BOSTON. This city, often referred to as the “Athens of America,” sometimes by non-residents, is famous for many things; the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, the first use of ether to remove a tooth, the first three-point basket in NBA history by Chris Ford.
But above all else, Boston is known as “The City of Jaywalkers,” just as Kansas City, Missouri is known as “The City of Fountains” and Worcester, Mass., is lovingly referred to as “The Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World.”
As its density increases with the return of empty-nester baby boomers from the suburbs, Boston’s jaywalking problem has reached crisis proportions; it is for this reason that I am serving as goodwill ambassador to Juan Jose Guiraldes, a forty-something gaucho from Argentina whom the City of Boston has recruited to become head of Pedestrian Traffic Enforcement.
I have arranged to meet Juan Jose at the Au Bon Pain in South Station, where I disembark from my train every morning. I realize I have foolishly forgotten to tell him that he must park his horse outside at the racks provided for the convenience of bicycle thieves as I hear the clip-clop of hooves on the marble floor.
“Juan Jose,” I say, holding up a sign bearing his name like a limousine driver at Logan Airport. “Welcome to Boston!”
“Buenos dias,” Juan Jose replies, barely breaking a smile. Consistent with the extensive research I have performed on Wikipedia, he has a more melancholy air than the typical American cowboy.
“Would you like a scone or something?” I ask hoping to break through his reserve.
He says nothing, but I can tell that he holds the sweet baked goods before him in contempt. “No thanks,” he says–his English is more than passable. He withdraws his facon–a large knife–from his saddlebags, along with a piece of cooked meat. He puts the meat in his mouth and tears at it with the knife, barely missing his nose. “I’m trying to cut back on carbs.”
I offer to at least buy him a cup of coffee, and he purses his lips, thinking. “Do you have yerba mate?” he asks the befuddled counter woman.
“I don’t think so,” she says, scanning the buttons on her cash register. “Is that like a cappucino?”
“No, senorita,” Juan Jose says. “It is an herbal tea-like drink, rich with caffeine and nutrients.”
The overworked and underpaid shift manager approaches. “We can make you a chai latte,” he offers helpfully.
“That’s probably as close as you’re going to get,” I say, withdrawing my wallet.
Before I have time to react his facon is on my wrist and his face has darkened. “Apparently your reading comprehension has not improved since fourth grade,” he says with an air of menace. “Had you reviewed the Wikipedia entry carefully, you would know that gauchos are proud men, and resort to violence quickly over petty matters.”
I slowly put my wallet back in my pocket, keeping my other hand out in the open so that I do not provoke Juan Jose further.
“You want a large, medium or small?” the counter woman asks.
“A large,” Juan Jose replies, then looks at me, puzzled. “Yesterday at a place called The Starbucks, I was offered four sizes of drinks in a semblance of my native tongue,” he says. “Tall, Grande, Venti and Trenta.” I notice that his eyes are misting over.
“Is everything okay?” I ask.
“Yes–it is just that I miss my daughters–Venti and Trenta–back home on the pampas in Argentina.”
We take our drinks and head for what was once known as Dewey Square, but which some urban planning goober decided should be called “Financial Center” back in the 80′s. There, we are met with a sight that causes Juan Jose’s professional pride as a herder of animals to stir.
“It is indeed a challenge that you have here,” he says, as he watches pedestrians cross against traffic lights and posted warnings, dodging speeding cars and trucks making early morning deliveries. “These people–they are more stupid than cattle.”
“Actually no,” I say, trying not to be defensive. “We have one of the highest concentrations of advanced degree holders in Amer–”
“These . . . ‘degrees,’” he says scornfully, cutting me off. “What good are they when you foolishly risk certain death in the face of on-rushing traffic?” He snaps the reins and his horse turns towards the Surface Artery. “Why do you add the word ‘Surface,’” he says as he trots off. “All roads–they have a surface, no?” he says, his voice heavy with irony.
Juan Jose takes up a position in the crosswalk where a young woman, iPod earbuds showing through her brown hair, nearly barrels into his horse’s hindquarters as she walks head down, not looking for cars. He leans down and gracefully picks her up, plunking her down behind his saddle horn.
“What are you doing?” she asks, more in surprise than anger.
“You would have become Prius-meat in a matter of seconds,” Juan Jose says. “The full hybrid electric mid-size car developed and manufactured by the Toyota Motor Corporation operates silently while in electric mode.”
“Gosh, I . . . I don’t know how to thank you,” the woman says. “How can I ever repay you?”
“Please, senorita,” he replies. “It is the Code of the Gaucho. I do not accept gratuities from the cows I herd–I could do no less for you.”
Unclear whether she should feel grateful or insulted, the woman slides off the horse, her brief case and purse askew. “Thanks–I guess.” She walks off, glancing suspiciously at us over her shoulder as she goes.
Juan Jose doffs his hat with a chivalrous flourish. “No hay problema!” I am surprised at how quickly he has picked up the expression preferred by Boston’s many slacker dude customer service representatives for “You’re welcome.”
Juan Jose turns back to his task and spies a rumpled-looking lawyer-type, huffing as he scurries to the curb about to cross to Federal Street after the light has changed but before the cars idling at the intersection can race forward.
Sensing an imminent catastrophe, Juan Jose takes his boleadoras or bolas–wooden balls attached with braided leather cords–and swings them over his head. He lets fly, catching the man’s legs just as he has felled so many ostriches on the plains of Argentina with his primitive throwing weapon.
“Are you all right?” Juan Jose asks as we catch up to the man, the papers from his briefcase scattering in the wind off the Atlantic.
“Of course I’m not all right, you nut!” the man screams. Juan Jose’s face clouds over, and for the first time I sense that he has doubts whether he is up to the task of taming the wild bulls of Boston’s concrete pampas. Juan Jose stares off into the distance–visibly disgusted with the man’s ingratitude; I imagine he is thinking of the freedom of his life on the plains.
“The job–it comes with four weeks paid vacation, health and dental,” I say, trying to reassure him.
He is silent for a moment. “I no think I will do it,” he says.
“Because,” he begins haltingly, trying hard to be gracious, “$4.06 is a lot to pay for a freaking chai latte.”
Available in print and Kindle format as part of the collection “Boston Baroques” on amazon.com.