Thursday, October 11, 2007

*Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

It probably comes as no surprise that Sonny and I eat out pretty often, even here in Mexico City, where finding vegetarian food – let alone good vegetarian food – is difficult. The weather here is temperate year round so most of the restaurants in Polanco offer sidewalk, café-like seating. One thing that comes along with that, though, is the barrage of vendors who walk past the sidewalk tables every few minutes trying to sell everything from Mexican shawls to plants to lottery tickets. At first this was really annoying – ok, it is still really annoying – but lately it makes me more sad than irritated.

Last weekend we went out to breakfast and throughout the meal robotically replied “Gracias, no” to the various merchants trying to sell us tacky cell phone accessories. As Sonny was checking the bill, I noticed a shawl vendor looking over in our direction. I’m not sure if he was looking at us or was just lost in thought, but I suddenly felt curious about him and others like him. What must he think as, day in and day out as he watches customers eating overpriced meals at trendy restaurants, putting down 500 pesos for a meal without thinking twice? What are the lives like of these men and women who travel from shanty towns to the more affluent neighborhoods of Mexico City calculating how much bargaining they can afford with customers? And how can these people possibly make ends meet by selling relatively inexpensive items which, during the course of our 45-minute meal, it seemed no one was interested in buying?

Poverty is not a new sight to me – after all, I have visited India enough to have many vivid memories of emaciated beggars in tattered clothing, some carrying clearly famished children in their arms. In fact, the impoverished people I see every day in my little area of Mexico City could probably be classified as middle class compared with the abjectly poor people I have encountered in Mumbai, not to mention in rural parts of India. Still, it breaks my heart to see these peddlers, and even children no older than 6 or 7, with dirty hands and faces, trying to sell a pack of gum to restaurant patrons for 4 pesos (40 U.S. cents) while we feed Asha spoonfuls of imported ice-cream. (I won’t even get into the panhandlers sitting outside Lincoln Park, hands outstretched, while their children nap under a bench.)

One of these days I am going to come home from a restaurant not just with leftover food, but with an ugly plant, a gaudy shawl, or a fake leather cell phone case just to ease my conscience for saying “Gracias, no” all those times with a mouth full of $8 pancakes.

*E.Y. Harper

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