Oaxacan Barbecue

Milo Scumpert-Appel, contributor

There are a lot of interesting people in Oaxaca. I’ve met architects, old-school B-Boys … the Italian photographer introducing his exhibit of photos of migrant workers scarred and maimed while riding the rails in search of a better life up north. There are the expatriate hip-hop artists, the countless men and women who can salsa like it’s second nature, and the guy who felt that it was his prerogative to sucker punch a 63-year-old man for talking to his girlfriend in a bar. Then, walking home in a light rain after hours of studying and chickening out on joining a dance class because my blood sugar was low and I was in no mood to be embarrassed in a room full of strangers, I saw a flicker of light in the distance. There, a block away, a ball of fire bouncing up and down in the middle of traffic.

As I approached, it became clear this was one of the city’s many street performers. Some do it for money, like the city’s many street musicians, and others do it for love of the art, like the break-dancers who stand on one hand, jumping up and down, spin on their heads, and land running gainers on uneven concrete. Now, what the hell is this crazy fire-dancer’s scheme?

I got close and was about to take a picture when he ran to the sidewalk, past me and just around the corner. He sat down and tried to hide his juggling torches. My confusion cleared up with the arrival of flashing lights. Apparently you’re not allowed to juggle torches in the street and ask passing motorists for money, but he does it anyway. His thin build suggested he wasn‘t doing this for fun.

The fire-dancer responded positively when I wanted to take his picture, but never said anything back to me. At first I thought he didn’t speak Spanish — some academics estimate that as many as 70 indigenous dialects are spoken in the state of Oaxaca. But no, he understood my mediocre Spanish and mumbled back a little. It then became clear that he couldn’t speak, but he sure could juggle a burning stick. He’d toss it up, catch it, pass it around the back and between the legs,and  toss it 10 feet in the air again as the rain trickled down and cars passed by just inches from him.

And there he was, rocking a mullet, with a white T-shirt with cutoff sleeves, a blurry tattoo on the right shoulder, in dirty jeans and tennis shoes — mute and probably homeless, selling bracelets and doing illegal fire-dancing as a way to survive.

I had asked for an e-mail address in order to learn more about him and he indicated that he didn’t have one. Stupid question. I would be surprised if he knew how to read and write. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had kids to support somewhere. I reached into my pocket and gave him what I had — one and a half pesos. I should have given him more. I had a hundred in my wallet. That’s about nine dollars, from which he could have benefited a lot more than I. I mean, hell, I spend more than that on Coca-Cola in a week and have spent more on mescal in an hour, yet didn’t exactly feel that being an interesting, talented and disabled person in dire need exactly qualified a man for a handout that could tide him over for a couple of days. I hope to change this about myself.

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