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Friday
Nov092012

Memoir: El Negrito y la Niña Part 3

 

Originally published: February 21,  2002 

This is the last in a 3 part series.

During my time at the jewelry store, the climate of violence in and around the city of Bogotá dissuaded people from leaving their homes except for essentials. Rumors flew. One terrified woman, who had come into the store to pick up her jewelry, whispered that the narco traffickers were going to poison the water supply. She hurried out of the store, glancing right and left lest Pablo Escobar be lurking in the mall. 

There was talk of bombings: some based on legitimate evidence, some on wild speculation. Each threat sounded as credible as the next, leading to a generalized brewing panic. One Saturday afternoon, we closed up the store and fled after a well-connected client tipped us off that the bomb squad was at that moment trying to defuse a car bomb right outside our mall. This was true, a haggard looking Eldest confirmed when we opened for business on Monday. Still another time, as we stood in the store with a few customers, a bomb exploded three blocks away. It rocked the center, sucking at the plate glass windows, bowing them into the mall, the glass arching outward into the vacuum before the force released them to wobble- miraculously unbroken- back inward.

Business suffered terribly. The Sons could be seen taping the inside of the windows – to minimize the shrapnel should they shatter inward. They fitted removable steel shutters to the outside, to deter thieves and vandals if a bomb hit the center in the dead of night. Those of us inside the store watched and waited and had yet another tiny cup of coffee while the afternoons wore on into early evenings. As there were very few customers, there was not much for the niñas to do. Now we turned our eyes nervously to the door at the once common sounds of the city - backfires and jackhammers, the shuddering passing of a huge truck and the airy shriek of bus brakes.  

When at last Pablo Escobar was captured, the country could finally relax, at least temporarily. The devil was finally behind bars, which was a great improvement to daily life. We didn’t yet know that “bars” was just a figure of speech. Escobar was housed in a luxuriously equipped compound, from where the infamous drug lord would conduct his business without much interference. Later, of course, he would escape, and soon thereafter, he would be gunned down on a rooftop, his chubby hide riddled with police bullets.

 But that was yet to come. For the time, people were celebrating his capture and thinking about life returning to normal. Business picked up and the spring was back in the steps of the Sons. 

 I began to grow impatient and bored as the months wore on. The days were endless and I felt under utilized. I began to feel like a niña. After a rather heated exchange with Eldest – which resulted in a chagrined apology on my part – it was decided I would supervise the outfitting of the new in-house casting studio. I would also create new designs for the ever-popular (ever-dull) Equestrian line. The Brothers warned me that with this new responsibility, I would be required to spend much time in the workshop, with the common laborers, the Indios, who, they informed me, were a rough and dishonest crowd. Yes, I would need to watch my back, nodded Youngest, with satisfaction. 

And so it was that I came to work with Francisco, the stone setter, in his separate space in the glass cage, adrift in the sea of lathes, work benches, compressed gas cylinders, bent backs and busy hands smudged and blackened by polishing compound and gold filings.

Day after day, the store had smelled clean and pampered: lingering blends of cigarette smoke, coffee- old and new - and an ever-changing wind of aggressive perfumes that accompanied each new customer, male or female. In the workshop, I felt content with the consistently utilitarian smell I associated with my time as a goldsmith: a pungent brew of sweat, heated chemicals, oil of wintergreen, and simmering discontent. 

Francisco had endless patience with my Spanish, correcting my errors simply and without condescension. The depths of his black eyes, which I studied as often as I could when I looked up from my work, were steady and alert, yet full of dreams. His hands, I often thought, were too small for the tools he was required to use. The battered pliers stretched his fingertips so far from his callused thumb it utterly flattened his palm. I imagined he must have tremendous strength in those hands – that, or he was a very haphazard stone setter. Both were true, I think. Francisco had never been properly trained – that is to say, he’d never had a European apprenticeship. Where he’d learned his craft, I never asked. We rarely spoke about jewelry, even as out fingers worked obediently away on the stuff as we spoke. 

One afternoon, as we worked, Francisco told me he had something for me, and withdrew from his stained backpack a flyer, rolled up and slightly flattened in his bag, damp from the perpetual Bogotá drizzle of that October. It was an invitation to a poetry reading he had organized: “Fue la Palabra – lectura de poesia”. It was taking place that evening at the bar, Buscando America. The address was so far south in the city, I didn’t even recognize it – the north of Bogotá is where the wealthier, whiter people collect, and the south - the south held the sprawl of poorer neighborhoods, beyond which lay the outer edges of the ever-growing city. I vaguely knew these were areas where taxi drivers would charge you extra to go, neighborhoods with names like Ciudad Bolívar, and Minuto de Dios – Minute of God- where the inhabitants went without water or power because they were not recognized neighborhoods of Bogotá. Instead, they were disorganized clusters of desperate squatters with no where else to go. 

The beautiful, sepia-tone graphic on Francisco’s invitation showed God, as seen on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but rather than reaching out his right finger to Adam, he was instead grasping a quill and writing in a large book. I stammered my thanks to Francisco and awkwardly put the flyer in my bag.

But I did not go. I told myself it was too late, too far away, too daunting to find the place in this huge city. I told myself I was intimidated, that I wouldn’t have understood most of it anyway, that poetry wasn’t my thing. He’d just invited me to be polite and would be embarrassed if I actually showed up. I told myself that after work I was just too tired, that I was busy, that the cat needed to be fed. 

Next day, as he worked sleepily at his bench, Francisco accepted my apology with a smile and looked at me without criticism. Graciously, he did not tell me if he’d been disappointed, and work went on as usual. But I sensed something had changed – not on Francisco’s part, but in me. I sat next to him for the rest of the day and felt ashamed at my cowardice – for that’s what it had been. 

Although the owners of the jewelry store thought well enough of Francisco – when they gave him any thought at all - they certainly had no interest in the poetry of a black stone setter. The Negrito was a comical, if mysterious little man who, to their gratification, seemed a little better behaved than the rest of his sort. He spoke well and quietly, they noted, even dressed a little better than those others. He was remarkably clean, too, they said, this little Bohemian. They never knew and never asked if he preferred the name Francisco to the common nickname of Pacho. He confided to me that he did. It would not have occurred to the family to use anything but a diminutive when speaking to him. Francisco didn’t look angry when he told me – he went about his business of setting a small emerald, gently cutting away at the seat under the prongs with a sharp graver. I never saw him angry in the short time I knew him. He’d just get quiet. Looking at his proud, small profile, I saw absolutely no hope for him in his situation. His quick mind and spirit would languish forever in this glass prison, and he might even forget who he was and, in the end, become the negrito they all thought he was. 

 ***

Back in the US a little more than a year later, I gathered up and sent Francisco an admissions packet, including financial aid information, from Stanford University. I knew at the time it was probably a useless gesture, but I did it anyway. I didn’t know his home address, so I sent it to the jewelry store. I wish I could have seen the expressions of surprise on their faces as they examined the weighty envelope. I wonder if they bothered to give it to him.

That was all ten years ago now. I visited Bogotá once in that time, but did not go the store. I meant to, but somehow never found myself at its familiar doors. Part of me was afraid I’d still find Francisco there in his glass cage. If he was, I didn’t want to know.

 Wherever he is now, I hope he is still Francisco and not Pacho. We had a strange friendship, a delicate one that existed for a short time in the small confines of the stone setting room, where he sat with his gravers and pliers, and I with my beeswax and needle files. I was the niña, and he the Negrito, though we were neither. 

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