I sat on the grassy, wide banks of the Paseo de la Reforma, a river-wide boulevard going from Chapultepec Park, the tony end of Mexico City, through the commercial heart of the city to La Plaza de la Constitucion, El Zocalo, the ancient main plaza, eight miles away, where the Aztecs declared their capitol in 1325. I sat on a bench in the morning sun in the Red Zone (the Zona Rosa), near the fabled Hotel Geneva in the sixties, when it still had a jaunty, Parisian reputation not sullied by discretion. I had completed the first half of my usual morning ritual…a visit to a fabulous bakery on Rio Lerma, a street three blocks away, to lay in a store of Mexico’s best morning pastries. The bakery, with a forbearing nod to the French intrusion into its culture, had croissants and brioche, as well as the best of Mexico: orejas (elephant ears), bolillos (rolls), conchas ad infinitum and coffee. I had learned the day before, or the day before that, my first visit there, the how-to in a Mexican bakery…the tongs, the metal tray…I watched so I knew the punctilio, not someone who needed instruction in the local customs.
The second half of the morning ritual was the part I was about to work on…in the bask of a warm sun…indulging in my culinary trove. I was pleased by my restraint, not dipping into the bag on the way to the bench, tempted as I was. I sat, chose my first delight and began, lost in thought about the day before, a late afternoon in Plaza Garibaldi, where mariachi bands, playing at the same time, competed to be picked by a party, a wedding, or to be engaged by a suitor to play for his lady…the ultimate display of affection. Plaza Garibaldi…and then I got lost in thought about an earlier visit to Victor’s, The purveyor of Mexican crafts housed in a bare-bones walk-up commercial building off Reforma, as nondescript a building as any in New York’s garment center…ah, but the treasures within. A bite of a croissant and then I got lost in a swirl of time at Victor’s. Three high-ceilinged rooms…plain, army-green pressed metal shelving and plain wood tables with a high tide splash of crafts from every indigenous group in Mexico…tin masks, bark paintings, wool ‘painting’, fantastical wood carving, ceramics, weaving…Victor and I alone, the Toscanini of Mexican crafts, directing my attention to the most interesting, as best he could with limited English…talking to someone with limited Spanish. Victor, who knew the artisans all over Mexico, who visited them and bought from them for his museum of crafts and there I was, thinking about everything I should have bought, but didn’t. Lamenting…an inevitable companion to the joy felt at what I did buy. But back to the croissant…a bite, a sip…then a flash on my left.
It was a kid, quick as a tow truck, racing to an accident, who snapped me from my morning idyll. He skidded to a halt in front of me, declaring tacitly, but irrevocably. “hey man, you’re mine”. And, on his haunches, he set up his shoe shine box with a raised wooden form in the shape of a foot, took my right foot, put it on the form and began brushing away the morning’s grime…then the left foot. After that, quick as a card dealer, he stared applying…with bare hands…shoe polish. Not twenty seconds had yet elapsed and the assault on my shoes was in full swing. And so far without a word. Then the patter started…in English…engaging me, the mark, in easy conversation…”Where you from?” Too canny to fall for a fast-talking 10-year-old, I asked “how much?” before the assault could progress further.
He kept working. “This is the best shine in Mexico. Never need another shine while you are here. Best “wox” (his pronunciation of wax). I get from Sanborn’s…very expensive.” The shine still did not have a price tag, but the practiced build-up before revealing the price sailed on. And the longer it went on, I knew, the more absurd the price would be. I took my foot off the shoe box form…”how much?” (knowing the standard price was about 5 pesos, $.35 to $.40). “I have a wife and baby at home. Very important for them…and my grandparents”. He tried lifting my foot back on the form. “Ten dollars,” he said, “but you never need another shine.” But before negotiating the price down could begin, a young woman, an American, ran up to me and said breathlessly, “he’s going to tell you a shine is $10. Don’t pay it…it’s only five pesos.” And off she ran, as if trying to get away from an explosive device she had just set.
And the kid, now about 90 percent of the way through the shine, threw his rags, brush and “wox” back in the box, said a hateful “son of a bitch” and stomped off.