“Good morning, little dad,” he calls from the gate with his hoarse voice.
Roberto is here again. He is sitting on the sidewalk, an empty look in his eyes, resting his battered face against the wall, smelling of cheap booze. He was beaten up a couple of weeks ago, his cheek is still swollen, full of sore crusts. He has a sandal on one foot. He has a brand new backpack in his lap, the price tag still on it.
He sits there mumbling to himself, until he notices me on the terrace.
“Help me, little dad, they stole my sandals again!”
“That’s because you were drunk.”
“No, I wasn’t drunk, not this time.”
“You’re still drunk, you stink of booze.”
“I am not drunk, it’s the hangover. I bought new sandals yesterday.”
I remember that his shoe polish box had been sitting on my terrace all day, yesterday, so how did he earn money to buy new sandals? Not to mention booze. I don’t feel up to asking him.
“Where did you get the backpack?” I ask instead.
“It’s brand-new, look, brand-new. It’s already broken, but it’s brand-new…”
He opens it to show me. It’s one of these cheap Chinese back-packs where the zipper always breaks the first time you use it. It’s the type that poor parents give their kids on their first day of school, and that NGO´s give to the poor as “incentive” to show up at courses and work shops.
“Where did you get it?”
“I got it from a friend. It’s brand-new. Look. I got it from a friend. I’m not a thief. Give me a new pair of sandals, little dad!”
“They will just get stolen when you are drunk.”
“Oh, please, give me the money for a new pair of sandals!!”
” I am not giving you money for any more sandals. You will have to earn that money yourself.”
“Yes, little dad,” he sighs, accepting defeat.
Over time, I have given him three pairs of sandals. He couldn’t keep any of them for more than a week. The places where he sleeps are not safe, and when he is drunk he can not protect himself.
“Little dad, I am hungry, give me some food!”
I have some tortillas and some beans in the fridge, and I go inside to fix him a bowl. He starts mumbling again. I stop inside the door, listening. “Not a thief. Not a thief. Never steal. Rather beg, never a thief. Ohh, I should kill myself. I wish someone would shoot me in the head…”
I am convinced he stole the back-pack.
When I return with his beans there are tears on his face. He starts to eat, slowly. I go inside and fetch him a glass of water.
“I can smell coffee.”
“I got you water.” Miser! I scold my self in my thoughts.
He is 16 or 17 years old. We have seen him around for a couple of years. He is a country boy from Esteli but has lived in Managua since he at seven ran away from home. He limps on one leg from when he was run over by a car a couple of years ago. His father in Esteli had to sell a an acre of land land in order to pay for the operation that saved his life and put together his leg with four giant nails.
The father now works on rented land and has never forgiven the boy. Roberto is not welcome home unless he brings money. Several times he he has planned to go home for Christmas or Easter, but has given it up. He does not have the courage, I believe.
I go inside to have my morning coffee. I am reading a crime novel by Michael Connely. It is about misery, desperation, and death. In Los Angeles.
“Thank you, little dad,” he says from the sidewalk. I go outside to Roberto. He hasn’t eaten all the food.
“Put the rest in a bag for me, I can eat it later.”
When I bring him the bag, he says:
“I don’t want to drink anymore.”
“The alcohol will kill you, Roberto. You earn money, but you don’t get anything out of it. You use the money on booze, or it is stolen when you drink.”
“I don’t want to drink anymore.”
Unlike most boys who live on the street he doesn´t sniff glue, use crack or smoke heroin. His vice is a farmer´s vice, not a street kid´s.
He has straightened himself up several times. When he is straight, he bathes every week, begs for clean t-shirts, takes care of himself.
“You get treated the same way you treat yourself,” he once told me, proud, clean, in clean clothes, all ready to start anew, earn money, be the reliable worker he claims he is. The very same night he was back in the gutter, dead drunk, beaten, and without shoes. Everything had gone wrong.
He is able to earn good money but not to keep it. Once he had saved up almost 1000 cordobas, an uncle kept it for him. Then he was hit by the car. The uncle took the money as payment for having to leave work and drive Roberto to the hospital. Sometimes I think: why not shoot the whole family?
“You need help, Roberto, you should go to a center where they can help you.”
“I know a center. I was at Casa Alianza. Twice I´ve been at Casa Alianza.”
He has told me this before, he was at Casa Alianza for half a year when he was younger. They treated him well, he went to school. They liked him. They were very sorry when he ran away from them. He was back in Casa Alianza in December, the last time he decided to straighten up. He only stayed for two weeks. Afterwards, he said the others stole from him in the dormitory. He couldn’t take that.
After that he went on an enormous drinking spree. He didn’t drink so much when I first met him, two years ago. He must have been 14 or 15 years old. He was still a boy then. He still is, but he is really also a man.
At Casa Alianza you only get two chances.
“You must try another center. You need somebody to help you.”
“No, no more centers for me. I have to take care of my self. I am almost a man now. I have to do something for myself. I don’t want to drink anymore.”
“Are you going to work to day?”
“Yes, give me the box!”
I fetch the shoe polishing box for him. I keep it for him sometimes, along with a couple of t-shirts in a plastic bag.
“Good by, little dad. Thank you, I wish you a very good day!”
“Good by, Roberto, I wish everything goes well for you to day!”
Sometimes I feel that is is our greetings that mean most to him. The polite exchange of good wishes just like he learned as a child back home in the village. To be acknowledged by name.
A year ago, one of the screws in his leg had worked its way out of the leg, and he had to take very good care of himself. He went to two hospitals, and he was on waiting lists for months, sent from from one appointment to the other. It took so long, and the leg finally got so swollen, that a doctor at last agreed to take out the screw.
During the weeks before the operation he saved clean clothes and money for food for a week at the hospital. The morning before the operation, he had to wash himself. It was a big deal, it took several days of careful preparation. Planning for the shower on the market, looking after his clothes, his money, and the coins for the bus. And he had to be on time at the hospital. All the while, in deathly fear that the operation might kill him.
After the operation he was on pain killers and penicillin. Living the way he does, it is a hard job keeping the doses right. He kept careful count of the hours and the days, sitting outside the gate and counting the hours over and over again on his fingers. He kept himself clean and his wound clean. He made it, his leg did not putrefy, he did not poison himself. I was proud of him.
It will be a miracle if he gets to be twenty.
Roberto is a shoe cleaner in Bello Horizonte, Managua. He lives under some cardboard boxes down at the traffic circle. Sven is a solidarity worker and also lives in Bello Horizonte. He lives in a house with a terrace, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, four bed rooms, three bath rooms. The house is secured with fences, chains, and barbed wire.