Sunday, August 29, 2010

friendly doors

The neighborhood was new to me.

I moved into the rental in San Patricio in mid-December.  Like many Mexican houses, it has a high wall separating my courtyard from the street. 

I lived on one side of the wall.  The rest of the world lived on the other.

I had not gone out of my way to meet my neighbors -- other than to nod a greeting when I scrambled in or out of my sanctuary, usually to the lady of the house who sat out front monitoring the slow pace of life on our street. 

All that changed the second week I was in the house.

That morning, I walked into Melaque to buy groceries.  After walking three miles in the heat, I was ready for only two things  putting my groceries away and taking a cold shower. 

As I walked down the street in front of the rental, I noticed the husband of the street monitor was working on his pickup.  The truck was precariously balanced on a jack that looked flimsy enough to have been designed for a Yugo. 

He was trying to remove the lug nuts from the left front wheel -- using a monkey wrench and a cheater bar.  The lug nuts appeared to be ahead on points.

He glanced up and smiled.   A bit sheepishly.  A bit frustrated.  One of those look of mixed emotions actors try to master in their Stanislavsky courses.

As I opened the door to my courtyard, he said: "Con permiso."  In Mexico, that phrase is larded with cultural nuggets.  It simply means "With your permission."  And often means nothing more than "let me slip by you, and if we touch it means absolutely nothing."

But, just as often, it is the overture to a major request.  "Could you bring three computers back from America next time?" 

He walked over to me, introduced himself, and asked if I had a tire iron he could borrow.  All in Spanish. 

As most of you know, my Spanish is, at best, spotty.  But I knew exactly what he wanted.  And why.

For some reason, I told him I did not have a tire iron.  It was a blatant lie.  And he must have known that.  I drive an SUV.  He had undoubtedly seen it.  The notion of a gringo driving a truck without a tire iron would have been unimaginable to him.

In The States, a neighbor would have called me on my bluff.  He didn't.  He merely smiled and thanked me.  And made a mental note -- I was not a good neighbor.

In my defense (and it is a terrible one), I was not certain my little tire iron would work on his lug nuts.   

The exchange was running through my mind while I put away the perishable groceries.  But I could not take it any more. 

I left the rest of the groceries on the counter, retrieved the tire iron from my Escape, and strode across the street -- looking more like Chuck Norris than the good Samaritan.

My neighbor was surprised to see me.  I asked if the tire iron would help.  He tried it for size.  Cinderella could not have been happier with the fit.

I offered to help him.  He said he could handle it from there.

When I moved to Mexico, an expatriate told me lending tools was a great way to know your neighbors -- especially, if you worked with them on their projects.  Guys building things is a cultural universal.

But, he added a caveat.  If you feel uncomfortable lending tools in The States, do not do it in Mexico.  If you care more about the tool than the people, you will not nurture good relationships.

I returned to pantry duty and then took my shower.  Just as I was getting out of the shower, I heard the gate bell.  I grabbed a pair of shorts and ran outside.

It was my neighbor, tire iron in hand.  Before he handed it over, though, he walked me over to his newly-installed wheel and tire.  We grunted approvingly.

I thought of that incident while once again leafing through Don Adams's Head for Mexico.  Near the end of the book, he recounts the types of complaints about Mexico he hears from expatriates.

Mosquitoes.  Barking dogs.  Dead animals in the road.  Trash in the street.  Wild critters roaming the night.  Creepy crawlies.  Dust.  Narrow roads.  Fireworks at all hours of the day and night.  Heat.  Torrential downpours.  Bad roads.  People who don't have the decency to learn to speak English.  Electrical failures.  Poor public services.  Bureaucracies.  Workers who agree to, but then never show up to do a job.  Undrinkable water.  Non-operating public telephones.  Septic tanks.  Loud music half the night long.  Stray dogs poopin' in the streets.  Horses poopin' in the streets.  Donkeys poopin' in the streets.  Chicken poopin' in the streets.  Live animals on the highways.  Dead animals on the highway.  High gas prices.

I laughed as I read it because I have heard the same complaints.  I may have uttered a few myself -- even though the list sounds like a description of my youth in rural Oregon.

The list is a reminder that Mexico is not a boring paradise.  It is a real place with problems, challenges, and aggravations. 

The trick is to keep life in perspective.  The aggravations are easily balanced out by the adventures of living in Mexico.  They are merely the equivalent of diminished sevenths in the concerto that is Mexico.

When I was on my crutches, my neighbors would always rush over to help me open my courtyard door.  And help inside with with whatever I had purchased that day.

I was capable of opening the door myself.  But their help added a new layer to our relationship.

And I am now starting to know my neighbors.


Adrienne said...

Hola Sr. Cotton. Usted es un buen hombre en cualquier país.

Adrienne on E Street

Unknown said...

Qué bueno Esteban! People in the United States have largely forgotten that they need each other; this knowledge is not forgotten in countries like Mexico.

Theresa in Mèrida said...

Steve, you are basically a good guy. What I love about this story is that the neighbor didn't question you remembering the tire iron, no accusations, just taking it.
The list cracks me up.We only have about half those things and the other half (like septic tanks) is no different than what we had living in the forest, nob, including torrential rains!


Anonymous said...

Excellent post today. Thanks for writing.

Tancho said...

Yes, sometimes it does appear as a land of Oz....

Steve Cotton said...

Adrienne -- Thanks, neighbor. I will try to do the same for you.

Al -- A number of recent events have convinced me that Americans can be generous with one another.

Theresa -- The lack of recrimination amazes me. I wondered the same thing. Did he think I just happened to run across the tire iron while putting away my groceries? Or, perhaps, in the shower?

Francisco -- This one was fun to write.

Tancho -- That may explain why I like Mexico. I am an Oz fellow myseklf.