It’s just before 3 a.m., and I had been drinking steadily for two days when I find myself in front of a hotel off of the Plaza Herrera. The Spanish used to hold bullfights in this same plaza, but now tourists pose for photos in front of the fountain and pet stray dogs where bulls were once slain. A security guard opens the door of the hotel for me and I approach the man working behind the front desk. He’s polite, wears a mint green guayabera and possibly a name tag that reads “Nelson” but I can’t say for sure. I’m not wearing my glasses.
I ask Nelson for a room service menu and a bottle of water. He hands me both in sequence. I flip open the menu, but, of course, I’m still not wearing my glasses so there’s really no point. Besides, I know what I want.
“I’ll have the ceviche as well as an omelet with brie and bacon. And a coffee. Better make it an Irish coffee.”
As I start to head to the elevator, Nelson, as I’ve come to know him, breaks the news to me in this order. Neither ceviche nor omelets are on the room service menu. Secondly, the kitchen has closed for the night. And lastly, and he says this in a whisper, “I wouldn’t be able to deliver room service to you even if the kitchen was open because you’re not staying at this hotel, sir.”
“Nelson, that is a goddamn shame! But I appreciate your honesty. Por favor, me puede llamar un taxi.”
I step outside and into a late eighties Japanese car with slick gray seats and Pitbull rattling the car speakers. I ask my gentleman driver to take me to my hotel, which I’m more easily able to identify by showing him my room keycard.
We bump along the cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo where drivers honk to merge lanes, scare dogs and alert boozy tourists. As far as I can tell, the honking doesn’t really work. As we’re pulling up to my hotel, I remember I’m hungry and I ask to be re-routed to any place that might be serving pizza within the city limits.
I’m told such a place does not exist.
I call my gentleman driver a liar and a traitor and a drunk. I demand to be taken to the finest pizza dispensary in all of Panama City. “Money is no object,” I say thumbing through the twenty-three bucks I’ve got in the front pocket of my shirt.
I’m dropped off in front of Pio Pio, which is offensive not only because it’s a fried chicken place of the Popeyes grade, but it’s also located in El Chorrillo. And El Chorrillo is like the Mogadishu of Panama City. It was invaded by the US Army in 1989 and today it’s run by Mara Salvatruchas working the track between Mexico and Colombia. So yeah, I’m scared shitless, but I’m also incredibly hungry.
I step inside and I can’t decide if I’m more or less scared by the fact that I can see everything and everyone around me. I examine the menu and I’m cut in line several times by what seems to me, after two days of drinking cold red wine and rum, the same two teenage Panamanians. It appears they both have the Last Supper shaved into the back of their heads and they keep cutting me, ordering, then switching shirts and doing it all over again. It’s my understanding that they are both hungry and impatient and indecisive.
By the time I fight my way to the register, I’ve broken a sweat (which isn’t remarkable given how fucking hot Panama is at all hours) and the girl wearing a neon visor does not seem impressed with me. Still, I do my best to try to order chicken tenders in Spanish. Tragically, “tenders” isn’t a cognate and pretty soon we’re talking about chicken and breasts, which are tender, and for a second there her face lights up and I think we’re transcending the language barrier. But then she pulls out a flyer for a topless bar. She tells me “Elite II” isn’t the only place to find breasts in the city, but theirs are the tenderest.
I leave with a fountain lemonade, an empty stomach and a flyer that promises “Entrada Libre.” I saunter out into the street where I’m approached by an older man wearing a LA Sparks t-shirt who says, “Coke, weed, perrico, mota, coke, weed.”
“Where were you a few hours ago, hombre?” I say resting my weary hand on his shoulder. “Hey, any idea if I can walk to that canal that’s so famous from here? I’d like to get there before all the tourists.”
He points to the rising sun. “It’s like a two hour walk.”
“Gracias, compa.” I take a deep breath, then trudge toward another feat of engineering built by imported slaves and underpaid immigrants, fully ready to assume the role of an American abroad.