Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Hostile World

November 22, 2011 – Hostile World, or is it?

I’ve stayed in the house too long because when I pass through the apartment complex gates the world is hostile. Everyone I see is a stranger, even my own reflection in the car windows’ glass. The busyness is overwhelming. I’ve stepped from the safety of my apartment into an existential crisis.
Humanity swirls. Noise abounds. Motion, movement, what a mess. Where am I? What am I? Who am I? I cry out inside. A quasi-creepy dude passes me on a bike. He doesn’t stop staring until he’s half way down the block, craning his neck back to watch me. I feel like I’m on display. Did I remember to put on shoes? Are they matching? I know I brushed my hair, I remember doing it. Bike guy turns down the road I’m about to take and I almost go a different route. I feel too visible, too vulnerable. I’m all alone in this vast squirming mass of millions.

I cross the street and a passing car honks. Then honks again. As if I hadn’t heard, the driver leans out and says, “Taxi.” In proper Peruvian style I don’t flinch, I don’t even shift my eyes up from the sidewalk. He apparently has not read the pedestrian handbook. “Taxi,” he says again. I remain impassive and keep on without even a pause in my step. Catching the hint, finally, he drives up a few feet and honks at another walker.
About half way to my class I settle into the rhythm of Lima. This is familiar, I tell myself, you know this place. It’s not so bad. This is just the world. These are just people. Oh yeah.

“You need to get out more,” I say.
“Apparently,” I reply.

“Spend more time with real people instead of just words and made up characters.”
“Hey, ease up. I heard you the first time.”

I’m about ten minutes early for my class so I sit on the stone bench outside of the grocery store Vivanda and watch people surreptitiously. I scowl at the wintry sky and eavesdrop on passerbys.
When the time comes, I head over to the apartment and the vigilante (doorman) lets me in. “Buenas tardes,” he says. He’s an older gentleman and friendly. We have our greetings down pat; with smiles and “You’re a human too, just like me” kind of acknowledgment. We’d even had an actual conversation the other day when I was waiting for Joaquin to get home from school.

“Buenas tardes,” I reply.
The floors have just been cleaned and my shoes squeak loudly as I walk up to the third floor. The pungent odor of the cleaner strikes me strongly. I ring the bell. No answer. I check my phone to make sure it’s Tuesday and six o’clock. It is. I wait a bit then ring again. A moment or two passes and then the door creeps open and a tentative head peers out at me. I try to look familiar. Nice. Unexistential myself.

“Hola, buenas tardes,” I tell the little old grandmother.
“Oh! I’m sorry,” she says opening the door for me to come in. “You’re the profesora. I didn’t recognize you in the darkness of the hall. Come on in.”

She tells me to make myself comfortable at the table and that the family is on their way home. Seconds later, Joaquin comes in. “Hola, miss (meece),” he says. “Do you mind if I change out of my soccer clothes?”  I don’t, and eventually he comes and sits at the table. He and I unscramble words, match synonyms and review collective nouns. He’s got his end of semester test coming up and we’re working on material that’ll be on the exam. We’re right down to business and the hour goes by quickly.
Per his mother’s charge that he be a gentleman, Joaquin walks me down to the main door. We cheek kiss, I bid the vigilante a Buenas Noches, and then walk out into the world.

It feels different. Less alarming. The sky even seems less wintry, more like spring. Much more warm.
With my week’s teaching pay in my bag and my grocery list in hand, I head towards Metro. If I get a few days’ worth of food I can isolate myself in my study for at least another day and chance more existential crises. Sounds great. I weave around people standing still on the sidewalk, couples kissing, solitary souls waiting for buses or talking on the phone. I switch sidewalk sides like a pro and avoid collisions with oncomers. One right turn and I cut through some parking lots.

There’s a bodega on the corner. They have the prettiest fruit. It calls to me, tells me I’m not alone in the world after all. The mangoes are just spectacular and the sight of their succulent orange ripeness knocks my thoughts of mortality right out of my head. Forget Metro, their mangoes had looked used and wrinkly. I end up buying nearly everything the bodega sells (That’s only a slight exaggeration). The girl who’s tending this part of the store is very friendly and even gives me a smile or two as she weighs and bags and calculates costs.

She helps me bag things up and tells me to go pay at the window. There’s a line. Well, not really a line, more like a jumbled up collection of people. Straight lines haven’t yet been introduced to Peru. Maybe they’ll be the next big trend. I don’t know. Nevertheless, I make eye contact with a guy in jumble and he offers me the spot in front of him. When I drop twenty centimos on the ground he’s there to pick it up before I am.

“Gracias,” I say. I pay my bill and tell the guy thank you again for the spot in line. This is human interaction. This is normal.
I collect my multitude of bags out and go sit on the park bench outside the bodega so I can rearrange my fruits and vegetables for the walk home.

When I’ve shouldered the weight, a grizzled, middle-aged man with a cigarette in his mouth and a wavering half-drunk stagger comes close to me. “I gave them five soles,” he says. “And I got ten soles back in change. That’s good handling of my money, right?”
“Uh, yeah. That’s great.” I have no idea what he’s talking about but, okay. I all but give him a thumbs up sign. He repeats himself, and I smile then go.

“That’s good money,” he calls after me.
It’s about a six minute walk to the house from where I am. The sidewalks are dim with the gathering night. I’m working up a sweat with the oppressive weight of my newly purchased food and my fast paced walking. I’m not a paranoid person, but I try to be smart when I walk alone, especially at night. I try to be aware of what’s around me and use common sense. That’s just smart living.

Just ahead, two guys are coming towards me. They’re taking up the entire sidewalk. I inch over as far as I can to the right. The guy in front of me doesn’t move. They come closer. Now we’re in position to have a head-on walking collision. I could maybe fall into the shrubbery, but I’d rather not with my mangoes and peaches. I don’t want to bruise them.

“The hardest part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch,” one of the best lines from The Hunt for Red October comes to my mind. Yet nearer, the guy still doesn’t move. He must be thinking the same line. Darn it. Then suddenly, just as he comes parallel to me, the left side guy stops. At the same moment, the right side guy stops in front of me.

Hardest part of playing chicken is...
If they’d caught me in my primary existential moment when I’d first left the security of my home I might have screamed. But I’m calmer now.

“Can we ask you a quick question?” the left side guy asks me in Spanish.

I’m not scared. I’m not even alarmed. I don’t have creep-vibe sirens going off in my head. There are no flashing lights in my brain with neon orange words of Danger Danger. But I do think it’d be a good trick of distraction to stop someone for a question and then rob them. Please don’t take the mangoes, I think.
“Okay,” I say. I keep watch on the right side guy, who’s bigger, out of the corner of my eye. Left side guy pulls out a microphone.

Holy smokes. I thought they’d ask for directions or something, I wasn’t expecting an interview. Dear Spanish Speaking Gods, I pray, please don’t let me make a fool of myself. I practice conjugations and declensions in my head feverishly.
He holds out the microphone. “What do you think is the biggest problem in this neighborhood?”

I hate on the spot questions. Being interviewed is so nerve wracking. Of course it’s not worse than being robbed, but all the same, I do much better with the written word than I do with the spoken. That goes doubly when I’m talking in Spanish. 
“Probably the traffic,” I say, coming up with the easiest answer I can think of.

“Are there any other problems that you have with this neighborhood? Do you have any concerns about safety?”
I want to tell him that no, I don’t. At least I didn’t until he and his friend blocked my way, stopped me on a dark pathway and started asking me random questions, but I don’t know how to say all that quickly enough.

“Do you feel there are things in this neighborhood that could be better? Regarding safety? Security?” He has a whole slew of questions that he plies me with. And I kind of just smile and nod. “Just the traffic? That’s what you feel is the main problem?” I nod. “Everything else is normal? Okay? Not so bad? You don’t feel unsafe?”
“No,” I say. He’s pretty much covered the whole interview with his words, thank goodness. “Todo normal (everything’s fine).”

He reiterates everything again, just to make sure it’s only the traffic I’d like to improve. Then he and his friend thank me and walk away.
As I resume my own trip home--kind of in interviewee shock--I wonder if my words will be aired on some late night radio show. At least it wasn’t for TV. Even though I did brush my hair today. Did I sound like a dumb gringa? Did I say the right words? What did I even say? I think I pulled off the appearance of knowledge by letting left side guy do all the talking, but I’m still insecure. Blocks away, my curiosity comes up with all the questions I wished I’d asked them. “What is this for? Is this for a school project or for your work? Why are you going around in the dark? Don’t you know it’s alarming to approach someone the way you did?”

The strangeness of it all hangs with me until I walk most of the way down Nicaragua Avenue and espy the Bread-Cart Man. The world rotates on its axis. The earth orbits the sun. The planets dance their celestial dance. The Bread-Cart Man is in his place.
I come up alongside him.

“I’ve got apple pie, plain bread, and a few filled breads left still today,” he tells me.
I look into the cart. “I looked for you the other day,” I say. “But you weren’t here.”

“I wasn’t?” he asks. “What day was it? I work every day until 8:00.”
“It was in the afternoon.”

He looks puzzled. Then he gives me his entire schedule--early in the mornings, all through the day, until eight at night. Monday through Saturday. I smile and nod just a bit. And I buy two pieces of plain bread from him.
“Cuidate, chau,” he tells me and he means it.

The Bread-Cart Man is like a friend. Now that I know he’s out there every day except Sunday, my existential crisis doesn’t seem so bad. I’ve anchored to something solid and dependable. I can handle the craziness of the city when I know that just around the corner, if I need him, the Bread-Cart Man, with his cart filled with a variety of bread and slabs of apple pie, will be there.
And if he’s not, well, that’d be okay too.

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