The face of a hustler, this profile of a Watchyman who worked my street is full of twists will make you think twice about what it means to have a job, an idea, and friendship.
I discovered the Watchyman when I moved into one of the third floor apartments on Estados Unidos street near downtown Santiago. Estados Unidos is not a long street, with seven apartment buildings. There is also a café, a small store and a radio station.
It is common for residents to park their automobiles on the street, but other than my neighbors, many other people parked their cars on Estados Unidos street, usually in the evening after work.
Watchyman took it upon himself to watch these cars and made sure thieves, or flaites as they are known in Santiago, did not attempt to break into the cars. Drivers were usually pleased to come back to their cars intact and thus gave Watchyman due payment for such excellent watching.
He was indeed an outstanding deterrent. Watchyman was notorious amongst the people living on Estados Unidos street. Mostly for his colorful Miami Dolphins jacket that had lost none of its luster to notorious Santiago smog. His lanky body stood over 6 feet tall, and he rarely wore a friendly expression. The Watchyman’s eyes were always alert, and a gap had split his front teeth considerably. Below dark scrubby hair, his high forehead had enough room for a calculus equation.
But the Watchyman on my street was special, and I knew he was special. I have seen hundreds of Watchymans in Santiago; I have seen Watchywomen, sometimes alone, sometimes with their Watchychildren and even a Watchymidget (who works a backstreet near Los Leones metro). But none of these Watchys were bilingual. My Watchyman was well versed in American English.
When I found out that the Watchyman’s real name was Ignacio, we started exchanging pleasantries. You might expect this to mean “hola, ¿cómo andas?”, but not with Ignacio, it usually meant something like this:
“Yo Nick!” he would call from across the street.
“Waddup Igna?” I would reply.
“Fuckin’ shit,” he would answer.
“How much did you make last night?” I always asked.
A “G” is of course American street slang for a grand or 1,000. The Chilean pesos have never been devalued which means that 1,000 Chilean pesos is approximately $2 US dollars. Thirty Gs was then a sixty dollar night for the Watchyman, which is not bad for standing around protecting a bunch of parked cars in a relatively safe neighborhood.
“Thirty G’s dog,” he says.
On a different continent and within a culture that lies pretty far from America’s sitcoms, hip-hop and bad action flicks, this guy, whose livelihood came from the informal market of automobile protection, spoke to me like an urban, American teenager.
After that we were friends, and every time the Watchyman threw a “fuckin shit” my way, the coils of friendship clinched tighter and tighter.
WATCHY CON PIERNAS
Chile is not a coffee republic. Geographically, it is included in Latin America, but Chileans have not developed an addiction to coffee the way other Latinos have, like Brazilians and Colombians. In fact, Chileans prefer tea more than anything, and when they do drink coffee, it’s usually a reconstituted spoonful of Nescafé, which tastes the way coffee would taste on the space shuttle.
So “coffee with legs” is an innovative concept that has given Chile another chance at coffee: in the way of quality espresso served up by women wearing a homemade costume of high heels, g-strings and bikini-tops. While Chileans may not be addicted to coffee, many of the men working in downtown Santiago are definitely addicted to the legs. And the Watchyman was definitely seedy enough to make a dark café with neon lights, loud reggaeton and sweaty, half-naked Latinas appear normal.
I admit that the Watchyman took me by the hand for my first foray into the underground world of Santiago’s café con piernas. “Do you want the real dirty cafés? “ he asked me. I asked him if we would need to wear surgical gloves and a mask. If it weren’t for the Watchyman, I might have wandered into Café Haiti or some other café of considerable decency.
Instead he took me to Romeo’s, a block off the city’s historic Plaza de Armas. When you enter one of these cafés, you usually pay for your drink at the door and receive a ticket. With the ticket, you choose your waitress or in most cases, she chooses you. There are no places to sit because when you drink coffee with legs, you do it standing up. There‘s a bar, plenty of mirrors and lots of gray matter distorting the faces and fleshy bodies walking back and forth between patrons and the coffee machine.
Watchyman’s appearance at Romeos seemed like a big deal. Several girls came out from behind the bar to greet the legend. He doled out chocolate sticks to each one never forgetting to introduce me to his downtown harem, always in English, which gave him an international flare.
As we waited for our coffees, Watchyman went through the Q&A with a waitress called Flor. From the conversation it appeared that Watchyman had plenty in common with her and her piernas. Turns out that Flor is the proto-café con piernas-waitress: an unattractive, single mother from a low-income part of town. Amazingly, when Flor smiles, she becomes even more revolting.
Alcohol is not allowed in the café, for when the coffee with legs concept dropped its anchor in the 70’s, the government made sure it did not evolve into the more lucrative “pisco con piernas”. Despite having no permit, the girls at Romeos always have a bottle of rum on hand for frequent visitors like the Watchyman. We had two rum and cokes for $3 dollars apiece.
The Watchyman told me that if you’re friendly with the girls, they would spend more time talking to you. Nevertheless, if you weren’t a professional parked-car watchman, touching was generally forbidden.
There were those frequent guests however that could get away with a brief breach of hand to pierna contact. Chupapatas is without a doubt the most famous of these proverbial perverts. He didn’t care much which waitress served him, for Chupapatas is a foot-fetishist to the core, and all the girls at Romeo’s fit the bill for feet.
“When Chupapatas comes in,” Veronica told me as her recently-operated, oversized breasts hung motionless and rigid, “he orders tea.”
“Is that so?”
After he takes a sip, he bends down on one knee and the waitress slips her black, synthetic booted foot into his arms. Chupapatas –which loosely translates to Footsucker— then strokes the boot for the duration of three or four reggaeton songs. Mid-fetish, Veronica must often hold onto the bar with both hands as Chupapatas violently rubs his fragile, 78-year-old body up and down her leg, ankle, and foot.
“There’s always a good tip from Chupapatas,” she says unconcerned about the man’s mental condition. Watchyman said he had never seen a Chupapatas in his life, and his familiar “dat’s fucked up” was all he could utter.
They say Chupapatas comes in once a month, maybe more than that. But the Earlobe Lover, or orejón as he’s known among the waitresses, makes a weekly appearance at Romeo´s coffee and legs. Much like Chupapatas, he obtained his nickname status thanks to his unusual fetish.
When Orejón chooses you he never looks you in the eye, an 18-year old Peruvian waitress named Diana tells me. After drinking his coffee, Orejón skips the small talk and goes straight to the heart of the matter: getting his earlobe stroked.
For only a few minutes, Orejón leans his head over the bar and daintily places one of his earlobes between Diana’s thumb and forefinger. She then rubs the earlobe lightly and before the reggaeton ballad has even begun, she watches him in the mirror across the bar capitulating to a woman’s touch. When the Earlobe Lover looks up to see her bare stomach practically swimming in his cup of coffee, he loses it. Orejón smiles and walks out, sometimes without saying a word.
“But most of our clients are normal,” Diana says. “Like Ignacio.”
Once the Watchyman and I finally left Romeo’s, he turned to me and said that the café turbio (murky café) was only three blocks away. I grinned, and wondered if the Watchyman also has a secret nickname among the waitresses.
The Watchyman Café con Piernas tour had just begun.
The Watchyman tried his hardest to be a facilitator. If my roommate Ben or I made any mention of wanting to purchase, share, or acquire any type of service or object, we knew that the Watchyman’s antennae picked up signals that ours could not. Although neither of us had a car to be watched, he tried his hardest to fulfill our needs and paid consecutive house visits.
The Watchyman usually buzzed my apartment Tercero/Tercera on a weekday. My door made a sound like a contest on the Price is Right. Afternoons on my street were very quiet. A late afternoon chime was either the Watchyman or a missionary.
“What do you want?”
“I got the password,” he said.
“Ok, so what’s the password this time Igna?”
Wireless network passwords were one of his specialties, though I I’m not sure if he actually had a PC. He often told me about discreet, military software that could decipher the wireless network passwords and break other codes too. Yet despite all the passwords that the Watchyman whispered through my buzzer in my apartment, internet remained an unloaded page, as if every time the Watchyman learned of a new password, the network administrator changed it.
Since Watchyman worked day and night on Estados Unidos street, he was bound to pick up on everybody’s schedule, habits and girlfriends. If you stumbled home late on a Friday night in the arms of a woman, the Watchyman knew. And if you came home late on a Friday night without any company, the Watchyman knew.
Watchyman also knew who was paying for cable television and who was not. He had on good authority that Fernando and Señora Ana, the owners of the store below my apartment, allowed my building’s super, Don Mario, to illegally cable their shop’s television. They made a deal, Watchyman said. I asked him what Mario was getting in return, Watchyman said I’m asking too many questions.
So was the neighborhood of Estados Unidos street, a network of trade-offs bartered for favors, where few things are bought and sold, because when everybody offers something of value, if not just advice, but a service, this would be paid back in kind. The world seemed to get along as long as this system didn’t get out of hand.
One day I went into the Watchylair, which was the basement apartment of the yellow building across the street. I told the Watchyman that I was in the market for a new mattress and he had a guy, because the Watchyman always had a “guy”. He wanted to show me his mattress, which was custom fit to the Watchyman’s body. Watchyman was a rare six footer in Chile, making him an outlier in the height dimension.
He lived in a one room apartment with a broom closet bathroom in the corner. There was a small vent through which a thin ray of light slipped into his room, bouncing off the sidewalk above. Otherwise it was a cave, some kind of urban grotto where the Chilean Steppenwolf bedded down in the early morning when the last drunken driver fumbles his foot over the gas pedal and rumbles away into the vacant streets of Santiago.
He had an electric cooker plugged into an extension cord. A pot of a soup like substance sat next to the cooker. And of course his Dolphins jacket hung on the wall.
“Igna, where did you get the Dolphins jacket?”
IGNACIO IN THE USA
Ignacio toured the USA in style. He spent most of his time in three places: Miami, Venice Beach and Las Vegas, a mighty trio for anyone, but especially for somebody with Ignacio’s santiaguino adeptness to always end the night with thirty G’s.
Ignacio lived in the USA for thirteen years. He came to el norte through Miami, where his uncle was living and working in real estate. Trying to make his nephew an honorary American, his uncle taught him how to watch NFL football on Sunday afternoons.
“Half of the immigrant’s problem has to do with a huge misunderstanding of football,” his uncle would say. “Latinos love futból.”
Ignacio’s uncle left Pinochet’s Chile with nothing but a dream. Ignacio says regardless of the political situation his uncle was of a different breed, more explorer than exile, searching like millions of others for a better life. He came to the USA to get paid.
After spending so many hours watching the Dolphins untalented offense and hopeless defense, he became American enough to fit in without having to become one of them. Igna was a free man but had to work to get it, and he knew he had to try harder than the Dolphins.
When Ignacio first crossed the border, I was in high school unaware of the immigrant’s life, the realm of infinite barriers covering vast expanses. The nineties were good. Nobody asked for bank statements, references, and hours of waiting and preparation. They didn’t refer to people like Ignacio as OTMs (Other than Mexican). There was no US Embassy interview at 7am or 150 dollar processing fee, regardless if you are allowed to come into the country or not. Ignacio didn’t even have to comb his hair to get into the US.
With a return ticket in hand, almost anybody from America’s “safe friends” could safely enter the country on a three-month visitor’s visa. The US Government was under the impression that Ignacio would take the return flight back to Chile.
Miami for Ignacio was not America. There wasn’t much happening in the city of plastic flamingos and Miami Beach. Miami was Cuba’s second city and though there were plenty of Cuban Dolphins fans, Ignacio took the Greyhound to Los Angeles.
“I followed Route 66 from Miami to California. I felt like I was in a movie,” he said.
When he arrived to California, Ignacio realized he had merely moved up the coast from his homeland to a much warmer place with the same freezing currents. He fondly recalled the Chilean coastline, only 150 kilometers from Santiago, dotted with thick forests, hidden port towns and summer destinations.
In Los Angeles, Igna rediscovered his alma Andino in his Peruvian business partner and friend Nelson, who brought tropical birds and reptiles from Mexico. They met in Venice Beach, far away from East LA, which was Mexico’s favorite barrio north of the border. Somehow Ignacio didn’t fit into the immigrant mold of short, brown fruit pickers harvesting California’s oranges. Ignacio was more of a red light district councilman, and Venice Beach was the perfect precinct.
Nelson had the idea of taking photos of tourists posing with pythons, iguanas and parrots. But Ignacio made the sign. “EXOTIC FOTOS $3.50 OR 2 for 6$”. Nelson tracked down the smuggled animals, and Ignacio used his charming personality to wriggle tourist dollars from the masses. His English was better after spending a few years living in Miami. Ignacio was armed with a Polaroid camera and convinced tourists a photograph was a perfect way to remember Venice.
The homeless, poets, muscleheads, musicians, hookers and rastas welcomed these two South Americans, their caged animals and Polaroid cameras to their bizarre world of noise and tolerance on the beach. Tourists loved it. As they drank beers on the beach, Ignacio and Nelson provided visitors evidence of the locura with a memorable snapshot. Igna got a taste of American entrepreneurialism. After all, the foundation of every immigrant fortune is a good idea and hard work.
US Customs officials caught Nelson smuggling animals across the border south of San Diego, and Ignacio moved to his third city where he made the most progress. His language talents took him from Spanish teacher to English as a foreign language teacher. For seven years Ignacio taught English to migrant farm laborers, prostitutes and casino workers. When I asked him about life in Las Vegas, he said: “Vegas is crazy. I love it”.
When Ignacio learned his mother, who was still living in Santiago, was sick, he bought the first ticket back to Chile. The Southern Hemisphere was cold in the winter, so he bought a brand new Dolphins coat. He lived thirteen years in the US as an illegal immigrant and when he showed up to the Los Angeles airport, US immigration told Ignacio not to let the door hit him on the way out… and to not come back for at least ten years
That’s when the US government created the Watchyman.
WATCHYMAN BREAKS A KNEECAP
I later purchased my own car in Santiago and often thought about watching cars and exactly what was required to be an all-star Watchyman. I felt that it took more than just a telescopic night stick and a Dolphins jacket. The Watchyman was a warrior with intrepid fierceness and pride, a night watchman, a bodyguard and a maverick vigilante all rolled into one.
Watchymans are common in Santiago, plenty of cars to watch. The municipality, however, in attempts to modernize the urban face of the city has slowly been phasing out the Watchyman for the formal meter-maid system as seen across the USA. The watchyman will one day be a distant memory, buried in the third-world skins Santiago has slowly been shedding.
In Santiago’s idiosyncratic graveyard, future generations will find the yellow micros, the vendedores de helado, packs of Santiago street dogs and maybe even the chinchineros all buried next to the Watchyman.
But no matter how modern a city becomes, parking meters can’t compete in efficacy against broken windows, drunken flaites and trouble-makers. One night the Watchyman, earning his keep on Estados Unidos street, ran down a flaite trying to break into a car on Watchyman’s watch. Wearing his Dolphins jacket, the Watchyman took the flaite down to the ground. As the police showed up, Watchyman was beating on him with his telescopic night stick.
“Is it ok to hit this guy?” Watchyman asked the paco (Santiago police officer) who showed up on the scene. An old fashion beat down was long overdue.
“Keep hitting him is what the police officer answered,” Watchyman said under oath two months later, but it was too late. Two years straight of the graveyard shift, night after night, the Watchyman was no longer allowed to watch cars on Estados Unidos street or any street in the metropolitan area. His watchyman badge was revoked by the authorities and he was dismissed and Estados Unidos street was once again free territory, eventually usurped by a small, middle aged watchyman working a perpendicular street called Coronal de Santiago Bueras.
“What are you going to do, Watchyman?” I asked.
“Fuckin’ shit. Gotta find a job.”
Watchyman worked as a doorman for a strip club for a couple of weeks, and he tried to fix computers. He almost always complained that somebody owed him money, and life in Chile just never stacked up to life in Las Vegas. Losing Estados Unidos street was a big blow for the Watchyman, not to mention the neighborhood.
Watchyman probably did a lot of things that I didn’t know about. One day, while sitting in Romeo’s café looking at the piernas in the mirror, he asked me if I wanted to make some money. The Watchyman sold Class-C driver’s licenses to Chilean truck drivers too lazy or too stupid to pass the truck driving exams. His customers worked at copper mines north and south of Santiago. Most of the drivers were hired on temporary contracts with no benefits. But no driver was ever hired without a counterfeit driver’s license. I never found out what I had to do to make money in the underworld of fake driver’s licenses, but I resisted the temptation of becoming one of Watchyman’s business partners.
I told Watchyman to go work as a tour guide. Few Chileans could compete with his command of the English language and if he smiled, maybe he wouldn’t scare the tourists too terribly.
Then one day Watchyman announced his internet sex tour. “I got bitches from Iquique to Caracas,” he boasted. I guessed that was Watchyman-speak for finding a bride, settling down and starting a family. Sometimes you had to read between the lines to understand the Watchyman.
Watchyman was wearing his Dolphins jacket the day he turned his back on Santiago. In a small duffle bag he had packed all his possessions. He came by the apartment and buzzed me. We said our farewells quickly. I wished him luck and he asked me for a few dollars. I hung up the phone and he rode off into the metaphorical sunset, a cowboy on his horse, leaving behind the city that created him but never allowed him to triumph yet again the fearless immigrant.
WATCHYMAN TOUR GUIDE
In 2009, I traveled to the Atacama Desert to climb the Quebrada de Socaire, altiplano granite walls laid out below giant volcanoes and desert streams where sunshine hides in box canyons and disappears in the afternoon leaving no trace of warmth. I was there to climb, but I also knew that the Watchyman was there, stuck in the desert, somewhere on his internet sex tour.
The Atacama Desert is one of a kind and has become one of Chile’s major tourist destinations. Every day busloads, truckloads, and landcruiserloads of tourists are led to the Tatio geyser field, one of several scattered over the planet. Due to the sun’s heat, the geyser field is best viewed in the early morning when condensation is highest and the landscape transforms into a celebration of the senses. A spooky orchestra of bubbling water plays below a curtain of steam twirling and flapping in the air amid wafts of sulfur and other minerals.
Lucky tourists get a guide who will boil eggs in the geyser waters, others get Ignacio and his dolphins jacket. A guide might show you a small peninsula jutting into one of the pools where in 2007, a French tourist posed for a photo. When the geyser suddenly began to boil the entire area was engulfed in steam, and when the tourist looked for the way back to the mainland, he chose the path of no return. Luckily the Watchyman wasn’t on duty.
When I arrived to San Pedro —Atacama Desert’s outpost less than 80 kilometers from the Bolivian border— Igna introduced me to his future wife while we ate empanadas.
“Long time no see man. What’s up Igna?”
“How much you make yesterday on the tour?”
“Hell yeah dog”
The next day we visited hot (tepid) springs outside of town, and Igna told me his plan to get into the Bolivian tourism industry and plans for marriage. Bolivian law says no foreigner can own and run a tour business in Bolivia, thus his future wife was also going to be his business partner. Igna had a plan, he was in love and she already said yes.
Igna treated his Bolivian fiancé like a princess in the typical macho latino way of showering a woman with kitschy compliments and changing every noun to the diminutive, corazoncita. I was happy for my former watchyman and I guessed his internet sex tour was ending abruptly.
Igna and his girlfriend planned to be married later that month, and I realized I wasn’t going to witness the special moment in the Watchyman’s life. I felt my relationship with the Watchyman was coming to a close, and I had to return to Santiago. Igna and his wife planned to move to Bolivia, she wanted a family, he wanted stability.
So as we walked to the San Pedro bus station, Ignacio carried my backpack down the dusty street and told me he would look me up the next time he comes to Santiago. We made plans to drink coffee with legs. Suddenly when a flaite-looking guy walked towards us, Igna dropped my bag in the middle of the street and was gone. I saw him turn a corner into an alley.
I picked up my bag and made it to the bus station. Right when I was boarding the bus, Igna showed up with the guy’s jacket in his hands.
“Did you catch him, Igna?”
“He wasn’t going to outrun me.”
“How much does he owe you?”
I embraced the Watchyman and boarded my bus.