I took Bodhi for a walk every afternoon through our quiet Culver City neighborhood, and as much as I loved walking with Bodhi, I felt as if he loved walking with me just as much. Such joy there is in a dog. Bodhi and I went on basically the same walk hundreds and finally thousands of time, and yet whenever I snapped the leash on his collar and led him away from the house, he acted like the gray street was a yellow brick road and we were embarking upon an exciting adventure. Who knew Culver City was such a wondrous place, with such magical trees and birds and grass and dogs and cats and wind and squirrels and sky? On any given day, I would not necessarily be brimming with joy as we started our walk, but by the time we came home I was always calmer, simpler, happier. Less like a man and more like a dog.
Sometimes on our walks I would see someone else walking their dog and they would be ignoring the dog and looking at their cellphone and I would think: You’re taking your phone for a walk and not your dog. What a fool you are. For when you walk your dog the walks are similar and yet each is unique, and once gone, won’t come again.
As Bodhi got older and began to suffer some physical problems, I became acutely aware that there wouldn’t be an endless series of walks—that there had been a first walk and there would be a last walk—and I wondered how many walks we had left. Many, many hundreds, I hoped, but one never knew; my mother had been about the age I am now when she had dropped dead of a heart attack on her daily walk. So I would ponder Bodhi’s mortality, and ponder mine. And there was a thing that happened several times when I walked with Bodhi. Always on the same gently curving stretch of street. Always when the sun shined through the trees a certain way, and their shadows fell just so, and the air was not cool or warm but perfect, and no one was around except the two of us. I would feel that we were not on an earthly earth anymore, it was like I’d opened my eyes and found myself on the other side of life, in a timeless time and a spaceless space, and it was just Bodhi and me, walking, walking…
Frequently on our walks we’d meet people who would gaze at Bodhi and gasp out things like: Oh my god! He’ so gorgeous! What kind of dog is he? Look at his eyes, it’s like he’s wearing eyeliner! Oh those ears, they’re so adorable! I trust if Bodhi had been ugly I would have loved him just as much, but I confess to taking a great deal of pleasure in the fact I was walking around with the most beautiful dog in Culver City, and quite probably the world. He was medium-sized, with long silky white hair, and floppy, caramel-colored ears. His eyes were large, darkly luminous. Irises a brown that was nearly black. They possessed such beauty as to seem nearly unnatural.
I met him in the back room of a sweater shop on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica in early 2007, after having been more or less dragged there by my wife Stefani. He was about two months old, a tiny white fluffy ball of fur with two black eyes and a black nose. He had been brought there by Robin, a young woman who worked in the shop and rescued animals in her spare time. She had found the puppy in a small private shelter in San Gabriel during the Christmas holidays. He was very sick. Near death, Robin thought. She had taken him out of there and to her vet and he was on meds now and wasn’t going to die and needed a home.
I was practically positive our home wasn’t it. Stef loved dogs. She’d had a beloved yellow Lab named Dicey when she was a kid and had been wanting a dog for a long time. But I’d had a beloved yellow tabby cat named Butterball when I was a kid and was a confirmed cat person and we had three middle-aged cats at home who I felt quite sure would never accept a dog—even a tiny cute one that looked like a stuffed toy.
Robin had named the puppy Buddha—because, she said, there was an aura of calm and quietness about him. She had very little information about Buddha. He was of mixed, indeterminate ancestry. A mutt, in short. And someone at the shelter had suggested he might have come from a puppy mill in Mexico.
We sat on the floor of the back room by Buddha, where he rested on a little bed, still recuperating from his illness. Quiet. Calm. We petted him and murmured to him. He looked up at us speculatively with those dark eyes.
“Okay,” I sighed. “Let’s give it two weeks.”
It was the old story: Cat-Loving Guy Falls Hard For Dog. We changed his name. “Buddha” to me seemed an odd name for a dog, like calling him Jesus Christ or Muhammad, though we both liked the spiritual connotations. Stefani read up on Buddha, and discovered he became enlightened while sitting under the bodhi tree. So we brought the newly christened Bodhi home to Culver City to meet the cats.
We carried him into the house in his crate, which we deposited on the floor of the living room in front of our curious but wary cats. Bodhi looked at Trubble, Sunny, and Sheera. Trubble, Sunny, and Sheera looked back at Bodhi. Suddenly Bodhi began to bark, whereupon the cats fled the room in terror and panic, ran down a hallway and into the bedroom and dove under the bed. Sunny threw up. Stef said my face turned red as a tomato.
I was sure at that moment that at the end of his two-week probation Bodhi would have to be returned to the shop on Montana Avenue like a sweater that didn’t fit, but fate, and Bodhi, had other ideas. Turned out he had the perfect personality to insinuate himself into a household of haughty cats. He was gentle and unaggressive and unfailingly deferential to any cat that happened to cross his path during the course of a day. Over time the cats learned, not to love Bodhi or even to like him, but to tolerate him, and Bodhi was fine with that.
As we all know, a dog’s biology, as compared to a human’s, is poignantly speeded up, and in the first year Bodhi moved swiftly from ball of fur to gawky, big-eared adolescent to magnificent white wolf-like creature. I think it was a good life for a dog. Stef and I both worked at home, so he was hardly ever by himself. Tall walls and gates surround our house and guesthouse and peaceful, plant-filled courtyard, and Bodhi could spend his time inside or outside, wherever he wanted. In the courtyard we found out his gentleness did not extend to bees. He was hell on bees. He would leap into the air and his jaws would snap shut on some poor bee minding its own business, on its way from one flower to the next. He got stung sometimes, but never seemed to mind.
And so Christmas came, Bodhi’s second on this earth, and in a malicious twist, it proved to be no kinder to Bodhi than the first. On Christmas Day, he became terribly ill, vomiting and defecating endlessly. Our vet didn’t know what caused it. Poisoning possibly. Maybe he’d eaten a rat that had been poisoned itself and crawled into our courtyard to die. Or maybe the culprit was a pretty shrub with yellow, bell-shaped flowers, suggestively called an angel’s trumpet; we found out later that every part of it, flowers, leaves, seeds, was deadly to people and dogs.
Bodhi was hospitalized for days, halfway between life and death. Our vet allowed us to spend as much time as we wanted with Bodhi. Stefani was small enough to crawl in his cage, and she would lie there with her arms around him as he slept or dozed, barely aware of us. And then one day he took a sudden turn for the better, and what a sight it was when he came trotting out of the hospital, his thick white coat shining in the sun, and he lifted his leg and took a voluminous ecstatic pee on a bush.
I hadn’t realized how much I cared for Bodhi until I feared he was about to die. Walk followed walk and week followed week and the years passed, and I came to think of Bodhi as my animal son. Bodhi was special. (I know everyone thinks that about their dog, and everyone of course is right.) A friend said he seemed like a magical beast out of a Russian fairy tale. He loved other dogs, but was very afraid of people. For the longest time, only Stef and I were allowed to touch him (eventually he extended the privilege to Andy, our good-natured next-door neighbor, and to our old friends Jim and Susan who live down the block). He liked for us to pet him, but not too much. If we overdid it, he would simply rise and walk away and plop down in some other spot. He was like some half-wild creature; I wondered if his father had been a frisky coyote that had snuck one night into that Mexican puppy mill.
Bodhi had a deep and ferocious bark that he’d unleash on anyone who came on or near our property, but he would never bark when we left the house and took a walk. But there was something very odd he would do. Sometimes we’d go by a house where some little yappy dog lived, and if the dog started barking at Bodhi, he’d lift his head and start howling like a wolf. I mean, it would sound like a dadgum wolf was loose on the streets of Culver City. People would peer out of their windows or look back over their shoulders or stare at Bodhi as they passed in their cars, and the howls wouldn’t stop till we had walked past the house and Bodhi couldn’t hear the dog anymore. He wouldn’t react that way to being barked at by a big dog, just by a little one. The only thing I could figure was he’d think the little dog was in some kind of distress or danger and the howls came out of some primeval part of him, the wolf in him commiserating with the wolf in the little dog trapped behind the fence.
We pampered Bodhi. We bought him stuffed toy animals that squeaked when he bit them (which he would do repeatedly, playing them like a musical instrument) and rubber balls for him to fetch (we’d read tennis balls were toxic to dogs) and thick short ropes so he could play tug-of-war with me (but he preferred playing tug-of-war with one of the squeaker toys, whose life spans tended to be rather short). He had not one but two outdoor beds in the courtyard and we hired a carpenter to build him a bed right by our own. We fed him a healthy diet and made sure he received the best veterinary care.
I was obsessively concerned with his safety. He never spent a second off-leash when we left the house because I knew it only took a second for something to go terribly wrong. You would hear about dogs on walks being attacked by other dogs that were running around loose and being mauled or killed. I was always worried we would encounter some big savage dog that would go after Bodhi, and then one day that very thing happened.
Stefani was walking with us. Bodhi was never happier than when it was the three of us on a walk. Across the street and a little ahead of us an SUV pulled into a driveway. The automatic door on the garage began to open, and then instantly, as if he’d been waiting for just this moment all day, a large black dog shot out of the garage and ran across the street straight toward Bodhi.
Bodhi weighed about fifty-five pounds. The black dog was a lot bigger, maybe seventy-five or eighty. You could tell he didn’t want to play with Bodhi, he had mayhem on his mind. I tried to get in between Bodhi and him, but he was past me in a flash and on top of Bodhi. The black dog was snarling but Bodhi was silent and didn’t seem to be fighting back, as if he didn’t realize what was happening. I saw the black jaws of the dog close on the white fur of Bodhi’s throat, and then I dived on top of the dog. I locked my left forearm around his throat and pulled him off Bodhi. I held on to Bodhi’s leash. The last thing I wanted was for Bodhi to go running off down the street with the other dog chasing him.
Now I saw the young woman that was the driver of the SUV running across the street. She was looking on in wide-eyed horror; she probably couldn’t believe her precious Blackie was wrestling on the ground with some old dude with a buzz cut.
The dog was struggling to get free, but with my arm around his throat and my other hand grasping the back of his neck I seemed to have him under control, at least for the moment. I screamed at the woman to get her effing dog away.
She grabbed him and pulled him away and said over and over: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” She probably had visions of me calling the police and her dog being taken away and put into some ghastly pound, but all I wanted was to get away from there. Stef and Bodhi and I walked off quickly. Stef had been freaked out by the whole thing, of course. She wanted to know if I was okay. I told her I was. So was Bodhi; his fur was at its thickest around his neck. It must have been like chomping into a pillow for the black dog. And I was glad the black dog was okay too.
Bodhi was his usual cheerful self as he walked along between Stef and me. I honestly think he had no idea about what had just happened, it was just some kind of game to him and a pretty fun game at that. Once again we’d seen his aversion to violence, it was like Robin had nailed it when she named him Buddha.
As for me, I was shaking a little from all the excitement, but I also felt exhilarated. I had saved Bodhi! I’d have done anything for Bodhi, if he’d fallen into a roaring river I would have jumped in right after him. The earth is such a brutal place, and Bodhi was such an innocent creature, and I always wanted to do all I could to protect him. But I couldn’t protect him from growing old, from getting sick—couldn’t protect him from the age-old cycle of life and death.
Last summer Bodhi’s front right leg swelled up and he began to limp. We took him in on a Sunday afternoon to the specialty hospital where he’d been treated for some other problems. They discovered a growth tucked away in his right armpit. They first suspected a malignant tumor, and then, to our limitless joy, they told us it was just an internal abscess, but eventually it turned out they had been right the first time. Bodhi had cancer and was going to die.
It had already spread into his liver and spleen. He was put on chemotherapy, but at best it would buy him just a few more months. All Stef and I could do was provide Bodhi with as much love as we could in the time he had left, and then to end it for him when love wasn’t enough to justify any more days.
Summer turned into fall. Bodhi’s unofficial birthday was November 15. He would be eleven then, and I very much wanted him to make it that far because eleven seemed a lot older than ten, and I wanted to think of Bodhi as living into old age. We celebrated his birthday, and then we were hoping to have just one more Thanksgiving with him, and that happened too. And then I started looking ahead to Christmas, and New Year’s, and after that…Martin Luther King Day? Valentine’s Day? Maybe even Easter?
Our walks continued, though we weren’t going as far or as fast. They were bittersweet, at least for me. Yeats said: “Man is in love, and loves what vanishes.” But Bodhi hadn’t vanished yet, nor had I. I focused on the fact that Bodhi and I were still alive on this earth, and we were still taking our walks together.
On November 29, 2017, at about three in the afternoon, we took our last walk. It was very short. We went down the street in the mellow autumnal sunlight, and as we were about to make our usual turn to the right, Bodhi instead dragged me straight ahead. I knew he wanted to go to Jim and Susan’s house. He stayed with them when we went on trips or even just went out for a few hours, and he loved their house. So we showed up at their door and they were there and glad to see us and we went in and hung out for a bit and their two cats ignored Bodhi but Bodhi seemed to enjoy himself and then we went home.
About nine that night, I went outside. Bodhi was lying in his favorite spot in the courtyard, near the door to the kitchen. He liked it there because it was a glass door and he could keep an eye on what was going on in the house. I stooped and gave him a quick pat on the head and went to the guesthouse, where I brushed my teeth and fiddled around on my computer awhile and then turned out the lights and locked up.
I noticed Bodhi had moved; now he was lying near the door to our bedroom. I told him it was time to go in. He struggled to stand up but couldn’t. It was like his back legs weren’t working. I tried pulling him up but his back legs just dangled uselessly. I hurried into the house to get Stefani and then I picked up Bodhi and carried him into the bedroom and laid him down on his bed. I’m sure he must have been frightened but he had always been a stoic dog and he didn’t whimper, never made a sound.
Before Bodhi became sick, something like this would have caused us to rush him to the emergency room, but things were different now. We were hoping he’d be better by morning, but when the sun came up, his back legs were still paralyzed. I carried him into the courtyard to pee and poop, and then we called the oncologist. She told us what we had already figured out, that it was likely the cancer had spread into his spine, but we would have to bring him in for tests to be sure. There was no chance of us doing that. Bodhi was going to spend his last hours at home, and they were going to be as peaceful as possible.
We called a home vet, Dr. Graham. She’s a kind and lovely woman who had come to our house three years before to euthanize Sheera (Sunny and Trubble had passed on too, after lengthy happy lives). While we were waiting for her to arrive, we brought in our new cats Yama and Hana to say good-bye to Bodhi. They were just two years old, yellow tabbies, a brother and a sister. They had come to us as tiny kittens and had grown up with Bodhi and unlike our other cats adored him. He was their big brother and their protector; when intruders approached the door he would warn them by woofing mightily so they could run into the bedroom and hide. They seemed to know something was up. They sniffed at him, nuzzled their faces against his muzzle. Then Jim and Susan came by to say good-bye, and then it was just Bodhi and Stefani and me. Waiting for Dr. Graham.
Do animals know? Our usual answer is no. They don’t understand death. But maybe they understand it far better than we do. Maybe they understand that death and life are two sides of the same coin, that to affirm one is to affirm the other and how can you not affirm life? Maybe that’s why Bodhi was so calm. He knew he had come to the end of his life, and it had been a beautiful and joyous thing and he had loved and he had been loved and now Stefani and I were with him and that was all that mattered.
Dr. Graham arrived. She injected him with the sedative. It would be a few minutes before it completely took effect. Bodhi looked up at us with his soulful, haunting, ageless eyes. Stefani and I leaned over him, caressing him and whispering to him and weeping, weeping. Bodhi raised his head and licked my beard, then lowered his head and closed his eyes.
We had a wedding to go to the next day. Itzia, the daughter of our long-time housekeeper Amelia, was getting married. We had known her since she was a little girl. We definitely didn’t feel like leaving the house, but we knew Itzia and Amelia would be disappointed if we didn’t come, so I put on my dark suit and Stefani donned a pretty dress and we Ubered down to Pacific Palisades.
Itzia and Carlos were getting married in a little gazebo overlooking the beach. It was a splendid spot for a wedding; to the west, the sun was setting over the sparkling ocean, and to the east, a big full moon was rising over the hills, and arching over everything was the endless, eternal sky. About twenty of us crowded onto the gazebo. The bride and groom said their vows in Spanish. Itzia’s dress was lovely and white and rippled in a breeze.
Afterwards, everyone drove to a restaurant in Redondo Beach for dinner. Amelia loved Bodhi, but we didn’t tell her or anyone else what had happened; it was a happy day, and we didn’t want to sadden it. But Bodhi naturally filled our minds. I sipped my second gin and tonic, and remembered how sometimes out of sheer joyous exuberance Bodhi would run at breakneck speed in a circle around the courtyard. I would stand in the middle of the circle, turning slowly as I watched Bodhi, his long white hair blowing in a wind of his own making, his beautiful tail streaming behind him. I’d urge him on. Run, Bodhi! Run, Bodhi! Run faster, Bodhi! Run!
Stef and I said good-bye to the newlyweds and Ubered home. We knew what awaited us, or rather didn’t await us. For eleven years, whenever we came home and opened the driveway gate, Bodhi would be there, looking eagerly up at us and wagging his tail, but tonight there was nobody there, nothing, absence, empty space. Stefani went inside the house. I keep my clothes in the guesthouse, and headed back there to take off my suit.
I couldn’t believe Bodhi was gone. The big round moon was now hanging over the courtyard. I looked up at it and began to cry.
“Where are you, Bodhi?” I said. “Where are you?”
Maybe one day I’ll open my eyes, and find myself walking again with Bodhi.
About mid-day, the crew packed up and we headed toward the mountains. We were going to get a shot of Roberto gazing down at a spectacular view of Bogotá. I was riding with Carlos in his car, when a few fat raindrops plopped down on the windshield. Moments later, a ferocious rain began to pummel the car. What had happened to our sunny day?
Carlos said the good news was that when it rained this hard it wouldn’t last more than fifteen or twenty minutes but he was wrong. It kept coming, and the sky flashed with light, and thunder rumbled over the city. Hailstones rattled off the hood of the car, littered the street and sidewalks. Pedestrians ran madly through the rain for cover as though under attack by strafing fighter planes. People and dogs huddled in doorways. The always horrible traffic became even horribler. Carlos tried to take another route to our location but it was no better. Rivers of rain gushed down the steep streets. Nervousness began to gnaw at my gut the way it had most of the day yesterday as I worried that we would run out of time.
Carlos said we would have to forget about getting the shot in the mountains, but that Roberto’s apartment had a great view of the city and we could do the shot there. He said we would meet up with the crew somewhere for lunch and hope the storm would have subsided by the time we were done.
We drove through the gray rain to a big gray building, and found the crew already eating in a vast food court. Glumly and without appetite, I ate my eggplant lasagna. Everything had been going fine till I had walked off wearing the basuquero’s bracelet. I looked at it, thought about taking if off. But it was ridiculous to think a skinny kid with some colored strings could control the weather.
We finished lunch and left the building and found hailstones melting on the sidewalks and a gray but rainless sky. We still had two locations to go to. I wanted to shoot in the park near my hotel. It was in the upscale northern part of Bogotá, and all the joggers and dog walkers and attractive women in their stylish clothes would provide a nice contrast to the grunginess and homeless people we’d filmed downtown. Then after the park, we’d finish at the apartment. But we were running behind because of the storm, and since the apartment had a couple of scenes we had to do, we decided to go straight there.
And everything went smoothly. No creepy curse of the basuquero seemed to be in evidence. We got the scenes of Iván Lopez as Roberto receiving the death threat over his phone and then hastily packing to get out of town one step ahead of his executioners, and then, as the long day drew to a close, the setting sun appeared through a scrim of clouds and shed a lovely light over the city as Roberto stood at his window taking it all in; the shot was almost certainly better than what we would have got in the mountains.
It had been a difficult two days, but we were finished! Carlos and I were elated. We had gotten everything we wanted except the stuff in the park, which would have been nice to have, but I could live without it.
I went outside. Night had fallen on Bogotá. The crew was packing up the van. I stood at the top of a driveway that sloped to the street, and called Stefani in California; I was using Carlos’s cellphone since mine was on the fritz. I had been keeping Stef abreast of the vicissitudes of the trip, and she was glad to hear we were done with the shoot and it had turned out well.
Do you remember The Omen? Gregory Peck’s son is the Anti-Christ, and seemingly random, horrible accidents happen to anybody who gets in his way. What happened next kind of reminded me of that. There was a white case about three feet tall sitting at the top of the driveway to my left. I think it belonged to the hair and make-up or the art department. It had been left there unattended. It was on wheels. Now, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it moving forward.
I turned my head. The case was rolling down the driveway, picking up speed. The van was at the bottom of the driveway, maybe twenty feet away. I took off after the case, determined to catch it before it hit the van (not that anything very terrible would have happened if it had; it’s not like it was carrying nitroglycerin or something). I caught up with the case and grabbed it with my left hand. I tried to put the brakes on so I wouldn’t slam into the van myself, but it’s tricky to run downhill, easy to lose control, and from that point on, it was like when I fell in the river; I know I did it, but I’m just not sure about the mechanics of it.
I found myself going to the left, and maybe I stumbled over that accursed case, I don’t know, but at any rate there was a sickening second of losing contact with the ground, of being airborne. I let go of Carlos’s phone and it sailed ahead of me. I landed near the back of the van half on the curb and half on the street, my left knee and elbow and my right outstretched hand bearing the brunt of the impact.
It must have looked pretty bad, judging by everyone’s reaction. Crew members crowded around me, helping me to my feet. “What you did, it was crazy!” said the hair and make-up person, whose case it may or may not have been. I brushed myself off, telling everyone I was fine.
With Helkin Rene Diaz at the hotel in Tobia.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” said Helkin wonderingly. “Your face, when you were falling…” He didn’t complete the sentence, but I assumed he meant it had born a look of wide-eyed horror. I assured him I wasn’t hurt. And then Helkin smiled. “So Tom, you fell again. That means someday you will own this apartment building.”
Someone handed me Carlos’s phone, and then I remembered I still had my wife on the line. “What the hell happened?” she wanted to know, and I told her but insisted I was fine. But I wasn’t quite being honest with everyone. When I fell in the river nothing was hurt except my dignity, but the spill I took in Bogotá was quite painful. My left arm and leg were abraided and bruised, and my right wrist was throbbing with pain.
I went to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner with Carlos and Mariela and Helkin. We were all happy and ate hummus and baba ghanoush and drank celebratory wine. Helkin was excited about a documentary he had recently shot called A River Below. It was about the imperiled (by us, of course) pink dolphins of the Amazon, and it had been a big success at film festivals. It was getting some Oscar buzz, and Helkin said that if it got an Academy nomination he was thinking about moving to L.A. and giving American movies a go. Helkin in Hollywood, that’s a documentary that I’d like to see.
We left the restaurant and walked toward my hotel, which was just a few blocks away. It was Friday night and Bogotá was jumping. Hundreds of young people were hanging out in parking lots listening to loud music and openly drinking, which is legal in Colombia. Suddenly Helkin grabbed my arm. Just ahead of me in the sidewalk was a dark circular hole missing its manhole cover. Helkin steered me around it, saying that if I stayed much longer I would wind up owning most of the country.
My wrist had continued hurting during dinner, and when I got up to my hotel room I took a good look at it. It was beginning to swell a little. The swelling was happening directly underneath the blue and red and gold strings of the bracelet the basuqero had put there. And then I remembered how weird it was when the white case began to move. Almost like an invisible hand had pushed it. Maybe the basuquero had cursed me after all! I fumbled at the bracelet, trying to undo the knots, then ripped it off my wrist and threw it in a trash basket. I hoped my wrist wasn’t broken. I was just lucky the basuquero had tied a bracelet around my wrist and not a necklace around my neck.
So I returned the next day to the cozy confines of Culver City, to my wife and dog and cats, and the squirrels playing in the dappled light in the tree outside the window. Carlos is in Bogotá, editing the trailer, and he says it’s looking good. He says we finished shooting just in time because it’s been raining constantly and torrentially ever since I left. He also told me his cellphone had quit working a couple of days after it and I crashed to the street, so I’ve had to add $700 to the production budget to replace it.
And I’ve seen Helkin’s movie, which conveniently opened at a theater in Beverly Hills just a week after I got back. I thought it was beautiful, disturbing, morally complex, and photographed wonderfully.
My wrist is sprained, not broken. I’m wearing a black brace on it, and it’s gradually getting better. Do I think I hurt it because I was cursed by a basuquero? No. Of course not. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think the basuquero was involved somehow. I believe we live in a universe of meaning, we are usually not aware of it for the same reason a fish isn’t aware it lives in a world of water, water or meaning is all there is. I believe there was meaning in the chain of events that began when I had a brief encounter with a lost young man named Luis, and then literally turned my back on him and walked away. That day, it was meant for me to learn something. Be humble. Listen. Be curious. Be kind. That’s what the basuquero and his bracelet taught me.
"Roberto," Ivan Lopez, in Bolivar Square in Bogota.
The white crew van picked me up in front of the hotel and we drove downtown, mostly beating the monstrous traffic. The sun rose above the mountains and filled the city with beautiful light. It promised to be, at least compared to the day before, an easy day. Iván Lopez would be the only actor involved. We’d shoot him in various settings around the city and then finish the day with a couple of scenes at Roberto’s apartment. The Bogotá traffic was always a factor but there was enough time built into the schedule that it shouldn’t be a problem. Today, unlike yesterday, would not be fraught with mud and rain and danger, with fears of falling and of falling behind, with gorges and rocks and wild, rushing water. It ought, in short, to be a breeze.
We hadn’t been working long when I made an interesting discovery. Iván was sitting on the steps in front of a church checking his phone as people incessantly do these days while Carlos and Helkin set up a shot. There was a high fence with metal bars in front of the church with a locked gate. A couple of dozen uniformed schoolgirls came out of the church. I noticed one of the girls looking at Iván. She came closer then let out a scream and shouted his name and then all the other girls screamed too and rushed the fence. They stuck their skinny arms through the bars, they looked like desperate prisoners, they were all holding phones hoping they could get a selfie with Iván. They were thrilled when Iván good-naturedly obliged them. Soon an elderly priest came out of the church, frowned at the situation, then shooed the protesting schoolgirls back in the church.
I’d known Iván was a successful actor, but I had no idea he was a celebrity in Colombia, some kind of freaking teen idol for god’s sake. I asked him how it felt to be famoso. He laughed and shrugged and said some of it was good, some of it was bad. But Carlos told me that he loved it, that all actors love it.
We went to Bolívar Square, a plaza surrounded by government buildings and a great cathedral. Iván was filmed walking across the plaza as pigeons arose en masse and swirled perfectly around him. Carlos declared himself a great director of pigeons.
I sat down on some steps in front of the bronze statue of Simón Bolívar as they set up the next shot. The plaza was beginning to fill up with people. Among them were a number of scary-looking, ghoulish figures. It was a few days before Halloween, and somebody had told me there was going to be a zombie parade later. When I saw three ragged, shambling men headed my way, I at first thought they were zombies, but then I realized they were basuqueros.
Basuco is a potent, impure, poisonous kind of cocaine. The shit of the shit, it’s called. It damages the lungs, the liver, the brain. It’s highly addictive, and the cost of a hit in pesos is equivalent to about one American quarter. In Colombia, it’s the drug of choice of the poor and the lost, the wretched and the damned, and its users are called basuqueros.
The three basuqueros sat down on the steps not far from me. I eyed them warily. It was not unknown for basuqueros to rob or even kill people in their desperation to get money to buy more basuco. But I knew it was unlikely anything was going to happen to me on a sunny morning in the middle of Bolívar Square.
They could not have stood out more from the other people on the plaza (excluding the zombies) if they had been wearing clown costumes. Their clothes were filthy and torn, their skin was dark with grime. All three had dreadlocks hanging past their shoulders, and two of them had bushy, matted beards. The beard of the third was short and wispy. He was different from the other two. They were a lot older, for one thing, and seemed hard and harsh. Not guys you would want to meet on a dark street at midnight. But the third man didn’t seem like someone to be threatened by. He was small and slight and had regular, handsome features. One could imagine a cleaned-up version of him as an earnest young graduate student, or a guy dancing at a disco with his pretty girlfriend. He was wearing a beaded necklace with long pieces of colored string dangling from it.
The three of them were laughing and talking with one another as they made themselves comfortable on the steps. Maybe it was a good morning in basuco world. I forgot about them, and watched Helkin following Iván with his camera as pigeons fluttered up. And then I saw that one of the basuqueros was approaching me. It was the young one, with the colored strings.
“Buenos días,” he said. “My name is Luis. What is your name?”
I told him. I was surprised by his slow, careful, but grammatical English. I also wondered how he knew to speak English to me in the first place. I knew I didn’t look like a native Colombian, but I could have been French or German. I guess I just had American written all over me.
“I would like to make you a bracelet,” he said, reaching for the strings hanging at his neck.
I told him no thanks, I didn’t want one.
“You do not have to pay for it. This is what I do. I make bracelets. I like to make bracelets.”
I could have said no again but it seemed awkward to do so, so I reluctantly extended my right arm. The basuquero began trying strings around my wrist. His dirty fingers were deft and fast, and soon I had my bracelet. It was made of four strings: one blue, one red, and two gold.
I saw Alex, a young bespectacled baseball-capped P.A., coming in my direction. No doubt concerned I was being hassled by the basuquero. This was a good time to go. I stood up, and looked at the bracelet. The sun was strong in the thin air of the mountains, and the red and blue and gold strings glowed in the sunlight. The basuquero—Luis—was watching me. No matter what he had said, I knew he was expecting me to give him some money. A two thousand peso note, worth less than a dollar, would have made him more than happy. But instead of reaching for my billfold, “Gracias,” I said, and walked away with Alex.
The film crew left the plaza, heading north into La Candelaria, the old colonial district. I glanced back toward the statue of the Great Liberator. The three basuqueros were still there, talking and laughing among the people and the pigeons.
We moved along La Candelaria’s hilly, cobblestoned streets, past churches and museums and centuries-old houses painted every beautiful color in the book. I looked at my bracelet. It was a pretty bracelet. I liked it. I decided to keep it on. But I was troubled by what had happened back in Bolívar Square with the bracelet’s maker.
Why hadn’t I just given him some money? It was out of character for me not to. I always give money to people on the street if they ask me for it and look like they need it, just so long as they’re not acting threatening or belligerent. And Luis was the opposite of belligerent. There was a gentleness about him that reminded me of Helkin. Maybe he was a vegetarian too. It could be argued that his tying the bracelet around my wrist after I’d already told him I didn’t want it was a subtle form of coercion but I had stuck my arm out, and one could assert that I shouldn’t have given him the money because he was just going to go off and buy basuco with it, but as someone who in an earlier part of my life had gone deep down into the dark hole of depression and drink and was lucky to get out of it alive, who was I to judge?
We walked past the Museum of Gold, as I continued to berate myself. Not only had I been ungenerous as a human being, I had failed as a writer. A writer should be open to life, should seek it out, unless all he or she wants to write about is the probably not very interesting contents of their own skull. Instead of shunning him because he was dirty, I should have taken him to a coffee shop and asked him question after question. How did an apparently well-educated and probably middle-class kid like him wind up a basuquero? Where did he sleep at night? What were his friends like? Who did he buy the basuco from? Did he ever see his family? Did he hope to return to his old life? How did he happen to start making bracelets out of colorful lengths of string?
We stopped to set up a shot. “Roberto” would walk past a store that had a mural of a shaman with an evil-looking monkey peering over his shoulder. I still couldn’t quite figure out why I had walked away from Luis. I did recall being aware that some members of the crew might have been observing us, so maybe it was because I just didn’t want to look like a gullible American being parted from his dough by a local hustler. I was standing next to Tatiana, the first A.D. Tatiana had had a British boyfriend for seven years, and she spoke perfect English with a somewhat eerily exact Liverpool accent. I showed her my bracelet, and started telling her about my encounter with the basuquero. My eyes drifted over to the mural, and then I pointed and said, “Tatiana, look!”
The shaman was wearing a many-stranded necklace of bright beads. I had just noticed that a straggly row of colored strings was hanging from the necklace. I told Tatiana that the strings the basuquero had used had been hanging from his necklace too, and then I said: “Maybe he was a shaman. Maybe he’ll put a curse on me for not paying for his bracelet.” We both laughed.
November 11: The Basuquero, Part One: The Jungle
Today: The Basuquero, Part Two: The City
November 17: The Basuquero, Part Three: The Bracelet
With Carlos Gaviria, on the Rio Negro in Colombia.
Two weeks ago I went to Colombia. I traveled into the jungle where I fell into the Río Negro, then returned to Bogotá and fell down on the street after a basuquero had put a curse on me. Or maybe it wasn’t a curse at all. *** I’ve written a novel called Roberto to the Dark Tower Came, which will be published next May. It’s about a young left-wing South American journalist who receives a disturbing phone call: an anonymous voice tells him he has ten days to leave the country or he’ll be killed. Roberto takes the voice seriously, and makes plans to leave, but then he gets wind of a big story developing in the jungle. He decides to take a quick trip to investigate the story, and then get out of the country before his ten days are up. And so begins a journey up a river and through the jungle and into the heart of a darkness so deep Roberto wonders if he’ll ever see the light again.
I flew to Colombia to make a trailer to promote the book. Trailers for books are a relatively new thing. Most of the ones I’ve perused on the internet have been pretty basic and have left me unimpressed. I felt with my background in film I could make a kick-ass trailer with high production values that would leave all other book trailers in the dust.
I took the red-eye out of LAX. I have never been able to sleep on a plane and kept my record intact that night. I changed planes in Panama, and even though it’s in the tropics it had the coldest airport I’ve ever been to. My teeth actually began to chatter as I walked through a long, drafty terminal in search of my gate.
The next morning I was picked up at the airport in Bogotá by my old friend Carlos Gaviria. Carlos went to NYU film school with my wife Stefani, and would direct the trailer. He’s short, plump, and jovial, with a beautiful head of graying hair and a matching beautiful beard. He drove me to my hotel through the chaotic, smoking, honking traffic of Bogotá that makes L.A.’s traffic in comparison seem like something you would find in some poky small town in Nebraska. I was supposed to be able to check into my room early but inevitably it wasn’t ready, so without changing clothes or even brushing my teeth, I embarked on the first of a series of sixteen-hour days.
We were going to shoot two days, one in the city and one in the jungle. Bogotá is in the mountains, so the next morning we left the chilly city behind and went down and down a winding road into subtropical heat and drove west till we reached the little town of Tobia. It was serene and lovely. Dogs would lie in the street till a honking horn would make them reluctantly rise and walk away a few feet and plop down again.
An actor named Iván Lopez would be Roberto. Iván was handsome and charming, as our Roberto ought to be, and played an abogado, a lawyer, on a popular Colombian TV series. We picked up some shots of Iván driving around in Roberto’s aging Jeep Cherokee, had dinner at our hotel, and went to bed early. The hotel was right by the river along which we’d be shooting all day tomorrow. My window was open, and the river was narrow and fast-flowing, and I listened to its soft roaring till I fell asleep.
Someone knocked on my door at 4:30 a.m., and the river began to roar again. The cast and crew assembled outside the hotel as the dawn came on. There were about fifteen crew members, four actors from Bogotá, a half dozen guys from Tobia who’d be playing paramilitaries and guerillas, and another half dozen guys in helmets from a security company who would help us cope with the difficult terrain ahead and make sure everyone was safe when we shot the scenes on the river.
Paramilitaries had been active around Tobia before the recent signing of the peace agreement between the government and the main rebel group, the FARC, so everybody had a good laugh when a cop on a bicycle pedaled past and saw our paramilitaries with their fake assault rifles walking down the road toward him. The poor guy thought they were the real thing and hit his brake and looked like he was about to fall off his bike with a heart attack.
"Roberto," Ivan Lopez, with "Lina," Estefania Pineres, the beautiful guerilla he falls in love with.
It was the beginning of the rainy season in Colombia, and just as we were about to head out, it started to rain. It quit after about twenty minutes. The rain was good and bad for us. It made the jungle lush and green and glowing. Also, it stayed cloudy all day which was good, since you don’t want to shoot in the jungle when it’s sunny because there’s too much contrast between the sunlight and the shadows. But it made the hilly trails we had to traverse muddy and slippery and ended up costing us a lot of time.
This actually wasn’t the “real” jungle—in Colombia that lay south in the Amazon—but it definitely looked the part. We walked single file along a path that ran along the edge of a gorge at the bottom of which the river surged and roared over huge rocks and tossed up sparkling drops of water. I felt dizzy as I gazed down on it. I don’t like heights at all. It was maybe eighty or ninety feet down to the river. When the path was flat it was okay but when it went up or down it was daunting, and it was easy to imagine slipping in the mud and sliding right over the edge and screaming piteously all the way down. And then Carlos would have to call Stefani back in Culver City to let her know her unfortunate husband had met his end on the Río Negro.
I would have liked to have gone a little slower, taken my time a bit, but since I was the oldest person on the shoot I was determined it wasn’t going to be me that would hold up our intrepid little column of filmmakers. I slipped and stumbled some, but I wasn’t the only one, and after about an hour we had reached our first location. The guys in helmets helped the actors and the camera people rappel down the side of the gorge to the river. I was barely able to watch it, it made me so nervous and “Is this safe?” I asked Carlos. He assured me that it was. Although I noticed he didn’t go down there himself.
We spent the day moving from location to location down the river back toward the hotel. The only casualty we suffered was when some idiot banged his head on the bottom of a rickety old bridge, but I think the baseball cap I was wearing saved me from getting a nasty cut in my scalp.
At one point we had fallen a couple of hours behind because of the logistical problems the brief rain had caused along with the malfunctioning of our Steadicam. We’d lose the light around five-thirty or six, and whatever shots we hadn’t gotten then would forever remain ungotten because we were headed back to Bogotá that night. I kept letting Carlos know I was on the verge of freaking out and he kept telling me to not worry, that it was always like this, that we would pick up the pace as the day went on and we’d be fine and he was right. We got to our last location with just enough light left to shoot. And, as if I’d been moving toward this rendezvous all day, this is where the river and I became, let us say, intimately acquainted.
The river was wider and calmer here, and we were doing some stuff with boats. I was trying to step out of a rubber raft onto the riverbank and gee, I just don’t know what happened. The raft moved? My boot hit something slippery? Anway, bang, into the water I went. Crew members scrambled to help up the old gringo. I was drenched and muddy from the waist down, and each hand was covered with mud. As I stumbled up the bank, Helkin René Díaz, our gentle elfin vegetarian D.P., was beaming at me approvingly.
“You are a warrior!” he said.
Helkin told me it was believed in Colombia that if you visited a place and fell down, that meant you were going to buy it. I said it was beautiful here and I’d like to buy it.
Our last shot was Roberto and his photographer friend Daniel splashing frantically across the river with the paramilitaries in hot pursuit, and then the river did a slow fade-out in the dusk and we went back to the hotel. I pulled off my boots and stripped off my muddy clothes. The hotel had no hot water, so I skipped a shower and put on clean clothes and sneakers then hit the road with Carlos and his wife Mariela. Carlos’s car wound up and up till we were high in the mountains again and back in Bogotá.
They dropped me off at my hotel, where I discovered I’d left my boots, which I was quite fond of, back in the hotel in Tobia (along with falling down, losing things was a central theme of my time in Colombia—my boots, my reading glasses, my house keys, my denim jacket, twice). It was very late. I took a shower and crashed and then at 4:30 opened my eyes to darkness and a wake-up call from the front desk.
Today: The Basuquero, Part One: The Jungle
November 14: The Basuquero, Part Two: The City
November 17: The Basuquero, Part Three: The Bracelet
A couple of weeks ago as wildfires ripped through California, my sister Joyce called me from Arkansas. I had told her not to worry about my wife and me when she heard news of fires out here because we live in a perfectly safe neighborhood in the flatlands of L.A. far from the brushy hillsides where we might be endangered, but, as sisters will, she was checking up on us anyway. Turns out she was not wrong to worry. North of us in wine country in the middle of the night, embers from a wildfire that started in the hills were blown miles by near-hurricane-force winds to shower orangely down on the dark houses and the sleeping people of Santa Rosa. Ever seen pictures of Hiroshima after we dropped the A-bomb? There are neighborhoods in Santa Rosa now that look a lot like that. Dozens of people were killed, and dozens more are still missing.
It could have been Culver City. I can’t help but imagine Stefani and me fleeing half-dressed through the blazing, wind-howling night with our cats in their carriers and our dog on his leash. Chaos, people hollering, horns honking. We see our neighbors’ houses burning, we see our neighbors burning. Is there a more terrible death than that?
All this fire on the heels of all that water. There were so many monster hurricanes in so short a time it’s hard to keep them straight. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and drowned tens of thousands of homes. Hurricane Irma ravaged once-paradisal Caribbean islands and then smacked into Florida (though happily Hemingway’s polydactyl cats on Key West made it through fine). Hurricane Maria has sent Puerto Rico back to the Stone Age, with the multitudinous bodies of pigs, goats, cows, dogs, and cats rotting in the sun and poisoning the water.
Catastrophic climate change no longer is just some faintly disturbing theoretical possibility, something that might happen someday to our unlucky progeny when we ourselves have been safely tucked away in the earth or turned into ash and stored in an urn. Nor is it just something affecting impoverished, dark-skinned people on the other side of the world who are always having horrible stuff happen to them anyway. It’s here and it’s now. You may drown or burn tonight.
Aren't we being a bit alarmist? you might say. No, I don't think so. But alarming? I certainly hope so. We’re a civilization of sleepwalkers, of wheezing, overweight consumers, of zombies enslaved by our iPhones. We’re not equipped to handle what is coming our way. We’re not self-reliant and hearty like our can-do ancestors. Our young people are such delicate flowers they cannot bear to talk to one another face to face or even over their phones but must use their flashing thumbs to tap out texts. When the power goes out, they will die like flies.
If destruction awaits us, we ourselves will be its agents. It doesn’t matter whether you think we are beings with divinity in us who have somehow gone devilishly wrong, or we are just members of an out-of-control species of highly intelligent apes, the fact is that our presence on this planet is wrecking it. We’re cutting down all its forests, we’re polluting all its seas, we’re driving all its beautiful creatures into extinction, and we’re heating up the atmosphere to a calamitous degree.
If there’s a seed of hope in all this, it’s that if the mess is all on us then maybe we can fix it. Maybe it’s not too late to turn things around. But it won’t do simply to drive a hybrid and blacken our roofs with solar panels and troop to the polls every two years and dutifully vote for the Democrats. So what will do? The answer of course will be different for each of us. Each of us must ask of ourselves how far are we willing to go, how much will we give up, what will we risk? Our jobs? Our liberty? Our lives? Or maybe considerably less than that? Here’s something to chew over. Most of my friends are two things, environmentalists and meat eaters, and since industrial meat production accounts for about 15% of the greenhouse gases we put in the air, those two things don’t go together. So how about it? Will you do that? To save the planet? Will you give up eating meat?
As you read this, nature’s setting the stage for the next megafires and megastorms. She has a voice, if you will listen for it. She is always speaking to us of this or that, telling us tales about the rivers and the birds, the clouds and the mountains. Usually it’s a quiet voice, but sometimes it must be louder to be heard over the fiery roaring wind, over the crashing black waves…
Oh, you complacent ones, open your eyes! Behold the Apocalypse!
And be afraid, as Jeff Goldblum said in The Fly. Be very afraid.
In What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new book about the societal disaster that was the 2016 presidential campaign, she says being president “was a chance to do the most good I would ever be able to do.” Well, you can’t find fault with that. She wanted to become president to do good. But for millennia philosophers have been posing the question: “What is the nature of the good?” and they always seem to come up with different answers. So what was Hillary’s answer? What were the good things in particular she wanted to do? “I started calling policy experts,” she writes, “reading thick binders of memos, and making lists of problems that needed more thought.”
The admission is stunning. A 69-year-old woman who has devoted her life to both public service and the pursuit of power and who a year ago seemed poised to claim the presidency and at long last put all her ideas into action, realizes she’s not sure what her ideas actually are, and so feels the need to call experts, read memos, and make lists. Nothing could indicate better the dreary, dispiriting nature of her campaign. One would have thought an articulation of her vision for America would be the first thing out of her mouth. The people want their leaders to lift them, to excite them, to use words that paint pictures they can see in their mind’s eye so their souls might be bestirred and changed. But instead Hillary bored us, and we elected a malignant bellicose billionaire instead.
Barack Obama was different. That man could paint us pictures, yes! Who doesn’t remember that chilly November night in 2008 when he and his gorgeous family walked out on that stage in Grant Park in Chicago in front of that immensity of people so he could give his victory speech? The eight-year nightmare of the doltish George Bush and all those awful Republicans was over, and a noble young prince was about to become president. My wife and I were hosting a gathering of our liberal friends to eat pizza, drink liquor, and watch the election returns, and several of them were crying actual tears of joy, something you just don’t see very often. My eyes remained dry, because I’m congenitally skeptical of politicians, and yet when Obama said that someday we’d be able to tell our children that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” even I felt a tentative movement of hope in my heart.
Cut to a mild spring day in 2012, when now President Obama walked into the Rose Garden of the White House to deliver another speech. “Under my administration, America is producing more oil than at any time in the past eight years. We’ve opened up new areas for exploration. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high,” and then he crowed: “We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipelines to circle the earth and then some!” Not the kind of speech likely to have given you chills, unless maybe you were an executive at Chevron or ExxonMobile.
The Democrats and Republicans are different. As I’m writing this, a bat-shit crazy old white man has driven in off the desert with 17 rifles in his car and has murdered 58 people in Las Vegas. Democrats are crying out once more for gun laws to be passed, while Republicans are shaking their heads and tsk-tsking that this isn’t the time to talk about that, and the bellicose billionaire is saying the massacre’s easy to explain as “an act of pure evil” and is urging us all to pray. And the Democrats and Republicans are different on issue after issue: health care, police misconduct, voting rights, immigration, education, the minimum wage, tax reform, Social Security, transgender bathrooms— But wait a minute. This is starting to sound like one of Hillary’s lists!
So here’s the deal. There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats on the two things that matter the most: the American empire and capitalism.
Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize for, well, being Obama, and then promptly escalated America’s war in Afghanistan. Didn’t matter that he’d campaigned on the promise of getting us out of our savage, counterproductive Middle East wars. The generals got to him. They always get to them. (Think they haven’t got to the malignant billionaire, who also once talked of exiting Afghanistan?)
Both the major parties are in thrall to the mad dream of American exceptionalism, which holds that we’re so wonderful and unique that we have a duty to spread our way of life to every corner of the earth, and if any country objects well then by God they’re just a rogue nation and we reserve the right to wipe them out. Both the parties love our young men and women in uniform who march forth from out shores to defend our freedoms in the farthest reaches of the American empire, they adore the obscenity of hundreds of billions of dollars spent on weapons of war to be used abroad while at home our roads crumble and our bridges fall down and our citizens poison themselves with opioids because their lives are so miserable, they revel in the way foreigners kowtow to them on their overseas trips since they represent the country with the guns and the loot.
Democrats are as ardent in their support of capitalism as Republicans are. They just believe in smoothing out some of its rough edges: no children in coal mines and that sort of icky thing. Capitalism is as much an ideology as it is an economic system. Its central tenant is that if everybody is allowed to pursue his or her own selfish interests without the government getting in the way, then somehow, in some magical fashion, the best of all possible worlds will be realized. It sounds like nonsense, and it is. You can look around you and see that.
A handful of billionaires control most of the wealth of the world while 70% of its people live on less than 10 bucks a day and the world itself, the real, the natural world, the only world we’ve ever had or ever will have, is swiftly being destroyed. The Democrats talk a good game on things like climate change, but theirs is a delusional have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach. Sure we’re going to have to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy but that’s a good thing! Jobs will be created! The economy won’t miss a beat! They don’t realize that it’s the economy, it’s their beloved free markets, it’s capitalism itself that is the problem. Unless we jam on the brakes and bring a screeching halt to so-called “growth” or “development,” Homo sapiens (and countless other species) are finished on this earth.
We see only the trees, not the forest in which we’re wandering lost. Our leaders cannot help us. Though blind and deaf to the reality of things, unfortunately they’re not also mute. They babble untruths incessantly in their speeches and interviews and memoirs and tweets, they scream at us to follow them, but we’re already drifting away. We know there are no shortcuts, that the only way out is through. Among the shadows, we discern glimmers of meaning. We are struggling to see. There is a vision being born. It has to do with compassion for one another, with respect and reverence for all forms of life, with humility and not arrogance and modesty and not pride, with seeing ourselves as a part of life on this wondrous earth and not as superior beings apart from it. This vision is as necessary to us now as oxygen or food, for as it says in the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”