Illegally reconnecting utility services in a third-world country
“We have a real problem!” My wife tells me with a serious face.
I know real problems. I don’t like real problems. And just like that, I have a flashback to when my mom was raising us.
As a single mother with no degree, she was always trying to figure out how to put food on our table and a roof over our heads.
She always landed in sales positions, but the things she sold changed: cell phones, life insurance, candles, wholesale beef, and so on.
She struggled to make ends meet. We weren’t even living paycheck to paycheck. My mom had to toss a coin to decide which utility service would get paid, and none of them were ever current, so the decision was more around which one would be less behind.
We had a name for this kind of decision-making. We called it malabares financieros; or financial juggling.
It was a tough decision to decide whether to pay for the water or the electricity. That would never be a board game. If anything, it would be a sick would you rather, would you rather be cold or stinky?
When the electricity fell behind, the utility company would send a technician to inform us we were behind as if we didn’t know. Then they would go to the station powering the building and cut some hardware, so we had no power, and we couldn’t easily reconnect it.
Then they would leave.
After they leave, my mom would leave, too, but to a different destination.
She would go to a part of the city known as Miami Caño. Miami Caño is a pejorative term that translates to Sewage Miami. It is a bad area of town that smells like sewage, and you can find people who could reconnect your services. Their qualifications were that they were willing to do it. That and they didn’t mind risking jail time.
There, she would pick someone who said was an electrician and bring him back to our house to reinstall the electricity. That was cheaper than getting the service up to date.
On many occasions, these unlicensed, unbounded electricians would not be that great, and they would shut down the power for the entire neighborhood we lived in, which was made of three four-story buildings housing 22 families.
My neighbors wouldn’t care if we plugged the power back illegally, but whenever we interrupted their services, they would get furious at us.
This was happening throughout the city, and the local news station sent a TV crew to our community. Even if our neighbors were mad at us, we were still part of the community, and the TV crew wasn’t.
Our neighbor across the hall was Cesar. He was ten years older than me and smoked a lot of pot. All the boys in the neighborhood liked him, but we were afraid of him because he had terrible mood swings.
This day, I remember looking at him from our first-floor apartment window, chasing the cameraman with a broom. When he finally caught up with him, he gave him a whack so hard that he broke the broom in two. The cameraman took it like a champ. Don’t get me wrong, he cried like a baby. But he never let go of the camera. Even in my early teens, I looked at that and thought, “That guy deserves a raise.”
I return to it and ask my wife, “What is the real problem?”
She told me our youngest daughter, Amélie, was mixing our 1/2” river pebbles with our 1” shadow bark in our backyard.
Let me repeat: I have a backyard in Sonoma County. My life is good. Sure, I’m a renter; don’t forget, I live in Sonoma County. But my life is good. Probably better than most people in this world, and that’s a boatload of people.
Now, I have this really annoying habit when she tells me things like this; I’ll dig into my past and bring out a memory I have never shared with her about my upbringing.
This time, I chose a memory that highlighted food insecurity.
“Did I ever tell you about the one time I thought I was going to bed hungry?” “No?”
“Once, when I was a growing boy, I finished my dinner, but I was still hungry, so I looked in our fridge and then I looked at our shelves, but there was no more food anywhere to be seen.”
“I didn’t want to bother anyone with my hunger, so I went and lay in my bed, hoping to fall asleep while I clutched my stomach. When my mom came home from work, she found me in my room crying because I thought that for the first time in my life, I was going to have to go to bed hungry.”
In this moment of the story, reader, I want to remind you not to feel bad for me. I also have a front yard. Life is good. It’s fine; I’m fine.
“My mom called me a dummy and told me to get up and sit on the table. I don’t know how, but she pulled enough masa to make two arepas, and that night, I went to bed with a full belly. I never knew while growing up what it was like to go to bed hungry, thanks to my mom.”
Years later, I did find out that my mom did go to bed hungry that night because I ate her food.
I don’t know what to call what we were at that time in our lives. My mom would never say we were poor, and maybe we weren’t, at least not in the way that people can be poor in Colombia. We lived in a good neighborhood, went to private schools and colleges, and most of the time, all of our utility services worked simultaneously, maybe not legally, but still.
We just couldn’t afford any of it.
Electricity wasn’t even the only thing we “borrowed.” Gas was out of bounds because of the potential for explosions, but everything else was fair game, like cable and water.
Colombians would have a crass term for how we were growing up, “comer ratas y eruptar pollo.” To eat rat and to burp chicken. Which my dad accused my mom of doing all the time. The way I saw it was, if you don’t chip in to buy the rat, then we can burp it however the hell we want to.
You might think about your own partner and feel envious of my wife. “What a wonderful thing to have a partner that when we get lost in the small things, they can provide perspective.”
You might feel this way even if you are a dude, which is fine. Don’t feel embarrassed. I’m lovable. And handsome. And funny.
You would be wrong because nobody wants to feel their problems are not problems, and you would come to find that partner in the same way I believe my wife finds me, an irredeemable pain in the butt.
But one of the only perks of growing up like I grew up is that when people tell you they have a real problem and they tell you their real problem, you can look at them and say that’s not a real problem. That’s barely a nuisance of living a good life, a good life with a backyard and a front yard.
Because, you know, what’s the worst that can happen when the worst has already happened?