This is the story of a “victim” of sorts, in the bawdy, colorful, often tragically alluring bohemian district of Lapa, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is the home of the Malandro. The vagabundo. Of Samba, of the infamous Beco do Rato (mouth of the rat), of beauty, of violence, vice and viscerata, camaraderie, squalor, crime, euphoria, piss, sex, marijuana and mania.
It is home, also, to inordinate varieties of entrancing, guttural and folkloric music. John* rarely ventured beyond this five to ten square block quarter he called home, and, like a lot of us, he clearly did all he could not to leave. Unfortunately, knowing what I knew of him and the events that surrounded him, I could neither vainly champion his innocence, nor shallowly flaunt his victimization.
In Lapa, the belly of Rio, true innocence was a loud, grinning ruse – if it existed at all. For my part, I couldn’t see innocence anywhere. Perhaps in the wide, unrestrained smile and exhilarated laughter of the teenage girl I danced with that night; nevertheless, I took solace there.
She was 19. Hardly a teenager. I came to find, unsurprisingly, like so many of the women who seemed to gravitate towards me, that she had a boyfriend. I was unconcerned, “Não é meu problema.” She laughed. It was the response I had hoped for. Admittedly, my humor does not always go over well, and most dramatically, perhaps, when abroad, when its gist can become somewhat strained and lost in translation.
But on that night, there was nothing to it. Like many, she was drawn to some kind of charm, fun, security and harmlessness that I exhibited naturally. I was reserved, as usual. I expressed myself in dance as best as I could. It was tawdry, clumsy, elegant fun. People have commented that I dance well.
Generally, however, I feel an inferior “whiteness” radiating and reverberating for several meters around me, like a hot, awful spotlit aura. I remained undeterred. When I kissed her it was something sweet, brief. I requested, in Portuguese, “Me dá um beijo.” She said I didn’t need to ask, just kiss her.
Her friend, a gorgeous bisexual teenager of 17 (as I was later to find), crossed the dance floor and kicked our feet apart mid-kiss. She had tried to dance with me as well. We had succeeded only briefly a couple of times, until she was literally picked with one arm, by the waist, and hauled off by a huge, pink-haired, lesbian friend.
The lesbian hauled her like an orangutan, under one arm, slammed her slender frame up against the bar and commenced reclaiming dominion by shoving a tongue down the petite bisexual’s throat. The bisexual kissed a lot of guys that night. It was a wake. John was dead.
“In death you can be remembered the way you want to be by those who knew you the least.”
I wanted to talk about John’s death, but there was so much lame, clichéd and disingenuous eulogizing going on (primarily by gringos), that it was enough to bore and disenfranchise one completely. That was, in part, why I’d left my country in the first place.
Perhaps I would be on television. I gave a short interview like many people. I’d escorted a grieving Brazilian student, as he placed, kneeling, one at a time, a bouquet of flowers on the spot where John had lain bleeding in the street. News cameras filmed.
Two, I think, bullets had passed through him. Around his abdomen. The Brazilian mourning – by his girlfriend, by his friends, by his students, by the street people he fraternized with – was sincere and profound. But it was not only this, the source of their outcry, but also just one more painful, damning and shaming reflection of the country they lived in, were born to, and committedly
Even in their mania, their misdeeds and their exhortations, they felt invariably compelled to dignify, respect and represent their country as poignantly and unwaveringly as they could, despite its presumably unpardonable shortcomings. I knew they felt deeply culpable. I wished, simply, that they didn’t.
The student was a portly, sensitive fellow, who cried and shook in the streets as he spoke to me in rapid, bewildered Portuguese. Of course we both knew I could barely understand. In other countries perhaps police don’t shoot you for what John did. But this was Brazil, and John knew that.
And he knew it better and more conclusively than most would ever have desired or preferred to. He had lived here long enough – 2 full years – to have known better. He had courted danger, and the fury of dangerous authorities, too often. He had coveted and challenged their positions, when in no way was it his place to do so.
In habitually propelling himself atop some heap, any available heap, John would routinely resort to the age-old huckster’s artifice of
ponzi-scheming and triangulation. Self-appointed and self-anointed, in confrontational situations he absolutely would never back down, only when the brute hand of violence would forcibly knock him back down to the floor once again.
Three days prior to his death John was beaten; he had a chair broken over his head, and the image of a death knell, in tremulous, spitting rage, reigned over him. Then he quivered like a child, imploringly; all cocksureness evacuated him and I watched until I no longer wished to be a party, nor a witness, to the ill-fated scene any longer.
Evolution was on short shrift in Brazil, and though at that time I presumed John a goner, fate afforded him a brief reprieve on that day. Later, after a slow and bewildered recovery, his ranging, desperate logic could manifest nothing but the predictable, slow, grating climb back on top once again.
But the heap was not his, in fact never was his, and never would be his again. Even this business, which he had stumbled upon, was not his. John had been reduced to an unreliable, unwelcome interloper, in a situation that quite literally had absolutely nothing to do with him anymore. Like the dubious, telltale past that he left in New York and Connecticut, there were too many things like this in John’s life. He was out.
The textbooks might call John a pathological self-aggrandizer, of a particular stripe, and situated in such a way as to be a danger to himself and to those around him. Because I knew what that meant, quite keenly and literally, I was aware of the degree of the danger he posed.
He simply could not bear being anything other than on top, in a place, and situation, where he was surrounded by persons much more brutish and cold-hearted than he. He was tirelessly emphatic, evenhanded in a twisted way, and direct – both English and Portuguese. This made it easy for him, but also worse.
His reward was that people often liked him for it – at least those who didn’t mind traipsing along inside many of his countless, variegated and glad-handing negotiations for coke, money, grand unsupportable schemes, good times, fast times, party times. Dangerous times. It got his head bashed in on a seemingly regular basis. It earned him two bullets in the abdomen, and worldwide recognition for perhaps a couple of weeks.
And he did it, primarily, with his mouth, without ever having to lift so much as a finger, save for when he raised his arms, like the prototypical would-be martyr, and dared, with the filthiest taunts, insults and provocations, for the cop to go ahead, shoot him. He was an American after all, and no son of a whore filthy Brazilian could shoot an American, could they?!
And so he found his infamy, at a discount. Like the proverbial Christ the Redeemer himself, perched above his adoring Rio, arms outstretched, immortalized over the labyrinth of his bestial dreams. Little more than cheap, unnecessary, coked-up drama. Riding a wave of insupportable egotism, John ultimately found that there was little to nothing and no one beneath him anymore, where he’d presumed his devoted trash heap to reside.
John’s image of himself was what got him into trouble, and, in the end, there was little left beyond this image for people to pardon, excuse and eulogize with. Was John delusional? Not exactly. But he did have grand illusions, and he manufactured them assiduously and fiendishly, as if moved by some unseen, prepossessed hand.
Stripped of the popularized vauntings, John was this: a very white dork from Connecticut. He was no pimp, and he was no sage. He was not a learned professor of English, as the Brazilian media, in their typically romanticized editorializings, contended.
He did not own, nor run, any block, as he so determinedly maintained, shortly before the altercation turned ugly. He was 30 years old, for about 4 or 5 hours. That was his accomplishment. His previous accomplishments were all but completely built on the airy, temporal essence of cocaine, his tireless oral renderings, and the tolerance, indulgence and investment of others.
His mother paid his credit card bills – for Carnaval, for cocaine, for the bar he was planning to run, for life. That was why I’d referred to him as “substanceless”, and why I’d said he was “heading for destruction”, two days before Brazil’s unique brand of evolutionary justice came crashing down on his head, in easily mythologized fashion. It is good to have martyrs. Especially in the cocaine world. Their lives need justification.
Again, John knew the facts. He knew them better and more personally than anybody would reasonably want to. His legacy is a compelling read (he was working on a book), but I would have thought it would incline one to ask, as did I, “Are you fucking kidding me?”, “Are you mad?”, or think, as did I, “You are maniacally stupid, brother. Let’s keep our distance, thank you. No offense….”
If John was sane then he wanted to die. But of course, it wasn’t that simple. John was beyond the event horizon. He was wanted in the US, by bad men. Taunting the casualties in Rio seemed to not be an issue with him anymore, only more so a reflection of his derelict vanity, in thinking himself capable of cajoling and sweet-talking the specter of consequences.
I do think he felt that his triumph was imminent, or must be. But a system riddled with cocaine, marijuana, booze, acid and god only knows what else running through him, who can say where judgment ended and surreal, inchoate mania took over? He certainly was almost always lucid and articulate. I never saw him when he wasn’t expressing and recasting himself in the precisely the manner in which he wished to be perceived.
His veil was well maintained, but a veil nonetheless. At best I found it suspect, tragically flawed, and unendurably porous. For those reasons I was wary of him. I’ve never tolerated pores in veils all that well, because they are too easy to shoot holes through…. and John, at least until the moment he was shot, was determinedly incapable of seeing that.
I think, in fact, that he chose to risk not seeing that. And in Brazil, as has now been demonstrated, consequences grow less and less euphemistic, like each sequential warning shot fired overhead, and down into the street, each one more foreboding, each one more literal. Each one affording less avenue for escape, each one less forgiving.
With guys like John, and certain kinds of habitual cocaine users, the veil is the essence. That’s what he believes he sees, and is, in toto. What he uses to convince others with – the compensation of a similarly megalomaniac high – only reinforces his superthin, egomaniacal self-imagery. John could have taken advantage of uncertainty, of consequences, and of reflection.
But in Lapa, with the constant bang, boom and bombast, the winsome and guttural music, the endless bacchanalia, rabblerousery and carnal escapism, much is afforded in the way of kaleidoscopic debauchery, but very little in the way of contemplation, reflection, or redemption.
At the end, perhaps completely deranged, and with no other tonic or snake oil at hand, John baptized himself in his own tent-revival; he bought it lock, stock and barrel. His way truly had no way out. His end was fated, and it concluded both sooner, and later, than we all imagined.
It makes me very sad that things like this occur. John was in no way imaginable a “lone” victim. I was sad for the policeman, for his family, who subsequently underwent a trial for homicide (I am not aware the verdict). I was sad for his girlfriend, as I watched her busying herself, needlessly cleaning up after the party, and when I later discovered her slumped in the stairwell, crumpled and sobbing yet as I tried ineffectually to console her.
I am sad for Jorge, a friend who trusted John, who perhaps saw him die, who was the last person close to him to see him alive, in that terrible hospital, before, we have to assume, John was butchered and ultimately lost. I am sad for John’s mother; it would be inhuman not to be. But his predilection for cocaine, as much as his deranged air of invincibility, was apparently fostered and furthered by her.
My sadness is limited, therefore, in that regard. For his students, who presumably didn’t know much of his “other side”, I am sad they had to see their country through this filtered light: bewilderingly, ashamedly, unknowingly. I don’t have doubts that the complete story won’t be told. Mine is incomplete. His book does have a chance of being published posthumously, and selling well now. There is a publisher. It has an end.
*Some names and places in this article have been changed to protect the innocent.