Friday, March 05, 2010

the beggar woman

Unlike Billy Pilgrim, she seems stuck in time.

But never on Sunday.  Just like Melina Mercouri.  That is her day to honor God.  Not to toil in the fields -- or streets -- of Mammon.

The right hand upturned in the universal sign of need.  Weathered with honorable age.

The eyes searching for compassion.

The voice as plaintive as a supplicant before the crucifix.

A mouth ready to break into a grateful smile or simply to wish the tourist God's hand on the day.

She is our local beggar woman.

But there is something special about her.  She has majesty and grace.

No beggar rags for her.  She wears a clean duster with a color-coordinated sweater.  If she would trade the sandals for a pair of Anne Kleins, she could play Carlos Slim's mother.  Or, at least, the mother of some prosperous fast food chicken chain owner.

And she is good at her job.  Not many Nordic hands pass without dropping a coin or two into hers.

If the eyes cannot melt the heart of the tourist trying to juggle grocery bags and those baffling peso coins, she will offer to sing a song -- or say a prayer.

Her voice is angelic.  If her prayers have the same quality, they may be the best buy in the village.

The tourists love her.  Little girls fight with one another to have their photograph taken with Mother Teresa's doppelgänger.

Her Mexican neighbors are not as generous -- either with their donations or their appreciation for her talents.  I have heard the same tale from each of them.  She is not poor.  She owns three houses.  Her family is wealthy and provides her with support.

I tend to discount what sounds like "sour grapes" because I hear the same urban myth rap wherever I go.

The beggar in Athens who is rumored to own a ship yard.  The Gypsy children in Rome who are heirs to a fortune that would cause Croesus to blush.  The man at the Santa Monica freeway exit with the "Help a Vet" sign who makes more money than the CEO of Paramount.

Begging is one of those vocations (or avocations) that causes us Westerners to wince.  It lives on that narrow frontier between rugged individualism and Christian compassion.  And we don't know how to react to it.

A beggar in Baghdad is honored as a part of a noble tradition in Islam.  But in Mexico?

I visited Cuba in March of 2001.  A Cuban-American friend arranged for her cousin, a Communist Party functionary, to show me around.

He proudly showed me around old Havana (where I did not tell him I knew that it had been restored with capitalist donations from a Spanish businessman) and boasted of the successes of the communist revolution.

"Unlike the rest of the Americas, we have no beggars," he crowed.

God must wait for moments like this.  No more had he finished the sentence than a very dirty woman approached us and asked for money to feed her child.

He immediately changed direction, and without prompting, responded with the same line I have heard in Melaque (but with a Cuban twist): "She should be arrested.  She doesn't need money in Cuba."

Well, I don't know if the beggar woman in front of the Melaque grocery store needs the money or not.  What I do know is that her grace and humor touch me each time our eyes meet.

And if, at the end of each day, she climbs in her Bentley and is chauffeured to her suite at El Tamarindo, I will still have learned whether I have a soul of compassion or a heart of stone.

I hope for the better nature.

Sing me another song, mother.

Monday through Saturday, she stands guard at the exit of the tourist grocery store in town.


Anonymous said...

Where we are born and into what station in life is pure chance. I can't forget this when I encounter people less fortunate than me. I believe it is compassion you possess and not a heart of stone. I take my hat off to you sir.

Chrissy y Keith said...

is she in front of Super Hawaii?

Christine said...

Oh if I were there I would be so curious I would try to follow her home. When I think about it, it isn't so strange to me that a lonely rich old woman would rather play a beggar's role than sit staring out the window all day with nothing to do. Don't you want to unravel the mystery?

Anonymous said...

i know we all have different feelings or opinions about handing out money. it is not for lack of compassion or generosity. with me, as with many folks. i do not want to support anyone's drug or alcohol habit. (not referring to the old woman) if you're not sure about giving her money, next time you see her, offer to buy her a meal or just do it and hand it to her. I've done that many times and the recipients have always been grateful. well, except for an old man in miami beach who turned down dinner. i think he had so many people offer him food that he just couldn't eat it all. i gave it to another vagrant who was happy to take it.

by the way steve, we all know you have a heart of gold.

have a great weekend! we're supposed to get up to 60 tomorrow so i am going hiking again.

take care,

Anonymous said...

Perhaps she is not a beggar, rather a modern day busker! Not unlike the ones you see on the seawall in Vancouver and Victoria. There are beggars and then there are artists needing a stage... perhaps the streets of Melaque is her stage. Maybe she gives all the money away at the end of the day to a needy family... now that would be a "win win"... :)

Joe S. said...

So Steve, is there a unwritten standard of acceptable pesos gifting for people less fortunate? is this woman the only beggar you see in town? Would you ever engage her in conversation.

Ron said...

When I was a child in Brasil, decades ago, a begger in the city of Belo Horizonte died and left a whole lot of money to an organization, the name of which I do not recall.

It is not always a myth.

1st Mate said...

I remember her. I always had some change for her. And I don't believe the myths; any woman her age who could live in comfort instead of being on her feet all day long would be home with her poodles and her bonbons.

Steve Cotton said...

Francisco -- "From him who has been given much, much will be demanded — from someone to whom people entrust much, they ask still more." If we can only live up to the ideal.

Chrissy -- She is, indeed.

Christine -- I prefer the mystery to the answer. I had lunch today with some blog readers. They were split right down the middle on The Truth. I am willing to let it lie.

Teresa -- She is known to reject food items. Perhaps, she follows the adage that there is honor in gold.

Anonymous -- Now, that is a take I had not considered: worthy performance art.

Joe -- She stands where she does because tourists have no idea what to give her. I saw a woman dig in her purse and pull out a 100 peso note. (About $8 US.) I doubt she would have given that much to a beggar in her home town. The beggar woman now refuses to sing a song for less that 15 pesos (just over $1 US). Her songs were once come-ons for donations. They are now purchased. But it is something for something.

Ron -- It may happen. I guess I am not really concerned. After all, I give far more to governments and they waste it with more efficiency than this woman ever could.

1st Mate -- I have resigned myself to enjoying her for who she is. I have never heard her hiss an insult at anyone -- as some beggars do when their entreaties are spurned.

Laurie said...

I carry food, usually fruit. The glue sniffers (mostly young men or boys) reject the food and leave me alone. On occasion, I have wept along with beggars who cried when they received a gift of fruit.

Anonymous said...


I watched people in San Miguel hand money to the beggar women and men. I believe that it has far more to do with the person giving the money than the person taking it, although few donors would admit it.

Babs said...

Many years ago I traveled with a grup of women to San Miguel. A beggar woman approached our car and all the women turned and got into the van without any donations. Our driver, who has since become a good friend, went to his coin purse in the van and went back and gave money to her.
I later asked him about it and he said, "We do not give to the children. They can work. But, we exist because of the hard work and suffereing of the old people!. Hmmm, I've never passed up the chance to give coins in honor of that thought since then. And yes, I agree the woman outside Hawaii has an aura of grace and serenity. I too looked forward to seeing her. I called her my "sidewalk ambassador".