Originally Published: February 7, 2002
This is the first in a 3 part series.
Francisco was a small man with a ticking restlessness, whose state of poverty rarely affected his affability. He remained intact, even while being reprimanded by the white men who employed him. When called into their presence, his soul would seem to politely absent his dark eyes. His voice, a soft, ranging woodwind, became prudently atonal. I can picture his ironed shirt angling off his narrow outline as they berated him, the starched cotton exuding a mutinous nudge of sassiness.
I knew him for less than a year starting in the summer of 1989 while living in Bogotá. Sitting side by side in the cramped workshop, he a stone setter and I a goldsmith, Francisco and I labored on the same side of the thick glass that separated us from the others. There were 8 or so furtive, muttering jewelers, who slid occasional glances at us - the odd couple. But Francisco and I spoke about art and music, film, literature and the world, and I got to listen to his gentle laugh. His light hammer tapped against the steel punch, coaxing a bezel over the curve of a stone. I always looked forward to my afternoons with Francisco, the anticipation of which made my workday bearable.
He was a delicate young man – even the owners of the business saw that. They’d set him apart from the rest of the workshop lest the hooligans abuse him. Truth was, they all got along fine, the workers saving their bitterness for their employers. The owners, in turn, constantly feared thievery, and it was a fact that Francisco worked with expensive gems. By separating their stone setter from the general riff-raff that handled the less elite aspects of jewelry making, they’d know who to blame if a gem went missing. Blame was an important thing – with blame went punishment, and that was always an effective deterrent to other would-be thieves. It was important, the owners often said, to know how to handle these people - the Indios and the Blacks.
The business, a retail jewelry store, was situated on the upper level of a decaying indoor mall, part of a bleak perimeter surrounding an escalator that operated fitfully, and then, never with both sides working simultaneously. Sullen clerks haunted the shops, slouching against doorways, arms supporting elbows as they inspected the smoke from their cigarettes. Their eyes would wander to the only thing in view that was likely to be moving – the bent and toothless old women whose job it was to polish the pocked marble floors. Back and forth the battered machine would sweep over footprints left by the clerks themselves - no customer had passed that way in days. The floors were littered with smashed cigarettes and the old woman with the polisher simply swept the butts off to the side, no longer bothering to pick them up.
“Se Arrienda”-for rent- signs were taped to many of the windows that had once looked in on thriving businesses. The bomb that went off the previous week just around the corner, taking with it a prominent emerald dealer and several innocent bystanders, had finally compelled the mall administration to seal off all but one of the double glass doors that opened into the lower level. Inside and out, all benches and trash cans had been removed, to lessen the temptation to hide explosives in or near them, and the public rest rooms were closed until further notice. It was not an inviting place to shop.
The finicky escalator deposited its passengers where the jewelry store and its affiliated unmarked workshop were situated. The sales people and other higher-eschelon employees would turn left, go past the armed doorman and into the store. The obreros – workers like Francisco – would turn right, and knock on the door of the workshop. The two were separated by a narrow, now gutted travel agency.
The retail store itself was an elegant place where tourists, braving the cavernous mall, came to choose their emeralds and 18k gold reproductions of ancient indigenous designs. These shiny replicas originated from the excavations of cultures with exotic names like Tiarona, Guimbaya, Tumaco, Sinu. The local population of non-Indian Bogotanos - the established upper crust and nouveau riche alike - preferred the equestrian baubles that targeted the country club set, while the occasional Mafioso with time on his hands, might stop by to ogle the Rolexes.
Through an odd set of circumstances I found myself an employee of this family owned business. Since my arrival in Bogotá, my stint teaching English at the language institute Interlingua had proven unsatisfactory – the paltry salary did not seem equal to the amount of work that went into preparing the classes, nor did I enjoy the teaching. I found that maneuvering myself around the city to get to the on-site classes more of a risk than I was prepared to take, given the cannibalistic nature of the drivers. Most of them were unsympathetic to the natural frailty of pedestrians and their plight in a city where sidewalks, at least in those days, were the exception.
There was also the issue of my permanent visa and work permit – neither of which I yet possessed. Some employers were particular – others were not. Interlingua proved to be of the second variety, and was thrilled to have a native English speaker, regardless of her legal status.
But within a few weeks, I wanted out. The students were rich and whiny, or fawning and overly chummy, or simply careless - all too smug in the knowledge that their employer was paying for the classes and giving them time off to attend. Whether they studied or not was immaterial. Worst of all, when confronted with the occasional earnest student, I found myself too transparently unlearned to explain why the duplicitous English language was the way it was.
My chance to leave came, strangely, from one of the Interlingua administrators, a middle-aged Dutch woman with brightly aggressive English, who seemed to begin every sentence with a perky, “Let’s do saaamething…” before dishing out her orders - as if anyone had a say in the outcome after that broad “a” neutered any hope of negotiations. She told me that a friend of hers had married into the ruling family of one of the finest jewelry stores in the city. She’d known from my resume that I was a goldsmith, and suggested, with a curt, business-like smile, that I call one of the sons for an interview. It was clearly a delicate way of severing our relationship by getting me hired elsewhere. I had the feeling that she, as an Interlingua lifer, was jealous I was getting out while still young.
I was trying desperately not to spill my tiny cup of strong, black coffee all over my blouse and skirt as I faced the three smiling yet bemused faces of the Sons. The Eldest spoke to me in English, sizing me up with polite, intelligent suspicion, his shrewd eyes glinting behind his glasses. Middle son, handsome, flirtatious, and in charge of the financial end of the business, was grinning roguishly across the conference table, like a pirate about to board a captured vessel. Youngest son, my age exactly and who walked with the spoiled swagger of one who is confident of his place in Mother’s favor, fired questions at me in rapid, lazy Spanish. He drawled in a way that forced me to ask him to repeat himself several times, which he did with mock patience. He, too, wore glasses, but kept his head tilted back, looking, quite literally, down his nose at me, asking finally why my nails weren’t shorter and my hands dirtier if I was a goldsmith. My explanation that I had not done any goldsmithing in the 6 months I’d been in Colombia, appeared barely to satisfy him. He seemed to object to me on principal, his blue eyes narrowing at my responses in both Spanish and English. He had recently married and his tight shirt collar hinted that he had lately added some newlywed poundage about which he was both proud and embarrassed. All three men smoked, but only Eldest constantly had a cigarette going, his thick fingers tapping it thoughtfully into the crystal ashtray as he spoke.
They hired me. I was to begin immediately. They would use me both on the sales floor and as a designer. Eldest and Middle shook me firmly by the hand, smiling warmly, looking still as if they weren’t sure what they’d do with this gringa who dropped into their laps, but hopeful they’d just stumbled onto something that might prove lucrative. Youngest told me he and I would be working closely together and did not smile as he shook my hand.
End of part 1.