I’m being taken by my namesake Zé, a 51 years-old long-term unemployed and the neighborhood’s handyman, to visit the strip of land behind the railway that separates the old fishermen’s quarters of Cruz Quebrada and Dafundo from the Tagus estuary. This is where the former seamen keep their artifacts and small boats and, as I could later attest, spend much of their time watching joggers and cyclists pass by like shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. The two worlds never meet. The fishermen rarely venture in the sea, now; they find it safer to bury their feet in the river bank’s mud for clams when the tide is, as they say, ‘big’ – that is, really low. The maritime authorities will fine anyone caught with more than three kilograms of bivalves, but ‘Hey,’ one of the men says, ‘they can’t catch us all.’
To get to the beach side, you must (illegally) cross the four lanes of the busy ‘marginal’ road and, using a camouflaged brick stair, transpose the railway line’s fence. The fact that trains come from both sides frequently and at a reasonably high speed makes this is a risky business – especially if, like me, you’re silly enough to carry heavy backpacks on one shoulder only. Zé tells me he prefers to wait as long as it takes than have the same fate of so many fallen victims to the hurry. It takes several minutes for us to cross, and I follow my adventure mate with the devotion of the soldier who steps on a sober comrade’s footprints at a mine field.
Land on the other side and you're at an Ettore Scola version of Disneyland. Junk, light boats and appliances of every kind fill every square meter of the terrain juxtaposed to the railroad. Proud national flags hang from just about everywhere. Zé presents me to three elderly fishermen who are chatting in one of the enclosures. They tell me the authorities allowed them to keep their fishing artifacts in there, as long as they didn’t reach more than 60 centimeters high (probably so that the mess couldn’t be seen from the road.) ‘So,’ they say in a mix of laughing and cigarette coughing, ‘we dug holes in the ground and use small ladders to get inside.’ One of the men points at a gigantic piece of green carpet than covers the ground. ‘Well, at least they can't say the lawn isn't properly mowed,’ he says, and we all chuckle together.
Zé tells me that, if the weather is fine, the guys will spend New Year ’s Eve in there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for them but, as usual, stormy clouds are gathering above their heads.