San Miguel de Allende Revisited

The trip to San Miguel de Allende reset my brain, sharpened my eyes, and filled my heart in unexpected ways. Memories of my previous visit to this beautiful town 39 years before were vivid when I first arrived. I had traveled here from Mexico City in January 1981 with my best friend, on a bus filled with families, crying babies and live chickens. I was in college and had just gotten over the flu and the shocking murder of John Lennon – an early jolt of mortality. Mexico warmed me, despite the flamboyant painter we stayed with, who drank too much and shouted at me that I had “no love” in my voice when she listened in on my long-distance call to my then-boyfriend. Turned out she was right about the “no love” part, though it would take me months to learn this. On that trip, I escaped an East Coast winter, drank good tequila for the first time and walked the winding streets with my friend, hashing out pressing issues of young adulthood. I went home with some black and white photos and a tiny filigree doll bed made of painted lead with a smiling white clay skeleton inside it.

These memories fade now like old snapshots, replaced by the colors of the present. The hotel where I am staying with fifteen other women is a former brothel, now called Casa de la Noche. In the style of so many Mexican houses, it has multiple stairways, interior courtyards, statues of angels and flower trellises. It is a beautiful maze where I am happy to lose myself. The rooms that used to carry fictitious names of the working girls are now named for winged insects and birds.

We write together, walk for miles, photograph everything in color in the buttery light, eat jicama tacos and drink mezcal. Some of us are married, some are divorced, some widowed, some single. Some are mothers. Some are not. Mortality is a solid truth in all of our lives. We have held it close and wrapped our arms around it. We have all known many kinds of love – the absurdity and complexity of it. Secrets shared become poetry. We feel lucky to be here, and say so – often.

We wander the narrow cobblestone streets where the primary colors are ochre and burnt sienna. I text my best friend with pictures, wishing she were here with me again, now. I buy gifts for loved ones back home; a wooden angel mask with fat red cheeks so freshly painted they still give off a varnish scent, metal hearts with wings, and a tiny blue shot glass with a tinier glass cactus inside it, but mostly my gifts are the photos I take, the words I’m writing. A salsa dancing class leads to an evening of dancing in the street. I am happier now than I was at 20, when I was so wrapped up in myself. Now I am able to see all the hues and textures, to really listen to the language, the music, the roosters in the morning, and crickets at night.

A collection of colorful paper mache dolls decorates the fireplace in the lobby of the hotel, each doll representing one of the working girls of the long ago brothel. I wonder if the names painted on the dolls’ breasts are the names of the actual women. What must their lives have been like? On the wall are sepia photographs of the women too, with their 1930’s makeup and pin-curled hair, and clippings describing the former Madame Turca’s house as the cleanest and most reputable around. The girls were required to have regular doctor visits and received support in raising any unplanned children. How far removed their lives seem from my own privileged one. Did those women speak among themselves and share dreams and terrors as women do, as we have been doing all week? Did they comfort one another? Yes, I think they did.

I think that I don’t believe in ghosts, but as I stretch out luxuriously alone each night on my oversized bed in the turquoise and orange Dragonfly Room, I wonder about the different sisterhood that once lived here. There is a quiet calm in this place now. If there are spirits here, or any lingering energy, I sense strength and camaraderie, along with the inevitable sorrow and hardship. It is an imagined glance through a secret window, as evanescent as the sparkle of glitter on the costumes of the inanimate wide-eyed dolls, red painted lips silent, their secrets safe within these walls.

 

 

 

Supplies at Hand

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Today is the first day of Autumn and also my mother’s birthday, so I am posting this for her.

During a summer cleaning I found my mother’s old jewelry box on a high closet shelf. I always loved it as a kid because it doubled as an art supply box, and I was free to peruse its mysterious interior. The mirror in the lid was rippled with age, and among the handful of snapshots inside I found a baby picture of myself looking into that same mirror, draped with Mom’s pearls.

Opening the box released a tapestry of scents: Arpege perfume, the rich waxy floral odor of lipstick and her favorite Maja soap with a Spanish dancer on the label, mingled with the aroma of pencil lead and gum erasers. This sums up my mother quite well: the traditional wife eager to please and the creative artist.

Her taste in jewelry was eclectic. I remember her wearing the bangle bracelets with her wedding ring – a bold modernistic gold band about a half an inch wide. She never had a diamond – at least not from my father, who was a poor would-be actor at the time they married. I found the wedding ring in a small box in a nest of cotton next to a silver ring with a black onyx face like an African mask that she wore after the divorce. She never chose the small and delicate.

In one compartment, I discovered a collection of fountain pen tips, beautiful and graceful in shape, like miniature musical instruments. In another, a box of charcoal, dusty and lighter than balsa wood. I remembered the way I could blend the soft charcoal with my fingers, the pads of heavy creamy-white drawing paper and the bottles of rich black ink. I loved the earthy smell of the ink and the way it would flow from the pen tip onto the paper. She usually drew in pencil, and then inked the drawings in afterwards. This was very like her – cautious and perfectionist. I recall all of her art supplies as black and white, no colors, as if they still existed in some bygone noir world where everything was simple and elegant.

Early in her career my mother was an illustrator who eventually created her own cartoon strip. She even appears in Trina Robbins’ book, A Century of Women Cartoonists. The two-page spread features a glamorous black and white photograph of Mom sitting on the beach in a black bathing suit reading Esquire, the first magazine she worked for after college. In the early 1950’s it wasn’t thought appropriate to have a woman artist in a “gentleman’s magazine.” She had to sign her spot drawings and comic strips with the gender-non-specific P. M. – never Phyllis Muchow.

Later my mother stopped drawing professionally and had moved on to magazine editing, but she always kept sketchbooks. She would often take the art supplies out and encourage me to draw with her. A day lying on the floor drawing was a day well spent – second only to an afternoon at her beloved Metropolitan Museum, which she described always as “soul feeding.” She also taught me to play the piano. She was never without a piano in the home, no matter how tiny the apartment.

When someone has gone, we have our memories, and we have the physical artifacts of their lives. These things tell us a tiny story, but never the whole story. In these objects I don’t see her disappointments, the family crises, her solitary social life after the divorce, although this handful of her possessions does hold some clues.

Ahead of her time in so many ways, my mother defied her dentist father by leaving the Midwest, becoming an illustrator and moving to New York City, for not marrying the first man who asked her (there were a half dozen marriage proposals) for wanting and achieving independence, but later craving a certain domesticity she never quite enjoyed.  She lost the longed-for second child  shortly after his premature birth. She never had the suburban home with the white picket fence. She had a successful career as a magazine editor,  retiring at age 80, and  lived in the same Greenwich Village 4-floor walk-up for sixty years.

My mother gave birth to me when she was 41. The difference in generations led to our predictable clashes over the years, but in some ways we were similar.  I will always be grateful to her for her intellect, her girlish giggle and weakness for ice cream (despite being a healthy eater – no Wonder Bread, Sugar Frosted Flakes or Coca Cola ever made it into her kitchen) her appreciation for history, art, music and literature. She did the best she could with the circumstances of her life and the era in which she was raised – with the supplies at hand.

By the Water

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You always wanted to be near the water, because of the sound of it and tricks of the light, and because somehow its proximity was soothing.

You have a memory of an evening by the lake in Michigan, the fireflies and frogs you and your cousins caught and put in jars, punching holes in the lids, thinking this meant the frogs would survive. The grownups talked and laughed in folding chairs, looking out at the lake, paying you no mind.

Then the baby frog died and you buried it by a weeping willow tree without telling anyone, your heart beating fast.  After the private frog funeral, there were still fireflies hovering over the lake, winking on and off, and strings of colored lights in the trees over the picnic tables, glittering in the water.

You sat in your Grandpa’s cabin and listened to the crackly radio announce a jailbreak from the state penitentiary. Then you understood the roadside sign, “Do Not Pick Up Hitch Hikers Next 10 Miles” and you thought about the dark woods out there and who could be hiding in them. But you felt safe inside the cabin.

Grandpa’s radio also gave tornado warnings or news of impending ice storms, depending on the season.

The light before a tornado was strangely beautiful, yellow and purple. Each side of the sky was a different color. The air was still, the trees silent.

You and your cousins ran out in that yellow light once. You wanted to see what the lake looked like in that stillness, no ripples disturbing the surface, even after you were reprimanded for not sheltering in the basement.

You ran back in a lightning storm, laughing, soaking wet – and in trouble.

It would take years for you to realize that you really weren’t safe – that you were on your own, despite the grownups’ best intentions.

* * * *

In New York City there were no tornadoes, but there were summer thunderstorms loud enough to rattle the windows. Kids opened fire hydrants on hot days, flooding the smelly streets. In the Meatpacking district, men in dirty aprons hosed the cobblestones off, the water running rich and red with blood, neon signs reflected in the puddles.

In the city, your Dad always had the radio tuned to WINS the All News Station. A deep resonant voice droned on about subway breakdowns, garbage strikes, shootings in the Bronx, and bodies found in the rivers. You felt safe in the apartment, the 5th floor walk-up.

You have your best conversations while looking at water. You always did, even when it was the dirty water of the Hudson River. You were never afraid on the Morton Street Pier, even when the adults warned of the drug addicts and winos down there. Looking over at New Jersey, you and your friends joked about the mobsters dumping bodies clad in cement shoes, while you laughed and smoked cigarettes and felt tough.

You remember the prettier Hudson River too, upstate, viewed from the train window at Christmastime. Sitting in the dining car with your Dad, you looked out at the water now turned to mini blue icebergs, the brown winter forests flanking the river, amazed that it was the same river that flowed past the city.

You rode up to Albany, where the train made a left turn and headed for the Midwest where you went sledding with your cousins on the back forty, and ice-skated on a lake frozen solid and pearl gray. Your deer hunting relatives put their rifles away, locked them up. They went ice fishing instead, in those funny little fishing shacks that were the only features sticking up on the flat landscape of the frozen lake.

Your Dad never had a gun or a fishing pole that you can remember, though you know he had as a boy. He left all that behind long before you were born.
You wonder if he ever felt afraid. He warned you not to go down to the water at night.

Now you live in another city on another coast, by the water still. When you need to clear your head, or have a good conversation, you find the water. Sometimes you walk by the Bay. Sometimes you sit by the Oakland estuary, watching the light. You ignore the garbage and syringes on the ground. Sometimes you drive out to the ocean itself, the biggest water of all that could take you away if you are not careful. But you know just how far to go on that shore. You know what the dangers are.

Montauk

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Mom and Dad at cliff’s edge, 1967

Starting when I was seven, my parents rented a house in Montauk for a couple of weeks each summer. This was Montauk before it was chic, when it was still mostly a fisherman’s town. The friends who rented to us were artist neighbors in Greenwich Village, and the house was definitely a fixer-upper: a huge, rambling stone structure perched on the edge of a dramatic cliff. It was remote and rustic, which meant my parents adored it. Thanks to my dad, we always had a full house of relatives or friends from the city.

Built in 1840 for a ship’s captain, the decor was an odd mixture of old and new with an outdoor pump for well water. On the ground level, stone walls and floors kept the place cool while a musty damp scent of mothballs and salt air filled the house. Despite hosing our feet off after the beach, there was always a fine coating of sand underfoot. The kitchen plumbing was a work in progress, and an open trench ran the length of its floor, exposing pipes.

The floors upstairs were wide wood planks with knotholes so large you could peep through down to the first floor. My cousin Andy and I got in trouble once for squeezing toothpaste through a knothole in the floor of the upstairs bathroom, creating slippery blue-white blobs of Crest on the floor just inside the front door downstairs. The bathroom was a work of modern art: the wall a mosaic of broken mirrors. When you took a bath, you could see your bare self cracked into a million pieces.

“Like a Picasso painting!” one of my parents’ friends once remarked.

The artistic shards of mirror had sharp edges. Every kid who ever came to visit was warned not to touch it, and every kid came out of that bathroom the first time with a bloody finger.

An ancient, sagging storm fence protected the cliff’s edge. Apparently this was deemed safe enough that we were set loose to run around on the grass every evening with the dogs until mosquitos and fireflies came out. Grown-ups drank cocktails and cooked in the big old-fashioned kitchen.

Martini and cigarette in hand, Dad steamed mussels gathered on the beach in a giant iron pot. After dinner, we roasted marshmallows in the living room, where tall windows of old wavy glass panes flanked the huge walk-in fireplace. A life-sized pop-art white vinyl sculpture of a man in a suit kept an eerie watch from the Northeast corner of the room. He looked cartoonish in the daytime, but a little creepy in the evenings when the firelight flickered on his blank face.

Outside, the surf was too rough to swim in, but we could splash and wade. Giant shells of horseshoe crabs coated the rocky beach that could only be reached by a coarse rope. Tethered to a small stake at the top it required rudimentary rappelling to make it down a 100-foot drop. Dad enjoyed initiating our numerous houseguests-–often relatives from the flatlands of the Midwest-–in this procedure. My mother, who was terrified of heights, was usually the last one down, baby stepping in her white sneakers, her fear hidden behind huge sunglasses, her lipstick perfect.

The first summer I was afraid of the cliff, but my lanky teenage cousins had no trouble swinging down, some of them one-handed. I wanted to be like them and like Dad–fearless. The sandy ground and its loose rocks meant every time someone went down on the rope, their sneakers released tiny avalanches of mustard-colored dirt. We had to go one at a time, so my dad went ahead of me. I stood at the top, biting my lip, anticipating a certain death-plunge if I were to let go. The navy blue water sparkled in the sunlight, and the heat and humidity teased me. I longed to run in the surf, but it was too far down. Instead I stood at the edge in my yellow-checked shorts with my knobby knees pressed together, staring at my red PF Flyers sneakers, and wishing they would really make me fly. Dad, already ten-feet below, helped me with this first descent.

“Come on Luv, just take the rope in your hand and go down backwards!” He had to shout over the sound of the crashing surf.

“Okay,” I called back, but my usually booming voice came out small, lost in the wind.

I turned around and began the descent, trying to follow his instructions. It actually helped not to face the ocean. Keeping my eyes on the few feet of ground under my feet, I forgot how steep and high up I was. Slowly back-stepping, I inched down the crumbly cliff, the rough rope sliding jerkily through my small hands. My cousins shouted from the beach. Were they laughing at me or offering encouragement? I didn’t care; I just wanted it over with.

I pictured the mounds of smooth gray pebbles, the shallow area where I knew I could wade, and the smooth part of the beach farther down. Dad had said we might find a dead shark washed up. He’d spied one once from the top of the cliff. I had only seen them at Gosman’s dock, hanging upside down by the fish market, their scary mouths with zigzag teeth gaping, cold gray eyes expressionless.

“Keep going, you’re doing great!”

Taking my time, I turned to look at Dad, his favorite faded red sailor hat perched on his head, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Suddenly, the rope jerked in my hands. My feet were not on the ground but in the air. Little rocks broke away and skittered past me in a dusty rain as I slid, scraping my leg on the yellow clay and twisting to face the ocean again. A butt-slide down the edge–totally out of control. It was thrilling and scary at the same time, like an amusement park ride.

Against the backdrop of blue, I saw Dad–or at least the red blur of his cap. He was saying something I couldn’t hear as his arms reached up to me, a nervous smile on his face. I was headed for him–and fast. All at once, I banged into his legs and he grabbed me around the middle, as I reached again for the rope. Somehow in this scramble, a large piece of my long un-pony-tailed hair came in between his hand and the rope, and we both slid a few feet, Dad laughing because we were almost at the bottom. Then there was a ripping sound, and a hot wave of pain, then numbness, above my ear. I didn’t care. I was so happy to be on the beach at last.

My cousin Andy pointed. “Look, you spilled some brains!”

I reached up and felt the baldish spot and sting. Poor Dad stood with a clump of my wispy blond locks in his hand and said, “Jesus Christ, Nini, are you okay?”

I didn’t much mind. I figured it was a souvenir of the adventure, like a pirate’s scar, and I was never again afraid of climbing down the rope. The worst was over.

It always seemed oddly funny to me that Dad would re-tell this story for decades afterwards, playing up his own role as inept klutz. I never saw it that way. My bald spot was a trophy. I fell, and he caught me.

 

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Coffeehouse

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It was 1973 and I was thirteen. Coffeehouse was not in fact a coffeehouse at all but sort of an after-school hangout for teens in the neighborhood. It occupied what was once the basement apartment in one of the old brick town houses flanking my Greenwich Village school. Three or four worn brick steps led to the semi-subterranean space, furnished with ratty brown couches, a threadbare rug, a TV and a stereo. It smelled like the Salvation Army store. At first there were chaperones – the gym teacher and some older teenage neighborhood kids, but eventually the gym teacher stopped showing up. I don’t remember who had the keys.  Most of our parents were too busy working, watching the Watergate hearings on TV, or getting divorced to care very much about where we were. I imagine they were relieved that there was a school-sanctioned place to hang out. It would keep us off the streets – at least that’s what they thought.

We descended into the darkness of Coffeehouse after school. I recall beanbag ashtrays on low tables although most of us sneaked cigarettes outside, on the street corner or behind the gym. A few lanky, long-haired boys lounged on the couches, and looked up with varying levels of interest whenever a girl walked in. They were often absorbed in playing poker. I felt grown-up being there in this den of slightly older kids, where there existed a faintly dangerous whiff of possibility. You could peer through the curtains on the street level windows at people’s feet walking by outside, but when you were outside you couldn’t see through to the inside. I was introduced to some of the best music of my youth in this funky lair. A particular group had control of the stereo and the stacks and stacks of records. They played Cream’s “White Room” over and over again, and lots of Led Zeppelin and Bowie. A small black and white TV was usually turned on with the sound low, even when nobody was watching it. I went down there often with one or two of my girl friends. We sat on one of the sagging couches, sharing chips or a can of soda from Joe’s Luncheonette on the corner. We also were there to hang out with the boys of course. Some of the neighborhood guys were dating a few of the very young girls – still 8th graders. Nobody questioned this, and our parents seemed oblivious.

Sometimes a couple of the boys asked us to walk down to the nearby Morton Street Pier to smoke a joint with them. We stopped on the way, ducking into an empty doorway of one of the old warehouses, stomping on the metal stairs of the loading docks to make the metal vibrate, a dull gong. The joint had a bittersweet taste and I recall how a boy would hand it to me carefully, almost delicately, in his fingers, so neither of us would drop it. If he was a boy I liked, that brief touching of fingers was a welcome ritual.

We walked, laughing onto the pier, over the cracked asphalt littered with trash and  cigarette butts, avoiding the slumbering winos. Then we sat for a while and stared across the silver black Hudson River at New Jersey as the sun sank low. The air got colder and the breeze brought the dank smell of the river, sea salt and garbage. Ravenously hungry, we stopped at Joe’s on the way back for a milkshake. It tasted perfectly sweet and too cold on our teeth. We giggled as we lifted our cups up and down, toasting each other and spinning around on the lunch counter stools. Joe, who knew most of us by name, smiled and shook his head. His daughter, who helped behind the counter, still in her Our Lady Of Pompeii Catholic School uniform, smirked at us. Her look said she knew what we were up to even if her father didn’t. Afterwards, we walked up the street and retreated into the dusky warmth of Coffeehouse until it was time to go home. Some kids didn’t feel safe going home. For them Coffeehouse was a refuge, and they stayed past dark, or went with friends to friendlier homes for dinner.

Near the end of the school year, there was an evening party at Coffeehouse. It was unseasonably warm and I wore my new purple Indian print t-shirt from Azuma, the store on 8th street that sold silver jewelry and posters and where everything smelled like patchouli. I was skinny and stringy haired and so self-conscious, even as I felt the furtive eyes of the boys on me. We danced in groups to the Rolling Stones. Someone had put a black light bulb in one of the lamps and the other lamps were turned off. I remember being kissed at that party by a boy I barely knew. I worried if I was kissing well enough and I wished I didn’t have braces on my teeth. A few of us ended up on a side street behind the school with Schlitz tallboys in a bag. I remember the silvery metallic taste of the beer and the thrill of secrecy.

There were some murky times there, older guys from Washington Square Park hanging around. Some of them were friendly, almost protective brother figures. Other park guys scared us, and we would cross the street to avoid them. They would come and go, and I heard a couple of them got banned from the premises. There were things only the older kids knew about, having to do with gangs. Many stories circulated, many questions were left unanswered.

In June of 1974 I graduated from 8th grade in a long white dress.  The boys wore coats and ties. Everyone’s long unruly hair was combed. Parents drank non-alcoholic punch around outdoor tables in the humidity of the June day. After graduation and the exodus to high school, nobody talked much about Coffeehouse or what went on there, but we heard it was shut down shortly after that school year.

I walked by years later to see that it had become a church Thrift Shop.  The neighborhood itself is no longer home to many aimless teens – at least not to be seen. Parents are more vigilant, the kids tightly scheduled. Joe’s Luncheonette is long gone. Upscale restaurants and galleries have replaced the warehouses.  The piers are landscaped with jogging paths, park benches and flowering trees, the sidewalks scrubbed clean.

Ballet Class 1969

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I am in ballet class trying my best to turn my feet out into first position. My friend Anastasia is next to me, biting her lip in concentration. I look down at the gray smudges on her light pink tights, just like mine.

Isabel can turn out perfectly. She is in sixth grade, two years older than Anastasia and me, and she has already been in the Nutcracker twice. I look down at my scuffed pink ballet slippers. Isabel’s are always clean, and her dark hair stays in a sleek and perfect bun. My own wispy locks are escaping from the bobby pins my mother so carefully arranged, and I am naturally pigeon-toed. My knobby knees seem to want to go together, rather than apart. Mr. Culbert bangs away at the piano as Mrs. Bayliss counts out loud. There are twenty-two girls in the class. I look across at the wall of mirrors and see us lined up. We are all different shapes and sizes, all wearing the same black leotards with pink tights and slippers that we got at the Capezio store next to the head shop over on Eighth Street.

Mrs. Bayliss is suddenly at my side in her bright purple-skirted leotard, slapping the backs of my legs with her slender white stick. She raises her penciled eyebrows and accuses me of hyper-extending my knees. I unlock my knees and stare straight ahead. From my position at the barre, all I can see out of the window of the Joffrey Ballet School is an old sign painted in brown and white on the side of the brick building across the street: “Emil Talamini Real Estate.” I think staring at the sign helps me concentrate, but really I’m daydreaming. I think I’d be better off as a go-go dancer in little white boots and a shiny mini skirt.

But when we do the floor exercises, the music fills me up. I feel I can move to it naturally and travel right across the expanse of boards, step, step, plié, step, step, spin. The floor-to-ceiling windows frame the surrounding buildings outside, the long mirrors and line of girls in pink and black blur as I twirl.

After class, the dressing room smells like stale sweat and perfume. Teenage girls from the advanced class in the studio down the hall compare the bloodstains on their pointe shoes. They sashay around naked while we sit on the wooden benches, taking off our ballet slippers, pulling on our street shoes. We put clothes on right over our leotards and try not to stare at the older girls’ grown-up bodies. They laugh and talk about mysterious things; boys and diets, and how smoking cigarettes helps them with their appetites.

I walk with Isabel and Anastasia two blocks down Sixth Avenue to Bigelow’s Drugstore to get chocolate egg creams. We spin around and around and on the stools. The wall-eyed man behind the counter calls us the “dancing girls” and knows what our regular order will be, but smiles and teases us about maybe wanting a strawberry soda or a root beer float instead. The egg cream tastes good, the fizz of the soda a surprise in all that chocolate milk.

We stop by the makeup counter. Anastasia and I gaze with longing at the Yardley and Mary Quant lip-glosses in little round pots with bright swirly designs on the lids. I’m fascinated by the antique apothecary jars in the window that hold mysterious blue and green liquids. I wonder out loud if these are real drugs. Isabel laughs and says it’s just water with food coloring in it.

We turn the corner and walk up Eighth Street. We giggle at the fancy pipes in the window of the head shop, some with water in them. I’ve seen guys smoking these pipes over in Washington Square Park. The sweet aroma is as familiar as the Patchouli incense that wafts out of Azuma, where they sell Indian print bedspreads and silver jewelry.

Besides the scent of pot, the only other drugs I’ve seen are the ones the guys are always selling over in the park. They hang out mostly under the trees at the corner of West Fourth and MacDougal Street. They wear snorkel jackets that hide their faces and mutter, “black beauties, black beauties….” They hold their hands out in front of us filled with shiny black capsules. We’re good at ignoring them. We just keep walking.