When We Were Poor

It’s a little disturbing to have to ask, “where are your shoes?” and, “where are your pants?”  Usually, however, hilarity ensues.  I’ve had to ask these questions to little kids, students, and one goofy New Zealander, and the explanations have always been funny.

Last Saturday, when the samba caravan arrived at the Cape Verde community clubhouse in Bridgeport, CT ahead of schedule, people decided to kick the ball around the street.  I noticed immediately that o Mestre had kicked his sandals off, and was on the rough, dangerous blacktop with his bare feet.  And no, it absolutely did not look safe; there was sharp stuff everywhere.

“Where are your shoes?” I asked, and he explained just what I would have guessed; he grew up playing barefoot in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and he was used to it.  In the short time I’ve known him, he’s fallen on his shoulder, torn his finger open on a drum… not exactly an injury-free existence.  Oh well, I thought, he’s grown.

We were too poor, he said, we didn’t have shoes.

So another motif that I find entertaining was “how poor were you, exactly?”  In my family, my parents’ generation often regales us with entertaining stories of their past poverty.

So I asked o Mestre, did you have a ball?

No, he said, we made a ball out of a bull’s bladder.  We stuffed it with socks and then played with it on the street.

I pointed out that he could have put the socks on his feet instead of stuffing them into a bull’s bladder, but that’s neither here nor there.

O Mestre is familiar with this poverty-as-entertainment motif as well, because he smiled as he gave us other examples of how poor he was.  He said he used to go to a local farm and steal eggs.  Duck eggs, chicken eggs, ostrich eggs, whatever, he stole them.  Then he’d give those eggs to the single chicken that his family owned (he is the youngest of 20 kids) and the chicken would hatch them, and then the family had more birds.   O Mestre’s mother would be surprised, but the kids pretended it was a miracle.

The chicken reminded me of the time my uncles, my dad’s cousins, were talking about “remember how angry the prostitute got when her chicken was missing?”  Note that the woman is referred to as “the prostitute;”  it seems in Sto. Tomás there was only one of every character:  mayor, lawyer, teacher, police, prostitute, and thief; these professional titles were as good as last names to the townsfolk.

Anyway, here are some grown men with teenage daughters, giggling about how they were once teenagers stealing poultry.  “I did not steal that goddamn chicken!”  says uncle B.   To this day, he denies it.  “But it sure made a good arrozcaldo…”

My uncles were also accused of stealing bangus (milkfish) from the town fishponds.  To teach them a lesson, they were made to stand in the fishpond, as a line of townsfolk stood in a line at the edge of the water, and then in unison started walking toward the fish thieves.  As the line of people advanced, the fish started herding toward my uncles, eventually jumping and slapping them, in a scene that was harmless yet terrifying.

“So was it worth it?” asked S in her shrill voice.  “Did you learn your lesson?  Was it worth it to steal those fish?”

Uncle B chuckled, unrepentant, “yah it was worth it… the bangus from Sto. Tomás is really the best.  It’s sweet… the meat is sweet…”

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