Guns N’ Roses in Vieques

A man named Domingo asked to pick leaves from one of the palm trees on the property. Lisa, who owns the house in the north-coast town of Isabel Segunda on Vieques, obliged. Up the tree he sprung, as Cosmo Kramer might describe, like a ring-tailed lemur. With his raw material, Domingo twisted and crunched a long leaf into a green rose with a faux stem. A quiet fellow, Domingo wore a black New York Mets shirt with the number that conjures exactly zero recollection of famous Met players, the ever-popular 05. He was sleight in stature, a Latin man in his late fifties. He claimed to have been in the Bronx for the first time during the blackout of 1977. I photographed him in front of a vacant dwelling just across from Lisa’s beachfront driveway.

Some hours after Domingo left in search of other palm tree owners, I sat in an empty house reviewing the rose-making photos and appreciating the mild-mannered demeanor of all the residents I’d met so far in this quiet town. And then, a voice called from outside: “Señor!” Three men with dark hair, blue shirts, and light pants were standing at the open front gate with guns in hand.

I approached them. “Hello,” I said, trying to gauge what defense I might have to muster in my sleep shorts and bare torso.

“Have you seen any intruders on the property?” one man asked.

“No, I’m a guest here. This is my friend’s house.”

“Can we have a look around?”

I eyeballed the man’s sleek hand-weapon held about two feet from where I stood. Despite seeing that the three guys wore shirts with ATF embroidered across the top left side, my New York skepticism held sway in an instant. Am I going to let three con guys in to rob the place? I asked for ID, soon realizing this was a futile request. If they were thugs with guns and had no proper identification they weren’t going to recoil and say they’d come back another time. Why not have a laugh at the gringo’s expense instead while loading up the truck with laptops, cameras, big heavy furniture, dog food, sunscreen, and flip-flops.

The lead ATF honcho flashed his ID as the three split up and searched the perimeter. They regrouped in back of the house checking closely behind trees and alcoves then headed toward the iron gate and onto the beach. I followed behind about fifty feet, now wearing a bulletproof-free t-shirt, no shoes, and camera in hand, with a 35mm lens set to shutter priority 200/sec, EV -0.7, ASA 160. A barely lethal weapon. The Feds moved quickly back upward alongside the adjacent property and disappeared.

At the top of the property, on the front patio stood two new men with guns. Oh. Maybe these are the bad guys, I thought. One gunslinger, a Latino in his fifties with glasses and flecks of gray was dressed similar to the other men. But how did I know there wasn’t a costume shop up the road with a back-room hustler dealing authentic-like Viequenses police wear? The second guy was decked out in green military/forestry gear and toting a machine gun. Now this, I quickly surmised, was the costume to get for Halloween, if indeed it was celebrated on this humid island.

These guys told me that local patrolmen pulled over a suspect in a car a few blocks away. When the police spotted a gun, the driver fled on foot. The ATF were nearby in a meeting with local school officials talking about, most appropriately, street crime prevention. Orlando Felix, the ATF boss of the first three men, and Bruce Butler, a federal game warden with the US Fish and Wildlife Service responded to the call as well. And here they were. Fairly low-key, they didn’t mind being photographed. Soon they got word that the perp might have been shot earlier by police while running through the woods of the next-door property. At the time this may have happened, I was sitting at the dining room table not far away hearing nothing but birds, rooster calls, and indoor fans…and Alice in Chains from Lisa’s iPod.

Two local police guys pulled behind the nondescript white pick-up truck that Bruce Butler had parked in the driveway just outside the gate. They looked around briefly then all congregated, speaking in Spanish. When finished, Butler gave me his card, asked me to send the photos, and also recommended when to see the popular bio-luminescent bay. He also advised that sunsets were best viewed off the shores of Esperanza to the south. From crime-fighting to tour-guiding, all in a moment’s notice. Super heroes of the tropical kind. Butler handles Vieques, Culebra, and St. Thomas. Felix flies around to cover all of the Caribbean.

I imagined the teleplay, thinking of 1970s-style detective shows of the Mannix or Columbo variety. Peter Falk follows up the investigation showing up at the door with his voice dubbed in Spanish. “Señor….” (Well, I’d better write it in English for any American readers….) “Sir, may I ask you a few questions?” Then, as he seems satisfied with my answers and walks away, he turns back, hand scratching forehead…. “Oh Sir, just one more thing. You know, my niece likes that rock-n-roll. It’s always blasting every time I go to visit her mother. And I happened to notice…what was that song you were listening to, Alice what’s her name?”

And I start to get worried that Columbo may be on to something.