A Writers Bloc workshop feature
How to Live
by James Arbuthnott
I sit at a shopping trolley filled with beer. A radio tied to an umbrella plays above my head as I drink and smoke, listening to the guitars.
I am in a stone plaza filled with trolleys the same as mine. Groups of old men gather at the perimeter to play guitar and sing with their friends. After trolley beers, I leave for the city centre of Medellin, Colombia. I walk along a street filled with hookers and old men who stand out the front of cheap bars, beckoning me to enter. Others, young and old, stand in corridors and entrances of corroding apartment buildings. Iron gates bar the windows; liquor stores serve patrons through prison-style bars at their storefront.
Through the main street and past a fried chicken shop, a Latino wearing a sports coat beckons me along an underground staircase to a strip club. The rum proved to be cheap; I ordered and found a seat against the wall. The sign at the bottom of the stairwell asked its patrons to use condoms. I sat and drank, watching the pornography and football on separate TVs overhead. Walking along the runway, a middle-aged Colombian woman got naked. I remembered reading an article on the country’s laws on prostitution. A few minutes later the girls started leading their customers through a hole in the wall beside the DJ booth. You had to be crouched down to get through.
I finished my rum and left: still daylight: four in the afternoon on a Tuesday.
Friday night, in a club with a guy named Nacho. We’d met at university parties and had had language exchange now twice at my house.
Tequila shots. I buy a gram of cocaine from three locals in XXL T-shirts and new era hats for $30,000 pesos: 10,000 more than usual. They leave the bar directly after our transaction. I was drunk and they’d ripped me off. Although it was a shitty gram it was still better than at home, and still much cheaper. I share with two of Nacho’s amigas, who admit that it’s not high quality for the club district we’re in. One declined my offer due to her unhealthy Corazon-heart, so instead we talk. Awake now, I check my phone: eleven in the morning. I’m still drunk, not yet hung over: time to find a resting place before my headache hits. I left the unknown apartment as silently as my body could drag me, past two Latinos sleeping on the couch, down three flights of stairs and out the front door.
Walking home in the hot sun, I stop to buy Marlboro Red’s from a shopping trolley. Fifteen minutes more and I arrive at my share-house. My girlfriend is smoking in the courtyard with my amigo Daniel; He’d ridden his motorbike to my house to help her find me. I stumble through the front door to sour looks and suspicion.
I give her my alibi and sleep the afternoon.
I take bumps of cocaine and smoke joints over a bottle of rum with my amigo Daniel, who’d consoled my girlfriend over my disappearance earlier. The barrio has a liquor store on the side of the road. There are cheap metal tables and chairs outside, to one side a reggaeton club, and the other, electronica.
Daniel explains why Che Guevera and Karl Marx are popular across South America and how Pablo Escobar is considered a lower class Colombian hero. He talks of his country’s need for communism, and their wealth and education inequalities; how communism can level the playing field for the lower class.
I shared the news of my grandmother’s passing, and that I was to have a drink for her; she’d died at 98. He told me it’s time she rested, and we drank down our toast.
Walking back to Daniel’s block, we met his friends drinking Aguardiente at the bus stop. After being introduced they bombarded me with simple English. Sick of being pulled by the arm to start new conversations, I convinced Daniel to take me to a bar.
Daniel took me out for my second night in the club district. Daniel, his amiga who went by the name of Mi Amore – my love – and a tall, skinny and polite local man around town. Being late, we couldn’t buy rum from the licorería. Finally we convinced a storeowner to place the bottle in the corner of the security bars. We paid him and drank from plastic shot glasses on the curb. Then we shared bumps off my keys while listening music from the gutter outside the clubs.
Daniel poured liquor on the curb for his dead friends. We drank down another toast.
Outside another bar the patrons spilled out into the street. Daniel asked me to help him meet a pale blonde Irish girl. He had control until they danced; he grabbed her by the waist, grinding his crotch against her ass. He doesn’t understand why white people talk so much, telling me this flatters Colombian women. Soon after, our group and the Irish girl including her friends parted ways.
We sat in a nearby park, buying more beers from shopping trolleys. We sat with his childhood friends and an old man. Mi Amore left to find marijuana. They informed me it was useless waiting for her to return.
Daylight crept up on us. The old man gave me shots of Aguardiente while another offered bumps from his gram bag, labelled with a pistol. The old man told me he’s in the screen-printing business with his brother, handing me his business card and another plastic cup of warm Aguardiente. They nicknamed me ‘piano fingers’ because I was tapping on my arm as I sat. Everyone laughed. The old man kept staring at me, but by this time in my travels it was normal; my accent, my skin and my tattoos make me something of a spectacle in this culture.
I tell the group of my journey from Argentina, heading north by bus, to get to Colombia.
Mid-sentence, the alpha male jumped up and began to run. Slow to react, I jumped up with Daniel when we heard screaming. We found him yelling at a homeless man who was crouched in foetal position, pushed against a roller-door of a garage by the knees of his attacker. The hoodlum continued to backhanded and slap this homeless guy, shouting ‘thief’ in Spanish. The man was derelict with a cotton sack over his shoulder. He begged for mercy from his beating as I stood and watched, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette.
A thought swam up from somewhere within my inebriated state:
“What’s the plan if the police find me here?”
By this time the alpha held a wooden fence paling and began to beat his victim on the back of the neck. Finally he got away, screaming and crying as he ran off carrying his empty sack.
We sat back at the curb and watched Mi Amore now walking back up the street wearing tracksuit pants and a tight crop top. After sitting in my lap on the curb she asked if I wanted to go to her house and have sex; the first full sentence in English she’d managed that night.
Daniel looked shaken by the recent events and I could tell that he wanted to leave. He’s a student, and lives with his parents, brothers and sisters and his grandfather. His university exams are in one week; he’d done a terrible job of distancing himself from the childhood friends he loved.
We marched on to a recreational park this time, meeting yet more of his friends, one who was taking a Jack Russell named Nacho for a walk. We lit our cigarettes and shared another beer. Our nerves were wired.
Reality hit, forcing me to consider my next move, contemplating chess-like outcomes. Daniel spent 15 minutes trying to convince me to go to a finca – not unlike an estate with large lawns, swimming pools and guesthouses and a large kitchen – I declined, thanked them for a good night.
As I walked towards the main road. I crossed paths with the battered homeless man again. His head lowered, his eyes were glued to the pavement as he passed. His cotton sack had grown. I evaluated Daniel’s explanation to the event: thieving homeless steal from their communal suburb often, he should have known better than to walk their families’ streets.
I awake to a message from Daniel.
Their car had lost control on the way to the finca, rolled four times and landed in a ditch on the side of the freeway. They were lucky to be alive.
Smoking, in the courtyard, a line by Viktor Frankl came to mind:
“Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now,”
It’s now happy hour at La Botija here in Trinidad, Cuba. Flies at the bar surround me, and I want to write about Medellin once more: my final night in the city…
Saturday night, my house party, in my living room. The police closed us down due to complaints around 4.00 AM. I was talking cheese with two French exchange students. Within half an hour most Latinos and Euros dispersed.
Daniel and I walked to his block, our sights set on a gathering beneath the bridge.
There were more Colombians here than last time, only a few of whom I recognised: the old screen printer and the gangster who’d bashed the homeless man. We drank Aguardiente and rum and snorted coke and talked for an hour until an old man riding a pushbike and wearing a bomber jacket rode up from the playground. Everyone was familiar with him, except me. He sold coke. He asked around, all offers refused.
Suddenly the old man took a run at Daniel as I was doing a line off the back of someone’s hand. I snorted it quickly and got between them, my nostrils still burning. Nothing eventuated.
The group decided Daniel and I would be the runners to a nearby barrio to buy cocaine. We accepted the money and were told we’d be accompanied by MC Leon, a Colombian street rapper, and to hurry. We take a cab.
It was a dark and decrepit residential block with razor wire and broken bottles protruding upwards from tall fences of the houses. At the intersection, sitting in the middle of the road on a white plastic lawn chair, sat a large black man. Daniel approaches as I watch from the taxi’s back seat after being told not to leave the car. Someone leaves a house, pacing in Daniel’s direction.
We shared bumps as our payment for our mission during the drive back to the bridge.
Back beneath the bridge we handed the drugs over and received our praise. I met a man in his 50s who’d spent 10 years in a Miami jail. His terrible English surprised me.
Now I don’t believe in fate, but sometimes you’re just gonna be in for a hard time.
Another old man, friends with the jailbird, started to call me ‘Skippy the kangaroo.’ He stood over me, repeating the word ‘Skippy’ and told me to go home to my country. He told me to go back with the other tourists, followed by the word marica – pussy.
“Yo entiendo”, I replied. I understand what you said.
We locked eyes; his of an old man with nothing to lose and one hand in his jacket pocket, mine of a young coked-up tourist trying to keep his composure. I was definitely wired, for lack of a better word. Old men get worse and more disrespectful once someone cowers in front of them. So I stared back at him.
“Marica” he repeated.
Chatter silenced for the seconds in anticipation, a circle now surrounds us.
The jailbird walks between us, talking fast in Spanish. They walk together back to the group and sat on a park bench to do a line.
“Tranquilo, hombre”, Daniel said with his hand on my shoulder. Relax, man.
“El no es importante”, he added. He is not important.
Time passed until two police officers on motorbikes rode up a bike path towards us. The group separated, making way for the two eyeballing cops. The cops established their presence and rode away.
Daylight, again. Now old Colombian couples in Sunday suits walked the bridge on their way to Sunday morning mass. We walk to another park out of respect.
MC Leon rapped to a circle of Colombians and a beat boxer. I sat on the bench and asked Daniel if he’s OK, his body language obvious he was no longer enjoying himself. I apologised for any trouble I’d caused, explaining I wanted no problems with his friends or to make enemies. He said assured me it’s not my fault. On the park bench, I shared advice I’d received from an older friend in Argentina:
'Never forget the friends with whom you grew up; in most cases they’re better friends than enemies. Nobody’s better to tell your story. But people grow up in different ways and often separate. The best way to handle this inevitable circumstance is to be surrounded with people like you. Keep your lifelong friends as friends instead of enemies. Too much effort is wasted on hate; remind yourself to hate every day and you’ll be exhausted. Admitting to changing times is being at peace. '
Daniel’s head hung to the ground while I spoke. He nodded in agreement, staring at the concrete beneath his feet, still angry with his friends for standing over me.
We walked to my house. The dregs from the party are still in the living room. Daniel lays down beside some Euro. I go to my room. My daylight epiphany: the only reason there was money in my pocket is because of him.
The next day my phone stopped working, stealing my last sober chance to thank my friend, as I’d awoken to an empty house.
He knows I have a room in Australia if he needs, although most Colombians don’t make enough money to leave their country.
It is still happy hour here at La Botija. Mojito’s are a quarter price. Outside it rains; the flies have left the tables. I’ll order another Mojito, light up a big fat Cuban cigar and celebrate what I’ve learned, and to my new friends.
Our Bloc Feature this week, How to Live by James Arbuthnott, is a compelling memoir piece from the Writers Bloc workshop. We selected this piece for its strength of voice and a great rawness of style that draws the reader right into Medellin alongside the narrator.
Edited and selected by Raphaelle Race
James is a 27 year old journalism intern from Melbourne. He has been writing for about two years and has recently decided to make it his 9-5.