Beside the Volcano

Other things are erupting in Mexico, not just the volcano Popocatepetl. For example, in my Guanajuato neighborhood, and it makes me wonder whether I should be living in this country at all.

We live at the crossroads of two intersecting allies, mostly consisting of stairs. Impossible for cars, but good for horses, mules, burros, and humans with strong legs. Our local crazy guy had just ended a period of dementia, during which he screams and shouts and carries on. I realized, the other evening, after years of avoided both him and his irrationality–probably from sniffing too much pain thinner–that if I talked to him normally, he would give me normal answers.

This is where the teenagers hang out in the evenings, conversing and cavorting, sniffing and smoking, often bleary-eyed and tongue-tied, often on the edge of aggression. There are rarely young women present. These are young males finding comfort in other young males who also have no good prospects: jobs, education–women.

We have invested years in socializing them, talking with them, greeting them. I always try to shake each kid’s hand when I pass—as a kind of in your face, respectful grandfather. I talk to them about paint thinner and glue and magic marker. What it does to their brains.

At about one o’clock in the morning, something banged against our front door. There were other sounds that were unusual. Was someone trying to break into the house? The voices in the alley didn’t sound right. I went to the front door and opened the small wooden window, peep hole-like, just a crack.

There were about eight fifteen- or sixteen-year olds, with long baseball shirts and baseball caps. Three of the shirts had matching colors, suggesting a team or a gang. It smelled of magic marker, so I thought they were doing a mass graffiti attack on our door. Except that the boys’ backs were to me. I could have reached out and knocked one of their hats off.

In unison, they were holding up short cylinders, vertically, aimed at the house kitty-corner from us. I still don’t know what they were for sure, but they could have been magic markers they had been sucking on (a cheap, brain-destroying high) and were now showing to their enemy in some kind of joint defiance.

Their enemy, it turned out, was my friend Eduardo–maybe seventeen–in the robin egg blue house kitty-corner from us. That is also where little Manuel has taken up residence. He is my love’s most frequent lending library customer—the one no one bothers to wash.

With a cry, the baseball shirts came out from behind their protective corner and charged. I closed the wooden window, latched it, and went barefoot out onto the terrace and climbed the steel spiral staircase, to our rooftop, where I would be able to see better–directly over the crossroads. On the way up, I could hear the high, tense scolding voice of a mother or grandmother trying to intervene. Other neighbors, I saw, stood at windows, stoops, doorways, and on rooftops. All of us transfixed, all of us fascinated and passive in the face of sudden violence.

The boys assaulted José’s black metal front door with rocks, then with bricks, with insults (the usual ones about mothers), and howls of anger–all of it fueled by an electric self-righteousness.

My young friend Eduardo–I heard a few minutes later he had been drunk–appeared above his attackers. He stood at his half-wall rooftop battlement, along with another lad–perhaps his brother, a few years older. In counter-rage, they pried bricks from their own half-wall and hurled them down at the attackers–from two and a half stories above.

During pauses in the rock and brick throwing, the mothers and grandmothers and sisters–and all variations on these–but always just the women–ran between the attackers, ordering them home, trying to escort them away from the scene. Men stood apart, doing nothing. Perhaps because the real fathers are absent—gone north, or just gone.

I have a very loud whistle, with my lips. I considered using it. Then thought better of it. I saw a tall lad, Ricardo, who had joined the attackers. I have known him for years. I yelled down to him, hoping to break the spell. In that moment, someone in a house higher up, threw a fused object. It exploded about fifteen feet from my head. He threw a second one, and I took cover behind my half wall. I think it was that person’s version of a distracting whistle. No one reacted.

Eduardo the Defender then sent two fairly large stones in my direction. He may have been aiming for the streetlight. He may have been aiming for me—lashing out at everyone.

I backed away from my half wall. I did not need a grave head injury. I saw dark figures coming down the alley steps. At first I thought, oh no, a gang of big guys. Then I saw there were police, perhaps eight of them. Two of them carried plastic shields, against rock throwers. Some wore helmets. They stopped in front of Eduardo’s house. The oldest woman in the neighborhood had appeared—that is the pattern in moments like this. She explained to the police that they had been attacked and that the attackers were bad people and had escaped down the alley to the left. The police filed down the alley to the left–past our front door.

The police are calm. They talk to the mothers and grandmothers of each group. The boys themselves have gone into deep hiding in their mothers’ houses. The police do not go in after them. The police have done this many, many times. They are not paid enough, or stupid enough, to go into people’s homes.

In that moment, I saw–and heard–Eduardo climb over his garden wall, get caught in the wire at the top, and land hard on the alley, injuring one foot. His women folk pinned him to the ground. He howled, in rage–I assume at being ordered to stay in the house and to stop fighting–and in pain. They forced him through the black metal front door.

The police filed by again, past our front door, and stopped in front of Eduardo’s house. The oldest woman in the neighborhood again confronted them. Somehow, Eduardo, slipped through them all and ran with a limp up the stairs of alley, in the direction the police had come from. Little Manuel and every other young person related to him ran up the alley after him—to protect him from his enemies, from God–but, most of all, probably, from himself. I thought he might be taking the long way around to get at his attackers. The police made no effort to chase him. They lectured the grandmother instead. She explained everything. This is what youth do. No one was at fault–except the attackers.

A neighbor woman asked me to descend and take pictures of the damage. I said okay. I think she though I might have a Polaroid or something and that I could just had the police a picture. I considered not appearing in front of our house. I decided I should go out, to show solidarity. I took my iPod. I took pictures of the rocks and bricks. A man came out of Eduardo’s black metal door. I took pictures of the dents in the door, of the broken window. The man may have been a defender, but he did not seem upset enough. He leaned against the wall on the opposite side of the alley.

We talked a little about what had happened. I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying. I think that is what the outbreak of violence does. Everyone is left incoherent. But it turns out, it was also because he was Eduardo’s uncle and cohort on the rooftop, and he wasn’t talking around it.

In that moment, two of the baseball shirt kids swept by me and went straight up to the man I had been talking with. One of them lifted about twelve inches of quarter inch pipe and struck the man on the forehead–with force, three times, quickly.

The man staggered backward and started to slump. I backed away. Women rushed to intervene. I had thought of taking the attacker’s picture with my iPod. But for what purpose? There is no way of transferring anything to the police–who would not respond anyway. Plus, I might have drawn the rage toward myself.

I went back up on our roof. An actual father had arrived to retrieve the boy who had assaulted my conversation partner. As he led the boy away, up the alley to my left, the oldest woman in the neighborhood, who had appeared again, cried out, “This is what marijuana does!” The boy’s father–well dressed and clearly enjoining more economic resources–in a great show of outrage and menace, re-entered the crossroads and yelled, “Are you accusing my boy of using marijuana?” The grandmother of grandmothers made a conciliatory sound, and the real father turned away. Eduardo’s people bent over the man will the bashed head. Eventually, they got him through the black metal door.

I got up early and climbed the circular stairway to our rooftop. I expected to see rocks and bricks everywhere. There was no sign of the fight. Everything had been swept clean. Except in front of our house, where there was a layer of broken beer bottle glass, rocks, and shards of brick—some of which I am sure had hit our mesquite door and woken me up.

We went for a drive in the country this afternoon, to the little town with a lovely church, visible down lower and to the west of Santa Rosa, at about 8,000 feet. The air was cool, it was trying to rain, and the air smelled of the tall cypress trees. We stopped at a little stand, where a woman was selling quesadillas and gorditas–tortillas to wrap or fill. She had a handmade wood stove made of tin, with tripod legs, about the size and shape of car tire. She fed wood into it. She heated the tortillas on the comal on the top of the stove. The whole thing had an African Queen steam boat feeling to it. We ate our gorditas filled with squash, potatoes, and egg–all of it flavored with wood smoke. We talked to her two little girls, Andrea and Renata.

Back home, when we parked and walked down the alley to our house, past Eduardo’s house, I called up to a woman who looked down at us. Was everything all right? She disappeared, I thought from embarrassment. But she came out her door and straight toward us. She wanted to talk, in privacy. We invited her in.

She was Eduardo’s mother. She told us Eduardo had had only one beer and that the boys were after him because he had a job and went to school. Apparently, he had cut himself off from them more and more. Except for the one beer, I thought what she said was true. She was very distraught. I thought she had said the police had arrested him. What actually happened was that the police had found him and the top of the alley and had called the Red Cross to see about his injured foot. He had then gone somewhere with the Red Cross and ended up with a plaster cast on his foot, because of a fracture. I asked whether he was in jail now. His mother said no. He was home, kitty corner from us. Then what was wrong? I asked. She said the boys had threatened to kill him “because he had won.” We asked who specifically had threatened him. Ricardo, the boy I had shouted down to.

My love told her she knew about a conflict resolution agency in the city, and that we would look into it. I mentioned we knew a lawyer, we could have some sort of writ served on Ricardo. My love said that would be an escalation, and we should bring in a mediator and discuss drugs and what it meant to be a young man with no prospects. Eduardo’s mother left feeling relieved, I believe. I said they could knock on our door at any hour if they needed refuge.

I asked my love why she thought it was that the boys–all of them–felt they could act the way they did, in their very own neighborhood. She said they were acting out the self-righteous use of force, just the way they saw it done in the movies—and in all the theaters of perpetual war. Narco and otherwise. The war on this and the war on that.

I also think the mere presence of audience–the mothers and the rest of us–had goaded the boys on–bathing them in a kind of negative attention. The whole neighborhood had watched them act out. And now Ricardo wanted to take it all to the next level. A killing. With audience.

I notice people reacting with alarm to my report. That is natural, from all you have heard. But I don’t think it necessary. This is what most of the world is like now—in the third word neighborhoods. There are Eduardos and Ricardos everywhere, and they need our attention.

Sometime during the day, someone swept up the glass, stone fragments, and brick shards in front of our house.

My love saw our ten-year old book borrower Manuel today. She asked him if he knew what had triggered the fight.

He said he didn’t know.

As for myself, this is still the place I prefer to live.

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