The Kind of Place

So here’s a good example of the kind of place it is. I have a book from the library. I have been reading it but now my thumb is weary of holding the book open. They bind paperbacks into hardcovers, but the binders are like the carpenters here: neither of them read. You should see what goes for bookshelves . . . or the uses to which they’re put.

Anyway, tomorrow I shall be returning the book, and the question that you may have is why is my thumb weary? They stitched the thing up so that you have to really hold hard to keep the thing from shutting. And so when I return this book tomorrow, to move on, I shall look at the library girl–no reader either, I guarantee–and inform her of the rather annoying binding. And she will not even pretend. She will stare at me with the kind of incomprehension only the illiterate can achieve. As if to say: What, you were trying to read every word in it?

It reminds me of the student I had back when I still taught English. She always arrived late, always. Never got up in time, you see. Slacker? No, she was one of the most applied and earnest. Really wanted to learn English, just not one for adjusting her schedule to the demands of time. One day she told me she owned 200 watches. That’s exactly the way they are with books.

So here’s another one. I walked home today, and it’s a long walk. All along 68th I came, descending, as they say. If you go up, you go east toward the mountains. If you go down you’re heading west. So I was coming west. Alright, we have established the direction, and as I said it was la sesentayocho, an avenue (which means it has a mean middle strip with shrubs or dirt or garbage or cement and from time to time an out-of-place large tree). It is generally clogged with buses, and so the diesel smoke is pretty thick along it.

They have a habit of attracting customers in the kind of proletarian clothes and shoe stores by means of blaring music. This is unmercifully interrupted by some smarmy relative of the owner getting on a wireless microphone to hustle the people in with a barrage of deafening words.

There’s a place along 68th where from time to time you’ll see a dark and hairy bum clothed in an ancient three-piece suit straight out of the nineteen eighties. It is a shoe store, and so they don’t tend to have somebody interrupting the music to blather. The bum is positioned suicidally close to the speaker and what he does is move with obsessive repetitiveness, which I have always taken to be some kind of attempt at dancing. A special form of derangement, his, no doubt.

Colombians will give money to deranged public performances, especially when done on buses, simply out of fear of retaliation. I’ve seen it. I don’t, however, ever see this peculiar chap receiving anything. We have a lot of street performances in this medieval town, but those that receive attention do not attract attention by omitting hygiene.

You have to sink very low in latin american society to omit hygiene. That’s one of the joys here: everybody is generally clean–and over groomed, but clean. If you see dirty people, they’re either on the brink of death, are heading home after an all night party (girl with vomit on her jeans in the bus, type thing), or are mentally deranged. And by hygiene I mean taking a shower once a day, not washing your hands or being too scrupulous about how you handle food or refraining from physical contact with other living creatures.

So the guy was being ignored. Ignored by the push carts lining the corner nearby, by the traffic stopped for the light, by pedestrians ambling in the irritating way pedestrians everywhere have and grazing each other they way pedestrians here do and being nimbly dodged by all the bicycles that tend to take to the sidewalks being driven off the streets by the motorcycles. But now that I think about it, I don’t think the bum was trying to get anything from anybody. And this idea can only strike me, it strikes me, after living here for two years, and it shows the kind of place it is: the chap does it because it is his recreation, like going to a disco. He puts on the three-piece suit, abandons the place which in his life answers to the description of abode, if he doesn’t just sleep in a doorway (indigence in the tropics is quite another matter), and heads out to the shoe store, where he jerks around to the music to his satisfaction.

Remember in the Matrix where the official chap explains that a previous version had no litter or graffiti or indigence but it didn’t work? That’s what this place is like.


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