Joshua Woroniecki

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Joshua Woroniecki Walking With Guillermo On The Street

Guillermo’s Perspective

Downtown Bogota is a mood in itself. The streets are always wet as the misty rain tumbles softly over the mountains. The red brick plazas separate the Colonial Spanish buildings from the streets full of busses with passengers’ faces squished against the windows. The chaotic blend of what once was and what now is creates a landscape that sets the imagination ablaze. It is a writer’s dream, as each passing face tells another story. A story of suffering, warfare, and pain written in the wrinkles under kind eyes and a warm smile. There is a sense of danger on these streets and the smell of adventure lingers on the ever-present clouds. For me it is not just any city, this is my city. This is Bogotá. 

I spent many years in Colombia, but it felt like a lifetime. Being at war for over 5 decades, it was cut off from the rest of the world for quite some time. I felt like I was in a place left in the past… in all the best ways. People were still kind to strangers but didn’t think they were being kind to strangers. Young kids looked you in the eyes and said “yes, sir” and “no, sir” and walked with their moms and grandmas to get groceries hand in hand. Everyone walked everywhere and was late by at least an hour. Taxies were cheap but the conversation was rich. A nice lunch at a restaurant was only a few dollars. The internet didn’t matter to these people, but there were tiny cafés the size of phone booths if you needed it. I didn’t have a cell phone but could pay a quarter to use one from the many people standing on the streets with 50 phones chained to their belts yelling, “llamadas!” as the top of their lungs.

I’m only 31, so I don’t know what the “good ole days” were like. But I got a feeling it was a bit like this. 

There is a central street that seems to cut a straight path through the center of this metropolis with more history than helium balloons being sold on a Sunday afternoon. It is called the “Septima” (Seventh) and once a week it became the “Septimazo” (Seventh with a “azo” added to the end of the word). And it was on this street, many years ago where I met a man who would forever change my life. I never had a grandfather, until I met Guillermo. It’s hard to describe what he is like, the power invoked in his laughter, the sadness carried in his tears, or the way he grabs your hand to know you’re still there and haven’t wandered off. You see, Guillermo is totally blind. You could say he is homeless but that would be inaccurate. Each day he works hard with his own hands and his voice to make enough to pay the rent on a very small closet-sized room. He walks about a mile to the center of this war torn city and sits on the cold cement and plays his guitar and sings for his beloved “public”. He is only about 5’2″ but much larger than life. 

Over the many years I lived in Bogotá I got to know Guillermo more and more. I remember he would often tell me of when his wife died and left him all alone. He would pull me in close and stutter through tears in a tender voice that sounded identical to Winnie the Pooh. He would tell the same story no matter how many times you’ve heard it, and each time brings tears to your eyes for a true love lost.  I remember when he was on a sugar high for his birthday when I took him to a fancy restaurant and he took down an icecream extravaganza that was meant for four. When we came to the winding staircase (we were on the second floor) he told me to hold his walking stick and let go of his hand. He then started laughing like a toddler and literally jumped, both feet together, down each step. He just wanted to show me he could do it and give me a heart attack because he knew he could. 

Where The Dogs Go To Die

One time I was with him on the street and it got much later than it should. I was robbed at knifepoint by a bunch of punks the year before a few blocks from where he played. So I had the honor to walk The Gentleman Of Bogota back to his little house. The streets were golden as the pale light reflected on the wet asphalt. The three blocks of the presidential palace I know we would be safe. Then across the street and down an alie. I notice a stray dog limping alongside us as we walking. The skinny, mangled creature sniffed through the burning trash. As the smoke moved on the wind, I saw there were dozens of strays all searching for their survival.  As we walked, things got worse and worse. Drug addicts screamed loudly down the silent streets. Prostitutes hung in the shadows and boomboxes raged in the passing cars. I noticed another stray barely walking, then laying down, probably for the last time. I thought to myself, “this is where the dogs go to die.”

When I entered his home, where he had lived for many years, I felt the privilege to be in such a place.  A poorly lit tunnel led down an unfinished cement hallway. Little rooms to the left and right. The tenants looked me like I was an alien, but a smile was quickly returned. There was a small opening with a man in a suit bathing from a drip in the wall. Just across was Guillermo’s place. It was about an 8 foot by 8 foot box.

It was completely dark. Guillermo entered and starting moving about his business. He felt ashamed he had a guest and wanted to prepare a place for me to sit. The part that hit me the most? I’ll never forget standing there as he bustled about but never turned on the light. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. This was Guillermo’s world. 

I asked if it the light worked and he quickly apologized and found the switch in an instant. He never needed to turn it on. There in his lot was a small bed with wool blankets. A radio from the 60’s that was on it’s last leg and seemed as if it was trying to still hold on. It crackled and poofed out songs that you could dance to if you spoke Spanish. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, I thought that I was helping an elderly man who was in need. But part of him became part of me. I took him to a medical appointment. In the waiting room, a seat came open and I showed him where to sit. He touched the seat and then just stood next to it. I asked him why and said, “oh I can’t sit in a seat that is still warm from someone else.” And he just stood there until it cooled. I had never thought of it, but to this day I can’t sit in a warm seat now either. 

I learned from this little man another side of life. A side of touch and detail that is often lost on those of us who can see. still laugh when I remember how when I’d bring him lunch on the street. He’d pull the bun off a hamburger, locate any lettuce or tomato or pickle, fling them over his shoulder, and then put the bun back and dig in. And, ladies and gentleman it’s official, You don’t put pineapple on pizza. Even Guillermo knew to pick it off.

I  an ever-present perspective I would carry with me wherever I went.

I’m only 31, so I don’t know what the “good ole days” were like. But I got a feeling it was a bit like this. 

Phillip Caldwell

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