Thursday, February 10, 2005


the day i stole 9 cents from a street kid

That would be today. After four solid days of torrential rain I decided to take advantage of the balmy weather and walk with some friends down to Pelourinho, the old colonial center of the city. Pelourinho is fairly close to my home geographically -- a mere 15 minutes walking -- but it is worlds away in other respects. I live in a quiet working-class residential area with relatively few foreigners coming and going and few people begging in the streets. Pelourinho is the tourist capital of Salvador. Its streets are always buzzing with drumming groups, capoeira circles, and dance performances. Tourists sit at outdoor tables eating expensive food while street urchins and prostitutes hastle them for money. I don't much like Pelourinho because it's the one place in Salvador I get consistently harrassed. Also, its full of some of the less awesome tourists the city has to offer: package tour old people breezing through for a couple days, stoner backpackers who don't speak a lick of Portuguese, and sex tourists -- the worst kind -- who come for the cheap prostitution, both adult and child. But all that aside, Pelourinho is a pretty place on a pretty day, when the late-afternoon sun slants off the yellow, pink, and blue buildings. I decided to go.

In the central square of Pelourinho a 25 centavo coin, worth about 9 American cents, rolled by me and almost hit me in the foot. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. A moment later a boy appeared, about 10 years old, screaming at me. I'd seen the boy many times before. He's one of the regulars in Pelourinho, and in my opinion one of the worst.

I never know how to act when there is a person who has obviously been shaped by horrible forces -- hunger, poverty, cruelty, desperation -- and who, as a result, has become horrible him or herself. This child in particular is hard and pitiless. The sort who would kill dogs for fun. I have absolutely no doubt he will grow up to be (and no doubt already is) a violent criminal. The causes of his condition are obvious, but do nothing to mitigate the fact of his condition. What does one do with someone like this? I feel sorry for him, and yet I cannot help but hate him.

He saw me pocket the coin and he wants it, so he starts screaming in my face, saying that it is his coin, he dropped it. It did come from his direction, but there are tons of people around and given the lag in his arrival this seems unlikely. More likely he heard the clink, saw the roll, and found me. I can't stand him screaming in my face, I hate his hate-filled eyes, I do not want to give in to this browbeating he is dishing out, so I refuse to give him the coin. I tell him to get lost. Out of principle, or so I tell myself. Because this is no way for a person to act, and if I give him the coin just because he's screaming in my face then he'll know screaming in people's faces is a great way to get things. So goes my thinking.

But he doesn't want to get lost. He wants to run after me and my friends and pinch my arm, hard. I jerk aside his hand, whirl around, and yell a little louder. He still follows, swearing a blue streak, screeching "that gringo stole my money!" One of my companions spoke my name, and he seized on this, screaming "Alex Alex Alex!" I turned on him again, put on my best I'm-going-to-kick-your-ass face (which wasn't hard, given how much I wanted to kick his ass) and started coming after him. He ran away fast. But thirty seconds later he was back, with a handful of pebbles. He started chucking these at me, still cursing at the top of his lungs, saying "I'm going to kill you Alex!".

Awesome, thought I. Now I've got a street kid who wants to kill me. None of the rocks hit, but still I stepped toward a nearby police officer and politely informed him of the crazy violent child who was throwing rocks. The kid arrived too and did the I'm-about-to-cry face, which was so convincing I almost handed over the coin right there. Why didn't I give him the coin, after all? Then I could be out of the situation. Oh yeah, principle. And also because by now I really hated the little fucker and would have been sorely pressed to give him a rope if he were drowning. The policeman tells him to stop throwing rocks and I slip away around the corner.

Of course a minute later he's back, all hint of crying gone from his face. I had only come to Pelourinho for the walk and had already been planning to go back early (my friends were buying stuff in a music store) so, with the pronouncement "this is why I hate Pelourinho," I told them I was going home. The little demon was filling me so full of both rage and guilt, I just had to get away.

What was 9 cents to me? Suffice to say it was nothing. To him? Probably still not much. Even here there is very little one can get for 25 centavos. Would he learn a lesson about rock-throwing if I didn't give him the money? Probably not. Would anything I might do change his plight, undo his years of misery, and make him into the theorical bright sunny boy he might have been? No. Would anything stop him from growing into pitiless thug, and dying before thirty? it was unlikely. Would anything stop me from getting hit by rocks? Giving him the money would probably do that. But I am a stubborn person by nature, and I couldn't give in.

I set out toward home at a fast clip but he ran after, wielding two baseball-size stones, much larger than before, and still screaming my name at the top of his lungs. I couldn't believe it: he hadn't given up yet. The ferocity of his pursuit was beginning to make me think that, in fact, it had been his coin. Many times people beg with a couple coins in their hand, to give a hint to people who might not get the picture. It's totally possible one might have rolled away from him. How else to explain this scene? Twenty-five centavos is not much to go to such lengths for. But what if it really was his? What if he really believed that I, this gringo, had stolen it from him? What if I really had? How else to explain this 15-minute chase, the mad and furious gleam in his eye as he raised his stone?

I began to advance on him again, both to threaten him and to avoid getting hit in the back of the head. He threw and my forearm deflected the rock aimed at my gut. At this point I was very near him, near enough to grab him and break his neck. His eyes filled with fear. I was on the verge of beating him. It would have been easy -- he was so skinny. But lord! What had my life become? What was I doing? There was no way I could beat a 10-year-old street kid. What to do with all this anger, this guilt?

I took the moment to slip into a crowd of people and set out across the square again toward home. Looking around and not finding him, I slipped the coin out of my pocket and on to the edge of a bench. I wanted nothing to do with this money. I continued across the square and on the far side, beside another police officer, turned around to look back. Through a temporary break in the crowd I saw a hand reaching up, and the sunny glint of gold. Of course he had been watching me, and now he had the coin. He was showing me he had it. Then he turned away.

Now I'm back home and my forearm still smarts. So does the memory. There is a tiny spot of blood where the rock broke the skin. The kid won, that's for sure. But of course I'm the one in a home right now, and no doubt he's still out there, hastling someone else. I will never know if the coin was really his, though after everything I now believe it probably was. Why else would he do all he did, but to avenge the injustice of a rich gringo stealing his money? But it's also possible he's simply a liar, likes to throw rocks at rich people, and fills with rage when people don't give in. Either way he was wrong to curse and scream instead of speak and explain, wrong to throw rocks. Either way he is a deeply troubled and violent child, and will become a deeply troubled and violent adult very soon.

And what about me? We've seen that I am stubborn, capable of great anger, and maybe capable of violence. That I believe that people should not act like he acted, whatever their history, and that I don't mind withholding things, out of spite, from people who do act that way. And that guilt and anger are a bad combination. It was not my finest hour, but what should I have done? The best would have been to resist the instinct to pick up the coin at all, and leave it to someone more needy on the streets of Pelourinho.

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