There’s a crack head I associate with in Casco Viejo. He’s a small, squat black man who, if he had the proper coordination, might be mistaken for a high school running back. As things stand though, he wanders through the neighborhood aimlessly wearing leg warmers and carrying a broom, asking locals if he can have a quarter or, if that’s not possible, if they’d like their sidewalks cleaned.
I make it a point never to give the neighborhood crack heads money, for the same reason I never feed my dog food from the table: the fear that they might interpret it as routine and come back regularly asking for more. But on this particular afternoon, the man was exceptionally entertaining. He was talking a mile a minute about a small apple core he’d found somewhere on Plaza Herrera, using anthropomorphic descriptions which I found hilarious. “The apple wanted me to save him,” he said. “The apple was upset and angry sitting there in the street. Do you have a quarter?”
I have enough trouble understanding Panamanians who speak fast Spanish, so it’s no surprise that understanding intoxicated crack heads is a challenge. He had begun walking with me towards my apartment when I interrupted and asked him, more blatantly than I’ve ever asked this question before, “what drugs you have been smoking?”
It’s not that I don’t find myself in the circumstances regularly in Casco Viejo, engaged in some sort of conversation with someone who’s high. I’ve just never found myself so comfortable in asking it: I guess that’s what surprised me so much. Perhaps my comfort lay in the fact that he’d never remember this moment the next morning. Perhaps it was because, from an embarrassment perspective, I’ve seen him masturbating on a park bench, and compared to that, doing drugs is peanuts.
“Well, I started with marijuana this morning, then I just decided to smoke crack.”
“Oh, you say, this morning when I see you standing on top of car with a big papaya in your hands?”
“Yes, then I was smoking marijuana. But not now, no. Now, for the afternoon, I change to rock. Do you have a dime? You never give money to me. What I have to do to get a dime from you? “
After ignoring this man’s begging for roughly three years, it was being presented this question that gave some prospect to the request. “What do you have to do? Well…you have to…” I looked around the street for ideas. You have to do something that would make me laugh.”
As if this challenge had been presented to him the week before, and he’d had plenty of time to prepare, the little man darted over to the sidewalk where a small heap of old clothes lay on the ground, presumably destined for the trash. As if he was a model backstage at a fashion show, the crack head started putting on the clothes, which consisted of a young girls nylon skirt, maybe waist size 20, a large droopy hat, the type you might find at the Kentucky Derby, and a royal blue bra.
“Help me fasten the back?” he said, as he looked himself up and down.
When ready, the man started strutting down the center of Avenida Central, shaking his hips and whipping his head like a fierce runway queen. As if I wasn’t laughing hard enough already, a small line of traffic developed behind him: the drivers in this procession with giant grins on their faces.
I fished in my pocket for some change to give him as he had most certainly made me laugh. But the crack head didn’t stop walking. He strode down several blocks in the opposite direction of my house, I followed him for a few. But after calling off the dare, he had disappeared into the alleys of Casco Viejo.