Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Town Hall

            Altagracia has decided that, despite my tales of the cold weather in Massachusetts, she would like to visit this summer when I am there working.
            Every resident of the Dominican Republic has a cedula, or I.D. card, with a number that, like a social security number in the States, is linked with one's birth certificate and that one carries for life. But for Altagracia to apply for a passport she must obtain her birth certificate from the city where she was declared. But since she was not declared until she was about 17 and still too young to vote, although she had two children by then, and was declared by an uncle instead of her father and was not given the last name of her father, Mateo, but of her mother, Garcia Poche, or Pochet depending on which document you are reading, and since the birth certificate is evidently not filed by date of birth but by the date of declaration, and none of these records are computerized, it is not so easy. We went to the Junta Electoral of Baní, about 2 hours away by guagua, where Altagracia was declared (even though she was born in Elias Piña), and went upstairs where there was a corridor lined with maybe a dozen unlabeled offices all of which had equally long, stationary lines trailing out through the doors. Altagracia asked a cleaning lady to unlock a bathroom for her and while we, the cleaning lady and I, were waiting for her to come out we chatted and when she did come out the cleaning lady brought us to a friend of hers in one of the Kafkaesque offices who, after much turning of pages of dog-eared registers and much searching through overstuffed grimy manilla folders that were precariously stacked on shelves behind her, and recopying the cedula number a couple of times with the pencil she borrowed from me, announced that it would take a lot more digging and could she call us when she found the record and so we gave her 100 pesos so she could buy a phone card to call us and have a tip left over and thanked her and now are still waiting after three weeks and have not had time to get back there because, in the meantime, Altagracia's father died.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Chavela and Jhoanglish

            Chavela is Altagracia’s sixteen year old daughter. She is cocky and confident and energetic, well known in the neighborhood and the source of nearly all my gossip. She comes home daily from school at noon, cooks lunch of rice with beans with a side dish, sweeps and mops the house and galleria, washes the dishes left from the six lunches and does the laundry. Last year in Pizarete, Chavela had had a novio (serious boyfriend) who was in his twenties and was a police officer, one of the ones who take the risk of shooting and arresting tigueres and so eventually a small band of them chased him down on the Autopista Duarte and killed him. I was living in the States at the time carrying on a telephone courtship with Altagracia and it was in all the Dominican newspapers. Less than a year later Chavela's father, who is the father of all four of Altagracia’s children, Luis, 74 and divorced from Altagracia for three years, was killed by a night watchman, or watchy-man, who knew him and who had broken into his apartment to steal a hundred dollars. Luis evidently woke up during the robbery and got a couple of licks in with a machete before the robber clubbed him in the head and then left, locking the door from the outside which prevented Luis from crawling out for help. Kiki showed up at the apartment the next day to visit his father and Luis died only hours later. After the robbery the watchy-man, a drug user, went to work still covered with blood and so now is in prison awaiting his unscheduled trial.
            Chavela’s first novio here in Villa Mella, Andres, was glum, taciturn and unsmiling, but handsome, and came to visit Chavela on the galleria nearly nightly to whisper and make out but began to arrive later and later each night until Chavela figured out that, as she put it-- she was not the first dish of the evening and so she dumped him. Chavela is now seeing Marwell who is charming, hardworking and large and has a motorcycle. One evening Marwell invited Kiki to take the bike for a short spin and before Altagracia could discourage the generous gesture, Kiki took off with it, not coming back until more than an hour later dragging the exhaust pipe behind him. Altagracia said that if he had not broken the exhaust  that he would have ridden until it was out of gas and left it. But Marwell and Chavela are still an item; although he does not come around quite as often, he did bring her a large stuffed bear with lots of candy on Valentine’s Day and he calls.

            Jhoanglish, 19, is tall and thin like his older brother but lacks Kiki's dangerous physical presence; his nickname in a high school in the States might be Ichabad. He is an inveterate fictionalizer-- if he told me it was raining I would have to be getting real wet before I believed him. He sings rap and regetón and sometimes does his own laundry and sometimes finds work but never sticks to it. When he landed this job as a watchy-man we were all very happy. But the next day we found out that he would need 300 pesos as a security deposit for the uniform. And then that he would need to take two guaguas each way to and from work which comes to 40 pesos a day. And that the Clean Conduct Certificate from the Police Department would cost 50 pesos. But we loaned him the money on the promise that he would pay it back out of his first paycheck. His second night of work he fired the shotgun into the air two times outside the bank he was guarding which meant that the supervisor had to schedule him for a psychiatric exam. Evidently many watchy-men work for years without ever discharging their weapon but during his third night and before having the opportunity to see the psychologist he emptied the pistol shooting over the heads of some suspicious looking people outside a different bank . Before going in to work the fourth night he woke up from a nap in the marquisina with a fever, a boil on his upper lip and his right testicle swollen to the size of a lechoza (local word for papaya--a football shaped fruit about the size of a grapefruit) and so we took him to a clinic where they prescribed antibiotics and no work for a few days. The next time Jhoanglish left for work the phone rang about an hour later and it’s him saying that he forgot his hat and if someone doesn’t bring it to him right away he will be fired. So we tear the house apart, find the hat (and the tie) and realize that no one knows where to take them except for Kiki who got hired once for almost a full day by the same company but who is too hungover from something to go or just doesn’t feel like going and so we figure out the name of the company by reading it on the front of the hat, find the phone number in the phone book and when Altagracia calls for directions the supervisor tells her that there is no problem, that Jhoanglish can borrow a hat for the night but that, by the way, did we know he is about half crazy? But we are relieved to know that there is someone there who knows him and that he didn’t just borrow or steal the uniform so that we would give him guagua and lunch money every day. So it is about a week later and Jhoanglish is still borrowing the guagua fares and going in to work every day, sometimes at 4 in the morning, sometimes at 4 in the afternoon, but almost inevitably returns about two hours later saying that they had nothing for him that day. Tomorrow there is no work because there is a general strike but he tells us that payday will be the day after. I can’t wait.

            On payday Jhoanglish went back to work at the bank for Guardianes Marcos, the watchy-man company, and somehow, the story is still a little blurry even after a week of clarification, during a shift change, the shotgun he was responsible for disappeared. He was promptly thrown in jail, well not exactly in jail but handcuffed to a bench behind the Mirador del Sur Destacamento (Police Department). He looked pretty scared when we went to visit him but the police did not treat him badly although we had to bring him his dinner, a warm shirt and a sheet to sleep under on the bench. He was released after a couple of days when it was revealed that his supervisor had taken the shotgun from where Jhoanglish had locked it up and had since returned it into circulation. Perhaps the supervisor borrowed it for a quick side job. Why the supervisor or the succeeding watchy-man were never locked up or questioned I will probably never know. Guardianes Marcos is now insisting, not only that they not pay Jhoanglish his wages of about 1500 pesos for his total of five days of work, but that he pay 500 pesos to be reinstated although he, evidently, did nothing wrong. As well, the Mirador del Sur's finest would like 5000 pesos for processing and for the three days room and board but we figure it will all be forgotten long before we ever get around to paying. Our total losses, on paper, to keep Jhoanglish working would come to 1200 pesos daily, not counting meals and medication. I would still like to hear the story from another angle, there are two guys about the same age as Jhoanglish who live nearby and who work for the same company and they have had no problems with Marcos Inc..

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Knife Fight

            I was reading on the galleria after lunch today when I heard a bottle smash up beyond the house of la Rubia, then Demonio (not Demonio Vivo 4 year old but a 20 something with long arms and an athletic gait) comes tearing down the dirt slope through the vacant lot next to La Rubia's house with Britannia, a stocky local young mother with short orange vertical hair, charging right behind him with a knife. They stop in the street in front of our house and square off about 20 feet apart, he is clutching a broken Presidente bottle as a weapon in one hand and is holding his side, where he has already been stabbed and is dripping blood, with the other. La Rubia gets between them, they each pick up throwing-sized chunks of broken concrete and each winds up and threatens to deploy, Demonio yells that he is going to kill her, La Rubia stays between them, and eventually they go separate ways. But nobody thinks it is over. Evidently Demonio’s wife had been sending Britannia food, which is a common thing here, but Britannia had not been returning the dishes. Any form of disrespect in the area of food ranks low on the list of dos and don'ts.
            Later in the day two guys came to the door looking for Kiki and calmly told Chavela that they would like to stab him because they don’t like him being friends with one of their enemies. Kiki was not here at the time so they wandered off after waiting out front for a little while. When Kiki returned and heard the news he left singing quietly to himself and casually twirling a two foot piece of steel re-rod. Later I saw him moseying down the street flipping a switch blade around and then later in the afternoon when Altagracia saw him out front with a pair of scissors she went out and grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him around and  sent him to the marquisina. But a half hour or so later one of the barrio elders called for him and explained that Kiki was not in the wrong, so far. And so then they left, presumably to go try to straighten out what might only be a misunderstanding.
            So, to top it off; about five minutes after they leave two more tigueres show up outside the marquisina and announce that they are going out to look for Kiki but don’t say why, they leave, and then Joanglish comes home from work. He is working as a night watchman and because he has to go back very early in the morning the supervisor had let him take the signed-out, loaded .38 Taurus, made in Brazil, home with him. Nobody argued when I confiscated the pistol for the night, he has the shells and when he leaves for work in the morning he can have the  pistol back.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


            Kiki is the oldest of Altagracia's four children having turned 21 on Christmas Day, and he just pawned the washing machine we had stored in the garage, or marquisina, where he sleeps with his brother, Jhoanglish, 19. He has also taken and sold the stereo, the propane gas tank for the stove, three cell phones (including his Mother's own which was filled with nearly irreplaceable numbers), my cell phone which Chavela, Altagracia´s sixteen year old daughter, recovered by calling my number before he was out of earshot with it and, when it rang, he had to give it up. Altagracia recovered the stereo by finding out from a neighbor which pawn shop he sold it to and getting there within 24 hours after which the price would have gone up.
            Kiki is very tall and very thin and very wide and is handsome despite his foggy eye where he took a dozen birdshot from a shotgun blast last summer. Perhaps it is that eye that contributes to his outlaw charm. He is, what is known in the Dominican Republic as, a tiguere (teeg-u-ray), which is, evidently, a unique sociological variety of delinquent. Requirements for membership seem to be stealing from one's mother, never working, making the maximum mess whenever possible, breaking bottles, eating other people's food with both hands out of the refrigerator, pissing on the toilet seat, lying compulsively and smoking drugs. Some tigueres kill or kidnap or rape people, some snatch gold chains from the necks of the women wearing them (when the guagua approaches the area known as Duarte all the women on the bus take off their jewelry before getting off), some sell drugs and some form small gangs and harass other tigueres. Police are afraid to enter some neighborhoods where there are strong gangs and a police who arrests or kills many tigueres may become an assassination target. Some tigueres carry short lengths of re-rod as weapons, some use knives and a few have pistols. And some just steal from their mothers.
            Kiki has nothing. He sold the washing machine, worth 3,000 pesos for 600. When he sold the cell phones he didn't get paid more than a cheap bottle of rum for the three of them because he trusted another tiguere. He is capable of working construction (during one burst of energy he shoveled two tons of sand, almost without stopping, up onto the roof of the marquisina for me) but usually refuses because working with concrete wears his shoes out too fast. He is without conscience-- less than a week after stealing the cell phones he asked me for a “loan” to buy a fighting cock.  Somehow he cadges cigarettes and drinks and joints on the street, and likely crack from time to time, and he does not get much to eat as he now banned from entering the house. But we don't keep much food around anymore.
            He has asked to borrow the machete (which he had begun to grind into a stabbing tool) when he goes out at night. in case of seeing certain friends. He and his brother nearly completed making, what I think is known as a zip gun, a single shot pistol fabricated out of scraps of steel and springs. They called it a harpoon at first and said it was for fishing but when a neighbor's 4 year old (Demonio Vivo in fact) found it accidentally in the marquisina and reported it to his mother and she threatened to tell the police I embargoed all the tools and banned it from the premises. It has since resurfaced briefly twice but no closer to firing capability and the boys believe me now, I think, that I will throw it in the River Isabela if I see it again.
            A couple of weeks ago Kiki proposed that I loan him 10,000 pesos ($330), one half of the down payment, for a small used pickup truck that he could use to transport produce to sell. I said that if he worked for a few months as a gesture of good faith and managed to save something that I was sure we could work something out. A few days later he told me that he had the other 10,000 as good as borrowed. Deal breaker. A few days after that I found him leaving the house wearing two shirts before 8 in the morning and he said he was on his way to the docks in Haina looking to stowaway. He only wants money to leave, the 10,000 borrowed pesos would have gone for passage on a yola, one of the boats that sink on their way, illegally, to Puerto Rico. He will never work. He will eventually die on the streets or in jail or in a swamped yola.
            Altagracia is torn. She is fed up, again, but still has a mother's fear of one of her children starving to death on the street. She can cut him off 95 percent but cannot  sever the tie. No relatives will take him, and he has lots-- 31 older brothers and sisters from his father's wanderings before he met Altagracia. She is afraid he will get sick.  So am I, but I also daydream about pepper spraying and beating him up.

            Some recent drama on the home front. I forget what I've told you about the two deadbeat lying thieves, 19 and 21, that are Altagracia's malcriado oldest spawn, but things have been getting worse, worse that is after they´ve taken and sold one of the propane tanks for the kitchen stove, a washing machine, 5 cell phones including both Altagracia's and my personal cell phones with all the contacts etc. (actually miraculously got mine back, another story) the stereo, the machete, the bread knife and they even pawned their own shoes which of course Mom had to replace. And this, too, after I had to forbid them from continuing work on a homemade pistol under threat of calling the police and after they have each had friends cruising for them armed (reportedly) with pistols and shotguns. I have promised the older one that I will call the police the next time anything big disappears. He really does not want to go to jail, which is why he steals from his own family because he knows that Altagracia does not want him to go to jail because she would have to bring him dinner every day which is how it works here, but I promised him that I would love to bring him dinner every day in jail, and he believes me, as he should. Of course boxes of matches, small change, candles, tubes of toothpaste and food from the refrigerator disappear as fast as before.
            Anyway last night I caught one of them pissing on the cement patio where I am building a garden planter thing and I lost it, really screamed at him, not the first time either, (it had been smelling of piss there before and I had patiently explained to all three boys that we had a toilet etc., that old piss smells bad etc.) called him an animal, sucio (dirty, a very strong word here) etc. as loud as I could yell. So early this morning as I am still lying in bed what do I hear outside my window, in the patio? Pissing!!! So at the moment we are under a 24 hour ultimatum, the first actually although there have been 15 day ultimatums which came and went unnoticed, if those two are not out by tomorrow, I leave, and if I leave everyone starves to death. I feel bad for the two younger ones, especially Niningo because we are friends and have trust, but jesus christ!!!!!! So I was about to call my American friend here and ask to move in for a couple of months and split the rent but Altagracia called me and said she was shipping the two out to Pizarete, the last town they lived in, a good distance away. Vamos a ver (we'll see). Boy am I pissed off. This is after loaning them both money, paying for medical stuff for both of them and being a generally nice guy with them, gradually getting angrier and angrier and angrier.
            Those two were to live with their father but he was killed in August, no one ever planned for them to live with us. My relationship with Altagracia herself is still fine, although she is a little uncomfortable with this ultimatum, and the museum show (now scheduled for March 15) might actually be a big deal, the catalog I am designing has grown to 14 pages and they evidently have someone who wants to pay for the printing costs. The museum is going to pay for the glass for the pictures although I will wind up buying the other nearly half sheet of glass from the glass store because, well I don't really know why but the sheets come 40x60 inches and the pictures require glass 32x40 (which in the States was a standard size) and the glass store doesn't want to get stuck with the 28x40 inch scraps, I guess, although they are pretty big to be called scraps, but I should be able to use them up eventually as long as I don't try to store them at home.
            So Kiki moved out for a few days but didn’t pack any clothes and the other one is actually working so he got a deferment on his eviction. When I realized that Kiki was back I actually did call a taxi and did move out with my camera stuff and Chloë (my cocker spaniel) to a pension for a night. This may have served to speed up the placement process and also sent the message that I meant it. Now, however, during this same time there had been a brutal break in and double murder in the neighborhood and also the guy who has the chimi sandwich stand up at  the corner got robbed again so everyone is a little nervous and since I will be leaving in 3 months to work in the States and Altagracia is not keen on being left in the house with only her son Niningo (15) and daughter Chavela (16) and without the two big guys because tigueres don’t usually break into houses where a lot of men live so I am not sure how hard I should push the eviction actions.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Telly, Street

He was here for a couple of hours the other day while his mother was relaxing Altagracia’s hair. He has skinny legs and a gigantic head. I first saw him on the sidewalk shoving a pointed stick into glass bottles and then whipping the bottles off the stick at the dogs across the street, and he hit a couple too. Later I noticed him swinging a broomstick chasing a 16 year old across a vacant lot. While he was here he slugged our cocker spaniel, was found eating with both hands out of the icebox, moved all the padlocks to different doors and then hid the keys,  locked Chavela in the bathroom, was caught pouring bleach into the hair relaxer bottle, broke four ceramic tiles, and had to be dragged off the garage roof twice because, aside from the chance of him falling off, there are a bunch of live wires up there. The second time I hauled him off the garage I accidentally bounced his head off a low hanging curved sheet metal roof that projects from the house, and his expression never changed, if anything a faint smile crossed his lips. The next day we saw his mother in town carrying a bleeding child across the street towards the clinic. She explained that he and Telly had been just throwing rocks at each other when it somehow turned ugly and Telly laid the other kid’s head open with a stick. We call him Demonio Vivo, but his real name, as near as I can tell, is Telly Tubby, named after the television cartoon program. He is four. Altagracia says that he is going to kill someone before he is twelve.

 We sweep the sidewalk and street in front of our house every couple of days and if you let your sidewalk get too cluttered someone from the neighborhood junta comes around to talk to you. So there is always someone on our street sweeping in front of their house but there are also 5 or 6 people sweeping stuff out of their houses onto the street. If your are on your porch, or galleria, the street is where you pitch or spit all your small garbage like fruit seeds, bottle caps, candy wrappers and sugar cane fibers. If you leave unbroken bottles on the street they are picked up by morning by people who sell them for 1 peso each back to the bottle factory. Only glass soda bottles have deposits and so are never found on the street. Once you have paid a deposit on a soda bottle you own one soda bottle, you can turn it in as the deposit when you buy your next soda but you can never get your nickel back. So the average bottle on the street is a beer bottle and the choices are Presidente in green or Bohemia in brown. Bohemia costs 5 pesos less and so is found more often in poor neighborhoods. I am sure that one could calculate the average income of any street of any town in the Dominican Republic by the ratio of found Presidente/Bohemia bottles. The majority of beer is sold in 22 ounce bottles and comes with any number of plastic cups so that you can share-- the beer stays colder and is a little cheaper that way. 12 ounce bottles exist but are not the standard unit as in the U.S. When you buy a beer in a colmado you ask for either a grande or a chiquito and if it is an affluent neighborhood you get a Presidente and if you are in a poor neighborhood they ask you which brand.
            The other notable item in the ecology of the street is the excrement of dogs. By rough count there are eight dogs living at the four nearest houses and all go in the street and there is no scooper law of any kind. While it is certainly possible to step in something the road is not as mined as one would expect. A hard rain helps, especially since we are on a steep hill but I think most of it leaves stuck in car and truck tires. My own dog's droppings are very rarely in the same place the next day.

            There are always people walking past the house on the way to the colmado next door if only to hang out on the little galleria there. Children as young as 4 walk the length of the street unaccompanied, clutching a 10 peso note in one hand and carrying the jam jar or empty coffee cup in the other in which to bring home the 10 pesos worth of vegetable oil or tomato paste. Guys wait on the steps of the colmado to talk to girls and mothers with babies chat with other mothers with babies. Shirts and shoes are not required and women might be wearing anything from cocktail dresses to skintight stretch jeans to nightgowns and might be elaborately coifed or have a headfull of giant plastic hair rollers held in place with one bobby pin each. (I am told that the rollers are often used not to shape the hair but to arrange it to dry faster in the sun, not many people have blow driers and the power goes out so often anyway.)  At night however most people dress to go to the colmado and hairdos are ni-ni and slacks and tee shirts are pressed and shoes shined. The colmado has a system of inverters, a series of car batteries that charge when there is electricity and power the coolers and the juke box when the power goes out, so there is almost always music playing and the music is almost always bachata or salsa or merengue and couples might dance on the little galleria or in front of the counter inside. Lots of people go to the colmado and don't buy anything.
            At the little intersection near the bakery up the hill from our house there are usually 5 or 6 motoconchos waiting to taxi customers up Avenida Primaveral to the bigger intersection on Maximo Gomez. (Maximo Gomez has actually become Avenida Hermanas Mirabel by the time it gets this far North, but never mind). The conchos are mostly Honda 50 or 70cc bikes but there also some 115cc Suzukis. The conchistas sit on their bikes in the shade and talk and scan the horizon for someone signaling for a ride which costs 10 pesos per person and 10 pesos more if there is a lot of luggage. It costs 40 pesos to have two bags of cement brought to your house from the  building supply yard and they will drag a couple of twenty foot long re-rod home for you too.
            Once you have arrived up at Maximo Gomez  you have the choice of taking a guagua or a carro publico or a city bus or a taxi. Guaguas are privately owned buses that hold about 30 passengers and cost 10 pesos. There is a driver and also a cobrador who hangs out the bus door shouting the destination of that particular guagua and bangs on the side of the guagua to signal the driver when to stop for a fare or when to let someone off. A good cobrador stows packages and helps the elderly find seats and a bad one shortchanges or ignores requests to stop.
            Carro publicos, or more simply carros, are almost always Toyota Corolla sedans and are usually totally battered and lack all mirrors, headliners, door handles and window cranks with their seats upholstered with found, mysterious fabric and the windshield a bowed web of cracks and clear packing tape. I have been in more than one that had rope tied to the door jambs and stretched taut across the inside of the car to hold it together. They also cost 10 pesos and are faster than a guagua because they can weave in and out of traffic but run shorter routes and usually won't leave the curb unless full-- 4 in the back and two in front plus the driver. A very wide person or someone with enough shopping bags to take up an extra seat has to pay double. To signal a guagua or a carro to stop when you are on the street you wag an index finger up and down.
            City busses are rare and only stop at specific stops, but often only cost 5 pesos. Altagracia still glows when she talks about the time last month she came all the way from Gascue, where she works for only 5 pesos on the bus. Her commute if by guagua costs 10 pesos, by  two carros 20 pesos and if by taxi 120 pesos.
            To cross a large, busy street in Santo Domingo it is best to do it one lane at a time, making sure that you are standing exactly on the divider line (if there is one) while you are waiting for the next opportunity to advance. It is also advisable to cross with packs of other pedestrians and to try to keep a large padded one between you and the oncoming traffic. Always be on the lookout for motorcycles which may be speeding between lanes and for vehicles which might be dragging things like 20 foot long steel re-rods and remember to glance down to check for missing manhole covers which were stolen to sell as scrap metal. At night cars with no lights can be especially dangerous. Right of way belongs to whatever would do the most damage to the car and this includes potholes-- a person (or a dog or a horse) could jump out of the way but a pothole never. If a car suddenly swerves violently toward you it is probably avoiding a pothole-- leap for the curb. At first I tried to maintain an aloof, calm air when crossing the street here but now I am not ashamed to run like a scared chicken. Try to avoid crossing the street altogether on weekends and holidays because, while there are television ads advising against drunk driving, there is no law against it. There is a law intended to discourage drinking while driving which states that the driver must have both hands on the wheel at all times but it must be that not many people know about it. It is not unusual for a guagua driver to be seen hoisting a large Presidente from between his legs from time to time while driving.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Neighbor, Hipermercado Olé

            La Rubia lives across the street in a small pink wood house with a galvanized tin roof and sells chicken every morning. She is tall, lean, strong and perhaps in her fifties with a gauntly aged face and is missing her top front teeth. She builds a fire outside where she boils a big pot of water to scald the chickens for plucking after cutting their throats. She rinses them with water and covers them with plastic bags, hangs a scale from a tree limb and sells the poultry for about 15¢ more per pound than Hipermercado Olé, the nearest supermarket. Usually she wears jeans when she prepares the poultry but if she has just gotten home from the disco or been dropped off by one of her chulos, she may still be wearing a tight dress or stretch leisure suit. The chicken she sells is from the U.S. as is almost all the chicken sold in the Dominican Republic. Altagracia tells me that people only cook the locally bred poultry for diversion because it is so tough.
            La Rubia owns several houses out back which she rents out and where her ex-husband lives while their teenage children live with her. One day while La Rubia was flirting with a conchista in front of her house her ex was hunkered on the ground in the shadows of the neighboring house calmly tossing pebbles at the suitor's motorcycle and when one would bounce off the spokes or the gas tank the two would glance annoyed over their shoulders at him and then go back to their quiet conversation and he would scrabble around in the dirt for more stones to fillip.

            I walk to Olé almost every day. It is like a large KMart with a grocery store under the same roof. The traffic pattern of the shopping carts resembles the traffic patterns on the streets, one must beware and be prepared to run. There are frequent discussions with strangers in the aisles over which guandules or ketchup or shampoo is the best. The price of rice is high at the moment, averaging about 45¢ a pound, but at Olé they have a bin that holds maybe a ton of loose rice that sells for 39¢ where you fill up plastic bags with grain scoops and then bring them to a scale to be weighed and priced. People run their fingers through the rice and smell it before deciding how much to buy. A full bin can be emptied in less than 2 hours.
            The check-outs at Olé use bar code scanners and accept credit and debit cards but nothing ever works right all the time. The cashier checks every price scanned for errors and when there is one, calls for the guy on roller skates who arrives after a while with a clipboard and notes the UPC number. Then another person is called who has gone to find out the right price, then one more person comes with a key to correct the price in the register. If your debit card isn’t accepted you simply follow your cashier to the next register or the register after that until a working card swiper is found. When you leave the store a person by the exit marks your receipt with a blue magic marker, I don’t know why.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Beginning

            La Primaveral de Villa Mella, where we live, is on the outskirts of the city of Santo Domingo about 9 kilometers up Maximo Gomez as far as the blue water tank on stilts and then our house is a 1 kilometer walk or a 10 peso per person ride on a Honda 70cc Cub Special motorbike away. When we use such a concho Altagracia rides sidesaddle in the middle pressed between me and the chauffeur. From our roof we can see mountains, and our street, Loma de Chivo, which was asphalt at one time but now is mostly paved with dust, is virtually a dead end as it narrows to a dirt trail near a stream a few blocks beyond our house. There are a few big houses like ours with three bedrooms and steel burglar bars over the windows and doorsways but mostly the houses are small and unfinished with the rough cement blocks not yet plastered or painted and with boards sometimes nailed over the windows.  A painted house usually means that the family has some relatives in New York who send money. There are chickens and stray dogs everywhere and always someone on the street unless it is raining hard. There is very little traffic and kids can play stickball in the street, which, when they don’t have a ball, they play with the small frisbee-like caps from five gallon water jugs and use broomsticks for bats. We live next door to a colmado (or bodega or corner store) where you can buy a few pesos worth of tomato paste at a time; eggs, cigarettes, tampons, mints or aspirins or shoelaces one at a time; cheese or salami by the slice, disposable razors, toilet paper, powdered milk, soda, rum and beer. There is also a pool table and a loud juke box in the colmado but it quiets down by about 9 PM on weeknights and we all like the music anyway.
            Six of us live in the house. Altagracia and I, and her four almost grown children; Kiki 21, Jhoanglish 19, Chavela 16 and Niningo 15 although their real names are Luis Manual, Luis Maria, Luis Antonio and Luisabela. Nothing is ever found in the same place twice. Toothbrushes may be found in sink drains, in mop buckets,  on the stove, in shoes or under beds. I am sure we have toothbrushes in neighbor’s houses. We have three plastic pitchers to keep water in the refrigerator and they can generally be found each with about one ounce of water in them. We evidently use over 150 matches per day, that is, to light the stove and candles when the power goes out. Someone here can eat a pint of mayonnaise at a sitting. I have a friend in the US who has just finished raising two teenagers and she assures me that living with this age group anywhere in the world can be like living with raccoons.

            Ours is a three bedroom house with two bathrooms one of which has plumbing . The indoor bathroom, full of new fixtures, is dry and not connected to any septic system that we can locate and the outdoor bathroom is a small attached room around the side at the end of the patio. The paid receipt for the city water was counterfeited by the previous owners and, since we are not going to pay someone else’s bill of over 10,000 pesos ($330) and still accruing penalties, we pump water, if there is electricity, to fill our cistern from an exposed pipe fitting across the street on Tuesdays and Saturday nights, which are the times the city diverts water to our neighborhood. The rest of the street does the same thing and assures us that even if we did pay the bill, we would still never get the water we paid for. After the cistern is full we pump water to a tinaco on the roof that holds 200 gallons and supplies water by gravity to the kitchen and the working bathroom. Many houses here do not have a cistern or tinaco and so, on water nights, the street is filled with women hauling water in five gallon buckets on their heads.
            The electricity arrives pretty much the same way as the water. Our house is situated between two telephone poles and there is a web of lamp-cord gauge wire spliced into the main power line that leads to various outlets and bulb sockets in the house. When Altagracia turns on her blow-drier the whole neighborhood dims. There is not a fuse or a circuit breaker anywhere. The house is constructed entirely of cement, roof and all, so it can’t burn down, but I make it a point to stand on one foot when I touch a light switch cause I figure maybe the current won’t go through my heart up one leg and down the other that way. We burn up a lot of light bulbs. Occasionally the power company sends a pickup truck with a ladder and two men, called cortadores, to cut the wires to the houses of people who don’t pay their bills and people like us who don’t even have a meter on the house. After they leave, the neighbor who is the designated electrician hooks us back up for a dollar.