Featured

Embarrassment of Near-Riches

April 7, 2020

A few days ago, there was a ‘scandal‘ in the UK over the fact that Somerset Capital Management, the investment firm founded by cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg in the UK, was advising customers which stocks to buy in the downturn. While I’m no friend of plutocratic investors (at least till my lottery ticket comes up, at which point it’ll be “So long, suckers!”), it struck me that SCM was like the dentist who tells you your molar needs a filling. The dentist makes profit providing the service, but he’s really only doing what he’s supposed to be doing: helping look after your teeth before they decay excessively.

I reflected on this when considering how I’m slightly embarrassed (but only slightly) over the fact that I’m mildly richer now than I have been since I moved back here. The Mexican peso, since 2018, has hovered between 12 and 14.5 to the Loonie. This evening, it’s down at 17.5.

Currency-2.jpg

Not worthless, but definitely worth less.

I took out cash today and the withdrawal was substantially less, when I checked my Canadian bank account, than usual. I have more disposable income than I’m used to having. I also have virtually nothing to spend it on. I did buy extra dogfood, and put some gas and a litre of oil in the car I’m currently borrowing. But I don’t want to go to one of the nearby cities to do more serious shopping, since I’d be around lots of people. My sense of self-preservation told me to head home after dropping off some supplies I’d picked up for a friend. And, after talking with her for a while (in her garden, separated by 10 ft of air), I did so.

Most restaurants locally have either closed for the duration, or are concentrating on home deliveries. I had a sneaky hope while in town that I could stop at my favourite place for a take-out order of empanadas, but it was locked. Maybe the owners are still opening on weekends, but I have the impression they’ve given up for now. Another place I frequent, 200 metres away, was similarly shut.

Empanadas.jpg

Argentine-style empanadas and a glass of vino tinto … now just a memory?

This transitory sense of wealth does bring some guilt, of course. I got myself a take-out coffee at a place I’ve been going to for years, and the owner was there alone. She’d laid off her staff, she told me, since business was almost non-existent. There was just the odd in-and-out person like me, the occasional pseudo-libertarian denialist, convinced that this is all a Chinese/American/George Soros hoax, and a few people who will tell you (sans face-mask) that you only have to beef up your aura or reinforce your chakras with the right mantra to deal with this. But those laid-off waitresses have zero income at the moment, whatever the condition of their chakras or auras.

The market isn’t usually busy on a Tuesday, but I still sometimes need to wait for a customer to finish a purchase. Today, people at the stalls were checking cellphones, to offset the boredom. The guilt/empathy here was double, since technically I’m supposed to have sequestered myself at home, where I grow no veggies and can’t bake my own bread. At some point, I imagine, the police, who have almost nothing to do but look for people to whom they can issue parking tickets, might start harassing older shoppers, but it doesn’t seem likely right now. There are few cases of virus in our state of Morelos, and there’s still the whispering hope that we’ll somehow continue like that. I’m more pessimistic, but I can’t help hoping that will be what comes to pass.

Ah, hope. When Pandora opened her box, hope was the one thing that remained after everything else flew out. But hope can be a tormentor, providing false optimism. Will the lockdown finish at the end of April? Will people go back to work soon? Will the kids go back to school? Will there be a cure-all antiviral medicine soon? How about garlic and turmeric? Hope, hope, hope.

Meanwhile, like a small-time Ebenezer Scrooge, I count my modest but accumulating dollars, shift them to my modest savings account, and wonder just how strange this will get before it’s all over.

And how will we know it’s truly over? The strangeness will stop, I imagine, and I’ll be back to my usual, almost hand-to-mouth existence. However, I think the strangeness will continue for a long time to come. And I’ll be financially semi-comfortable for a while.

Change

The plaintive request is predictable: “No tiene cambio?” “You don’t have change…?”

No, I don’t have change, which is why I gave you a 200-peso bill that the ATM spat out this morning. You’re the retailer, you should have change.

But quite often, nobody has change.

Many things we buy here are inexpensive by Canadian standards. The microbus costs eight pesos, a fresh grapefruit juice in the market is 25, a taco 20. At a little over 14 pesos to the Canadian dollar, that means a half-hour bus-ride into town costs me 55 cents, a juice $1.73, and the taco $1.40. (All amounts approximate, since my math gets lousier with the years, plus the rates change all the time). But this means that for most purposes, the 200 peso bills from the ATM are simply annoying, most everyday purchases requiring a fraction of that.

Even worse are the times when the bank machines are stocked with 500-peso bills. This means joining a line-up to see a bank teller who can break them into more useful denominations. Except for paying things like the rent, a 500-peso bill is a huge nuisance. Bus-drivers, understandably, won’t even look at them.

Money.jpg

Sor Juana, a 17th Century nun and author,  glowers from 200-peso notes.

Part of the problem is a dual-track economy. On the weekends, better-off families from Mexico City roll into town for a day, buy a meal and drinks in one of the better restaurants, and then dad pulls out several 500s to pay the bill. Those people expect to buy things at that price-level, as they do at home.  Whereas, a local couple or a pair of backpackers might head to the market, and buy a couple of quesadillas plus a juice or pop, paying under 100 for food that might be just as satisfying as the high-priced plates at El Ciruelo or El Pan Nuestro.

But in the market, there isn’t the opportunity to impress others.

Some local people are doing quite well, thank you, but many shoppers – and stall-owners – in the market are watching their pesitos.  Mexico demands a lot of hard work to achieve a modest income. But poorer people still can’t avoid the change problem. And many small operations rarely start the day with much change.

In Toronto, I lived in an apartment building that still had coin-operated washing machines. For those, I hoarded quarters and loonies, but they weren’t hard to come by. The supermarket, the drug mart, my old hangout the Goat Coffee House – they all had change, all the time. They had rolls of quarters and nickels that the boss got at the bank in the morning.

And yes, the banks here can and will supply coins. But for some reason, that sort of efficiency doesn’t penetrate to the people in the marketplace. Or, maybe some of them live too hand-to-mouth to be able to set the coins aside; I can never be sure, so I’m cautious about judging.

On my visits back to Toronto, I’ll debit purchases, and dig out my Presto card to ride on the TTC. I’ll pull out my Visa card in restaurants and in clothing stores. Nobody will be impressed at this, as the country heads towards becoming a cashless society.

But I’ll miss digging for that extra five-peso coin in a corner of my back pocket. Every purchase I make with a card is traced by The Great Them. Here, only a few people casually monitor the eggs and fruit I buy, or my cross-town travel habits. I mix my own muesli, and there’s a stall where they know my face instantly as the person who buys oats and nuts. A woman with a fruit stand has sold me melons and tomatoes for eight or nine years. A couple of bus-drivers know I’m their customer on the Amatlan route.

I grew up in such an emotionally withdrawn society, that even now, Mexico still surprises me at times with its general willingness to appreciate the mere presence of other people. It might not last forever, but while the small-coin habit persists here, I can both be frustrated by it and enjoy it. There’s a trivial yet sometimes worthwhile human moment when you either apologise graciously, or find the coins and pass them over, that you’d never enjoy using a card with a magnetised strip or chip.

Having change, or sadly confessing its absence, is a very ancient ritual, and the more I reflect on it, the less I want to see it gone.