In a dark, stinking room on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, its discolored cinder-block walls scarred with generations of graffiti, Tiago Gonçalves lay sweating and thrashing, delirious with fever.
For a bed, Tiago had the box spring from a child’s crib, stained and torn, over which was thrown a threadbare sheet that had perhaps once been pink. A battered plastic milk crate nearby held one pair of jelly shoes, three shirts too big for his skinny frame, two pair of shorts, some underwear, a plastic mug and spoon, a toothbrush, and half a cake of soap. That was all. But his most treasured possessions sat proudly atop the crate: an oil lamp assembled from discarded cans and bottles, using braided electrical insulation as a wick; a Swiss Army knife, its long-vanished plastic side panels replaced with scraps of teak painstakingly shaped to fit the hand and polished to silky smoothness; and a bouquet of flowers he had made by twisting together bits of colorful plastic bags.
All of these things Tiago had rescued from the landfill. But there was no one to rescue Tiago. He had lain here for . . . he didn’t know how long, days maybe, without anyone to care for him. The other three catadores—“collectors” of recycled materials— who shared this twenty-reais-a-week room had lives and problems of their own. At least João had shared some of his water and fried manioc cakes.
Tiago shivered in his sweat-soaked sheet, which clung to him like it was his own skin. He ached all over; he could barely raise his head. He wondered if he might be dying.