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Published: July 21st 2012
A Neighbor, Hipermercado Olé
La Rubia lives across the street in a small pink wood house with a galvanized tin roof and sells chicken every morning. She is tall, lean, strong and perhaps in her fifties with a gauntly aged face and is missing her top front teeth. She builds a fire outside where she boils a big pot of water to scald the chickens for plucking after cutting their throats. She rinses them with water and covers them with plastic bags, hangs a scale from a tree limb and sells the poultry for about 15¢ more per pound than Hipermercado Olé, the nearest supermarket. Usually she wears jeans when she prepares the poultry but if she has just gotten home from the disco or been dropped off by one of her chulos, she may still be wearing a tight dress or stretch leisure suit. The chicken she sells is from the U.S. as is almost all the chicken sold in the Dominican Republic. Altagracia tells me that people only cook the locally bred poultry for diversion because it is so tough. La Rubia owns several houses out back which she rents out and where her ex-husband lives while their teenage children live with her. One day while La Rubia was flirting with a conchista in front of her house her ex was hunkered on the ground in the shadows of the neighboring house calmly tossing pebbles at the suitor's motorcycle and when one would bounce off the spokes or the gas tank the two would glance annoyed over their shoulders at him and then go back to their quiet conversation and he would scrabble around in the dirt for more stones to fillip. OLÉ
I walk to Olé almost every day. It is like a large KMart with a grocery store under the same roof. The traffic pattern of the shopping carts resembles the traffic patterns on the streets, one must beware and be prepared to run. There are frequent discussions with strangers in the aisles over which guandules or ketchup or shampoo is the best. The price of rice is high at the moment, averaging about 45¢ a pound, but at Olé they have a bin that holds maybe a ton of loose rice that sells for 39¢ where you fill up plastic bags with grain scoops and then bring them to a scale to be weighed and priced. People run their fingers through the rice and smell it before deciding how much to buy. A full bin can be emptied in less than 2 hours. The check-outs at Olé use bar code scanners and accept credit and debit cards but nothing ever works right all the time. The cashier checks every price scanned for errors and when there is one, calls for the guy on roller skates who arrives after a while with a clipboard and notes the UPC number. Then another person is called who has gone to find out the right price, then one more person comes with a key to correct the price in the register. If your debit card isn’t accepted you simply follow your cashier to the next register or the register after that until a working card swiper is found. When you leave the store a person by the exit marks your receipt with a blue magic marker, I don’t know why.
He was here for a couple of hours the other day while his mother was relaxing Altagracia’s hair. He has skinny legs and a gigantic head. I first saw him on the sidewalk shoving a pointed stick into glass bottles and then whipping the bottles off the stick at the dogs across the street, and he hit a couple too. Later I noticed him swinging a broomstick chasing a 16 year old across a vacant lot. While he was here he slugged our cocker spaniel, was found eating with both hands out of the icebox, moved all the padlocks to different doors and then hid the keys, locked Chavela in the bathroom, was caught pouring bleach into the hair relaxer bottle, broke four ceramic tiles, and had to be dragged off the garage roof twice because, aside from the chance of him falling off, there are a bunch of live wires up there. The second time I hauled him off the garage I accidentally bounced his head off a low hanging curved sheet metal roof that projects from the house, and his expression never changed, if anything a faint smile crossed his lips. The next day we saw his mother in town carrying a bleeding child across the street towards the clinic. She explained that he and Telly had been just throwing rocks at each other when it somehow turned ugly and Telly laid the other kid’s head open with a stick. We call him Demonio Vivo, but his real name, as near as I can tell, is Telly Tubby, named after the television cartoon program. He is four. Altagracia says that he is going to kill someone before he is twelve. STREET
We sweep the sidewalk and street in front of our house every couple of days and if you let your sidewalk get too cluttered someone from the neighborhood junta comes around to talk to you. So there is always someone on our street sweeping in front of their house but there are also 5 or 6 people sweeping stuff out of their houses onto the street. If your are on your porch, or galleria, the street is where you pitch or spit all your small garbage like fruit seeds, bottle caps, candy wrappers and sugar cane fibers. If you leave unbroken bottles on the street they are picked up by morning by people who sell them for 1 peso each back to the bottle factory. Only glass soda bottles have deposits and so are never found on the street. Once you have paid a deposit on a soda bottle you own one soda bottle, you can turn it in as the deposit when you buy your next soda but you can never get your nickel back. So the average bottle on the street is a beer bottle and the choices are Presidente in green or Bohemia in brown. Bohemia costs 5 pesos less and so is found more often in poor neighborhoods. I am sure that one could calculate the average income of any street of any town in the Dominican Republic by the ratio of found Presidente/Bohemia bottles. The majority of beer is sold in 22 ounce bottles and comes with any number of plastic cups so that you can share-- the beer stays colder and is a little cheaper that way. 12 ounce bottles exist but are not the standard unit as in the U.S. When you buy a beer in a colmado you ask for either a grande or a chiquito and if it is an affluent neighborhood you get a Presidente and if you are in a poor neighborhood they ask you which brand. The other notable item in the ecology of the street is the excrement of dogs. By rough count there are eight dogs living at the four nearest houses and all go in the street and there is no scooper law of any kind. While it is certainly possible to step in something the road is not as mined as one would expect. A hard rain helps, especially since we are on a steep hill but I think most of it leaves stuck in car and truck tires. My own dog's droppings are very rarely in the same place the next day. There are always people walking past the house on the way to the colmado next door if only to hang out on the little galleria there. Children as young as 4 walk the length of the street unaccompanied, clutching a 10 peso note in one hand and carrying the jam jar or empty coffee cup in the other in which to bring home the 10 pesos worth of vegetable oil or tomato paste. Guys wait on the steps of the colmado to talk to girls and mothers with babies chat with other mothers with babies. Shirts and shoes are not required and women might be wearing anything from cocktail dresses to skintight stretch jeans to nightgowns and might be elaborately coifed or have a headfull of giant plastic hair rollers held in place with one bobby pin each. (I am told that the rollers are often used not to shape the hair but to arrange it to dry faster in the sun, not many people have blow driers and the power goes out so often anyway.) At night however most people dress to go to the colmado and hairdos are ni-ni and slacks and tee shirts are pressed and shoes shined. The colmado has a system of inverters
, a series of car batteries that charge when there is electricity and power the coolers and the juke box when the power goes out, so there is almost always music playing and the music is almost always bachata or salsa or merengue and couples might dance on the little galleria or in front of the counter inside. Lots of people go to the colmado and don't buy anything. At the little intersection near the bakery up the hill from our house there are usually 5 or 6 motoconchos waiting to taxi customers up Avenida Primaveral to the bigger intersection on Maximo Gomez. (Maximo Gomez has actually become Avenida Hermanas Mirabel by the time it gets this far North, but never mind). The conchos are mostly Honda 50 or 70cc bikes but there also some 115cc Suzukis. The conchistas sit on their bikes in the shade and talk and scan the horizon for someone signaling for a ride which costs 10 pesos per person and 10 pesos more if there is a lot of luggage. It costs 40 pesos to have two bags of cement brought to your house from the building supply yard and they will drag a couple of twenty foot long re-rod home for you too. Once you have arrived up at Maximo Gomez you have the choice of taking a guagua
or a carro publico
or a city bus or a taxi. Guaguas are privately owned buses that hold about 30 passengers and cost 10 pesos. There is a driver and also a cobrador who hangs out the bus door shouting the destination of that particular guagua and bangs on the side of the guagua to signal the driver when to stop for a fare or when to let someone off. A good cobrador stows packages and helps the elderly find seats and a bad one shortchanges or ignores requests to stop. Carro publicos, or more simply carros, are almost always Toyota Corolla sedans and are usually totally battered and lack all mirrors, headliners, door handles and window cranks with their seats upholstered with found, mysterious fabric and the windshield a bowed web of cracks and clear packing tape. I have been in more than one that had rope tied to the door jambs and stretched taut across the inside of the car to hold it together. They also cost 10 pesos and are faster than a guagua because they can weave in and out of traffic but run shorter routes and usually won't leave the curb unless full-- 4 in the back and two in front plus the driver. A very wide person or someone with enough shopping bags to take up an extra seat has to pay double. To signal a guagua or a carro to stop when you are on the street you wag an index finger up and down. City busses are rare and only stop at specific stops, but often only cost 5 pesos. Altagracia still glows when she talks about the time last month she came all the way from Gascue, where she works for only 5 pesos on the bus. Her commute if by guagua costs 10 pesos, by two carros 20 pesos and if by taxi 120 pesos. To cross a large, busy street in Santo Domingo it is best to do it one lane at a time, making sure that you are standing exactly on the divider line (if there is one) while you are waiting for the next opportunity to advance. It is also advisable to cross with packs of other pedestrians and to try to keep a large padded one between you and the oncoming traffic. Always be on the lookout for motorcycles which may be speeding between lanes and for vehicles which might be dragging things like 20 foot long steel re-rods and remember to glance down to check for missing manhole covers which were stolen to sell as scrap metal. At night cars with no lights can be especially dangerous. Right of way belongs to whatever would do the most damage to the car and this includes potholes-- a person (or a dog or a horse) could jump out of the way but a pothole never. If a car suddenly swerves violently toward you it is probably avoiding a pothole-- leap for the curb. At first I tried to maintain an aloof, calm air when crossing the street here but now I am not ashamed to run like a scared chicken. Try to avoid crossing the street altogether on weekends and holidays because, while there are television ads advising against drunk driving, there is no law against it. There is a law intended to discourage drinking while driving which states that the driver must have both hands on the wheel at all
times but it must be that not many people know about it. It is not unusual for a guagua driver to be seen hoisting a large Presidente from between his legs from time to time while driving.
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