October 28, 2010

El Peatón

The tone of this blog has been rather abstract, literary and full of densely layered psychological and symbolic meaning. I intend to inject some action into these paragraphs with an incident that I have alluded to in recent postings but never divulged fully. I am omitting certain key details, such as exactly where and exactly when the incident took place and the reason for these omissions will become obvious as you read this account. Anonymity and a delicate dose of fiction, as I mentioned in my previous posting, can be an effective shield. If the story is to be told, it must be from under that shield. I was inspired to share this story from editorials I read in two separate newspapers here in Bogotá today, each lamenting the dangers of the pedestrian bridges around the city and the numerous robberies and violent assaults that take place there each night after the sun goes down. El Tiempo hasn’t posted today’s editorials in their web archive yet, but here is a related story of a women being robbed, beaten and stabbed on a pedestrian bridge not far from here.
http://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/CMS-7737054Now that I have set the context, let us begin the story.

I take the Transmilenio everyday as I move about the city. I practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at night, I have friends who live on the other side of the city from whose homes I sometimes return at night, and I have been out later for job interviews several times. The area where the Transmilenio, that hybrid metro-bus system, let’s me off late at night when there is limited service is what has seemed most dangerous as the streets are dark, trash strewn and populated by an odd cast of ugly hookers, drug addled vagrants and petty criminals hustling what they can. But ironically it wasn’t through one of these slums that violence found me this night, it was late at night on a pedestrian bridge near the Transmilenio. These pedestrian bridges, frequent ambush zones, as the news article attest, are high in the center to accommodate the largest vehicles, and have long ramps on the side that wind back and forth. The perfect site for an armed robbery.

I am moderately vigilant during the day but I am hyper-vigilant when I walk at night. I saw the man on the bridge in front of me before I got on and I suspected he might be trouble before I got close. I also saw the two men behind me and took note of their quick pace as they rushed to catch up to me as I made my way across the bridge. As I had reached the top of the bridge but had not yet crossed the road, the man already on the bridge moved to intercept me as his two accomplices neared from the other direction. They had me at a choke point. The drop was maybe thirty feet to a paved sidewalk area below. Few vehicles pass this point at night and even those that did would be in little position to notice much less help thwart any crimes happening above them. We were as alone as we could be in a city of eight million inhabitants.

My reaction to threatening individuals on the street has been to watch their hands for weapons. Usually, the only object I spot is a bottle or a cell phone, but not this night. The man in front now had a knife in his hand and a quick glance behind me revealed another knife in the hands of one of those two men. My own knife, a 3 inch iodized black Benchmade folder that will lock open with a snap of the wrist, was clipped to my pocket. I never go anywhere in this city without it.

In my front right pocket I had my wallet with my credit cards. In my back left pocket, I kept a second wallet with an empty Visa debit card and a thousand peso note, in the hope that I could someday satisfy or distract a thief with it. I did not like the odds I was up against on this night. I looked at their faces and I didn’t see the fear that I often see in the faces of such people who are about to commit some crime. They were not new to this. Their faces said to me “we have done this before, we have stabbed and robbed men for far less and your blood matters not to us”. I had little doubt that they would injure or kill me if given the chance. I did not intent to give them that chance. Perhaps I am foolish or just unwise, but I don’t feel much fear in these situations and I never panic. My thinking becomes very cool, quick and calculated in these moments of urgency. I feel stronger and the expectation of violence feels almost pleasurable sometimes. I am not sure which should be more frightening in reality, this feeling within myself or the danger around me.

All three of them were almost on me, but their pace had slowed. I didn’t wait for them to ask for my money, I announced it, as I reached into my back pocket for the decoy wallet. “Voy a sacar mi cartera… aquí está…” –I am going to take out my wallet… here it is… -- I said to them as I produced my wallet and offered it to the unarmed man. My other hand had already palmed out my knife and my thumb was in the hole that snaps it open in an instant. Their attention was on my wallet at the moment though, and not on the blacked black that was concealed in my right hand.

I held to him lower than we comfortable, which compelled him to bend forward to reach for it. Both of his companions were close by with their weapons in my direction, but for a moment the unarmed man was between us. As he bent forward to take the wallet from my outstretched hand, I snapped my own knife out and twisting my entire upper body around, bringing my blade with my arm in a whip-like motion that caught him across the throat. The blade of my knife cut deep into his throat from one side to the other and his veins and arteries were wide open before he knew what had happened. A single spurt of blood shot to one side at first, then as the pressure dropped an instant later, the entire front of his throat just poured blood. I did not have time to contemplate the vacant look of shock in his eyes as he clutched his neck and fell forward. I moved quickly enough to avoid him and the blood as well as I could.

The other two men were obviously the more dangerous. One of them was momentarily blocked by the body of the thief whose throat I had just slit, so I moved to disable the other man first. When facing a knife, you can either fight at a distance and attempt to cut his knife hand every time he enters to attack your center of mass, or you can close the distance and engage him from inside. The first option requires patience and space, neither of which I had. So I closed the distance before he could put his weapon to use. When closing the distance on an opponent wielding a knife, the most important detail is whether his knife arm is on the inside or the outside of your body. Either way presents options for effective counters, but they are different. In this case, I charged at his center so that his knife hand was to the left of my body. Judo is a martial art that focuses on the use of leverage and balance to control and ultimately through an opponent. Judo is normally practiced in a heavy uniform ideal for gripping. This man was wearing the next best thing: a leather jacket. I switched my own knife to my left hand as I closed with him, leaving my right hand free to grab his jacket lapel. My other hand, now holding the knife loosely, just had to block his knife and guide his knife arm to complete the throw. The throw I performed is called

morote soei nage.

By pulling his lapel strongly towards me, turning my back to him, dropping to a squatting position while pulling him over my shoulder, I succeeded in pulling him completely over top of me. I had done this throw thousands upon thousands of times on the mats while training in judo and had some success with it in tournaments as well. The difference being that in this case when my opponent was pulled over my head he didn’t slap the mat below us. I finished the throw facing the edge of the bridge and the man in the leather jacket continued in a parabolic arc over the end. I didn’t watch him hit the pavement thirty feet below, but I heard a sickening thwak as what I later imagined was his face slamming into the ground. Only maybe five or six seconds had passed in total, but now the odds were much more in my favor.

I ended in a position to now face the third attacker, who was on my other side. I rushed into him before he could slash or stab effectively with his knife. I was on his outside this time though, in contrast to the first man. I did what is known as “jamming” him, as I tackled his knife side and clutched his weapon arm to my chest as I charged into him. I knew his natural reaction would be to tear it free and I was not in a position to apply most of the jiu-jistu shoulder locks I knew. But simple shoulder pressure from that point, a staple of Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, worked beautifully. As I kept control of his knife arm, I torqued my body into his shoulder. This put a lot of pressure into his shoulder joint and should have been able to bring him down. But somehow he changed his stance and fought out from it and I lost the pressure. For the first time in the encounter, I experienced the smallest measure of apprehension as I felt myself begin to lose control of my opponent.

But then I realized that as he was focusing on wrenching his arm free, his footing was now unstable. I quickly switched my hips and pulled his arm off my chest for just long enough to sweep his legs out from under him. He hit the bridge with his back and head like dead weight, and I followed him down. I swung one leg over his body and the other leg I braced against the side of his head, with his arm between my thighs and his elbow beneath my hips. I had what is known as an arm-bar in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In practice, we are taught to raise our hips slowly, exerting pressure our pelvis against the elbow joint. I did not move slowly but instead squeezed my knees together and thrust my hips up as hard as I could manage. I felt his elbow dislocate as I did and his grip on the knife was released. I didn’t care to stay on the ground for long, so as soon as I felt him release the knife, I scrambled to my feet and kicked the knife away. The first man was lying unmoving, his face sideways and his eyes open and unblinking, so I ignored him. The man whose arm I had broken began to curse and clutch his arm. I stood over him. It felt so easy to lift up my leg, lift it up as high as I could, and bring the heel of my shoe down on his face. Then again. And again. I kicked him in the throat. I stepped on his head and felt his skull bounce off the surface of the bridge. After several more stomps, he stopped even the blood choked gurgling noise he was making and lay still, so I let him be.

I had some blood on my shoes by them, which I was not happy about. I also noticed then that I had blood on my knife. I wiped the blade off on the pants of first man, then closed it and clipped it back onto my pocket. I picked up the decoy wallet again and replaced it into my pocket. After the event is when I felt winded and shaky. My legs shook, my hands shook and even my back and chest seemed to shake. I think clearly when I am in danger, but afterwards I feel the effects. I left the bridge and decided not to take the bus at all. I walked off my anxiety and I felt almost normal thirty blocks later as I neared my apartment building.

You can understand why I don’t want to provide too many details about where or when this event took place, and even, for those who don’t already know me, who I am exactly. If anyone who is reading this lives in Bogotá, I must caution you against using the pedestrian bridges at night (or in the early morning hours too). And I must also caution any thieves reading this: I will still be using those pedestrian bridges at night. You have been warned.

October 20, 2010

The Passport

A light rain had passed away perhaps a half hour before but the clouds remained, obscuring the dying light of the early evening in Bogotá. It rains or drizzles most days in Bogotá and when it isn’t raining we have the protection of somber gray clouds. On this night, darkness seemed to descend quietly, gently, earlier than usual and I was left with an unsettling feeling of emptiness. It was not only emptiness, but the sensation that something meaningful was coming to an end. I absentmindedly ran my fingers over my knife, clipped to my pocket, a hole in the blade for my thumb to snap it open in an instant. The rough ridges along its edge reminded me of the bloody violence I had done with it. They reminded me of its potential. I felt hollow again. The flea market is full of color and life in the morning. But later it dies a slow death. Endings: On Sundays the street people congregate around several of the plazas to sell the garbage that they find or steal during the week. This is where tonight’s story begins, on the edge of this zone of desperate poverty.

I wandered slowly through what passes here for a flea market (though the term is perhaps more appropriate here than elsewhere) running my eyes over the worthless detritus swept from the city by this wave of scavengers. Earlier in the day, it is a real market and there are items for sale that have value. But by the end, everyone who has someplace better to be has left, anything worthwhile has been sold and all that is left is an odd assortment of broken, forgotten, mismatched junk. There was a computer keyboard from the 1980s, a broken piece of a telephone, hundreds of tiny porcelain figurines, cables and connectors that may have been torn from an abandoned building, and tattered and mismatched clothing of all descriptions. Certain scavengers seemed to specialize in just cell phone accessories and their dirty and mismatched wares were laid neatly on blankets. There were no tables. Everything was arrayed on blankets that could be rolled up when night fell and would later serve to keep the vendors warm while huddled against some building.

To me, everything I saw by this time held negative value. It was utterly useless to me, would take up space in my life and carried the risk of disease as an additional danger in some cases. At least those were the calculations that ran through my head. The people peddling these trinkets and pieces of refuse were dirty and listless, no doubt enduring years of invisibility or outright disgust at the hands of the rest of Bogotá. Curiously, I sensed no feeling of community or comradeship among these people who shunned each other, or just gazed silently and who on other days seemed to wander the streets alone.

It was dusk when I passed through and most of vendors were in the process of rolling up their blankets and moving off throughout the city. Many had already left. On the edge of this curious gathering I glanced over yet another blanket filled with small electronics, porcelain figures, old records, tattered paperbacks and one item that caught my eye. It stood out from the rest immediately. It was rectangular, red and about the size of a paperback but thinner. The official seal of Colombia was embossed on the cover.

It was a Colombian passport. I stopped. Perhaps it was the “officialness” that caught my eye and held my attention. Or maybe it was just something about the mood that hung in the air. I reached down and thumbed it open. A man with short, neatly trimmed curly hair stared back at me. He was born in 1969. In the photo, he didn’t look so different from me. I read his name and forgot it. I glanced at the man selling the passport but he wasn’t interested enough to even pay attention to me. It was not his passport. Had he stolen it? Had he found it? Impossible to say, but it seemed to hold as little value for him as all of the other odds and ends held for me.

At one time, this document had been valuable to someone. This was a representation of someone’s identity. With this document the man in the photo was permitted to travel the world. With this photo a man could prove that he was a person, a citizen of a nation, and not a nameless and dislocated vagabond. Perhaps this is why the street scavenger didn’t value the passport. He had no identity. The concept of identity, of belonging, had slipped away from him.

I did not move. I did not release the passport. I was captivated. First, it was the fantasy of buying it and assuming that other identity. Becoming someone else would be leaving behind who I am or it could be just stepping into that other skin. It would be like being invisible. What would you do if you were invisible? What did these invisible people on the street do? The comparison is not adequate though. The identity of this man on the passport represented freedom to me in that brief instant but the very concept of government issued identification is one of bondage. Colombia has a system of national identification cards, la cédula, that is far more rigid and inclusive than the United States. To name someone, to identity them, to force them to produce this name and personal data on demand: is a manner of control. In the most basic sense, we assert our control over the world by naming, by applying language and labels to everything around us. It is no accident that this was the power ceded by God to Adam in Hebrew myth, because by naming all the creatures of the Earth he could assert his dominion over them. Likewise, in many cultures the true name of a demon or other evil spirit is the means to defeat it.

With that passport I would be Colombian. It offered me protection. It offered me escape. The red faux leather cover was different than my American passport. Would the red hide the blood? The passport was undamaged and untarnished, and the paper was only slightly aged by the years. It felt light in my hand. Endings. Beginnings. I was at the seashore and the ocean lapped at my feet. It was cold and reminded me of the vastness of the ocean. The seaweed had been brought up by the tide and lay stinking all around me. From within the tangled mess of rotting plant matter, I saw a conch shell, untouched by the action of the waves. I plucked it from the knotted cords of green and brown and held it to my ear. I looked into the endless ocean and the crashing waves as I listened to the conch. It whispered in my ear, “Colombia… Colombia… Colombia…” as softly as if it were the amplified sound of my own inner ear. As I held the conch to my ear, blood began to slowly drip from it. Threw its twists and turns there came a trickle of warm red liquid. This is what it offered me. The blood began to spill onto my hand and run down my arm. Right then I made the decision to be rid of the conch. I didn’t throw it back to the depths but instead dropped it at the edge of the water, among the seaweed. Perhaps the next wanderer would see the value as I had.

The passport now out of my hand, I felt its pull. It could grant me my darkest wishes. Fear and desire seemed to hang over it. I looked back at its current owner but he seemed to not comprehend the value of the object between us. He looked absently at the few scattered people passing or maybe a stray dog in the distance. I straightened back up and returned to my world. If I wasn’t careful, I could drown in those dark waters. I headed back home in the dying light of a Sunday evening. I absently ran my fingers over the black metal of my knife, folded neatly in my pocket. The hollow man was there on the ground behind me. Between the potency and the existence, between the essence and the descent: fell the shadow. Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act: fell the shadow. This is the way it all ends. This is the way it all…