i imagine that anyone who's lived in new york city knows and can hum the ice cream truck song. as annoying as it was sometimes to know that mr. softee was just around the corner, forever repeating his signature jingle, it was also a beautiful thing to hear for the first time each spring. it meant that the cold was making its exit for another year and i could stop complaining about my frozen toes for another seven or eight months. and really, i love the idea of street vendors that aren't stationary. i'm a dedicated fan of falafel and hot dog carts, and have enjoyed countless kabobs and sausages with sauerkraut on street corners and central park paths. never, however, did they ever stop in front of the apartment to serve up their goods especially for me.
i might not be able to find much, if any, falafel here in this corner of mexico city, but our neighborhood has more than made up for it. we not only have the ice cream truck driving by on a regular basis, we have a veritable outdoor marketplace going on, signature sounds and all. sometimes i even imagine myself in a mexico-based version of that scene in oliver!, when london street vendors sing out about their roses, milk, strawberries, and knife grinding. here in los manantiales, we really do have our own knife grinder who passes by every so often. i know he's around every time, because i hear the sound of his pan flute.
some of the vendors are quiet, like the milk man with his two buckets hanging from the pole on his shoulders, or the water man with his tricycle cart full of of enormous plastic demijohns. to solicit their business, one must be up early and on the lookout for them, so they can add another residence to their delivery route. most, though, have a fail-safe way of making their presence known. the fellows who sell potting soil from the nearby mountains shout out, "tierra!" and the trucks that pass by with bargain oranges have a bullhorn through which their barely intelligible deals are announced. the garbage truck has the cowbell, and the propane gas trucks employ horns and loud yells of "gas!" as they drive by.
as indispensable as some of them are, though, my two favorite vendors are the sweet potato man and the tamale man. patricio had been telling me about the sweet potato carts and their unmistakable whistles, and as we were puttering around the house yesterday, we finally heard one coming down the street. i must have looked like a kid on christmas morning as i bounded out of the house with a handful of pesos. not only did the dear man have steamed sweet potatoes, he also had plantains for sale. peeking over into the steaming drawer, my mouth watering, i placed my order:
one sweet potato for patricio and i to share, and two plantains (i wasn't willing to share on that one). the vendor then proceeded to slice open all three and soak them in sweetened condensed milk. he could tell that i was more excited than the usual customer about my styrofoam platefuls of sweets, so he gave the cart another toot of the whistle to show how it worked. not only does the fire in the apparatus's belly steam the yams and plantains to delicious perfection, it also provides enough vapor to hoot out effective advertising. mom will be scandalized to know that mr. sweet potato does not wear earplugs as he rolls his cart down the street, letting those steam screams float over the entire neighborhood. my eardrums were certainly taken off guard--that whistle sounds like it belongs on a train. it might not be as sophisticated as an ice cream truck jingle, but the whistle and the whole contraption of a cart captured my imagination entirely. i can think of a number of students i had last year that would have been on cloud nine to see such a thing. as for patricio and i, we were on cloud nine to have dessert before dinner. as if the sweetened condensed stuff weren't enough, we drenched everything in milk and sugar and hardly left a drop in our soon-empty bowls.
the other vendor who has won me over is the tamale man. every night around eight o'clock, we hear his voice, cutting through the radio, the microwave, conversation, or any other household sounds that we have in the air. his call is simple, and i love it. as he passes by, with a shout that would make any cheerleading coach proud, he says "hay tamales!" (more or less, "i've got tamales!"). the vendor's cheer begins on the same note each time, then increases in volume, his voice rising up a quasi-musical scale as he yells "tamales!", letting the last syllable ring out and linger for awhile before starting all over again.
we've answered the call a few times already. like his shout, his getup is also simple: a wheelbarrow, loaded with large metal pots full of tamales, covered in blankets to keep everything warm. the selection is never disappointing--sweet tamales, mole tamales, or those stuffed with pork or strips of onion, chile and cheese. it's a very comforting thing to know that when we don't have plans for dinner or the energy to cook something up, we can always count on tamales. and i can't think of a single example of when they wouldn't be a welcome option, either.
for many of these vendors, hawking their goods is a second or third job, which also makes enjoying what they offer a very humbling experience. their hard work is a testament to both perseverance and creativity, and their voices, whistles, rings and jingles will continue to be music to my ears.