Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Spreading the wealth around

And thus the legend of "jumbo shrimp" was born

So, back from my sun- and booze-fueled mini vacay in Mexico and I’ve got a couple of thoughts.

First of all, I really am getting, in the words of Danny Glover, too old for this shit. So, thanks to my body for a solid quarter-century plus of consequences-free partying, and I’m going to go drink water and eat oat bran now until my hands stop shaking.

Secondly, there’s nothing like a trip south of the border to pound home how extraordinarily hard are the lives of Mexican children. Everywhere you look in Mexico, you see children standing or walking for hours in the sun and the sweltering heat selling toys, selling souvenirs, selling Chicklets, sometimes selling only the fact that they’re adorable and photogenic.

And if you are being charmed by one of these children in a bar or restaurant, you may, at some point, become concerned for the welfare of the child because they seem to have been left entirely on their own. It is at that moment of that the mother will inevitably appear, arms laden down with tortillas or beaded necklaces or whatever else she is selling, and will wearily herd the child and the rest of her brood on to the next bar or restaurant in their nightly rounds.

Contrast to the lives of the children I saw on the way home in the Phoenix airport, whose parents seemed interested in endowing them with 1) a precious name, and 2) a sense of entitlement, and very little else.

And I think somewhere in between the two extremes, the truth, as usual, lies.

I try to avoid romanticizing my own upbringing, because lord knows there is plenty wrong with the attitudes Midwesterners harbor regarding the rearing of children. For one thing, I wish they would get through their thick skulls that affection is not necessarily a sign of weakness. But one thing that I am grateful for is that I would never have been allowed to lie prone across three seats in a waiting area while other people were forced to stand. That definitely would have earned me an arm jostle and a sternly delivered admonition to pay attention to others and to stop being so selfish.

Curmudgeons are forever claiming that the latest generation of humans are the worst ever, and I’m not saying that, exactly, but I do think that there has been a subtle paradigm shift in the attitudes of parents over the last 50 years. Now, when faced with a crowded airport gate and insufficient seating, parents seem to think “I will provide my children with seats before they are all taken. That is what a good parent does,” whereas my own mother would’ve said, “You’re a child, you can sit on the floor.”

She also would’ve said “Go help that woman pick up those packages she dropped,” and “Go help our neighbor carry out her trash,” and “Are you blind, or can you not see that that gentleman needs help opening that door?”

Don’t get me wrong, I did not particularly enjoy being so helpful, in fact I spent the majority of my childhood asking my mother who her personal slave had been before I’d been given the job. But what I realize now is that they were teaching us, in that typically Midwestern way, that we were not the most important things in the goddamn world. They were teaching us to be, well, liberals. And not by whining about the underprivileged at dinner parties while the maid cleaned up after us. My mother didn’t need a maid – she had children. And while I frequently took pains to remind her that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, she no trouble understanding, instinctively, that all play and no work makes Jack a fucking asshole.

In Mexico, there were eight of us, four couples, and so we were able to afford to rent a huge 4 bedroom & 4 bathroom condo right on the beach. However, when we got there, there was a lone maid, a tiny, thin girl still maybe in her teens, who was still cleaning up from the previous tenants, and it was plain that she would not finish cleaning for some time. Surveying the scene, which included garbage strewn on the floors and penises drawn on the bathroom mirror in soap, for pete’s sake, I cringed to think what kind of frat-boy douchebags had preceded us.

We called the rental company and asked them to send more maids to help the girl, which I knew might be construed by her as a complaint about her job performance, and sure enough, the maids that arrived subsequently eyed us warily. There we were, us Americans with our overpriced flip-flops, and our coolers full of beer, and our sunglasses that cost more than they make in a month, probably. There we were, with less Spanish between us than a Mexican two-year old could speak, even though we’d been vacationing in their country for 20 years or more. There we were, waiting on them to finish working so that we could play.

It occurred to me that the least I could do would be to sweep the sand off the deck, but I didn’t. No doubt it would have mortified my companions and dismayed the help even further. And so I waited until they were finished and loading up to leave, and I quietly walked after the girl who had been there since we arrived. I didn’t want her supervisor, the young man with the walkie-talkie who refused to do any work himself, or any of the other maids, to see us. “Senorita,” I said. She turned to look at me, expecting…I don’t know what, but nothing good. “Gracias,” I said, and I pressed a ten-dollar bill into her hand. She flashed a big smile and said “Gracias” to me, and then they all left us to commence our party.

Look, I know it’s her job to clean beach houses, not mine. And I know that I cannot single-handedly reform the image of asshat Americans abroad. But I also know that I could have helped her instead of given her money, or I could have even done both. It would have gotten me what I wanted - a clean condo - sooner if I had. But instead I calculated the value of my inaction. It came to ten dollars. I paid it willingly, with relief even. I wonder what my mother would’ve thought of that.


Spooney said...

Speaking of asshat Americans...I look like an ass in an American hat in that pic. Oh well, I was already 3 sheets by then anyway.

Bubs said...

The ten dollars was a much better gesture than helping to clean. Well done, and a very decent way of dealing with the situation.

Larry Jones said...

You're a good girl. Your mother didn't know everything.

Some Guy said...

I know just what you're talking about. Growing up in the Midwest, we were always expected to be polite and to help people out. I think you handled it the right way.

Dad E said...

You have just been rewarded one "atta girl".

GETkristiLOVE said...

That's funny because I thought of grabbing a broom too but then thought I might offend her.

Silly me, I just left her tequila and beer as a tip.

PK said...

"...all play and no work makes Jack a fucking asshole."

I'll quote you on that, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think bad manners in general have just become the norm.

bubbles said...

Welcome back! We love Rocky Point! Where did you stay?

I agree with the Ugly American thing. It was present in the 1960's, too. When we lived in Brazil and new families would arrive my mom could spot who would stay and love it and who would be miserable and want to leave, just by using her 'ugly american test'.

I wrote a paper in High School about Ugly Americans. I suppose it should have been "Ugly US Americans" to be accurate.

It also amazes me how badly kids behave these days. (NOT MINE, OF COURSE!) This is why we rarely have "play dates" at my house. Thankfully my kids are old enough to understand / agree with me now.

Matt said...

I laughed when you said they were raising liberals. I also grew up in the southern midwest and my parents were exactly the same way but they are live long republicans.

I don't think good manners has a political slant. Your either a good person or not. Good parents teach you to think about others.

But I totally remember my mother telling me to sit on the floor.



dguzman said...

Wow. Wow. Great post, Vik. I think we had the same kind of parents--my mom would always answer the same way when my sisters and I would beg for a dishwasher: "I already have three of them." But I love and respect my parents a lot more than those precious-named spoiled fucking asshole kids will when they've grown up. Maybe that will be enough of a lesson. Or not.

Red said...

I remember being on a date in Florence when I was 20 and being so embarrassed just because this family from Long Island wandered in and said loudly, "Leonardo Da Vinci's buried heah?" I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me lest the cute Italian boy I was with think that I was just like my countrymen. I'm dismayed to hear the airport story. Ugly Americans indeed. I hope the world realizes we're not always like that.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Bubbles: La Concha, baby! It's the way to go!

Matt: I was drawing a larger inference there, by saying that they were raising liberals. I think what my family accomplished is to teach us not only to look after those around us, but also that we all have a collective responsibility for our countrymen, and for humanity all over the world. And that by creating a government that cares for all, that we are being true to ourselves.

Madam Z said...

Great post, vikki. You made a lot of astute observations. But, I'm such a patsy, I absolutely KNOW that I would have picked up a broom and helped the poor girl. (I hope you and your friends didn't leave a big mess behind...)