By Gerry Hadden
I’m idling at a red light on a Mexico City street when my car starts to rise onto two wheels. A stubby green and white public bus is trying to squeeze ever so slowly between me and another car. It’s not working. The bus’s driver side door handle scrapes sickeningly along the right side of my little Volkswagen GT. I watch my side-view mirror twist and pop, then fall from sight. Then he’s past and I’m back on four wheels.
The light turns green and I pull out in front of the bus, blocking its path.
“We’ll have to call the police,” I say.
“Of course,” says the driver. Then he says, “Hermano? We should pull over past the intersection. So we’re not blocking traffic.”
“Good idea,” I say. We climb back in our vehicles and moved forward. And that’s when the clue I’ve missed begins to bother me. I am halfway across the intersection when I think, a bus driver who’s emptied his bus is not going to pull over anywhere. I have him in my rear view mirror and am already leaning on my brakes as I see him swerve sharply to the right and speed off down a side street.
As I slam into second gear I figure I’ll catch his top-heavy green vehicle within a block. But I’ve underestimated his skill behind the wheel. He’s already crossing oncoming traffic to the left and disappearing down another street. As he takes the turn the left wheels of his bus come off the pavement and several cars skid to avoid him. When I reach the intersection I hesitate. My car is new. I’ve had it for three days.
Soon the bus driver has put three full blocks between us. When I glimpse him banging a right on a street far ahead of me I think, I’ve lost him. I speed to the corner and take it hard. Then I brake. It’s a dead end. At the end of the cul-de-sac sits the bus, lights out, parked behind a light pole, facing us. An elephant hiding behind a tree. I swing my car around to block his exit.
“You’re trapped now, you bastard!” I yell.
He pulls out from behind the pole, but has nowhere to go. He revs his engine, the grill of his green vehicle just inches from my car.
“Move your car or I’ll plough straight over it!” he yells.
After a long moment it must become clear to him that the dramatic effect is waning. He turns the bus off, jumps down to the sidewalk and starts off down the street in a wobbly arc and disappears.
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Several people from the large surrounding houses watch from their stoops. One man, dressed in khaki pants and a polo style shirt, approaches.
“Do not call the police,” he counsels. “They will only arrest you. The other man is already gone.”
“But he left a small piece of evidence behind,” I say, pointing toward the bus.
I’m not worried about the cops. I have my press credential issued by the Mexican Interior Ministry. The Interior Minister is the cops’ boss. When the police come I hand it to them. They discuss the situation in murmurs.
A captain tells me I’ll have to accompany them to the precinct headquarters. Then two officers come walking around the corner with none other than my friend the bus driver. He is sweaty now and looks displeased.
“That’s the bus driver,” I say.
“I can call my lawyer,” the neighbor whispers.
At the precinct house I am told to wait in the crowded lobby of the station. A representative from my insurance company shows up. He urges me to settle with the driver. But the driver is nowhere to be seen. At dawn an officer leads me to a desk in a corner of the great hall. The bus driver is already there, seated. A policewoman sits behind the desk, typing on a computer. She asks me to explain what happened. She gives me a sheet of blank paper and asks me to draw the accident scene.
I make a hasty sketch of the street. She asks me how many lanes it had.
“Four, I think,” I say.
“What sorts of buildings were nearby.”
“They had doors and windows,” I say.
“Were they restaurants, homes?”
“I can’t remember,” I say. “But I don’t see how that matters.”
“We need to establish where the accident took place.”
“But I told you the name of the cross street.”
“Yes, but if you cannot remember what it looks like…”
(Watch the trailer to Gerry’s book, Never the Hope Itself.)
“Look,” I interrupt. “I was waiting at a red light right here.” I draw a little squiggle on my road map. “Then this guy comes along in his bus and scrapes the entire length of my car.” I push the pen along my drawing, ripping the paper in the process.
“Is this what happened?” the policewoman asks the bus driver.
“No, señora,” the man says. “El señor hit my bus.”
“That’s a lie,” I say.
Then two men in long white smocks come out through a door behind her desk: they are car crash forensics specialists. Their conclusion: the bus hit me. One of them cuffs the bus driver lightly on the back of his head and laughs.
“Listen up, fool. You might as well settle with the Gringo.”
“I agree,” says the policewoman. Then to me: “I implore you to reach an agreement with this man. If you file charges you will regret it.”
I turn to my adversary. “My insurance rep tells me there’s about 4 thousand pesos (400 dollars) worth of damage to my car. Pay me and our business is finished.”
The driver fishes through his pockets.
“I have 400 pesos,” he says.
“Arrest this man,” I say.
The bus driver asks the policewoman if he can speak with his boss who’s arrived at the station. She assents.
“Please settle with the man,” she says.
“If he won’t pay for the damage I’m not going to settle.”
“But it could take years,” she insists. “And I think it will end badly for you.”
“I don’t see how,” I say.
My insurance representative interrupts.
“I have just spoken to the driver’s boss,” he says. “They are going to offer four thousand pesos. Do not accept it.”
“Because the owner is offering to meet with you tomorrow to settle this. But he will never show up.”
The insurance rep leaves me his card and leaves. The policewoman and I finish the details of the report. She gives me my car keys and says I can go. Outside it is already light. Sticking to my guns has cost me half a day of red tape but it’s worth it. I swear to myself that I will get the entire four thousand pesos from that drunken son of a whore liar.
A week later the policewoman calls to say that I have won. I know, I say, how do I collect the money? She tells me that I will first need a copy of the favorable decision.
“Shall I give you my mailing address?”
“It must be picked up in person,” she says.
“You’re joking. What’s the exact address of the police station?”
“Your insurance rep has it.”
“But I need it. To pick up the document.”
“You cannot pick it up.”
“Your insurance rep must claim it for you.”
Fine, I say. I hang up and dig about for the business card the young man left me the night before. But I can’t find it. After searching in every conceivable place I give up and call the insurance company. Two days pass before I get through. I explain to the customer service person that I need the name of the rep who has responded to my case.
“Who was he?” she asks.
“That’s what I am asking you,” I say. She says she can find no record of the incident.
The following night I dine out with friends. I arrive home about midnight. As I pull on to my street I notice an old model Buick double parked and idling under a tree just before my house. To squeeze past it I have to slow considerably. I make eye contact with the two men sitting in it. They are scruffy but alert-looking and appear very interested in how I look. I decide to continue down the street. The idling car pulls out. This time I’m the chased. After 10 minutes I manage to shake them. I drive home, my heart racing.
The next morning I call the policewoman.
“You said that my insurance rep was the only one who could claim a copy of the police report, right?”
“Did the bus guys pick up a copy?”
“Yes. Yesterday morning.”
“How were they able to do that?”
“They came down and picked it up.”
“What? How could they? Do our addresses figure in the report?”
“Yes. The addresses of both parties appear in the report.”
I hang up. I call back the insurance company’s toll free line. When I get through later in the day they still cannot locate my case.
Several weeks pass without word either from the insurance company or the police. No more goons have returned to stake out my house. But the incident has shaken me. Then quite unexpectedly my insurance agent calls.
“I’m sorry to inform you that we’ve lost the case,” he says.
“The police have found in favor of the bus driver.”
“First of all, where have you been? Second, that’s impossible. You must have your cases confused.”
“I’ll look into it,” he says.
Two more months pass. One afternoon my front doorbell rings. I peek down from the roof terrace. A Mexico City police cruiser is parked in front of my door. Two officers in brown uniforms and caps stand on the sidewalk.
“Si?” I yell.
“Don Gerald Hadden?”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?” I repeat.
“Don Gerald?” says one of the two cops. “We need to take you with us.”
I go outside. I have my cell phone on with the number of the U.S. Embassy ready to be dialed.
“What is this about?” I ask.
“You, sir, filed a traffic complaint following an accident involving a bus.”
“Several months ago, yes.”
“Your testimony is apparently filled with inconsistencies,” he says. “Contradicciones. You must come with us to the station to clear this matter up.”
I stare incredulously into the man’s dark eyes. There’s hatred or indifference hidden in them, who can tell. He is a frog playing poker. But it’s his voice. It has suddenly and most powerfully deflated me. The sham seriousness of his tone, the all too familiar deadpan absurdity of a shake-down in progress. I look at the other cop, nonchalantly chewing gum, his eyes fixed on his partner. And I give up. I have no fight left in me.
“Sabes que?” I say. “I drop the case. You win.”
The officer watches me.
“I’ve had enough,” I say, waving my hand before his eyes. “Hello? Case closed.”
The cop smiles wryly, then places a hand on my shoulder.
“Better for you,” he says softly, “Much better.”
And he is right. He and his partner do not ask for a penny and I never hear from them again. And I never get back through to my insurance rep. Nor does the case ever appear in the company’s system. I stop calling. Because the truth is I feel relieved to have gotten all these crooks off my back. It’s painful to admit because I criticize Mexicans all the time for the same passivity. I won’t anymore, because now I get it. Accommodating injustice here is a hell of a lot easier than fighting it.
Gerry Hadden is an author and radio foreign correspondent. For several years, he worked NPR’s Mexico, Central America and Caribbean correspondent. He now lives with his family in Barcelona, where he is Europe correspondent for Public Radio International’s The World. Contact him at www.gerryhadden.com.
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