thanksgiving (or, bienvenidos a costa rica, pendejo)
27 November 2011 § 1 Comment
I’m a traveler. It had to happen eventually.
My sense of adventure clashes with my gutsense, and sometimes I make decisions that in retrospect probably weren’t the best. Yesterday, I did that, and I paid for it. Thanksgiving dinner was in a couple of hours (two days late, but in Costa Rica, who cares), and I had some time to kill. I went walking around San Jose on a graffiti mission. I wanted more pictures, I wanted to find more work. And I did.
Later, I stood at the bottom of a steep hill, at the dead end of a dirty street. It faded into the trees, but the view over everything south of San Jose was spectacular. I was having a moment when someone asked me in Spanish if I was lost. (mistake number one:) No, no, I’m just exploring. I walked up to the group of guys standing outside a shanty house (which wasn’t really suspect because there are so many here), and they asked me a few questions – what are you looking for, where are you from, do you smoke marihuana. My language skills in this part of the world are nothing to be proud of, but I have enough to get by, and this is how I learn – find people who don’t speak my language, so I can stumble over theirs.
One of them pulled out a joint the size of a sharpie marker. “You found the favela, mi amigo.” He laughed the sort of laugh bullies laugh when they’ve decided they’re going to crush you into a peanut. We talked about weed and Alaska and they asked me if I wanted to buy any. I told them I didn’t have any money, which was the truth, but maybe later, I said, trying to stay peaceful. There were three of them at first, but their number grew by about one per minute.
One of them was covered in symmetrical gashes and scars all the way up his arms and on his neck. A fresh gash across the bridge of his nose bled black. He wore a red shirt and a pony tail. Some of the cuts were green with infection. Later, when they demanded that I lift my shirt to check if I was wearing a wire for the policia, he demonstrated what they were saying by lifting his own shirt. I saw virtually no original skin on his torso. It looked like a tortoise shell, both in pattern and texture. His scardecorated body distracted me from what they were saying. Which at the time was really fucking important.
One of them took a phone call, and I said I had to go. Nos vemos, mae. I got about fifty feet up the hill before one of them called to me. I turned around, against my better judgment. This is where cultural communication gets complicated: the tico gesture for “come here,” or “come back” greatly resembles the one people where I come from use for “go away” or “keep going.” The problem was that I knew the tico gesture, and ignoring my screamingunscarred gut, I went back down the hill.
A very large and angry looking man showed up and with him, a few crackheads whose eyes seemed to be bottomless pits. They looked right through me to their next high, which the large man held out in my face in a sack of little white pills. Quieres?
They asked who I was. My name, what I did. Where I was from. Did I have a camera. Where was the recorder. Are you wearing a wire. Let’s see some identification.
I pulled my wallet from my pocket and handed the kindest of them my university ID. It seemed the least valuable and the most applicable. I told them I was studying here. I refused to understand their suspicion, and when the large man said something, I all but ignored him. The dude was not cool. They demanded I opened my bag. Bolsa, he said, gesturing with his hands the unmistakable movement required to open the backpack I had just closed after showing them photographs of graffiti in their neighborhood, abierto. I told them I wasn’t giving them anything, but I would open my bag if it would make them happy. One of them rifled through it, shook my water bottle and put it to his ear. He seemed satisfied.
What happened between that moment and when the large man grabbed at my backpack, I don’t remember exactly. I fought for my bag, just once pulling it away from him. The great amount of lard that was his stomach jiggled and shook. The guy was in a panic and I heard feet shuffling. They were seven or eight now, plus or minus the crackheads. When the large man reached into the back of his pants for who-knows-what, I decided to give up the fight for my bag and start the one for my life. I booked it up the hill, looking back only once. What I saw was not inspiration to stop running.
Six years ago, about three in the morning, Hallandale Beach, Florida: Hey man, you got a quarter?
I knew what was coming. Six or seven guys, all about my age, walked toward me along the Dixie highway, and I knew that my skin was the wrong color to be in that neighborhood, even during the day, unless it was in a car coming through at forty-five. My backpack, full of books and a laptop, got heavier when they got closer.
Nah, I don’t have —
One of them, who was then behind me, clocked me in the head and I fell down. My backpack protected me from their kicks, just enough. I yelled at them. What the fuck did I do to you? For some reason, I thought a fair judgment could only be made by me that night. They stopped for a second, and I got up and ran north. They chased me down, pushed me onto the cracked concrete, and a few of them began kicking me again. I don’t remember how long it went on, but I remember that 1) they didn’t answer my questions, and 2) a white car passed, going forty-five or so. Fast. One of them yelled “cop!” or “car!” (I couldn’t make out which), and they all ran south, leaving me bruised and bleeding on the sidewalk.
The car had, of course, not stopped. I got up and kept walking. I remember writing on my hand that I’d been jumped, and later, after wandering around Hollywood for a couple of hours thinking it was Jupiter, where I lived, 80 miles away) and eventually I asked someone in Walgreens where the train was. She sent me to familiar ground and my original destination, the Hollywood Tri-Rail station. I looked at the schedule. The first three trains were canceled. It was Thanksgiving morning.
Thanksgiving is a special holiday for me. If I’m alive at the end of it, I have something to be thankful for.