I would like to share a story about the merits of observation. When in doubt, just observe. Sometimes I refer to what I do as sociological stalking.
For three evenings I decided to follow, at a distance, a tiny, old Mexican woman who was burdened with two thickly packed, yet colorful, bolsas (bags). She stood less than four feet tall and her legs were smaller in circumference than my arms. She wore a faded skirt that spoke of colorful birds no longer colorful and a rebozo (shawl) that was tattered and faded to a hazy blue.
Her face bore no affect, yet it was filled with expression by the absence of it. Lines gracefully crossed her forehead as though drawn with an unsteady, but sympathetic, ruler. Other lines, gouged more deeply, worked their way down from strong cheekbones and ended somewhere near the neckline of an old blouse double wrapped with an even older, brown sweater. Her black, ballet-style flat shoes were fastened to feet weathered and dry. Her step, though slow, was steady and stable.
She appeared at times like a phantasm. If I looked away because something or someone else caught my eye, she disappeared. My eyes scanned the horizon of the busy street known as Calle San Francisco for the tiny lady. As if by magic, there she would reappear coming out of a doorway. Her nimble disappearances and reappearances collided emotionally with something inside me. I felt I had no choice but to follow her, looking for an answer to a question that I had not yet formulated.
One evening, an hour before the sun fully left the sky, she walked into an ice cream store known as Esmeralda’s. Esmeralda’s was owned by an expatriate American who had resided in San Miguel for twenty years before his death by a heart attack two years before. His side business included cashing checks for Americans and taking a modest fee for doing so. He was a round man who had no doubt enjoyed many a buena comida (good meal) while residing in Mexico with his Mexican wife, Jasmine.
The store sells ice cream made in Dolores Hidalgo, a nearby community. There are more than twenty flavors. The store also serves as a site where people post rentals, items for sale, lost dog signs, and general information on a generous bulletin board. The store has a cooler in the back with a single glass door. Within are bottles of refrescos (soft drinks) such as Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, Cidral, and aqua mineral. I watched the tiny woman walk to the counter where customers order and pay for ice cream. She sat her bolsas down carefully, one on each side of her. Then she looked toward the employees, waiting to be noticed. She waited a very long time. No one noticed. The store was not busy.
I was near the entrance to the establishment and in no time I noted my discomfort. I began thinking dangerous intervention thoughts. Shall I ask her if she would like some ice cream and offer to buy her some? Should I approach an employee and say something about the tiny, waiting woman? Should I do nothing? I chose standing with the unbearable inner silence that accompanies doing nothing with nothing, but then again how could I be sure it was nothing? I found myself thinking existential thoughts, and for some reason I was reminded of the play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. I believe I was suffering from a humanistic condition for which there is no cure. So, I waited.
The tiny woman waited. She stared at the employees. They still did not see her. I imagine she tired of the wait because she left her bolsas by the counter and walked to the back of the store where the cooler, now heavy with responsibility, waited for her. With a long reach she found the handle to the glass door. She pulled the door open and stared into the refrigerated case until she was satisfied. She removed a Coke, the sixteen-ounce size, and walked back to the counter and her bolsas waiting on the floor. She put the Coke in one bolsa and lifted her belongings. She left the store and headed up Calle San Francisco.
I remained in the store, watching the employees who had been watching her once she had taken the Coke, stored it, and left the establishment. They said nothing and did nothing. I learned something new: It was culturally sanctioned for the poor to enter certain establishments and take what they needed. Speaking or directly inviting dialogue was not sanctioned.
I continued to follow the tiny woman. She next entered the tortilleria. Once inside, she sat her bolsas down, one on each side of her tiny frame. She waited. She was ignored. She continued to wait. In time a Mexican woman about the age of fifty came from the back of the store and handed the woman two corn tortillas. The tiny woman nodded, made the sign of the cross, and carefully folded the two flat tortillas in half. She then tucked them inside one bolsa. She left the store and proceeded to cross the street. She worked herself through cars both parked and moving like a mouse that had learned its way through a maze.
The Mercado is warehouse structure of concrete. It houses stalls where people sell produce, herbs, and concoctions such as cow fetus in a milk mixture with twigs of some folkloric herb. The old woman found her way to an elevated stall and set the bolsas down once again. She was looking up at the bins of apples, bananas, papayas, and mangoes. The woman who tended the stall noticed her and stared at her for a minute, but they did not make eye contact. The merchant gathered together an apple and a plum and then began the laborious descent from her throne of high down to the narrow passage where people walk and wait and look for what they need.
She came to the tiny woman and handed her the apple and the plum. The tiny woman deposited the fruit in her bolsa account and then returned the favor by making the sign of the cross. She looked toward the heavens, which were obstructed by the girded steel that held the roof of the warehouse in place.
She left the Mercado and ascended the slight hill that would lead her back to Calle Insurgentes. About halfway up, she set down the bolsas and perched herself on a narrow ledge. She rummaged through one bolsa and pulled out the Coke. She set it on the ledge next to her small frame. She rummaged again and retrieved a torta (sandwich), which she placed next to the Coke. She pulled an apple from her bolsa and placed it on the ledge as well. She began eating her torta. Then she noticed me.
She asked me if I could help her. I replied, “Certainly, what do you need help with?” She responded by saying she needed to move bundles, could I help her?
She pointed to the end of the ledge where it drops off to become a stairway that led to portable, clapboard vendor stalls that were now closed. She put her torta back in the bolsa along with the coke and the fruit. We walked together to where the ledge and street ended. She pointed to two very large bundles of twigs, branches, herbs, and other dried botanicals. Obediently, I picked them up.
She said, “Follow me.”
We arrived at a spot where adobe converged with sheets of tin and cardboard. They covered a hobbit hole entrance into what I assumed was her home. She pointed to the ground in front of the entrance and told me I could set the bundles there.
I asked if she needed anything else.
She smiled and said no as she looked away from me and stood in a fashion that appeared and felt uncomfortable.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
She said she would be fine.
I reached in my pocket and pulled out a ten-peso coin. I said, “Señora, here is a little something.” I placed the coin in her child-size hand and she grasped it tightly. She nodded her head, made the sign of the cross, and looked to the darkened heavens. She blessed me and then came very close. I bent down to her level.
She pointed to my chest, then my eyes, and then my chest again. She said my heart would protect me. She said my health would be blessed everyday from moon to moon and from sun to sun. The moon, sun, and my heart would always work together to protect my health and me. I wanted to give her ten more coins. It was like making a deposit in a spiritual bank account with interest being returned immediately.
Sometimes, when in doubt, just observe. It is a fine remedy for assumptions, bias, judgments, and the angst that can accompany living. It is also a fine remedy for spiritual bank accounts.
This story is from a larger work titled, Beggars, Blessings, and Bones by Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo