The cameras are up, six of them, on four different houses, covering sections of four different callejones, alleys. It is like looking into four different aquariums of madness. You turn off the monitor. It is too much to watch. But the cameras go on watching, and the black box goes on recording.
There’s a knock on the door fairly early one morning. S is an attractive, alert young woman, with an intelligent face, probably in her late thirties, maybe a bit more. D opens the door after hesitating a little, first talking to her through the wooden door flap, digesting the woman’s request, the story the woman is telling.
Some young people were throwing rocks down at her house that same morning, she says. Very early. Four-thirty, la madrugada. She and her husband suspected the usual suspects. (I have been instructed not to objectify them by calling them gangbangers; I am not sure I will be able to comply).
Her husband followed one of them in the direction of our house. The husband has some experience in the world of forensics. I am not supposed to say more. The couple knew about the cameras. Would it be possible to check them? the young woman asks. D says, of course.
A few hours later, D calls up C, our direct neighbor. They are the conspiracy of sisters, now about to be joined by this third new one: S. At my computer, in my debris-strewn studio, D and C do the initial research. They play back the black box’s digital tape. We know the rock throwers, if they are the usual suspects (maybe I will call them the Usuals, but that’s more reification), will pass through the alley crossroads in front our house. At least one of them will. We watch the camera screen called “Frente,” front—covering the crossroads in front of our front door.
At 04:38:30 a figure appears at the top of the alley directly in front of us. “There he is!” all of us say at the same time. What we mean is, “Caught in the act!”
It takes the figure about fifteen seconds to pass by the camera, enter another camera’s view, and descend the callejón toward the thieves’ den.
As the figure approaches camera “Frente,” he holds his arm across his forehead, so the camera cannot identify him. The camera is placed too high; the young man is also wearing a white baseball cap. The height of the camera makes him shorter and fatter. We play the tape over and over. From the way he walks and the way he wears his hat, I am quite sure I am seeing M, one of the two Usuals, the less dangerous of the two. He also turns into his own privada, blind alley—which kind of gives it away.
S’s forensics husband confronts M’s aunt later that day. He knows M and his gang of Usuals. M lives with his aunt, next door to his mother’s house. Aunt E denies it is M; he was in his bed all night long, she tells the forensics husband. Denying is a default reflex is this neighborhood, maybe in the whole country. Forensics says his twelve-year old daughter sleeps just below a window. The rocks—thrown wildly—came close to that window. The rocks and the shattering glass could have hurt her badly. Yes, yes, says M’s aunt, but it couldn’t have been M.
We call the camera installers back and lower several of the cameras to make the angle better for identification. I know the correction will provoke a response from the Usuals, because now the cameras are more within reach. I also know any action the Bangers (sorry) take will come at night. I watch them, the Usuals, Q and M, pacing back and forth at the entrance of their privada, glowering up at the closest camera, camera C, on C’s house. Camera C beams its outrageous little red light right back at them, unblinking. A few nights pass. There are posadas in various neighborhood, celebrations, reenactments in the more elaborate ones of Joseph and Mary looking for a place where Jesus can be born. Or there is just punch and beer, sometimes with little bonfires, people sitting around on rickety chairs in the alleys, enjoying the punch and the fire and each other. Sometimes there is singing.
On the third night, I am still awake at 11:45. I hear the Usuals’ unique call, a series of same-note whistles followed by a rising then falling final note. It is the signal that something is about to happen. I get up and stand in front of the monitor, flipping from screen to screen. I watch M and C in their dance of madness, M clapping his hands in some dark individual joy related to nothing—acting out being cool to no audience at all. I watch him kick at the metal door to the vacant lot in front of us—not to get in but just to show his defiance of barriers and limits, maybe acting out something he’s seen on television a thousand times. The boys are unsteady on their feet, their judgment flawed. These are the characteristics of people on inhalants.
I watch them pick up something. It is hard to see. There is some kind of shadow in that area a few steps above C’s camera, almost level with it, fifteen feet away from it. The picture on C’s camera wavers, distorts, flashes white and dark, and something explodes around the camera—which I am looking through—like a cloud of white flies or ocean luminescence. They are, I learn later, exploding fragments of brick. The camera jumps again. The Usuals are stoning C’s camera and being recorded by another camera, the one attached to the little store kitty-corner from our front door. That camera is called Tienda, store. It tries to look into the dim area where the stone throwers are jumping about
Eventually the Usuals leave. Apparently undamaged camera C watches them enter M’s privada. The next morning I go outside and inspect camera C. I pick up the pieces of brick lying below it. I place them on a napkin in our kitchen. They represent some kind of evidence, at least to myself. That afternoon, through Camera Tienda, I see C and her husband out in front of their house, the next one below us on the callejón. I carry the handful of brick fragments down to them—mounted on the white napkin.
A, C’s husband, is too upset to speak. He is repairing a front door light, so there will be better illumination in the area. C already knows about the attack on her camera. She too was watching on her own computer while it happened. If you know the site and have the software and the codes, you too can watch the cameras—from anywhere in the world.
As I am speaking to C and A, banger usual M appears at the entrance of his privada. He is chief suspect in the 04:38:30 stoning of S’s house and last night’s attack on C’s camera. He wears more expensive clothes now: clean, oversized white sneakers, a dark earring, and a clean white baseball cap. He is actually a handsome kid, except that his face is twisted a little and hardened by his iron defenses.
Without thinking, I greet him as he passes, walking uphill, toward our house. “Mira,” I say, look, and I hold out my napkin full of brick fragments. “These are for you,” I say.
His expression says, How so?
“So you can throw them at the camera,” I explain tightly, as I sputter out my sarcasm.
He shrugs and continues.
“They cost 3,000 pesos apiece,” I call after him. “Each camera.”
“Congratulations!” he throws back over his shoulder at me, and struts on, climbing the steps.
I immediately think better of several things. The provocation in my voice, my pique, plus the tipoff as to the cameras’ worth. I imagine them all disappearing during the coming night. The next day, in the evening, the doorbell rings. E, M’s aunt is standing in the callejón. I don’t quite catch watch she’s saying through the flap door. I step outside in my slippers. Then I get it.
“M says you said he stoned a camera,” she says—a good citizen trying to clear up a misunderstanding. I have been watching “Bramwell,” an English television series about a young doctor who defies the sexist hurdles placed in her way. I am coming out of a different world, one fraught cognitive dissonance into another one exuding the same phenomenon. I am not sure where to begin. It is the first time I’ve had a conversation with M’s aunt. I mutter something about the crazy energy M and Q display at night when they’re on inhalants. She introduces me to the woman beside her. I put a name to a face for the first time. It is the stone thrower M’s mother, C. A girl of about thirteen stands beside her, perhaps M’s sister. They are returning from a posada and are interested in clearing up the misapprehension I appear to be harboring. As we are speaking, a troop of gangbangers ages twelve to eighteen comes clumping around the corner and down the callejón, flowing past us, assertive as elephants. Maybe ten of them. Some of them I have never seen before.
I am alarmed. “What’s this?” I say.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” says M’s aunt, whose eyes seem glassier than normal. I wonder if she has been drinking.
M glowers at me as he passes, at the head of the pack. The last to pass is Q’s (the dangerous one’s) younger brother. He used to borrow books from our little lending library—until he discovered inhalants. M’s aunt calls after the younger brother, “You aren’t on inhalants, are you.” A supportive statement. Younger brother turns around. He is four or five long steps lower now. “Y qué le importa!”—“And what’s it to you?” The defiance aimed at me. Then he hits the inside of his elbow with the palm of his hand, his forearm raised in a fist, to say Fuck you, old man. The whole troop has stopped on the steps and turned around, to consider the moment, whether to rush back and trample me to death. But younger brother turns away from us and, taking his signal, the whole herd continues their downward clump.
I know D is waiting for me to rejoin her to continue watching Dr. Eleanor Bramwell’s brave battle with English sexists of all stripes in the safe and well-regulated virtual theater of British television.
M’s aunt is asking me what time M was supposedly throwing pieces of brick at C’s camera, the closest one to their privada. I know the precise time. Eleven-forty-five, I say. Oh, no, it couldn’t have been him. No, not at that hour. He was with me. At home. No, it couldn’t have been him.
I need to get back to the virtual world of 1895 London. We say Buenas Noches. I go back to Bramwell, locking the front door firmly behind me.
The next day, the phone rings. It’s S on the line. She and her forensics husband would like to inspect the digital record of M and Q’s attack on C’s camera. I do not know how she knew about the attack. D is down with the flu. We put S off for a few days. She and her daughter come by anyway with a bowl of fruit for D, to take the edge off her suffering. A heartening gesture.
Another few days pass, then the Neighborhood Ladies’ Detective Agency meets again. This time S is a member, too. I have made an effort to do some vacuuming ahead of time. I go down to my favorite café to write. The Detective Agency works for some three hours. There is now a thumb drive file showing things I hadn’t seen before: M and Q clearly and repeatedly throwing stuff at C’s camera, the camera bouncing in response, the shattering pieces of brick flashing on-screen like an explosion of white flies. M and Q staggering around clapping their hands in dark joy, kicking at the metal door to the vacant lot, as if demanding to be let out of, or into, jail. They are completely unaware that another camera is recording everything they do.
The evidence is direct, clear and damning. S’s husband says he is going to invite M’s aunt to come over to their house and watch the clips. We are told a video recording of a crime is considered prima facie evidence. Also, that attacking a security camera is a crime. We’ve also been told by several people that the cameras mean nothing if misdemeanors, or worse, are not acted upon. At this writing, forensics husband has not confronted M’s aunt and her cognitive dissonance. The Christmas holidays have intervened.
On Christmas Eve day, I am down in my favorite plaza, writing in my favorite café. D’s is still sick with the flu. I decide to take her flowers. Somehow, another idea appears in my head. I’m not sure where it came from. It’s to also take flowers to M’s aunt, M’s mother and, while I’m at it, to the wife of our main nemesis, whose commerce I am not supposed to describe.
I pack my things together and walk across the plaza to the flower lady. There used to be another flower lady, who had gold caps on her two front teeth, took very short steps when she walked and was a beautiful Indian, from what group I never knew. She has disappeared after many years’ presence. Otherwise, I would have gone to her.
I buy four bouquets, each one with four roses. I calculate the meaning of colors. One bouquet will be for the chief neighborhood spy, the wife of Nemesis. I decide her roses should not be red, supposedly the color of passion.
I walk up the side of the canyon with my four modest sprays of roses wrapped at the bottom with tin foil. I have never been down the privada, the dead end alley, toward the dragon’s den, from which seem to flow various mind-altering concoctions, consumed by a parade of mind-altered clients, and which emits insane teenagers. By daylight, it is empty and innocuous. The idea that seems dangerous is bringing flowers to the Others: M’s aunt, M’s biological mother, and Spy, wife of Nemesis.
My mounting adrenalin takes the pain out of the two hundred some stairs. I turn in to the privada. I pass Nemesis’ door. Everything is quiet. I turn left at A’s door, the porter without education, possibly with some brain damage. His house is a shanty with a metal lamina roof. He lives with his mother. There are rooms like rats’ nests with only gathered rags and newspapers filled to head high, with no room to move about. I know from lingering strong body odors they have no water. I have no idea how they handle human waste.
I turn right and come to an attractive iron gate, the entrance to a kind of outdoor vestibule for M’s aunt’s house, which is bourgeois and colorful. I ring the doorbell on the gate. A woman approaches. It is C, M’s biological mother. I do not know if she lives there too. She greets me with a pleasant smile. I ask if M’s aunt is home. She is, she says, but she’s sick with the flu. I take that at face value. I mention that D, my partner, also has the flu. I say the flowers are for her and her sister, as well as one for A (spy and wife of Nemesis). She opens the gate. I say Feliz Navidad and tell her she has first choice of colors. There is no discussion of why I am giving her flowers. The event seems like the most natural thing in the world. Later, it occurs to me she thinks I’m doing an errand for my D. Either way, she is happy, smiling broadly, appreciative. I not sure how many people ever bring her flowers.
She takes a spray. I tell her to choose a bouquet for her sister, M’s aunt. She chooses another. Then she leads me to A’s door, where Nemesis lives and presides and does business. There is no answer to the doorbell. I ask C if she can give A her roses. She says she can and receives them cordially. I say Feliz Navidad again and find my way back through the alley—not running into anyone I wouldn’t want to run in to.
The whole thing was easier than I thought it would be, entering the lion’s den. What I found instead was a woman happy to be receiving flowers. I decided not to worry about what she thought I or the act represented. I do not think she was faking her friendliness. She had not treated me as the Other, though I am sure in some sense I am. But not in that moment. I also had no idea how the event might be discussed by the three woman, Nemesis and M—who is the next-to saddest rock thrower of them all, with Q taking the absolute first prize for being both dangerous and a lost soul.