To some, the raw and unrefined look of Casco Antiguo’s squatter population is an eye sore. To me, there could be no better place to practice some poor hygiene of my own.
You see, the world I came from in the states was one clad of snazzy suits, pungent perfumes and designer shoes. It was one in which styles and fashions spoke volumes about one’s title in life—and perhaps more so about one’s character. Friday’s were sympathetically labeled “casual days” at work: some manager’s idea intended to inspire employees to chill out and don a polo. On other days, lives would be lost over something as simple as a strawberry stain or an elusive wrinkle.
As I walk through the streets of Casco, having successfully escaped the intimidating style standards of the USA, I am welcomed warmly by a new group of colleagues. Granted, these new colleagues don’t hold college degrees or impressive executive titles. They don’t have cute little assistants who order lattes and they don’t babble on Blackberry phones. Hell a lot of them don’t even have teeth. But it is perhaps their humble standing—their modest and unassuming façade—that make me, the once-uptight foreigner, feel entirely at ease.
Take for example my friend Tina. She has three (count ‘em three) teeth! They’re situated all on her top gum and are so loose that they seem to blow in the breeze. Tina’s smiles are endearing: they read of the newspaper headline, New Dental Breakthrough: Less Is Better. One morning, walking past her house, Tina complimented me on the two week-old beard I had been cultivating (which truthfully more resembled a spotty patch of crab grass). “A nice shadow” she called it. “Gracias” I called to Tina, swollen with pride as I combed my mini locks the way masterminds and hippies do before they say something profound. “That t-shirt does wonders for your eyes.”
What about my friend Ramon, who’s wandering eyes and sad face are proof that even God has his days off? Ramon has seven teeth. I met him first when he was shaving out on his porch using the type of old rusted razor that looked to belong in an antique museum. He dunked it in and out of a paper cup, recycling water so hairy that it didn’t even look like water any more—looked more like moist hair paste. It just so happened that when I met Ramon, I hadn’t taken a civilized shower for about three days and the stench oozing from my clothes bore a close resemblance to week-old durian. But Ramon didn’t seem to mind. Maybe it was because Ramon smelled like garbage too and our odors had cancelled each other out like fractions. I don’t know. “Do I smell bad Ramon?” “No” he whispered back, “I’ve smelled worse.” This kind of support helps with my self-confidence.
There are also kids left and right, who run in and out of the streets like possessed mouse-children. Most of them have all their teeth, but some have less. Rarely do they wear shoes, which is precisely the way pictures in J. Crew catalogues suggest we go about our day. Their shirts are stained with the juice of berries, and their little mouse-pants ripped around the knees: the sort of in-vogue fashion nonchalance that Abercrombie has been preaching for years. It is around these children, as with almost all squatters, that I feel most comfortable wearing an old sun-faded t-shirt or a pair of our-of-date sneaks. No one notices my inherent lack of design here.
Some people are put off by the squatters in Casco Antiguo, but I choose to embrace them with smelly, unassumingly open arms. An old oracle friend once told me to always look for something called a silver lining, which I now realize had nothing to do with fashion at all. Having met a lot of the neighborhood squatters and shared with them stories and memories and beer and gum, it’s quite ironic that the many clothing stores in which I once spent searching for that silver lining, could all be replaced by this.