He wanted to run. He needed to hide, get away from there. Had to stay out of Razor’s sight.
Chess walked as quickly as he dared, making his way through the maze of hallways, past the other people traveling on errands of their own, and around clutter that trailed out from the open doors. Glancing back nervously, he maneuvered around tables and drying laundry, tripped over a child’s toy, and tried not to bump into a couple of women who were carrying a heavy-looking box between them.
Was this what Shelter was like? he wondered dejectedly, his thoughts turning toward his family again. Would they end up some place like this: crowded, dirty… now that he had abandoned them?
One of Razor’s men passed him then, and Chess felt his heartbeat skip. But the guy, obviously on assigned patrol in the building, spared barely an irritated glance at Chess. Yeah, Razor’s men didn’t care what he did, Chess reassured himself. He just needed to stay away from Razor.
After a few hours of wandering, Chess realized that he had not eaten anything yet that day. Did he dare sneak into the cafeteria? he wondered. With stomach growling, he decided to risk it.
Cautiously, he entered the large room of tables, chairs, and steel counters, where he had eaten his first meal upon arriving at Razor’s compound. It had only been a few days, but it seemed like years.
A quick glance around the room told him that it was safe, for now. A member of the kitchen staff handed him a plate of food and, sighing, Chess sat down with it at one of the tables. At a table nearby, Tez and a girl were bent in deep concentration over an old laptop. Tez was the guy who had found Chess out on the road. He seemed to be the person that Razor most relied upon, and he, like all the rest of Razor’s men, seemed to view Chess as a nuisance. Now, Tez looked up at Chess and frowned. “Razor’s looking for you,” he growled.
Ileana, the girl sitting next to Tez -- the one who had distracted Razor on Chess’s first day at the compound -- smiled sympathetically at Chess.
A short while later, Chess was wandering again. This time, he descended a few flights of stairs and found himself in a quieter area that he had not yet explored. The hallways here were silent and bare, and the sound of his footsteps echoed off the concrete walls.
A few yards down the corridor, a woman poked her head out of a doorway and gazed at him curiously. “Well, ain’t you a sight, there, cutie,” she drawled with a smile, hands on her hips. “Never seen you around before.” And then, unexpectedly, she straightened and gave him a mock salute.
Chess stopped and looked at the woman in surprise. Middle-aged and a bit plump, she did not seem threatening, and she was one of very few people here who had even spoken to him. He smiled.
“I got some clothes that would fit you,” she said, pointing at him thoughtfully. “Like-new hand-me-downs: fresh from civ this morning. They’d be more comfortable than those army duds.”
Chess shook his head. “Thanks, but I don’t have any money,” he admitted.
“Oh, sweetheart, money’s no good here.” She sighed dramatically. “Used to be good here, before that Razor took over. But now, if we make money, then we have to pay him rent. Him and his damn gang of thugs.” She turned and gestured for Chess to accompany her into the room. “Maybe you can move a few heavy things for me, in exchange for the clothes.”
“Okay,” he agreed, readily following her. Changing his clothes would be such a relief.
The woman kept up a steady chatter as she pulled out boxes of clothing. “Yes, you go talk to any of these 'old ladies' around here. They’ll tell you how things used to be, before they showed up…”
Later that afternoon, Chess, feeling more comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans, made his way back toward the computer room -- and gasped as he came face-to-face with Razor.
“Goldfish!” Razor cried, putting a hand on his shoulder. “There you are! Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I…”
Continued next page...
"What happened? …because all the people doing that today are men… I haven’t heard about any women.”
“That’s because they took over. The men ruined everything for us… He just decided to start harassing all the women who were making money... He would beat us up if we didn’t pay him money to work out of the building… But what I’m saying is that the women ran things around here, before the gang and the rest of them took over. It was different, because we also helped people.”
-Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
In both of Venkatesh’s early books, one thing that stands out is the image of the women of the inner-city neighborhoods. Motivated by deep and chronic concerns for their own families, many of them form the support structures of the neighborhood and are the most active players in the underground economy that helps to support them. These books are not the first place, by far, that I have run across this idea. Half the Sky describes this same reality in several different chapters: the women are, in different settings, the responsible ones, the serious businesspeople, and the most ardent seekers of justice. (Although, to be fair, the authors also describe several men who act in surprisingly heroic ways, given their circumstances.)
I certainly don’t want to come across as misandrous, here, it’s just that this is something that comes up again and again in writings about communities where the laws are informal and the economy is unstable: the women, in trying to protect their own children, become the foundation of their society.
“We give food only to the women. The men, we don’t trust… They sell our porridge in the markets… They buy cigarettes, guns, girls. The women make the homes, the men make the wars.”
-The Constant Gardener by John LeCarre
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