Heros and Pleasers
San Salvador, El Salvador
you the shirt off his back has no clothes?”
-Latin American Proverb
“You’re not a hero,” John said, teetering on his stool in the airport bar as we prepared for our night flight to LA. By preparing, I mean to say we were trying, with some success, to get drunk. After a week of the jungle, of surfing six hours a day, of the suppressed hysteria that was El Salvador, it was a relief to be back in the world of popular mass consumption, central air-conditioning, and jet travel. Drinking before our flight was an expression of this relief.
Hardcore travelers, those long-term hippie trippers energized by dirt, heat, and sewage, might look down on me for admitting this, but seven days in the third world was usually enough time to make me appreciate my shallow life back home where materialistic conveniences made up for direct experience. I loved to travel, but typically, I was as happy to return home as I was to leave in the first place. I was happy in the cool, dark bar, buzzing from beer and waiting for our plane to California.
Did I mention that I was a hero?
An hour earlier we had been leaning against the TACA check-in counter. John was trying to talk the ticket agent into waiving our board bag fees: “Are you not listening to me? Do you not understand English? I told you, WE ALREADY PAID FOR THE BOARDS IN LA.”
The TACA agent, a neat, young Salvadorian with slick hair, took a breath through his nose and pursed his lips. Then, with the weariness that comes from working in the tropics, he exhaled and shook his head no.
“So now you are calling me a liar?” John’s indignation was scornful and hyperbolic: the liar’s response to incredulity. He turned to me and pointed at the disbeliever behind the counter. “Tell him!”
With the same intensity that some people loved to bully and fabricate to close deal, I pretty much despised conflict, especially conflict over money. In fact, I would gladly suffer financial ruin to avoid the type of scene before me. My impulse was to shout: I’ll pay anything, but please, let’s not play this game!
I said nothing.
There were two reasons this: first, John would have seen my actions as an act of betrayal and patiently bided his time to take revenge on me; second, and more important, I had lost my wallet, and with it my credit cards and money, in a San Salvador whorehouse the night before.
As I turned away, looking for an escape, an old Salvadorian woman was stepping onto the nearby escalator that led to the second-floor. Like a surfer unwilling to charge a heavy wave, she moved timidly, out of sync with her surroundings. Mistiming her approach, she planted one foot on a moving step coming out of the ground and left the other behind on the floor plate. In an instant, she was spun sideways. For a moment, it looked as if she were doing some fancy Michael Jackson dance move: her right hand flew up over her head; her legs split wide.
Had she recovered it would have been an impressive display of balance and athleticism, but she fell hard and gracelessly onto the staircase and was carried off toward the second floor like a swimmer caught in a riptide. When she tried to stand, she flopped over onto her back on a lower step. Here she wavered for an instant before the momentum of the machine sent her tumbling.
All this happened slowly at first. Because the escalator was moving, the old woman stayed in about the same place: a few feet above the foot of the staircase. Yet with every step she fell, she was gaining momentum, her situation growing more precarious. By the time I ducked under the guardrail, her feet were coming up over her head in an ambitious backward summersault about to go awray. Leaping like a weekend softball player trying to make a lucky catch, I came down hard on my knees and elbows. My sacrifice, however, did not go without reward because somehow I was able to scoop up her head right before it cracked open on the floor plate.
Catching her filled me with such pleasure, but there was no time to enjoy this feeling. Once I had stopped the woman from tumbling, the escalator tried to take her away again. I watched in horror as her little head slipped from my fingers. To lose her after such a fine save was worse than not catching her at all. So I pounced and grabbed her, and we rode half way up the escalator before two maintenance workers ran over and hit the emergency power-off switch.
“You okay, lady?” I asked, helping her stand.
Her reaction threw me a little. She grunted and rolled her shoulders like a fed-up wife shaking off her frustrated husband’s initiation to sex. Once free from my helpful hands, she glared back at me irritably.
Hey, I thought, that look looks familiar. It took a second, but then I realized it was the same irritated glance that my students gave me whenever I tried to lecture for more than two minutes.
But I hadn’t even said anything yet. And hadn’t I just saved her from a serious head injury? I laughed nervously, trying to translate my thoughts into Spanish. Before I could find the right words, the woman turned and stomped up to the second floor, leaving me standing halfway up the dead escalator with a dumb look on my face.
The driver who crashes a car into a tree to avoid running over a stray animal acts purely out of impulse. I, too, had just helped this woman without thinking. I was not looking for appreciation now; an exaggerated display of gratitude would have embarrassed me. Yet there had been nothing. And this nothingness was like a nervous gulp that takes all the air out of your lungs. As I started down the stairs, confused and wondering, I saw the two workers pointing and laughing in my direction.
One of the unexpected joys of travel is that leap over the language barrier into intimacy with strangers who do not speak of word of English. The two men had seen everything, and they were teasing me about it in Spanish. Assuming the role of first-world clown, I mimicked the old woman breaking free from my grip. The two workers nodded and beamed. Yes, yes, their expressions said; that was exactly what she had done! Ha, silly gringo amigo! When I got off of the escalator, they thanked me and gave me a band-aid for torn scabs and gashes. When I came back to the ticket counter, John frowned at the t-shirt he had loaned me to wear home.
“You got blood on my shirt.”
“Dude, I just saved some old lady.” I said, smearing the stains across the Quicksilver logo with my palms.
“Yeah, well,” he replied, handing me my boarding pass, “I got Pedro here to cut our board bag fees in half, no thanks to you. But you can just pay me the full price for your bag since you’re scared to argue with people.”
I didn’t argue with him, but it wasn’t because I was scared. I was trying to figure out what had happened between the old lady and me. John was still looking at me and shaking his head. I squinted and gritted my teeth like a speed freak staring into the sun.
As we rode up the escalator to wait for our plane, I finally spoke up: “You know, Johnny, I think I’m a hero.”
“Whah?” He pulled his sunburned face, a gesture that made him look and me feel very old. “Trust me, my amigo: you’re no hero,” he said, stepping onto the second floor. Before I could explain how I was, indeed, a hero, he hurried off to the duty-free shops to buy presents for his daughters.
Later, when we finally got to the bar and started to drink seriously, I made the mistake of confessing all my hero fantasies: It was true, I could not watch storm footage of a city kid being swept down an LA river without imagining that I had jumped off an freeway overpass to attempt a rescue. Walking across campus to class, I would secretly hope for a good fistfight to break out between some undergraduates (males or females, heroes did not discriminate) so I could break it up. In fancy restaurants, when a beautiful stranger literally bit off more meat than she could chew, visions of Heimlich maneuvers danced in my head. As I blathered on about myself, John grew more disturbed. His freckled face was flushed from the beer and the sun. His nose and forehead were burnt and peeling.
“You’re not a hero,” he said, the beer slurring his words. “You’re not even into helping people. It’s all about you needing attention.”
“Hey look, pal, we heroes don’t need recognition. It’s not about that. It’s about honor. It’s about bravery.”
“But you’re a coward! The entire time we were down here you had this terrified look on your face.”
I smiled because I knew the look he was talking about. “Hey, it’s not that we heroes don’t have fears like you regular people. It’s what we do with that fear.”
He shook his head, the pushy customer rejecting a bad sales pitch. “You like helping people, so it don’t even count.”
“What don’t count?”
“Helping people!” He hissed and drank more beer before passing final judgment on me. “Face it: heroes are just pleasers.”
“So now you’re saying I’m a pleaser?”
He wrinkled his thick eyebrows and nodded.
“So you’re saying I am a pleasing person to be around?”
“No, doof. Pleasers are pleasers because they are not pleasing. The good-looking girl, she is naturally pleasing, so she can get away with acting all bitchy-unless, of course, she’s around a hot guy she wants to screw. It’s the naturally unpleasing people, like yourself, who got to really try to please. Understand?”
“What? So you’re saying I helped that old Indian lady to please her?” It was my turn to pull my face. “Dude, I don’t even like old people.”
“Don’t get upset just because you know I am right.” He put up a hand to stop me.
“I’m not upset because you’re right. I’m upset because of all the jerks I could have made friends with in the fifth grade, I ended up making friends with you. Had I known I would be here thirty years later having this stupid conversation, I would have picked my little pals more carefully.”
“Don’t get your feathers ruffled. I’m just trying to keep you from getting a swelled head.”
“Why the hell is everyone so worried about me having a swelled head?” I said, the pitch of my voice rising. “Trust me. That’s not a problem. Okay, jerk?”
We sat in drunken silence, sunburned gringos in a Central American airport bar until they called for our plane to board.
“Could you help me with the kids’ stuff?” John nodded at the bags around his feet, filled I Love El Salvador t-shirts, jewelry boxes, necklaces, and stuffed monkeys.
I almost fell when I stood. When I got my balance, I asked: “Wouldn’t it just be so fucking pleasing if I carried all your stupid crap?” Then I stumbled toward the gate not waiting for an answer.
Moping in my seat as the 727 filled with Central Americans, I wondered why I was so bent out of shape. Traveling – the lack of sleep, the cessation of routine, the unbalanced diet, the abusive drinking – always turned me into a mentally unstable 14-year-old girl. But it wasn’t just the road that put me in a funk. John’s comments had set my mind on itself like a dog gnawing on its own limbs.
An old Salvadorian woman took the window seat next to me. She had that same confused look as the woman on the escalator. I doubt she had ever stepped on a plane before. She was very old and smelled of old sweat, but she was as small as a jungle pigmy and would afford me some shoulder room. I prayed no one would sit in the aisle seat, but I had a strong sense that no one was listening.
Some of the most beautiful people in the world are Latin. However, the fat Salvadorian girl assigned to the aisle seat next to me was not one of them. I swear I felt the plane lurch when she boarded. She had to turn sideways and suck in her gut to squeeze down the aisle. As she moved toward me, I knew with psychic certainty where she was going to sit: I could have bet the devil everything and won. Before the big girl could take her seat, though, she had to stow her bag overhead. Perhaps because she was so huge, no one helped her. Normally, despite my natural repulsion to fat people, I would have helped, just on principle. But John’s remarks had forced me to question my motives. Were all my cherished values, my attempts to be good, based on some underlying neediness? It was a deflating and depressing thought, especially for a man.
I clutched the armrests and looked out the window, hoping the girl would finally stow her bag or someone else would help. But she just kept struggling, and no came to her rescue.
If I were being tested, I failed because, eventually, I stood and shoved the bag into the compartment. The girl didn’t thank me, and I didn’t care.
You’re not a hero.
As the plane taxied down the runway, the old woman was still puzzling over the seat belt, trying to figure out how to buckle it. Another test, I thought. But this time I would be strong; however, resisting the urge to help her made me feel cramped, claustrophobic, and trapped. In fact, we were all trapped.
Had the flight attendant, who was dark and lovely, not given me a look that said, Help her, man! I probably would have resisted my pleaser impulses. Yet with that flash of disapproval on a pretty girl’s face, my hands leapt up on their own initiative, efficiently bucking and tightening the belt in one motion.
Pleaser! I thought, looking up for approval from the pretty Latin flight attendant, but she had already moved on up the aisle.
I wondered if there was any changing, if there could there ever be pleasure in a helpful act. At that moment, I doubted it. But then, as the plane raced to the end of the runway and broke away from the earth, something happened that changed my mind. The old women took my hand and smiled. With this gesture, something clicked in my brain, a self-preserving mechanism engaging.
Contentment was not found by staring too long at ugly truths about oneself. Being nice, for whatever reason, was not the worst of all crimes. To be controlled, impulses, needed to be honored and indulged to a degree. As the plane gained altitude, banking over the Pacific, flying deeper into the darkness, I reached into my pocket, pulled out a tin of Altoids and said: “Usted desea las mentas, ladies?”