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Sunday short story…

March 20, 2011

The two boys walked into El Hipopotamo Café at Avenida Brasil and Defensa in San Telmo, BA, covered in the kind of dirt that only a deep hot soak and full scrub would (might) remove. They were both very dark skinned and in a state of dirty that would have terrified my mother. The dirt had caked into the crevices of their hands and packed into their fingernails, and was in the pores of their skin. Their legs and ankles were covered in a paste.

By the window-Hipopotamo Cafe

 

They were two street urchins of the Dickensian kind we westerners would stereotypically call to mind whenever we would think of a homeless child from any Third World city. The fact that we were in Buenos Aries, just walking distance from one of the most beautiful downtowns in all of the world, only made it all the more sad to see. We had spent the day exploring the Ecological Reserve and we had walked back to San Telmo and now we sat in the Hipopotamo with our café-au-laits and our slices of dreamy Argentinean pizza (some of the best in the world) and we followed the boys around the café as they went sullenly and silently from table-to-table, their eyes downcast, their grubby hands held out passively.

They collect a few coins and we watch them until they leave through the café’s saloon-doors. They did not come to our table and we did not know why until we later discovered from our waitress that the owner only allowed them to come in on the condition that they not hit up the tourists. No one wants to irritate the gravy train – not in this economy. (The country is still three-quarters dead, and is only now barely dragging itself out of the economic grave its elites had dug for the country after the 2001 collapse.)

We are staying on the very southern edge of San Telmo – the last safe refuge before you hit the hard poverty of the La Boca barrio (Maradona’s old neighbourhood) and on into the even more destitute barrios on the other side of river. It’s a curious condition – seeing this kind of poverty – the kind anyone who travels even five feet off the beaten path in Latin America must come to terms with. Of course we have homeless people in Toronto, and many people die on the streets there, and sadly we have come to terms with that reality and shrug it off as part of big-city life. But we don’t yet have wondering packs of homeless children as they do in these parts of the world.

We know we are powerless to do anything for these two boys here in the cafe, but we am still confronted with their hungry piercing eyes, and the answers they are searching for. “Why me?” they silently implore. “I’m just a kid. What did I ever do to deserve this?”

The oldest boy was probably about nine years old. His younger brother, we guessed at around six or seven. Our waitress told us that they lived in the park across the street. She tells us that there are a couple of homeless “mothers” who have taken under their wings all the street kids who have made Parque Lezama their home. And just then, as she was explaining these things to us, she looks out the window and angrily nods her head in the direction of a woman standing across the street. She is one of them, she tells us spitefully. We are told she is waiting for her take of the gleamings after the boys complete their rounds of the three corner cafes.

I turn to look out at her and see that she is a meager being of thin arms, matted hair, and hollow eyes. She is wearing a thin, worn yellow cotton dress. If I saw her in Toronto I would assume she was a crack addict. (Looks like a duck. Walks like a duck…) The children, we are told, are instructed to go from café to café all day long and bring their earnings to her in exchange for small meals and fresh glue.

The waitress tells us this sad story as I continue to look at the woman leaning against the wall. I can see defiance and anger smeared across her pock-marked face. She continuously and irritably scratches at the sores on her loose skin, and openly looks men up and down as they passed by. She looks half-feral as she shifts and frets with herself, awaiting the boys. When they finally do exit from the café, counter to the corner where she was standing, I can see her face light up with anticipatory curiosity. I follow her eyes and look over at the boys and see that the older one has his right arm around the shoulders of his young brother. They are standing on the corner waiting for the light to change (as if they were off to school) and when the light does change, he reaches down and takes a tight hold of his younger brother’s left hand.

They are together, and they are safe, as they cross the street. The unexpected intimacy momentarily overwhelms me and I do not know where to look for I feel that I have invaded their privacy. So I stare at the cobblestone street and its pockmarked potholes and I glance up at the young woman who dances lightly around the boys and skips over one of the pothole puddles on her way home from work.

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