I met Diego while walking through town to the main bus stop. He ran up from behind and yelled “Oy,chele!” (hey, whitie!) and offered to shine my shoes. Over his small shoulder he was lugging the typical wooden box the shoe shine boys used to carry their brushes and polish as they ran around town looking for work: dusty cowboy boots and leather shoes. He was about eight years old and had a cocky strut. His hands, face, and tank top were smudged and, in some places, nearly covered with shoe polish. He wasn’t wearing shoes. I declined his offer because I was headed to teach a class, but I told him to stop by my house the following day. “You go to school in the morning?” I asked. “Yeah. In the morning.” “Come by tomorrow afternoon then.”
He showed up the next morning. “Didn’t you say you go to school in the morning?” “School was canceled today,” he told me. I didn’t believe him, but before I could question him much further he was fast at work. Bent over his wooden box polishing my shoes, he had a quick rhythm. Two fingers into the polish, rub the shoe, two fingers into the polish, rub the shoe, grab the brush, brush the shoe. Repeat. He was wearing an old, adjustable blue hat with the Valvoline logo on the front. It was set to the smallest size, and he wore it with the brim pushed way up over his forehead. While he was working the hat would slowly creep downward until it reached his eyes and he had to push it back up. He worked this movement into his rhythm. Grab the brush, push up the hat, brush the shoe. Repeat. “I like your hat,” I said. He kept polishing and asked what the logo meant. “It’s a brand of oil for cars. I have a blue t-shirt that has the same logo on it.” He stopped polishing and looked up with wide eyes. “Really,” he skeptically asked.
It was my favorite t-shirt. I had bought it at my hometown secondhand store a few years ago and wore it a lot around the house and to the gym. While Diego was finishing up my shoes, I went back to my room and fished the Valvoline shirt out from the wooden shelves I had built to hold my clothes.
I unfolded the shirt and showed him. His eyebrows went up and the whites of his wide eyes and glowing smile painted a stark contrast to his dusty, shoe polish smudged face. He couldn’t believe that my t-shirt had the same logo as his hat. He got closer to the shirt and studied the logo before yanking the hat off his head and holding the two together. “They are same! The hat and shirt are even the same color! Tuani,” he said. Cool.
He finished up my shoes, and I overpaid him. As he was leaving I asked if his feet hurt from running around barefoot. He gave me a look that told me I was crazy. “No,” he scoffed. I’ve never felt less tough. He hurried away looking for his next customer.
Diego was in the unfortunate group of kids that had to work to help support their families. Since there was a morning and afternoon session of classes at the elementary and high schools, these kids could theoretically attend school for half the day and work for the other half. It rarely played out so nicely though. It was my experience, as well as the experience of several elementary school teachers I asked, that these working kids came to school only sporadically, if at all. Presumably, they only made it to class when their family had enough money to eat. I had a hunch that Diego wasn’t attending any classes until I saw him one day in his school uniform. Blue pants, white shirt, and black shoes. Other than a missing button on his shirt and a small hole in the top of his right shoe, he could have passed for an elementary school student in the States. I wished that he could wear that uniform everyday. He waved when I passed.
He continued to show up at my house once every few weeks during my two years, and the visit never changed. He’d polish my shoes and then ask to see the t-shirt. To Diego's unbelieving mind, comparing the t-shirt and hat never got old. When he had once again assured himself that the two logos were indeed the same, he’d reveal his white teeth with a bright smile, return his hat to the top of his head, pack up his things, and take off. On his way out, I’d always ask “Why aren’t you in school today?” I go in the morning or I go in the afternoon or classes were canceled or I didn’t feel like it today. His reply was quick, said as he was turning his back and hurrying away to find his next customer.
I spent most of my last week in town, tracking people down to say goodbye and leave them with some insignificant possession I had promised them. A Frisbee, a baseball, a school notebook, a backpack, a deck of cards. That whole week I kept my Valvoline shirt in the bag I carried around town. I was excited to run into Diego to give him the shirt. It’d be too big for him, but so was his hat. He’d be a Valvoline-sponsored nine-year-old shoe polisher. I couldn’t wait to see his reaction. His wide eyes and blinding smile. His high five.
I never found him. I tell myself that he was no longer roaming the streets looking for dusty cowboy boots and leather shoes. I imagine he turned in his shoe polish and brush for a notebook and pencil. It’s easiest to deal with poverty when I pretend it doesn’t exist. When I convince myself that I couldn’t find him because he was in school. He was doing homework. He was a student. My Valvoline shirt isn’t fit for a student anyway.