Saturday, July 21, 2012

Characters on El Conde and a (voluntary) Blood Donation

Mundo Artesanal is at the corner of Duarte and El Conde, which is a shopping street closed to vehicles and,  5 years ago was usually thronged with shoppers both tourists and Dominicans. My space is right in the door on the corner so I pass time leaning in the doorway watching the street. Since the elections in May tourist traffic has been way down, I would say foot traffic has decreased 50% compared to the same time last year. It is not only the elections that scared people away, a few weeks ago the US Embassy came out with a travelers warning ( regarding recent attacks on tourists arriving at the airport in Santo Domingo involving corrupt taxi drivers as well as taxis being followed to hotels and robbing people as they got out of the car. Cholera is still in the news. Many stores have closed and are boarded up and there are holes in the street and more beggars and thieves. The harbor still needs dredging to allow cruise ships to get in and the world economy, especially in Europe, is not encouraging the usual summer vacations to the colonial zone here. Business is dead. Some days, not only my little area, but the whole gift shop registers zero sales. There are large stores on the other three corners at Duarte/Conde: closest to where I lean in the doorway and across Duarte is Jumbo Supermarket, catercorner is Cuesta Ferretería a fancy hardware and department store, and across Conde is Siderias California a department/clothes store.

Yesterday a man lit out of Jumbo and sprinted down Duarte at top speed pursued instantly by two or three Jumbo employees and then by a half a dozen fleet-footed idlers. A crowd collected and a few minutes later the thief was lead back by two men who held him by locked elbows. Police showed up and it turned out that he had stolen a $3 piece of cheese. Something like this happens nearly weekly these days. A couple of weeks ago I saw the manager at Jumbo, with pistol in hand, usher a man out of the store where they were met by two Policia Nacional on a motorcycle who put the man between them on the bike and took him away.

A month or so ago I was sitting inside the store around 4 in the afternoon trying to stay awake when I heard a series of gunshots and a moment later a taxista came in the store dripping blood and went to the bathroom. It turned out that three armed men had robbed the banca, where they sell lottery tickets, a block and a half up Duarte. The watchyman had just wandered off with his sawed-off shotgun for a cup of coffee. When the men exited the banca a motorcycle with the usual two Policia Nacional mounted happened to drive by and the thieves mistakenly thought that they had been called for the robbery and started shooting and scattered on foot. The cops and a small impromptu posse, some of whom pulled pistols out of their waistbands, gave chase on foot and the three were eventually rounded up. The taxista, who had been dozing on a box leaning against the side of Mundo Artesanal had caught a stray bullet that somehow had threaded its way between the parked cars a block away and lost the tip of the little finger on his left hand.

Richard, who is one of the sales people in Mundo, did not come into work yesterday because his hand had become infected. Two weeks ago he went downstairs from his apartment to complain about loud music played by a neighbor, one thing lead to another and when he tried to wrest the machete away from the neighbor his right hand got sliced up to the tune of 50 stitches. The two spent the night in jail in separate cells and were released when they agreed to shake hands—left hands in this case.

Guy comes up to the storefront, big sloppy guy, shiny suit coat, blue jeans, dress shoes, face kind of beat up, dark bags under eyes, twitchy right eyelid and asks me how it is living here. I start to give him my cost of living advice, look out for thieves, it’s tough in the barrios banter and he eventually tells me that 10 years ago he and a partner bought a piece of land here in Herrera near what is now an airport for $380,000 US and that, tomorrow, now that the Minister of Finance of the Country and the IMF have signed off, he is going to close a sale for 68 million dollars. His iPhone rang and while he paced around the sidewalk talking on it I managed to overhear a confirmation of an order for 40 pizzas to be delivered to the closing. He told me that he is going to start a bank in Santo Domingo, said you only need 3 million here to do that. Before he walked off he handed me two dollars and said to buy myself a beer when I got off work.

Two guys come in to the store and start looking at my pictures. One is a big fat guy with a dark hair buzz cut, tee shirt with scissored off sleeves and his friend is a skinny little guy with bad skin and a blond buzz cut, I figured them for Merchant Marines or deportees. They reminded me of the big mouse and the little mouse in the Warner Brothers cartoons who were modeled after Laurel and Hardy or maybe Abbot and Costello. The big guy, Paul, asked some questions about the Taínos and when I started to explain about their cohoba drug ceremony he asked me what the active agent in cohoba was and when I said DMT he started in about how it is in every living organism, including our brains, and is even responsible for the WHITE LIGHT that everyone is supposed to see just as they are dying. As the conversation wandered he asked me, by the way, did I know the best way to transfer like $200,000 cash from Canada to a high interest yielding account here. He bought a $75 dollar panorama, which, these days, is a higher end sale for me and I said I would recommend a good lawyer.

Last year a customer eating a hotdog and drinking a coke in Rudy’s little café in Mundo Artesanal keeled over in a diabetic coma. I got called over because he only spoke English and he eventually was able to mumble, “juice.” I shot over to Jumbo and bought two cartons of orange juice but when I got back the victim, whose name turned out to be Felipe, or Phil from the upper east side of NY, was still dazed but sitting up on the floor. He said he was fine and not to worry. We helped him back up on his stool at the counter but he passed out again a minute later and hit the floor like a wet sack of rice, cutting his head on the way down. There were four taxistas standing around waiting for fares and none agreed to take Phil to a hospital unless he paid up front. Finally Richard and I guaranteed payment and piled Phil into the nearest taxi. When we pulled up to Clinica Abréu Phil became alert and begged us to bring him home where he had his insulin, which was only a few more blocks so we did. The taxista charged him 500 pesos which was a real soaking for a 10 block ride. Rudy eventually closed up his hotdog stand but I still saw Phil from time to time walking the Conde. When he wore shorts you could see his lower legs were red and swollen. He was on some kind of disability and collected social security but ran monthly tabs at the restaurant, pharmacy and colmado. My friend Hal waited to meet him for breakfast yesterday but Phil never showed up. The American Embassy came around later in the morning to his apartment to collect the body. He had died in bed.
Hal stops by to chat almost every day. He used to be the famous Mafia boss Meyer Lansky’s driver and errand guy and spent years in Haiti and Cuba running casinos. Says Meyer Lansky never swore. Hal gave Baby Doc Duvallier his first bicycle for a birthday present and used to put shopping bags full of money on Papa Doc’s desk to help with the casino license. He says he offered to broker a deal for the new president of Haiti, Martelly, an ex-performer who used to sing in one of Hal’s casinos, with the Israelis to arm a police force but Martelly goofed and used the word army in a press release and the U.N stepped on the deal because nobody wants Haiti to have an army, remembering the body count from the last time. Hal knows the people who the Sopranos were modeled after (Tony Acceratti for one), knows Whitey Bolger the Boston gangster who was played by Jack Nicholson in the movie—“I don’t know where he is, but he calls to chat every so often” and then when they caught him—“ I doubt they are going make anything stick” and Henry Hill from the movie Goodfellas—“That guy was a born crook, I saw him swindle someone out of $10,000 once in about an hour with a phony real estate deal. He always wanted to be made but he wasn’t Italian.” When I asked him, half joking, if he knew where Jimmy Hoffa was he said no but that he knew they would NEVER find the body. Hal is 85 and says the FBI comes down to Santo Domingo from time to time to ask him questions and he says he can’t figure out why, “cause almost everyone I knew is dead.” He would like to go back to the States for cataract surgery and thinks he probably could since as far as he knows there is no warrant out for him but says at his age it’s not worth even taking a chance on getting arrested so he’s trying to figure out a way to get Medicare to pay for the operation here.

On Sunday morning four months ago Rudy, my German friend here who makes the tee shirts, who used to have the hot dog stand in Mundo and whose wedding I went to last year and who has a 7 month old baby named Lars, walked out the front door of his house in Los Frailes and bumped into two tigueres taking a motorcycle away from some dude on the street. Everyone panicked and while Rudy was either backing away or trying to scale the sliding driveway gate to get back inside someone shot him in the ankle shattering tibia and fibula. A neighbor brought him to the Plaza de Salud. The hospital had to mail order the steel pins required for the surgery so Rudy had to wait until Friday for the bone setting. But when Friday rolled around he was informed that the operation was postponed until he found at least two volunteers to donate blood to the blood bank in case he needed any extra. Some of his employees tried but forgot to bring their cedulas or IDs; all his wife’s sisters were having their periods and so were disallowed; Richard in Mundo Artesanal has no cedula; Modesta is underweight. I went with one of Miriam’s brother-in-laws to try to donate the final pint. An uncle was already there in line but he was disqualified because he is older than 65 and the brother-in-law turned out to be anemic but I qualified since my tattoos are more than ten years old. When my blood bag was about half full, Rudy’s wife poked her head in the door and said Rudy was on his way to surgery. He is walking with crutches now but his shin has a wicked curve to it and his foot is angled funny so he is going to Germany to try to have it reset.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Automotive Letter to NPR's Car Talk

Dear Click and Clack,
I just bought a used, year 2000 Daihatsu Hijet minibus from a Japanese import lot here in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. It measures 5 feet wide by 11 feet long and is 6'3” tall and is a 5 speed with a 660cc, 3-cylinder motor and uses lots of regular gas, which costs $3.50 a gallon here. In 5th gear at 60mph it runs at a little over 4 grand but it is adorable.

It's been “tuned up” a couple of times now by street mechanics who each owned one wrench-the 10mm is ubiquitous- a pair of bent pliers, a screwdriver and a piece of cardboard or burlap to lie on in the street lieu of a creeper. The timing was set by ear. When I have asked whether that thing that they are tweaking is a fuel injector or a carburetor they tell me it is “somewhere in between” and keep on turning the four adjustment screws on and near it until it idles smoothly and restarts easily. After one bout of adjustment one mechanic shrugged and suggested that I should start it cold by not touching the gas pedal and when starting hot that I would need to keep it matted until it started and this system has worked fine except for on New Year's Eve when, thankfully--because drinking while driving is not discouraged here-- it would not start at all. One of the muchachos spent about 3 hours New Year's Day underneath it installing 3 new spark plugs and now it starts again using the methods described above.

In the city it runs great and is peppy when weaving in and out of traffic-which is essential here to avoid being run over by gigantic guaguas (busses) making left hand turns across your bow from the far right hand lane through busy intersections but on the highway, after about an hour of driving at a steady cruising speed, it sometimes shows the unnerving symptoms of running out of (or maybe of being flooded by?) gas and jerks, I mean IT jerks, and it almost dies but this symptom is not at all predictable. Occasionally I think I detect an increased smell of gasoline in the air when this happens but, since the motor is directly under the front seats, this may be expected from time to time due to proximity. I have, so far, always gotten to where I was going. One of the mechanics working out of a grease pit found the fuel filter under the chassis and blew it out from both sides with a compressor and proudly announced that it had been installed backwards and reinstalled it the right way, but this seems to have made little or no difference. I have also poured an assortment of carb-cleaners and dry gasses into the gas tank and just when I think that did the trick I find myself lurching toward the breakdown lane again. I do not want to spend much time standing around in the breakdown lane because when the street thugs here steal your sneakers they don't wait for you to take them off, they remove them at the ankles with a machete-- without damaging the sneakers.

My real question is why am I getting only 22MPG? I am certain that I am converting from kilometers accurately and I have confirmed that the gas stations here indeed sell the stuff by the normal gallon and I have checked the odometer by using a handheld GPS unit and it agrees. I was hoping for more like 50mpg. One “mechanic” tells me that 22 is normal because my model of Daihatsu has a turbo, and, indeed, the van does have the word Turbocooler written on the side in what appears to be factory lettering but I do not know what an actual turbo looks like or how much one might drink.

What do you think?

Well, I thought that the new plugs had cured the “dying on the highway” problem but three days ago it died dead in a backwater village far from home. A mechanic who materialized out of the bushes determined that I had a bad “pita de abajo” which was failing to control the flow of gasoline. He described this pita as a small vertical pin that works like a float and is next to the real float and is located in the lower half of the carburetor. He then adjusted the carburetor for highway driving, so that I could get to where I was going, which meant that the thing ONLY ran at 3500 rpm or above and stalled instantly at idle but could be restarted. This strategy worked (at the expense of much of the clutch while negotiating speed bumps, traffic lights and craters and goats in the road) for 200 miles when it died dead again in a smaller village, even farther from home, and so the next mechanic had to be fetched by a friendly stranger on a Honda 50cc Club Special motorbike and he determined that the fuel pump was working erratically. So, after finally locating a new-used fuel pump we changed it on the side of the road-and it is a submerged fuel pump so we had to drop the gas tank and he figured that maybe a wire was bad too so, after stripping the ends of a found length of insulated wire with his teeth he ran it from the tank to the fuse box where he jammed it in alongside one of the live fuses. The motor idled and ran at normal rpm for 5 miles, even though the screws on the carburetor had not been reset, but then reverted to its custom-highway tuning of before-- but I made it the 80 neck-jerking, backfiring miles back home, and boy was I glad to get there.

So now what do you think?

I have taken the Daihatsu minibus to a real Daihatsu dealership to be worked on. They tell me that there has been a spate of bad gas in the country and that this could easily be causing all of my problems. The bad gas evidently came from the National Refinery which, fearing fuel shortages over the holidays, topped off their supplies of gas with an, as yet undetermined, although clearly detrimental to the fuel delivery system, substance- garages have been reporting ten-fold increases in fuel pump and pita de abajo replacements in the past weeks.

I just retrieved my minibus from the Daihatsu dealer because they refused to work on it because, evidently, none of the running system is Daihatsu-they did not know what it was, but it was nothing they had seen before and did not appear in their computer. So I bucked and burned the clutch back to Moto Plaza where I had purchased it in the first place and I will find out more on Monday how this is going to be resolved.

Jan 30, Monday--
Moto Plaza, in a last ditch effort to get the guaguita running smoothly, removed all of the vacuum tubing as well as disconnecting the air filter and the turbo-cooler. But the guaguita ran worse.
Motor of the guaguita denuded of vacuum tubing.
Moto Plaza replaced the motor with all its adjunct  parts with a motor from a similar guaguita in their lot and the guaguita ran worse.
Moto Plaza has painted me up another minibus from their lot. This one is white, does not have a turbo, has a simpler motor and is supposed to be ready for me this Friday.

The post above was written in 2006. I still have (in 2012) the guaguita that Moto Paza gave me that Friday in a straight swap for the original one. Aside from the fact that the timing belt breaks and warps all the valves annually (repair about $150 usd see post entitled Culata it has been a fine vehicle.