April 1, 2019
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I took more or less 45 minutes, by bus, to get to work. I caught a bus and went up Ave Brasil, a highway that cuts through over 20 neighborhoods in the greater Rio area.
A classmate I had years ago planted a seed in my heart: never sit with your back to the door, nor in places without an emergency exit. This classmate had worked as a negotiator of the anti-kidnapping department of the police for some years. He was a little paranoid because of the job, but he taught me things. Even on the bus, I’d learned not to sit in a place where I could be surrounded.
On that morning, the bus I caught was empty. Out of habit, I sat in the aisle seat. I had just bought a new cell phone on credit. Entertained by my new toy, I was updating apps and trying to understand its new capabilities. But I wasn’t totally disconnected from everything around me.
That was when I sensed the two men that got on the bus. They passed the turnstyle, and paid their fare. Despite having entered together, one sat more toward the front. The other asked to sit beside me, in the corner. The bus left the city center and rode down the highway, cutting through the city.
“Give me that phone there,” he said. I didn’t understand what he had said and asked, “What?”
When we see news about street robberies, we always plan how we’re going to react. I was always in favor of the “give away everything and save your life” strategy. But in real life, I responded, “No way.” I got up and sat in the seat on the other side of the aisle, also on the edge.
It’s worth noting that when he’d gotten on the bus, I’d looked at him. Especially at his waist, where there could have been a gun. I didn’t see extra volume. I don’t know if that had an effect on my unconscious and affected my reaction.
The guy got up and stood at my side. “Give me that, auntie.” Here, the word “auntie” – depending on tone – can be a little offensive. He is either saying something about how old you look, or he’s saying that you are weak and vulnerable.
“I’m not your auntie, I don’t have a bum nephew who robs working people on their way to their jobs.” It was an automatic response. I was speaking in a loud voice so people knew there was a robbery attempt underway on the bus. There were few people on the bus, and some looked back – including the guy who got on with the man who had tried to rob me. No one else.
I looked out the window and realized I was almost at my destination. The guy drew back and neared the door. “This auntie is crazy.”
“Not crazy, everyone saw what you were doing!” He said some more things that I didn’t understand as he drew away.
The trip continued a bit further until I got up to exit. He was the first in the line to get off the bus. We descended at the same bus stop, and he lit off, walking quickly away.
“Here, you can’t do those things. Tell the guys at the drug sale point, and they’ll come get him,” said a woman who got off at the same spot and went down the same road as I did. The Red Command, the biggest and most famous drug trafficking gang in Rio, dominates the area where I went to work that day. According to their code, robberies are prohibited in the areas they rule. They don’t want anyone to attract the attention of police. At the same time, they want to make people feel safe – in spite of other dangers.
I worked all day and I didn’t see the guy again; not that day or on any day after. I resolved not to denounce him to the bosses at the drug sale point. The penalty for robbery in this type of court could vary; sometimes it would just be returning what was stolen but it might be a beating or being shot in the hand. I didn’t want to access the “law of local consequences.”
I slept calmly that night when I got home, with my cell phone in hand.