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…

No comments:

Post a Comment