José Parque's Predicament
My downstairs neighbor José Parque drives a turquoise 1997 Lincoln with a license plate that says "Korean Veteran" in bold lettering. The car is his pride and joy. Though there is unassigned street parking on Gallagher St. where we live, anyone who parks in front of his apartment in his spot “will have hell to pay, and they know it, too. I don't like to walk too far at my age and I don't like parking under that damn tree up ahead, because that's where the birds like to go to make a deposit at the bank right on your windshield.” When it’s nice enough outside, José spends hours on end seated on a round pillow, legs splayed, scrubbing his car's rims with a scouring brush and old cloth, squeezing the grime into a mop bucket. He says he doesn’t trust the people at the car wash down the block to get the job done, and it is true that his car seems to reflect more light than most when he ambles down the block, windows down, blasting the local news station as loudly as the rowdiest high schoolers play hip hop and electronic music.
Early one spring evening, José had just finished his daily siesta — which he takes every day from two-thirty to five — when he came outside and noticed that his car wasn’t where he’d parked it. He stood on his porch and assessed the situation cooly. “I thought, okay, José, are you sure you parked the car there?, maybe some hooligan took your spot and you parked around the corner; but no, I was sure as Christmas, that's where I left it.” He moved to the sidewalk and scratched his head for a minute until a bunch of fourth graders ran up to him and said, “Doctor, Doctor, they took your car, I saw them.” “Who took it?” he asked. “I dunno. One of those big car machines that drags cars behind like a dragon's tail.”
José went inside and called the head of transportation for Hamtramck City and told him what had happened. The man ran his license plate and told him that no car with that plate had any matches in the system, that none of his people had any cause to tow his Lincoln. Next he called the police department, gave his license number, and told the officer, “You make sure you check every tow yard and junkyard in this whole city and the whole state over while you’re at it.”
A day passed, and there was no word from the department of transportation or the police. He was pretty sure at this point that his car was stolen by a bunch of shadowy characters he'd noticed stalking the block. He sent me a text that night that said, “Keep a heads up for two guys in a black Jimmy or blazer with a really loud engine bad muffler. I've seem them around and in front of our houses and across the street doing nothing but just sitting in the car. You know I've had my car stolen. Be careful. José.”
José is a crocodile-like 79-year-old. The cartilage in either of his knees is long gone, his skin looks like the bark of an old oak tree, and his general shape is that of a once erect and sturdy figure beginning, finally, to sag. He has a handsome shaved face, a full head of black hair, and distractingly pink lips, and it easy to tell that he was once a very good looking man. He does his own shopping, cooking, and cleaning. He has an old man’s penchant for haranguing about time past. More than a penchant, actually; he’ll ask you a question then immediately answer it for you in essay form. His words have the quality of an acid-fueled lecture, and, like hugs from sentimental mothers, you usually have find some way to wriggle away if you want them to end.
There is a sort of surly charm to José. Although he is loud and lewd, he is warm and respectable. He is doggedly loyal and is the type to drop everything in a heartbeat if anyone he knows needs help. Parents on the block have no qualms about their kids spending hours with him on his porch, and a Yemeni coffee shop owner comes to Jose’s apartment at least once a month, in earnest, for business advice and general counsel.
He came to this country more than fifty years ago from Costa Rica, where most of his extant family still lives, and he is as full of life as anyone you are liable to find in Hamtramck, Michigan, where he has lived on and off since his time in the armed services. He is proudly aware of his sustained wit. “I’ve got a mind so sharp even at my age you drop a silk cloth on it and I’ll split it right in half, just like a Ko-Rea man’s carving knife. Ew boy!”
You can hear José’s laugh from down the block. It’s a cartoon character’s laugh; he holds his gathering paunch and issues a recurring, phlegmy, pronounced “He he he.” More often than not, he is laughing at something that he himself has just said. The neighborhood kids call him Doctor. When it’s sunny, he sits on his porch steps all day — wearing a top hat, slacks, and any of his array of half-buttoned Havana shirts – and calls out to anyone who walks past. He seems to know everyone in the neighborhood by name, and they know him too.
Kids stop their bikes in front of his porch to listen to his reprimands about the importance of their schoolwork. If adults stop, he gives them the firmest of handshakes and says things like, “You being a scoundrel again and turning that half hour lunch into an hour, I can see it in your eyes. The bigger the eyes, the more guilty the culprit. He he he. Don’t worry, I won’t tell, because I'm the same way. I’ll teach you how to be a scoundrel. In the military, I was a captain. I had my boys in tip top shape. I was dirty, you see. Never eased up on ‘em, no mustaches, no hippie hair, no sleeping in — none of that. But, every now and then, I’d show them how to have a good time, you understand. Drink ‘em under the table at night and the Ko-Rean hookers … then in the morning I was on them again. I was like a mosquito's teeter, real dirty, but you rarely see me, but you know that I’m there, waiting for you on a summer’s night, dripping blood.”
After his car went missing, José spent the next two days on his porch, his shirt unbuttoned, slacks rolled up to his knee, and with the groans of a tennis game bellowing out of his TV onto the street, he interrogated all passersby about the whereabouts of his Lincoln. “I looked ‘em right in their eyes, you see, every single one of ‘em, but they were all innocent so I let ‘em pass.”
Two nights later, when there was still no word about his Lincoln, José invited me downstairs into his kitchen and he boiled us some chai. He told me that I better learn how to protect myself if I’m going to stay in a dangerous city like this. Unsolicited, he showed me his pocket knife. He told me, “You see, where I come from, you got two police, you got the do-nothing police, and the tourist police. The tourist police will shoot your brains out if you just look the wrong way at an Americano. He he he. If you spit in their radius. Ew boy! So I’m tough. And when I was in the Navy, I used to tell them, ‘you may think you're tough with that big gun of yours, but you lock yourself in this room with me and turn the lights off and we'll see what's what.' I told ‘em, 'I'll peel you like an apple.’ He he he. Peel you like an apple. Ew boy!” José drew symbols with the knife on the tablecloth, a series of X's and O’s he used to emphasize his points.
He gave me a grim handshake on my way out and told me to sleep with one eye open and the other eye on my enemy.
After three more days of holding court on his porch, José got a call from a lady in the police department. Her voice was meek and apologetic. She told him that there was some kind of mix up, that someone had typed a '5' where there was supposed to be an 'S', and that his car had been accidentally towed as an abandoned vehicle to a lot in Northwest Detroit. José doesn't tend to hold gripes. “No problemo. That was good news, see. Now, I told her, ‘Just send me a taxi cab to my address, and have him take me to the tow yard so I can pick it up.’” But the policewoman said that wasn't going to be possible, that he'd have to find his own way. José then asked for the name of the supervising officer and the name of the employee who had made the error, and the lady pleaded with him not to tell any higher-ups because this would get the employee in trouble, and maybe even fired. José asked again, and the lady said that she was sorry but there was nothing else she could do, and she hung up the phone.
José is not a man who takes shit. He was a captain for four years in the Korean War, he's served in the national guard in both Indiana and Michigan, he has a PHD and two master's degrees in business administration, economics, and community development, respectively, and he’s taught courses in the social sciences on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. His resumé is four pages long. Currently he works part-time as a “trust developer” and “property manager” in Detroit to supplement the money he gets from his pension and Social Security. For most of his business, he goes by Joseph Parker, an Americanized name he's used over the years. He carries in his wallet business cards that list his extensive credentials in tiny font and show a picture of a desktop computer in the top left corner, and he passes out these cards seemingly haphazardly, to waiters, children, taxi drivers, and local drunks.
On my way out the door one afternoon a few months ago, José grabbed me tightly by the shoulder and stared at me intently. He handed me a business card and said, “People used to ask me when I went into interviews, 'Mr. Parker, what have you been doing the last ten years?' I tell them, 'I been defending your country, that's what.' He he he. I tell them, 'I'm the man for your job and I'll take a pay raise too, because I'm qualified, I'm over qualified, and I'm smart enough, and I'm mean enough to be a boss. I've lead a battalion of men into a firefight and I'll guarantee you I can walk you right into a boardroom and get what I want, when I want it, and then some. Now how do you like that? And I'll tell you another thing. I don't do more than one interview. If you want me, hire me, if not I got better things to do.' And people in the company said, 'Hire that Parker felluh. He says what he means and he means what he says.'”
Needless to say, José did not take kindly to the police holding his Lincoln hostage. He called our neighbor Ralph and asked him to drive him to the tow yard across town, and he called the lady back and said that he found his own ride to the tow yard, and that his car better be there waiting. When they got there a half hour later, his car was out front, and he got to negotiating.
Eventually, the employee waived the towing fee, forked over a twenty-dollar bill for Ralph’s trouble, gave José the keys to the Lincoln, and told him to get lost. José drove home and parked in his reserved spot.
Two weeks later the Lincoln began to sag, the engine began rattling and gusts of soot shot out from the tailpipe. Soon, he couldn't get the car to start. He called his friend at the local mechanic shop to take a look, and he told José he needed a new engine. “I like the car, but that would cost me more than the damn thing’s worth. So I told him look, why don’t I just sell it to you. He wanted two hundred and I said five, then he said three, and I told him give me five because I told him, ‘Whenever I bought a part I came into your shop and gave you the damn business.’” The man paid him five hundred dollars.
José still needed a car, so he began calling around to his numerous lady friends who frequent his apartment at all hours of the night, inquiring about their automotive situation. Jose’s had two wives, one divorced, one deceased, and he is actively pursuing a third. It has to be said that José has a more active love life than most people I know. He is not shy about this fact. He recently told me, “When I was younger, the girls I was with were nurses, artists, psychologists. They weren't all the smartest. Some had what you call a six-cylinder brain, and I had an eight-cylinder brain, he he he, but they were all beautiful. But now that I’m up near eighty, the girls are starting to ask better questions. How many more years do you really have? What’s your life insurance looking like? How much is your pension? He he he.”
But José is shrewd about his relationships as well. An hour after he sold his busted Lincoln, he got in touch with a brunette about fifty years his junior who often comes over and hangs out with José on his porch. She had an old red Dodge Dart with sixty-two thousand miles on it and a turquoise, floral interior. “I told her, 'I'll give you twenty-five hundred for the car. I'll give you five hundred up front and I'll give you the other two thousand when I give it to you and no sooner.' She was strapped for cash so she keeled over like a flower in hell and drove it right over to me.”
José can be seen most afternoons admiring his new Dodge from his porch. At least once a week, he washes and waxes it. He likes to ask passersby to take a look and to tell him if they think they could see themselves so clearly in the reflection of the tire’s rims if he went to the car wash up the street.
“Do I miss the old Lincoln? Sure I do,” Jose said, straddling his new car’s back right tire early one morning, shielding his eyes from the widening sun. “But what are you gonna do? I've had a long life, a happy life. The doctor’s had his share of good times, more than his share, he he he, and I'm not gonna let them ruin my time. I'm almost 80 years old and I'm still kicking, and this Dodge’s not the Lincoln, but it drives me just fine from A to B, and the ladies, they’ll just have to get used to it.”
//Mark Jay is a co-founder of The Periphery.