Monday, July 25, 2011

Self Defense, Kiki; and a note from the Shameless Commerce Division

Since hundreds of people, most of them perfect strangers, have told me that I should not have to be funding my rock art documentation project myself I am sending out this email. Kickstarter is a different kind of fund raising strategy and may be something that you could use to help with your own projects.

What I am asking-- whether or not you want or are able to support this project yourself--is  that you relay this to friends or organizations who might be interested in helping me get this small, but seminal, book  printed. If you like the idea, even just clicking the little LIKE button just above my project description on the Kickstarter page would be a big help. Donations from $1-$1000 are accepted and rewards will be remitted if my goal is reached. If anybody has any questions about how works I hope you will email me.

          Kiki arrived suddenly last week and spent one night in the marquisina and Altagracia gave him bus fare to get him to Elias Piña to stay with Anna, his grandmother, and he left very early in the morning, because now he cannot live in Pizarette anymore because of Bebeleche and his gang. Bebeleche and his woman used to live next door to Altagracia when she lived in Pizarete with Luis and the four kids and there has been bad blood between Kiki and Bebeleche for years ever since Bebeleche’s woman fell briefly in love with Kiki and it was Bebeleche who shot Kiki in the face with a shotgun while Kiki was using a public phone in a colmado. Bebeleche is called Bebeleche, which means milk drinker, because he is crazy and when he doesn’t take his medication he attacks people, with or without provocation. So, last week Bebeleche and two friends ambushed Kiki on the road near his little house but Kiki was carrying a machete and cut Bebeleche’s cousin Sordín’s arm badly and somehow hit Bebeleche in the head with the handle of the machete and escaped running. Altagracia knows that tigueres might kill Kiki someday but she says that they will have to get him from behind or while he is sleeping to do it because he is just too ready, too strong and too fast otherwise. Elias Piña, being on the Haitian border, is full of border guards and various other military and police types and Altagracia realizes that Kiki will get locked up from time to time simply because he is new in town and also because it is nearly impossible to live in Elias Piña without smuggling something across the border either advertantly or inadvertantly even if it is only a pair of jeans or a couple of pounds of habichuelas, but that that is better than getting killed in Pizarette. Kiki did indeed arrive at Anna’s house and we sent her $15 by Western Union to pay for board.

Self Defense
         After witnessing a knife and bottle fight in front of the house and the shooting at the Evangelical Meeting house and after the house across the street was robbed (even though we think the burglar was Natty since he is familiar with the house having spent much time there sleeping with the wife of one of the tenants) I spent more time thinking about self defense. Many many people here in Santo Domingo carry some kind of weapon. Men with shirts untucked may have a pistol or knife concealed in their waistband and many of the early morning walkers that Altagracia and I see on our way to the bus stop at the blue water tank carry short clubs or broken broomsticks. Altagracia herself used to keep a big hat pin in her purse and during the holiday season last year I kept a pocket size canister of pepper spray with me until I finally turned it on myself out of curiosity one night while safely seated on the sofa and was disappointed, in a way, to find that it only broadcast a weak sputter of spicy juice potentially effective at a range of up to four inches.
         Luis, Altagracia’s ex-husband, who was clubbed to death last year by a burglar, almost always owned a pistol handled shot gun and she suggests to me from time to time, after noting that if he still had had one that he might still be alive today, that I buy a gun for the house but I have resisted partly because of the cost which, including license and tips, comes to about $1000 but there is also the problem of publicity. If the local tigueres do not know that I am armed the probability of the house being broken into or me being attacked on the street is no lower than before and if they do suspect that I have a gun  they would be more likely to break in or jump me to steal my gun and that is not what I want. I want to prevent these things.
         Last summer when I was in the States, where mail order exists, I did purchase some weapons. The first were saps or palitos de plomo (lead sticks) as we call them here and which are composed of a lozenge shaped slab of lead attached to a flat spring steel handle covered with thick stiff black leather and are approximately pocket sized and I suppose they could be swung either the flat way or edgewise and cost less than $20 each. The first sap I ever recall noticing was being satisfyingly hefted by a beefy Irish policemen in a Bugs Bunny cartoon but saps also came recommended by a character in one of the Travis McGee private detective novels I read last year and by Nick Nolte in the movie Mulholland Falls where he wields his worn, breast pocket sized sap with such finesse that with just a gentle tap he can put the perpetrator to sleep instantly and seemingly painlessly until he awakes later with a pounding headache-- of course it could be applied more energetically. I bought a six ounce sap and a ten ounce sap, both with wrist straps which were advertised as providing “improved retention” and for about a week I kept the little one in my pocket on our daily walks to the water tank but I kept imagining a ladron picking my pocket and laying the thing up against the base of my own skull and how I might not survive even the embarrassment much less the concussion.
         The other weapon I bought was an extendible police baton which, when collapsed, is the size of a slender pocket flashlight but which telescopes out to a length of 20 inches with a flick of the wrist and is made of aircraft aluminum and has a weighted knob on the far end. The baton opens with three quick, beautifully authoritative, metallic clicks and a ladron, hearing this sound after entering a dark house might even be tempted to back out the way he came in because it sounds like a pistol being cocked. When I had asked the police supply company which model they recommended-- there are many available-- they were concerned about someone without special training buying such a baton because it is considered a weapon of deadly force but it seems to me to be on a par with the two foot piece of 5/8 inch diameter iron re-rod that I could likely find myself up against so I ordered it anyway although it cost almost $50.
         We have been attacked once, it was last year, and now, looking back, I could almost have predicted it. Altagracia and I had mistakenly dismounted from the guagua one stop too soon while going to Duarte, the hectic shopping district known for thievery, and so had to walk down a side street that was nearly deserted. Altagracia had forgotten to remove her cheap goldfil necklace. I had a head cold and was pulling a small piece of wheeled luggage with my left arm while Altagracia was on my right arm and we were walking uncertainly not being exactly sure we were going the right way. When I reached into a back pocket for my handkerchief a figure suddenly grabbed Altagracia from behind and tore the chain from her neck and released her by shoving her hard against me and then sprinted back for the corner. I dropped the suitcase and started after him although he was running like a punt returner and heard Altagracia yell-- ¡DANNY, QUÉ NO!-- and when I looked back I saw her standing in the middle of the street clutching her throat where her chain had been and the suitcase on its side where I had dropped it in the road and there were a couple of hyenas watching from doorways and so I turned back and we moved on. I had had just a glimpse of his crazed darkly stubbled face over her shoulder and he left a deep fingernail scrape on her neck that she washed and washed and washed when we got back home.
         But, while I somehow enjoy having them, I now leave my two sleek black saps and my shiny extendible baton in its holster under our mattress and only Altagracia and Nininngo know where they are, or even that they exist, because, it seems to me after all that the best self defense is attitude and behavior. I walk the streets with a brisk but unhurried, purposeful, athletic stride and I am conscious of how I make eye contact with strangers. I keep what cash I might need in my shirt pocket so I do not have to take out my wallet in public and I do not wear my cell phone on my belt. My peripheral vision has improved and I listen for footsteps approaching too fast from behind, particularly at an angle. If a tiguere-type seems to be thinking of approaching, a relaxed smile and a casual acknowledgment shows that I am aware and not nervous or afraid. I could never have reacted quickly enough to hit the ladron in Duarte with any kind of stick or even pepper spray or mace him although if I had had a pistol I might have been able to shoot him in the back as he ran away. Before Altagracia and I  left Duarte that afternoon we went to one of the Chinese jewelry stores below the park and replaced the chain for 80 pesos or $2.58 at today’s exchange rate.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Jhoanglish Works Again
During the summer while I was away Jhoanglish was hired by a series of employers all of which, unfortunately for Jhoanglish, had instituted mandatory drug testing and so Jhoanglish was dismissed seriatim. By the time I arrived however Jhoanglish had somehow not smoked marijuana for two months and was hired as a fireman or bombero at the station where Avenida Mella connects with Parque Independencia where a cousin of his is one of the officers. I gather that he mostly guards doorways, washes the trucks and does errands but there is the possibility of more training. He works 24 hour shifts and so is not in the house much but, when he is, has been very pleasant to be around, does his own laundry and even mopped the floor once. He has been a bombero for about two weeks and will get his first paycheck next week and we will see after that whether he will stick to it.

         I was here in when it happened. Although it was a warm evening we all happened to be inside; Chavela was blow drying and putting rollers in Altagracia’s hair, Niningo and I were watching baseball on television and Jhoanglish was in the kitchen standing in front of the open refrigerator when about 5 shots were fired right outside the house and because of the echo of the concrete walls I could feel the  shots in my chest like the impact of  loud fireworks and a few seconds later from slightly farther up the street came 3 or 4 more shots. We all rushed to the door but then all kept one another from going out onto the galleria until a few moments of silence had passed and then we heard wailing from the little evangelical meeting house up on the corner beyond La Rubia’s house and there was the sound of running footsteps and when they receded we went out on the galleria and the crying from the meeting house continued. A motorbike with a passemger carrying a child sped away.
         A group of tigueres had gone to the Club de Billar, or billiard parlour, at the colmado next door looking for Herman, the snakey tiguere, because he had recently shot and killed one of their gang while he was dozing in a plastic chair in front of his mother’s house and when they did not find him they began shooting up and down the street. The meeting house, which is only three doors up, was packed with people who all immediately dove to the floor except for one six year old boy who stood up to run to his mother and was shot in the chest. Although the motorbike that took him to the hospital was going fast the blood spatters down the street were the size of saucers and were no more than six feet apart and he died before they made it and the street stayed blood-stained until the next hard rain.
         Some of the tigueres had been recognized and although they could not be found right away two of their mothers were jailed by the police to try to lure them in and eventually all, or almost all, were arrested. The boy who was killed happened to be an only child whose father was a lieutenant in the police force and whose mother was a member of the National Guard and so the area has been patrolled much more than before and Herman has only been seen a few times here and not at all in the past month and is reported to be hiding in Guaricano, a neighboring barrio several miles away.


         Avenida Bolivar is a respectable, heavily trafficked, tree lined street in Gascue which is where the pensión is where Altagracia works. The other morning while I was walking down Bolivar a tree limb 8 inches in diameter broke and the heavy butt end hit the sidewalk hard about 20 feet in front of me. I had to step out onto the street because the branches made the sidewalk impassable and a woman coming in the other direction had to do the same. I said to her in Spanish-- Wow, did you see that? and she, having picked up on my accent answered in English-- We are going to be lucky all the rest of the day now, that could have killed us! Anthony Richards, the old man who lives on the corner, as well as Jhoanglish, tell me that the branch fell because of the full moon and that it is common for large, healthy tree limbs to break off during full moons.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Real Estate Deal and Kiki's New House

Altagracia and I returned to Elias Piña to try to finally resolve the paperwork for her house and land there by buying it again. We went to see Isidro, who, it turns out, is the Alcalde for that sector of the the town which is like a town clerk with some mayoral powers. The three of us sat down at Isidro’s kitchen table, he got out a blank unlined piece of paper  and with a ballpoint pen drew up a purchase and sale agreement that included Altagracia and I as joint buyers of the property and listed the sellers as Altagracia’s dead ex-husband as well as the previous owner, just for good measure. Isidro was able to include everbody’s cedula numbers, which are supposed to be confidential in the same way as Social Security numbers, since he has all the town records at his disposal and so when we finally found the previous owner after traipsing through several muddy cornfields he signed the document for only 100 pesos. I understand that we could apply for an actual title to the property with this scrawled contract but hardly anyone does this in this small poor village that sits on the Haitian border where the land is not worth very much.
         After closing our real estate deal we went to visit Altagracia’s mother, Anna, and to check on the property we had just purchased. When we went into Altagracia’s little house she noticed that one of the doors between two rooms was missing-- and she remembered the door well because it had taken her two months to save up the money to buy it years ago-- and some lumber that had been stored up on the collar ties was gone too but that didn’t bother her so much because you expect people to steal lumber but not a door from the inside of a house. She interrogated Anna and Momona and a passing brother or two but they all just shook their heads in bewilderment saying that they had not borrowed the door and did not even know it was missing. As the time approached to start walking to catch the last guagua for the grueling cramped four hour ride back to Villa Mella we walked back through the neighborhood-- all the time greeting old friends and neighbors and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles of Altagracia-- and as we passed the house where Altagracia’s sister Pipina (still separated from Isidro) was living we saw Pipina outside taking laundry in off the line before it rained and so we went over to chat and Altagracia asked Pipina if she knew where her door was and Pipina said she had no idea and it started to rain so we went inside and as Altagracia pulled the door closed behind her she seemed to recognize the knob and looked more closely and saw that it was her door and looked at Pipina with a stare that might have seared her liver and I didn’t have to hold her back although I was ready to and as her voice raised more and more the veins in her neck stood out more and more and her eyes got bigger and bigger and I thought she might have a seizure and Pipina just shrank back into a corner protesting her innocence, although weakly, and a few passersbys collected outside the other door which was still open although it was raining hard now with rumbles of thunder in the distance and Altagracia gripped her umbrella so hard that she drove one of the spines into her hand and a thin trickle of blood ran down her wrist and I finally guided her out the door and through the rubberneckers and as we started down the road she still turned back yelling what she thought of sisters who steal from sisters and she whipped a couple of stones Pipina’s way who was now standing in the open doorway, but after she was out of range and the stones only one-hopped or rolled up to the house.
         Altagracia slept on my shoulder most of the way home on the guagua and when we got off to buy some fried chicken at the rest stop at Ocoa she sleepily explained that when people stole doors it really made her mad.

Kiki’s House
         In the middle of the summer Kiki landed in the prision at Najayo. I scarcely believe any of the story of what happened but here it is-- Kiki was reportedly walking to  work to shovel sand in Haina with a young man who was wearing a suit and tie who went into a bank to cash a check, which was evidently so old and worn that Columbus’s signature on it would not have been surprising but the bank held the two of them until the police came. Somehow a car with four other men in it, one of whom was Lao, was waiting for them outside but drove away before the cops arrived. The mother of the man in the suit paid for his release that same night but Altagracia elected to let Kiki stay in for a while in an effort to teach him a lesson even though he happened to be in the same prison where the murderer of his father was being held, having finally been sentenced to only five years-- either because of an influential uncle or because the judge figured that the real payback would come after his release from some of Luis’s 35 angry offspring many of whom had attended the short trial. Altagracia brought food to Kiki once and Chavela and Niningo brought food once but neither of the women went in to see him because the precautionary frisking reportedly included “lifting the skirts“ as Altagracia delicately put it and not by female guards either and Niningo did not go in because he could not have cared less how Kiki was faring. After about two weeks Altagracia’s mother’s guilt became unbearable and she paid one of the lawyers who hang around outside the prison to spring Kiki and he did and after spending a few days recuperating in the marquisina wandered back to Pizarette to stay with Fermin at times and with an uncle at times.
         A couple of weeks before my second visit of the summer word reached Altagracia that Kiki had picked out a little parcel of land on a mountain in Pizarette that had been his father’s and was now in disuse although assumed to be in the control of some assortment of the 31 other siblings, cleared it and begun to build a little shack to live in. He beseeched Altagracia for money to buy sheets of galvanized metal for the roof, which are simply called zinc here, and a door but she held off until I arrived and until we could see for ourselves that there were indeed the beginnings of something being built.
         We got off the guagua at the turnoff for Pizarette and then hired two motorbikes to take us the rest of the way to Kiki’s house. We motored through the town and past all the colmados and hair salons and fingernail parlours and the kiosks that sell lotery tickets and fruit venders with Altagracia constantly waving and blowing kisses to old friends along the way and then we left the village and wound our way down dusty potholed roads through sugar cane fields and then turned through a barway and picked our way up a cowpath occasionally hopping off the backs of the motorbikes to walk the rougher stretches.
         Kiki’s land was clear and high with a view of a wide rolling valley that went on for miles. He had built a framework of eight posts sunk in the ground and tied them together at the tops with more long poles nailed through at half lapped joints and the structure appeared ready  for rafters. His mattress was folded up under a sheet of rusty zinc on the ground and the ashes from the cooking fire were still warm although Kiki, who had been supposed to meet us, was nowhere to be seen. The conchistas lit cigarettes and went to pee in the bushes and I took a few pictures and Altagracia walked around slowly with her hands on her hips saying how there was no water here, and no electricity and no neighbors nearby. But we agreed that it did seem to be the start of something positive and how else were we going to get him out of Villa Mella and so we got back on the motorbikes and had them take us back into town to a trusted ferreteria or lumberyard.
         The ferreteria was closed when we got there but one of the conchistas went around back and got the owner to let us in and we sat at his kitchen table as he made out the receipt for five pounds of nails, 20 sheets of zinc and some lumber for rafters and he nodded knowingly when we told him where the materiales were to be delivered and that Kiki was to exchange none of them for cash.
         When we got back home we found Kiki drunk on rum in front of the house having spent all the money I had given him for bus fare to meet us in Pizarette and so I did not let him sleep in the marquisina that night and I don’t know how he got back to Pizarette but he did and we got word the next day that he was elated with the building materiales.
         Some weeks later, when I was back in Massachusetts working, Kiki informed Altagracia that about 10 sheets of zinc that were nailed onto the house had been stolen. This sounded fishy because even here few people steal zinc that is full of nail holes but we figured that it might have been stolen by some of his half brothers who did not like him living there but Altagracia arranged for more zinc to be delivered as before, as well as for a trusted carpenter to see that it got nailed on. So when I arrived last week we were thinking of going back for another visit to Kiki’s mountain to see what was left of the house but then Uncle Ramoncito called Altagracia at the Pensión to tell her that that morning when he was on his way to work earlier than usual he saw three men tearing zinc off of Kiki’s roof and he was certain that one of the men was Kiki himself.
         That very same afternoon Altagracia, without precedent or reason, left work an hour early. She got off the guagua at the blue water tank at about three in the afternoon when rush hour traffic is just picking up and when that intersection is crowded with food venders and conchistas looking for fares and carros publicos letting passengers off and picking up new ones and she started walking toward home but, for no apparent  reason, paused to look back at the intersection and happened to see Kiki, who now sports earrings in both ears and has diagonal stripes shaved in his eyebrows, just getting into a carro publico with a friend carrying a small package. She sprinted to the car and grabbed him by his belt before the car door closed and hauled him, dumbfounded, into the street and, yelling so hard her nose started bleeding, told him that she knew all about him selling the roof of zinc off his own house and that he was no son of hers and that he could drop dead right there for all she cared. He wrested himself away and dove back into the open car and it took off leaving Altagracia steaming on the sidewalk surrounded by a small circle of sympathetic onlookers. Kiki must believe that she learned about the zinc and then caught him at the busstop by supernatural means, sundering his perfect plan to eternally sell  zinc as fast as we could replace it by day and as fast as he could strip it from his own roof by night and when it rained I suppose he reckoned ot be too full of rum and cocaine to care.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Kiki, Elias Piña, Bad Toe


         News from the barrio came in sketchily while I was away working in Massachusetts. Two of our plastic chairs disappeared from the galleria but Altagracia found one of them in front of a neighbor’s house and stole it back. Later that week Jhoanglish spotted the other one through an open door in the same house and when he went in to get it he got in a fight with the lady of the house and had to leave scratched up and empty handed. Since early May Jhoanglish has not worked. Herman, the snakey tiguere, finally shot and killed someone, I don’t know who, in a drug dispute and is on the run from the cops. Loma de Chivo is a little hotter in general and there have been several general busts by teams of police in SUVs and one often hears that the brother of so and so or the boyfriend of so and so has been locked up.
         Chavela passed, or at least did not flame out as she put it, her final exams and Niningo has just finished taking the five day series of exams called the Nationals and is waiting for his scores to be posted on the internet and thinks he did well. The two of them are now getting ready to visit their grandmother in Elias Piña for a couple of weeks of vacation and to be with their dozens of cousins.
         Kiki, as predicted, moved back into the marquisina a week or so after my departure in the Spring and has been in several disputes over drugs since. About three weeks ago he flipped out on cocaine and smashed the few remaining unbroken items that were breakable in the marquisina including Altagracia’s collection of little drawings and prints of various saints that she had arranged on a table for when she read taza. He punched out the glass in the ones that were framed and then begged Altagracia to look for money to take him to a hospital for his bleeding knuckles but she saw through the ruse; that is, once he saw money he would take it for drugs. He then took the pictures of the saints out to the patio and burned them; the scorch marks can still be seen low on the garden wall. Altagracia finally called the police and when they showed up Kiki took off running and she has not let him back since even when she heard that he often slept on the street and was losing even more weight. On my third day back he showed up around 10 in the morning with a big smile, eager to greet me (smelling money) but Altagracia stayed tough and told him to leave. He hung around outside for about an hour and then left. Jhoanglish says that Kiki occasionally earns 600 pesos a day as a diesel mechanic but drinks 500 of them.

Elias Piña
         Since I can only be here for one week before having to return to work in the States, Altagracia took an unprecedented two days off in a row and on the first, Wednesday, we went to Elias Piña to visit her mother, Anna, to bring her some money and some snapshots from the rezo and one of Amado and Altagracia before his death. Anna became momentarily confused when she saw that picture saying that he looked like he was still alive and then cried when the photo was explained to her-- but other than that she seemed happy and relieved and, after all, she had only come back to him after their separation because he was sick with the thrombosis. While Altagracia and I wandered around the neighborhood greeting friend after friend and neighbor after neighbor we occasionally saw Anna in nearby patios doing the same thing and when we bumped into her walking along the dirt road she was striding along faster than we were walking. I had sort of figured that Anna was in her upper 70s but after some more figuring we decided that she must be only 53. Anna cooked chicken and made mangú (plantains mashed with oil, garlic and onion) for our lunch and we left after coffee to catch the last guagua back to the capital.
         Pipina, one of Altagracia’s sisters has separated from Isidro. Isidro has been our main telephone contact in Elias Piña because he has a working cell phone and when Altagracia needs to speak with Anna we call Isidro and he goes and finds Anna and we then call him back and he hands her the phone. The grounds of the separation are murky. Isidro had been having their children taste his food before he ate because he suspected Pipina of trying to poison him. Pipina claimed that Isidro never gave her any money to buy food. Isidro says that Pipina has another man but Pipina says she doesn’t. The flares of Isidro’s nostrils were both dark red,as though densely colorede with red lipstick, with burst capillaries which he said was from a recent fever.
         Altagracia owns a little house nestled within her family’s compound. It has three rooms separated by six foot tall partitions and is built of wood with a galvanized metal roof and is surrounded by a short wall about three courses high of cement blocks which eventually will be raised to enclose the wood house which would then be torn down and Kiki and Jhoanglish could be moved into it. On a visit last year we found that the tenants had not paid anybody any rent for 10 months and so Altagracia promptly burst in through the flimsy door and evicted the couple and the bachelor living there. She whipped the blanket off the sleeping man and pulled him out of bed and pushed him out the door. Weeks later when she found out that they never finished moving out she went back and completed the eviction process by tearing off the pieces of roof that had been over their beds. Now there are new tenants who don’t pay rent and the old ones have moved into an outbuilding in the same yard that is no bigger than 6 feet by 8 feet. When Altagracia heard this she only shrugged.
         Nobody disputes that, at the moment, the little house belongs to Altagracia although the papers, somehow, are in the name of her deceased ex husband, Luis. We went to the house of the cousin who was storing the papers and helped her look for them by emptying out old pocket books and gym bags and paper sacks full of bank receipts, cancelled checks, scraps of paper with phone numbers written on them, grocery store and lumber yard receipts, old belts, socks and baseball hats. The cousin says that she will keep looking. Altagracia is afraid that if the papers fall into the hands of any of Luis’s other 31 children they might be able to steal the land and the little house although she claims that the laws of inheritance here state that only the youngest children inherit property and Luis’s youngest are Altagracia’s.

Bad Toe
         About a week ago Altagracia tripped and fell on the stairs leading to the second floor of the pensión and stubbed her big toe badly although we do not think the bone is broken. It hurts so much that she wore flip flops to walk to Hipermercado Olé instead of the stylish, strapped, medium height heels she usually wears everwhere in public but which really hurt her toe. When she comes home from work we wind a handkerchief around the toe and I put her foot in my lap and pull on the ends of the handkerchief, hard, to reduce the swelling and you can see that it hurts so much that her fingernails are digging into the hard plastic chair seat where she is sitting but she never stops smiling although she cannot quite talk because of the pain. Afterwards she wiggles the toe and says it feels much better.

Monday, July 4, 2011


            Wednesday afternoon Colmado Soto, where Jhoanglish, who I have come to think of as Bartleby “I would prefer not to” the Scrivener, worked for nearly a day a month ago, called him back. They now had a new manager who did not know Jhoanglish and two motor scooter home delivery men had had accidents trying to cross Maximo Gomez, one of whom died (both had been drinking) and Jhoanglish's remaining friend at the colmado, Jose, suggested Jhoanglish as a replacement to start making deliveries with one of the motor scooters immediately, meaning right now. Jhoanglish's Wednesday to that point had consisted of waking up at 10AM and again at 11, eating breakfast, washing and ironing a shirt and pair of pants, polishing his shoes (using his last pair of socks to apply the black liquido), crossing the street and sitting under the tree with the little white flowers for an hour with some sons and a few tenants of La Rubia and then retiring to the rocking chair on the galleria. When Altagracia rushed out onto the galleria (she was home on her day off) with the news of the call his face turned into one single bitter pucker. She crushed all his excuses, the most legitimate sounding of which was that the next stage in the Air Force entry process was to be Tuesday, and it was finally agreed that Jhoanglish would work at the colmado until that Monday and while he was away standing in the enlistment line Kiki, who also had past experience at Colmado Soto would take over, either permanently or until Jhoanglish either deserted or was dropped from patriotic service. Finally after packing his backpack for him and putting it on his back and stuffing a pan de agua into one of his hip pockets she pushed him, grumbling all the way, out the galleria gate to the street and he did, in fact go to the colmado and has been there for two days now.
            Since the job includes room and board it could work out well for Kiki who, as Anahai tells it, was last seen walking the streets of Pizarete, towing the new folding cot we bought behind him trying to sell it and who has tried to time his few overnight visits to the house to coincide with Altagracia's pay days, and has brought boxes of Banilejo mangos as offerings, but has missed payday each time, usually due to not knowing what day of the week it was, and, since I will not give or loan him any more money and he knows better than to ask, he has gone away with only a meal or two under his belt and is looking even leaner than before and is maybe getting ready to work. He has been picking up occasional day labor in the field of Agriculture, as he puts it, but then buys beer and fried food on the street instead of buying rice and habichuelas in bulk and saving a little or giving Fermin any money for rent.

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY or EL BULLISO  (or big good ruckus, a bullazo would be a big bad ruckus, a bulla is any average sized ruckus and a bullito is a little ruckus)
            While Altagracia was at work and I was at the Feria del Libro Chavela prepared the house for her seventeenth birthday party. When we got home around 6 PM the house was decorated with coconut palm fronds and balloons, the 500 peso cake had arrived from the bizcochero, or cake baking guy and Niningo and Alvaro were setting up four footlocker sized speakers on the galleria. All that was missing was the electricity which had been out since 9 that morning.
            Flocks of teenage girls wearing spandex jeans or short skirts and blouses that exposed some combination of stomach, back and cleavage circulated through the candlelit house looking to borrow hair repair tools and asking each other hair repair advice and Julia, one of La Rubia's young tenants reputed to have make-up experience, drew new eyebrows on Chavela and anyone else who would sit for her in the living room. The boys, some of whom looked to be in their 30's but only a  few of whom had pistols in their belts, hung out sharing beers and leaning against a car parked in front of the house with its stereo blaring regetón. Chavela had made five gallons of a red punch of lechoza, mango, pineapple and a hint of rum with a base of strawberry Zuko, a Tang like powdered juice that is very popular here and is available in a rainbow of flavors from apple to strawberry to chinola to guanabana, and a woman who owed Chavela a favor came and cooked a caldron of spaghetti al sopita in the kitchen by candlelight.
            At 10:30 the lights came on to a moment of cautious silence and then big applause when they stayed on and, within a minute, booming regatón music thronged the galleria with grinding couples (dancing regatón involves much solid, frictional contact from every possible angle in the hip, buttock and pelvis regions) and trays of plastic cups of the punch were passed around. A little after 11 the spaghetti was served on small styrofoam plates and around midnight Chavela cut the cake after I took pictures of her posing next to it with different cliques of friends and then with Altagracia and Niningo and then Niningo took one of Chavela and me. At 1:30 everyone on the galleria spilled out into the street, smashed an empty bottle or two and either wandered home or went to the colmado. Chavela was very happy with the success of her party.
            Altagracia was happy too that Chavela was able to have a party because she had not been able to have a fifteenth party, which is the big one here like the sweet sixteenth is in the US because that was the year that Luis lost the house, although at the same time she thought the whole expense was a waste. Early the morning after as Altagracia, Chloë and I were starting off down the street on the way to the blue water tank Altagracia turned and looked back at the house, still sporting its now sagging facade of palm fronds and at Chavela who was already out raking oily styrofoam plates and glass off the street and yelled at her-- ¿Enjoying your big party now, are you? but Chavela just smiled sleepily, turned her back and kept raking.

            Belita is a woman in the neighborhood who is separated from her husband, a bad tiguere, and who fell in love with Kiki and, after a brief romance with him, became close friends with Chavela and has always been a regular visitor to our house. Recently she has taken up with a new fellow and evidently because they seem serious her estranged husband has become jealous. Five days ago, while their baby was being cared for by a friend and on a day when the ex was to drop off some money for her, Belita disappeared with only the clothes she had on.

            Belita called last night after visiting her Mother for a few days.
            Kiki came and spent the day Saturday singing off key to the salsa on the radio while doing his laundry getting ready to relieve Jhoanglish at Colmado Soto. He seemed content and spent no time on the street although he did manage to buy a young fighting cock from Guangu which he tethered by one leg in the marquisina, and he and I, Kiki and I that is, were able to chat and joke amicably throughout the day. Sunday morning he walked with me, Altagracia and Chloë up to the blue water tank and was relieved when it became clear that he would arrive for his first day of work on time. When the other delivery guy did not show for work both Kiki and Jhoanglish worked the whole day. When Kiki's bike broke down, through no fault of his own, he diagnosed the problem, was sent for parts all the way to Ovando and used his mechanic experience to repair it himself. When Jhoanglish got home around 10 PM wanting to sleep all night and all the next day to prepare for standing on the Air Force enlistment line we found that the rooster had slipped his tether and had spent much of his day shitting on Jhoanglish's bed.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Grease Trap Fever

            And suddenly it is Sunday again. The walk with Altagracia and Chloë to the blue water tank was quieter than usual because the bakery on the corner has closed so there were fewer people on the street heading there or coming back from there with bread. Altagracia was in a chipper mood although not feeling much like going to work saying that always in April everybody likes to sleep late and she is also trying to figure out a way to get laid off from the pension because if you can manage to get laid off the ex-employer has to give you some severance pay but if you quit, even with notice, you get nothing. It will be hard for her to get laid off because she cannot resist working hard and she is too honest to steal anything, which is how most workers get fired, so the worst she can manage is to try to walk as slowly as possible to the bus stop so she will arrive late and annoy Elvira, her boss. Altagracia has been at the pension for eight consecutive months now and because after one year of continuous employment she will be eligible for higher pay and additional benefits it seems that Elvira is trying to force Altagracia into quitting by ordering her to kneel in the bathtubs to fish hair from deep out of the drain, feel the inside surfaces of the toilet bowls for any unseen crust buildup (and Elvira demonstrated this herself barehanded), has refused to buy rubber gloves and demanded that she wear shorts instead of skirts to work but Altagracia has flatly refused all of these impositions, particularly the dress code as she has not worn pants or shorts even once in more than twenty years, brings her own gloves and points out that that far down a drain is plumber's territory. So, to date, it is a standoff although the odds at the local banca deportiva favor Elvira because, here, the employer nearly always wins.

            Our lio, or mess, of plumbing in this house includes a grease trap buried under the concrete floor of the kitchen from which smelly water has been surfacing lately and is one of the reasons Chavela has been washing the dishes in the outside sink. This morning I took a hammer and chisel and proceeded to dig into the matter and after about an hour of easy chiseling through punky concrete I uncovered the grease trap which was a concrete box about 30“x16” and about 20” deep and was full of nasty stuff. I cut the top off an empty one gallon plastic water jug, leaving the handle attached, and used it to bail out the water, chunks of congealed grease and clotted food. It was disgusting. I had previously asked Guangu where I should dispose of this stuff and he had pointed me to the manhole cover at the bottom of the hill beyond the colmado, the same manhole where we had dumped the contents of my septic tank when we had installed the filtrante. Just as I was dumping the first bucket of slop down the manhole a short, fat angry woman emerged from her house nearby and yelled who did I think I was to dump here and this kind of thing was not allowed and I explained that I had asked such authorities as there were and that it seemed to me that there was no more appropriate place to throw this kind of waste and I walked away while she was still ranting. The angry woman did not reappear until just as I was leaving after my fourth, and last, trip to the manhole which was lucky because this time she brandished a broom stick.
The empty transit box or grease trap

            With the grease trap cleaned, I tested the outflow pipe which took water as it should, replaced the cover and mixed, placed and trowelled concrete smooth to blend it back in with the rest of the kitchen floor and warned Jhoanglish and Kiki, who was visiting for the day, not to step in it and about five minutes later saw Kiki trying to smooth out his first footprint. An hour later another footprint appeared and so I set up a flimsy barricade as a reminder using a short piece of plastic pipe laid across two cardboard boxes and when I returned after a couple of hours some friends of the kids had come to visit and had evidently not understood the meaning of the barricade and the patch was full of footprints and the signs of Kiki trying to fix them but the concrete was almost hard by then so the damage was not too deep. Incidentally, late that afternoon the angry woman happened to walk past the house while I was on the galleria and I smiled at her and said buenas tardes or good afternoon and I braced myself but to my surprise, she greeted me pleasantly and smiled back.
            Around 5 PM that same day I could begin to feel my hair start to tingle in the barber's chair while he was running the clippers up and down the back of my head and a few hours later felt more flushed while in the hammock on the galleria and then I felt hotter around 10PM and started having diarrhea by midnight, vomiting by 1AM and my fever spiked at 102° so after the second set of vomiting (and when she was able to stop laughing because she thought I meant 102° Centigrade) Altagracia called Rueda Taxi which has a poster with its phone number on a telephone pole visible from the house, and brought me to a clinic. The waiting room and the examining room were the same so while we waited we were able to watch Dr. Ureña, an unsmiling and prematurely tired looking woman, clean up multiple road burns on a teenaged male who had crashed his motorcycle and who was luckily still drunk and so did not feel the pain. When it was my turn an equally unsmiling nurse took my blood pressure and temperature and after I answered that I had no allergies to any medications they gave me an injection for the fever and one for the diarrhea, we paid them 600 pesos or about $20 and called the taxi back. I dozed on the examining table while we waited and we were home by 3AM.
            The next day I only slept and drank juice and water and my fever crept steadily back down to near normal and the day after that I took an Imodium. On one of my trips to the bathroom I tripped on a small concrete step and tore the pad off of my right big toe which bled all over and now it is soaked with mercurochrome with the pad bandaided back into place.
            I still have no idea where this sickness came from, perhaps from the grease trap. I am convinced that if Pasteur's Germ Theory was correct that none of us would be alive today. Our 5 gallon drinking water jug rarely has the cap in place, silverware is freely shared, leftover food from plates may be scraped back into the serving bowl and leftovers are often left at room temperature overnight and eaten the next day. The boys in the neighborhood shave each other's necks using the same razor blade and combs and brushes and hair rollers travel from head to head without washing and people spit everywhere and with animals living in the street anything might be tracked into the house. The guy in the colmado who has just handed four greasy 10 peso bills in change to a customer might put your bread in the plastic bag for you with the same hand. Some of these habits relate to the feeling of everyone here being a member of a giant extended family, and after all, I too would share a water glass or a toothbrush with my brother before I would with a stranger even against Pasteur's recommendation. The fact that all our floors are mopped with Mistolin, a disinfectant, and the bathroom and the kitchen counters are doused with bleach every day must help as must the high degree of personal hygiene that most people practice but it still seems surprising that there is not more apparent illness. In six months I have had one cold, one brief sudden bout of diarrhea that I think was caused by drinking some lukewarm guarapo, or sugarcane juice, without lime on the street, one more prolonged period of the same that I suspect had to do with long term diet change and this recent violent fever which is still abating as I write this.
            Life expectancy in the Dominican Republic is 67 years compared to the USA's of 77 years. Could the facts that the reported leading cause of death of men aged 16-26 in the DR is motorcycle accidents and almost a third of all pregnancies reported by hospitals are teenage women with a concomitant higher infant mortality rate mean that sanitary conditions are not what are responsible for a life expectancy 10 years less than the US?  A couple of months ago a Dominican aid organization began a campaign to feed people in the poorest barrios of Santo Domingo and estimated the needs using census figures but when they entered their first neighborhood with the calculated number of meals they thought they would need they discovered that there were thousands of undocumented people living there. Since nobody knows how many people are living here how can anyone know how long each person lives for?