It could have been a missed opportunity. I could have ignored the melodic flute sounds coming from the street as I sat in our upper floor patio of our Merida hotel. From a long ago memory, I thought of one of my earlier visits to Mexico as a kid. I woke up one morning to the sound of a man urgently calling out: “Tor-TEEE-yahs” and pushing a ramshackle cart full of fresh, hot tortillas. Maids carrying woven baskets came out in the early morning light and filled their baskets. To this day, I still think those tortillas were some of the best I ever tasted in Colonia Florida in Mexico City.
So these flute sounds, which had the timing of a car alarm, beaconed me to peer down below to see what was going on. Below I saw a straight-backed, thin man pushing a similar version of a handmade wooden cart as the guy selling tortillas, except this one had a bar-height stool attached to it. I wondered. What the heck is he selling?
Only one way to find out. I grabbed my camera and raced down the stairs out onto the street. The man, who I now could see was quite elderly was talking to a woman in her doorway. She handed him something and he returned to his cart, pulled out his chair and sat in front of his jalopy cart. It was then that I approached him, and told him I was a tourist and I was curious. What was he doing? He showed me the knives and scissors he had been asked to sharpen. His cart had a belt and foot pedal, much like an old sewing machine and he began to sharpen first knives, then scissors. I asked if I could photograph him which pleased him. (Thank God. The last thing I wanted to do was offend him.) Between a combination of scissors and knifes, we talked. His name was Eduardo and he was 77 years old. He had at one time belonged to a special security force that protected “Politicos”. [I should add here that often in Mexico, politicos (or politicians) are also called ratóns (rats).] He told me how he used to stay in five-star hotels when he had to travel with dignitaries, but now he was poor and had nothing to show for it. I asked about family, and he said he never saw them anymore. Tears filled his eyes. He told me, “God is my family now”, and looked up at the sky. Whatever pain he had felt earlier, melted away from his face.
I knew there was a story there. A story about his family, but one that I needed to leave alone. I watched him finish his work and could tell he was proud of what he did. I remembered a pair of manicure scissors in our room and asked if I could get them and have them sharpened. He said, “Por supuesto”, Of course.
When I returned with them, he had finished his transaction with the woman in the neighborhood. He was sitting on his little stool waiting for me. He told me the cost would be 25 cents. I told him the last time I had a knife sharpened professionally, it cost me ten dollars. His face crumbled in horror, and he said, “Eso es muy caro.” That is too expensive. I wanted to say: Hell, yeah.
I watched him gingerly sharpen my tiny scissors. His concentration so keen as he worked the pedals turning the grinding belt. His bare feet were swimming in a pair of backless shoes. He was skinny. Too skinny. I tried to imagine what his life was like. I tried to imagine where he might go at the end of the day. I hoped it wasn’t too far. His frail body needed every once of energy possible.
I paid him way more than 25 cents. I now wish I had paid him even more. His face will join the others I have met along the way in Mexico: the less fortunate that cross our paths in travel. There was one ancient-looking woman in downtown Mexico City I will never forget even though it has been decades. It isn’t the image of her face that I recall as much as her extended, whithered, brown and leathery hands that I see in my mind’s eye. I saw her, hesitated but continued down the busy city street. After walking two blocks, I simply couldn’t shake her. I retraced my steps, but it was too late. She was gone.
Her face with a thousand winkles haunts me but it is always her hands that the memory ultimately rests upon. I can almost look at my age-spotted, arthritic and bony hands and see hers. But, don’t get me wrong. Not for one moment have my hands suffered like the poor and labor-burdened people of the world. No. I should keep my mouth shut.
Eduardo, wherever you are: It was such a pleasure meeting you. You proud, sweet man. I am so glad I ran down those stairs to meet you.