Wheelchairs, pig guts, computers and machetes

Let me tell you what happened in the Mississippi of Mexico while I was out with the Pusher Divine, and visited by Peter Lorre and his giant knife.

By Carlos Amantea
Published April 3, 2001 9:00AM (EDT)

The other day I sent Lirio into the local bank to get some money out of my rapidly dwindling account. I would have gone myself but Bancomer has set up its local branch with a narrow doorway and five high steps that aren't very accessible, so I sent Lirio instead.

Some of us who have been in wheelchairs long enough have gotten past bitching about this shit. At one hospital I was in they had the staff take a day off to travel around town in a wheelchair, no cheating, so they could get some sense of our real world. When I picket Bancomer and its building designers, I'll suggest that they send the architects out into the streets in a wheelchair for a day or two so they can see how the other half lives with these narrow doors and 11-inch-riser steps.

If I am in a crabby mood, being in a wheelchair always adds an extra dimension to my crabbiness. Everywhere they set up these walls: curbs with no cuts, six steps into my favorite restaurant, 11 steps down to the beach, five steps into the bank, five steps out of the bank. Some of us don't take lightly to being carried in or out of buildings or on or off beaches or in or out of banks.

Then there are the passersby. One night I'm sitting in the "adoquin," the pedestrian part of town where all the gringos go to eat and buy gewgaws and ice cream, and I'm minding my own business, sucking my thumb, and this guy comes by and pats me on the head and says, "God's gonna cure you" and then ambles on down the street.

He looks like a normal enough guy -- no dueling scars on his face to indicate that he is into abusing himself (or others) -- but he doesn't know beans about those of us who live in wheelchairs. He also obviously doesn't know that we have a special reaction to being patted on the head like a doggy, especially when it's accompanied by a slightly skewed message from the divine.

Most of us crips live in the eternal "Show-Me" state -- so when people presume to speak on God's behalf, we are often eager to know about their credentials, how they can speak with certainty. We expect such messengers to have wings and halos, or at least a divine glow. This guy didn't have wings, a halo or a glow -- at least as far as I could tell -- so I didn't pay much attention to his pontificating.

When people do the head pat and deliver the message of cheer, they are assuming that I am in despair and that I am in need of words of hope. But since I've been in a wheelchair off and on for about half a century, they are addressing a part of me that probably doesn't respond too well to their message.

Lest you think that the world is made up only of fools and nitwits, let me tell you what happened last week. Lirio is pushing me up and down the public market so we can find some lunch, but first I should tell you about Lirio. He is the master chauffeur, the Pusher Divine. When they give prizes at the next Convention of the Americans With Disabilities Association, I'm going to nominate Lirio for a gold medal for his mastery of the Wheelchair Go-Round.

There are wheelchair people who run you into walls and tumble you down stairs. These we tend to avoid. Then there are those who are merely competent -- they can get you up a curb or down a hump in the road without dumping you, but they don't do it with any art.

Lirio? He's the Tiger Woods of wheelchairology. He sees things long before I do: pits in the roadway, channels in the sidewalk, tubes under the macadam, arroyos in the dirt roads and dog shit just around the corner on the sidewalk that anyone else would miss.

In your typical Mexican public market, there is always a puddle of smegma somewhere about, usually next to the meat section. With or without smegma, the meat section is a study -- filled with dark red, striated hanging things with a thick, hair-curling, eye-watering, nose-wrinkling stink, along with a superb collection of flies. It's enough to make you a permanent vegetarian.

Somewhere near the meat-and-fly department of the public market is a runoff area, a runnel of dark, ominous liquids, made up of blood, rotten exudate, upchuck, stools and other goodies -- all collected together into a thick and loathsome puddle.

Now if Fredo or Jose was pushing my chair, he'd breeze right through these smegma marshes with not a care in the world, not thinking that in a couple of hours these selfsame wheelchair tires would be coursing through my home, bearing in the treads unseen billions of bacteria, germs, viruses, the Black Plague.

Lirio knows better. He always gets me over or around the pipes and cables and holes in the cement and the dog poop, keeps me well away from the smegma puddle so I won't have to worry about whether I am carrying an army of festering bacteria along with me on my tires into my clean home.

Last week Lirio and I were in the public market looking for a place to eat among the 30 or so stalls with tables and five or six chairs and a kitchen so small you have to go outside to change your mind, trying to find one that might have something to satisfy this gnawing in Lirio's tum.

In the stall marked "Doqa Alicias" there's a lady watching us, a lady with her hair pulled back in a bun and the face of one who has lived in this area long enough to know that it's no piece of cake trying to make it through life in what is in effect the Mississippi of Mexico. When she sees me coming down the aisle she steps out from behind the counter and hands me 5 pesos. What to do?

This stuff happens all the time. In the old days it used to drive me crazy. I mean, one of my monthly payments from Social Security alone could take care of this hair-bun lady and her eight children and drunken husband for the next year. What to do? Give her back her 5 pesos and say thanks but no thanks?

There is a better solution, and Lirio figures it out at once. He shoves my chair up to the table of her cafe and asks her what's available to eat. She tells us that she has arroz y frijoles -- beans and rice. Also caldo de pollo -- chicken soup. And, finally, sopa de panzita de puerco -- tripe soup.

I opt for the beans and rice; Lirio takes the tripe. The perfect solution: The meal costs 35 pesos -- about $3.50 -- which means I can leave a 5-peso tip, no problem.

Later, Lirio claims she poisoned him with her gut soup because he has problems with his own tripe that evening, but I tell him that she's a nice lady, possibly a saint, and he can trust her and her food and that anyone who has no more than 5 pesos in her pocket yet comes out and offers it as a gift to the tall gringo with the dewlaps and the shaky hands in his wheelchair is OK in my book. I also point out to him that anyone who chooses to eat a bowl filled with "tripas de puerco" -- pig guts -- well deserves what he gets.

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Computers and Machetes

No sooner had I put my trailer up at the place that we call La Huerta here in Puerto Perdido than I was set upon by two officials of the local "secondaria" -- the public school. They came by to tell me that they admired my truck and said that they would like me to contribute it to their school.

I responded by saying that I often had trouble with the language and was probably going deaf on top of that, so perhaps they could repeat their words so that I might better understand what they were asking of me.

The group leader looked not unlike a grizzled Peter Lorre, and his compadre was a parody of the Mexican "bandito" -- dirty white pants, unshaven face, scar on the left upper lip, no smile. He had on a T-shirt that praised the virtues of Acapulco and showed the backside of a plump lady in the buff. Both of my visitors -- but not the nude lady -- were carrying machetes.

They repeated that they would like my truck. As a gift. For their school.

Now I well understand that carrying machetes in this part of Mexico is not unlike people carrying an umbrella in England -- it goes with the territory. Still, it made our conversation somewhat strained, especially since the bandito type kept whacking the machete against his thigh for emphasis.

After some back and forth I said, "Look. I can't give you my truck. I need it to do things in. Like get to the store, get around town and eventually -- if I survive -- go back to the U.S. What I could do, if you want, is perhaps when I come back I could bring you something for the school like a computer."

No sooner said than done. Peter Lorre and his slippery companion slipped away and I immediately forgot the conversation. They didn't.

We had many visits after that, and they always brought their machetes. I came to understand that schools here have no local tax base; they are dependent for operating expenses on whatever they can wheedle from the state. People, especially gringos, who live in the school's territory are expected to give what they call "una cooperacion." I also found out that those who make promises, even ones extracted by the proximity of machetes, are expected to live up to them.

So this year, after several needlings, I found an old Macintosh Quadra up north and flew it down with me. When the Machete Squad turned up, I showed it to them and said I would carry it out to the school the next day.

When I arrived, as I was getting out of the car, a bell rang, and 200 freshly washed students in clean white and khaki uniforms marched out of their classrooms and stood in formation in the sun. The school director stood up and made a speech about my generosity; the special projects chief made a speech about my generosity; their star student -- a lovely young lady with walnut-colored skin and long black hair -- gave a speech about my generosity. Then they handed me the microphone, and in my John Gorrie Junior High School Spanish I thanked them for thanking me. Peter Lorre and his sidekick were nowhere to be seen.

Later, I thought of all the things I should have said. I should have said that they were the hope of Mexico, the dream of the future of their country and the world; that the world and their lives were filled with hope; that they would be assuming the burdens that were soon to be laid down by my generation; and that, like a tree growing by the side of the deep river, they would extend their roots of hope and dreams into the heartland of their homeland, or the homeland of their heartland, with branches stretching up into the bright skies that would carry all our hopes and dreams like clouds, sailing along smartly into the future.

That was the speech I should have given but didn't because the sun was hot and they, in their crisp, clean uniforms, were standing directly in the sun and, furthermore, my John Gorrie Junior High Spanish didn't include in its vocabulary words like "heartland" and "homeland" and "aspirations."

One thing I did notice about my local school was the bright faces and the fact that no one was laughing at me and at the ceremony for my $400 used Quadra computer. I knew these people; I had visited their homes; some of their parents had worked for me. I knew what a sacrifice many of them were making to keep their kids in school, to buy the uniforms and the books, not letting the children drop out to work in the fields, to make money to pay for food and shelter for them and their brothers and sisters.

I also noticed no metal detectors, no guards, no I.D. badges. Just 200 bright-faced, clean, uniformed kids, standing in formation, applauding me, and my humble gift, with a great deal of enthusiasm.

Carlos Amantea

Carlos Amantea is the author of "The Lourdes of Arizona." His writing also appears in RALPH.

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Computers Education Latin America Mexico