There were children sleeping in trees. I saw them myself, riding around Managua after dark with my comadre Christina and our dear sponsor, Miriam, in February 1994. During the day, the kids rushed cars stopped in traffic, crawling up on hoods to squeegee the windshield, hawking gum and cigarettes from trays hanging from their necks just like the old Philip Morris ads but they were in dirty T-shirts and shorts, barefoot. Thin, aggressive, feral. And very young.
At night, they retreated to safety in the trees.
Stop the truck. Roll the window down. “They’re up there.” See the leaves rustling, little glimpses of feet and arms.
I remember feeling guilty. Guilty, conspicuous, rich, and wrong. I remember thinking that the boy washing the windshield knew more than me, was tougher than me. His aura was all necessity and drive. He didn’t ask to wash the windshield. He leapt up on the car and did it — expecting that the shame of not paying him would force the driver to ante up. I remember thinking what the hell is going on in the world when my two sons who look just like the one on the hood of the car are back home in Milwaukee eating Oreos and teasing the dog.
What separates my two boys, adopted in 1986 and 1988 from Managua, Nicaragua, from the boy yelling “Chicle, Chicle” outside the car window? It isn’t me, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m dumb to all of this. I just showed up and went where I was pointed. There was no rescue. Heck, I was the one rescued (but that’s a different blog). It was an utterly random slice of luck that culled them from the sea of abandoned children and plopped them in an orphanage.
While they were growing up, we would talk about Nicaragua. But not wanting to make it sound bad, we de-emphasized the poverty. It was and is a beautiful country with a social and political and literary history that makes it unusual and extraordinary and that’s what I wanted them to think about their home country. I didn’t want them to think bad things about home.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t make it sound like Paris. I told them that poverty was a big part of their mothers’ decisions to give them up to the orphanage. But I never told them that the boy on the hood of the car and the boy I bought my Marlboros from made me sad and scared and nervous. That seeing them made me feel wrapped in a blanket of ignorance and selfishness. That I saw them, picked up my daughter, went home to Milwaukee, sent money to relief groups every now and then, and went on with my life.
Until I heard that Anthony Bourdain was going to Nicaragua in his next No Reservations and that he was going to talk to kids rifling through trash at the dump looking for food and I wondered, “Should I have the kids over for dinner and watch it together?”
I just don’t know. I really don’t.