MysteryShrink Shorts: A Soul Wake-Up from a Hungry Man
Last week I was picking up brochures in back of the Cathedral in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, when I was approached by a thin young man in ragged clothes with a familiar pleading look in his eyes. I tried to walk past, but he tapped my shoulder as if to say, “Please look at me, lady,” and launched a routine in Spanish about how he was so very hungry and how he had not eaten in two days. The ‘crack stop’ tunnel by the Metro station is a couple blocks away and my blondness screams ‘sucker,’ thus to be approached with similar tales is not an uncommon experience.
But, no worries. I’m a cool customer. I know how to handle myself.
Still, typically, I can find something to share no matter how far-fetched the tragic ‘story.’ However at this particular moment I had nothing but several very large peso notes—each the equivalent of about fifty dollars, so I responded with the accepted tourist ‘please, go away’ refrain–which is to say “Lo siento, no cambio”—“I’m sorry, but I have no change.”
Usually, this is enough to end the desperate plea for ‘lunch’ money, but not for this fellow. He chugged along beside me, elaborating with much emotion on how hungry he was, how he only needed enough money to stop the horrible pains in his stomach. He pointed at his tummy in case I hadn’t understood the plot we were working with here. Weakening, I asked him if he had any change as I could break up a large bill and give him the small amount he requested.
Oh, yeah. I’m a cool customer. If he had that kind of change he wouldn’t be asking in the first place. Oh well, it was just a dance, right? I was a step ahead of him, creative though he was. Undeterred by my worldliness, the man restarted his act without missing a beat–his pained expression, and reiteration of the hours since his last food.
Finally, I gave in and seriously rooted through the many pockets on my cargo shorts. I was able to collect change to equal about two dollars. He thanked me and trotted away. Oh, well, so it goes, I’m thinking and continued with my privileged life.
About 20 minutes later, he spotted me from a block of way and chugged my direction, a big grin on his face. The fearful and anxious part of my brain is thinking, “Great, DeShong. Yeah, you’re really cool. Now you’ll never get rid of this guy.” I didn’t respond to his grin, turned at the next corner, and quickened my step as if I was late for an appointment, which is the method we cool travelers use to shake off men with stories and other reminders of starvation.
I thought for sure I was free, but then there was a tap on my shoulder. Still I didn’t waver my I’m-an-important-person-and-I-have-places-to-be stride. Somehow he managed to outpace me and placed himself directly in my path.
He looked straight into my eyes, touching that spot in me that knows we are all one. Once we were human-to-human, he held both of his hands in front of my face. In his left was the last bite of a sandwich. In his right he rattled a large almost finished bag of Cheetos.
I’d been so cool before, so proud of my skills among the poor. So sure of what I knew about people. My face had clearly shown him that I didn’t believe his story. He knew I’d judged him, that I hadn’t truly, in my heart, respected him. While I’d let the exchange go, he hadn’t.
It was important to him to find me. He didn’t have to do anything for me, much less make an effort that reminded him of his earlier begging position. But he did. He’d seen my expression before. He wanted me to know that while I’d seen him ‘generically,’ he was a man, an honest man. He was a man who would never have ‘played me for a fool’ though it was true he chose me because I looked like I could spare the money. Which only proved he wasn’t blind.
With his gesture, the man shook faith in my ‘coolness’ and awakened or re-awakened inside me the truth that there is no generic human. That everyone counts. That everyone counts the same.
In my pathetic Spanish I babbled that I was sorry and thanked him for his kindness. He must have understood because he said in perfect Spanish, “I forgive you. Think no more about it.”