Wanna Bet?

I am not what you’d call a gambling man, but when I first laid eyes on that huckster in downtown Santiago, I couldn’t help but stay awhile and regard the scene. He’d set himself up in the shade of a side street that was just busy enough to attract a crowd. His table was an upturned cardboard box on which he was demonstrating his game. He had three solid disks – very much like coasters – and stuck underneath one of them was a sticker depicting flowers. That’s the sticker that the suckers had to find.

The game was Three Card Monte, and I’d heard enough about it to know it was a swindle, yet still I couldn’t pull my eyes away from this man in his fifties with his newsboy cap and his sagging jeans with yawning pockets.
His hands were constantly at work, flipping and manipulating the three silver disks in front of him. It seemed to require a lot of focus and thought, yet the man manipulated those coasters as if he was knitting while watching a movie. He’d juggle them around a bit and then lay all three face down, and the bystanders would toss crumpled notes onto whichever disk they believed held the sticker. Not just any notes either. These were 10- and 20- Luka bills, which was about five hundred rand a pop.
Without breaking stride, the huckster would reveal the disk holding the flowers, and collect up the money that was wrongly bet. There were often winners too, and the huckster would dispense the winnings without discussion.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrel
Pictured: Accurate re-enactment of me approaching the honest gamblers.

The performance passed without drama. People won and lost without protest. Each time the disks settled it was like watching carved wooden figures in an elaborate German cuckoo clock striking the hour. People stepped forward and threw down their money. The huckster would redistribute funds as appropriate, and then they would step back to await the next round.

It was a funny thing, watching all this going on. You see, Dear Reader, I knew this was a con, and I tried to find the trick. Solid disks would be more difficult to maneuver and palm than playing cards, so I didn’t see how the huckster could be using slight of hand.
From the sidelines I was able to pick out the disk with the flowers every single time. I saw other folks throw money down on disks that were clearly blank, which was a result of their own poor eyesight, I presumed. Never once did I follow the flowers and get proved wrong. If that had been the case I would have turned around right then and walked away. Instead, I stood transfixed, playing the game by sight alone, without wagering a dime. It was a dangerous voice that crept into my mind and whispered I can win this, and it wouldn’t go away.
I supposed that it wasn’t a con. Perhaps it was just a skilled man with nimble fingers and hands fast enough to deceive most eyes. But not mine.
It occurred to me that watching without wagering was a lot easier than guessing while gambling. I thought that if I actually pulled out some money with the prospect of losing it, my adrenaline would surge and my focus would falter, so I held back. I became rational, and I began to walk on by, and as I did so I felt ethereal tendrils pulling me back, compelling me to try my luck.

I turned back to the action, and I saw a tall black fellow looming over the other spectators. He had been standing there a while, but now I noticed him for the first time. The disks settled, and with barely bridled confidence the black fellow leaned past an older lady and placed his well-worn smartphone onto the disk closest to where I was standing.
No, you fool! That’s the wrong disk! I thought.
Without breaking stride, the huckster revealed that disk to be blank, snatched up the smartphone and dropped it into his yawning back pocket before distributing money back to those who had won.

There was a collective expulsion of breath from the spectators, all of them sympathetic to the blow that the black fellow had suffered. I mention the colour of his skin only because it indicated that he was an immigrant, and being a stranger in a strange land is terrifying and isolating enough. But to lose your phone on top of that suddenly cuts you off from the loved ones you’ve left behind. I felt that this poor black fellow hadn’t just lost his phone, he’d also lost access to his community. Judging by the quality of his clothing I surmised that losing a smartphone was no minor nuisance. Losing something like that was surely a blow to him, and although the others were audibly sympathetic to his loss, they knew that the rules of the Chilean streets took precedence over the comfort of a foreigner.
The fellow was clearly embarrassed and devastated, and with a good-natured smile he beseeched the huckster to return his phone. He had to be good-natured, I suppose. Any sign of violence and the crowd would surely move to defend their compatriot over a foreigner. I was too far away to discern all that was said, but I did make out the phrase “This is how it works in Chile.”
No one was angry, they were just apologetically explaining to the fellow that rules is rules.

Forget it
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chile.”

Even before the fellow had placed his phone down I had seen that he was wrong. So as I began walking to my next class I carried with me the confidence that my eyes were sharp, and the conviction that if I had played, I would have won. The ethereal tendrils began pulling at me again, urging me to turn back and bet. Trying to shake that urge was like trying to walk out of a nylon stocking – the further I walked, the stronger it pulled back at me. I won out in the end. I got out of there without losing a cent, but before I walked away completely I took one last look at the huckster and his game.
My final glimpse was of the huckster placing the smartphone back into the hands of the foreigner, and the black fellow leaning down to give him a hug as the bystanders applauded.

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Mind: The Gap (Part 2 – Seeing Angels)

If the city were an animal, then Downtown Santiago would certainly be the meatiest part – the buttocks, perhaps. This is the part of the city where the interesting people are, where protests take place, where change begins. It’s the place where the different strata of society pulse together in a steady rhythm, like a heart.

So, to reiterate, if the city were an animal, then Downtown Santiago would be the heart-buttocks part of the animal. I’m not sure which animal (I’m not a farmer), but it’s certainly a noisy one.

For example, let’s go to the intersection of two streets – Huerfanos and Ahumada. Here are some of the noises you’ll find:

The cacophony of shoes on pavement: “…Clopclopclopclopclopclop…!”

The melodies of street musicians: “…WORDS OF THE PROPHETS ARE WRI-…!”

The street vendors selling chocolate bars: “TRE’ POR LUKA! TRE’ POR LUKA!”

The repetitive call of the man selling copies of a newspaper called El Segunda: “Ssssssssss’gndahhh!… Ssssssssss’gndahhh!”

Segunda
A lot of sound comes out of that tiny man.

Sometimes, on very special days, there is another sound bursting above the general rabble. Near the corner of Huerfanos and Ahumada there occasionally stands a man with a Bible open across the palm of one frail hand. He uses his free hand to gesture to the passing public, or up towards Heaven. And he preaches.

He is a broomstick with flesh wrapped around it, adorned with a really old suit. He grooms himself as well as he can, but his outfit shows signs of wear. His cuffs are frayed, his shoes are tarnished, and his jacket is sullied. Despite these signs of attrition, he is a proud man on a mission – to deliver the word of God to the people, angrily.

Dancers
In the pursuit of happiness, some people dance

 

The Preacher has the ability to elevate his voice above the rabble, and to sustain that volume for what I’m sure must be hours every day. There’s a kind of vehemence in his voice, an outrage that the world is in the state that it’s in. He slaps his palm onto the open face of the Bible occasionally before reading a passage or two and then interpreting it for the hundreds of people who aren’t listening. Now, to be fair, I’ve only ever watched him for a few minutes at a time, but I’ve never seen anyone stop and pay him any serious attention. This makes me wonder just how much satisfaction he gets from his task.

Musician
Some people challenge puppets to musical competitions…
Puppet
…and lose.

I picture the Preacher waking up in the mornings. This man in his fifties or sixties, pulling on his worn-out trousers, buttoning his shirt up to the collar, pushing his slender arms into the sleeves of his worn out jacket. What does he think about, as he stares into his reflection while brushing his teeth? Does he think, “Today, I am going to make a difference”?

Does he have a wife who kisses him on the cheek as she hands him his Bible, proud of her man going to do God’s work? Or perhaps he lives with a sibling, and the sibling’s family. Does he have nieces and nephews who talk about their “odd uncle” who goes and shouts in the middle of Downtown Santiago for a few hours every day?

Maybe he lives alone. I can picture a man, stripped down to vest and boxers, spending part of his nights sitting on the edge of an ancient single bed, stooped, head bent, hands dangling between his knees, considering whether he had done enough today. Or perhaps he lies down on those old, squealing springs, tucks his hands behind his head, and smiles because he is satisfied that he has pushed more of God’s goodness into the world.

Here is a man who sees a world in peril and in his desperation to save it he spends his time shouting into the void. Here is a man with a contract with God and no one else. A man who sees demons everywhere, and who is trying to let the angels in. At the heart of it, I wonder this: In the pursuit of happiness, an elderly man foregoes a job to go out and get angry. So where does he gain his happiness from? Is it from the knowledge that he is being a good man even though no one else is? Or is it from the thought that maybe his words will fall on at least one set of open ears, and that maybe he has actually set the course of the world on a infinitesimally better tack? I truly hope that this is the case. I hope so from the bottom of my heart (my heart-buttocks). And if that is the thought that gives his mind happiness, then who am I to object?

Protester
For others, happiness is speaking up against injustice.