Unworthy Man in the Land of Eternal Banquet
By Donald Balla, Department of Business
by Christina Bunker
"Why do you refuse his food?" Alfonso asked me. "Money, pff, I don't need, but the stomach demands."
The driver who had picked us up had offered to buy our lunch. But I had refused. It was my second day hitchhiking in Mexico, guitar in hand. I was young and did not know what I was made of.
Alfonso was my hitchhiking mentor and the first to give me food. It happened right before he saved my life. He used his last peso to buy us popsicles called yom-yoms, then helped me escape by clinging to an overloaded bus speeding down a twisted mountain road, sucking our yom-yoms.
I once saw Alfonso trade his scarf for two popsicles. Whenever pesos fell our way, he would buy them. Always two.
"When you spend your last peso," Alfonso instructed, "use it to buy food for someone else."
Mexico provided a feast of staggering kindness. Everyone who offered us rides fed us. Sometimes little, sometimes belly-busting. Always extravagant. Once, a grandmother invited us out of the rain into her hut. The family of six had no food, so Grandmother, shawl over her gray hair, braved the rain to bring back beer. Alfonso explained: "Food is mankind's only true gift." When it was time to go, Grandfather forced five pesos on us.
"Ah ha!" cried Alfonso snatching the bill from my fingers. "In our future I … see … yom-yoms."
Days later, we rode a packed bus into Mexico City. On a seat made for two, I sat between Alfonso and two Aztec men with arms like beef jerky sticks. Across the aisle three children gawked at their first Yankee. Their mother fed them from a sausage she guarded in her basket. Alfonso uncrumpled our last bills.
"How much sausage will you sell us for three pesos?"
The mother sliced off two generous portions, which Alfonso took and passed . . . across me to the two Aztecs.
""Ha! Ha!," triumphed Alfonso laughing at my surprise. "Ha, ha, ha!" He shook his index finger at me. But I was too young and didn't understand.
In Mexico City, Alfonso proclaimed me ready to hitchhike solo. For a while I though he might be an angel sent to protect me, but he had a small office in the City and a gunshot scar in his side, so maybe he wasn't.
The trip north from Mexico City was an unending banquet with regularly arriving courses. Even after forty years I remember them. The business woman escorted me to the right bus, then gave me her last pastry. The farmer with the Pancho Villa mustache told the vendor to prepare whatever I wanted but ate nothing himself. The Indian with the full skirt gave me my first ear of corn on a stick. "One does not eat it like that," she instructed. "You put hot sauce on it like this. See? No, put on more. Look everyone, see how the gringo eats his corn." The crowd around me boisterously applauded.
Alfonso's admonition about how to spend one's last peso shamed me. When my humiliation would leave me no peace, I took my guitar, held it upside down, and shook out … ten pesos. I had them all the time-just in case.
Although I resolved to give away this damning evidence, due to some genetic defect I could not buy people food. I could give a peso to the legless woman, but the Alfonso in my gut went, "Pff, money I don't need." A peso to the man with the empty eye socket. Pff.
I should have known. For almost a month generous souls had been dishing out silent sermons: They preached, "Our stomachs demand. Hunger is our mutual mother. Food given is garnished with the flavor of the giver."
In Monterrey, I was down to my last two pesos. The Sunday bazaar buzzed with shoppers, executives, pickpockets, Indians, shoe shiners, and sellers of onions, oranges, and tomatoes, pyramids of leeks, caldrons of soups, griddles of pork, freshly split melons alive with bees. Beggars worked the crowd and hungry children boiled around me. Two pesos could buy sizzling corn tortillas. One could add salt and salsa and pretend one's stomach was filling. I felt boxed in. I feared that if I gave food garnished with a piece of myself, people would discover that I had been baked by a lesser baker. I waved down a bus, passed my last coin to the driver and fled to the only empty seat in the back. I kept my eyes on the floor. In that way I hid from the world for a few burdened minutes until a small hand tapped me lightly on the arm, and a black-eyed child passed me two radishes.
In Mexico, I had experimented with a new recipe of myself. Following Alfonso's instructions, I mixed and kneaded and placed the dough in the hot oven of experience only to discover that I lacked a critical yeast. Now I am a lawyer who fights [shift in verb tense] for the rights of undocumented immigrants. I do this for Grandmother and the black-eyed girl, for the hundred people who could not abide my presence near them close to a meal time without food in my hand. They are all part of whatever stew I slowly simmered into. And I know that sometime this week, a client is going to stand in my office doorway with a plate of carne asada, rice, a slice of lime, that odd Salvadorian cabbage slaw, and I'm going to object and say, "Look, Doña Petrona, you paid in full long ago," and she's going to shush me with a finger to her lips, saying:
"Shh, no, no. Let me do this. Eat."