From a Series of Sketches of Life in Columbia
He stood at the threshold in supplication. He moved continuously, stepping back a few steps quickly and then slowly forward a step or two. I thought of a well-trained dog that stands at thresholds wondering if it’s safe to enter or waiting for permission to come in. He tilted his head this way and that as if asking. For what? His folded hands were also in motion clasped together as if in prayer and then pressed to his chest, his heart, as if to say, ‘thank you.’
I didn’t want to watch but I couldn’t not. We were at Sebastiana, a simple cafe on the edge of a very busy and very noisy roundabout. Traffic moved with a frenzy around the hub. Homeless men, women, children, crippled and deformed men, moved slowly or not at all around the hub.
We were waiting for our ‘executive lunch.’ It’s common at such small cafes to offer one option for lunch: fresh juice, daily homemade soup, a tiny salad (mostly shredded lettuce and too much shredded onion with a smattering of diced tomato ( most Colombians don’t understand the concept of salads), and a main course of meat, vegetables, and rice, yacca, potato, or a combination of each. Such lunches are different each day and they cost about $4.00 (USD). I like executive lunches and I like Sebastiana. It has a writer’s motif with quotations from notable Colombian writers and poets printed on the walls. It’s also a fun place for people watching.
He stood there at the threshold knowing he was not allowed, he was not welcome to come in. The soles of his worn out flip-flops were so flat as if to be almost invisible. His too big pants, cinched with a rope, were grimy and torn, and they hung low. The cuffs all but gone. His ragged tee was torn and stiff with grease and dirt. He danced his slow dance of supplication. Waiting. For what?
Ten, fifteen minutes passed. He prayed. He gave thanks. He waited, stepping back coming close, stepping back again. Finally, the waitress dressed in a white uniform of synthetic pants and jacket blouse came from behind the counter with a white plastic bag draped over two outstretched fingers. It swayed back and forth as she walked slowly toward him. His tail wagged had he been a dog. Tentatively, he reached out but did not step or grab. With a tenderness that brings tears to my eyes even now, he took the offering and bowed. He breathed a sigh. Relief.
He turned and walked away. His daily task was done, or had his work just begun? I watched him weave his way through the fast cars and slow people. I wondered: Is he going to find a quiet place to eat? Is he saving his meager treasure for later in the day when the cool breezes of the afternoon come? Will he share his bounty with another, a friend, family? I watched as he disappeared into the crowd knowing I would never know.
Poverty is ugly. It’s painful. But here in Colombia, it’s visible. No one tries to hide it as too often we do in the States. Many ignore poverty, but no one seems to deny it, and it is not hidden. Further, it is not rounded up and contained in ‘those sections’ of the city. Poverty and its tragedies are more intense in some areas, dangerous areas where it’s not safe to go after dark, but poverty invades every area of this metropolis of over three million people.
But it’s visible. That feels important to me. I thought of Katrina back in 2005. It exposed the depth of poverty that had been hidden in New Orleans. Evacuation had been ordered but there were so many, painfully so many, who could not afford to evacuate. Their poverty was paralyzing, and it had been hidden. Exposed then, but what happened to it since?
Poverty does not get forgotten here, and ironically that inspires hope in me. If we don’t see our shame, how can we end it? If I don’t own that I allow it, how can I allow changing it?
So I watched him waiting. For what? Food. Yes. But I think he was also waiting to be seen. I think he was waiting to be heard as he spoke only with his body and his hands.
I hope I saw him as I watched him walk away. I hope I heard him as he disappeared. I probably won’t see him again, but I know I will never forget him. The look on his face, the dog-like movements of his body, the pleading prayfulness and gratitude are burned in my memory and in my heart forever. Later that day, I worked a bit of magic for him. I imagined putting something more in that plastic bag. I also worked magic around the poverty that is too much a part of this country and too much a part of the world.
Our executive lunches arrived. It was simple, and it was delicious. ‘Que rico!’ We ate. We continued our day.