The Old Ones of New Mexico

There’s a certain amount of serendipity that offers itself to any person who works on staff. But I have to be open to it, to be able to acknowledge that chance connection or a life lesson is often garnered during a pause rather than while railing to meet a deadline. This is my pause.

While writing an entry on Robert Coles’ book, The Old Ones of New Mexico, for our particulars page for “The Inner Lives of Children,” I re-read a profile about Señor and Señora Gallegos, owners of a small rural market known simply as “The Store.” I was looking for quotes on the relationship between children and their grandparents. What I discovered were threads of wisdom for living a virtuous life as a businessperson during these economic times.

Our series on the spiritual and moral aspects of the economic downturn is called “Repossessing Virtue.” Perhaps we here got that title wrong. Perhaps virtue isn’t a matter of ‘possession’ at all but a series of tiny, indiscrete moments of character that emanates from within. You can no more own it than you can cage an electron. In my bones, I know that Señor Gallegos understands this better than most:

“The people near here like to come by every day. Some mothers send their husbands to the store each morning before breakfast. No wonder I have to be ready for them; they expect me to know by heart what they will be asking for. And why not? After all these years I’d be of no use if I couldn’t predict what my customers want and need. Still, with age one has to think a little harder. So, about six-thirty I am picturing the men, and looking at the shelves to see that I have what they’ll come for. Usually they don’t even have to talk much when they enter. I look at them and go for the milk or some cereal or some cans—and of course, I have the doughnuts near the coffee. They put the money for the doughnuts in the glass jar; that is separate. The rest I ring up.

“We charge more than the big markets in the city. We must. We don’t get to buy at the low prices a chain of stores can make the wholesale people set. Maybe one day there will be no stores like ours left. I apologize all the time to my customers. I tell them that if they would only drive twenty miles, they could do better. I know that some storekeepers like me have a fine time bleeding their customers—the people who can’t travel or are in a hurry for something. But it is not in me to run that kind of business. I am too old to do a dance because I squeezed an extra nickel here, and a quarter there, out of some neighbors of mine. I would have nightmares, thinking of what they wished me: a long stretch in Hell. And I would belong there!

“The older I become, the more I think of others. Have I been a good husband and father? Will my friends think well of me when the casket with me in it moves down the street toward the cemetery? What will my cousins and my nephews and nieces and neighbors and customers think when they stand there and see me put to rest: ‘He is a scoundrel who took away from the poor and cheated people by touching the scale with his hand and raised prices far beyond what was fair?’ or ‘He did the best he could, and tried to be honest, and had a smile on his face most of the time?’ I cannot say for sure; maybe I have been more thoughtless and rude than I will ever know. When God gives you the extra time he has given me, it may be because he expects you to examine yourself very closely, and think about what you have done wrong. I know that when I was younger I worried about money: I wanted there to be some for our old age. Back then I thought: If we live to be sixty-five, or seventy, we will be lucky, and we will no doubt be weak and so our son will have to run the store all by himself. But we lived longer, and here I am, still opening the store, so that my son can have a decent sleep, and see his children off to school.

“I didn’t grow rich; nor will my son. He would like to make more money, I know. He resembles me: he is torn between the desire to make money for his wife and children, and a great loyalty to our customers. How can you take more than is due you—especially when you know you are lucky to have the store and live comfortably as you do, and many of your customers aren’t at all in the same shoes? I have no answers; I wish everyone in the world had enough to eat, good clothes, and a roof that doesn’t leak over their heads. I tell our priest all the time that it is no joy, taking money from people who don’t have much, and who work so hard for the little they do have. He slaps me on the back and tells me that it is not me or Señora Gallegos or our son who are the enemies of the poor. He tells me about other stores he knows of, from his past work: the owners are politicians, and they push the people around and take every cent they can get. I feel good, hearing him speak well of me, but I still worry: God must know that I have had my moments of greed.

“There have been people I have not liked, and they have pushed me hard: Why do you charge such high prices? Why do you try to bleed us? I have tried to answer: it is trying and lonely running a store like this one, and if I give everything away, I will have to beg myself, rather than run the store. But I can hold firm; no one will knock me down, not when I think I am in the right. Sometimes I feel ready to fight; and sometimes I have said to myself, ‘Take all you can get, because they are the mean ones, and they will only respect a man who is as mean as they are.’ And you know, that is true: there are people on this earth who have contempt for a man who tries to be generous; he is seen as a fool, or up to some clever trick. That is God’s way—to put many different kinds of people here, and let us all prove ourselves to him.”

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9Reflections

Reflections

My two favorite ideas end the last two sections: "I feel good, hearing him speak well of me, but I still worry: God must know that I have had my moments of greed" and "That is God's way--to put many different kinds of people here, al let us all prove ourselves to him."

Something in these suggests that as we age we return to a kind of clarity perhaps last available to us when we were young children. But it's a clarity accompanied by a greater consciousness than we had then. Maybe the older we get, the more fully human we become.

Michael, I was reading this excerpt to my wife last night and, I'll admit, got a little choked up when he said he's had his moments of greed. There's something so honest about the way he says it in light of what he was saying earlier; it made me realize that some of the most purest people struggle within themselves. His dignity is in acknowledging his humanity, and the tension of those realities.

Now that I have two young children, I think you're exactly right. I feel like I'm regaining some of the virtues of my childhood self because I have two parrots/two mimics that depend on me being forthright and good. They don't expect me to be perfect -- which is a big relief -- but they expect me to be human and let them know when I crossed a line or didn't act the right way. And they reward me with a sincerity when I'm generous. The older I get, the more I appreciate those unequivocal gestures of kindness.

I decided to take the time,(or is it make the time)to read this entry,and it is thought filled.A careful reading would take additional time and a communal reading more still.The old store keeper mentions :what God must know,mentions the enemies of the poor,ponders the profit motive,hopes for his son,I admire the honest examination his words reflect.
I chose to spend this because of a memory: I was traveling,hitch-hiking,one day,in Tatum ,Mew Mexico and was the guest in a way of a little girl that day. She had an angelic greeting,Hi .I was soon to be favored with my next ride, but meanwhile this little angel who said Hi,she provided me with a Sprite in a small plastic cup.I doubt she ran a store,or worried about this generous act.It suppose someone like Senor Gallegos helped make the encounter possible.

Thanks for that story, Ed. I love those type of encounters that reappear in different moments of one's life. Happy New Year to you.

Señor Gallegos speaks his truths with such clarity and intense knowledge of who he is in relation to the world, his world, around him. Something about this excerpt reminds me of the main characters in a Flannery O'Connor story. Perhaps it is the idea that his character has come to some sort of "grace," which is a common theme in her works. Gallegos grace did not happen after some sort of sudden, life-altering event, as is often found in O'Connor's stories. Here, the grace has come after living a life tethered to the people he serves through his business. His grace has taken a lifetime to learn and it is exquisite and beautiful in its simplicity.

Well put. I love the quiet simplicity of Senor Gallegos' story -- a story with less of a thumpf.

Wow, what a cache of truths this man shares. He is so right. We ran a small neighborhood hardware in the city for 27 years, and Senor Gallegos expresses so beautifully the joys, frustrations, tensions... and the arc of learning that came with those years. One never gets rich in a street-level business, not in pesos or dollars. But the wealth accumulated in the web of relationships developed cannot carry a price. It is a wealth that bears dividends daily, for I now carry in my being every interaction, every life, every person I experienced, and these resurface all the time to reveal new dimensions of gift, complexity, understanding.... Memory is such a beautiful gift.

Marian, yours is an absolutely lovely thought, and perhaps one of the reasons I gain such joy out stopping at my local neighborhood hardware store (or because I have fond memories of the smells of those shops from my childhood in North Dakota). May your memories always be so vivid... and evolving.

Great read...I grew up with wise people like this in NM. Pity we were so isolated from them by our fear and white privilege.