Sunday, March 25, 2012

Short takes

While I was in Massachusetts for a few months Jeannete rented out the landing above my stairwell to a nephew who installed two barber chairs and opened a barber shop. He painted stripes and arrows on the walls of what had been my area and clumps of hair wafted through on downdrafts. After getting my own hair cut I walked two blocks down el Conde to Mundo Artesanal, where I have sold fotos on consignment for years, and eventually persuaded them to rent me the space just inside the doorway on the corner of El Conde and Duarte for much less than Jeannette had been charging.

Today I drove Altagracia to Las Mameyes where she had heard there was a cheap clothes wholesaler. En route she got a phone call from Kiki saying that he had not been able to make any money trafficking across the Haitian border because the border had been closed due to the cholera epidemic and that he was hungry. So we asked some directions to Western Union from 3 different people, got 3 different answers—some of the wrong directions were very specific but none of them lead to a Western Union. We eventually wound up at Mega Centro and sent him $27 but since he has lost his cedula again we sent it under a friend’s name. This all took an hour and about 10 cell phone calls most of which were only to find out how to spell the friend’s middle name Meran. We returned to Las Mameyes and start asking people where the big clothes wholesaler is and after a half dozen vague responses Altagracia decided to bag the idea and go to Villa Consuelo where she had bought cheap jewelry before. She walked into 6 Importers and, after looking at blouses and jeans and asking prices, asked where the stuff was made and when they told her China, walked out. Walking out of an importer in Villa Consuelo because they sell clothes made in China is like walking out of a gift shop on El Conde because it sells cheap souvenirs.
Kiki never called to say that he got the money and eventually we found out that it was because he was arrested just before he went into the Western Union in Elias PiƱa. Police had evidently planted some marijuana seeds in his house. On our way home I bought two sheets of plywood for a display case to use in my new retail space in Mundo Artesanal.

While I am cutting up plywood in the marquesina later that afternoon, Altagracia got a cell phone message that she won $25,000 pesos—about $800 US. I explained to her and the crowd of neighbors who quickly gathered that it was probably a scam. But Niningo took over, called the number, borrowed $25 pesos and proceeded to buy the required phone cards and remit them to the company that had promised the 25,000. At one point when I came back up out of the marquesina to cry SCAM I turn the corner to the kitchen and see Felo, with my $50 Macy’s chef’s knife inverted over a can of guandules and his fist poised to drive the tip of the knife into the can to open it. To this moment—5 hours later—no one can understand why I yelled at him. The knife is worthless anyway now after it has been used as a screwdriver and to prune the guanabana tree in the garden next to the house. But I couldn’t take it anymore. Niningo meantime borrows more money to buy more phone cards so that he can redeem the grand prize. So about this time Belita wanders into the house sniffing around for lunch and asks if anybody has heard about the phone card scam and Niningo freaks and starts calling the police because none of the phone cards that he has bought and entered in the last half hour have taken.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Culata, Mechanical nightmare

The Culata
Last week Niningo asked to borrow the guaguita so he could attend the graduation party of his girlfriend. He brought five friends with him and returned the guaguita in one piece.  I set off for the Zona Colonial the next morning and when I was in the middle of the long bridge over the Isabela River the motor made an ominous clicking noise and died. I managed to coast it over to the right hand curb and called Cojo the mechanic. He showed up in about ten minutes, parked behind me, turned my ignition key once, got out some wrenches and had the broken timing belt out in no time. Cars trucks and motorcycles skimming past his legs as he worked bent into the driver’s side door. He said to wait for him. He got in his Hijet, which is identical to my guaguita except that it is a flatbed pick-up and not a minibus and backed up against traffic a quarter mile before he got to the end of the bridge and could U turn to go back to Villa Mella and look for a new belt. A half hour later he returned, installed the belt, turned over the ignition and pronounced the culata, or cylinder head with all its incumbent valves, dead.
He nodded toward the back of my guaguita, where I positioned myself and pushed. He steered it across the four lanes waving his free hand to slow down traffic. He then U turned through the same traffic and after backing up in front of the guaguita fished out a snarled handfull of green, nylon clothesline and braided a four foot long tow rope, tied the two vehicles together and we started off. The nylon cord had enough stretch in it and, without the motor running, my brakes were soft enough so that we never broke the rope although there was some bungy motion when I did have to brake and after about 5 kilometers we turned into the alley where his mechanic’s shade tree is. I left Cojo to work on the motor and took the Metro to work—I had luckily left my whole display with all the photos in the stairwell the night before. That evening he finished the work and I picked up the vehicle after paying him $218 for everything.
The following morning was Sunday and Altagracia and I drove to the Zona together so she could work for Bettye while I sold in the Flea Market. The guaguita had about one half the power as normal, barely even climbing the overpass at the Ovando intersection in second gear. It rained hard in the afternoon but I sold ok. Altagracia got out of work a little early so I packed up, loaded the guaguita and we set off for La Sirena to buy some birthday party stuff for Chanel. We went the back way via Avenida Central and, just as we were coming up on the broken stoplight at the entrance to the Cancino barrio, the guaguita made a brief, light grinding noise and died. I got out and pushed it through a couple of potholes to get it over to the curb and called Cojo. I waited for him out under the stoplight in the rain under my blue umbrella while Altagracia wandered off to buy pica pollo or fried chicken. He eventually showed up, popped off the valve cover, pronounced the new cualta dead and got out his green clothesline again. This time as we lurched over the potholes into the five-way intersection under the broken stoplight not all of the traffic stopped and Cojo had to hit his brakes suddenly, I hit my brake pedal, it went ro the floor and I crashed into Cojo’s rear bumper, well it was more of a jagged piece of metal than a bumper, Cojo moved forward again, flagging cars to stop by waving his arm out the window and we made it across. This time we had about 12 kilometers to go. Up hills down hills I had to brake with the emergency brake and unbrake in time so the rope did not snap. Cojo's pick-up overheated and we had to stop so he could borrow a fuse out of my guaguita so his radiator fan would run. We made it through a tapon at the interesction to Sabana Larga and went through the tunnel under Hermanas Mirabel near La Sirena and down the freeway Jacobo Macluta turning left and wending through Guaricano barrio where Cojo lives. The only damage done by our fender bender, as far as I could tell, was a loosened headlight.
The next evening Cojo drove my guaguita with its second newly installed culata in two days to my house, picked me up, I gave him a ride back to Guaricano to his house and bid farewell. I pulled out of his alley in the dark, turned left and within a kilometer felt the guaguita slowing down. I could keep going but needed more and more gas and lower and lower gears. After about two kilometers I realized I would never make it home, U turned over a median strip to return to Cojo’s and made it only a 100 meteres or so before the brakes completely locked. I called Cojo but his cell phone was turned off or the battery had died and I grabbed my umbrella and hotfooted it back to his house leaving the guaguita parked in the dark and questionable neighborhood where it had balked.
I got there in about fifteen minutes but he had already left for points unknown. His mother lives next door and after inviting me to have a seat in the galeria she sent a kid to look for Cojo’s brother Eddy. After about a half hour Eddy showed up, listened to what had happened, gathered an armload of tools and drove me back to the guaguita in his pick-up with no headlights and a maximium speed of about two kilometers per hour faster than I can walk.
Using his cell phone for a flashlight he peered up under the dashboard at the brake pedal linkages and started working the pedal up and down. He fished a fingertip full of grease out from somewhere, smeared it on a joint somewhere up under, we pushed the guaguita back and forth, braking , unbraking until he pronounced it cured. I got his cell phone number before I pulled away, but I did not have to call him and I made it home.
The next afternoon the same thing happened but this time I noticed in time to get back home. Cojo eventually came and we discovered that in our fender bender under the dark stoplight a piece of metal had been pushed up against a part of the brake pedal linkage that caused it to gradually seize in the braked position. Cojo excised the offending piece of sheetmetal with a hammer and cold chisel. I think this chapter is done.