Just the other day, walking down Avenida Central in Casco Antiguo, one of the local children told me he was thinking about running away. It wasn’t a central theme to our conversation, more of a side thought as in, “so, there’s a parade tonight. I don’t really like parades. And I’m thinking about running away.” In an attempt to dissuade him, I used my Spanish spurts, which have a way of coming off as mysterious and prophetic: “Run away? Bad idea. You’ll be consumed by the world.”
As a kid, I was something of an anomaly in that I never really considered running away. I had read books and seen movies about children who left in the middle of the night carrying only a stick and bandana filled with clothes, but the planning and annoyance of only having a few pairs of pants seemed unappealing. Instead, I preferred to be kidnapped, hoping that one day while walking home from school or in the supermarket, another family would swoop me up and take me back to their mansion where I would be allowed to own a Nintendo game system and eat sugar-coated cereal all day long.
“But Kent’s parents let him have a Mohawk,” were the sort of things I’d say. “And, he gets twenty dollars a week for allowance. Look at me with this outdated haircut and just three dollars to my name.”
My mother would almost always respond to this commentary in the same way. “Well if Kent’s parents are so great, why don’t you go live with them?”
Why don’t I just go live with them? It was a question that took out the inherent rebellion of it all. Not unlike an opponent suggesting your next move in chess, there was no way I would now accept this option as a viable one. First, I didn’t really want to live with Kent’s family because they had a strictly enforced bedtime and second, if I did decide to live with Kent’s family, my mother would know exactly where to find me, ridding the escape of all its crime.
As a psychologist, I like to believe that my mom knew more about what we were thinking than we did. Looking back, even my most well crafted arguments seemed to stand limp next to her word, my strongest cases for justice merely aimless caution to the wind. Each time she proposed I move in with a neighbor or friend, the vision of my kidnapping folks became clearer. They would allow all kinds of candy before dinner and have a staff of guards, cooks, and assistants that, when all in one place, resembled a small and highly-disciplined army.
We had always had, in my house, a series of nannies and maids who revolved in and out depending on the season, usually helping out several days a week. Most of our nannies were young college kids who went to school or worked on the side and most of our maids were Hispanic women who spoke little to no English. While my mom got by with what little she remembered from high school Spanish, my dad chose instead to take the proverbial bypass and simply add a few letters to English words when making requests. “Clean-o the table-ana por favor?” His requests always ended in por favor and were accompanied by a smile.
Cleaning ladies once a week and a babysitter here and there: our “staff” if you want to call it that was never really anything more than a few people helping out a busy family. There were the women in white dresses I saw on TV who brought things like bagels on a silver platter and the butler from another show that referred to people as Your Highness. This was the life I was really striving for so in comparison, our employees seemed hopelessly humdrum.
I’ve used the same maid now in Panama for quite a while and although her service may never reach the silver platter level, the intimacy by which she knows my habits is spouse-like. With maid labor one of the last existing remnants of low cost of living in Casco Viejo, it’s quite easy to become spoiled by a service that’s otherwise been put out of reach (in terms of cost) at home. Making my bed, cleaning my plates, folding my laundry: these are things that are foreign to me by now. When I’m home visiting my parents, they think I’ve been living with wolves.
Some people find it patronizing, but I sometimes like to think of my life in Casco Viejo as having been unloaded from a toy kit: the kind of LEGO set you could buy at Toys-R-Us which includes the town square, the doctor, the fireman, the Indian, and the brave knight with horse…etc. I like the storybook quality of life in a small village, where when I walk outside on the street, I know everyone by name and profession. Inside the walls, I am reduced to me and my maid: a smaller, less expensive set, sold separately if you will. It’s all a boy from such compromising upbringing could dream really for.