Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Things Get Physical

October 4, 2011 – Things Get Physical

It’s late afternoon when I take my seat on the bus. I slide down the bench and crunch up against the wall. I like to make myself as small as possible. There are open seats, but I know it’s going to get crowded soon. School’s just out and all the uniformed children are catching rides home. Fares climb in. Fares climb out. The Cobrador yells out the upcoming streets trying to solicit more fares, “Pezet, Miraflores, Villaran.”  
I’ve got at least a forty-five minute ride ahead of me. I settle in. The roads fall behind us. Up ahead, at the corner, a huddle of people stand gazing into the oncoming traffic, arms poised to flag their buses down. A hand rises and falls, the driver pulls over. The Cobrador slides the door open. A blue-sweatered boy grabs the inside bar and steps up. “Miraflores,” he says.

Before he can step all the way in, the Cobrador blocks his way.
“Hey,” the boy says. “Let me on.” He’s a big boned boy. Large. Not fat, just large.

The Cobrador pushes him back and starts to uncurl the boy’s fingers from the handle. The boy hangs on and pushes back, trying to get in. A minor scuffle ensues. The boy doesn’t let go and tightens his hold. The Cobrador is getting more forceful.
Two ladies in the bus ruffle their feathers. “Hey. Hey now. Let him in. What’s wrong with you?”

I become smaller in my space. Invisible. Subject to one of my worst character flaws. One that I hate the most; that ease with which I can fall into just being an observer. That little voice of self-preservation that says, “Don’t get involved. Stay quiet. Don’t act.” When these times come upon me I feel I’m the worst of humanity. No kind of hero. Some awful, passive onlooker. I hang my head in shame. It’s just that I don’t like conflict. It’s great in fiction, but in real life I’d rather—to use the cliché—we all just get along. What would I do here anyway? Yell at the Cobrador in less than fluent Spanish? Get myself thrown off the bus? Get on the bad side of a Cobrador I might have to ride with again another day?
I don’t have to flagellate myself too long and this time I don’t have to worry about not stepping in. Peruvian women have this one. Despite the Cobrador’s efforts to dissuade him, the boy manages to get on and even gets his friend to get on the bus with him. The Cobrador shuts the door, the driver pulls away from the curb and then the ladies really loosen their tongues and let the Cobrador have it.

“Why didn’t you want to let him in?”
“What’s wrong with you?”

“Don’t you have brothers or children of your own?”

“I’m going a long way,” the boy explains to the older woman. “I’m going to Miraflores.” Students only pay .50 centimos when they ride the bus. The Cobrador didn’t want this boy to take up space for a long time on the bus for such a small amount. That’s my theory anyway. The boy corroborates this with his continued speech. “He doesn’t want me to go so far on a student’s fare.”
The older lady tells the boy, “Next time that happens tell the police.”

“I’ve tried before,” the boy says. “But the police never do anything about it or they’re not there.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a sol. “Here,” he thrusts the coin at the Cobrador. “Take it. A full sol. For the trouble. I know it’s a long way to go. I’ll pay more than I’m supposed to. I’m not trying to cause trouble I just want a ride.”
The Cobrador takes the sol and keeps the full amount. The boy’s friend only pays fifty centimos and the Cobrador leaves it at that.

It seems the situation has worked itself out. Only the other lady hasn’t stopped her diatribe. She’s on a roll. Her words rise and fall like a song. The older lady joins in at the chorus. They’re talking at about eight hundred thousand miles per hour, at the same time, full-on intense to the Cobrador. It’s a tongue-lashing I’m glad to not be on the receiving end of. Wisely the Cobrador says nothing.

Having had a few blocks to recover from the scuffle, the boy is starting to get mad about what happened. The aftermath of a conflict. He begins to sing along with the ladies and he’s steaming a little. “What am I? A delinquent that you don’t let me on your bus? I’m not hurting you. It’s not right you keeping students off the bus just because we don’t have to pay the same fares as everyone else.” He’s gathering wind when the older lady whips around and tells him to be quiet and mind his manners and behave himself.

He simmers down.
The ladies don’t.

This is why I don’t get involved with verbal conflicts, I think. I lack the force, the stream of abuse (in any language), the loquacity, the righteous indignation, the scathing continuous commentary. Give me a pen and paper, that’s one thing, but the spoken word? I bow out on that one because these women rule it.   
“Thank you, Señora. Okay, Señora,” the Cobrador says at a couple points during the simultaneous sermons.

By this time they’re talking too fast for me to keep up with the individual words. Oh, but these words need no translation; tone of voice, body language and expression says even more than the words ever could. Neither lady quits talking until they get off at their stops. Maybe not even then. I’m not sure I talk that much in a month’s time. I’m impressed. I’m a little jealous. Their voices get shut out with the closing of the bus’s door. The rest of the ride passes by in peace.
The boy gets off without another conflict. In fact, although I’m waiting for it, I don’t even notice when he leaves. That wicked part of me that wants to observe for a story’s sake, for my curiosity’s sake, for my constant need to learn about human behavior doesn’t get to see if there are any covert hateful glances from Cobrador to boy or vice versa. Before my trip is over the Cobrador is laughing at some joke he shares with the driver. For him, this might just be a normal day on the job.

My life has been blessedly nonviolent. I was lucky to be raised in a healthy and loving home. In my formative years I was told such things as, “Don’t hit your brother. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t pinch your sister. Don’t bite. Don’t kick. Be nice. Don’t push. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” As a result, I, and my siblings, learned (more or less) how to function as civil and civilized adults. More or less.
I've, to date, stayed out of volatile relationships and avoided street fights and bar type situations. I don’t revel in that kind of conflict. The only violence I allowed into my life came on the Judo mat.

This is my niece, not me.
It had rules and referees. The United States these days is so litigious about any kind of touch that I’ve grown unaccustomed to what is really normal and what is not. So one of the things that takes me by surprise about Peru is the physical contact.

On Saturday Oswaldo is kind enough to help me cash a check. We go down to Scotiabank about 12:20. The line to the bank is out the door. My stomach drops. If I don’t get this check cashed today then it’s going to be a lot more complicated for me to pay rent. The landlady is coming by the house at 2:00. I run worse case scenarios through my mind and sensibly tell my panic to hold on a minute.

We wait about ten minutes. Then the security guard lets us all in. Inside, the line doesn’t look so bad. I was afraid we might be in line until sometime the next week. I’ve had some long waiting experiences in Peruvian business places before. I try to make sure and leave my American-impatience at the door when I arrive. Sometimes that works. Once we’re all inside, one of the bank personnel locks the door after us. I’m grateful that we’ve made it before the bank closes. I hadn’t even thought about that when Oswaldo and I’d agreed on a time. After another ten or fifteen minutes of waiting, we get our turn at the teller’s box, get the money and then go to exit. The door is locked. Several other clients are waiting to be let out. They’ve been waiting for a while.

Both of us are a little tired of waiting.
Oswaldo asks the guard if we can get let out.

“The person with the key will be by shortly,” he says with an uncaring shrug.
We’re gathered by the glass front door like caged zoo animals. Noses pressed against the glass. On the outside an older man comes to the door and pulls. It doesn’t give. It’s locked. The lady next to me tells him that the bank is apparently closed.

He makes some angry sounds.
I’m not sure if they’re operating under usual business hours or not. I can’t read the sign on the outside.

The old man is indignant. He stands there impatiently waiting. He’s got his bank card in his hand.
“The ATM box is there outside,” the lady tells him helpfully.

“I’m having problems with the card,” the old man says. “I need to speak to someone about this.”
We all look back into the small office where the lady who’d opened the door earlier is sitting with a client. Another bank manager goes in the room to join her. Oswaldo glances at the clock then heads over to the office.

I’m out of earshot but I’m sure he says something like, “Could you please open the door? We’ve been waiting quite a while and we’d like to go.”
The manager gives Oswaldo a glance-over. And shakes his head no.

Oswaldo keeps at it. He’s an even-keeled, laid back guy, but he’s not one to be walked over. There follows a discussion involving clock-pointing, door-pointing, some entreaty and a few glares. Another man standing next to me goes to join the Let-Us-Out party. The effort it’s taking the manager to be noncompliant is more than what it’d take to unlock the door and let us out into the open air. This is totally irrational, I think.

Finally, moved by god knows what, the manager brings his keys. He bends down to unlock the door and when he stands, the old man outside pushes in.
It’s the bus scuffle all over again. The manager pushing against the old man. The old man trying to forcibly enter. The security guard joining the fray. All the rest of us just wanting to get outside.

The ladies start to verbally protest. Oswaldo and I exchange an amazed glance. The manager, suddenly worried, tells the security guard, “It’s okay, you can let him in.”
Again, there I am in a place where I don’t want to get involved. I feel that rising disgust with myself. Some diplomatic tact would work wonders I imagine, but I lack the vocabulary. I’m stuck behind the open glass door, blocked in by the struggle. And it’s escalating. The guard is getting more forceful, the old man is getting louder and putting his whole body in the fight, the manager is trying to placate. Then, like a deflated balloon, the old man gives it up. He backs off, says a handful of cutting things I don’t understand then turns and leaves in a huff.

Oswaldo and I ooze out of the bank with the rest of the waiting people.
“Holy smokes,” I say, or some equivalent of that sentiment in some language. “That was crazy.”

We take a few steps away and head over toward the money changers. I’ve got to turn my soles into dollars to pay the rent and then go home and wait for the landlady to drop by to collect it.

“Well,” Oswaldo says, phlegmatic as usual. “I’m glad they’re not my bank.”

It feels like the understatement of the year.

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