A Panama Story
30 January 2009 | From Dreamland
A PANAMA STORY
One GI who went AWOL, an ex-cop, a con and the four who fell for it.
A story of crime with a happy ending
See, here's the thing - it happened - you could definitely say it happened but then again it didn't. Here's the thing: you don't stand (for there was no place to sit) in a police station in Central America slap bang up against a bus terminal with at least a hundred old school buses from South Carolina painted up with catholic saints names and lurid erotic imagery, like I say you don't where I come from stand in a cop shop in Panama city with your tall American quarry caught and handcuffed to a rail on the other wall, over there by the toilet. It was unusual, and it happened like this.
My lovely American wife Adrienne and I had come in a cheap taxi to a huge indoor fantasy called Albrook mall by the old military airfield here in the canal zone where the Americans ruled for a century. When they left, things went along as usual or they went downhill fast - which is true? How would I know? - I've only lived here in Panama for six months. On this particular day we were all fired up about the internet - you know, emails, banking, all that connect-back-to-Australia stuff and Adrienne found herself a computer in a little booth and I sat at a round table a bit too small for my laptop and struggled with the ethernet plug in the floor, where the panel had come loose from the floor. All the time the beautiful commoners thronged, beyond the plateglass in their new, colorful clothing, the mamas, the daughters, the handsome men, the dark Spanish-speaking women, the tightly jeaned girls with the curveyacious bums; with everything going for them - at this moment any rate. It was near the "Food Court" --- you have to picture hundreds of darkskinned or black, olive-skinned or gold , tan, brown, chocolate, dark chocolate, cafe-au-lait, every tone and colour of honey, mahogany or burnished bonze, every accent of this palette, all these Spanish-speaking skin colours, well, try and imagine it. And sexy.
In this retail dreamworld, where I once saw a tiny girl in a ballet outfit in Super 99 and knew I was in a Fellini movie, I entered and asked and was given a cord from the long-haired gorgeous girl behind the counter, all in mime (for she had pocito inglese and I no ablo espanol) to play out an unexpected drama, seemingly involving a soldier from Iraq, two policemen, two mountainclimbers, a Panamanian, an American woman and an Australian, not to mention the fun-policeman who took our photos in the copshop.
A long dream of a computer screen, and the worldwideweb - and this where the story really begins - and a handsome black man, tall, clean-cut (whatever that means) well dressed and very polite, leans ever so slightly towards me and says excuse me sir, do you know where Clayton is?
Well, I had to say no, for I didn't. And that was it. But no, there was more. Somehow he struck up a conversation, and it emerged that - as he put it - he had been having lunch (he said later, at the police station, that he had only conned me because he was hungry) and had put his bag beneath his seat, and his "pouch" had been stolen. Well, that was the gist of it, and of course everything followed from that. Lost money, credit cards, the lot. Only six dollars left. And he was an American ("are you an American, sir?" - he asks an Australian, who, for the life of him, can't be understood by most Americans) military on leave from Iraq. Couldn't get to his hotel, out by the airport. I told him a cab would be $30, he didn't seem to know that, to get back to his hotel, and then, next day, he'd need another cab, to the US Embassy. Showed me a photo of his buddy, killed over there, and showed me on you-tube the video - a journalist throwing his shoes, very accurately, at George W. Bush, who ducked, as usual. I liked that. And all the time he was talking on his mobile phone to his mama. She turned out to be important too, because after we had loaned him the money (and at no time did he actually ASK for money) he said his momma was a- comin' on a cruise ship, through The Canal, and she would have the money, and then he would pay us.
Now although I am relating all this somewhat sarcastically (I prefer ironically) I must say that at the time I was compassionate, sympathetic, and helpful. I believed he was what he said he was and that he WOULD pay us back. And he did. All it took was a coincidence, two policemen, an American ex-cop (I forgot! Billy from Texas - he is a very earnest fellow cruiser who is an ex-cop ("see if he has any tattoos - especially on the hands, if they have tattoos on the hands, most times they've bin in prison") and us, mum-and-dad touristas - to get him to pay it back, plus the money he took from our young cruising friends, Suzanne and Geoffrey, who want to sail across the Pacific so they can climb mountains in Thailand.
So Adrienne finishes at her booth and hears (more sympathetically than me, if that's possible) the whole story, American GI, fighting for his country, four thousand dead, none older than thirty-three, robbed while on leave, and agrees to lend him a cab fare or two, say fifty bucks (AUS$75), okay, and we write down for Graham, for that was his name, our contact details. Adrienne even offered to let him sleep aboard our boat that evening. After I gave him fifty dollars I shook his hand and it was limp.
Next day at 8 o'clock the panama cruisers' net is on, on VHF channel 74. On the radio I mention to Hermie I need her phone number in case this guy contacts me and she and Adrienne, out shopping, can maybe hook up with Graham, who will be paying us back the money. Well - everybody eavesdrops on these conversations, and - amazing coincidence! - Suzanne and Geoffrey have met an exact same guy! Black, clean-cut (whatever that means) American, back from Iraq, mum on a cruise ship - every detail matches! - and they gave him SIXTY bucks! Six weeks ago, and never heard from him since!
Well, here's the thing, I knew as we left Graham, and walked out from the retail palace, that it could all be a scam. Felt that very clearly. It was a perfect setup and yet it could be true. Well. Now it has happened to our friends from s/v Salonika, who have a cat, and are very nice people.
Five days on. Cut to Adrienne and Joe in the Albrook Mall, once again, and they have just finished grocery shopping at Super 99; loaded with groceries, they tell their story of Graham and the fifty bucks, and their friends and their sixty bucks, through a serendipitous interpreter to a no-inglese policia. He leads off, unsmiling but happy, gun on hip, eventually to the Cyber Studio, where it all happened, last Thursday. We explain it to the manager who has precious little English (but it is precious!) and he bids me inspect the booths. I would never have thought of that, that the guy would be here, now. Well, here's the thing, he was. Here. Now! And did I recognize him instantly? Yes, I did.
Adrienne, me, two police by now, the manager (I call him), and our man. This is where I get on the cell phone to Billy, a really nice bloke, our cruiser friend and ex-cop. I didn't know what to do. He gives me the moral ultimatum: you can get your money back OR arrest his ass. I think he said that. I took the moral high ground: Arrest His Ass. So we move, over to Graham, who doesn't look afraid, or the least bit put out, but he has a whole lot of reasons why he didn't, etc., etc. I see we are getting nowhere, so I take the cops aside and indicate we want him arrested.
Walking through the mall, our little procession is like a family outing. We wander on and on, chatting to whoever, the cops to Graham, Adrienne to me.
Now the police station. Reached by a traverse of a hot, oilstained asphalt bus terminal. Buses, buses, buses. Bare, no seats, a toilet in one corner behind a door, a raised desk with a woman cop, neat uniform, behind it, a few more Panamanian gendarmes loafing about.. A rail along one wall, an office with a desk, a few folding chairs and a computer, but empty. Where the fire extinguisher once hung hangs a huge man-walloper, or shileleigh, as the Irish call it; above it the original sign in Spanish points to the stick, it says EXTINTOR, with an arrow. Perfect.. I catch the eye of a young cop and we both look at the "artwork" of sign plus arrow plus truncheon, and smile with our eyes at each other. Much to-ing and fro-ing with one side speaking English the other Spanish, not hearing each other, and the only man who could translate, Graham, our suspect, chained to the wall. Get the picture. Oh, yes: one more fact, our friends Suzanne and Geoff had come in two days before, to the same police station, and had their story recorded on a scrap of paper which couldn't at this point in time be located. Pity that. It would have corroborated our story. So I rings Billy, and he puts out a call on his handheld VHF to the fleet, seventy yachts, to get hold of our two mountain climbers, who, it happens, are in Colon, on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. Well - there you have it. Just two hours later (and in the meanwhile we have our picture taken by another, very happy cop, and a cop offers Adrienne a chair, and I offer our conman Graham a chair) two hours later we see his family (?) walk in, scowling at us, and money is handed over, fifty for us and sixty for our friends. All's well ....
It's getting dark as we walk across the tarmac, careful to avoid the sweating oil buildup, and the going-home crowds, and nearly have to pay 5 cents at the turnstiles, to get out, but a woman in uniform lets us out the gate. ... Taxi. ... Dock. ... Pay taxi. ... Groceries. ... Dinghy. ... Home ... our boat, turn on the yellow battery-fed lights and pour us a drink. What a strange day. Caught the bugger! Quite liked him really! Can't wait to tell Suzanne and Geoffrey when they get back from Colon!
(All names changed - except Adrienne's and Joe's, and he changed his in 1998.)