-Papa, I want to go home.
It´s Roberto. He is standing there, crying. He isn’t drunk, but he has been drinking.
It’s 10 o’clock. He already came by once before this morning. Then, he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to work all day so that he could go home with his pockets full of money. In order to save just a little face with his family back home in Esteli. But now here he is, back already, without a single coin in his pocket. Another day that started out full of determination and detoured to drink the moment he earned his first peso.
-I want to go home. This isn’t working at all. They take it all. I want to gome home, Papi.
His voice is full of gravel, he is dirty, his face is beaten up, his pupils are two small black dots, one eye is still out of shape after he was beaten up in August.
Twice I have readied myself to drive him to the bus station, twice he just had to wash himself before leaving, and twice he reappeared two days later, totally destroyed by drink, in hopeless shape. This time I take him on his word. Before he knows it he, his shoe shining box, his bag, and his piggy-bank are all in a taxi on its way to the bus station.
– Just give me money for the bus, then you can take the taxi back home again, he says when we arrive at the bus station.
Not in a million years, I think, and keep him company to the ticket office, where I buy him ticket to the express to Esteli.
– I don’t want to go home after all, he says, I am too dirty.
– I promised your sister to put you on the bus, and that’s what I’ll do, I say. – Get in the bus!
– I’m hungry.
– You’ll get money for food when you are on the bus.
– Give me two cordobas for the toilet!
Before I give hum the money, I ask the bus conductor to put his stuff in the luggage compartment. Insurance. I follow him all the way to the toilet – and back. He doesn’t have a chance. At the toilet facility people look at me strangely. What am I doing with this boy??
Back at the bus, he tries one more time:
-I can’t. I don’t want to go home with no money in my pocket.
-I promised your sister to put you on the bus. She wants you home with or without money. That is how it’s going to be.
Finally, he gives up and gets on the bus.
-That was hard, aye?, the platform manager says with a smile, when the door to the bus has closed
Other people are also smiling. The man that sells newspapers, the lady that sells juice. I am the friendly Gringo helping a street kid out of the evil city. One of these small acts of mercy which this city, so rich in poverty and ruined lives, is rich in too. Something to warm the heart by, something to bring home from the market today.
They don’t know that only last night I was shouting at him as he stood crying at our gate. He wanted to go home, but he didn’t want to go home. Drunk as a lord. Did I say shouting? I was screaming. So un-Nicaraguan. I totally lost it. Luckily Maggan made me sit down and shut up, and managed to send him away with some kind words. Otherwise I would have kept on shouting all night.
I follow the bus with my eyes as long as I can see it on the road. Then I call the sister in Esteli:
– Listen, he’s on the express, the 10.45 .
– Thank God, she says. – God will reward you, because well, we can’t…
I say: – I promise he was on the bus when it left the station, but I won’t promise he will still be on it when it gets to Esteli.
I ask her to please make him stay in Esteli, not let him leave for Managua again. This town is is poison for him, I say.
She says that she knows, but he won’t listen.
This is like a scene in Pelle the Conquerer*, I am thinking when I put down the phone. So predictable. A story told a million times and Roberto is following the manuscript to the letter. A first class actor doing his own life.
And I? Also a stereotype, a clichè: the warm hearted Gringo that ends up in a helpless rage, shouting at this poor soul. My partner Maggan has the role as the sympathetic narrator, helping the viewer understand what is happening (this is obviously a genre piece of social realism): – He is sick, he can’t help it, it’s not his fault. Society is to blame. Stop shouting. “People say Jeppe drinks, but never say why Jeppe drinks!”*
I GET it. I understand.
But Roberto is an extreme case. An innocent soul in from the farm, lost in the big, evil city, also a seventeen year old alcoholic from hell. Both dumb and smart, a walking and talking concussion, a sight to hurt the eyes.
He disappeared in August, all of a sudden. Little by little we put the story together. He had gone to the dogs, totally, had been mugged down at the round- about , and was at last picked up by his family from Esteli, three hours and a day’s wage away by bus.
A month ago I had that sinking feeling when I heard his voice again at the gate. He was back in town, clean and energetic, strong and healthy, after a month by his father’s side in the bean fields, after a month at the family hearth. I was not happy to see him here, but I was happy to see him like this.
He was tired of eating beans and only beans, and also felt that he had to do something for the family. His father and his mother were furious when they found him pennyless and had to pay not only their bus fare to Managua, but also the three fares back to Esteli. He owed them, and needed to repay them to regain his own self-respect.
He was clear headed and clear eyed, had goals, had ideas. Work in Managua until December and then go back to the family with money and Christmas presents. Avoid the bad friends. As his father had told him:
– “Somebody who wants to give you a drink is not your friend.” That’s what my father says. And that’s the truth.
It lasted less than a week. It was hard for him to get started. Each morning he found a reason not to do his shoe-shine-work. He stayed away for three days. His first bender. Had stuff stolen. Didn’t keep himself clean. Started having tooth aces, head aces, and sores. Talked more and more nonsense, even when he wasn’t drunk. Started to talk about going home.
He pulled himself together. Three nights in a row he put 30 Cordobas, 40 Cordobas in the piggy-bank I bought for him, and kept 20 or 30 Cordobas for his supper. But that was as long as it lasted. The last weeks every coin he earned he spent on liquor. The lies began: things that he asked me to buy for him were stolen, again and again. I realized that he was selling his stuff to drink.
Full of earnest regret, three times in the last three days he has promised himself and me that there will be no more alcohol. Not another drop. And every night, he is back, whining, stinking of alcohol. The night before last he was crying, wanted home, couldn’t stand it anymore, drunk. Wanted money for the bus fare, for a meal, for anything. Had not eaten for 24 hours. Had no more shoe-polish. But he had found a way to get his booze. This was the night I screamed at him.
I sincerely wish that I never see him again. Wishful thinking!!!
Once we were travelling through Central-America a good friend asked me how often I responded when a beggar asked me for help. I said it depends on the situation. She said very definitely that she helped each time she was asked.
I admired her attitude and have since then tried to follow her rule. But lately, I have begun to understand the attitude that so many of my neighbours show. This cold hearted, despising, and despicable middle class attitude towards poverty: Don’t see it, don’t hear it. It’s your own fault. Stay away! I understand it because I myself have begun to show it.
– Don’t encourage them!, they all said, my neighbours, when I was still trying to help everybody who came to our door. They didn’t want me to attract beggars to our street. Last year when one of the kids that we had helped cleaned out our home for anything of value, several of our neighbours told us: – Well, you got what you asked for.
But still, it seems like we all have our favorite beggar. The exception to the rule, the redeeming good work that salves our concience: For Don Alberto, it is the legless knife-grinder, for the lady at the end of the street it is the homeless dogs, for me it is Roberto. As I said, just clichès.
How the hell can it be that a hundred year old novel, a play written two hundred years ago, is still being performed again and again and again by millions of people every single day? Have none of us really learned to do better? I despair at my own predictable helplessness, at Roberto’s predictable and stubborn self destruction. His whole future is already behind him, but he is still just a boy.
It’s enough to make you a Marxist.
* A 100 year old Danish novel about the birth of the workers’ movement (by Martin Andersen Nexø). Alcoholism among farmers plays an important part.
** A quote from a 200 year old Danish theatrical comedy (by Holberg). Alcoholism among farmers plays an important part.