Monday, June 27, 2011

Heartbreak Hotel

I was there the day of the actual hotel closure. I was on my bike, riding to a meeting I had with the municipal government when one of my friends, a robber and addict, stopped me on the street. “Anita, Anita, come with me” he said. Although lucid, he seemed extremely worried. I dismounted my bike and we walked together through the historic center to San Marcos. He had just arrived from a morning of robbing in North Quito. I asked him how it went and he answered with his typical, “You know, Anita, you know.” His wry smile made me laugh. As we twisted through the narrow streets crammed with people (at this point, he had taken my bicycle, not wanting anyone to rob it), he explained to me the situation. As he conveyed to me the closure of Hotel Aztec I sighed with relief, “That’s it. That’s all you wanted to tell me?” I knew that the Aztec closed for a couple days at least every 6 weeks. It would open again once the owner paid off the police. He said, “No, Anita, today is different. Members of the municipal government came with the police.” It’s true, that had never, ever happened before. Usually it was the police thugs who have no real power, who come to collect brides for higher generals and in the process, receive their own pay-offs. My friend explained to me, “Anita, not only that, but the upper policemen came too.” Hmm… I thought to myself. Yes, this was a unique situation. Never had a group of upper tiered policemen shut down the hotel. I began to worry. We picked up the pace.

When we arrived, the corner was eerily quiet. No one was about and I saw the hotel’s doors shut with huge chains. The phone center which was the storefront located on the bottom floor of the hotel was also closed. It paid rent to the Aztec’s owner. One by one the women came out of the woodwork to discuss the situation with me. M. my Colombian friend approached me crying, saying, “Anita, they’ve said that the Aztec is now closed for good. What are we gonna do? Can you do something?” A few more approached around me, making a circle, expressing their litanies. They wanted me to take immediate action to do something, anything. I felt utterly helpless—this was a much bigger battle than the women or I could take on. In fact, it wasn’t a battle we could win, given the fact that the Aztec’s owner had avoided the legalization process for so long (5 years), since it had opened. Obviously the police could only look the other way for so long. Five years had been pushing it, but since the owner had only received minimal fines during this time perhaps he felt there was no reason to start the legalization process now. Perhaps he thought their threats would never amount to anything. Up until now, they didn’t. Perhaps it took him by surprise, as much as the women, the day they actually closed the Aztec for good (May 5, 2011). But I doubt that. I’m fairly certain that the owner had advance warning about the hotel closure because on the day it closed neither him nor his mother nor his other family members arrived that day at the Aztec to work.

While we were all grieving the loss of the hotel and pondering our options another crisis broke out when we realized V., a long term “base-head” (an addict to base—which is Ecuador’s equivalent to crack) was trapped in the hotel with her two small children. She lives in the Aztec and for some reason her presence was overlooked when they chained and bolted the doors. The firemen were called to “rescue her” and her children from their third floor room looking out onto the street. With the doors bolted V. had no way of leaving or entering the hotel, she had no food for her children, nor a way to receive drugs to support her habit. But as it turns out, V. didn’t want to be saved. It turned into a surreal situation, with me in the middle.

I was standing about with the rest of the growing crowd as a fireman put on his helmet and climbed the ladder to V.’s third-floor window to coax her to come down with him. She started screaming at him, to leave her in peace, in her home. Fairly high-up authority figures from the municipal government were there as well, wanting to force V. and her children out, to avoid any number of disastrous situations that could happen (which could damage their reputation). I knew a fair number of the police mulling around and we greeted each other. The municipal government wanted to know who the heck this gringa was (me), who was also standing around as I continually shifted between the V. situation and went back to the rest of the women on the corner (all of whom were adamant that V. and her children should be removed for their welfare). The fireman who had been trying to coax V. to leave backed down his ladder with no success. V. is a stubborn woman, but more adequately, she’s a woman with an advanced addiction, making her decision-making abilities impaired. Enough “officials” and people of “authority” began to realize that I actually knew V. and perhaps could talk to her. I was willing to try, because the situation also seemed dangerous to me. I also wanted V. to exit the hotel.

I called up to her, as the crowd o people outside her window began to grow. “V.” I called, “It’s Anita.” I called up and waved to her. She called down, “Oh Anita, it’s you, help me.” I really wasn’t sure what she meant by that. I think our ideas of help were very different at that moment. For her, did she mean “help her” remain trapped in the hotel, with no way to receive food for her children? I asked her to come down to the front door so we could talk through the gate. V. said she would come down to talk only to the “gringa” and that everyone had to back away to give us our privacy. Oh goodness, I felt. Here I am, definitely getting involved right in the middle of a huge drama unfolding on the streets—not something an anthropologist is “supposed” to do. But there I was and I wanted to help. V. came down, shaking and tearful. She seemed so tiny, I wish I could have put my arms around her to stop her trembling, but we could barely hold hands through the bars. “V.” I said, “look at this mess.” She started to cry. “Anita, I can’t leave, this is my home, all my possessions are here. All my clothes, all my children’s clothes, my stuff to cook food.” I nodded sympathetically, trying to hold back my own tears. “I know V., it’s just that the hotel is now permanently closed. We have to get you out and bring you to a safe place.” V. started swearing and turned into her surly self. I said, “Listen V. we need to come up with a solution. The municipal government wants you out, now. It’s not safe for you to be in here. How will your children get food?” V. turned to me and said, “How the fuck do I know?” and disappeared into the darkness. By this time the press had arrived. Thank God I managed to completely avoid them.

One of the women from the municipal government pulled me aside and said she had a very serious question to ask me. With my heart sinking she asked, “Anita, is V. an adequate mother to her children. Are they in danger living with her?” Oh god. This was exactly what I did NOT want to be asked. I knew V. lived for her children. If they weren’t there, I don’t think she would bother staying alive. At the same time, my honest answer would be no. Her children live trapped in a hotel room where their mother smokes base all day. At the same time though, V. manages to provide food for them and the other women step in to help. With V.’s children is does take a community to raise a child. A community where V. and her children feel safe. I have been worried about V.’s children for ages, but have accepted the attitude that all the women take. It breaks our heart to see children, but it’s none of our business. We do small things to help, like bring them food or new clothes but in this society, no one takes a child away from their mother. I answered meekly, “V. does the best she can do. They get by.” I knew the police knew V.’s issues, (her addiction—because she’s so often detained), so let them declare V. an unfit mother. I was standing at an ethical crossroads and couldn’t bring myself to say what many of my readers probably think I should have said. I couldn’t do it. But I don’t regret it. This woman nodded her head tersely and seemed to understand what I was saying, even though I wasn’t saying much. I think she had already known the answer to the question. She whispered to me in a tight voice, “You get V. down here again and tell her we will take away her children if they don’t come right now.” Shit.

Again, I stood in front of V.’s window and waved up to her, “V. it’s me. Come down again.” V. stuck out her head and saw me, “What now Anita?” “Please come V. I have something very important to tell you.” She answered, “Give me a minute.” She came down to the door again and I told her what the municipal government had told me. Now she started crying and got very angry. “Who the fuck do these people think they are? Do they think they will be better mothers to my children? They can’t take my children away. And anyway, where will we go if we leave, sleep in the streets?” I nodded my head, in agreement. “V. I know you don’t want them to take them away, but in that case, you must come now.” V. stormed away, back into the darkness.

Hanging my head in failure, I went back to negotiate with the municipal government. I said, “Listen, there must be an alternative. Part of the reason V. doesn’t want to leave is because they have nowhere to go. Is there a family shelter they can go to?” After a number of phone calls were made, they secured a place for V. and her children at a family shelter that also treats addicts. Perfect. One more time I called out to V. “V. it’s me, Anita.” ‘What now, gringa?” “Come down one more time—PLEASE, PLEASE” I cried. After a few minutes she appeared once more at the door. “Anita, this is the last time, what the fuck do you want?” I knew her patience was waning, as was my “power” to negotiate with her. “Listen, we have secured a spot for you at a family shelter—it is free and it will be a safe place for you to spend the night.” “No way Anita, I know what they’re trying to do. That place is filled with junkies. I’m not going to no place filled with junkies.” Oh lord, I thought. The reason for why she didn’t want to go was so absurd, given her very advanced stage addiction (i.e. everyone refers to V. as “V. the junkie.”) I had to remind myself that people at this stage of the disease are so out of their minds, so beyond rational thinking, that I just had to let it go. It almost made me want to laugh. Or cry. I wasn’t sure which. “But V. at least they will provide food and beds for you,” trying to breakthrough her junkie mind. “No way, no way. This is a trick.” I knew exactly what she meant. This was a trick to get “V.” treatment. She was not gonna go, it was 100% certain. “Okay V.” I said. “Tell me what you need from the store please, I’ll pass food and milk through the bars.” There was no way she was budging.

I stopped to explain to the municipal government that she would not leave, at least not today. I told them that for today V. had won the battle and that perhaps tomorrow they would have more luck. I told them to leave her in peace now, they could return another time. Thank God, one empathic, very kind and understanding man from the municipal government agreed with me. He agreed that clearly V. wouldn’t go anywhere today, and what harm would it cause for her to spend the night in the closed hotel. I explained that I was going to get them the food they would need for the next 24 hours. After that, everyone started to disperse. The police backed away, the municipal officials all got my phone number, still shocked that this random gringa had a seemingly close relationship with V., a sex worker and addict. I brought V. milk, diapers, crackers, yogurt, bread, fruit, cold cuts, and many other things, simply because I was so worried and emotionally distraught about the situation. I handed V. the items through the bars and squeezed her hand. I was shocked when she nodded and mumbled, “Thanks Anita” I had never heard her thank me before.

I left for the States a couple days after this fiasco. I found out that V. did eventually leave the hotel after several days. I haven’t seen her around—I have no idea where she moved to. Perhaps she’s isn’t even in the historic center anymore, who knows, but I’d like to check to make sure all is well—at least by her standards.

No comments:

Post a Comment