It was Friday, around midnight. I had to get up early, so I was already getting home from a friend’s birthday. My girlfriend was with me, and we picked up my mother from a restaurant on the way home. We drove through a dark Prados del Este highway, past the cratered streets of La Trinidad, and into La Bonita. Our one parking spot was occupied, so we had to park on the street. No big deal, it’s right in front of the vigilante, and there’s a streetlight directly over it. As we parked, something caught my eye.
We got out of the car, and they saw it too. Between the garbage bags that pile up at the curb sat a man, rifling through it all. As painful as it is to say, this is no longer a shocking sight in Caracas. What’s shocking, though, is that this guy looked in no way like a hobo. Camo pants, a hole-less T-shirt, and a baseball cap. Curly hair that didn’t look too dirty. A clean shaven, kind-looking face. And, to top it all off, yellow rubber gloves.
Always the keen eye for detail, my mother asked:
“What are you doing?”
“I’m looking for food, señora. But don’t worry, I’ll leave everything as it was.”
We were taken aback.
After he took anything rescuable out, he closed each tiny bag, put it back, closed the big bag, and went on to the next. It was the world’s saddest assembly line.
He was methodic in his search. He took one black bag at a time and took out the little white bags inside it one by one, separating the ones with food in them. After he took anything rescuable out, he closed each tiny bag, put it back, closed the big bag, and went on to the next. It was the world’s saddest assembly line.
My mother took a bag of leftovers she’d taken from the restaurant and handed it to him, praising the pisillo inside. He looked straight in her eyes and said an emphatic thank you. We all said good night somewhat clumsily, and the three of us went into the building.
Once upstairs, we were quiet. My mother started crying softly, going on about how she’s raised three kids, the first two of whom got to live in an amazing country full of opportunity. How she had given them everything. How, when it came to be my turn, there wasn’t much of that anymore, and how right now there was nothing at all. A speech I’ve heard many times before.
I just kept thinking about that guy. I went into the kitchen and started grabbing anything we could spare: A can of diablitos, some hot dog buns, some sardines, a gallon of water. We put it all in a bag and headed downstairs.
And that’s how I got to know Enzo.
Looking at him, you’d figure he was somewhere between his mid-30s and his early 40s. I’d later find out he’s 45. He spoke fluently and with perfect coherence, a bit fast, perhaps, but no faster than me. He focused his whole body language on whoever he was talking to at the moment. And he eagerly shared his story.
Enzo had a drug problem. At some point, he had been an alcoholic, but he’s 10 years sober now. He went through weed and cocaine, but now he’s hooked on pills. Prescription type pills which -I learned- you can buy detalladas for Bs. 500 a pop in Las Minas. He had a steady girlfriend of about 9 years, but she had recently left to Spain “a buscar oportunidades, tú sabes como es”. He had been in an out of rehab in Caracas, La Guaira, and even Cuba. Right now, he was 22 days pill-free and trying to keep strong.
Then came the question we were asking ourselves. Where did he live? There are no barrios in La Bonita and even Las Minas seems a little far for a midnight garbage foray. The kicker? He lives right down the street, in an apartment he actually owns.
I always had everything I wanted, chamo. Cars, money, even good jobs.
“I always had everything I wanted, chamo. Cars, money, even good jobs. I studied to be a chef, but fell short of graduation. I became an AV technician and worked for DirecTV. For the past couple of years, I’d been living with my mother down here. She had Alzheimer’s, it got bad. She finally passed away last December, and ever since I’ve been alone. I’m ashamed to say it, but the apartment’s empty now. I’ve sold everything we had except the mattress. I haven’t been able to pay the light bill, or the water, or the gas. Twice a day I go down to get some tab water, and with that me bandeo.”
That’s when I realized the big crucifix hanging from his neck, and the rosary over that.
“I’ve been lucky. Even now, I get to have an artist give me such a fine meal,” he says, looking at my mother. “I thought of eating it right here, but I figured this deserves to be savoured, so I’ll get home, wash myself, and enjoy it. I thank God every day for what I have and ask him for the strength to keep me away from drugs. I’m a lucky guy.”
Enzo was a middle class guy. Not unlike myself. He had traveled, studied, worked. Up until his mother’s last days, she had collected three pensions and, between that and her life savings, they got along. He lives in the same street I do, in an apartment he owns while we rent ours. He hasn’t been able to find work in a while. He can’t afford anything anymore. He can’t get decent support for his many troubles. And now, he puts on his “scavenging clothes” every night and goes for a garbage run. We talked a little more, and right near the end he shared his deepest woe.
There’s no abstinence like hunger, and I’ve been through them all. Real hunger is different. It eats you up inside. It crushes you. It changes you.
“People think I’m crazy because I have to do this. They don’t talk to me anymore. I’m not crazy, I’m hungry. I hope you never feel this, chamo. There’s no abstinence like hunger, and I’ve been through them all. Real hunger is different. It eats you up inside. It crushes you. It changes you.”
We said our goodbyes to Lorenzo and went upstairs. The three of us were silent. At some point, my mother looked up and asked us: “Do you want to eat something? You must be starving.” I answered, “sure, thanks. But I don’t think we get to use that word anymore.”