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True Stories by Steve Keely
Hobo Memoirs

20-Nov-06
A Dollar An Inch of Skin

Preface: I draw an assignment in the late 80’s to “seed capitalism” around the globe. A preliminary excursion to twenty countries identifies potential recipients such as street vendors and small businessmen owning big dreams but small capital. I promise each to return within two months with a couple grand that will go far in their third-world countries if eventually I can collect 15% of their gross profits. “Sure,” come the replies in skeptical, assorted tongues, knowing ‘many’s the slip’... In this adventure, I’m full swing with the cash through South America a la “The Millionaire” ‘50’s TV series, ready to appear with a fortune on a fruit seller’s doorstep.

I stop first for a meal in Caracas, Venezuela, and disaster strikes.

“Can I change twenty American dollars if I eat?” I ask in Spanish.

“Si, Si”

The dish steams on the table in three minutes. The café is built like a French fry with a dozen tables and a tiny bar; just a place to get a meal while in transit next to the bus station. There are two occupied tables, a husband-wife pair at dessert and two males drinking tall beers with their meals.

The airport moneychangers were closed yesterday when I flew into Caracas, Venezuela. It was simple to beg onto the airport bus and secure a room on a promise, however today I need Venezuelan currency.

I study the drinking man with his back to me. Clean ebony skin, cropped hair, pressed orange shirt, and grace in bringing the bottle to his mouth. Inexplicably, he turns to raise the beer in salute. A tidy mustache, no drugs in the alert eyes, a strong jawbone, and he’s built like a tall cheetah. I nod and look to my meal, yet at first bite see his dark face blush. Francis Galton once observed in Africa that this betrays shame rather than embarrassment.

The Chinese food is delicious, resembling chop suey. The waiter clears the table, I order another plate and pay with an American Jackson. He returns in three minutes with Venezuelan Bolivares and the piping hot plate. The two drinking blacks leave, the waiter goes, the cashier disappears, the cook is unseen, the floor sweep locks herself in the bathroom, and the married pair rises to exit.

“Adios, amigo,” they call. I sit alone with the food.

The black man like a cheetah and his comrade return briskly through the front door. My chair is five steps away as they raise machetes. I sink with an eye on each as they separate and walk to either side of the chair. The table’s in front, a man on both sides, and my back to the wall.

“Tranquillo,” orders the Cheetah.

He holds the knife low and expertly. The blade is fourteen inches long, plus another six in the wood handle. The other knife held high by the stubbier man is shorter by six inches with a sharper point. The Cheetah jabs my left rib cage and the other pokes the right thigh without breaking the skin. High left and low right – like being double-tackled in football – I can’t move or will stab myself.

“Give us your money!” Everything is in Spanish.

“I gave it all.” I lie and empty the few Bolivares onto the table using slight arm movements to avoid bloodying the knives.

“Bah,” growls the Cheetah. “The rest. Pronto!”

Jab. Jab. The steel catches the bottom rib where a quick up-thrust will take my wind, with the heart the next stop. I suppress a kind word for his expertise and would shoot if I had a gun.

Theft is inevitable in third-world travel, and I’ve been robbed one hundred times. Most have been benign events by pickpockets, or bus, train and hotel room thugs. Yet, I try to stay way ahead of these bad guys. The first step is to create small stashes on different parts of the body with the idea of sequentially losing only one or two of them. The most popular spot is a money pouch against the backbone, where I now carry a thick wad of small bills that can raise saliva in a poor-country crook. If heisted, the wad goes directly into the robber’s hand followed by my act of woe, and he trots off happily while I walk the other way with the big store still hidden. That, the big stash, today is secretly sewn inside the pants at the calf. This certainly beats a smuggler’s diamond stitched under the skin or a Devil’s Island suppository. A final deception can be to toss high in the air a bunch of small notes from my pocket since a thief wants just the money, as you flee into the wind.

My bag of tricks almost empty, I remain still as the two Venezuelan jab and order, “More money.” They know a dead bird plucks easier, and I dearly want to pull the pouch of small bills from my back and throw them overhead snarling theatrically. Now, however, there’s a hitch.

I can’t reach for the pouch without impaling myself on the tall one’s knife, and my Spanish is too checked to explain it. Meanwhile, the short guy frisks down the right leg with one hand, marking time with the blade in the other. I wince as he works lower and finally touches the fat bank. The knife slices off the secret pocket and he dashes for the exit even as the other finds the back money pouch, cuts it loose and follows.

“Silencio,” the Cheetah mouths at the exit, and then they’re gone.

On cue, the sweep girl emerges from the bathroom and shakes her head sympathetically. I’m cleaned but alive in no place to linger. I leave the chop suey, cold.

I say, what’s fortune is what others call bad luck. Today I bucked odds without spilling any blood, learned of myself and, at the price of a dollar a square inch of skin, walk on lighter feet to the next adventure.

Afterword: The day following the robbery in Caracas, a uniformed policeman walks up – the Cheetah. He asks for a passport, so I produce it. He asks to see money but upon refusal drops to the public sidewalk and frisks yesterday’s robbed leg. I kick him away and he retreats empty handed into the city. To report this afterword to the police station will likely get me thrown in jail, so instead I go to the airport. Once stateside, I repay my boss half the stolen amount, and am assigned a new project to scout the world emerging markets. The better success at this is reported in “Yankee Hobo in the World Emerging Markets”. Global capitalism seeding goes on today but I’m no longer a Johnny Apple seed.

For more of Steve "Bo" Keely's writings