Saturday, February 24, 2007

Eric the Electrician

I've mentioned Eric, the apprentice electrician with the feisty little dog and the super-athletic lifestyle. He also has an easy smile that I like. I once convinced him to try my home hapkido class, but he only came once.

This morning I had to tell him to leave my home and not to come back, and I'm feeling bad about it.

About two months ago, shortly after Eric (as part of Adam Brunner's crew) had worked on the electrical system in our home, he came by the house one day and asked if he could borrow ten dollars. He would pay it back Sunday, he said. I said sure, no problem.

Sunday came and went and no sign of Eric. I know that it's hard for some of these folks. Salaries here are very low, and it's difficult to make ends meet. Eric is married and has a small boy, and I realized he might not be able to pay back the ten dollars. I called him and said, "If you want to come work it off I have some small jobs for you to do."

So Eric came over to the house the next day. I had him repair my bicycle, re-pave a portion of the yard walkway that had been torn up during the electrical installation, and other odd jobs. He didn't quite work a full day, but I ran out of things for him to do and I told him we were even.

About a week later he showed up in the evening, 7pm or so. He said that his son was sick and needed to be taken to the hospital in San Carlos, and could he borrow another $10, that he would pay back on Tuesday. I loaned him the $10. Honestly I did not mind.

Again, the day of repayment came and went. This time I didn't call him. I decided to leave it up to him, and if he didn't appear or repay me, then that would be the tell. After a few more days had gone by, he showed up at the house in the morning. He had many tragic stories to tell.

Eric said that he had been struck by a car on the main road and had spent three days in the hospital. Furthermore, his little dog Clifford had been kidnapped by someone who snatched him up along the main road and spirited him away in a bus.

I told him I was very sorry about his dog, and if he was feeling better I had more jobs for him to do to pay off his debt. This time Laura and I had a list ready. We had him repair the washing machine (Eric said it's on its last legs and needs many new parts), check and replace all the faulty light bulbs on the outside of the house, install a light bulb in a decorative gourd that Laura bought at a shop on the highway, work on a few burned-out lights inside the house, and look at the shorted-out mini fridge. At one point he needed to go to the hardware store for a few parts and I told him to take my bike. Eric said, "Could I take your car? My arms are still weak from the accident." I said yes, even though the last time I let him use the car he took much longer than he should have for a simple errand.

Making a Choice to Trust

At this point some of you may be thinking that I'm a pushover and a chump. Maybe you're right, maybe not. When it comes to major decisions in life, such as important financial decisions or anything affecting the safety of my family, I research everything carefully and I proceed with caution. In my personal life, however, I make a conscious decision to trust people until they give me a clear reason not to. Occasionally I get burned in small ways, but I continue to make this choice because I don't want to live a life steeped in suspicion, paranoia, mistrust and selfishness.

Wealth and poverty are only tests from God. I could just as easily have been born in utter destitution. I could have been a starving baby in Ethiopia, a Calculatta slum dweller, or a poor Vallero (as we call the residents of El Valle). I was not given wealth because of any virtue of character, nor because of any virtue of my parents. It's not because I deserve it. It's not because I am better in any way than Eric, Rosa, Listo or Ani. If I allow myself to believe that my comparative wealth makes me superior in some way, then I have deluded myself badly and I have failed my test. I think many of the Americans here believe that it's right and proper that they should be richer than the Panamanians, and that in some way it proves their superiority. This disgusts me.

In Islam, wealth is not even considered a great blessing, but merely a responsibilty and a trust. Everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to God. Everything from which our wealth springs - rich soil on the earth, green trees or crops reaching for the sky and the yellow sunlight that falls on them, rain, oil in the earth, gold, iron, copper and the silicon from which we make our computer processors - did we make any of these things? Even our own faculties of thought and physical movement - the moment by moment beating of our hearts - comes from God. He entrusts it to us and says, what will you do with it? Will you be generous and kind, or will you merely buy yourself more toys? Will you use it to change the world around you, even if only in a small way, or will you just buy yourself an SUV and a bigger TV?

So I make a choice to be generous and to trust, because nothing I have truly belongs to me. Sometimes my faith in people is vindicated, sometimes not.

Back to the Story

Eric checked the kitchen celing lamp that has not worked for a long time. He said the circular bulb is burned out and we would have to buy a new one in Panama, as they cannot be found around here. As for the mini-fridge, some of the components had been melted by voltage surges. Eric said that he could fix it, but I would have to go to Penonome to replace the parts. We bagged the various parts, and I informed Eric that I was out of cash at the moment (which was true) but I would call him after I had gone to Penonome and replaced the parts.

Eric asked if I could help him with his $60 hospital bill. He showed me a bill, and a prescription that he said he could not afford to fill. I told him honestly that I had very little money and could not help. He said, "Can't you give me just ten dollars?" I said no, I'm sorry, I cannot.

Several days later I received a substantial check for some online work I had done, and my cash flow problem was solved. Still, I did not call Eric.

Thursday night Laura and I were sitting in the living room watching "Chicago," the musical, on DVD. It was late, perhaps 9pm or so. Salma was fast asleep. Our front gate was closed, but not locked. We rarely lock it these days. Suddenly I heard my name shouted from the darkness at the front of the house. "Wael!"

Laura was alarmed but I recognized Eric's voice and I told her don't worry, I'll go talk to him. I went outside and found Eric standing in the carport. He said, "How are you!"

"What's up?" I asked him.

"How are you!" he repeated again. He was swaying slightly from side to side and his eyes were red. I realized he was drunk.

"I'm fine," I said. "What do you want?"

"I'm going to Penonome tomorrow," Eric said. "Give me the parts and I'll buy the new ones for you."

I gave Eric the bagged parts, and a ten dollar bill. "Is this enough to pay for the parts?" I asked.

Eric peered at the bill. "Yes, I guess so. Do you want a receipt?"

When I said yes, I do want a receipt (as usual), Eric laughed, as if to say, "How predictable." His laugh had a hard edge to it. This was a side of Eric I had never seen before.

I told him goodbye and went in the house. Laura and I sat down to resume our movie watching, when I heard Eric call me again. I went outside. Eric said, "Can you give me another $10 for the work?" He wanted to be paid in advance. It was clear now that this was a problem that had to be dealt with, but I did not feel this was the right time. I took the $10 from him, went in the house and got a $20, and gave it to Eric. He studied it in the gloom, then said, "Ok! I'll go to Penonome in the morning, and I'll be here tomorrow afternoon."

Friday afternoon Eric did not show up, but Adam Brunner, Eric's boss, was here with a plumber to fix a leak in our bathroom. I told Adam about the situation with Eric. Adam said, "I fired Eric a while ago. He borrowed money from me and didn't pay it back, he started coming to work late, and he's just generally been acting weird."

This morning (Saturday) I was sound asleep when Laura woke me up at 7:15 am. Eric was here.

Eric opened his backpack and took out the same bag of damaged parts that I had given him. He said that Penonome did not have the parts, but he had called a shop in La Chorrera and they have them. I said, ok. Eric said, "Can you give me some money for my hospital bill?"

"Give me the parts," I told him. He handed them to me. "No more," I said. "You keep the $20 I gave you."

"I don't understand," Eric said.

"No more," I repeated, and Eric cast his eyes downward. "You came here late at night, drunk, asking for money. It's not acceptable. No more, do not come here again." Eric did not look at me while I delivered this verdict. I put out my hand. "But thank you for everything," I said." Eric shook my hand, still without looking at me. I turned my back on him and went in the house. A few minutes later I looked out and he was gone. I walked out to the front gate and locked it.

There's no question that what I did was necessary, and I know that many people would have turned Eric away a long time ago.

Still, I feel bad. I don't know how much of what Eric told me was true, though it's obvious that Clifford the dog (who used to accompany him everywhere) is gone. And I did see the bill and prescription from the hospital after his accident. Regardless of what is true or not, however, I recognize that life is difficult for some of these people. They make very little money and they struggle to get by. How would I behave in Eric's situation? What choices would I make? I cannot answer that, but I feel bad for him, and I wish him well.

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