Chapter 1. Nothing to Lose

When Marco Gomes was five years old, his parents sent him to school in Brasilia, about 40 kilometers away from home. He'd ride the bus to town with his father, who had a job building sofas for the rich people who lived across the lake. Gomes' mother had already taught him to read, but she didn't know math, and she wanted him to learn it from the best public school she could send him to. That couldn't be found in his home village of Gama, and math would wind up being important for Gomes.

School let out before his father would get done with work. So five-year-old Gomes would walk a kilometer to the huge bus station in the middle of the 1960s-modernist architecture of Brazil's capital city. Every day, his mother drilled his name and address into his head until he could recite it on command, but he could only do it if he recited the entire thing:

Marco Gomes
Quadra 34, Numero 130,
Setor Leste,
Gama, DF,

He'd mutter it over and over to himself so he wouldn't forget. Remembering that address was his only thread home. "I was like a robot," he says, driving around Brasilia today in his old Fiat. "Trained like a dog."

One afternoon, Gomes fell asleep on the bus and missed his stop. He found a policeman, walked up to him, tugged on his sleeve, and demanded: "Take me to your general." The amused cop took the gangly five-year-old to the station, where Gomes informed the captain he'd missed his stop and recited his address. The captain gave him a ride home in the front ...

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