The brush of the mugger
I regret not doing something, not perhaps hugging the younger of the thieves who smiled up at me when he saw the look of alarm on my face. As I felt for my iPhone Xr and realized the second one this year (fucking São Paulo) had been nabbed ... I saw that look of victory on his face, his dance around my left front as I turned in the parade crowd on Paulista was where my head turned to as his colleague lifted the phone out of my hip pocket. Fucking oversized iPhone. My bowels tightened. A scowl formed and in a millisecond I opted for safety. I've regretted moving on through the crowd several times, but today I agree with my intuition around it. I remember another time my bowels seized up in that way. I was urinating somewhere near (somehow on) the Paul Biya presidential parade grounds just across from the Hilton in Yaoundé. A relative in Tennessee once died by pissing on a power source, so I should have known better. I was not drunk and pissing on the street in Cameroon was not uncommon. The two soldiers galloped toward me cradling submachine guns. I had finished peeing. The ordeal of being bribed lasted for over an hour. Given that I had succeeded in not shitting my pants (this would not happen until much later in Mexico City at the book stall), I summoned some unique courage that found me toying with the presidential parade grounds guards. I suggested several ways around the 60,000 CFA they requested... until they simply let me go. I was headed to Mbalmayo, where I still made it for fish dinner with the Teutchou's. No, danger was not experienced in the the public-viewable huts where the guards were stationed. However, there (Yaoundé) too were brushes. My colleagues kept falling prey to a scam whereby change was dropped over your lap when you were sandwiched in the back of a share cab. I doubted that I could be taken with such a scam. I had however almost fallen for the 'wallet finding / blessing' trick if not for the plainclothes cop in the marketplace behind the parade grounds. I think it is common to gently pat a large sum of money when it's in your pocket. When I encourage guests in São Paulo not to get out their fucking iPhones (or require me to get mine out to find them:), it is because I remember that I was tracked for a short stretch before being invited into the Yaoundé share cab. That they had seen me patting my right cargo-pant pocket with an envelop holding 100,000 CFA. I was headed back to Batouri in the East Province, and the money was for a community project. I had ridden that fucking dirt road all day and another to get back with the cash. The change first fell over my lap at the boulangerie. The little girl in the front seat was going to school. The driver I think got her a croissant. I cannot tell you if the pretty little girl knew what was happening, and I did not hold it against her. I could not imagine falling for a scam whereby I would not have time to react to a razor blade gently slicing open my pant pocket. Even if I didn't feel the incision, I would see the frayed cloth as it was already the area (of my person) I would have scanned over and over during that interminable car ride to the bus station. I didn't reach the bus station directly. We called the five-row, wood bench 25 seat Renaults 'prison wagons'. By the time you reached Bertoua or Batouri it would seem like a prison term. I'm told the road is now finally paved. After all I had not had so much luck with the prop-jet flight after my tussle with the East Province delegate of Air Cameroon. Only a 45 minute flight, but one had to have special permission from the boss to use the plane. I was a peace corps volunteer. My wife and I lived in Batouri for two years. Her folks visited along with her brother. For some reason on the return flight to the capital, Yaoundé the delegate wanted to fuck with me, an otherwise good and regular gringo client. I'd never seen him put a gringo off the plane ... only locals. Like if some attaché to the governor rolled up and wanted to fly to the capital he would easily kick a young Cameroonian off the 19 seat plane. My former father-in-law and brother-in-law are pilots. Like why would he want to embarrass me in front of my family? He did something else too... we didn't speak about it, but it was something. My wife did something we were not accustomed to doing. She attempted to bribe the delegate. It was her parents and brother after all. From behind the counter he pulled away from her saying 'Madame, s'il vous plait' in a way that made it seem she had sexually propositioned him. I of course would be the one who would not fly when he offered us four boarding passes for the five tickets I'd purchased. I would send my family on, and (what?), take the 10+ hour bus ride? I would need to say goodbye here as I couldn't possibly make it to Douala in time to see them at the airport before their flight back to Atlanta. By forcing my way on the plane, I managed to egg an airport military type onto the small plane with his big gun. I cannot say that my bowels seized up so much as I felt differently out of control. I was literally rabid with a calculated rage that had enlisted the Cape Verdean pilot telepathically. I needed a hero for that moment as I could already sense my wife disapproved of what she deemed bravado. It was after all her cowering brother who required me to force my attempt onto the plane twice. Had he not frozen in the doorway the first time, the guard would not have been so close as to board the plane before the Cape Verdean pilot interceded, saying something like 'hey bucko, it's your airport and my plane'. If memory serves he offered to the delegate a choice of removing his guard or he would fly the plane back without the passengers queued up to board. I had instructed my family to be the first to board the plane no matter what. The Cape Verdean pilot had clued me to his reaction in our short conversation. This would be a premeditated act, and he would know when to jump in. Implicitly he would carry us home. I would not ride that prison wagon two ways and not put up a fight. Again, something my wife did not approve of. The change fell again over my lap as we descended the hill past the church and market place, approaching the parade grounds. The driver informed me that he would need to change course and that I need not pay for the ride so far. At this point, as he'd come to a stop, I noticed a tear in my pants and the soft of my leg where an envelop had been. This time the thief to my right (already on the street) dropped a wrapped chewing gum on the ground and asked me to retrieve it. I could not see the razor blade. I yelped at him to give me my money back. I had not seen him pass the envelope behind / under my right back side to the other thief to my left. My luggage was in the trunk so I needed to watch three things / directions / players ... it had dawned on me by now that the driver must be an accomplice. That his stopping point had been planned in advance. I could be scammed this way after all. The thief to the right threw the wad across the backseat toward me and they disappeared as I went for it, also 'holding on' to the car before it could leave. I retrieved 80k and my luggage. I was exhausted by the time I slumped onto the bench of the prison wagon. All synapses fired or firing with a reverse telepathy of how you were surveilled. I felt this again last year in Berlin when the Spanish guy followed me to yet a third bar, not fully understanding how he'd gotten the money out of my wallet at the first bar. Retreat, sometimes, I thought as I mouthed the words (almost to myself) 'you (spanish mugger) need to give me some space right now.' A couple decades on I accept the brush of the mugger and disengage where I once would engage.
This is poem was dedicated to Ismar Tirelli Neto at a particular moment. It also set up a query on willful 'mugging' that comes up again in O Malandro, stanza 1.