In driving through Panama’s Avenida Balboa, home to six of Panama’s most expensive real estate projects, I found myself entertained by one construction worker, dangling from his harness, drinking a can of beer. He had a sense of method about him, as if this was part of the job description he originally signed up for. At the time, nothing struck me as unusual.
“So I’m walking on Thompson Street on my way to this falafel house,” my friend Marge said, “and I see a homeless man fall through a metal grate on the sidewalk into the storm drain below and…” I stopped her here. “Did you say falafel house?” enamored whenever my friends from Manhattan talk so nonchalantly about life in New York. It’s as if they live in a world of such intensity that things like edible foams and falafel houses are as ordinary as the telephone book they’re listed in.
“This homeless guy. He was standing on a grate and it collapsed. I screamed because I thought he was dead but in the end, he was OK.”
It sounded like an implausible story to me: that a metal grate opened trapdoor-style on some unsuspecting guy who vanished from ground view only to have the firemen rescue effort complicated by his request for some spare change. And how did she know he was homeless? I’ve seen plenty of homeowners, a number of celebrities in fact, who dress the part of hobo on a regular basis. Could have been one of them.
“Are you an idiot?” Marge asked. “It doesn’t matter if he owned a home or a condo or a fucking Key Largo timeshare. Point is, its dangerous to walk over those things.” I nodded my head and agreed the same way I do around aggressive drunks. “I wouldn’t walk over one of those things in a million years,” I said.
The truth is, I walk over sidewalk grates on a daily basis, occasionally going out of my way to find them. It’s not that I enjoy the thrill; in adrenaline terms, its about as exciting as unwrapping a bandage. But rather, I like to look down and see if anyone’s dropped anything of value: a cell phone maybe, or a shiny diamond pendant. My friend Grant’s father once dropped a hundred dollar bill down a storm drain. Which is to say, the treasure is there, you just have to look for it.
My interest in what lies beneath began at an early age when Jack, the owner of a local fish market in town, showed me a small pigeon that had wound itself beneath the wooden planks of his shop. No one knows how it got there but every few days I’d go in and peak through the boards in the floor until it died comfortably in what amounted to a very convenient and customized burial spot. That summer, I could be found combing the beach with a metal detector knowing full well I’d find something spectacular: I found nothing of note that summer other than the severed key to a Honda Civic and a rusty flask.
If you’ve ever been on a Panama construction site, the level of professionalism is similar to that of a high school detention. Besides the technical deficiencies, which, according to a number of industry experts I know from abroad, are abhorrent, is the general lack of focus, training, and quality-control. It was only last week that I walked past a project at the beach and its crew, besides smoking cigarettes, started hooting and hollering at the two girls I was with. “Hey baby, look at me,” was one of their more creative requests. It was comparable to an airplane pilot making a prank call to air traffic control before takeoff: doesn’t instill a whole lot of faith in the project being constructed. This sort of thing happens in downtown Panama all the time: at least in Casco Viejo, if you’re falling, it’s only a few stories down. The majority of downtown Panama’s projects are downright scary: to the extent that I’d have to work up the courage to enter a new building, much the same way people in New York regard sidewalk grates.