I was walking to the office on Friday afternoon when someone yelled at me:
—¡I`ll grab you and kill you, you bastard!
There were so many people on the street that I didn`t know who he was referring to; In addition, the place where I work, as well as the type of functions that I have to fulfill, has me soundproofed from all kinds of insults and threats against me.
—I think he is talking to you —said a shoe presser whom I greet whenever I pass through the little park before arriving at the office.
—That? —I asked, stopping.
—I`d run if I was —he continued.
—I don`t know what you`re talking about —I assured.
At that moment I heard the screams of a young man who was waiting for me under a huge ceiba tree a few meters from the church:
—You! Yes, I`m talking to you! Come see you motherfucker, if you`re so brave!
I`m definitely not “so” or “very” brave, especially after all the things I`ve seen in my line of work, from bottlenecks to coworkers to knives and people holding them with real intent to kill. On one occasion, during the Covid-19 quarantine, in 2021, an entire neighborhood came upon us when we were carrying out the Neronian task of keeping businesses closed by mandate of the Bogotá Mayor`s Office. I remember the call I made to Diana as soon as we fled in the office car: “They tried to kill me!”, I yelled at her in a high-pitched voice that surprised even me. Diana started yelling with me on the other end of the line, because something like that doesn`t happen to pampered people like us. “WHAT HAPPENED?”, she yelled. “A neighborhood fell on us!”, I told her, and despite the fact that there were about twenty people who chased us around, I exaggerated the sum by a hundred, so that she would know how brave I am.
Speaking of appearing brave, Diana was no calmer after that, but in reality things weren`t as dire as they seemed; it was not an attack by the guerrillas, the BACRIM, the paramilitaries or any of the thousands of horrors that inhabit this country. In addition, after that time, many others followed it very much in its style. It is not uncommon for us to be showered with stones after a round; in fact, it is normal that knives are drawn at us, or that they send us anonymous letters promising a horrible death “when we least expect it”.
Two years have passed since then. Now we are in 2023, more specifically, on an afternoon of twenty twenty-three. It could be said that I am inoculated in favor of threats and insults from people. Those, “when you least expect it”, are quite common and one takes them as a joke. Between colleagues we say to each other by way of greeting “How is everything going?”, and the other responds: “Fine. When you least expect it”. It makes us laugh a lot to consider the possibility that someone wants to kill us. Of course, one does not spend time thinking about all the macabre things that one human being can do to another, because fear does not pay for rent, food or services. We must go out and do everything in the best possible way, is what I try to say here. I also want to make it clear that I got used to the violence that I must see, smell and feel on a daily basis. However, if I don`t pee in my pants every time I face a situation of extreme violence, it is because I have police accompaniment in each of the operations.
Speaking about the police, it would be really nice to have a security force holding my hand on the way to work like a congressman, at least to have someone running with me when a hundred citizens want to hurt me. In the specific case I am talking about, I am referring to Friday afternoon in the year 2023, there was no police accompaniment. I was surrounded by people who didn`t care if someone wanted to snuff me out of life. Only the madman who insulted me and I existed at that moment. The show baller was there too, but he did nothing except comment on what was happening:
—He is hungry about you, doctor!" —e told me.
“Hungry”, when used in the context of someone wanting to hurt someone else, means that they are very angry at them. It also means that he`s willing to kick his ass in for whatever reason.
—I`m not afraid of anyone! —I told the show baller, when in reality what I wanted to do was ask him for help.
However, and despite imagining that the life of an show baller is quite hard, and, therefore, they know how to defend themselves from all kinds of violent encounters, the man would be eighty years old at most and with each of his movements, his limbs hurt him; they creaked like a rusty closet hinge. “So, who can help me?”, I wondered at the time. The police did not show up in passing, which happens from time to time, and the people who were paying attention in the park, surely smacking their lips at the drama of others, remained where they were without deciding to intervene with a word of sympathy or a courageous action.
Speaking of courageous actions, I remember a few years ago I was walking through the streets of Melbourne, and I saw a man stop a woman from getting out of the car. The woman screamed and cried desperately. He would call her by her name and her guy would answer hers, insulting her with "Fucking bitch!" and “stupit cunt!”. I remember thinking “it`s about a kidnapping”, because I had just arrived from Colombia and that kind of horror often happens here. However, I was in the capital of Victoria, in the state of Australia, where such situations rarely occur. What does happen, both in first and third world countries, are love quarrels. I suppose it is one of the few things that unites us as a race: the conflicts of love. Now, for a man to insult and prevent a woman from getting out of a car, is quite rare to witness in Australia. There, violence against women is punished quickly and severely. Not for that reason, it stops happening.
“Fucking bitch!”, the man was yelling at the woman in the car that beautiful summer morning in Melbourne. No one dared to stop, because the man was one of those guys with a sleeveless shirt and arms as thick as legs. I had stopped, but I couldn`t decide to do something. A lady was standing next to me and looked at me as if expecting some heroic action. I wanted to do something impressive, something that would make me feel as strong as the guy in the sleeveless shirt; but the truth is that I was afraid to do anything. I thought of saying or shouting something, and yet the fear was stronger than me. The lady, for her part, seeing that I couldn`t decide to do anything, she took a step forward and with a voice thicker than mine, she shouted:
—Leave her alone!
—"Fuck off!" —the man yelled, addressing me too, because I was one of the few people who looked without doing more than that: staring scared shitless.
I would like to say that I did as much or more than the lady to help that woman, but the truth is that I walked away feeling the weight of my cowardice. The man was huge and muscled, and it certainly would have been easy for him to beat me up for no reason. In any case, to this day, eight years after the "event" in Melbourne, I feel that I could have done something. That I should have done something.
The repentance that arises from an act of cowardice is tangible and palpable to the point where, just remembering it, shame hangs over my current airs. That idea that you have made of yourself regarding the place you occupy in the world collapses when you bring back from the past all those times when you could have acted heroically. The Melbourne woman is just one of many memories that I keep in my trunk of shame and that it comes to visit me every time vanity makes me forget how fallible my character is.
Now, Friday afternoon was one of the rare occasions when my cowardice was justified. Just this morning, here in Bogotá, the news reported on the murder of two police officers in the area where I work. "An ambush by organized crime," they said on the radio. “FARC dissidents”, said the press. Paramilitaries. Drug dealers. Simple robbers with dreams of greatness. How to differentiate one from the other? How do you know that whoever insults you on the street for no apparent reason is not one of them? The terrifying Black Eagles. The Gulf Clan. The Transmilenio robber who costs nothing to stab you to keep your cell phone.
If you think about it that way, anything from leaving the house in the morning to getting the attention of a person who cuts the line at the supermarket is scary. That is to say, if two perfectly armed policemen with bulletproof vests and a vehicle included are assassinated in the street, what can an ordinary citizen expect? With my district card, in which I appear with my eyes half closed, I can`t stop the bullets. Nor can the entity`s brightly colored jacket protect me from a bottle hit on the head.
Now, on Friday afternoon, I did not know that someone would remind me of the dangers that we must overcome daily on the street. I was at peace with myself and the world, and I was making plans with Diana for Saturday. I was thinking about going to our favorite restaurant in Bogotá: El patio, where Andrés Garzón would put on an apron and pretend to serve customers. “We`ll have a couple of bottles of white wine —I thought aloud—, and we`ll order meat with pepper; then we will look for dessert in the Macarena and we will go to the cinema for the night`s show”. Nothing could ruin my spirits having such delicious expectations for the near future, the great now that slips through our hands like sand from the sea that we so rarely visit, because we work so much, or because we are afraid of flying by plane. Until… until I walked through a park on a sunny Friday afternoon.
A long time ago I did not feel so afraid in this city. It is true that most of my writings talk about the day-to-day insecurity in Bogotá, and by God I would not dare to complain to someone for the fact of skipping the Oxxo line. However, one gets used to everything in this life. Seeing how the guard of a building kicks up a homeless person who is sleeping in the entrance, makes me nothing but disgust. Disgust for our lack of empathy and especially for mine. In such an infected society we are smeared with what we fear the most. In my case, being a cowardly peaceful person, I caught the apathy of the ordinary citizen. That doesn`t mean I feel any less afraid when someone pushes me on the Transmilenio. Nor do I stop feeling terrified if I walk down the street at night and a couple of young people cross my path with the confidence of someone who knows that they can turn you into shit if they wanted to. Unless it`s daylight and you`re crossing a crowded park. Common sense tells you that there is less chance of something bad happening to you if it is daylight and you are surrounded by people. But, common sense is, as my uncle Daniel says, "the least common of the senses". By this I mean that, to be a raging madman, you don`t have to have common sense. You don`t have to be crazy not to have common sense either. You can be a maniac and at the same time have a practical sense for things in life. Heinrich Himmler, the so-called "holocaust architect" in Nazi Germany, was known for his organizational skills. That didn`t mean he was less crazy or less genocidal; still and all, common sense or not, Colombia is the Twilight Zone regarding the proper way things should go. Something like accidentally stepping on a man on the bus and getting stabbed for it is beyond practicality. If you have the nature of a monster and you don`t give a damn about murdering someone, why would you do it in broad daylight and surrounded by people? Maybe you think that you are so evil, that no one would dare to catch you. Or maybe you`re sick of killing people and want to get caught. Be that as it may, the guy who stabbed a fourteen-year-old boy at the Ricaurte station in Bogotá in 2022, was caught at the next stop and received his well-deserved sentence. It`s not that it matters too much when it`s you who gets murdered, I mean, what can it interest you that justice works quickly after they beat your life to death? Sacrificing your life to demonstrate the effectiveness of the judicial system is an imbecile bet that only a suicide bomber would dare to make. Still and with everything, if it happens to you, you will become a good example of what happens to people like you when they go around the world dreaming things that do not harm anyone, because your insignificant pleasures, like getting drunk with Diana in a fancy restaurant on Saturday night, poses no threat to the dark forces of the world; and yet someone you don`t know feels a homicidal passion for your poor humanity. Just think about the waste of energy that a person gives off when trying to hit you. Imagine for a moment that you are in the mind of someone to whom you produce such a burst of adrenaline, that he does not mind exposing his plans in front of a dozen witnesses. From the start, you infer that this is not a mastermind of crime. Judging by what he says, if he`s not drunk or high, he must be slightly mentally retarded. Or maybe he escaped from a mental institution. The possibilities are endless, and I certainly don`t want to test the lucky stars that have been with me since I arrived in this city six years ago.
Six years. They feel like a lifetime. A lifetime in which I have not been robbed. In a country like Colombia, it is quite a feat. On none of the continents I have set foot on, I have never been taken from my belongings. I walk relatively calmly through the streets, because I feel that a person reflects in the world what he carries inside. If you are a homicidal maniac, all you will see in others is death and destruction. What do you carry inside? What I have inside? What was the madman who threatened me on Friday afternoon have inside? I would like to say that I stayed to find out. Had I been someone else, a man anointed with heroism and bravery, I would surely tell quite a different story. Or maybe I wouldn`t count any, because one goes to know the intentions of the furious madman with whom you insult each other in the street. Fortunately, my cowardice or "common sense" made me run away. I don`t even know how I got to the office, however, the doorman told me that it looked as if I had the Devil on my back.
—Not on my back —I replied—, I left it in the park."
Being a Friday afternoon, there was no one in the office. Of course, I appreciated it, because fear is difficult to hide and I didn`t want to explain it to anyone. I did have to explain myself to Diana and that`s why I thought of calling her, to tell her how brave I am, but I regretted it, because she always knows when I`m lying, besides, at least that`s how it happens in literature, whenever you talk about yourself and you lie, it shows. So I didn`t do one thing or the other. I went to the bathroom and combed my hair with water. I tucked my shirt into my pants, I wore the district`s brightly colored jacket, I sipped a cup of red wine and burned my mouth terribly, I said goodbye to the doorman and went out to face the world once more, because no one will wait for you to stop being afraid. Much less in this city where only the brave prevail, and it is precisely for this reason, because I want to "prevail" forever, that I will not cross that damn park again. I don`t mind taking a forty-minute walk to get to work; in fact, even if I had to climb a mountain every day to avoid Friday afternoon madness, I would. And I`ll do it. Because this world is pretty brutal, but at the same time it`s not. Today, particularly, it is not. It`s not that anything has changed; today is simply a good day so that they don`t beat your life out of you. Of course, it`s never a good time for something like this to happen, but the scarlet clouds high in the sky remind me that it`s time to go home and that makes me unspeakably optimistic. I can`t promise I`ll say the same thing tomorrow, but I swear I`ll try to remember my own words for when I need them.
And you, the four idiots who made it to the end of this writing, I really hope you feel this way today. And if it is not like that, if you are living the worst moment of your lives, don`t worry. A moment is the fraction of something that is yet to come. Good or bad, it`s just part of the experience. The experience of getting your face kicked in while walking through a park on a sunny Friday afternoon.