HOW IT IS DOWN HERE
If you don't pay them off, if you don't have money, they
won't do a thing for you. Won't move. The police down here! Didn’t we
ever tell you about Isabel? How she stole all the stuff from our shop?
This is such a crazy story, it could have only happened
in this country.
It happened back in the early days, like, twenty years
ago. You could say it was the first straw for us. Back then our factory
was over in the Tenth of May, by the Republic Steps, over near the old
synagogue. That neighborhood was all discotheques and whisky bars back
then, before they built the high rises.
We didn't have much. We were poor, just starting out. We
had a phone in there, a few tables, an enlarger, chemicals, some tubs
and buckets and that was it. Five employees. Isabel was our manager. She
got mad at us, I guess. She turned out to be a psycho.
It was exactly fifteen years ago. Zoë just turned
fifteen, and you know, she was born on the Día Nacional? Their Fourth of
July, so to speak. She'd just been born, in the wee hours of that
morning, and Sally was still in the hospital. In the afternoon I left
them both resting there, and I went over to the shop for something. You
know, nobody was around, it’s this major public holiday. When she was
little, Zoë used to believe that all the parades, the tanks and fighter
jets and street cleaning crews, were part of her birthday party. Have
you seen how the street cleaners parade with their leaf blowers? I love
it! Anyway, this was the afternoon of National Day and so the streets
were deserted. Everybody’s inside drinking. I opened the door of our
shop and saw everything was gone, I mean everything. The place was
cleaned out. It was empty -- not a table or a chair was left, nothing.
They even took the brooms.
I called Sally and she said, "I have to leave this
hospital right now, I can't stay here." So she took a taxi home. Now
she's got the two babies, Zo and Will. Will was a year and four months.
Our kids are close together, yeah, boom, boom. I got home and there were
the three of them lying in bed, Sally with the two of them on top of
her. She was feeding both of them, like this, one on each side.
I'd already been over to the police. I said, "We've been
robbed," and they took me in to see the station chief. The door closes
and there I am, in there alone with the guy and he says, "Give me six
hundred. Give me six hundred dollars." I took out my wallet, I handed
over the money. One, two, three hundred dollar bills, just like this.
Then he says, "Okay, we're starting our investigation." Then he looks
down and shuffles the papers on his desk, you know, like a newscaster
when he’s finished talking.
I knew I was dismissed, so that’s when I went home to
Sally. And God, I mean, the two of us -- obviously nothing is going to
come out of this so-called police investigation -- we're ready to leave
the country, leave and get out of here with our kids. This was back
during the dictatorship of Sánchez Mesa. We had no savings. What money
we had, we'd put into all our stuff. About ten thousand dollars’ worth.
Most of it was used. Even now our processors are all second hand, these
old East German things. They're great, the best. They're not making them
any more. I'm still always looking for them in the paper. Last year I
found one up in Maratica, but the guy was asking three times what it was
worth. I wasn't going to pay his crazy price, and he'd rather let it
rust, rather than negotiate. I'm sure it's still up there. Maybe I’ll
give him a call this week, come to think of it, but, see, that will just
convince him I still want the thing so he should hold out a little
longer. That's how they think, that's the way they think down here.
Anyway, ten thousand dollars. Now -- to us -- it isn't
-- well it's not nothing, ten grand, it's never nothing, but it was a
lot more to us then. We could never have replaced all of that stuff. So
Sally's lying there with the two babies, and we're talking plane
tickets, giving up and leaving, flying home, giving up on this country
and everything. We didn't know what else to do.
Then it came, this note, this little slip of paper under
our door. ‘Isabel es la autora.'
"Isabel is the author." We opened the door and of
course, there was nobody there.
Obviously it was from one of our employees who knew
about it. She knew Isabel had done it, and she was mad at Isabel, so she
ratted on her. At the time, though, we didn't know who, or what, or why,
or whether we should believe this. It could so easily have been a lie,
you know? Pretty soon we get this phone call and it's her, the lady, and
she's saying, "I'll tell you everything, but please, no police. Nobody
can know. Meet me in the Plaza San Carlos, I'll have a red scarf on my
head, but nobody can find out, no police, please, cause Isabel knows me.
And if she finds out, her family's going to have me killed, or
I mean I couldn't exactly just go down to the Plaza by
myself to be a sitting duck, right? "Meet me in the San Carlos with a
red scarf on my head." It could have been a setup, could have been
anything. This was under Sanchez Mesa, they'd been machine-gunning
people on the Avenue, shooting out of airplanes, and we'd just been
robbed and everything. The atmosphere, you can imagine. "Meet me in the
San Carlos, with a red scarf on my head." Yeah, right. So I go back down
to the police station, and explain it all and say why I need them. Of
course they have no other leads or anything. They say sure, fine, of
course, Sir, we'll go along and accompany you. They get this whole squad
together, in boots and green uniforms and their black flak vests.
I said,"Um, don't you think you're going to need to be
in disguise?" and they all said, "Oh, right, yeah, sure, of course.
We're going to wear jipijapas, you know, those hats like the
farmers wear, down on the coast."
Jipijapas, oh, great.
So I'm meeting the lady, and she's got her red scarf on,
and everything, and we're going into this cafeteria on Plaza San Carlos,
and I'm thinking, "This is surreal." I'm thinking, "Only here, only in
this country!" In a way, it’s why we’ve stayed. But then the minute we
sit down, the police, I mean the police all rush in and grab her. Their
guns are out, there's ten of them, pistols all drawn, and suddenly
there's a gun right on the woman's head. The poor lady, she can't
believe what’s happening. I'm trying to get the police to put their guns
away, "No, please, what are you doing? Wait a second." She's getting
hysterical, crying, so I'm trying to calm her down at the same time,
saying no, please, I didn't tell them to do this, don't worry, nothing's
going to happen to you, you haven't done anything. Meanwhile they're all
shouting, "No, no, we have to take her in, we’ve got to take her over to
I said, "Listen. Let's all just go over to my house."
So we all go over to my house, and Sally's lying there,
you know, with Zo and Will. The lady, as it turns out, she grew up with
Isabel, they'd known each other all their lives since they were little
kids. She says Isabel has turned on her, gone off and gotten all weird.
She tells us, "It was Isabel and she's got all your stuff hidden over in
her mother's house at such and such address." So the police and I left
the lady there with Sally, and she’s still totally upset. So now Sally
has to take care of her too.
At the mother's house, sure enough Isabel is there, but
she says she won't come out.
This was bad, because of the tremendous laws they have
here to protect the home, you know, and it takes forever to get a
warrant. Five years, I mean, the way the courts work? But then we say --
the mother thing is so powerful here -- we say that if you don't come
out we're going to arrest your mother -- arrest her! -- and we're going
to charge her with harboring stolen property. Because, you see, the
mother is the owner of the house. So right away, Isabel comes out, with
part of our stuff, but she tells us, the rest of it is in some other
Several other places, it turns out. The police and
Isabel and I start driving all around town. She's got it stashed all
over the capital district, in eight hiding places. We drive around, it
takes all day. There was even some stuff at the PLO headquarters. Yeah,
there is, at least there used to be, a PLO headquarters over in Yaloca.
I don't know if it's still there.
We got it all back, or nearly all, as I remember. Then
it was news and I had to have my picture taken shaking hands, with the
police chief in front of the recovered loot. "This is so hokey," I'm
thinking, "here, after paying them off and doing all the work myself,
here I am shaking hands like it was this successful operation." But, I'm
also thinking, "What the hell."
The next day we looked for it in all the papers, but
there was just this one little column in the evening tabloid. No photo
or anything. It's an interview with Isabel. She's saying she did it all
for the workers, and that we're evil American oligarchs living off their
sweat and blood and tears and oppressing them and that's why she took
our stuff, as a revolutionary gesture.
That's it, that's all there was in any of the papers.
I mean our workers were even more worried about this
whole thing than we were. Besides the fact they felt really bad for us,
it was their livelihood.
In the end it came to nothing. Isabel must have paid the
police from her side, too. That's how it works here. Everybody has to
pay, and whoever pays more, wins. Justice, it's like an auction. One of
a lawyer's main jobs is to communicate his client's offers to the judge.
Years later, I happened to see Isabel on the street. She
was wearing my old jacket. She must have stolen it right off the nail in
the wall! I’d been wondering where it went to. It was out of style, but
She didn’t seem to recognize me, and of course I didn’t
go up to her and say hello. "Oh, hi, remember me? You must, since that’s
Later on, I met this other person who told me she'd been
roommates with Isabel. "Oh, Isabel! I was roommates with her, she stole
some of my stuff. She stole from me." Isabel had a problem. A few years
later I saw that person again, and she told me, "Hey, guess what?
Isabel's house fell in! She got what she deserved."
What goes around comes around. There's justice. She
wasn't killed or anything.
* * *
It’s not true that this is a peaceful little forgotten
country where you can hide away. Oh, we kind of used to think so, thirty
years ago when we first came down here and we were running around the
backwoods with our cameras, preserving the indigenous folkways for
posterity. Back then we had our little grants and our little Peace Corps
stipends; we were babes in the woods. But we learned. We had to. Because
things go on here daily, things you wouldn't believe. On the streets, in
the government, in people's private lives. This thing I’m going to tell
you next -- well, it’s hard not to get cynical.
Anyone who's been married six years, anyone who isn't a
newlywed -- still in the newlywed phase -- they've slept around. They've
had affairs. There's a custom here on Thursdays, the men go out and play
‘cuerno.’ Cuerno is this tossing game -- it means ‘horn,’
yeah? -- but what it really means is that Thursday is the day the men
all go out and meet their mistresses. It’s not just the idle upper
classes, either, the way you might imagine. We had this one guy working
for us who was lovers with two of our women employees at the same time,
and all of them married to other people. One day his two girlfriends got
into a fight, a fistfight. They were right there in the lab, slugging
each other. A whole day’s film got ruined.
Lot of domestic abuse, too. A lot. Guys get drunk, go
home and beat their wives, just like anywhere. Except here it's taken
for granted; it's almost considered normal. And the police, the police
here, if I had to be locked in a cell with a robber or a member of the
police, I'd choose the robber.
Listen to what happened to Ana. Maria, our maid's,
This happened about a year ago.
Ana. She's Maria's daughter. Fifteen and a half,
sixteen? Sally and I, we've known her ever since she was this high.
Sweet, innocent girl. She's sheltered, a religious Catholic, too
Every month she goes downtown to the bank on the Avenida
Sucre to deposit her family's mortgage. She's walking down Avenida
Sucre, right in broad daylight, the middle of downtown. You know how it
is at lunch hour, it's so crowded. We try to avoid it because of the
pickpockets. They spit on you and grab your bag while you’re distracted.
That’s gross, but this was much worse. Right there on that sidewalk in
front of hundreds of people, two guys jump out, grab her, and start
dragging Ana off. She's screaming, crying for help, but there's this
other lady there who jumps out and yells, "It's a marital dispute, it's
between husband and wife, nobody get involved!" She’s the accomplice,
right? So nobody does anything! They all go, "Oh, okay, it’s a domestic
problem," and they let these two guys drag Ana off and shove her in a
We don't know if it was kind of a random thing, or if
they'd been watching her and knew she'd be there on that day of the
month with the money and all.
They took her somewhere, they raped her, they robbed
her, they kept her for a week. After a week they finally threw her out
of a car one night, in Ayuni. Naked, in the middle of the night. Naked,
she was naked, naked in the cold, all night, out on the far edge of
Ayuni. It’s that horrible riverbed you have to cross on the way to the
airport? Garbage, criminals, rats, it’s amazing that she even survived.
The next morning this lady found her who was out walking
her pet dogs. It was early in the morning and Ana was lying out there on
the ground in just her underpanties. She couldn't talk. She knows she
was raped, but she can't remember anything about what happened. This
lady took her in, put a skirt on her, she sort of nursed her back. A few
days later the lady comes down and says to Maria, "I have your
Meanwhile, Maria, her mother, the minute Ana didn't come
home that afternoon, Maria went straight to the police station.
Something was wrong and she knew it. Ana is so innocent, really, she's
this good, quiet, religious, sheltered, innocent girl. So when Maria
goes in to the police and reports her daughter missing, this is what
they said to her. "Oh, Señora, fifteen? She’s probably run off
with a guy." They laughed, and they didn't do anything.
She said the office was full of mothers there. The
mother of a nine-year-old girl, for example, who'd disappeared. Same
thing. These are poor people and the police don't do anything for poor
people. It’s no mystery why they don’t kidnap rich kids down here yet,
as long as they can pick off small fry with impunity.
Maria didn’t tell us anything till after Ana came back.
Too private I guess. Now, Ana, she's so traumatized she can't even look
at pictures. We offered to try to help her, send her to a psychologist.
We know a good one, but they're too ashamed. They don't want an
investigation, either, they don't want it in the papers. I don't blame
them. All we can do is offer. Say, "Listen, it's here if you want it,
* * *
So now we’ve been living here since ‘72, running a
business since the very early eighties. Don’t laugh, we really wanted to
dedicate our lives to this place. We wanted to raise our kids here; we
believed it was a better environment for them than the United States.
Softer on the one hand and more real on the other. And as long as we
treated our workers fairly, it seemed only fair that our business should
be allowed to thrive. It did, too. Our little shop became the first
24-hour color photo lab on the continent, did you know that? Now we’ve
got fifteen storefronts and the custom work we do at our main lab is a
match for anything you can get in the U.S. or Europe at one-tenth the
So we’re twenty, going on twenty-five years in business
here, and I’m not exaggerating, there hasn’t been a day without
something stirring up, or boiling over, some shadow hanging over us of
legal craziness, police involvement, customs problem, or lawsuit. And
every time we turn around we’re doling out the cash. The police are like
a jukebox, won’t move unless you pay them. The judges are the same.
Their salaries aren’t much, so they view their jobs as a money-making
opportunity. This country is so riddled with corruption, it’s
ridiculous. It runs all through, from top to bottom, although at the top
it really does seem worse. Like -- when they jailed the police chief a
couple of years ago, he owned nine houses all around the country and a
tenth one in Miami? They started looking into his finances when he put a
bid in on the former U.S. Embassy residence in Yaloca. The Embassy
residence, when his official salary is a thousand dollars a month? He’d
been embezzling from the police pension fund, and stealing heavy
equipment. He took nine Swiss-donated ambulances and repainted them,
sold them as delivery vans. You ought to go to Hell for a thing like
that. They threw him in prison but he hasn’t been forced to return any
of his loot. Too much punishment might inspire him to rat on his
friends. They’re all the same — it’s a nest, and a network. If you were
the judge issuing that guy’s sentence, wouldn’t you rather get a nice
fat payoff than expose yourself to a prosecution of your own?
You’re a tourist, you’re a traveler, and as long as
you’re floating downstream, spending your money that you brought in from
elsewhere, it’s so easy, it’s so smooth. You read about this stuff in
the paper and to you, at most, it’s a depressing moment that you have
over coffee in the morning. But just try to make something happen in
this place, and then you’ll see. You’ll see what this country’s up
against, what everybody who lives here’s up against.
We’ve tried not to get bitter, keep a sense of humor. If
not, you can start to feel you’re living in a cesspool. Last Christmas
for example, Sally got stopped at the airport as a fugitive. It turned
out to be some old detainment order that hadn’t been canceled, back from
a couple of years ago when this woman former employee accused us of not
contributing to her pension. She’d quit, and she’d asked for her
severance packet instead, which is one of your legal options in this
country. A lot of people take severance, figuring their pensions will
have been embezzled or worthless by the time they retire. So, they take
their cash and run, set up a little store or buy a taxicab. It makes a
lot of sense, right? So this lady got her packet, but then six months
later she’s back, suing us for not contributing to her pension. I mean
we had all the records, so it finally cleared but it was expensive and
humiliating, and it almost ruined our holidays. Sally’s parents are
getting old, and she lost a chance to see them. We made the best of it,
went down to this resort lodge we know in the rain forest, and we
basically hung out by the pool for a week. And it was not bad.
Or when we bought our new house and suddenly there were
all these relatives showing up who said they still owned it. This is
such a common occurrence. Mommy and Daddy left the house to all their
children, then the one in charge of selling it ran off with all the
money. He went to the province of Barrancos: everybody knows that’s
where folks with ill-gotten wealth go to hide, and it’s very strange how
nobody can ever be traced or found after they’ve moved there. There’s a
saying about the miraculous mists of Barrancos; guess what they’re
composed of. So after the bad brother absconds suddenly all these new
people appear with new documents, new names, that prove our title is
invalid. They’re going to sue unless, of course... That one pretty much
doubled the price of our home, that and our plumbing disaster.
Another time we can tell you all the stories, about the
Kodak rep who was the President’s nephew, and about our manager who
forged our signatures on checks, and about the lab workers we’ve trained
who go to work for the competition, about loan sharks preying on our
workers, who can’t see past the free money to the 100 per cent interest
Basically the system here is an invention of the Devil.
You can have your neighbor thrown in jail based on a mere accusation.
Tell the police he stole from you, and it’s up to him to get himself
out. Guilty until proven innocent. Everything goes before a judge, so
you can imagine the opportunities for corruption. Our friend Phil is
down here right now trying to advise the government how to reform
things. God knows what they were thinking back when they set up these
laws, that they were ruling over a nation of Indians.
Like I said, we’ve tried to take it all in stride and
it’s even amusing at times. We’ve found a pretty good lawyer, we know
the relevant officials, we know the way things work down here. But
lately I’m exhausted; I feel like it’s caught up with us. This new thing
kind of caps off all the others. The moments of disillusionment, I mean.
* * *
Have you been reading about "Black Friday" in the
papers, this so-called rampage by the kids from the American school?
Would you believe our son is one of the accused?
Well, Zoë just turned 15, and you may remember we had a
little dinner for her at the house. So Zoë’s a quinceañera, as
they say down here, and we’re proud of her. It’s an important birthday,
a rite of passage. We have our debutantes, but down here, if you’re a
girl, when you turn 15 you have a giant party. Although lately, there’s
been a fad of flying to Disney World -- a dozen girls will go, all
together, with some of their parents along for chaperones. It’s actually
cheaper than a real big party, but most girls still want a party.
I mean Zo was born here, and the whole family thinks
it’s pretty cool that her birthday happens on National Day. It’s a joke,
but we actually like it. And we’d never begrudge Zo. She grew up here,
we wanted that for her, so if she wants the party a local girl would
have? Fine! No problem. We said, sure, go for it, honey, of course
that’s what you can have. Zo feels totally local and we can honor that
identity, although, you know, we might like her to acknowledge us and
our roots at some point. But hey, she’s 15, and she wants her party to
be huge and she wants it at this nightclub, New York 2000, this disco
where all the spoiled rich upper crust local brats go. I mean...Zo has a
lot of friends. And it’s just great, up to a point, if she feels like
she’s from here, but the local kids she chooses to identify with, her
friends, Sally and I, we really think they’re slugs. Upper class,
frivolous, don’t give a damn about the poor, those ones, you know the
ones I mean. These wouldn’t have been the friends we would have chosen
for her. There are nicer kids at her school, according to us, but that’s
the way it goes.
Meanwhile her brother, Will, he’s kind of the opposite,
loves the United States even though he’s never lived there. He can’t
wait to go off to college.
We started making the arrangements with the club, New
York 2000, and figuring out Zo’s budget, who she’s going to invite, and
all. She wants about 80 kids. No parents. We fight about that of course.
Usually for a quinceañera they invite all the generations, this
is part of what we love about this place, these multigenerational
bashes. Granny dancing with a 13-year-old boy, little kids all playing
tag underfoot, all dressed up. But that’s not how they do it now, Zo
says, it isn’t how she wants it. Sally and I, we understand that things
are changing, even down here. We’re easy; as I said to Sally, hey what’s
the harm, let her go with it. They’re going to drink, but they already
do that at slumber parties, and there are going to be adults at the
nightclub, bouncers, and the bartenders -- we could give them a little
extra or even hire someone to keep an eye on things. Most of the kids
will go home in taxis anyway. Only a few have cars because the driving
age is 21. You’d never know it from looking at the drivers in this city,
but that’s another story. It’s not like the US. None of the kids we know
So about a month before the party we start noticing that
Zoë’s upgrading her appearance. Her wardrobe. Never seems to wear the
same jeans twice. Goes out and gets her hair dyed black at a salon. This
was a place Sally knows, a salon where part of the glamor is having to
pay as much or more than in the States. They charge in dollars, like 90
bucks. Zo’s getting massages, plus all the nice new clothes -- she’s
spending money like an adult. We know what her allowance is, after all,
we’re the source of it! So Sally asks her where it’s all coming from,
and Zo says, "Oh, the outfit? I borrowed it from my friend Camila." And
we believed her, because that’s how the kids do it these days, they’re
sharing all their clothes. We’ve talked about that phenomenon with other
parents, our friends. A way to do things, right? Fun, sharing your
clothes. And the beauty salon, Zo claims she paid it out of her
allowance; the massages were a gift from her friend’s mother, and so on.
She explained everything to our satisfaction, and we didn’t think any
more about it.
Until the day I saw her rifling through Sally’s purse. I
was walking past the living room and happened to glance in. There was
something furtive in the way she was bent over, and then I saw her get
out Sally’s ATM card and stuff it in her jacket. Boom, the whole picture
comes together in my head. Why Sally and I have been saying to each
other, ‘Honey, why is there no cash in our account? I thought I’d made a
deposit!’ You can take out hundred-dollar bills, or else cash in pesos.
She’d been doing $100 a pop, once or twice a week, for months.
I confront her and she storms at me -- the best defense
is an attack, that’s always been Zoe’s strategy -- maybe she’ll grow up
to be a lawyer. Why am I spying on her, don’t I trust her, we forgot her
allowance, Sally authorized all this, etcetera. Bit by bit, it all comes
out, how she’s ripping us off, she’s even ripped off her brother. Will
was pissed off at her for a while, until she paid him back. But with us,
she’s not really that repentant. She gave us attitude, what did we care
about that money, look how long it took us to notice it was gone.
This was around Carnival, in February. Sally and I
decided that Zo had to feel some painful consequences. We had no
illusions that our message would sink in, but still, as parents, we felt
we had to do something. So we canceled her disco party. Told her she
couldn’t have it, that the cost of the party was roughly equal to what
she stole and so she could consider this as her repayment. If she wants
to go up and see her aunts and grandparents in San Francisco for her
birthday she can do that instead. Zo refused, of course. She took to
hiding in her room watching TV, and overeating and talking on the phone.
She would barely talk to us, and when she did there was no real
communication going on. It was really hard for us, especially on the
weekends. She quit all her sports, never wanted to go anywhere, she just
lay in her bedroom all day with the curtains drawn, eating and getting
fatter and paler and being on the phone. If we happened to go in she’d
shut up and put her hand over the receiver. Nobody can get through on
our house line on evenings and weekends, even now, so Sally and I have
to do all of our calls on Sally’s cell.
This went on for quite a while, and it’s still
happening, more or less. The home atmosphere’s not great. And then one
night, Maria, you remember, Ana’s mom, our maid, Maria, comes knocking
on our bedroom door one evening after dinner. We open up and there’s
Maria, standing there crying, she’s so upset, she’s wringing her hands.
She tells us that one of the other servants heard from a friend who
works in another house that Zo has gone to this brujo, this
shaman. A witch doctor, basically. And she’s doing curses and black
magic on us. The gardener is threatening to quit. Our whole staff is
freaked out. We told Maria we are not going to worry about it, and they
shouldn’t either, we had the house heavily blessed before we moved in
and anyway we’re Zo’s parents and we aren’t scared of her, she’s a child
and we’re a lot more powerful. But Maria says no, this is the worst
thing of all, for a child to curse its parents. She and the other
servants wanted to hire their own brujo to do a ‘work’ to change
Zo’s heart from black to white. Sally and I just had to agree, we didn’t
have to be involved unless we wanted to make a donation to upgrade the
sacrifice from a chicken to a pig, and/or help out with all the liquor
that they were going to have to consume and give to the brujo.
You stay up all night at these things. Everybody’s supposed to
So we gave them a couple hundred bucks. You understand,
this wasn’t extortion on Maria’s part, it’s just how things work down
here. How people see their world. In the brujo reality, you
always know why things are happening to you. Someone’s doing it to you
and you can make them stop. Sally and I, we have our guy who comes and
blesses the shop once a year, and it’s this really cool thing, important
for us and the workers. We all stay up all night and smoke cigarettes
and drink cane liquor, and it helps everything go well until the
following year. So we were incredibly touched by Maria’s efforts on our
behalf. On Zo’s behalf, really. She adores our kids, always has.
I guess our donation wasn’t big enough, though, or it
came too late, or else our servants’ shaman wasn’t as powerful as Zo’s,
or he didn’t get enough money or something. Zoë’s pretty well connected,
she must have gotten her brujo from some kid whose parents were
Cabinet ministers, some friend who’d wanted to go to her party.
Next thing, we’re getting a call from the school
principal. Our son’s down at the police station with a couple of other
kids. They’re all being charged with vandalism and disturbing the peace
and destruction of property and driving to endanger and drugs.
Everything short of murder.
We got dressed, Sally and I, in our houndstooth jackets,
these Jaeger things we’ve worn so many times before, to all our court
appearances and visits to the police station downtown. And it was really
We got to our suburban station, and they won’t let us
see Will. No, no, he isn’t even here, they say. You have to talk to the
chief first, that’s why you are here. Well lo and behold, the guy comes
out, and he’s the same guy I gave six hundred dollars to, way back when
all our stuff was robbed out of the factory. He’s Capitán now, he
must have been promoted to this wealthy neighborhood, where there’s less
work and better, you know, opportunities. So he was looking pretty
sleek. I know he remembers me but he pretends like he doesn’t. It was a
strange déjà vu for me. There we were, two men, and I’m noting
the passage of time.
What had happened was that the day before was skip day
at the American school. It’s this thing they do in the middle of spring
semester, the seniors all go out and do silly things. It’s their
farewell party, celebrating their liberation from high school. They
usually do a few mild pranks, set off firecrackers or wrap somebody’s
garden tree with toilet paper. Nothing too serious, although they can
get noisy, and they travel in a pack, so the complaints come in year
Will is just a junior, but he gets along with everyone,
he’s always had a lot of friends who are older. His pals who were
seniors, they were going to be leaving soon, most of them, to go off to
school in the States. A lot of the local kids who come to the American
school, they’re doing it for that very reason, so that they can go get
college degrees in the U.S. They go off to state schools or even Harvard
before coming back to be politicians or take over their parents’
businesses. These kids are all due for departure, and Will was invited,
that’s how he got involved in this thing.
This year’s skip day activity was sort of a treasure
hunt. I don’t know who designed it. I’d like to strangle him. One of the
first requirements was to demolish a structure, so the kids chose this
traffic cops’ guardhouse on the boulevard and blasted it with miners’
dynamite. One kid, Fernando Corrales, his family owns copper mines all
over the country. So they got some dynamite from Fernando. Next, they
had to harvest a prostitute’s pubic hair. I mean it was all rather
naughty, but on the other hand, that guard house has been standing empty
for two years, ever since they put in the traffic light, so you could
argue that it should have been removed anyway because it was a visual
obstruction. And I happen to know they paid the prostitute pretty well
for her hair, so she underwent a lot less work and danger for her money.
But then there was this one other thing. The kids totalled a car, a
Nissan SUV, they crashed it into a taxi that was parked on the boulevard
at 2 A.M. This had to do with drinking a pint of Johnnie Walker, and
then drag-racing down the boulevard. Two cars, one on each side of the
median strip. Apparently they got going up to 100 miles an hour before
one kid lost control.
The lucky thing is, nobody got hurt or killed. The taxi
driver could have; he was sleeping in his car. No kid got hurt either.
It’s a miracle, really. They wrecked a great big Nissan boxcar.
I mean there are always some of the American kids who
don’t want to accept that they’re in another country, where they are
guests, and have fewer options than at home. They’re immature, so they
resent the limitations, and they act worse instead of better. Or they
may feel nobody’s watching them, except a bunch of locals who to them
don’t count. That type of attitude usually comes down from the parents.
People who come out here for a year or two. Never learn the language,
shop at the Embassy PX, use nothing but American products the entire
time. By the time they leave, they’ve never even been here.
Then there are a few other kids, unfortunately Zo kind
of falls within this category, kids who identify with that spoiled rich
local brat type I mentioned earlier. And it’s not like there’s nobody in
between, as I said before. Sally and I are always trying to get Zo
hooked up with some of the intellectuals or the artists, or even just
the achievers, at the school, but she’s not interested. As for the two
rotten types of kids, they hardly ever socialize, the rednecks and the
decadent overprivileged, but when they do it’s a bad mix. Seems like
that’s what happened on Black Friday. Some of the kids weren’t from our
school at all, they were from LaSalle, this hoity-toity academy right
down the road.
We never expected Will to be involved in anything like
this. He’s not the type.
So sure enough when Sally and I get led into the police
chief’s office, one of the other sets of parents turns out to be DEA,
from the Drug Enforcement Agency. The father is this ex-Marine, and his
perky wife has blond sprayed hair and white sneakers. I know them;
they’re from Georgia, and I always see Bob at the health club doing
scary masochistic things with weights.
DEA, I hate to say this but the DEA is pretty much our
least favorite social category among our compatriots down here.
The third set of parents, besides us, are the Morrises.
They’re one of just two sets of African-American parents with kids in
school. Earl Morris works for Coca-Cola and they’re both such sweet,
intelligent people. Chandra gives dance lessons, jazz and African and
ballet. You ought to see her, she’s like a goddess. And their son, Kurt,
he’s one of the most popular kids in the school. Everyone knew he was
into a little pot, and he’s got dreadlocks, but his grades are decent
and he’s a center forward on the soccer team. Because of Kurt we can
keep up with some of the local schools and we’re sweeping the league of
the overseas American schools, which is pretty good considering some of
those huge schools they’ve got over in Brazil.
I mean hey, we all smoked pot in our day, and maybe for
a few of us it may still be our day, you know? And on Kurt the dreads
are just style. So anyway, God, it had to be the worst for the Morrises.
Local people are such racists. They call Africans ‘little blackies.’
You’ll hear somebody say, ‘Those little blackies were so Afro they
didn’t have ears or any noses.’ There are a few thousand descendants of
African slaves in the country, but they’re concentrated in a couple of
the lowland towns. A lot of the hill folks have never even seen a black
person, so they’re kind of a myth to them. And this country was built on
racism, with the whites on top and the brown people on the bottom and
they’ve never really rectified the situation. So in the case of the
browner, lower-class, indigenous people, which is who most of the police
are, you can hardly blame them for extending the category they’re
included in, putting someone lower than themselves. I mean, yeah, you
can also sort of blame them. I’d hate to see what could happen to a kid
like Kurt in a prison here. But it’s a matter of education and the
education isn’t there.
My old pal the Capitán is being all gruff and
unyielding. He stomps in, gets behind his desk, and addresses all of us.
"I am sorry, but the newspapers have got hold of this and the scandal
has gone to the highest level. It is a serious matter and furthermore,
due to the publicity, I am afraid there’s very little I will be able to
do to ameliorate the penalties your children must suffer." He refuses to
meet my eye, he’s truly avoiding my gaze. I want to see you alone in
here, I’m thinking.
Right away, Chandra Morris offers to deport her son,
have Kurt shipped back to the United States. Smart move. The Capitán
nods, says he is not without compassion, he’ll consider this as one
alternative. I nudge Earl Morris in the ribs but Morris shrugs me off.
He’s got his own strategy going, he’s too worried to acknowledge me.
In Will’s case, we couldn’t afford to consider
deportation. At least, we didn’t think so. He’s a junior, and I mean
who’s he going to live with, our parents? In their high rise in Fort
Lauderdale? I said in my most respectful tones that, ‘Sir, Capitán,
I am sure, there’s got to be a way that we can work this problem out
to the satisfaction of everyone. We parents, we admit the serious nature
of these incidents but these are young people, adolescents, hardly more
than children, and we don’t want their education to suffer. We don’t
want them to suffer unduly. Of course we need to be more responsible for
our children and make our children more responsible for themselves, but
we are also hoping there is a way to demonstrate repentance that will
permit us to get the children back into school, back into our homes.’
The guy looks at me coldly, and he says, "Do not go on,
Señor, or you will begin causing problems for your son and perhaps for
yourself as well. Señor, you are from a powerful country and you may
believe because of this that you can intervene in our system, but I am
here to prove that you cannot."
When he brought up geopolitics, I knew for sure that we
were screwed, and Will was screwed. All along, the guy sure hadn’t been
returning any of the mellow, hey-old-pal-we-can-work-this-out, kind of
vibes I’d been oozing in his direction. So now this scary, evil feeling
hit me like a wall. I had the odd thought that this could be Zo’s curse,
and there was nothing I could do to counteract it, because she was way
more powerful than I was. Inside my head I heard her talking, haranguing
and blaming Sally and me for all the ways we’ve characterized the locals
all these years, as dishonest, incompetent. Was this some guilty
craziness my brain cooked up? Some father-daughter psychic flash? I’m
telling you, I felt utterly convinced it was a curse. There on the bench
I started questioning this whole life we’ve built down here, and our
reasoning about how it was going to be so much better for our kids. I
started making wild plans to fold up our business and get out of there,
plans we couldn’t afford to enact. We may live like royalty, but given
the exchange rate, think about it, how could we go home? A liquidation
would barely yield us plane fare! We’d have no friends, no one who
understood our lives. We’ve been down here since we left college! Who
would we be? What would we do, start a photo kiosk in a mall? We
wouldn’t have the capital!
They drove us over to the calabozo to visit the
kids. Boy, were they glad to see us. Will was already prison-pale, or
maybe just in shock, hung over, and terrified.
The next day I visited the station again and the
Capitán lets me into his office and closes the door. Once we were
alone, he recognized me all right. He’d been waiting for me, and since
I’d already gotten the message about how this incident was going to be
harder for him to correct than usual, I had my wallet all fat and
I hated that guy. Man, I could almost have spat on him
as I looked at him and paid and paid and paid him off. And he felt the
same towards me, I could see. I mean I could smell it. It was a terrible
feeling. Not a feeling I enjoyed. I couldn’t have lived here for so long
if I’d felt that degree of bitter animosity. Oh, Sally and I talk on
about these people, but mostly we love them or at worst we just think of
them as charming and completely unreliable. Now I felt like saying, "I’m
so glad I’m not from your cesspool country. You with your life
expectancy of fifty and your lack of any decent exports and your
black-market economy." But he would have expected that; it’s what he’d
expected all along and was punishing me for being able to say. I didn’t,
The Capitán let all three kids out on bail, so at
least Will could finish the spring semester.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. What he’d said was
true. Once the papers got hold of this story they went right to town.
"Black Friday," they started calling it. They blew it totally out of
proportion, mostly with these lurid, editorializing adjectives the press
here loves to use. ‘Vicious,’ ‘shameless,’ ‘reckless,’ ‘spoiled.’ Every
day a headline said "Black Friday" the print run would sell out. It’s
worn off a bit by now, but the locals are just eating up this case of
the rich, bad American kids. The officials want to make an example,
saying they can’t allow this delinquency to spread into their own
population. Like I said, there were quite a few locals involved, not
just the ones from our own school but some of the aristocrats from
LaSalle Academy, and I hate to say this but I believe they were
responsible for the nastier aspects of this rampage. Half the kids
standing around the scene of the car crash were LaSalle, Will swears,
and the police sent them on home to their parents. They’d have to walk
in and beg to be arrested, and even then. So far none of them has tried
Will admits he helped blow up the guard shack but he
wasn’t part of any of the rest of it. Drinking and driving freaks him
out, and so does smoking. He’s basically a very clean-cut kid. He and
his friend went for a pizza and then just happened to walk out onto the
boulevard right after the crash. He could have gone state’s evidence,
too, but Will won’t rat on anybody.
Zo, Zo claims she only went to that brujo for
love stuff. And you know, despite everything else, I’d like to believe
her. Maybe I’m superstitious but if it wasn’t Zo, I could easily be
convinced that someone else sent the curse upon us. Envy is a huge
problem in this culture. Envy and revenge. That’s how it is down here,
the way things work and function. It’s bread and butter to a whole class
of magicians. So much bad stuff happens, you have so much less than what
you want, and you want to do something about it. Look at Maria, for
God’s sake, what Maria’s had to deal with. If she hired a brujo,
I wouldn’t be surprised. But it’s hard when it’s your own kid. Zo’s
still being all cold, like she’s disowned us or she’s leaving us to stew
in our own juices. Adolescence -- boiling hormones, it’s confusing for
everybody. Sally and I, we’re just praying she likes us again by the
time she’s thirty.
Kurt, the black kid? He’s long gone, no more than a
rumor in the papers that a black kid was involved and got whisked out of
the country. Which of course sounds like some rapper or delinquent was
the mastermind. Also like there’s a conspiracy to hide him, which
definitely makes things harder for the kids who are left behind, but,
hey, we’re glad Kurt’s parents were able to save him. Somebody told me
it cost Coca-Cola a hundred thousand dollars to get him out. It’s just a
rumor, although it’s easy to believe.
The DEA kid, Rudy, he’s really in trouble. The Embassy
can’t intervene to help him because they found traces of cocaine in the
totaled car. It was his father’s Nissan. The same car he always drove
down into the jungle to try to stamp out drug labs, but his dad won’t
say the powder was some evidence left over from his travels. Rudy’s
parents are fundamentalists, they almost seem to want their kid to go to
jail. Who can blame the kid for acting out? I’ve gotten to know Rudy a
little, I’ve come to admire him in a funny way. God knows, in my mind,
I’d like his father better if the coke was his. Do him good to indulge
in a little sinning now and then
We’ve managed to keep our name, Will’s name, out of the
papers, but what with everyone crying for blood, it looks like we’re
going to have to slip him out of the country soon. Senior year at a
boarding school in the US. In the meantime this has gone beyond being
just another of our stories. I used to love this country. But, by the
time all this is over, I wonder what, if anything, we’ll have left.
Sharon and I, we’ll probably be here forever, but I hope we won’t end up
wishing we were in Miami, just like everybody else in this God-forgotten