For almost fifty minutes, I talked to Yasir Yolsadp at one of Casablanca’s tables in Plaza Bolivar. I ate a banana and Yasir ate rice from a Styrofoam take-out container. I asked him a lot of questions and he answered each of them in less than ten words without saying anything too off-the-wall. On the surface, Yasir is just another crackhead, but through the process of our interview, I learned two things, one of which may seem overtly obvious (but actually isn’t) and the other which no one would ever know (but everyone should).
Crackheads make everything a little bit complicated.
Here is the first thing I learned: HENRY SCARES PEOPLE. The reason I call Yasir “Henry” is because when I first met him there was a brief misunderstanding and we each left thinking the other person’s name was “Henry.” Now it’s just a nickname more than anything else.
People feel nervous around Henry. That’s unfair, but it’s true. You may think you know what I mean because you’ve had panhandlers bother you before. But to truly understand the anxiousness he induces, you need to follow him around for a few minutes. He is just creepy. He wears weird clothes, has a misshapen face, he hobbles,..etc I have no doubt whatsoever that Henry could scare the shit out of anyone he wanted to. But I am not nervous around Henry. I am not nervous because he is telling me how his mother was killed in the US invasion of 1989.
“She was the only family member I talked with since I was born in Israel. 200 kilometers from Palestine. The town was called Franhadegasa. My dad was in the Israeli military. My mom stayed at home with my 11 brothers and sisters. I saw one of them, Jorsini, about one year ago. He is a fisherman in Israel. He is nice. He has no wife.”
This is how Henry talks. Nothing he says really stands out but everything seems to (more or less) make sense. He’s surprisingly composed except when he eats and food gets caught in his ungroomed beard.
Henry tells me that in 1990 he owned a shoe store and a clothing store in Los Pueblos. I’m not sure whether to believe him but nothing until this point has given me reason to believe otherwise. When I asked him the name of the store, he says, “Almacen…La Perfecta.” Either Henry used to be the owner of stores in Los Pueblos called Almacen La Perfecta or he is an amazing improvisation artist. Oddly enough, both are equally impressive.
There were a number of pauses like this one in our conversation, partly because Henry is a little bit averse to conversation and partly because when he does talk, it’s to ask everyone passing by for change. When I asked him what was the strangest thing he’d ever seen in Casco Viejo, he paused and said decisively, “not much.” When I ask him what’s the most dangerous thing he’s seen in Casco Viejo, he says he saw someone shoot a dog from two feet away. As far as crackheads go, I decide this is not all that ridiculous.
But here’s the second thing I learned about him and this is way more interesting: Henry is 54. What makes this so weird is that he has aged remarkably well considering his lifestyle. If you were to see him, you’d guess he was in his 30s or maybe, at the very most, early 40s. That Henry is 54 is, to me, the most fascinating thing about him because it’s as if years of drugs reversed his aging process. In interviewing crackheads, there is of course the possibility that they’re making shit up but listening to Henry, you really want to believe him. At least I do.
“In the morning I go to the police station for a coffee. Then I wash some cars in exchange for food for lunch. Then I sometimes take the afternoon off. Sometimes I leave Casco Viejo and go to Cinco de Mayo to get some fresh air. That or Avenida Balboa. It is important to change the ambiance every few days.”
I gather, from our conversation, that Henry’s life is pretty boring. But I also gather that Henry kinda likes it that way. He realizes that his drug addiction took him down a spiraling path but he also isn’t freaking out about it. There are people that live upstanding, professional lives and there are deadbeats. Mostly, Henry falls somewhere in the middle. He’s not homeless, he doesn’t do drugs all the time, he is on good terms with law enforcement. These are all very decent qualities for a citizen to posses but they are oftentimes overshadowed by his stench.
Other nuggets that left Henry’s mouth but that were difficult to work into any kind of cohesive paragraph included, but were not limited to:
- Once a bat bit Henry’s ear when he was sleeping under a building and it then swelled to the size of an orange. You are supposed to be surprised about the bat (not the sleeping under a building part).
- His favorite five phrases in English are “morning” followed by “thank you,” “hello,” “good night,” and then “Oh beautiful woman I love you.” In that order.
- His favorite foreigners that live in Casco Viejo are me and Mikey. In that order.
- Henry says he speaks Hebrew but conveniently cannot remember any good phrases when questioned.
- Henry despises all drugs except for cocaine, which he consumes “only after he has purchased clothing and shoes and there is some money left over.”
- Liquor bothers Henry’s stomach.
- Henry’s favorite pastime: “telling stories.”
- The most he ever got for cleaning a car was $20. The most he ever got (period) was $50 from a tourist. He didn’t realize it was a $50 bill until he went to pay for some gum and was told they could not make change. He had to wait two days for a bank to open which was inconvenient. “It was worth the wait.”
- Henry’s favorite thing about Panama: “reformed parks.”