He just left. Another weekly car wash on a brutally hot and humid afternoon. We call him Pancho, even though that’s not his real name. He’s a nice man, known around our neighborhood for his persistence. He carries a bucket, a sponge, and a bottle of soap. I’m not sure what kind, but it’s good enough to clean our car.
Sometimes he sees me before I see him. Often, it’s while I’m running on the border levee. ¡Hola, Deena! I’m always startled by hearing my name called out in a town where I know so few people. Without fail, it’s always Pancho. A smile on his face, bucket in hand, perusing the street that runs along el bordo in search of cars needing a wash.
We aren’t really sure if he has a fixed rate. We just pay what we think is fair. A donation, of sorts, and the amount often depends on whether we have change.
I think he watches our house. Like clockwork, he rings our doorbell within fifteen minutes of M. arriving home from work. Perhaps he senses that I would not feel comfortable alone with him as he washes our car. He is harmless, a hard worker trying to earn money for his family, but still… I wonder what we would talk about. Car wash? he asks, in English. If we decline, we know we haven’t missed our chance. He will be back the next day.
Last night he approached us as we entered the patio of our favorite restaurant to meet some friends for dinner. It’s a prime spot for car washing, and it makes sense: Go out to dinner in a dirty car, have it washed while you eat, and drive home in sparkling comfort. Never mind that our car rarely gets dirty in the two or three times per week that we drive.
But last night was different. There was more desperation than usual in Pancho’s voice. He wanted to wash our car immediately. His natural gas tank at home was empty, he said, and he needed the money to buy more gas. It’s a problem we’ve never had before… a position we couldn’t imagine being in. One car wash away from not having utilities. We gave him 100 pesos- an advance, if you will, and asked him if he could wash our car today instead. M. felt that we could trust him.
A man of his word, Pancho rang our doorbell this afternoon, again, within a short time of M. arriving home. He greeted Frieda as usual, letting her jump on him and lick his arms and hands. This time it was I who visited with Pancho while M. got a head start on his run on the treadmill. I found things to do in the garage – tinkered with my bike and broke down some old boxes for recycling, while Pancho washed. Muy, muy caliente, he said. I had to agree. And I remembered that when all else fails, people can always talk about the weather.
As he finished up, I asked him in my broken Spanish if he was done for the day and ready to go home. He shook his head and replied that now he will move on to the restaurant, where he was last night, where there are always people and cars and opportunities to earn a few more pesos.
Pancho has a competitor, but that man has never approached us. I wonder if they have an understanding of “whose is whose”. Although we sometimes joke amongst ourselves (How many car washes does one really need in a week? He’d make a killing in winter in the Midwest!), I admire Pancho. He is honest, and he works hard to support his family.
Pancho’s story is not uncommon in Matamoros. We see entrepreneurs like him throughout the city every day. Taco vendors, shoe-shiners, housekeepers, caricature artists… and of course, the man who spends many evenings, often with his children, selling his wife’s homemade empanadas to restaurant customers (which, by the way, are muy delicioso!). It’s a tough life in Matamoros, yet for the most part, we encounter the friendly faces of people just trying to get by.
Thank you for reading!