The blue skies are glorious. From my place at a sidewalk café, I let my gaze lazily sweep over the zocalo. I am delighted by the apparently happy mix of local merchants displaying their wares and gringo tourists taking in the scene. Some indigenous women wear brilliant crimson and white garments woven in the traditional backstrap manner. Vendors spread out pots, colorful textiles, carved wooden animals, tape recorders, dishes and can openers and every imaginable household trinket that might attract a shopper. Every now and then a twinkle-eyed troubadour sidles up to my table, pausing to strum his guitar, gently, seductively. When I smile, he responds with a romantic ballad.
But, beyond him, a different scene grabs my attention. An elderly waiter has rushed from the kitchen, and is snapping a large white napkin at an old woman. The woman is so wizened that only the top of her head is visible above a table laden with taco soup, guacamole, and other delectable edibles. She tilts her head up toward the waiter, and I think I catch a glimpse of a glower. But she scuttles off the terrace. The waiter’s voice follows her, shouting, “Vete!” Get out! I watch her bent back, as she grudgingly moves off the terrace. But then she stops, and hovers at the edge of a crowd of gringos waiting for a table. Her eyes dart from table to table. I notice a small motion of her head, and a child of about seven emerges from the crowd and takes her arm. The two figures inch their way back toward us brunch eaters, their hands held out for bread. It seems wrong for the waiter to deprive them of an opportunity to cadge a few rolls from us well-off tourists and locals. I am on the side of the woman and child.
The troubadour has given up on me. A moment earlier he had professed his love and faithfulness, but now he drifts to a more promising table.
I break my bulillo─the best bread roll in the worldand mop up the remaining egg and salsa on my plate, then reach for my coffee cup. The old woman and the child are moving closer to my table, and I see that the girl’s checkered dress is grimy. The woman’s hair is matted. I squirm, wondering why I am suddenly feeling uncomfortable; why my coffee suddenly tastes stale. I don’t even feel like taking the last few bites of my succulent fresh strawberries and pineapple. The colorful scene that just moments ago I treasured is now fading into gray. As the old woman comes closer, I look toward the kitchen door, expecting the waiter to appear. I’m not the sort of person who would shoo the beggars away, as if they were stray dogs. Yet….
Yet, what? Have I changed my tune? Do I want the waiter to rescue me from these sorrowful supplicants? Worse, yet, have I been secretly waiting for him to do exactly that, so I don’t have to take responsibility? I tell myself, it isn’t that I mind giving the woman money or one of my rolls; I just don’t like people intruding into my space. Besides, I understand, as well as the waiter does, that if I give money to beggars, hordes more will descend on all of us. We will not be able to enjoy our meal in peace.
The most expedient choice at the moment is to give in, so I search my purse for change. But I am saved. My waiter appears, and again sends the beggars on their way. Once they are out my line of sight, I can revel again in the guitar strumming and the laughter emanating from other tables. I glance at my American newspaper, and phrases jump up at me: “49 Children Illegally Bound for U.S.” ”U.S. Begins Crackdowns.” It looks as if everyone is clamoring for a place at the U.S. table.