in Old School

Are You Being Served?

On Via Veneto a cool breeze licks the palms in front of the newly built casino. It’s late afternoon. Just before six. And I’m seated outside Manolos watching two young women work the corner with flat belies, tight jeans, and spiked heels.

One of them keeps catching my eye. She’s almost hot enough for me to ignore the dead ants swirling in my cafe con leche. They look like little chocolate bits.

Insects are problem in the tropics. It’s hot. Ideal for bugs. Not so good for workers in low end jobs. The service can suck at times. And if you don’t call attention to yourself, you could die waiting for the bug spray to arrive.

I just don’t think they get the lesson on the corner. You make the big bucks giving customers what they want and need. Not that I’m asking for a reach around or the dreaded beso negro. Just a clean spoon to remove the floating ants.

On the far side of the patio an old man lets out a Kafka-esque hiss. It sounds as if he’s about to explode. Head’s turn. He eyes the waitress with a defiant look. My girlfriend, Alex, looks up from her coffee. She’s angry, and says: Muy atravido.

She burns with the daily humiliations of the poor because she’s lived it. For Alex it’s disrespectful to hiss at the help. She might use “joven” (young woman/man), if they’re older “senora,” occasionally “oiga, por favor” (excuse me), but never a hiss.

The poor and working class take care with what they say and do. Class distinctions do exist. I get glimpses of it everyday. And I see the whispers and judgmental stares. The poorest woman in Curundu can be found with soup can sized rollers in her hair.

She may be hungry, and squatting in a vacant building, but god forbid anyone think she’s too poor for beauty treatments. For all its skyscrapers and big-city aspirations Panama’s got its share of small town gossip. People know each other here. Reputation matters.

My professor, a friendly Peruvian, says the language evolved to avoid potential embarrassment. Ahora translates as now, but it could mean later. How much later? Who knows?

I do know this. People arrive late. Workers -who need money, disappear for days, sometimes weeks. Contractors tell you three weeks and need three months. Work needs to be redone. Often. Things turn to crap a lot faster in the tropics.

I jot this down after talking with a former maid:

Es dificil, ella trabaja y personas mirando que ella esta haciendo es como presionando a ella en el trabajo, y ella es una esclava.

Rough translation: for the poor its hard to live and work in Panama, the people are watching you, you feel pressured. With these jobs it’s like you’re a slave.

To be fair, Panama can be a more open and free society than the USA. If you’re part of the wealthy elite. Most North Americans, Europeans etc., have the money to do as they please. They can talk smack, wear flip flops, and tropical shirts.

Old fat men can walk the streets hand in hand with tiny young girls because they don’t need to conform in order to thrive. They don’t fear the stares and whispers. They’ve left the tyranny of expectations behind.

At our table the check arrives with our bored waitress attached. She’s unimpressed with the dead ants smeared on my historic Panama Canal place-mat. She stands there, hands on hips, scowling at the hookers on the corner and mutters something about “putas” under her breath.

So I don’t complain or ask about a happy ending. I ask about her family and her health. I tip. I leave. The truth is, I like Manolos, and its occasionally churlish waitstaff. The coffee’s excellent, the food’s usually hot, and if you can take the ants, the patio’s a great spot to observe and write.

-Cojito @ Panama After Dark.

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  1. Compliments to cojito for all the information here. You have inspired me to think seriously about relocating to Panama. I would like ask a few practical questions about life in Panama's major cities.

    How reliable are the electric power, internet, TV and telephone services in Panama? I have lived in too many places where these things are a sometime, on and off again thing. A related question is: How long does it take to get these services installed -and fixed when they go out?

    If you are a serious health food, vitamin, herbs, low fat food nut like me, are these things widely available? Are there big shops here like the GNC, Wild Oats health food stores in the US?

    Are there big computer stores and any equivalent to a WalMart

  2. i've only lived in panama city. to me – it's first world. in my flat: cable TV (channels in spanish and english), high speed internet. power doesn't go out often. and when it does its back on quickly.

    there's an asian mini market on the corner that has great fruits and veggies. several large supermarkets have whatever else i need. if you can adapt you should be ok.

    in my experience its better to get your computer stuff in the states and bring it over. you can get help, find parts, and buy stuff here, but its more expensive and you have less options.