by Patrick Green
Jorge is a Mexican friend of mine, born and raised in San Miguel. He's a smart guy, but his education has been minimal. He has worked in the same bakery for 30 years. He speaks some English, because when he was young he spent some time in Chicago and Arizona. We meet in the Jardin four times a week at 1pm. We sit on a bench near the gazebo and work on our language skills. I help Jorge with his English. He helps we with my Spanish. The session usually lasts an hour. Then he goes off to work. Some days he doesn't work. Then we will sit until 2:30 or even later talking about infinitivos or some new idiomatic expression we have hit upon. Eventually we wear down. Then we pack up and head for the bus that takes us up the Salida and to our respective homes.
One day while we whiled away yet another afternoon, two matronly women approached and prepared to take a seat directly across from us. Before they could do so, Jorge hopped up and retrieved a purse that had been laying quietly alone on the bench the ladies were preparing to sit upon. The purse was blue with a shoulder strap and a big brass zipper. Jorge returned to his seat and put the purse on the bench between us. The two women had seen Jorge pick up the purse. Striking up a conversation, I mentioned to them that we would certainly stay put and wait for the owner of the purse to return so it could be placed back into the proper hands. They nodded approvingly.
The two women were Canadian. They had traveled a bit together and mentioned what a trial it was to replace all the items lost when a purse goes missing: identification, credit cars, and, god forbid, a passport. I agreed and assured them we would do the right thing.
Time passed and the four of us chatted away. The purse stayed on the bench between Jorge and me. Neither of us opened it up for inspection nor even touched it. We continued to chat. No one arrived to claim the blue purse with the brass zipper.
Jorge eventually announced it was time for him to go to work. He grabbed the purse and stood up. I looked up at him, looked at the two Canadian women and then I stood up and motioned for Jorge to follow me. We walked quickly to private spot and I said "Ok, open that up." The purse did not contain one piece of ID, not one credit card. It did contain $450 pesos. Jorge had not worked in over a week. I knew he was low on money and I had no doubt that it would be difficult to convince him not to take the pesos, so I told him, "Look, you take the cash, but leave the purse with me." He checked every little compartment two or three times to make sure he was leaving nothing of value, shoved the pesos into his pocket and handed the purse to me. I told him I would see him tomorrow. He left post haste in a direction away from the two Canadian women.
I went back to our bench and announced there was nothing of any value in the purse except for some pesos and that Jorge and I had agreed that he had the right to take them and so he had done so. I showed the ladies the otherwise empty purse, laid it on the bench next to them where Jorge had found it and returned to my seat.
They did not seemed concerned that Jorge had taken the money. They seemed well aware that purses left lying in pubic places are subject to this sort of thing.
Our casual conversation continued until I noticed off in the distance a young Mexican woman with a toddler in her arms. There was a quick pace to her step and an anxious look on her face. I tracked her advance until she stopped at the bench and looked down at the purse. She looked at the Canadian women and then at me. She seemed to have low expectations as she lifted the purse and opened the brass zipper. Just as she expected, the purse was empty. Tears began to well up in her eyes. She glanced at the two Canadians again, then at me and then back to the purse as if those colorful peso notes would miraculously appear. I cringed and squirmed on the bench as the sting of guilt began to set in. She spoke a few words of Spanish which I did not catch.
The Canadians engaged her asking the child's name. "Oh, David," they said, "El es muy hermoso." They chatted on about David as I was wishing I could simply disappear. I asked myself, who needed those pesos more, Jorge or David's mother? Who was I to have so casually made that decision only minutes before? Maybe I should have insisted that Jorge leave the money? or take half of it? or...?
This was too much for me. I stood and announced my departure. I arranged my bag and the strap over my shoulder, said some quick farewells and scurried off with my hands buried deep in my pockets. I could not walk fast enough away from that young woman with tears on her cheeks and David in her arms, so full of grief. I headed straight for the bus that would take me up the hill to the spacious and elegant home my wife and I rented. The first bus was ready to leave, but people were already standing in the aisle, so I opted for the next bus in line. It would not leave for 5 minutes or so, but it was nearly empty. I sat myself down in a seat near the front and crunched myself up against the window. I sat quietly, alone and pondered the previous 15 minutes.
Being a retired American in Mexico has many advantages. A retirement check from the USA goes a long way in Mexico. As a retired person, I can step up to an ATM, press a few buttons and shove a handful of pesos into my pocket...
more pesos than Jorge or David's mother would see in months. Why do I deserve all this while some unseen reckoning decides that they do not? If I drop a few pesos into a begger's cup, 20 or 100 or more, it has no impact on my material well being. I am going to be fine. Another check will soon be directly deposited into my account and a fist full of pesos will appear on demand. Of course, I know this is the way of the world and has been for thousands of years. There are the rich, the poor and the in-betweens. The rich arrange society so they retain their money and their influence. The rest get by as well as they are able. For some reason I continue to look for some mitigating circumstance, some rational explanation, some answer to all this and I wince as nothing comes forward. So I scrunched myself even closer to the window, blank stare on my face and stewed alone with my thoughts.
Then she was there, David's mother, with David still in her arms. She had just walked up the steps of the bus and was turning to find a seat. She glanced at me with recognition in her face. She still had tears in her eyes. She and David took the seat directly behind me. I wanted a rock, a big rock. I wanted to lift it up and crawl underneath and let it roll back on top of me. But there were no rocks to be found. I sat there, up against the window of the bus and considered my new circumstance.
I thought of Jorge and how elated he must have been to walk off with that money. The panaderia had been shut down by the sanitation department for over a week. He had not worked and had received no word of when he would return. Clearly he was in need. I suspect he had lived this way most of his life, a few weeks shy of going hungry. That money in the blue purse would carry him for a few days, maybe a week. This was a good thing for him.
But then, David's mother was on her way home. Who did she have to face with the report of the lost money and what were the consequences? Was there a husband or a patronizing mother-in law? Would there be a tongue-lashing or worse? Was there another son or daughter? Who would have to go hungry tonight or do without? I did not know.
What I did know was I could not sit there and do nothing. Life was talking to me and it was time for me to listen. I pulled my wallet from a back pocket. I took everything inside, $350 pesos, pulled them out and rolled them up into the tightest and smallest wad I could make. I turned around and extended my hand with the pesos towards David's mother. I said in my best broken Spanish "Yo conozco el hombre toca su dinero. Puedo consiguirlo en la manana." She reached out and took the money. I turned back around and said not another word.
I did not I look around again. My bus stop approached. I rose and shuffled my way to the exit door. I paid the driver my seven pesos. The bus came to a stop and I stepped onto the sidewalk. I made my way across the street and started up the stairs toward my beautiful house, the one with the incredible view of San Miguel, the sunsets in the west, the private swimming pool, the maid, the gardener and the beautifully landscaped terraces. The next direct deposit was only two days away. I should not have had a care in the world, but I did. I was very troubled... and I still am.
Patrick Green lives with his wife in SMA. He was born in Southern California but as a young man hitch-hiked to Alaska and stayed there 40 years. His one regret on retiring to SMA is leaving his 1964 Chevy pick-up behind in Alaska. He spends his time in SMA volunteering, studying Spanish and taking note of of things both large and small.