“I’d have to borrow money, but the question is: who from?”
I’m hungry. I’d love to buy a bag of fried churros sprinkled with sugar, but I don’t have the money. I’ve got just enough to get me home, even though they’re paying us normally again after several days of uncertainty, and tomorrow they’ll pay on time, or at least I hope so. I join the queue for the 069 bus, the route I’ve been taking for the past three months to get back to my neighborhood. It’s seven in the evening; I wandered a bit round the center after leaving work. I like to see people walking about, waiting, smoking, the drunk musicians in Berrío park, the pensioners with their bushy mustaches in the cafés or billiard halls of the Paseo Junín, the university students making photocopies near San Ignacio square, the men selling Chinese shoes and the women selling Chinese panties on Carabobo. Churros cost 1,000 pesos; the bus 1,100. I’d have to borrow money, but the question is: who from? At work, we’re all in the same boat: down to the last peso, on our knees. And I’ve already had to pay Pilar Villa my rent five days later than agreed.
A pregnant adolescent has joined the queue. She buys herself a bag of churros. By now there are six of us at the bus stop: an old man with some empty milk pails, two middle-aged women who are chatting and laughing, a man missing his right leg, the pregnant girl and me. Every day I see at least half a dozen young girls in school uniform with swelling bellies.
The churros smell so wonderful, I can hardly bear it. The man who makes them puts a lot of “pastoral care” into them. “Pastoral care” is how the locals refer to any job done with a lot of care. Clerical language, inherited from the suffocating presence of the church in their lives for three centuries. It creeps into every corner of the way people from Antioquia speak. Whenever my landlady Doña Pilar tells the whole world she’s going to spend the day giving the house a thorough clean, she exclaims: “Now we’re really going to drive out the devil.”
At the 069 bus stop I discover my right shoe has got a glue stain on it that doesn’t look as if it’ll be easy to remove. I’d like to buy a pair of sneakers I saw in El Hueco, the giant market in the centre of Medellín a few blocks from here. Everything in El Hueco smells of contraband, and the store windows shout: get away from here, let those who’ve got the money to buy come closer. My new world consists largely of desires I can’t satisfy: clothes I can’t buy, food I can’t eat. Not having money is like going around naked or having lost your mother as a child. It’s hard to overcome this feeling that I’m an orphan. If you have money, do you become another person? They say the only way not to think about money is to have so much that it loses all value. But how do you get to that state?
I shouldn’t complain. One of my fellow workers at the factory earns the same wage as I do and has a small boy. He has to buy diapers, and think of shoes not for himself but for his son. It helps that his wife works as well. A few days ago he told me she had been promoted from secretary to a saleswoman on commission in a firm that sells tractor tires. She was even given a scooter to help her get around. He is happy for her, but also knows that his minimum wage will be no defense against his lady wife if ever they start arguing. That’s what he calls her: “my lady wife.” I don’t have a lady wife, but maybe right now I’d prefer to have one rather than more money. Or maybe not. I’m not sure. Before working in the factory, my colleague worked for nine years in the Almacenes Exito chain, until he was laid off. He used to earn twice the minimum wage. Every December he got a bonus. When he left Exito—what a terrible name when you have to collect your severance check—they paid him a million pesos for every year he’d worked there. When he was sent home he felt desolate: ‘I spent a whole month crying,’ he told me over lunch one day. During our ten-hour shifts at Tutto Colore, the factory I’m working in, there’s always room for chats with my colleagues, despite the close watch our boss keeps on us. I can gather information for the chronicle I’m writing. Even so, I avoid asking them direct questions. I prefer to let them do the talking. My face, my silent nature, my willingness to listen, my glasses or maybe it’s something else, I don’t know what, make them feel as if they can talk freely to me.ut I only speak to them inside the factory. One of the managers has invited us out for a beer on a couple of Fridays, but I’ve declined with a smile. They must all think I’m a teetotaler Christian or something. I could learn a lot more about my colleagues’ lives if I accepted those invitations, but the fact is that I set myself this simple rule: not to go drinking with them, so that I wouldn’t feel extremely guilty afterwards. I’d like to have a friend at the factory, but that would mean telling him who I am.
A liar. Hypocrite. A joker. Words like that echo constantly in my mind in spite of the few small self-imposed rules I try to exonerate myself with. I guess I also refuse the beers because I’m scared they will ask me questions I won’t know how to reply to. To them all I’m an employee who came from a similar factory in Bogotá. My name is Andrés, I live in a family house, my landlady makes me a lunch box they all envy. Not much more. The truth is that I decided to do this, to live for six months on minimum wage. I live on 250 dollars a month, like so many millions of Colombians. And at the end of the six months I will leave and write about all the things that I’ve seen and heard and thought on days like this. I didn’t start wearing contact lenses or grow a moustache. I didn’t want to change my name or alter my appearance The only thing I did was cut my hair really short before I came to Medellín. It’s grown quite a bit since then.
If the bus arrives now, in half an hour I’ll be sitting at the table in my house—I already call it “my house”; it is “my house”—to eat a piled plate of freshly cooked food. The churros are a stupid craving, childishness, the sneakers a luxury. I like my old shoes, but I’m tormented by doubt: if I come to the factory wearing a new pair, will the woman that I fancy look at me in a different way? You need money to love, sometimes much more than for other things. The sneakers cost 70,000 pesos. I could ask for a loan. Ask, ask, ask: who am I supposed to ask? Maybe I could buy a pair on credit in Flamingo, but they would be different, not the ones I want. Flamingo is the salvation for some, and torture for many more. You go in, open an account just by giving your name, and leave with what you’ve been coveting for a whole month. Then you go back the following month. Or a fortnight later. Or a week. People queue to get into places like that, but I don’t like queues. When I’m paid tomorrow I’m going to visit one of those new, small casinos in the center of town. Or maybe I’ll play the lottery. Chance could be a good remedy for being a monetary orphan.
I could also visit a usurer. A neighbor often borrows money through that dreadful scheme known as “payday” loans: you simply have to call the cell phone of a young guy on the block who always has ready cash. He lends money without forms or guarantors, and within two hours you get the money. The problem comes if you don’t pay him back. Then the guy knocks two or three times on your door. If you don’t open, he comes back with a friend, and he’s no longer the young guy from your block, and he no longer has a cell phone in his hand. He has something else.
I feel in my right-hand pocket and confirm that the coins I need for the bus are still there.
What would I do if I lost them? Here comes the 069, but it’s jam-packed, impossible to get on. Off it goes again. While I’m waiting for the next one I remember a famous phrase by a famous boxer: “Better to be rich than poor”. I never understood how something so obvious could become so famous. I wonder how much a decent minimum wage might be. Does earning the minimum wage mean you’re poor? Not if we are to believe the reports from the National Planning Department. In any Colombian city, people who earn 245,000 pesos a month are regarded as “poor”; in the countryside it is 165,000. Who decides on such an absurdly small number? Someone who has never tried to live on the minimum wage, I suppose. The man selling churros has taken down his stall and I’m no longer tortured by the smell of sugary fritters. But I can’t stop thinking about money.
Is the answer not to want anything? Is one way of being rich to forget wanting things forever?
It’s half past seven. I can’t understand why the next 069 is taking so long. In Bogotá I’d hail a taxi without even thinking about it, ask the driverto take me to a shopping mall to buy shoes I could wear the next day, a CD to play before going to sleep, a novel I might never read. I’d go to the movies to see any old film, and then eat in a restaurant even though I had more than enough food in my fridge. On a typical night in Bogotá I’d spend what I earn in a week here in Medellín.
Three women who’ve joined the queue suggest we all share a taxi. That would be perfect: there’s a football match in the Copa América starting in a quarter of an hour. If I wait for the bus it would take me at least half an hour to get home. I tell them yes, let’s do it. We walk to the street corner and I remember 1,100 pesos is all I’ve got, but everyone would have to pay 1,300 for the taxi. Feeling ashamed, I whisper to one of the ladies that I’m 200 pesos short. “Never mind, my boy, don’t worry about it! Come on, let’s find that taxi,” she says indignantly.
“In Colombia, 44% of people live in poverty.” I read that in today’s paper. We find a taxi, but before I climb in I search in my left pocket and find a crumpled bit of paper: it’s a thousand peso note. Where did it come from? I tell myself it’s too late now to mention it to the ladies. Or is it? I don’t say a word. I leave the note in my pocket. Tomorrow I’ll buy myself a bag of churros.
This essay, an extract from the book "Salario Mínimo. Vivir con nada," is translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor.
More in this series
If I was in the kitchen making candy, usually my mom wasn’t in there screaming or throwing a butter dish at my dad.