Thursday, September 23, 2004

M8 Una Situacion Nueva

My new neighborhood and house are “padre”, Mexico slang for “cool”.

Firstly, there are actually people here. People. People walking. People walking dogs. People interesting enough that I might want to talk to them. They’re literally teaming about the streets especially when compared with the ghost town I formerly called home.

A Single Bed to Impress the Ladies in My First Pad

My first night here I saw four cute girls. Four more than I had seen in five weeks in the deserted mansion district known as Colonia Anzures. There are stores. Stores other than chains. Stores with Mexican, not US, prices. Stores where for 90 cents, I can purchase a fresh croissant the size of a football, a loaf of bread and a mole empanada at bakery that makes them fresh daily.

When I go down stairs in the morning, I can be eating instead of fleeing. As I open the refrigerator, I won’t have to hold my breath because the stench is so bad it’s like opening one of those cadaver refrigerators on TV. I won’t have to look at or smell the geriatric soup with the bone in the middle left out to soak over night on the counter.

And I won’t have to think thoughts like it might be better to get my meals at the local jail.

I won’t have to pay $15USD to get my laundry done because I now have a washer/dryer and better still a maid who comes twice weekly to do it for me… and by-the-way, it’s included in the rent.

Here I am right in the middle of three subway stops for separate but, equally convenient lines instead of being nowhere near a metro stop. I am one block from a big park and a couple more from the President’s mansion, Los Pinos. I am a ten minute walk from what I think is one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world; La Condesa. I can go there for dinner to one of scores of cool restaurants instead of not eating or eating what’s usually for dinner; pancakes a la cardboard or if I am lucky, something packaged like cereal.

When I come home at night the courtyard doesn’t smell like dog shit from the two dogs incarcerated in a cement cell the size of a walk-in closet. I won’t have to wait for the one day each week when it doesn’t smell. The day the guy comes to come to clean up the dog crap. I won’t have to feel badly that the dogs only get walked once a week by yet another hired hand. I won’t have to have debates with myself about clandestinely setting their caged bird free.

I won’t have to wonder whether I will be without threadbare towels in the bathroom because the cleaning man remembered to take the dirty ones out but forgot to replace them with clean ones.

I won’t have to lock my computer in my luggage because the lock to my room doesn’t work and isn’t going to get fixed any time soon.

I won’t have to sleep in the twin bed in the blanket woven with pubic hairs and tiny spiders. When I get up in the morning, I will actually feel clean showering in a modern bathroom that contains none of my former bathroom’s accoutrements; glaring yellow and white tiles a la 1971 pock mocked with mildew, a shower door that is strangely sticky to the touch and broken faucets that sometimes gurgle forth brown water.

When I walk up the stairs to my new room, I don’t have to worry about the creaking noise from the steps waking up the rest of the house and I won’t have to worry about stubbing my toe on the water pipe at the top of the stairs.

My new stairs are marble and there’s no one to wake up. I won’t have to worry about checking in or checking out with anyone or feeling badly because I am not feeling social. I won’t have to wake up at 7am every day when the car leaves the garage billowing exhaust and noise into my sole window.

I have a new place and I am psyched.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

M7 Mordidas - Bribes That Don’t Bite

I’ve been looking for apartments with Florian and Carolin the German couple I met in Cuernavaca.

One night after a fruitless seach, they were driving me back to my house in Anzures, my dull neighborhood consisting of run down mansions.

Like mine; which looks like an Italian funeral home that hasn’t been renovated since the 1970’s. We have four refrigerators, but no dishwasher.

But that’s another story.

Calle Bradley, my street, runs one way and I instructed Carolin to drop me off at the corner. She started down the street the wrong way. Who said Germans were law-abiding? Security trumps the rule of law; she was intent on seeing me to my door safety.

Blue lights.

You hear all sorts of things about the Mexican police. How they’ll pull you over for sh^ts and giggles. How they’re paid $200/month. How they supplement their meager income with “mordidas” literally “bites”, but translating to “bribes”.

Funny, just today, I had been thinking that I would never have a run in with the law here. I planned on limiting my driving time.

But what do you know? Is this karmic payback for my hubris?

We’re now surrounded by three Mexico City police cars, lights flashing and are undergoing a roadside interrogation.

In the states, a shot of adrenalin hits me if there police car in back of me and I am doing the speed limit. I should have been way more scared here – especially with all the tall tales and especially because we were breaking the law.

After the requisite small talk, one cop explains we can pay a “service fee” of $100 pesos (Yes, they use the same sign for the peso as we do for the dollar).

This is a little like a prostitute asking you for a “date”.

We’re eager to get out of this situation as fast as we possibly can. And for $10USD, our DF policeman morphs into a lenient judge granting us vehicular scofflaws road-side clemency.

It’s all good, till we realize we have only $50 pesos between us.

Everyone here goes out of his or her way to scare the hell out of you. It’s amazing there’s anyone on the street at all. Don’t take more than you want to spend. Never take your ATM card.

I don’t use a wallet or carry an ID and I only take a couple hundred pesos with me. After a couple of drinks, you end up broke, like we are now.

Then, I remember I have US dollars back in my room.

Carolin explains to the officer in Spanish that we’ll give him $10USD plus the $50 pesos or 50% more than what he asked for. He knew the exchange rate, but couldn’t do the math.

Unfortunately, all I had was a twenty so that wasn’t going to work anyway. We gave it to him and he graciously pardoned us without so much as a ticket or a trip to the local precinct.

Friday, September 10, 2004

M6 There's Something About (Bribing) Maria

Moving to another country is supposed to be all about experiencing new things. How fabulous! I am happy to report on the newest thing I’ve experienced this week; bribery.

Yes, that word is synonymous with graft, corruption and things that we think don’t generally happen in the USA. A couple weeks ago I would have told you that I would never even consider giving a bribe - let alone two – and certainly not within the span of one week.

Yes, I agree, they corrupt both the giver and the recipient. Bribes are bad, terrible even. Sometimes, their alternatives are worse.

While trying to learn another language ten hours a day, move to another country and close down my affairs in the USA, my tenant of a year and a half, Maria (name changed to shield the guilty), decided that collecting unemployment was more fun than working and that not paying rent was more fun than paying.

Maria had taken care of my house and my cats lovingly for a year and a half. She promised to do so when I was gone when I accepted my new job in June.

How wonderful, everything was in her hands!

Knowing how much responsibility this would entail, I decided to treat Maria to a week’s vacation. I purchased her a $600 airline ticket and when she came back, she said she was moving out at the end of August. I even let her have the month for free since she was in really dire straights.

But when August 30th was rolling around Maria was rolling anywhere but out.

She suddenly started lashing out at me leaving me vicious voicemails and accusing me of “only caring about money”. When confronting her, she said she was staying in the house, that I had no “right” to kick her out of my own house. She was going to stay as long as she liked. We traded voicemails as I consulted lawyers and real estate agents.

My real estate agent advised, “This is why I never recommend renting to my clients. I would get a lawyer - especially if she’s the kind of tenant who knows her rights. I’ve seen cases where squatters have had the right to stay in a house”.

Maria most definitely knew her rights.

Not only was her portion of the mortgage in jeopardy, but my ability to rent to any one else was also in jeopardy and I feared that my friend Vanessa who was also living there might move out if Maria began tormenting her as she was doing with me.

I could barely focus on work or Spanish. And the fabulous times and experiences were dulled with the anxiety of unresolved affairs.

I booked a ticket back to DC and then to North Carolina for business meetings. I had to leave because my tourist card was about to expire anyway and the meeting were necessary regardless or so I told my management.

The plan was to move Maria’s stuff out on the street when she wasn’t there. Legally, she had no lease, though at one point in time she had been paying rent. She still owed me $300, though she claimed it was $250 as though I was trying to bilk her out of 50 bucks.

Tuesday night I was entreated to a voice mail from Maria stating that it was illegal to kick her out and that she would call the police if necessary. I called the police myself and it turns out that they will kick out an “unwanted guest”, but not a tenant.

Those disputes go to a very special place called landlord-tenant court. That place requires landlords to hire lawyers to sue, take international flights just to go to court and costs us greedy slumlords thousands taking perhaps many months to resolve.

And, when all is said and done, there are no guarantees. Moreover, it would be doubtful that even if I had won if I ever would have recouped a dime from Maria let alone recouped the emotional energy she would exact from me in the process.

Was she a tenant or an unwanted guest? Was I willing to press that and risk letting DC’s finest decide my fate?

By Tuesday, I was in a bind and I was freaking out.

I couldn’t handle dealing with mi familia Mexicano and the pancakes or cereal they typically serve me for dinner so I went to a sushi place on La Reforma, Mexico’s equivalent to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Over sushi I relaxed a little and talked over my limited options with Katy. The phone clicked and I had a hunch it was Vanessa. I took the call.

Maria was tripping out on Vanessa and I could hear it all over the cell phone. Yelling. Screaming. Taunting. Tormenting. Swearing. Repeat. I knew what it was like to hear one of Maria’s voicemail messages. I could only imagine how bad this must have been in person.

Vanessa took it like a champ and she never let this situation jeopardize our friendship or our lease agreement which would have been well within reason.

She had been nothing but nice and helpful to Maria.

It was one thing when she was lashing out on me, but another when she was taking it out on Vanessa. I was circling the backstreets near the US Embassy, (later learned you’re not supposed to walk there) literally shaking with rage.

I needed to put an end to this. I told Vanessa I was going to call Maria.

I dialed, and to my surprise Maria answered. She unleashed her verbal vomit on me again. I am selfish, money-grubbing, etc. I couldn’t get a word in. Repeat.

I wasn’t angry at this point and I just listened.

Then I spoke.

“Maria, I just want you out of my house. What’s it going to take?” “You tell me, what do you want?”

Then, as I circled the rainy streets in the dark, I was entreated with yet another harangue detailing my many shortcomings as a human being.

“Real friendship can’t be bought”
“You don’t know the value of people, all you care about is money”

Actually, all cared about was getting her the F%^& out of my house and out of my life!

Brian: “Maria, $500 and a week at a hotel and we can be done with this”
Maria: “$500 won’t buy a week at a hotel, all you care about is money…”
Brian: “Maria, you’re not listening, I said, $500 AND a week at a hotel”
Brian: “Katy’s on the way to the ATM machine now. She’ll put the money in your hand as soon as you and your belongings are out of the house and my key’s in her posesion”
Maria: crying
Brian: “We can wash our hands clean of all this, be done, once and for all – forgive and get past this if you just agree…”
Maria: crying
Brian: “Or, I can have Vanessa call the police. Your call, but you need to decide.”
Maria: cries “You don’t know what Vanessa has been doing to me, I didn’t want to bother you while you were in Mexico {Is that why you left me so many nasty voicemails?} she has been horrible”

The funny thing was everything she said about Vanessa, she had said about me just a week before.

As psychologist friend said to me she was engaging in “projective identification” – essentially ascribing her view of herself to either Vanessa or me.
Maria: “That money would really help out”
Brian: “So we have a deal?”
Maria: “Yes, you’ve done so much for me, I don’t want to lose your friendship, you are like a brother to me.”

Who says money can’t buy happiness or in Maria’s words, “friendship”?

The money was conditioned upon three things; 1) she had to move the next day, 2) she had to sign documents stating she made no additional claims on the house and 3) that the deal would expire immediately if she did not agree or failed to abide by the terms and conditions.

I managed to negotiate this while Katy was serving as an intermediary handing her cell phone between Maria and Vanessa so I could make sure they both agreed to what I was negotiating.

Katy did an amazing job at calming Maria down. Without her, there would have been no deal. I felt like we were conducting peace talks between North and South Korea and Kim Il Jung had his finger on the nuclear trigger the whole time.

Hapless and helpless Maria was unable to even pack or move her own belongings herself the next day. I don’t know what I would have done without Katy or Vanessa. They moved Maria out while she was still erupting and spewing verbal bile on Vanessa. They did all the legwork, while I did the (tele) sales job. After that, I felt like I could coax a suicide jumper off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Even though it cost me, it surely cost me a lot less than it would have in money, time and emotional anguish had I pursued it through the courts.

I came back for the weekend and instead of evicting Maria, I chilled and spent time with friends.

Little did I know I would get another opportunity to use bribery effectively as soon as I got back to Mexico City.