Rising from my table, I walked to the counter that ran the breadth of the restaurant, preferring to sit on one of the stools rather than take up a whole eating space. It also gave me a view of the kitchen where I enjoyed witnessing the collaboration and chaos of food preparation; the yelps and panicky demands of those charged with getting the orders out- a closer contact with the angels who were coming and going with trays of food piled high, prancing like carousel horses. I ordered another café con leche.
I liked the café crowd. They didn’t bother you but there was a civil embrace about the whole place. It was made up of tribes that seemed to thrive on each other’s presence. I swung my stool around, holding my coffee steady unless it spill, and gazed. Next to the entrance door were the street intellectuals: old men, newspapers littering their table. The middle table, actually two pulled together, was the morning rendezvous spot for a group of smallish shop keepers: material traders, haberdashery purveyors, odds and enders, the type that survives partisan bigotry, even pogroms, and endures. Sometimes an urchin would rush in demanding a glass of water. Without hesitation, they would always be given one. Hawkers moved carefully between the closely positioned tables offering razor blades, nail clippers, lottery tickets, all manner of cheap wares. They never overstepped their welcome. Police made the café their second home; smart, unthreatening in their skin-tight uniforms, pistols firmly holstered. The lawyers huddled in their own group, ready to take up the case of the next man in the street. This was their office, where the meetings were held, the documents examined. They were the last defence against and guide through the maze of Panama’s judicial bureaucracy for the very moderately incomed.
One of the lawyers came over and wrapped a hand around my waist. ‘You, ok?’ he asked. We were friends… close. Jaime was not experienced in his trade. He had started late in the legal game, first studying economics, before knocking about on the wild side- losing a wife and building up a strong tolerance for whisky and cocaine along the way. He had a thirteen-year-old daughter whom he adored and was, as well as a legal eagle, chief trouble-shooter, gofer, for Panu, the Greek owner of Coca Cola. He was alright now.
‘Manager,’ he added smiling. His darkish indigenous features etched on a broad face: cheek bones strong, nose wide, damp, dark-eyes bright. Today he wore his blood red button-down cotton shirt with a glossy black tie. His suits, always incongruously dark for the tropics, were economical and way too big, hanging like a heavily woven kimono. A fight manager I thought, sounded good, but I wasn’t kidding myself. Really, I didn’t know the first things about it. When Jamie was called away, his short sturdy frame acrobatically pirouetting between the dinners, I began wondering why I had got myself into it in the first place.