It was Good Friday, already raining at five in the morning. Paco had come up empty in his search for fares around the gay after-hours clubs and breakfast joints in Galerias and Chapinero. He headed south through Marly and Teusaquillo. Nothing but the pull-down gates of shuttered shops. Here and there, homeless couples and singles asleep on sidewalks, bodies half-sheltered under narrow eaves.
Along Carrera 13, an old fat guy was flagging down one of the few buses that ran early on feast days. In its wake, the bus splashed him. He bent over and was inspecting the damage to his shoes and trousers when Paco offered his services.
As the guy hauled himself into the back seat and barked his destination, “Centro Mayor,” Paco recognized him as the owner of a bakery in Santa Teresita. Paco had patronized that bakery until a sign went up in the front window discouraging customers from giving money to panhandlers on the sidewalk in front of the shop. For sure, the baker didn’t want beggars to frighten away customers, but only a monster would urge them to admonish the homeless to rely instead on government services. Paco had lived in San Francisco before gang involvement got him deported. There, friends and family were always complaining about food stamps, medical care and housing subsidies. But there the system could be gamed.
“Papi, you certain Centro Mayor is open Good Friday?” Paco said. “Certainly, not this early.”
Without meeting Paco’s glance, the baker snapped in a louder voice, “Centro Mayor! Mind your own business and do your fucking job.”
“Yes, sir.” Paco said. The baker must have had strong arms once, from ladling batter by hand when he began the business and from loading trays in and out of ovens. But even if he still did some of that work, he was old — his ability to resist surely as weak as the few hairs on his wet, bald head.
“Centro Mayor coming up,” Paco said. Night school and work for two years in a restaurant in the Excelsior had been the happiest period of Paco’s life. He loved the way a waiter could repeat a customer’s order and turn it into a threat. “One Centro Mayor coming up,” Paco crowed and gunned the engine in a way that he immediately regretted might raise the old guy’s guard.
“You can leave me at the west entrance to the Transmilenio station on South 38th Street,” the baker clarified as though further specifying his destination would ensure safe arrival through intervening or surrounding danger.
After a silence that Paco hoped would ease tension, he asked whether the baker ever used Uber.
“I prefer Uber,” the baker blurted, then offered in appeasement “Except they’re seldom as reliable as professional drivers. I contacted Uber this morning, but the guy kept me waiting twenty minutes – which is intolerable even when it’s not raining.”
Cabbies and Ubers could never be friends; but, until he wrecked his older brother’s car, Paco had driven Uber upon first returning to Bogota. Customers like the baker just got worse over time.
“It’s disgusting.” The baker seemed to regain some of his original confidence as he gestured broadly toward the street.
“Yeah,” Paco rolled his eyes. “A twenty-minute wait is disgusting.”
“Not that,” the baker said. “I mean yes that, but also the dirty, homeless people everywhere in Bogota.”
“A guy, like you, who runs his own business, must have solutions even for problems as big as this.”
“How do you know I run my own business?”
“Every cabbie is a good judge of character, no? I mean, before today, the problem hadn’t escaped your attention, had it?”
“No, of course not.’
On the sidewalks, a few homeless men were beginning to stir, backs against stone walls as they smoked a first cigarette, had a first swallow or otherwise reestablished ranks in their respective packs. Some stepped carefully over guys still asleep; guys who would wake up later, guys who would not wake up again. Beyond Paco’s understanding – but not beyond his respect — there survived, among this pack at least, a comraderie and cheer that squalor had not yet crushed.
The baker had a different response. “What can these people be smiling about?”
“I don’t know,” Paco said. “Maybe the Easter dinners some of the parishes will be hosting.”
“They should not be feeding the idle,” the baker pronounced. “It just discourages them from challenging their misfortune.”
“Right,” Paco said. “These people can’t absorb more discouragement.”
“Sometimes I think about Meseta, Vista Hermosa – all the places the FARC used to control,” the baker said. “There’s so much reconstruction needed. Why not round up the homeless and ship them to work camps there?” “Willingly? Unwillingly?” Paco probed.
“What difference does unwillingly make? What chances do they have staying here?”
“There are a government services,” Paco hazarded.
The baker scoffed, “Social services here are inadequate.”
“No,” Paco said, “Services here are homicide.”
Two homeless men looked up startled as Paco’s taxi turned sharply into their side street, continued half a block, then pulled abruptly to the curb. Paco jumped out, opened the rear door and, after some struggle, wrestled the old, fat baker into the open, smashed his head repeatedly against the sidewalk, and when the pavement stained red, got back in the cab and drove away.
“Heavy karma,” the older homeless man said and rubbed the hardening cock of the young fellow seated next to him. “The guy must have had it coming.”
“No, patron,” the younger man pleaded, “That Paco has got to control his temper, or he’ll get all of us into real trouble someday.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” The older man scanned the clouded sky. “Looks like more lousy weather for another lousy weekend.”
“No complaining, patron. It destroys your fortune. Anyway, we have each other now.”
The older man nodded then stood up and walked toward the baker’s still warm-corpse. “And, if we’re lucky, a smartphone and fat wallet too.”
Recently retired from the practice of law, Chuck teaches English in San Francisco. His work has appeared in numerous publications. Some of his fiction has been collected in Sierra Showdown: A Triptych and in Against Slander: Three Admonitions. Both books are available on Amazon.com.