The Beggar’s Face Again
I sat quietly on the steps of the farmacia on the corner, fanning off flies, vendors, and heat.
Almost directly in front of me, young soldiers guarded the square dusty space between the town and the border crossing; the gateway to my own country waiting to welcome me back.
To my left lay the town—the town that tourists don’t see. The shops that the locals frequent. The shops without air-conditioning; flypaper hanging in the doorway and globs of cement forming steps. The part of town where houses cram indiscriminately between the street and the businesses. Houses that may or may not have running water or electricity.
To my right stretched the street that was designed for me to see. Fancy tilework and nice storefronts invite one in to shop –into the air-conditioning and out of the stifling heat of the dusty street. Vendor stalls lined up in front of the stores and the hierarchy was clear: Air-conditioned stores first, vendor stalls second, vendors on foot third and of course, beggars last.
I’ve known that for years—it’s true of most countries or cultures around the world.
But this day, because I had lost my family, I had a different view.
Neither a tourist nor a local, once I waved away the on-foot vendors, I became invisible while sitting on that fake marble stairway.
And the clash and the mesh of the different worlds kept me captivated.
The children, the ones with the professional beggar faces? I watched as they approached other tourists with the same sad faces and slumped demeanor. But I also got to watch as they ran back by me, giggling and poking each other to rest in the shade I had found. They stood around and laughed and joked until someone new came from beyond the crossing. One little boy poked the other, “It’s your turn.” A new little girl was prodded into activity. “What is it again? Twelve for one dollar?” Eyes rolled as they went through the prices again for her and off she went, to look sad and helpless and try to sell some visiting Meester her quota of chicles. The waiting children spoke of school and their families and which street vendor would be most likely to give up some taquitos.
The street vendors bustled back and forth trading freely with each other according to who needed what. “Hey, I got a lady who wants a dress in purple…hurry!”
“Fine, then bring me back a green.”
They brought lunch or maybe a water bottle to one another.
One street vendor ran into the farmacia where I sat and a moment later burst out the door and ran over to an over-dressed couple who waited in the street. He handed them what they wanted, and I wondered how much he made on the 15 steps he took to sell it to them.
I almost laughed aloud one moment, listening to a vendor bargaining with a tourist. They hassled and harangued and jostled back and forth with the vendor whining about feeding his family and the tourist declaring she only had so much money with her. The lady walked away happy with her deal and the vendor turned down my street to check his iPhone for messages.
I loved it every time one of the vendors would dash into the farmacia for something, because the air conditioning from inside would blast out onto the dusty street, cooling me as it went by.
The two faces of a poor border town. The beggars with smart phones and the well dressed store workers walking around the corner to have lunch in their electricity-less houses.
Every story has two sides, right? So often we judge on the side that we see and forget there might be another view, or more information.
Earlier on, before I misplaced my family, we had passed an old woman, sitting pitifully on the sidewalk, waving her Styrofoam cup at passersby. She called out in a pathetic voice for change, for money, for help. After seeing the one guy whip out his smart phone, my son turned to me and asked, “Do you really think that old lady needs the money, or will she go around the corner to her luxury car?”
It’s a valid question, but I think I may have given a valid answer. “For whatever reason, she has the temerity and the stamina to SIT on that concrete sidewalk for at least the 3 hours that we’ve seen – I would say she needs the money. And we don’t know the rest of her story.”
I ended up sitting on those steps after that conversation with my son. One of the boys selling chicles raced by and a clerk stepped out of the farmacia. He called the boy over and asked him what he was eating. The boy replied and told a story about the taco he had been given. The man asked sternly, “Did you ask for it?”
“No, Papi, I didn’t ask for it. She offered!”
“Did you pay for it?”
Eyes widened in innocence, “No, Papi, she said I could have it, she couldn’t sell it.”
He shook his head, “Ok then, but don’t you be asking for food. You should earn that. You could trade gum for tacos.”
Two sides–the sad face to sell, but maintaining the pride of not begging. There’s always more to the story.
Having a child fighting cancer and on chemotherapy for three years provided many opportunities of growth for me as a mother. It also seemed to provide many opportunities of judgement from others; people who assumed we did not discipline him, people who assumed he was well when his hair grew back and people who had not one clue as to what we dealt with at home and hospital. Two sides of a story: the reality side and the viewable side.
I’ve had students with autism, with hearing loss or vision loss, students with real life struggles that I watched be judged. On those rare occasions where I could explain, I would watch faces and attitudes change because the listener heard the rest of story.
I’m sure each of you readers has a similar story you could share about being misunderstood, or feeling that you had another side to your story. What do YOU wish people had done differently? That’s what it takes—if each of us assumes there is more to the story, maybe each of our stories could be more beautiful!
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