September 18, 2004

I Know Why She Stared

Poverty once more... there are ways and ways in which it comes up and taps you on the shoulder. The ethics bit I wrote about before is one aspect. Tell you what, I'll tell you two more stories that left me lost in thoughts, not all of them printable.

Kids on Bombay's suburban trains who sweep the floors, know whom I mean? Little bony fellows, carrying little wispy brooms, sit on their bony haunches and sweep away, shuffle forward one haunch at a time. Weaving between our commuting legs, popping up between our knees to pluck away some of our attention from our papers or books. Make us look at them, so that curious but familiar pecking motion of their hands will have its effect. I need food, I need money, give me some, it says.

Know whom I mean?

So once, one of these little fellows appears in our compartment. There's something just a bit different about him. He's bare-bodied, which many of them are, so that's not it. He's grubby, but they all are, so that's not it either. Ah -- he's sweeping the floor not with a broom, but with a dirty rag. I go back to my book, aware that he's going to pop up at my knees any minute. He finishes up, then makes the rounds asking for small change. When he's done, he unfurls the rag and puts it on.

It's his shirt. He's using his shirt to clean up our filthy compartment.

He gets off at the next station and runs into the dusk.

Bar in Havana, two-man band playing. My wife is off paying our hotel bill, so until she returns, I'm alone. In fact, it strikes me later, this is the first time in our three weeks in Cuba that we're not together. That must be why a man and woman suddenly show up at my table. She's dressed in svelte, clinging white, neckline down to her navel. She sits across from me, looking directly at me, her faintly defiant stare a mild puzzle. She doesn't speak. He does.

"Would you like to dance with her?" he asks. No thanks, I don't want to dance, I want to sit here and listen to the music. "If you don't know how, she can teach you," he says. Sure, even I know what this is about. "No thanks," I tell him again in my rudimentary Spanish, the woman still staring disconcertingly at me, "I don't want to dance, I don't know how, I don't want to learn and anyway, I'm waiting for my wife who will be here any moment." Not even my mention of a wife fazes him: "OK, but if it doesn't work with your wife, you can dance with her, no?"

At which point, my wife walks in. The pair look at her -- she could pass for a Cubana, my wife -- and give me a look as if to say, yeah sure, she just got to you before we did, right?

But when Vibha speaks, they know this is no Cubana. They relax. The woman stops staring at me and turns to speak to Vibha. The man tells me of hard times in recent years, the struggle to earn enough to live, how he has little choice but to do this if their children are to be fed ...

It's his wife. He's pimping his wife to the tourist from India.

It's a shirt, it's a wife. It's the way this stuff is so foreign, always, and not just because of Havana.


Melaina RN, PHN, MS, CNS, ACHPN said...

Excellent portrayal of the desperate lengths people will go to survive.

Anonymous said...

I'm probably too insensitive to commiserate with the plight of the poverty-stricken couple, but even otherwise I see no reason to actually feel sorry for either of them *because* of the extreme to which they've had to go to make ends meet. As long as it's consensual and the wife is not being forced into it, I see nothing wrong. It offends our prudish, puritanical sensibilities, thought there's no rational reason to find whoring oneself tragic per se - supply caters to demand, and everyone benefits.