I was eating at an outdoor table on the zocolo when the kid approached me and stopped at my table, his words spewing forth, all business. “Mister, you want your shoes shined. Three pesos, mister, I shine your shoes. Okay?”
It didn’t matter that I didn’t answer him right away. The kid with the San Francisco Giants cap that was too big on his head squatted and set up his kit. A rag draped over two fingers was ready to dip into the tin of brown polish.
“Sure thing. I’ll give you five pesos, but only if you do a good job.”
“Okay mister, that’s what you get, a good job.” The kid looked up and smiled. “A good job for five pesos. No for ten. Sorry mister, I make a mistake in my prices.”
After traveling for a week in Mexico I’d seen an entire army of boys with their shoeshine kits set up on the streets offering their services, and I’d hoped it was an occupation that supported all of them. This one finally broke me down, and maybe he saw in my eyes I was ready to give in? He rubbed and buffed my leather shoes with zeal. He was used to hard work, I saw. Maybe eleven or twelve years old, I was sure he was in training for a lifetime of it.
When the kid finished packing his kit I gave him the ten pesos he’d wanted; I was pleased to see the look of surprise on his face, and without another word he went off looking for his next client.
The shoeshine boy’s success started an unavoidable feature of café life in Oaxaca. The procession of girls, boys, men and women followed him to my table, their products held out in offer before they made their pitch: “Quale gusta?”
First came the man with a satchel full of small rugs. Then the woman with the display of wood combs and spoons. After her the boy with the bowl of hard candy, followed right behind by the woman with the huge plate of cookies coated with chocolate. The girl with the strings of beads hanging from her forearm was next. And… The woman with a fistful of religious bookmarks. The boy right after her with a box of Chiclets. The old man with the board of lottery tickets hanging over his chest. The woman with a basket of roses on her head. The man with cassettes of native music. The woman with feather dusters in both hands. The woman with some kind of squirming green bug you picked out of a bowl with your fingers and ate. If I stayed long enough they would come back whether or not I bought something the first time. I doubted they remembered my face from one hour to the next. After a while all faces must be the same blur to them.
Voluntad Usted Me Plancha, Por Favor?
There’s no surer economic opportunity than an inarticulate foreigner traveling in your country. Not only was the joke on me, but I’d told it, at a lavadero in Oaxaca, when I asked the lady at the counter if she ironed? Which would have been silly enough (as I could see, of course they ironed!), but I added to my embarrassment by framing the question as “Will you iron me, please?” It was a mistake, I knew right away. An international traveler’s moment. A moment when I’d lost the confidence and ability to locate the language and conjugations I needed. The young woman folding clothes at the big table in back let out a giggle to let me know how funny I sounded. And after it the lady quoted a price for my bag of laundry that I figured out was a bit more than I should have had to pay. There was a long pause. Maybe I wanted to negotiate? She was right. I didn’t. I didn’t dare attempt another sentence. All that was left for me to do was take the slip she handed to me, say thank you, and get out of there.