Tuesday, August 11, 2009

on el camino with los miserables

Your heart would break. Mine did.

He could not have been more than seven. Very thin. Tattered red t-shirt. Pants that were worn-torn, rather than cut off. Bare feet.

With tears streaming down his smudged face.

He held out his left hand and looked up at me pleading with pooling brown eyes.

But I have started in the middle of my story.

Monday afternoon I took a quick drive over to Cihuatlán, the equivalent of the county seat, to buy a few items from our only local "big box" store. I have not been there since I witnessed the Canadian woman's near-loss of her wallet.

I will not bother you with the details, but on the way there I saw an animal road death that heightened my sensitivity for life.

My shopping visit was short. I bought my few groceries, and loaded them in the car. As I placed the shopping cart in the return area, I noticed the boy sitting on the grass strip immediately in front of my truck.

When I first saw him, he was looking straight ahead. The moment he caught my movement in his peripheral vision, his head swiveled up to look at me. His palm came out.

I wish I could say compassion was my first reaction. It wasn't. Perhaps, I have become just a bit cynical about children in that parking lot.

Besides the history, there was something just too stylized about the kid. He looked as if he had just missed his bus for the Mexican road show of Les Misérables. The clothes looked like a costume. The smudge on the cheek the size of adult fingers.

And that look of supplication. As if he were awaiting for the priest to provide him with the host.

But the memory of that animal death on the road overcame all of those doubts. I reached in my pocket to give him a peso note. He leaned forward as his tears began to flow.

Then I saw it. The reason he was holding out only his left hand was simple. He held a screwdriver in his other hand. And my front license plate was dangling by only one screw.

He immediately tracked my gaze, and was on his feet in one bound on his way across the parking lot. He fired a rather exotic name at me that I had to look up when I came home. I am not going to repeat it here.

I went into the store, but I could find no one in charge because the store was extremely busy -- and I was certain I was going to lose my plate if I did not get back to my truck.

As I drove away, I saw him sitting in front of another truck on the grassy parking strip.

A reader provided contact information for the local child protection services. I am going to call. There has to be some Fagin-ish adult behind this. Why would children steal license plates on their own?

When we encounter the Gavroches of thi
s world face to face, our hearts still break -- even (perhaps, especially) when those little supplicating hands are committing crimes.


Felipe said...

The greening of Señor Cotton continues.

A peso "note." That means you gave him at least 20 pesos, possibly more. Except for exceptional situations, stick to coins for panhandlers.

Chrissy y Keith said...

wait, you have not welded your license plate to your truck yet? I bet you will now.

Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- I had just divested myself of all my coins by tipping the girl at the checkout stand. She had run out of bags, so she loaded up my 10 2-liter bottles of Coke Light (and other purchases) into a box designed for paper goods. Of course, when she had her friend help her lift the box, it all spilled out onto the store floor. I had only notes left in my pocket -- the smallest a hundred. Had I handed it over, The Kid would have thought he had hit the jackpot. And all over a dead cat.

Chrissy -- I will have to see what I can do. The license plate area of the bumper is plubber (or whatever the word is for the rubberized plastic that bumpers are made of these days).

Darrel said...

It looks like Bodega Aurrera (Walmart) has a new star in its parking lot. Now you have more to worry about than just the children with the shopping carts. Get nyloc nuts for your license plate bolts or pop rivet it on.

jennifer rose said...

Steve, Steve. I'd like to know how much you tipped the checkout girl if it took all of your coins.

Do you know what the minimum wage is in this country? Do you realize that you just tipped the urchin nearly half of a minimum daily wage? Why on earth would he ever be motivated to perform honest work when swiping license plates yields up a far better rate of return? Even though you thought you were doing the right and charitable thing, unwittingly you just became part of the problem.

No, child protective services aren't going to do a cotton-picking thing. Social welfare agencies are overburdened and underfunded in this country -- and there are priorities far greater than your parking lot urchin.

Felipe said...

Ah, so you never handed the dough over. Good. A 100-peso note would have been absurd. When I don´t have anything reasonable to give someone, I just say sorry.

You can get those screws or bolts that screw on easily but don´t come off in the other direction easily.

Or you could move to a place where that stuff does not happen. I´ve never had those problems, and my plates are quite removable.

Constantino said...

"A man may learn wisdom even from a foe." Aristophenes

You are learning many lessons, amigo. A new learning experience every day. Welcome to diversity of life and location. Just think of how well rounded his life experiences will be when he is of driving age. A good investment in your area might be one of those wheel locks....

Islagringo said...

Lesson #53: ignore beggers, especially children. You are just feeding and promoting the problem.

Lesson #54: put superglue (Kola Loca) on your screws before putting them in.

When you saw the kid in front of another vehicle, you should have pulled up and taken his picture so that he saw you doing it. I bet he would have avoided that parking lot for awhile. No excuses, bloggers always have their cameras with them.

Anonymous said...

What would be the attraction for your license plate? I know I've heard of them being taken by the police and having to pay to have them returned. Do the kids run the same scam?

Steve Cotton said...

Darrel -- And here we were laughing about the guys who used locking nuts on their license plates.

Jennifer -- I gave her the change from my purchase. Probaly $5.40 (MX). I usually give the bagger a ten peso coin, when I have one. I didn't this trip. So, I just dumped my change into her little tip jar.

I gave the budding Willie Sutton nada. But I was certainly prepared to give him something for his need -- if not for his performance. Good grief. We drop much bigger bills in the music cases of buskers, who are often merely annoying.

Felipe -- I am waiting for my vehicle to simply disappear from the street. Then I can deal with the customs folks on the taxes I will owe if I want to bring another vehicle here. Or just buy one here.

Constantino -- And most of the lessons are merely old ones tarted up in new costumes. But that is one of the beauties of life.

Steve Cotton said...

Islagringo -- I have trouble drawing a line between donating to a beggar and participating in other acts of charity. My giving is not for my pleasure. It is to remind me that I have been made the steward of much and that I should be sharing it with others in need.

I thought of you during this episode. Actually, I wanted my camera to show the photograph to the store manager. But it would have made a great post piece. Alas, the camera was sitting at home next to my mobile telephone on the kitchen counter. See a trend here?

Anonymous -- I am not certain how the plates are used. I know that professional criminals use them in The States to mask the identity of vehicles used in crimes, such as, robbery and kidnapping. But, here? No idea. I can speculate, though.

Felipe said...

Ten pesos for the supermarket bagger is way too much. It just reinforces the notion that Gringos are fools with their money. Really. Two pesos max, but that is more than hardly any Mexican would offer.

Charley said...

Jennifer gave a great idea for a subtitle to your blog...."a cotton picking thing"

great blog today. a day in the life and thought provoking, all in one.

Anonymous said...


May I suggest that you find a way to disable your vehicle when it is on the street since you don't drive it much anyway. Most newer vehicles have relays plugged into the electrical panel. Remove one at a time and try to start the vehicle. Or figure out which fuse is for the electric fuel pump and remove it.

This won't make it impossible to steal, but it will make it much harder.

Joanne said...

Like you Steve, I do feel sorry for this child. He is being taught that his behaviour is acceptable. And he is likely not going to school. What sort of future does that leave him?

I do not give money to children like these as I think it causes more problems than it solves. I also do not buy necklaces or similar trinkets for the same reason.

But I don't know the answer. How can you save them? Would it work to send a child like that to school, paying the fees and uniforms for him? Or would his family be angry that he wasn't bringing in any "income"?

We do have so much more than they, but indiscriminate spreading of the wealth doesn't solve anything.

Even giving the bagger a tip at the grocery store is not a great idea. Those kids can't work part time, they have to work 8 hours a day. I do tip them, because they are working for it, but it stinks that Bodega Aurrera insists they work 8 hours a day, which doesn't allow them to attend school. A 12 year old shouldn't have to choose between school and work.

Nancy said...

There are always a million views to how much to tip, no matter where you are. We give at most 5 pesos at the checkstand, and that only to the old people. The younger ones get less. And we usually have a dozen or more bags.

An excellent daily wage here is about 100 to 150 pesos, so if a bagger can collect 20 tips a day and make more than a teacher's assistant it is a little out of balance.

I don't give to the children hawking things like chicklets or roses. If I really felt there was desperation I might offer them some food.

We have our usual beggars in our neighborhood, about 4 of them, who stop by once a week or so and I usually give them 5 or 10 pesos. They usually try to trade something like dusting my front ironwork or something, or are so marginal they can barely speak.

You'll work it all out for yourself, but if I had a store like that in my area, even if it was convenient I would go somewhere else. And I would tell the management why they were losing my business.

Good luck!

Howard said...

There was an article in the local Manzanillo paper a couple of weeks ago about vehicles without license plates. It is illegal and can result in the vehicle being impounded. The article was going on about how rampant it was and the authorities doing nothing.
So now I think they have reacted by clamping down a bit - and having some sort of plates on a vehicle is important - hence the value.

Larry in Mazatlan said...

Nancy and Felipe have it right, in my opinion, regarding tipping.

I used to do one peso for Mr. Whistle in the parking lot. Given the current hard times I now do two. So many nationals give them nothing.

I'm surprised that your local Walmart, or whatever they choose to call themselves, demands that the bagging kids work hours that prohibit school. Check out Soriano if available in your area. In our neck of the woods the baggers have to go to school to keep their jobs, and they only work a half shift. When shift change comes the kids are lined up and undergo an inspection. The older folks fill in while one group of kids heads to school before the morning school group arrives.

And a comment regarding over tipping. Many Mexicans already don't trust anglos, in large part because of our relative financial situations. When you over tip some feel like you're rubbing their nose in it. You might think you're doing a good thing, but you're really not.


Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- I am not certain there is a correct answer. I have had other people chide me for paying $775 a month for a beach house while others are astounded at the "bargain." But your comment is duly noted.

Charley -- I have been searching for a new blog title. There may be some seeds there.

Anonymous -- I have a perfectly good garage. I should use it. It is just such an inconvenience. But no more inconvenient than losing the truck to a thief.

Joanne -- The answer, of course, is that we cannot save them. The best that we can do is offer some solace as we go through their lives.

Nancy -- Thank you for the guidelines. And that was probably my last trip to that store.

Howard -- Another mystery potentially resolved.

Larry -- As always, all good points.

Anonymous said...

In the states, (via mail-order) you can buy special screws for your license plate that require a special tool to apply and remove, which they sell with the plates. Frankly, I wouldn't be too wild about the police removing the plates either, so you get a double-benefit.

But I also like Isla Gringo's suggestion of superglue on the threads. But that's only likely to work if the bolt goes into a metal nut. If it goes into plastic, that is less likely to work. You could also put some thick, sticky glue behind the plate.

Too bad about the kid. I feel so sorry for them. Being instructed in petty crimes is abuse and it's so sad to see.

Sometimes charity is all we can do.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where once upon a time my motorcycle plate was stolen downtown. Replacing it was a minor hassle.

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- I will look into your tool idea. If Howard's theory is correct, the problem is only going to get worse. Some parking police have a solution for the locking bolts. They carry tin snips.

Anonymous said...

Even in your garage I would find a way to disable the vehicle, let alone "on the street". I have been reading your blog for over a year and, frankly, I am becoming increasingly suprised at how often you seem to simply dismiss very sound advise. The quality of your writing most times portrays an intelligent "been around the block" individual. However, lately, not so much...

When your "My truck was stolen..." post is inevitably published, it will surely make this license plate business rather obsolete.

Steve Cotton said...

Anonymous (another) -- I am not a superstitious person. But I was just thinking as I sat here, once the words are spoken, the predicted doom becomes more likely. Into the garage the truck goes tonight. And, in there, it is safer than my other possessions are -- for reasons I am not going to discuss.

norm said...

A quick fix on the plate, a dab of liquid weld in the screw slot so a screw driver cannot turn the screw. If you have to change the plate, a pair of pliers will turn the screws out.

Islagringo said...

Reading comments on your blog is almost as enjoyable as the post itself! And I always learn something, or at least get something to think about, from them.

Diego said...

Steve, allow me to give you my "Mexican perspective" on the issue. I usually don't give money to those kids because, as you suspect, there is always an irresponsible adult behind them and they probably won't benefit from our help. As for tipping, there isn't really a "standard rate". I certainly don't agree with Felipe who argues that hardly any Mexican would tip over two pesos. Tipping in Mexico depends more on the size of the city you are in, the neighborhood where you live, and the kind of service you are being provided. I do not think 5 pesos for a bagger is irrational or excessive. Then again, I base my opinion on my own parameters.

P.S. I do think 20 pesos for a beggar is WAY too much. Like I said, I don't give them money, but if I absolutely had too then it would be just a couple of coins.

Steve Cotton said...

Norm -- This is better than finishing school on a pirate ship.

Islagringo -- You are correct. The commenters on this blog are a very well-informed, resourceful group. I learn a lot from them.

Diego -- Thanks for the observations. As I just told Islagringo, I am continually impressed with the advice that shows up in the comments section of this blog.

Brenda said...

The children grocery baggers here are almost always wearing their school uniforms as they work. They work after their morning or afternoon sessions in school; this is in Soriana or Ley, we don't have a WalMart.
We tip depending on how many bags we have; but never more than 5 pesos. As someone else mentioned think about how many people they bag for in a shift and they make a pretty good wage as compared to a working adult. A worker here in a maquilladora makes around $7.00 a day.
By the way my Mexican landlady tips more at the grocery store than we do, I have been with her and seen.

Croft said...

There may be exceptions but it is my understanding that baggers in stores do not wake a wage. They depend entirely on tips as do the "assistants" in the parking lots. I usually give 4 - 6 pesos, depending on the number of bags at the checkout and another 4 - 6 if the guy in the parking lot helps load the car and takes the cart.

On our first RV trip into Mexico we were guilty of blatant over tipping and were set straight by someone who spends a lot of time SOB.

We do not give to beggars, the exception being handicapped because they slip through the cracks in the Mexican welfare system.

Steve Cotton said...

Brenda -- I used the same standard I did for the young baggers at the stores on military bases. There, it is a dollar a bag. I just ratcheted it down for the local area. but I guess not enough.

Croft -- Good advice.