As the sun lowered over the mountains, Pam said, “Let’s have some beers. I’ll buy.”
“No, I’ll get ‘em,” said Grant, and pulled a green 200 peso note out of his pocket, flashing the face of Juana Ines de la Cruz, the seventeenth century scholar, philosopher, composer, and poet of Mexico.
“That’s too much,” said Pam. “You know how change-challenged places are. I have a fifty. I’ll get them.”
When she got back, Grant was holding up his 200 peso note and studying the nun-habit encased face of the Señora.
“I understand she was quite the mind,” said Pam.
“Yeah, too much so, for a woman in her time,” said Grant. “Bishop forced her to stop writing, shut up, and do penance. Then she died.”
“Of the plague, I understand. While tending to her fellow nuns who had the plague.”
“I like that: fellow nuns. It sounds like a Monty Python sketch.”
“Or the lady who used to deliver our mail back home,” said Pam. “My daugher Ione always called her the male woman.”
After a few seconds of not being able to think of a comeback, Grant said, “Let’s say this was your last 200 pesos. What would you spend it on?”
“You mean besides another pack of Emperador nut cream cookies?”
“That’s only twelve pesos.”
“Two packets of nut creams.”
“Okay. Keep going.”
“Well, I’d have to get me an elote, and have them to put extra mayo, cheese, and pepper in it.”
“In a cup or on the cobb?”
“Does it matter? Cup,” said Pam.
“Okay, 159 pesos to go.”
“I take it I have transport to border?”
“As you wish.”
“How many pesos did you say I have?”
“Make your next purchase and I’ll tell you.”
“Green tamale sandwich,” said Pam. “The problem is by now I’m full and it will get cold. I hope it doesn’t get stale by the time I eat it.”
“Is that all? You still have 146 pesos. Is food all you can think of?”
“Well it’s hard to find a good bottle of mescal for 146 pesos. So I suppose I’d take the rest and distribute it around town in five peso increments, to whoever looked like they could use it. How about you? What would you do with your last 200 pesos?”
“Pretty much the same as you,” said Grant, “Especially the green tamale sandwich. Except I’d get several, and wrap them up real good and eat them over several days. I’d also get my shoes shined, and my laundry cleaned and folded. And then have a bunch left over to donate. Such are the simple pleasures of life in Mexico.”
“Such as they are.”
“The morning of the day I met you," said Grant, "I was getting my green tamale sandwich from a cart vendor on a side street near the Zocalo. It was such a bright and clear morning -- and cold! Unless you were in the sunshine, that is. There were these two guys sitting and eating their tamale sandwiches near the cart. They were sitting on a curb or a stair or something, and I wanted to sit next to them because they were sitting in the sunbeam where it just felt so warm and pleasant. But there wasn’t enough space for a third person to sit with them. After looking around some more, I realized that these guys were sitting on boxes of shoe shining equipment. These guys were shoe shiners
! And not the ones with the established chairs in the Zocalo, mind you. These were the mobile hustler street shoe shiners, the hardscrabble ones.”
“I get what you’re saying. What we crave the most, and take such pleasure in, is but a shoe shiner’s breakfast,” said Pam.
“That’s it,” said Grant.
“I think we can be grateful we know how to appreciate such a thing. Inequality is so asymmetrical in its effects. Think of all the other visitors – the tourists – who will never enjoy a warm green tamale sandwich for breakfast on the street for 13 pesos. And think of all the others who would never consider roaming around Mexico, like we're doing, due to some deep, collective, imagined, totally ill-informed fear.”
“Wasn’t that old couple selling the tamales lovely? The pair who were operating the street cart near our van station in Oaxaca? The old guy with the big stomach and hat and white apron and smile, serving it up, while his wife took the money so he didn’t have to stop and put a plastic bag over his hand to touch it. They were quite a team.”
“What I love,” said Pam, “Is how the men in Mexico do so much of the cooking, and proudly, with a smile. It isn’t like that in so many other countries.”
“But what did you mean when you said inequality is asymmetrical?”
“I was talking about the effects of inequality. Maybe you and I are different. I hope we are. We can find joy in a shoe-shiner’s breakfast. A lot of our cohorts cannot, in fact more than a lot of them, they—”
“Hold on there, lady. Cohorts? What cohorts?”
“I’m talking about us one percent,” said Pam.
“Ha! Then you aren’t talking about me!”
“I’m not? Are you sure? If you’re taking into account the whole globe, I bet I’m talking about you. If not the one percent then maybe the one point five or two.”
“Okay, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” said Grant. “So what were you saying about ‘us’?”
“For a lot of ‘us,’ we are doing fabulous if we can at best feel indifferent about our ultra-cushy circumstances. But a lot of ‘us’ can’t. Far from it. We are worried and anxious, totally unsatisfied with how much we have and scared that it's not enough, and that it will decrease or go away, and we are deeply unsatisfied about how we compare to people who are higher up and have more, so much more.”
“Of course we feel the lack!” said Grant sarcastically. “How could we not feel it? The disparity between the bottom and the top of the one percent is huge.”
“Ha ha. My point exactly. The impact of inequality is asymmetrical.”
“You mean the fact that wealth is so unevenly distributed, and concentrated in a tiny smidgen of people at the top instead of in the middle of the population?”
“That is not what I mean at all,” said Pam. “I’m talking about the effects
of the inequality that you just described – how it makes people feel, regardless of where they are on the spectrum. As I say to my daughter Ione, money doesn’t buy happiness. It gets you about halfway there. And I always follow that up by saying that’s a huge deal. It’s hard to be happy if you are always worried about food or where to sleep and how to physically survive. Add to this your knowledge of your place in the world, compared to people who are able to enjoy so many more things, and I think it’s pretty clear that inequality causes a lot of pain, heartache, and distress for people who are below the midpoint. Even if they can get respites and moments of joy in things like the smiles of friends, or a warm green tamale sandwich in the sunshine. But as I say to Ione, money gets you only halfway there. You have to figure out the other half of being happy all by yourself, and that might not be easy. If inequality was symmetrical in its effects, it would mean that all the people in the upper half would feel the opposite of the pain, heartache, and distress, in opposite proportions, that their counterparts feel.”
“But they don’t?”
“What do you think? Do you?”
“That’s why I think we are lucky,” said Pam. “Maybe we are different. But think of all those people at the lower end of the top one percent, or top three percent or whatever, unsatisfied and distressed with their situation. Our cohorts.”
“So what are you saying? What's your point?”
“I’m saying that inequality sucks for everyone. Even for the top point-five percent and the top point-one percent. For all of the distress it brings poorer people who are hard-pressed, it brings precious little joy to those at the top.”
“So maybe everyone would feel better if things weren’t so unequal.”
“I’d venture to guess,” said Pam. “I sure as hell wish we could try it out and see.”
To be continued