Disclaimer: this is not a dog training post.
My car broke down today. I went to my neighbor’s workshop to ask for help.
Roberto, the mechanic, is in his 50s. He’s got a bit of a belly, the dirty fingernails of a good mechanic, and a formerly white Toyota that looks older than he is, but is still going strong. We took his Toyota (I miss having windows that can be opened manually) to go to San Cristónbal El Bajo where my car had broken down. A yellow teddy bear with long legs and long arms dangled from his rear-view mirror, and he had one of these little flasks with “new car smell” in his old car; a tiny tank holding a purple liquid attached to the air vent. There was a reassuring amount of dust on his dashboard. We’re in the dry season – la estación del polvo. Open the windows and don’t clean your car for a few days, and there’ll be enough dust on your dashboard to leave visible traces in it with your finger tips.
The first time in someone’s car, you learn something about them. Like the first time in their house. You notice things (like the teddy bear. Like the radio with a screen that came to life when he started the car. There was a USB stick plugged in, but the music was turned off. What someone listens to, and whether they turn on the radio or not – it tells you things about a person that go beyond their use of cars).
Roberto didn’t turn on the radio. I wound down the window, and we exchanged the usual semi-ritualized politenesses: how long had I lived here? Were he and his sons from San Pedro Las Huertas originally; had they always run the workshop? What did I do for a living? These four questions is all it takes to know whether you’ll want to continue the conversation, or get through whatever time you are having to spend together in silence, avoiding further engagement. Whatever result you come to – ideally, it’ll be mutual. Mutual silence? That’s okay. Mutual conversation? That’s okay, too. One person talking and engaging, and the other one decidedly looking out the window, playing with their phone, turning on the radio? Awkward.
Roberto and I unspokenly agreed that we were going to have a conversation while the wind was blowing late morning heat through the car. Noon was in the air, and dust – always dust.
“I’ve heard San Pedro used to be controlled by a gang. This whole concept of gangs … it’s foreign to me. It doesn’t really exist where I come from. Can you tell me about it?”
And he did. “It wasn’t really a gang,” Roberto said. “People like to exaggerate. It was a bunch of boys. Ladrones del pueblo. They’d steal stuff – chickens, for example. Anything they could get their hands on, really. They’d threaten people and take things from them, or break into houses.”
“That’s interesting … It seems like San Pedro Las Huertas isn’t full of super rich people. Who’d they steal from?”
“Oh, everyone. It didn’t matter if you had little or a lot for them to take it.
We didn’t have problems with them for a long time. My dad … he was the kind of man who doesn’t get involved in the lives of others. You know, the kind of man who doesn’t get upset as long as the ladrones harass someone else.”
“But we did have issues with them at some point …”
“My brother was walking … right here, in this street. Walkmen had just gotten popular, and he had his walkman and headphones. They took it …”
“They stopped him and threatened him … with weapons?”
“With knives, yes.
We knew who they were, of course. We knew where they lived.
And then they took my brother’s bike, too, the next time they saw him.”
“Yeah. So my dad, who usually didn’t get involved, went to their house, and he knocked on their door …
He said, ‘Why did you take my son’s things?’
They denied it, but my dad just took the boy’s machete from him … And he told him to return my brother’s stuff.”
I could imagine Roberto’s dad – probably looking much like Roberto did now – threatening that young man at his door. The mechanic would speak calmly, and look directly into his eyes, exuding power by his mere presence. I pictured him wearing an oil-stained red polo shirt, like Roberto was wearing one today.
“They gave it all back, and they didn’t steal from us again”, said Roberto. “Some people let others take their stuff. So they will keep taking stuff from them. Others confront the ladrones; they stand up to them – and they’ll be left in peace.”
“What happened to the ladrones? They are gone now, aren’t they?”
“Yeah … one of them went to prison. One was murdered. One left … None of them are here anymore.”
“… until another group just like them takes their place?”
“Yeah. There was another group already. They tried to do the same thing. But people stood up to them, and the group didn’t last.”
We got to the place I had left Bergziege, my car. Roberto unloaded a rusty yellow toolbox and a large piece of cardboard, and his upper body disappeared under the chassis. There’s something reassuring about a person’s legs sticking out from under a car, for some reason. I sat down on a concrete step and told him to let me know if I could assist him in anything.”De acuerdo,” he said, “Okay.” He wasn’t a douchebag kind of guy who believes women can’t hold a hammer.
The problem, he said, was the transmisión. Bergziege had lost a few screws. He took something off the undercarriage: a long metal tube with a joint in the middle.
“You can drive like this, without the transmisión. Just not up very steep hills; you’ve only got front drive now. It’ll take a few days till I get the screws, but then we’ll put it back on.”
“Okay. I’m supposed to drive up a hill today though … That’s actually what I was going to do when the car broke down. I need to take three bags of cement up there. You think I’d better not …?”
“Nah, better not until you’ve got the 4WD back. You may not make it up with the cement.”
I asked him if he’d help me. Could we take the cement up the hill in his car?
“Sure; I’ve got time.”
We loaded the cement out of Bergziege and into the Toyota, and then it was my turn to tell a story. His daughter, now 27, used to really, really want to see the snow when she was little (he said).They got a Christmas tree, and covered it in styrofoam crumbs to give her a glimpse of the experience.
My story, then, needed to be a story about snow. I told him about a particularly snowy winter a few years ago, when I lived on a hill in Austria. I seem to always end up on hills of some kind. We’d walk up the hill, through the forest, in the snow – they only cleared the street once a day, and if it kept snowing, cars would be useless. (The way it feels to walk uphill in fresh snow; how it gets exhausting, but is also its own kind of beautiful? What it’s like to walk at night, taking a shortcut through the forest, when the air is crystal clear and cold and dark, and if there were no highway close by, it would be completely silent except for the sound of your feet? The way the snow makes time slow down, and your thoughts too? Also, being in warm houses when it’s snowing outside; the beauty and the relentless cold and all the things that fit in between.)
We had delivered the cement, and he stopped on the bottom of the hill to let me out where Bergziege was waiting. “Thank you, really,” I said. “What do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry about it. Come by on Tuesday and see if I already got the screws we need for your transmisión.”
I closed the car door, and the sun spit his Toyota back out into the dusty street.
What can we learn from this? At least five things. In chronological order: people tend to exaggerate when talking about crime. Quiet people are more powerful than loud ones. Cars come with large metal parts that aren’t essential for them to work. I’ve got lovely neighbors.
(Also, something about human nature and the fact that standing up to ladrones pays off, but I’m not sure about the details of that lesson.)