Monday, October 31, 2016

LXXXI. Un Puño, Lleno de Pesos

A Fistful of Pesos

One of our goals when we moved to this small town in central Mexico was to donate time and money to local people in need. We feel that the accident of birth is largely responsible for our greater affluence and some redistribution is called for. Somewhat ironically, however, not having a car has made this more difficult than we had foreseen. Several of the service opportunities we looked into—an orphanage and food bank—are located so far away, and out of the way, that just getting there and back by bus and foot would take 2-3 hours. 

We don't usually go out in the village without making sure our
pockets are full of pesos to give away. Here is the equivalent of
about 50 cents.
Instead of more organized philanthropy we’ve become regular patrons of several local beggars. Our favorite sits in front of the bank—once the sun has warmed a spot—his artificial right leg displayed next to him, left foot bared to expose its leprosy. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) these disabilities he has an edgy sense of humor. Two of his favorite chistes are to feign outrage at any coin offered that’s less than ten pesos—he doesn’t like being overloaded with change—and to stick his slightly deformed hand out with feigned innocence on our exit from the bank, a few minutes after we’ve already given him money.

To see him sitting at his morning post—before he’s taken his leg off—on a bench in the plaza, you might mistake him for a poet or academic. He often has a scarf wrapped rakishly around his neck—against the early chill—and is wearing a tweed flat cap. 

And then there’s Alfredo who, before I began wearing only non-leather walkers, used to shine my shoes. It’s been months since I’ve needed that kind of attention, and Alfredo has stopped making that assumption whenever he sees me in the plaza. But he does tell me of the health trials of his wife, recounting how she is being treated in a Guadalajara hospital for some illness. I rarely understand more than the general gist of his story and sometimes not even that; several months ago I mistakenly thought he had told me that she died. Anyway, I usually give him fifty to a hundred pesos for medication or medical bills once or twice a month now.

I may be getting gamed by Alfredo. Or not. But I like the guy, and prefer to feel as if I trust him. Harkening back to that "accident of birth" belief, I sometimes imagine Alfredo and I are just playing our respective parts—roles that could be reversed next time around. My stomach does sink a little bit, though, when I pass through the plaza on the way to the bank and see him shambling in my direction…I don’t know…

And then there’s Nataly—I just made that name up. I don’t know what she’s called; I’m not even sure if she’s a she. Our SF neighbors used to think she was transgender, and that would kind of fit. I once saw her with a stubble of hairs on her chin. Nataly’s slightly built and always dressed in a tight, short skirt. Her “breast” size seems to vary. Her features and coloring are strongly Mayan, especially a very aquiline nose. Two eccentric braids curl down over her forehead.

About once a week or so she accosts me on the street; I usually hear her calling, “Sir, sir—“ before I see her, in a voice that’s distinctly unmusical. Nataly is satisfied with ten or twenty pesos, por algo para comer, por favor—tengo hambre. She once propositioned me, but my polite and unequivocal rejection must have been well understood. I don’t think Nataly has a happy life, especially if—as seems—she has this gender issue. Plus, my wife (who somehow knows these things) tells me she has long lived in that same house where drug dealer Pepe was shot dead last year.

And then, at the other end of whatever spectrum Nataly inhabits, are the small Indian ladies, with faces like polished bronze, dressed in their típica garb and sitting cross-legged just to the side of the path through the weekly tianguis, or market. I can picture them working on some craft project which I never recall seeing for sale. They have a styrofoam cup to collect change for which they give a heartfelt blessing. 

Nursing mothers are sometimes found sitting on the sidewalk, accepting donations while leaning against Farmacia Guadalajara's stripmall-esque building. I think they have bags of chayotes for sale, but I just give ten to twenty pesos, "Para el bebé." I'm a sucker for those moms. The farmacia is also the preferred haunt, though, of the Green Bean Kids who insistently offer a small bag of unappealing vegetables in exchange for 10-15 pesos. I almost always dissuade them with a brisk, "No, gracias".

There are others who come and go. Just a few days ago, on my way back from El Torito market, a father importuned me to raise money for a daughter’s operation. He had pictures and receipts to prove it. I’ve looked at these proofs occasionally—Afredo has shown me receipts for his wife’s prescriptions—but can never make definitive sense of them. They at least show that the supplicant has gone to some trouble to convince prospective donors of their need. 

I don’t know…I’ve of course heard and on a few occasions espoused the “Teach a Man to Fish, etc” mantra. It holds a kind of “tough love” negative charm, but I feel more comfortable (in this naturally uncomfortable situation) with my usual tack of making individual decisions to give—or not give—based on habit, put-upon-ness or put-off-ness, guilt, looks, embarrassment, fear, pity, or even charity, as the mood strikes me.

We recently have found another way to donate our time and money that involves working with an organization that provides food at a very low price to needy families. More about that soon, in another post.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

LXXX. Vicente


He sits nearly every day—all day long except for siesta time—on a bamboo stool outside a small store just up the street. It’s one of many little tiendas around here that are in the front room of someone’s house. You can occasionally see—through a door at the back of the small salesroom—a family member or two relaxing, eating or talking in the sala. If no one’s behind the counter or even visible, and after waiting a good minute you cough or clear your throat, a middle-aged lady will emerge from that door, perhaps wiping her hands on an apron.

The sign out front advertises the place as a zapatería—shoe store—and when the roll-up door is open, as it is most days except domingo y lunes, you can see several dozen pairs of shoes on display in a floor-to-ceiling showcase as you walk by. The store also trades in school and office supplies. I bought a notebook for my Spanish class there, as well as signboard and markers for our housewarming party.

Getting back to that guy: He’s an older fellow—about my age—and small, also like me. Always wearing a tidy sombrero, almost always awake. He’s mostly sedentary, moving gingerly and with a cane—several times a day—to and from his place in the sun just outside the store opening. The few passersby who don’t know any different might refer to him—although I have no proof to back this up—as “the guy who’s always sitting outside the shoe store with a flyswatter in his hand.” Those are the things you notice most. Regardless how you describe him, I imagine he knows more than anyone else about what goes on up and down our block of Calle Encarnación Rosas. 

But if you’re not in too much of a hurry as you walk by, and you wave and holler out a friendly, “Buenos días” to this fellow, you’ll see him smile and return your salute in a voice that’s a little creaky but full of good cheer. He’ll raise a hand in your direction and keep it there for a moment, as if he’s the Pope and offering benediction. If you exchange this greeting once or twice, or even more, every day for some period of time, you might get around to introducing yourself, and thereafter the exchange takes on a more personal meaning.

That’s what I did. His name is Vicente, and now he always lets me know he remembers my name, too. Today we also shook hands, as we sometimes do when I go on his side of the street. As I walked away he called out, “Qué le vaya bien”—“May it go well for you”. To which I gave the standard reply, “Igualamente, Vicente”. A good way to start my day in the village.