Saturday, March 22, 2014

Small Points of Light

My sister-in-law and I both had lamps needing rewiring. “I know just the place,” I told her. We drove to a small shopping center, called a “caracol” (shell), due to its circular, winding inner hallway rising five floors like a chambered nautilus. I forewarned her. “The place is a sucucho, (a small dump), but the man gets the job done and is reasonably priced.”
            She gasped as I led her into the shop at the end of a dark hallway on the bottom floor. Don Oscar, the lamp electrician, shared the miniscule space with a shoe repairman. It was worse than I’d remembered, dusty, oily machinery, pieces of plastic and metal – plugs, coils of wire, light switches, unidentifiable parts – covering every surface including tables, shelves and floor. Where could he do his work? He placed my sister-in-law’s ceramic lamps on the uneven concrete floor.
            “Please be careful with them,” she begged.
            “Don’t worry. They’ll be fine. I have a lot of work so I’ll have these ready next week,” he said after examining our lamps. He placed mine out in the hallway along with several others.
We thanked him and headed out to explore the shops along the winding walkway. “Well, if he breaks one”, said my sister-in-law, “I guess he can glue it together and it won’t even be noticeable.”
The variety of shops surprised us, mostly run by single artisans, making meager livings from their craft. Through one window I saw an elderly, bespectacled gentleman bent over his work table, his sign announcing watch repair. He reminded me of a picture in my childhood book “The Shoemaker and the Elves”. He looked trustworthy, and I resolved, when I returned for the lamps, to bring the gold watch I’d inherited from my aunt. How uncertain the future of those artisans in this era of malls. Who will repair lamps when Don Oscar is no longer around?
Other shops offered hand-made bikinis, lampshades, picture frames, quilts and lottery tickets. One store offering specialized gardening equipment drew me in. A window display was set up with unusual circular containers under spotlights. “For growing plants indoors,” the clerk said. Then I spotted a magazine with the photo of a cannabis leaf. “Oh! That’s what they’re for.”
Two blocks away our neighborhood has its own mini-shopping center, if it can be called that. The shabby shops occupy the ground level of a small 1950s two-story apartment building. There we have access to an almacén (mini-market), dry cleaners (whose clerk also alters clothing), a beauty shop (I’ve never dared to put my hair in their hands), a vegetable stand and a pet care/lottery store. I make most use of the verdulería, whose owners, Ivan and Cristina, bring fresh fruits and vegetables from the La Vega, a central market downtown.
Our neighborhood appreciates the convenience of these places and had them in mind when we fought the construction of a large mall two blocks away. We mobilized a grassroots movement to defend our neighborhood and the concept of neighborhood. We won that battle, but the struggle isn’t over in this city dotted with the giraffe-like necks of construction cranes.
Yesterday I crossed paths on my block with the old broom seller who frequents our neighborhood. The clutch of brooms and feather dusters slung over his shoulder looked heavy. He called out in his gravelly voice: Escooobas, escobillones, plumeros. We exchanged smiles. I wanted to say something, maybe tell him I often hear him pass by and ask: does he sell many brooms? Maybe I will next time – and buy one of his brooms.

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