Halloween on Via Veneto

by Eric Jackson

Among the other functions that the neighborhood performs, Via Veneto is more or less the main tourist drag in Panama City. Given the society's grinding poverty, that identification with tourism is making the street ever crazier. Pimps, streetwalkers, panhandlers and vendors seek to eke out a living on the sidewalk, and by doing so leave their mark on the area. The occasional juvenile street gang or band of casino robbers intrudes to put the Tourism Police to the test.

It's usually safe, but sometimes annoying. This reporter, having seen what the different levels of government have tried to do in other touristy areas, figures that some greater degree of order will have to be imposed but fears a dull witted and heavy handed government approach that would detract from rather than add to the neighborhood's quality.

Halloween is not your typical evening on Via Veneto. Any solutions to the neighborhood's chronic problems need to be based on more ordinary nights. But this is the tale of Halloween 2006 on Via Veneto, which turned out to be a mix of the usual and the unexpected.

I started the evening at The Terrace, a bar and restaurant that was more in the former mode, with lots of single gringo guys and a nearly equal batch of panameñas most likely attracted to the place for that very reason. (If you come at an earlier hour for burgers or chicken wings or on chili night the clientele will be quite different, even if the music will be unmistakably American-oriented at both times.) My interest was not the pickup scene, nor really to socialize. I did want to talk to someone there about the new radio show and the music I'm playing, and then over a Heineken I became one of the few people paying attention to the Chelsea - Barcelona soccer game playing on the screen. (The team from England came from behind to tie a match distinguished by an unusual number of yellow cards on either side.)

After that I headed down the hill and put in a little time before the computer screen in an Internet cafe, and then partook of some of the sights of a scene shaping across the street at the Veneto hotel and casino across the street.

This was Halloween, and the drag queens were out in force, some of them in white wedding dresses, for an event at the hotel.

Gay people do these sorts of Halloween events in the USA, too, but the ambience tends to be different. There the female impersonations tend to aim at exuding beauty, tact and charm. Here the drag queens appear to be under the influence of Carnival rites wherein the queens of Calle Arriba and Calle Abajo organizations  traditionally go at one another with highly stylized insults.

I hadn't been invited to the party upstairs and didn't go to cover it as such. But I was curious and hung around for a bit of people watching.

There were all manner of hustlers working the crowd in the hotel and casino that night, and several uniformed cops but insufficient bouncers to deal with them.

As in the guy going around looking for drunks at the slot machines, asking if he could put his card in the tragamonedas they were playing.

As in a pimp who asked me to translate his $50 for a night of sex with a special Colombian lady pitch into English for an American tourist.

As in the guy who said that he's an American who had come across the border from Costa Rica and been immediately robbed of his possessions and passport, only to find the US Embassy unhelpful and to be thrown out of the hotel and in desperate need of a helping hand. (After the third time I told him that I had heard this story before, he got the hint and sought another mark.)

As some of the drag queens and friends were leaving the hotel I also left and flagged down a cab, whose driver agreed to take me to Perejil. But just before the El Carmen church, he turned right instead of making his way directly up Via España. I asked why and he said he was taking another way. But he didn't turn by the university, and went past an open gas station so a fill-up wasn't the reason and I became alarmed. When he made his way across the roundabout where the Transistmica overpasses Tumba Muerto and instead of heading up the Transistmica toward Perejil started heading into the neighborhood behind Colegio Artes y Oficios, luck had it that another car caused him to hit the brakes, and I took that opportunity to bail out of the cab.

Maybe I was misinterpreting things, but I think I had a very good idea of how the cabbie intended for the script to this scene to end. When he called me a "maricon" that reinforced my estimate. I can't read minds, but it sure seemed to me that this was a would-be predator looking to grab a queer on Halloween and drive to a place where confederates would be laying in wait for the robbery.

(It would be a variation on a crime that has been happening quite a bit lately. I know someone who got robbed when the cabbie took her off the beaten path and cruised slowly down a dangerous street in Curundu for an encounter with thieves. Police report a rash of such incidents.)

However, I wasn't what the driver thought he was dealing with. I emphasized the point with a side thrust kick to the side of his cab, grabbed my keys in such a way that a punch in the eye would hold the prospect of permanent blindness, and hoped to God that he had no gun. It gave him just enough of a pause to allow me to dart to the Transistmica and across, in such a way that it would be impractical for him to pursue me in his car.

Over the past nearly 13 years in Panama, I have been robbed twice on the streets --- once by a pair of armed guys in Colon and once by a lone pickpocket near the Don Bosco church on Avenida Central --- and on one other occasion I have had to bail from a cab whose driver insisted on taking me past my neighborhood despite my insistent pleas that he let me off. (I actually paid that other guy, throwing the correct fare on the seat as I jumped out of the slowly moving vehicle, as he did get me within a few blocks of where I asked him to take me.)

Neither an exploding bus in the news nor a personal encounter with a rogue taxi driver will keep me from using public transportation in this country. I am not about to allow maleantes or hustlers to run me off the streets.

However, the things I encountered on Via Veneto on Halloween present public policy issues about which decisions ought to be made. The problems are notorious and pretending that they don't exist so as to avoid publicity that might drive some visitors away just won't work.

Is this area to be accepted as a red light district with all of the attractions and repulsions inherent in that? How many panhandlers and people with phony sob stories per square meter would it take to drive the tourists away from Panama? Are private bouncers on private premises a large part of the answer to what's going on, and if so how are the public authorities going to relate to the issues that this system tends to raise?

The incident in the cab is something worse. Here we had a guy who was up to no good, apparently choosing a victim by perceptions of sexual orientation or nationality.

We have the Tourism Police, who were especially created to deal with criminals who pick foreign tourists as their victims. They generally do a good job. In conjunction with other branches of the police, they might do well to launch a sting operation aimed at the identification and suppression of the tiny number of cabbies who participate in the robbery of foreigners.

The matter of hate crimes against homosexuals or those who are perceived to be such is different in form and magnitude. Maybe the best way to address this problem would be to as quietly as possible have extra cops in the area when the gay community gathers on Halloween, including some in diguises calculated to draw the haters out into the open. That, of course, presupposes a better relationship between the government and gay people than currently exists.



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