderson Cooper, who eventually became a TV journalism superstar. He was, to use Rosie O’Donell’s expression, a real “cutie patootie.”
Anyway, one of these rich, spoiled but I guess very nice ladies told Serra she’d be happy to loan me a Size 8 ballgown. She actually had her driver bring four of them to Serra’s spacious east-side apartment, each encased in a zippered cover, and we had quite an amusing time, like two giddy teenage girls, as I tried on each one.
They were beautiful. What made it particularly fun is that Serra had a huge jewelry box filled with antique pieces that someone, for some reason, had left him in her will. So we were trying on various necklaces, bracelets and earrings as well as the dresses.
When we entered the Grand Ballroom, I was wearing a silvery strapless gown that fell into deep folds beneath the waist. It was stunning, but I will never wear anything strapless again! It is a wardrobe malfunction just waiting to happen.
I felt like Cinderella in the sense that I didn’t think anything about me belonged at this gathering except for the outfit. Everyone was much older than I, although that happened a lot during my New York years. But there were very few women. I guess all those diplomats had left their wives back in Brazil.
Anyway, I was treated by the herd of men as kind of the belle of the ball – and I was all rosy from the champagne, enjoying it – until I made the mistake of expressing an opinion. It was immediately, stunningly clear that this was not acceptable. The men’s demeanor toward me changed palpably. They took a step back, glanced around the room, and went elsewhere for conversation.
Obviously, I was supposed to be a decoration, peripheral to the realm of issues and controversies. It was as if the clock had struck twelve and I was once again a scullery maid.
What is a ball, anyway? It seemed like a mere cocktail party to me, except that the venue was grander and the clothes were formal. I thought we’d be doing the waltz or the minuet to a full orchestra.
The guest of honor arrived an hour late. It was the man in whose Lear jet I would soon be flying, Frigorífico Tião Maia. He was the second-richest man in Brazil, Serra told me. He had a vast empire of holdings, but the centerpiece was his massive cattle ranch, and in fact his title,
“Frigorífico,” basically connotes slaughterhouse or meat locker, although it is used in slang to describe a man with an especially huge penis. Two kinds of flesh I can’t stand wrapped into one grand title! There is also a town in southeastern Brazil with that name. It is considered to be a very esteemed, honorific title in Brazil.
He was famous for having built an entire city for orphans – which sounds far-fetched and probably misguided – but that’s what people told me.
And his various, far-flung meat-packing operations were credited with bringing a major economic boom to many communities. A website for the town Araçatuba, for example, says “The vitality was spurred in the 1970s with the coming of Nestlé and the foundation of T. Maia Meatplant, belonging to the cattle raiser Tião Maia, one of the most famous in Brazil.”
He was also known as a ladies’ man (he would marry Miss International Beauty 1968, Maria da Glória Carvalho, several years later), and it didn’t take long for him to join the small group of people of which Serra and I were a part. He was a tall man with big, sad eyes and a melancholy smile.
Someone had just asked me if I was going home for the holidays. I said I couldn’t afford it. I saw that Maia was asking someone for a translation, and then I was told that “the Frigorífico” was flying his Lear jet to San Francisco, and he would be happy to drop me off in Salt Lake City.
He would be leaving in just a few days. Doesn’t that sound OK? What could possibly go wrong except for a little plane crash, and that was a concern of mine no matter how big the plane was.
So there we were, at 51,000 feet. We were eating macadamia nuts and drinking champagne, which is an excellent remedy for mild anxiety, but mine wasn’t mild. At that point, we were trying to communicate mostly through gestures and facial expressions, which became very exaggerated, as if we were in a silent movie. When I repeatedly signaled, “no, no, no” to his two-week itinerary, he made a very tragic, anguished face and pointed to invisible tears running down his cheeks.
Just in time, one of the three young men in the pilots’ cabin came back to ask a question. Oscar was one of those guys who makes you smile just seeing his loose, playful mode of operation. I assumed he was Brazilian – there’s a large black population there – and he had an earring and Rastafarian dreadlocks and wore a cool Brazilian soccer T-shirt, but when I complimented him on his English, he laughed and said he was from L.A. He had gone to Brazil for a college service project 10 years ago and never left.
I asked him to please explain to “the Frigorífico” that I had been led to believe he was taking me home TODAY, and that my parents were expecting me at the airport.
He talked to Maia, and there was some back and forth,
“He’s asking you to consider a compromise,” Oscar said. ‘We have a quick stop to make at O’Hare. He’s got a conference room reserved, and he’s got some business to take care of, only about an hour. Then he really wants to take you to Dallas, for the Texas State Fair.
He’s going there to buy some Brahma bulls to ‘reinvigorate’ his breeding stock, but he thinks it would be fun if you’d come. Just come hang out with us, and then he said he’ll buy you a ticket to Salt Lake, and you’ll be home by tomorrow night.”
I despise state fairs. They are stinky, hot and chaotic. The food is crap. The games are stupid and rigged. It hurts me to see animals pent up and gawked at. I don’t care how big your pumpkin is! And your oil painting of tumbleweed just doesn’t do it for me.
“There will be cotton candy,” Oscar said jokingly.
Wow, cotton candy. It’s been awhile.
Of course I still don’t want to go, but I am trying to decide if I have to, in order not to be rude and ungrateful.
“I have to ask you something, Oscar,” I said. “I wasn’t planning on an overnighter. Is he expecting me to sleep with him?”
“Knowing Tião Maia, I’d say he is hoping but not expecting,” Oscar said. “Like most Brazilian men, he’s a total horn dog. But he respects women who say no.”
I asked him if he could somehow convey my “NO” to Maia in a way that wouldn’t create any ill feelings, and he said “no problemo.”
Oscar did such a good job that once we arrived at the hotel, Maia didn’t just request separate rooms – he requested separate floors!
But then, as I was just about to go to bed, Maia appeared at my door in baby blue satin pajamas and a matching robe, carrying a bouquet of roses. He began his silent-movie expressions once more, with an exaggerated gaze of sadness and pleading. He banged his fist into his chest, which I guess signified a beating heart.
“Sylvia!,” he said plaintively. “Sylvia!”
He attempted to take me in his arms. I firmly said, “No!” and that was all that was required. He actually bowed before leaving the room, as if to reassure me that he wasn’t angry.
The four of us – Maia, the two pilots, Oscar and I – met for breakfast the next morning in the hotel restaurant. I asked the waiter if they had any buckwheat pancakes. He said no. So I ordered whole-wheat toast and cottage cheese. Maia sensed that something had not gone properly during this transaction, so he asked Oscar for a translation.
Poor Oscar. It was left to him to tell the waiter, “Mr. Maia says that the young lady is to be served buckwheat pancakes. Pronto. Do what you gotta do. Just get the damn pancakes.”
I was mortified. I tried to reassure everyone that I like cottage cheese just as much as buckwheat pancakes, but it was no use.
“I hope the waiter will get a big tip,” I said to Oscar.
“I’ve never seen Maia leave less than a hundred-dollar bill, even when all he had was a cup of coffee,” Oscar grinned.
It didn’t seem to take any longer than usual for our breakfast to arrive. My steaming stack of very buck-wheaty pancakes came with a little pitcher of blackstrap molasses, which is just how my mother always served them.
Maia was very warm and attentive toward me. Through Oscar, he asked about my family, my schooling and my prison-reform work in New York. I wasn’t able to convince him that prisons should be “humane.”
“Maia says the criminals are animals and should be treated like animals,” Oscar said. “He thinks most of them should be shot.”
That wasn’t funny, but I had to laugh. I had been told that Maia had amassed his fortune by being positively ruthless, doing whatever it took – including paying people off and sabotaging his competitors – to reach the top. I didn’t say anything, but it seemed to me that he was a real animal himself.
I considered faking a fainting episode or saying that I was having such a hugely gushing menstrual period that I didn’t dare go strolling through the Texas State Fair, but I decided to be mature and sporting about the whole thing and try to enjoy it. That isn’t my usual approach, but I can muster it occasionally.
“It will be excellent if you do come, because Maia wants so much for you to see the Brahma bulls. He regards these animals as one of nature’s most spectacular creations,” Oscar said. “He is, like, really wild about them.”
That sounded like a lovely impulse, to want to share with another person the thing that you love and admire.
It might have been nice to see them in a pasture, their tails flicking in the breeze. But they were tethered, and lined up in stalls to be examined before an auction later in the day. Maia scrutinized them coldly, looking for traits he wanted bred into his stock.
I felt as if I were at a slave auction. All these guys roaming from stall to stall, feeling the musculature, poking these helpless 2,000-pound creatures to assess their temperaments, even grasping their penises, for which there was probably no legitimate excuse. Just havin’ a good time, ma’am, mixin’ business with pleasure.
The bulls were beautiful creatures, in many color combinations and configurations. Some had huge humps, others had heavy-looking flaps of skin down to their abdomens, some had horns. Their glossy, huge, healthy bodies were dazzling.
As Maia stood back, dictating notes on each “specimen” to one of the pilots, I went over to the head of each stall and faced the bulls. I looked into their eyes, and I stroked their noses and cheeks. I know this sounds creepily melodramatic, but I said “I love you” to each one.
Maybe you would understand if you could have been there and looked into their eyes as they helplessly awaited their fates with patient resignation. They just stared back at me. I couldn’t tell if they got any sense of my compassion for them. I have become such a crybaby in my old age that I’m sure I would run out of there sobbing if I had this experience today. These animals were “beings,” not just slabs of steak.
“Brahmans are intelligent, inquisitive and shy. They are excellent and attentive mothers, hardy and adaptable to a wide range of feed and climate. Brahmans like affection and can become very tame. They quickly respond to handling they receive, good or bad,” according to the Oklahoma State University Department of Agriculture,
So before you smash their heads with a stun gun, yank them upside-down and then slash their abdomens open, allowing their innards to crash and splash to the floor, be nice to them. It will make matters easier for everyone involved.
The whole thing made me ill.
“If this makes you ill, don’t ever visit one of his slaughterhouses,” Oscar said. “A little gore doesn’t bother me, but it is just huge bloody murder in there. The smell alone would probably make you faint.”
Brahma bulls, which are the “sacred cow” of India, are named after the Hindu god of Creation. They evolved in some of the harshest conditions on Earth, and thus they developed resistance to heat, drought, illness and pests. They are widely bred and cross-bred in many parts of the world, including the U.S., Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia.
American Brahmans are known as a docile, intelligent breed of beef cattle, but that doesn’t stop the meat industry from hacking them to pieces and getting them onto dinner tables around the globe.
“They have established a considerable reputation for a high dressing percentage, and their carcasses have a very good ‘cutout’ value with minimum of outside fat,” according to the Brahma Bull Association, which adds that their “marbling” is superb.
A real delicacy, either because of its novelty or its flavor, is the “cupim,” which is taken from the hump of the bull.
If you want to buy some top-notch Brahmin semen to help your regular old American cow produce a baby you can both be proud of, you can order it by the vial online.
I don’t know if Maia loved these animals only because of their profitability or if he respected their beauty and stoicism as well.
At last, we left the vast display area and walked out into the sunshine. The color and festivity were startling after the environment we’d been in for the past hour.
It was like departing from purgatory and entering someone’s idea of Heaven, although it certainly wasn’t mine. All those gaudy booths, the food, the games, the displays, the rides, gave me a bit of visual overload. Children were running around in little packs, many of them barefoot, to see – but not to partake – of the fun. They were a penniless, raggedy bunch, most of them Mexican and quite a few black and white kids, too.
Maia opened his valise and took out a banded stack of twenty-dollar bills. He said something to Oscar and then handed them to me.
“Maia wants you to give out the money to the children, so they can have a great day at the fair,” he said.
At first, I felt awkward, but the children soon relieved me of that. Three beautiful young Mexican boys were running past, and I called “Buenos dias!” waving a bill in my hand.
They stopped, their eyes large, their demeanor uncertain. I gave each one a twenty-dollar bill and said, “Pasala bien. Pasala rico!”
They screamed with delight and ran off, crying “gracias, gracias!”
For the next thirty minutes or so, I got to be a fairy godmother, blowing the minds of one child after another with this magical Gift from Out of Nowhere. I was in a blur of joy and fragrant breeze and fluttering pennants, and I felt as if glitter were pouring down around me.
As the word spread, adorable children engulfed me as I walked down the thoroughfare, with Maia and his staff staying close behind. The children were ecstatic. They were in disbelief. They jumped and shrieked, and a couple of them did somersaults.
I was laughing with joy as I repeated, “Pasala bien. Pasala rico!” Enjoy it! Savor it!
For some reason, the ballgown entered my mind. I was wearing Levi’s and a cowboy shirt, but Maia had given me a “belle of the ball” experience that required no chiffon or sequins. He gave me the gift of learning the pleasure of giving.
Of course, giving away hundreds of dollars that someone else has earned is not the same as giving away your own money. I hadn’t experienced true generosity today for that reason, but this baby step taught me a lesson that would put me on the path to generosity, a path that I am still exploring.
Jeffrey D. Driggs, Director of Development at the University of Utah College of Science, recently said to me, “Giving money away isn’t as simple as you expected, is it?”
I know it isn’t simple. There are so many things to take into consideration that the complexity can become quite paralyzing. For example, the twenty bucks those lovable children blew on junk food, games and rides could have paid for a nice pair of shoes that would have lasted months, unlike the fair, which probably took it all away within an hour or so.
But I will never forget the lesson Maia gave me in what joy it can bring to give to someone in need.
As we were about to leave, so they could take me to the airport, Oscar said, “What about that cotton candy?”
“My god, we almost forgot!” I replied. “Let’s go get some. It’s on me.”
Frigorífico Tião Maia died in 2005 at the age of 89.
Sylvia Kronstadt is a semi-retired writer/editor living in Salt Lake City. During her years in New York, her magazine articles appeared in some of the most prestigious publications in the country. She has since worked as an editor for newspapers and magazines. Her most recent article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in April.
Kronstadt loves Brazilian people, culture and food, She didn’t mention in the article that she met three young men at the “ball” – two of them were diplomats, and one was president of the Brazilian American Society – who she dated for a time. She liked going out with them, but her favorite experience, she tells, was being invited to their family gatherings. She wishes she had a family like that – so much fun and warmth!
This article appeared originally on her blog: http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/