A guest post by Eduardo O’Shee
In a slow Sunday morning, very early, Adolfo was shuffling around the gringo bars near the plaza de Armas, looking, as he always did, for someone to buy him a cup of coffee or to get an improbable odd job at a bar. He was fifteen years old, skinny and, for local standards, tall.
This was his third lap and he had not yet got anything; that’s why when he spotted Billy having breakfast at the Gringo Bar, he smiled and hurried. He liked chatting with Billy, because, besides buying him a coffee, he always listened kindly his most horrible stories, most of them involving his own family, without laughing or making bad jokes. As for Billy, he liked the boy because he found him gentle and, at least apparently, honest.
“You look very elegant today, Adolfo”, said Billy, smiling friendly, “Have a party or something?” That morning Adolfo wore an immaculate white shirt and black britches. ”No, señor. I have to assist to the service at my church.”, said the boy. Billy had noticed, from twenty yards away, that the boy was poorly shod; his tennis shoes looked frayed and worn out, unmatching with the clothes.
Billy was one of the very few expats who wore genuine cowhide boots, black and side zippered, always shining like a bakelite telephone. But he only wore it on Sundays; leather boots get spoiled very quickly in the Amazon because the climate is extremely humid.
Anyway, one of the most coveted things by everybody in town in those days was a good pair of leather shoes, instead of the plastic ones, which were cheaper but hard as wooden clogs. Besides, leather shoes were very expensive, like anything else, so very few could afford it.
Billy thought he could give his cowhide ones to Adolfo and then buy a pair made from alligator skin for himself, the pointed ones. After all, the entire basin was full of all kinds of reptiles, so it was highly probable to find it somewhere along the calle de los Zapateros.
He gave his boots to the boy next day. Adolfo looked immensely happy but when he tried the boots on they didn’t fit. They were a little too big for his feet. Billy stuck two paper balls into each one and then they fit it well.
On Monday, Billy walked down the calle de los Zapateros, close to the Belén’s market, where many shoemakers work in the shady sidewalk, one next to the other with their big, black and sulky machines, but when he asked about alligator skin boots they all flipped jumpy. He had spent enough time in this burgo, to realize that there was almost certainly something weird about it so he asked one of his buddies where exactly should he go.
The shop was big and dark, old but not precarious. The air inside was fresh and he glimpsed through the steamed up glass in the counters a variety of scattered little shoes, covered in dust, which looked like remnants dug out from children’s graves. American housemaids from the Ike’s era smiled at him from old posters on the walls, proudly showing their flared skirts, polkas and high heeled shoes. ”I’m a good friend of Micky Tang, the guy who works at the Mei Ling’s. He told me you’d probably have what I want”, said Billy to the salesman, presumably the shopkeeper who showed up from behind a bead curtain. ”I’d like, if the price is right, a pair of alligator skin boots, Texan type”, he added.
The man, who was short and chubby, with a mouthbrow moustache and was wearing a grey unbottoned shirt, stopped scractching his belly, smiled back and warned Billy, reciting in a monotone voice, that “the making of garment, footwear or any kind of products using skins or furs from endangered species in Peru is illegal.” It sounded like a Miranda Rights speech. He also told Billy that a couple of days ago, the recently founded Policía Ecológica had closed down a clandestine tannery right across the street. “They were tanning skins and that’s illegal too, you see?”
Anyway, once he had completed his routine about the legal implications of what we could call “clandestine footwear”, he began to explain, more cheerfully, the technical details which seemed to be more complicated than the legal ones.
In the particular case of the making of boots,” he said, “it´s more difficult to work with alligator or snake skins than cowhide. If you get a snake skin you have to wet it first, before putting it in the mould and only then you can shape the boot, so to say. And the alligator is even more difficult because there are no machines to tan it in Iquitos. Even in Lima is hard to get the right place.”
But he had the right connections there. ”With proper equipment you´ll get a skin as soft as silk.” In short, although he could make it, that would be a real hard job. “Honest guy,” thought Billy, who would have otherwise asked for a pair right there.
However, the man recommended the snake skin boots, because ophidians are better adapted to the local climate than cows. “Those come in different colors, depending on the kind of snake I use. The boa ones are burgundy. Some others, like the mantona or shushupi skins are beige or brown. If you prefer the alligator’s, I should travel by plane to Lima to tan it, but first, obviously, I´d have to get the right piece. You need to kill a piece of, at least, ten feet because the only usable parts of the animal are the… what’s the word?… armpits and the shoulders. What about the rest? They throw it to the dogs. Then I hide the skins in my baggage because it smells exactly like paiche, just in case some official at the airport asks about. Though the capture and transportation of paiche is illegal too, the officers are more, let’s say, benevolent if they catch you carrying a paiche in your luggage.”
He insisted, in a professorial tone, that it would be better to make it from snake skin, because even in Lima to tan alligator skin is “fortuitous.”
He showed Billy a dusty catalog from the mid sixties, full of photos showing different models and designs. While he was leafing through the catalog, the man said: “You know who are my best clients? DEA’s boys. They buy, let’s say, half a dozen pairs, pay one hundred dollars for each pair and sell it in the US for one thousand dollars.”
The lecture had impressed Billy, but he seemed to be hesitant. He thought that the whole thing was a little bit too complicated. Besides, if the customs officers would confiscate the smelling boots in the airport, he wasn´t ready yet to fly back home barefoot. The owner asked:
“What about a sajino leather baseball catcher’s glove? Those are very expensive in the States too. Exclusive item,” asked the man.
“Hum, I dunno. Listen, what do you know about, let’s say, unusual underwear? You know what I mean? How much would it cost a leopard’s skin small brassiere and thong twinset?”
“Wow, that’s hot! What size? One hundred dollars, and if that’s OK to you, I’ll give you for free a monkey’s teeth ankle bracelet. Very sexy combination, isn´t it?”
“Very well, señor, it sounds like a good deal to me. I’ll bring you the measures tomorrow. By the way, the lady doesn’t want anything smelly, OK?”
“Of course, señor. Don’t worry, otorongos are very clean.”
A guest post by Eduardo O’Shee
Bill Grimes here, reporting from Iquitos Peru. I was right Eduardo O’shee does have more stories to tell. If you liked this one, be sure to click this link to; Friend and Brother