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I heard rocks crashing against the house at three a.m. I went to the front door to listen. Rocks were landing on the alley in front of us, some against the little tienda—store—twelve paces away. Even though there had been a half dozen events like this, I had never heard anything with such intensity. I checked the monitor. Somehow, I had screwed up the program so the images of the four cameras that were still left shifted too quickly to study the situation. I did see, however, that the rock throwers at our upper end of the alley were police.

In shorts and T-shirt, I climbed our iron spiral staircase to the azotea—the roof—so I could look down on the battle.

It took a moment to understand. With lethal force, the rocks, some the width of my hand and a few inches thick—cheap flat floor tiles, actually—were slamming against the tienda, the sidewalk, and the walls of our house. Some of the gangbangers occupied the unfinished building across the alley, across from our house, and threw at the police from thirty feet away. And so, in a sense, it was sort of a house-to-house combat, as well.

I had never seen the police return fire—that is, throwing rocks back at the rock throwers. In this moment, they were no different from the Chief Suspects, except that they threw with even more fury—so taken with the battle that they never looked up at me standing above them. The police—ten of them—had the advantage in that they threw from the upper end of the alley, with the aid of gravity.

My response was inner head shaking. What in god’s name was the point of all this? The stupid gang bangers, high on paint thinner or glue; the police high on permission to at last be able to fire back. Still, though it was very dangerous for both sides, at least the Mexican police are not allowed to use their side arms. In the States, I believe, police would have been discharging weapons of really lethal force.

There are multiple reports of U.S. Border Patrol firing across the border at juvenile rock throwers and killing some of them. There, international law and the border itself (a river) prevent hot pursuit—except for bullets, also fired in anger, or at least intolerance of rock throwing.

Here law prevents police from entering a rock thrower’s house or using bullets—except, apparently, for rocks.

While the battle raged, I could hear the most violent of the gangbangers growling from down the alley. I recognized this sound because he’s used it with us instead of speech to express his displeasure at being greeted with a “Buenos Días” at close quarters.

During the Mexican Revolution, there were often women present as soldaderas—fighters—or as wives and lovers, carrying and cooking food for their men, or carrying bedding and doing wash. During a contemporary Mexican rock fight, there are often mothers or aunts just behind the battlefield, ready to intervene if the police can actually catch one of the rock throwers.

We have actually witnessed this happening to Growler, also referred to as Q in these reports. The police grabbed him perhaps an hour after a rock throwing incident when he thought it was okay to stumble home. They forced him down onto the pavement in the little crossroads in front of our house. He went limp. His mother wormed her way in and knelt over him as if the police had murdered him.

I suppose the relationship between a Mexican boy or man and his mother is sacred in some way. The police stand back confused. Law enforcement is suspended. I suspect, in the States, she would have received a warning and then arrested for interfering in an arrest. Soon they walked away. It is true Q would have to have been caught en flagrante with a weapon or drugs, in order to be retained. If it had been in the heat of battle (rocks), they probably would have beat him up and taken him away.

At 4:45 a.m. I woke again. The gangbangers were crowing and whooping their victory cries, in defiance of all us sleeping citizens who do not sniff paint thinner and throw rocks at the police. I watched them (through the cameras) going down the alley past our garden wall. And I muttered to my mate, “Where in god’s name are they going now at 4:45 in the morning?” Looking for a fight, cars to burgle, or to mug an unwary tourist or student returning home too late? Or to party with more paint thinner, glue, or mota—marijuana.

For me, it’s growing old, and I find myself thinking these lads and their mothers—and their behavior—are stupid and irrelevant. More and more, we know, the rest of the neighborhood feels the same way. A larger mural project is going to start in the neighborhood (with our involvement), and I believe that will have a far greater social impact than anything the gang bangers and the police can throw at each other.

The next morning, I saw three police standing outside our door. Three simply meant there wasn’t going to be a battle. Plus, the brave gang bangers sleep way past noon in the protection of their mother’s homes. The difference was these three policemen carried, for the first time, long metal night sticks with perpendicular side handle. A sign, I think, of another police escalation. They walked down to the offenders’ side alley, looked in for a while, then continued down the alley toward the Old Center. Before they turned away, they waved back up at me.

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Coming up the last part of the 203 steps to our place, just below the garden gate, we run into M’s mother C—with whom he doesn’t live. We don’t know exactly why. He lives next door with his aunt E. C is spiffed up for some event. She looks quite lovely.

We exchange impressions. Yes, the neighborhood seems calmer. M. is hanging out less with Q, she says. We say that’s wonderful. I’m not sure we talk about the cameras, six of them on four different houses. He’s more serious about his studies, she says. We say that’s wonderful. I say then, if he goes to the university, perhaps we can help (with the costs). I believe she internalizes my remark. We say good-bye, she going down the steps, we up.

I wonder whether the information about our offer will filter through to M, whether it will make a difference, change the equation. In the days that follow, M appears several times in front of our door, sometimes with Q, sometimes without him. The lads choose to have their conversations right in front of our door, they don’t appear to be high on paint thinner etc. Their behavior, we think, is different. Is it the holidays, the cold winter nights, is that why it’s so calm in the alley? Is it also that the message got through? Is that a possibility? Does M know perhaps that tuition will not be the reason he can’t go to the university? We watch all this on the cameras—like looking into an aquarium of somewhat less madness. We wait to see what happens next.

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We have finally received a letter from the office of Catastro Municipal, the registry of properties, on the second floor of the Presidencia. The vacant lot across from us, the letter pointed out—where mini gangbangers for years have been buying, selling and inhaling glue, Magic Marker, paint thinner and, for all we know, Comet powder—belongs to Señor Ricardo Valázquez—a dead man.

An official at the Presidencia, a young woman sitting at the front desk at the office of Catastro, handed me the letter. It was short, and so I read it in front of her. I asked her how the owner paid the taxes if he was dead. The young woman showed hesitation, perhaps surprise.

“Someone is paying the taxes for him,” she offered.

I mentioned that I didn’t understand how you could pay his taxes if he didn’t exist. She closed a folder lying in front of her.

“It’s in his name,” she said.

I thought about that, with my semi-wounded I don’t understand look.

“Why isn’t it in his wife’s name?” I asked.

The young woman nodded, approving of my question. “Well, she hasn’t gone through the steps to change the title.”

I mentioned then, a little timidly I confess, I was thinking of suing him for neglect of the property. I explained it was full of trash, it was a gathering place for glue sniffers intent on destroying their brains, its walls were covered inside and out with years of the world’s ugliest graffiti and, when the local delinquents fled the police and Army, they escaped through the lot.

The young woman said she didn’t think I could proceed in the manner I suggested. “That would be suing a dead man,” she said.

I nodded. I thought I detected an edge of impatience, perhaps a judgment that I hadn’t immersed myself deeply enough in Mexican culture. She smiled and said, “You can’t sue a dead man,” and then excused herself graciously, and walked out of the office.

I took a step further into the Office of Catastro, a word that comes from sixteenth century French.

A tall, serious man rose and came around in front of his desk. I showed him the letter and said I’d like to write the owner and make an offer on the land.

The tall man read the letter as if for the first time, although I had already noticed the name on his desk was the same as the signature at the bottom of the letter.

He looked up at me and said I needed to make the request in writing, just the way I had before in order to find out the property owner’s name.

“In letter form?” I asked. “For him directly?”

“No, for the office. We need a formal written request,” he explained.

I sympathize with providing work for people in a country that needs jobs. I asked him whether the office would pass the letter on to the owner. He looked down at the letter again, then up at me.

“I believe he’s dead,” he said.

I asked if that would be a problem, since someone was paying his taxes for him and could possibly therefore speak for him regarding his decision whether to sell or not.

“Perhaps it would be easier if you just gave me his address,” I said.

The man looked at me calmly.

“I don’t think he has an address any more—for the obvious reason,” he said.

I nodded. “Perhaps the address of his survivor then,” I said.

He looked down at the letter again. “That person hasn’t officially claimed the new ownership yet.”

I nodded. “But do you have that person’s address?”

He said they did not, and besides it would be an intrusion on that person’s privacy since they weren’t the new owner until they applied for the title.

I nodded. I thought for a moment, then asked him whether it would be illegal for me to enter the property, clean up the trash and weld the metal entrance door shut so delinquents couldn’t destroy their brains there with paint thinner and Comet powder.

“It’s private property,” he explained, patiently.

I nodded. I asked him if that fact held the same force when the property was a problem for the neighborhood and the owner was dead.

He said I needed to go to Desarrollo Urbano, Urban Development. They would give me a more definitive answer if I submitted the question in writing.

I did not want to insult him, given that the French had invaded Mexico in 1861, but I told him I was having trouble reconciling the concept of ownership and being dead. I mentioned I was reading the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who divided the structure of human identity into the Réel, Symbolique and Imaginaire—the so-called interlocking and inextricable pieces of the Noeud Borroméen, the Knot of Borromeo.

I used the French terms to show my openness about the matter, also suggesting that Lacan’s definitions might help in quantifying the dead man and his control over his property—so that we could all move forward.

To make my remarks more sympathetic, I mentioned that Jacques Lacan was also dead.

He smiled cordially. “You need to go to Desarrollo Urbano,” he said. “We only deal with the ownership of property.”

I held out my hand, and he shook it warmly. I thanked him and then turned away to leave.

An idea occurred to me as I left the Presidencia. I would follow the suggestion of a wise and trusted neighbor and paint in large black letters, on the graffitied walls of the vacant lot, “Se vende” (for sale). I still had the telephone number of the Catastro office and I would add that too, just below the dead man’s name, Ricardo Valázquez—on the theory that a man who owned the property was also capable of painting such a sign and that those who paid Ricardo’s taxes would appear soon enough, given that they, as far as I knew, were not dead. My only regret was that I had not thought of this solution on November 1 and 2 for the Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead)—when the barrier between Ricardo and me might have been more tenuous and communication easier.

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