An Unbridgeable Distance

The boy petitioned me while I was drinking a Cuba Libre and writing in my favorite diner in Sao Paulo.

He spoke fast and I couldn’t understand everything that he said. Nothing unusual in that – Brazilian Portuguese is akin to American English, regionally different with every type of slang you could imagine. In Sao Paulo it’s all mixed together with grammar as its victim. Picture me as a Japanese, for example, who’s learned British English talking to a drawling good ole boy on Bourbon Street.

When I offered food he replied, “I already ate. I really need clothes. I don’t have any but these.”

He was young, around ten, but I wasn’t that concerned. I saw young beggars all the time. Besides, there was a swarm of neighborhood kids who begged, and they had clothes and a little house and a shit for an absent father and a drowning mother. He could have been one of them.

Without hesitation he sat down and asked, “You from Germany?”

“No, I’m American . . . from the United States.”

He looked at me. People from Sao Paulo, the economic powerhouse of South America, knew the States; some spoke English. But his idea of America lay in the world of myth. The kid was young, uneducated, sleeping on the streets.

I asked where he was from.

“Pretty close, my city is an hour away.”

“How many times a week do you return?” I thought by the casual way he mentioned how it wasn’t far by bus that he came and went.

“I don’t return home, I live here. Not a good situation there.”

He asked, "Do kids sleep in the streets in The United States of America?"

"Yeah, they do."

"More than here?"

"I don’t know . . . I guess there are more here."

I pressed food again but he was single-minded.

He said to me, “The United States is smaller than Brazil.”

“No it’s bigger, but not much bigger.”

“No. Brazil is bigger.”

“No. In the size of land, Russia is the biggest, then Canada, then the United States, then China, then Brazil.” I was half guessing at that point.

He wouldn’t believe it, but he looked across at a middle-aged, well-dressed man who was having beers with friends and eavesdropping.

“Is it true?” the boy asked.

“Sim, it’s true. Brazil isn’t the biggest country in the world.”

The boy nodded and tried to understand. He was like any child with limited exposure and education but born in a dominant geography – could’ve been Russian, Chinese, American – sure of the absoluteness of his culture and the enormity of the land.

He started grilling me on language and items we had or didn’t have in the States.

I had a Coke in front of me and he had a Guarana, the ubiquitous and unique Brazilian soft drink.

“You have Coca-Cola there?”

“Yes, it’s our drink. We invented it and it’s very popular.”

“What?”

“But we don’t have Guarana, which is unique to Brazil. You know, Brazilians who live in America miss Guarana more than anything because they can’t get it there.”

That sailed right over him.

“How do you say Coca-Cola in the United States?”

“The same, Coca-Cola.”

“No, no, how is it pronounced in English?”

“The same, Coca-Cola.”

At that point, the closest counterman laughed and yelled at the boy in a rapid tongue, “It’s the same, boy, the same, the name!”

He nodded and smiled, unsure but accepting the adult’s exclamation. He continued his interrogation. Almost every second sentence, I had to say, “I don’t understand, say it again.” His fierce slang eluded my ears. Again I tried to force food on the boy and again he refused and continued the questions.

“You rich?”

“Me? No.”

“You live in an apartment in this neighborhood?”

“Yes.”

“You’re rich.”

In Sao Paulo, there were multimillionaire and upper class houses, but the majority with money lived in luxurious apartments—the security and convenience in such a chaotic place demanded it. As well, many poorer people had houses, and those were miserable shacks in tenuous slums. An apartment symbolized a different world of stability and the mainstream.

I had thought to write in peace; however, getting rid of the kid wasn’t going to be easy. Actually, I hadn’t made an effort. But it can be easy to do and very necessary.

Often you must switch on the steel eyes and say no, immediately.

Often, you must turn your head.

Often you can’t move through the day without a cold heart. Turn your head on the dirty woman in rags, nursing an infant and begging from a little island in the middle of a polluted intersection. Sometimes you just turn your head.

Sao Paulo wasn’t Calcutta, but it wasn’t New York either. You pick and choose your moments of mercy and your moments of callousness, with those incidents of kindness always in the minority – you just say no more than you say yes.

I returned to the subject of his status.

“You sleep on the streets?”

“Sim.”

“In this neighborhood or where?”

“O cidade entero.”

The boy wandered the entire city. He was ten years old.

He was focused, turning the questions back upon me.

“Do you have any rice or beans – uncooked – for me?”

Did I? Shit, I was so privileged I rarely ate rice and beans, unless it was part of a prepared dish at a restaurant. If that kid knew what I ate on a daily basis he would repeat, “You’re rich.”

Did I have rice and beans at home to give this kid? I should have had them. I usually had bags of each sitting in the pantry. The boy wanted bags of uncooked food. No money or a meal right there but dry goods for the future. The kid had a plan.

We walked out of the diner to the corner. I told him to wait there.

"I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

I didn’t have any rice or beans at home. That’s an embarrassment in Brazil. My wife and I must have given the bags away before the holidays.

So I scrambled through the house and pantry. First, I grabbed a sturdy plastic carryon bag that Brazilian tour agencies give when you buy a Salvador or Amazon package. I threw in a Polo shirt, a white I Love NYC t-shirt, a pair of socks, cans of corn and peas, crackers, canned peaches, two boxes of chocolate wafer cookies, and a small knife. Yes, a nice little knife my father-in-law sent me.

I looked around, disregarded other items and headed for the elevator. Ten minutes had expired and I knew he’d wait, but I wanted to show up with the goods in hand on time, a provider true to his word. I wanted to be different.

On the corner he sat, on the stoop of an empty pizza restaurant. The lone waiter hadn’t chased him away. He too knew the difficulties of life: The vast majority of restaurant workers in Sao Paulo were from the impoverished Northeast, were from the country, were the poor working stiffs — they’re not college kids working for extra cash before the real job. Service was the real job.

I arrived with my offerings. Excitement jolted the kid to his feet. He poked through the food and shirts and socks and then asked, “What’s this?” He held up the knife.

The waiter was there and, all of sudden, I felt like I needed to explain.

“For food, you must use this to cut food only.”

What an ass I was, acting like that. If he needed to use that to survive, in any fashion, he would use it, regardless of my admonitions.

The kid surveyed the goods. The waiter watched. Another local man passed by, gave the kid a little money and clapped my shoulder.

“I’ll be here tomorrow,” the kid said, sensing opportunity.

“I probably won’t be," I stuttered. "I work, I’m not always here.”

The waiter, who knew who I was, said, “Ah, he’s just passing through for the week. He won’t be around.” He contradicted what I had told the kid about living in the neighborhood, but the waiter’s language was confident and perfect, unlike mine, and the kid replied, “Ah esta bom, sim.”

I told him to go with God – something I never said – and to use the knife well. I felt contrived.

He nodded as he zipped up the carryon, slinging the strap over his shoulder.

I didn’t watch him go; instead, I headed for the German bar next to my apartment building, about to spend more money than the kid would see in six months or maybe even a year.

Someday there would be another encounter with one like him, when I wouldn’t be dismissive or just look away, when I would try to communicate a little by shouting across an unbridgeable distance.

Posted in Essays and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Contribute an Essay