All ages are equidistant from god. Sir Herbert Butterfield
The two boys walked into our café on the corner of Avenida de Brasil and Defensa in San Telmo covered in the kind of dirt that only a deep hot soak and a nun’s scrub with a wire brush would (might) remove.
They were “boliguayos”, dark skins, homeless, and they were in a state of dirty that would have terrified my mother. The grime caked the crevices of their hands and was packed into their fingernails; it was in the pores of their skin. They were wearing dirty shorts and threadbare tank-tops and their calves and ankles were covered in a paste of fine dried mud. Two street urchins straight out of a Dickensian novel.
I look at the boys with fascination and repulsion, with a vague feeling of guilt. I am incredulous. Impotent. I have that same nauseous impotent feeling I had the day I watched my neighbour cut down a dozen seventy-year-old trees in his backyard to make way for a new parking lot.
The fact that we were in Buenos Aries, sitting in a café that was walking distance from one of the most beautiful downtowns in all of the world, sitting in the 400-year-old ancient heart of the city, only made these grade-school panhandlers all the more sad to see.
Ariel and I had just spent the day exploring the magnificent Avenida de Mayo – one of the most spectacular streets in the world – and now we sat happy in our adventure, sipping frothy café-au-laits and eating our slices of dreamy Napolitano pizza. We were feeling good, pleased with ourselves, and now my eyes are following these two boys around the café as they go sullenly and silently from table-to-table, their eyes downcast, their caked hands held out passively for any available alms.
The oldest boy is maybe nine years old. His younger brother (same nose, same eyes) we guessed at six or seven. As the shoeless boys finish their rounds and leave (we later learn that the café owner forbids them approaching touristas, as it is bad for business), our waitress tells us that they live in the park across the street.
There is a homeless “madre” in Parque Lezama who has taken the street kids under her wing. The waitress stops talking and looks out the window. She angrily nods her head in the direction of a woman standing across the street. She is their mother, she tells us spitefully.
I watch the woman from my window seat. She is no more than thirty. Maybe less.
I can see flickers of defiance and anger smeared across her pock-marked face as she continuously and irritably scratches at the sores on her loose skin, I watch as she openly looks men up and down as they pass her by. She tries to strike the pose of an interested hooker, but on her, it just looks cruel. She looks half-feral, a meager waif of a being, with thin pointed angles for arms and legs, matted hair, hollow eyes. She is wearing a worn yellow cotton dress.
The waitress goes to the door and yells obscenities at the woman. The woman glances at her but otherwise ignores her. The children, we are told when she comes back to our table, are instructed to go from café to café all day long and bring their earnings to her in exchange for small meals of bread, an occasional empanada, and fresh glue.
The woman on the corner looks up and I follow the madre’s eyes to the boys who have completed their rounds of the three corner cafes. As they stand in the doorway of the café that counter to the corner where she is standing, I see her face light up with anticipatory curiosity. She already feels the next hit, I think to myself. She is already drifting off into the night, into the world of laughter and forgetting.
I look back at the boys. They are now standing on the corner waiting for the light to change (as if they were on their way home from school). The older brother reaches out and puts his right arm around the small shoulders of his younger brother. When the light changes, Big Brother reaches down and takes a tight hold of his younger brother’s left hand. “I will protect you”, his touch declares, reassuring the little boy, that together they are safe as they cross the street.
The unexpected intimacy momentarily overwhelms me and I do not know where to look.
I have invaded their privacy.
I look at Ariel who has also seen the gesture.
She looks like she is about to cry.
I don’t know what to say, so I stare down at the cobblestone sidewalk and its pockmarked potholes, and when I finally glance up I note a young woman as she dances lightly around the boys and happily skips over the pothole puddles, on her way home from a long day at work.