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.