Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Day at Work on El Conde

Day at work in the Gallery.
Up between 5:30 and 6:30 depending on which day. Coffee and listen to WAMC on the computer at the kitchen table. Fill iced tea jar and a Tupperware if there are leftovers for lunch.
Drive south on Hermanas Mirabel—I finally have what I think is the best route. Straight through Ovando, over the new overpass, left on Pedro Livio Cedeño, straight to Avenida Duarte, turn right at the Texaco station go straight through the Duarte shopping district. Even at 7AM street venders are setting up their stalls with new and used clothes, baseball hats, belts, text books, fruit, cell phones; heating up cauldrons of oil to deep fry platanos, empanadas, spam, pigs ears and chicken feet to sell for breakfast. Vendors unpacking their merchandise from soggy cardboard boxes, cheap suitcases, unloading from the trunks of taxis or from horse drawn carts or tricycle carts and hand trucks.
After crossing Avenida Mexico and the two blocks of Chinatown what traffic there is drops off to almost nothing. The Colonial Zone sleeps late. I cross Avenida Mella and pass La Sirena, downhill past the Monastery of San Francisco, cross Mercedes a few blocks from where Alexa the archaeologist lives, cross El Conde, turn left on Arzobispo Noel, left on Hostos and park as near as I can to El Conde. If I am more than 4 spots from El Conde I reconnoiter during the day and often am able to get the first spot on the corner, which is important if it is Saturday when I haul everything home at night so I can sell in the Plaza in the pulguita on Sunday.
If I am early I stroll off to buy an empanada, if I am really early I nap in the guaguita.
My stairwell is closed to the street with a galvanized steel roll up door. Flor, the housekeeper or Londres or one of the nieces who live upstairs either opens the door for me or tosses me the keys from the balcony. If it is Thursday I carry my tables, cases of matted and framed photographs and tee shirts in about 5 round trips. If it is Friday or Saturday my stuff is stashed under the stairs. It takes me about an hour to set up. I bring my GE Superradio and listen to Radio Francia 93.1 FM; the news alternates between French and Castilian Spanish and the music is a mix of Euro pop, American Jazz and eclectic rock but the general mood is NPR.
I am usually the first shop owner to arrive on my block. Suqui, directly across from me also opens early as does the pleasant woman who manages Coco Zen three doors up. Domi-Habana opens next and then my immediate neighbor to the left La Morena. Suqui is a diminutive Dominicana of apparent Asian extraction and has had her gift shop for more than 25 years. She pays just $400/month and is petrified the rent will go up. She and her husband Carlos have two daughters one in Long Island and one in Paris. Suqui spends her days watching television in her shop and leafing through a French phrase book in hopefull preparation for a visit to the Paris daughter. To my right is another stairwell where Vilma sells beach clothes, mass-produced Haitian paintings, baseball hats and canvas shopping bags. Vilma lives in an apartment upstairs and mentioned once that she does not pay anything for the use of the stairwell—in fact I heard once that her building has no owner and that no one in any of the 10 apartments pays any rent to anybody. Most of the ground floor was a gift shop at one time but is now sealed up by steel doors.
Across the street from me-- and by the way, El Conde is pedestrian only, no cars allowed, street lights and benches line the center-- next to Suqui is Jeanette’s Salon. I pay Jeanette $20/day for my stairwell; Jeanette rents the building I am in. Upstairs are a series of rooms where 10 or so of Jeanette’s nieces and nephews, all brought in from Haiti, live. Most of them work in one of her two salons. The two leaders of this pack of kids are Alexandra 21 and Myrtha 25 who work in the salon across from me. They are helped by Marybell 10, when she is not in school. Gina, 17, Polita and Chantel work with Jeanette herself in her other salon near the other end of El Conde. Londres is the alpha male who once in a while washes a window or fixes something in the salon but mostly hangs out. He goes to the gym every day and plays basketball every evening in the parking lot on Luperon. Judging by his acne and rope like veins in his arms he is injecting vitamins (i.e. steroids). But he is pleasant. On days when there are many customers Myrtha and Alexandra work hard all day from 8AM to 8PM with only a short break for lunch.
Myrtha and Alexandra are either cousins or half sisters; they have each told me different stories and it could be they don’t know for sure. They are both short and very cute with large round faces and gigantic eyes. When the salon window is dark and Myrtha, who has darker skin, looks out, sometimes all you can see are the white crescents of her eyes. When I asked them how much money they made working in the salon they said nothing but that whenever they wanted to buy something there was money. When it is quiet in the evening Myrtha sometimes brings out her laptop and connects to Facebook where she is Myrtha Zamy but she recently told me her legal last name is Kelly. What could she say, she said, her mother had lived in La Romana. Alexandra likes working in the salon because, as she put it, she gets to be the little boss.
I initially inquired about renting the stairwell because I had noticed it only sadly displaying clothes for sale with never any interest. I was directed to the distant salon where I met Jeanette. She is 55, not large but imposing, high cheekboned, large eyed, dark skinned and wears flowing white tessellated dresses. She greeted me in Spanish with a thick Haitian accent and after asking where I was originally from she announced that she was not Dominican but Swiss. It eventually came out that she was once married to a Swiss and lived in Zurich for a while. I had had in my mind a daily rate of $20-25 so when she asked for $20 I agreed without bartering. During my first two weeks in the stairwell I sold very poorly and at one point I asked if she would consider lowering the rent until I got going. I had the money I owed for that week in my hand and as it dawned on her that I was asking to pay less, she kept glancing at Gina, who was sitting in a salon chair not really paying attention, and asking her to translate, and as what I was asking finally registered, as she finally allowed it to register, her eyes got even bigger and she seemed to suddenly grow taller and I handed her the money and thanked her and fled. Since then we greet each other warmly and I don’t ask for any discounts. Yesterday she came into the stairwell and sat down and we chatted. I was able to explain that I needed to go to Massachusetts for a couple of months and she assured me that the stairwell would still be mine when I returned, especially if I paid in advance but even if I didn’t. Her eyes stayed the same size the whole time, to my relief.
Much of the day is spent hanging out. I read the New Yorker and listen to the radio. Sometimes I have computer work and I bring my laptop. For example—a couple of weeks ago Alexa was able to borrow a complete set of USGS maps of the entire Dominican Republic for two days only. The first night I photographed all 150 maps at home. I had to set up a stepladder in the living room and lash a tripod horizontally to the top rung with strips of bicycle inner tubing so I could get the camera far enough away to take each map. The next day on the computer I was able to process/crop/tweak each map so I was sure we had usable files. To buy the full issue would have cost about $2000.
When it is busy I have long conversations with customers, some of whom keep in touch later through email. I get inside local gossip from Vilma and was getting it from Santos who worked in the big gift shop La Morena to my left before he was transferred. La Morena is a family operation run by the matriarch known as La Morena and her husband Eusebio. Their son Francis and Eusebio’s brother Santos work for them along with an unrelated rotund employee named Maylenny. They also use the services of guides known as Buscones who are the annoying guys on the street who tug on tourists sleeves saying things like come to my gift shop, everything 40% discount, no cost to look, cheapy cheapy, and then lead them toward holes in the pavement so they can say, Look out!, Watch you step! When a tourist who has been successfully dragged into La Morena by a buscon buys something, the buscon gets a cut as does the person who makes the sale and a cut goes to store. How they divide it up at the end of day I do not know. Sometimes there are fights. Francis almost never sells anything since he drinks all day. Motorcycles from various local colmados deliver jumbo Presidente (1L.) after jumbo Presidente, curbside estimates reckon he spends about 500 pesos a day on beer. Sometimes when I am in La Despensa, the small supermarket one block away I see him in line buying a12oz. single beer. Santos sells the most souvenirs for La Morena. He is 54, short and wiry with a shaved head and horn rimmed glasses and wears heavy-metal tee shirts that hang down past his jeans pockets, baggy jeans and oversized sneakers, but when he peers up at you over the frames of his glasses and lowers his voice to a confidential near-whisper he is very convincing.
There is a local cast of minor characters, beggars, prostitutes and homeless who come and go. Jasmin is a crack addict who also hangs around the plaza on Sundays. She is scrawny, toothless 4 feet 10 inches tall and probably no older than 25. She wears rags, sleeps in the middle of sidewalks until the tourist cops shag her off and collects empty beer bottles for a peso each and begs. She spends time in Najayo women’s prison every year and, reportedly when she sleeps on the rocks on the seaside of the Malecón the bums there fuck her for $1. I had not seen her during the past month and when I asked Vilma if she knew if anything had happened she told me that some tigueres had beaten Jasmin nearly to death, that she had spent a month in the hospital Dario Contreras, that her mother had even come to help and that she had lost an eye due to the beating.
An old woman with a bundle of rags comes every afternoon and sits on a stoop in front of the sealed up gift shop and waits for people to give her money. She is graceful about it and never begs but readily accepts. La Morena fills her water bottle for her when she is thirsty. One day a geezerly part-time peddler reeking of rum set his two or three broken souvenirs on her stoop in an unlikely attempt to sell them and when the old woman arrived she demanded her spot. When the peddler refused and the argument escalated Santos launched out of La Morena brandishing a large machete and ran past my stairwell toward the arguement—when he sped past my doorwar he glanced in at me with a wink and a smile—the peddler, who looked to be an arthritic 60 took off like a gazelle and turned the corner at Meriño without breaking stride and without looking back. Santos collapsed in laughter but passerbys gaped in horror. Eventually Asoconde, which is the equivalent of a chamber of commerce for El Conde, heard some version of this story and now Santos has been deported to another gift shop owned by his sister-in-law in the Mercado Modelo up on Avenida Mella. Along with Vilma he had been the most fun to hang out with.
Aside from the buscones there are a host of other guides who all expect a cut from somebody for any sale made on El Conde. Many gift shops have agreements with individual guides and one can see small flocks of tourists being bum-rushed past store after store until arriving at their guide’s chosen locale. Because I have unique merchandise I have no agreement with any guide—most of the gift shops here have nearly identical inventories displayed slightly differently i.e. one store puts the Indian made saris in front, another places the Panama hats more prominently and another their Haitian paintings—I sometimes have trouble with them. One day two French women stopped at my gallery, looked at some photos, asked about pricing and moved on. About an hour later they reappeared and started selecting photos and negotiating a discounted price when suddenly a guide’s head insinuated itself between the women and looked at me smiling and told me to start bagging. The women bought about $60 US worth of stuff and the three left. An hour or so later the guide reappeared looking for his due. When I looked surprised that he was asking he said, “aw just enough for a soda?” but when I offered him 30 pesos (about 75¢ almost enough for a soda) he took umbrage. We were in the street and he started yelling about how he was not like the others that he was a good and honest guide and I yelled back that he had not brought anybody to my shop, that I had met the women on their own before and that I was not going to pay anything and he could feel free to get lost. He yelled the whole way down the street and to this day (2 months later) gives me a dirty look every time he passes.
As I type this in my stairwell at 11:15 AM a hard rain has completely cleared the streets of all foot traffic. A few guides huddle, here and there, under awnings and overhangs but not under mine.
At lunchtime, if I have not brought leftovers or stuff to make sardine sandwiches (with a 45¢ avocado purchased from a fruit vendor around the corner), I put a be right back sign on the front of my display and walk fast to one of two or three comedors that are within two blocks. Lunch price ranges from 70 pesos ($2) for rice, beans and a veggie, to 100 pesos for rice, beans, potato salad and a stewed meat choice of beef, pork or chicken to 140 pesos from a different comedor for the same thing presumably tastier or from a cleaner kitchen. I bring the meal back in a Styrofoam compartment plate complete with plastic spoon and eat it when it cools off.
So, I sit in the stairwell and read or write for most of the day and when the shade reaches the bench out front I sit on it with Vilma and the girls from the salon and we shoot the shit. Sometimes Ruddy stops by after closing his concession in Mundo Artesanal and we drink beer. Ruddy is a 55 year-old (same as me, in fact Jeanette is 55 also, Santos is 54) athletic German ex-pat who had a silk-screening business in the Zona Colonial for a couple of years. He eventually got tired of the low quality of the Chinese tee shirts available so he studied and thought and bought some used sewing machines and now he designs and makes the shirts that bear his designs and he makes mine too and we have become friends. He is getting married next Saturday and I will go to his wedding.
Around 7:30 or 8 I pack up the photos and either store them under the stairs or haul them to the guaguita if it is Saturday since I still sell in the Plaza Maria de Toledo on Sundays and drive home. At 8 there rarely are traffic jams although one night, and Altagracia happened to be with me, there was a bad one before crossing the bridge after Ovando. It was so bad and so unexpected that I bet Altagracia that it could only be one of two things—an accident or a dead horse in the road. As we finally reached the other side of the bridge and passed the Metro subway station we saw the horse, dead and splayed out across a lane and a half.

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