Caught Between Curfew & Culture | Colombia

I am doing the tightrope walk of organizing a date while sitting here under a plant that’s sprouting from a stone patio, with a view of the mild, mid-afternoon bustle of a middle-classish, family-friendly neighborhood, my back to the door of a $7 per night Airbnb in Colombia.

(In a cave with my book, Odd Jobs & After Hours. Get your copy on Amazon here.)

Food delivery guys on motorcycles with insulated red backpacks putter at slow speeds down the block. The U.S. Marine veteran in the room next to mine is also out on the porch. He is cursing the snot out of a video pundit on his iPhone, and chain-smoking.

And I am tapping, backspacing, Google translating, and double-checking my way through a Whatsapp conversation with a Colombian girl named Carla. We matched on Tinder.

Through clumsy, ham-fisted, beginner Spanish, I am laboring to achieve that detached yet interested, breezy yet clear, kind of gamesmanship that Whatsapp flirting requires. (What? You’re above it? You’re telling respond when you see a message and not when an appropriately coy period of time has passed? You get to the point and you don’t waste anybody’s time? I doubt that, friend. I doubt that very much.)

Ah, but Colombia! Colombia is a nation still capped by the cosmic dome of Catholicism. A people still cupped in the hands of God. Not like the bloated, broken, chimp children of the USA, desperate to suck all the money, food, and flesh they can into their faces while their little rock plummets through the void.

For this fundamental fork in our cultural backgrounds, when I asked for her address so I could send her a cab to pick her up, she snapped back, “A cab? To my address? I’m not a prostitute!”

Now, I thought I understood that in Spanish but I used Google translate to be sure.

I put the phone in my pocket, a take a walk around the block. When I get back to my Airbnb, there is another message from Carla.

“In the USA, the man can go over to a woman’s house for a first date, but it is different here.”

“I understand. I was only trying to offer you a ride to the restaurant.”

“Yes, I don’t have a bike or car, I need a ride.”

I set the phone down again. What’s caused by the language barrier here, and what’s her? Is it even worth the trouble of explaining to this…woman, that cabbie’s need, and actually outright demand, addresses? You can’t coo gently to them like homing pigeons, and let instinct guide them. Go where you feel, cabbie. She’s out there, somewhere. A new message banner appears.

“Can u send it here?”

She drops a pin at a cafe that logically must be within walking distance of her house.

“Yes. Does 6 work?”

“Can we do 8?”

“See you then!”

Time to whittle, time to pace, time to kick cans, and kill time.

But time does move on, and 8pm does arrive, and here I am in collared shirt and slacks, leather shoes, standing on a corner outsides a parrilla place.

Parrilla. It means grill. That seems kind of general. I read the Spanish menu posted outside the joint slowly, guessing my way through words I don’t know.

A cab pulls up to the curb, and out steps Carla, looking more or less like her pictures. Black hair, and good looking, like many Colombianas. Skittish steps. Darting eyes. (Is this neighborhood scary? Am I?)

We meet and do a quick cheek kiss. She laughs at my clunky Spanish. We get an outdoor table. I can pick out what she does: nurse, and share what I do: writer.

I manage to ask her what’s best on the menu, and she points to a mix of grilled meats over a bed of french fries. It has chicharrón, sausages, a grilled steak, some kind of sauce drizzled all over it. Peppers and onions in there, too. We get one of those and two mai tais.

Soon that becomes two mai tais for me, and one for her, because the bartender is quite talented, and all communication is a taxing effort.

She says something fast, something that ends in a rising, questioning tone.

“No sabo,” I say, and shrug. She bursts out laughing. I sip my mai tai, analyzing this. Smiling. Clearly, I am funny. And this is good. Right?

She types at blistering speed into Google translate on my phone. She shows me her English message.

“I can’t believe you said that!” it reads. “When someone speaks bad Spanish we call them no sabos. If you want to say I don’t know, say no sé.

I laugh and say no sé, no sé etching a deep, dark mental note.

The mixed grill over fries arrives. It’s a banger. Hot, fresh, and tasty.

We eat and chat about music, and movies, and work, and life, and English, and Spanish, and the USA, and Colombia. The mixed grill disappears, and the check appears.

Blue-raspberry and red raspberry lights blast through the windows of the restaurant. Sirens wail. The heroic Colombian police department is doing a slow, loud roll down the street. Restaurants and bars up and down the block give their lights the double blink.

“Curfew!” she says.

“For COVID?” I ask. She nods. Spanish roars out of a police megaphone. I check my watch. 10pm. A whole city on high school curfew hours.

I pay the check, and we’re out the door.

There are just so many cops! And that megaphone message, which is definitely enforcing curfew runs on a loop. People are vanishing left and right.

She tells me she needs a ride home, and I tell her I know. As I tap on my phone for a ride, she taps me frantically on the shoulder.

Two cars, two cars! You’re an honest woman, Carla, I got it, I know, we’re cool. The Uber I call for her arrives. And look at me, Captain Charming, I open the door for her. She sits in the cab, steps out suddenly, then gives me a quick kiss on the lips.

“Hide while your cab comes!” she says.

It’s interesting advice, probably wise. I nod.

Then I’m alone. It’s me, the law, and the great specter of COVID-19, making its deadly post 10pm rounds.

Giant potted plants line the outside of a hotel on a corner. I dart over, and crouch behind one plant before the police pass again. Red and blue lights wash around the round, matte ceramics of the plant pots, and shine through their spiky fronds. There’s that same megaphone message again.

The Uber driver sends me a message.

“Sorry! No rides after 10pm for COVID.”

No, that can’t be right. I try three more Ubers, but all decline. I try two yellow cabs. Same deal, no rides after 10pm.

I peek out from behind the potted plants at the empty street.

So here we are. It was 15 minutes to get here by car, which is (maps tells me) an hour fifteen by foot.

Hmm. Cops are out, I saw them tapping people on the shoulder to get them going on their way. Right now, the streets are empty.

What’s the move, here? Stick near buildings and start speed walking the hour fifteen back to the Airbnb?

It’s the only option, and I had better get going. Maybe I can periodically check to see if there’s a rogue driver looking for a final fair of the night.

I get going. Tap, tap, tap. Leather dress shoes, not too grippy, pretty hard-bottomed, on the empty street. Battery life dying fast. I take a notebook out of my pocket and copy down the street turns down in case the battery dies mid-journey.

Ten minutes into the walk. No signs of cabs or Ubers. Compliance all around.

Fifteen minutes into the walk, with the longest steps I can manage. Red and blue lights shine around the corner, so I step into an alleyway. The cops drive past while I’m crouched behind a dumpster. Then it’s back to hoofing it, to pitter-pattering along, making the big long trek home.

Twenty-five minutes into the walk, and 10 percent battery life left.

Ding! It’s a Whatsapp from Carla.

“Home safe! Smiley emoji. Thank you for lovely time. I’m going to bed now.”

And I look up at two stars, shining in the night between the buildings, and I take a deep, sweet, fresh, breath, and write back, “Happy for you! Sleep well.”

Then it’s back to the hike. Police sirens again. They’re getting louder faster which means that they’re not after me, they’re after a real crime. Right? I crouch next to a set of steps under an awning, and a squad car barrels down the street, sirens screaming.

Half an hour left to walk, and that’s easy, that’s doable, that’s practically recreational, but these dress shoes are hard as marble slates on the bottom, and they feel like they are too small now.

It’s around then I start turning over in my mind, “two cabs, you can’t ride with me then tell the driver where to go after, I’m home safe, I’m sleeping, that’s all that matters. I’m good! That’s all that matters!”

Not because I really mean it, but because it makes me laugh, and a little angry, and that keeps you going, going, going.

Phone is dead. Going off my paper directions. City zombies appear. There are maybe twelve homeless people in this next stretch of road. Swaying back and forth. Screaming into the night. I should take a right turn and try to get around them. But can I course-correct after the detour? Should I walk between them instead? They’re skinny, they’re not too dangerous. Right?

Or maybe…Or maybe they’re fueled by bitterness, hunger, and crack fumes, maybe they’re armed with shards of broken window wrapped in rags, and garden hoses with nails driven through the end to make spiky whips. Maybe they’ll smell Gringo on me, and descend like drooling junkyard dogs.

I take the detour, and trust I can still find my next turn.

My collared shirt is soaked with sweat. Feet still mad at me for wearing dress shoes for this unplanned hike.

Wait a minute. Who is this? One moped rider is going down the street. I step out and wave at him to come over. He’s a delivery driver going home. I can tell from the insulated red bag behind him. I hold up some peso notes and point at the address on my paper.

He gets it.

I climb aboard behind him, and he zooms through the final stretch of my walk-in about 7 minutes, even with a detour to avoid a police curfew checkpoint.

I thank him and hand him the pesos. I reach into my pocket for more to give him, but he refuses and drives home.

The veteran is still on the porch, still watching videos, still chain-smoking.

“Date go well?” he asks.

I do a quick recap of the date, the curfew, the trip back, and he finds the scenario hysterical.

“Put that story in your book!” he says.

Let myself into the room. Turn on the shower. Kick off the dress shoes.

I step into the cramped, narrow shower.

Didn’t get mugged! Didn’t get fined for violating curfew! Didn’t get lost. But wait. Did the date go well? Did I do OK? Was I weird? Ah, forget it.

No sé.

Symphony

I’m going to go on Merrimack TV and I don’t have any shirts and ties.

Got invited on Chattin’ with Jeanine to talk about my book.

I used to have shirts and ties, though.

The last time I wore a suit was for a wedding in May, 2019.

After all, at many jobs, you only need the suit at the interview.

But where have my shirts and ties vanished to?

Some ties were snagged by scavengers in Brooklyn after an argument that ended with clothes getting thrown out the window.

Some shirts are dressing someone poor or thrifty in Florida after I dropped boxes off at a Goodwill before moving.

At least one shirt is sitting in the trunk of taxi cab in Medellin.

Now here are I am with a suit jacket and pants but no shirts and ties.

And the closest Macy’s is an hour and twenty minutes away by car. Rush hour traffic is slow. I will barely make it there before closing time at this rate.

The Macy’s is almost empty when I arrive.

I find the section with the men’s dress shirts.

Rows of identical shirts with sets of three numbers. Measurements, of course. I don’t know mine.

Signs are posted everywhere.

“We’ve suspended our fitting assistance services as a COVID-19 safety measure.”

I pick up a shirt.

It’s held stiff by a piece cardboard stock. It is filled with lethal pins. Tissue inside it crackles. I hold it up over my chest and glance in the mirror.

“Need any help, sir?”

A woman with a name badge asks me.

“Are you the one who helps people dress themselves?”

What a dumb way to ask that question.

“No,” she says.

“I don’t know my measurements at all.”

“We stopped helping with that for COVID-19.”

“Thank you, I saw the sign.”

“Let me know if you need anything else. We close soon.”

Loud speaker announcement overhead: ten minutes to close.

I look around.

This store is a big, lonely, unhelpful, place.

And I’m not going to get my shirt and tie before the television show tomorrow, am I?

“Perhaps I can help,” says a thick accent. Hard to say where the accent is from.

The speaker is an older guy. Argyle sweater, black slacks. Macy’s name tag.

“The sign says you can’t help me with the measurement.”

He stands six feet away. Squints his eye. Holds up his hand with thumb and forefinger apart like an old carpenter who doesn’t use rulers anymore.

“Seventeen, thirty-two, thirty-three,” he says. “Now stand shoulder to shoulder with me in the mirror.”

The starting COVID formalities are over, thankfully. Apparently, tape measures are what really spread disease.

“Would you say your neck is bigger or smaller than mine?” he asks me. “In thickness.”

“They look pretty similar, to be honest.”

“I agree,” he answers.

He brings me two a table of shirts of the right size.

I show him the grey suit I’m going to wear.

He grabs a cream color shirt and black tie.

Tucks the shirt into the suit and lays the tie on top. He gestures over the pairing.

“Here there is melody and counter melody,” he says.

His accent is too thick to ignore.

“Where are you from?”

“I am Armenian,” he says.

I shift my head and look at the dark tie.

“Hey. I didn’t notice it from the other angle, but there’s little glitters in there.”

“Where?” He shift the tie back and forth in his hand. “Ah, yes. It is wrong for you.”

He replaces the tie with another one.

“Here there is melody and rhythm.”

“It’s for a local TV show. That one might look weird.”

“Ah, nothing to make a rainbow in the camera.”

“Exactly.”

Loud speaker: five minutes to close.

“I know this rule,” the Armenian tailor says. “I was on TV once for music.”

“What do you play?”

“Symphonies, concertos, so on. Piano.”

“Very cool.”

He puts out a final shirt and tie pairing.

“Here there is melody and harmony.”

He makes a conductor’s grand gesture.

Yeah, that’s the best looking shirt and tie pairing he’s done.

“Ok, I’ll take it.”

We go to the cash register.

“They took away our commissions,” he says.

The bay lights overhead clang off. There’s one little lamp behind him.

“They want you to work with no tape measure and no commission?”

His forehead furrows and I can tell from his cheeks there is a pained smile under his face mask.

“Exactly, sir.”

I look up at big, dark Macy’s.

“Hey,” I ask. “Do you write your own music, too?”

His eyes crinkle.

“I don’t like to say so, but since you ask,” he says.

He pulls out his phone. Plays a video on it. It is a symphony he wrote. A violin is playing. Then come deeper clarinets and cellos to harmonize with it. The music crashes into a big all-together repeat of the thing the violin was saying at the start.

“It’s amazing,” I say.

He tucks the receipt in the bag.

“Please enjoy your evening sir,” he says.

“Thank you, you too.”

He pauses the symphony on his phone, and tucks it into his pocket.

I leave the closed store, finding my way by the few security lights.

Drunk Owl

Enjoy this story and grab my book for rare stories you won’t find online.

Hour thirty of driving. Day three on the road.

Packed my life inside a Toyota Corolla.

Left Florida for New England a few days ago.

Now driving on a road in New Hampshire with granite cliffs on one side and mountain views on the other.

Black mountain shapes with red radio tower lights on top in the night.

A line of brake lights flares red ahead of me.

The cars start flowing around something.

Soon I will see what they are avoiding.

Headlights shine on the paved road texture.

They shine on a hooked beak and round face.

Feathery wings spread out their full span.

There’s an owl standing on the white dotted line between lanes.

Cars and trucks give him his distance.

Owl spreads his wings full span. Bobs his beaked head like a boxer.

Come at me, come at me, to every vehicle.

What’s with the attitude, little animal?

You’re only still alive because many strangers gave you a break and a brake.

Or maybe you’re trying to end it all.

Your little owl life got too dark and hopeless.

I come to a full stop and honk at him. He bobs his head at the car.

I lay on the horn. He flies away after a long blast.

Stubborn bird.

Drive on.

No Service

AZ Sunset

Enjoy this free story & grab my book here. None of these free stories are in the book.

I pull my truck into the little town of off-gridders & cowboys in Arizona.

Lasso-lined wooden signs. Wooden board buildings.

Red desert with pine-green gin junipers for the landscape.

Mountain peaks make purple shapes against the red sky.

I own land with my friend out there in that distance.

This town consists of one diner, one restaurant, and three auto shops.

That’s it.

That big sunset means it will be dark soon.

My tire’s rubber intestine is completely distended.

I roll into the first of the three auto body shops.

“That is the biggest bubble in a tire I have ever seen,” says a mechanic there.

He’s in a trucker cap, long beard, flannel hoodie, & jeans. Sipping a Coke on his break.

I tell him I’ll buy a replacement for cash right now if he’s got it.

He says he doesn’t have it.

Time to drive to auto shop number two.

I pull up to a fenced-in auto shop number two with a closed gate. Big flapping flags advertising their services.

The guys who work there are pounding beers inside the shop.

“Closed on Sunday,” one calls.

I call back that I’ll pay a little extra if they sell me a replacement tire today.

One brings his beer can over. Looks at the tire. I tell him the size.

He doesn’t have it.

Auto shop three, save me.

Gingerly, slowly, I pull the truck to auto shop three.

Same story. They say no.

Back at the town’s one restaurant, I call the guy who helped me fix up the truck.

He recommends asking for a tire that’s a little bigger but with the same rim size.

Auto shops one and two say they don’t have that size either.

It’s 45 minutes to the nearest Walmart. I won’t make it on this bubble. It’s taken me as far as it will go.

I pull back up to auto shop three and ask for the new size.

They can do it.

The one restaurant in town closes soon.

The truck is being jacked up.

I pull my bike out of the truck bed and ride maybe ten minutes back to the restaurant.

Order a bacon blue cheeseburger & beer.

After dinner, the new tire is ready.

I bike back to auto shop three in the dark.

Pay cash. Bike in bed. Grab my map out to the land.

New tire in place, it’s time to truck out to the land.

Fire up the engine.

But the truck starts beeping like crazy.

No matter. I’ve ignored it all cross-country journey.

Shame the beep is back right now, though. Now in the last of last legs.

Time to drive out to my land.

Out where there is no service.

To be continued