A George Washington quarter was a cuarta. Two cuartas bought us una soda from a vending machine. We asked abuelito for a cuarta to play the video game console. No, he said, una peseta. No, una cuarta. Una peseta para la máquina. He called the console a machine. Like the machine (máchina) that dropped a cuarta for every six cans Mother put in. La máchina is what Father had us puchar across yardas on the weekends. At work we ate lonche. At school we ate lunch. At home we ate both. Queki was served on birthdays. It was bien gaucho to have your birthday skipped again. Skipiar was done to the unsolvable math problem, which was never attempted again. Half our time was spent on homework, the other half was spent wacheando TV. Wacha signaled you were about to do something impressive, but foolish, like a bike stunt. !Wáchale! is what your friends tell you when you nearly plow into them with your bike. A bike is a baika. Uncle Jesse peddled a baika to the grocery story to buy leche y cornflais. Leche, not tortillas, were heated in the microgüey. Un güey is a dude. Uncle Beto called more than two people “una bola de güeyes.” I secretly listened to the Beastie Boys in Uncle Beto’s troka because I could turn it up full blast. Uncle Jesse peddles back from Queimar with two new plaid shirts. Dad’s returning from his trip to the dompe, where he left last week’s garbage. Mother’s fixing Spam sángüiches. Abuelito pulls from his pocket a peseta, but hands me a cuarta.
Economics at Gemco
My mother pushes a grocery cart,
I tug at her blue pleated skirt.
She puts her change into my hands,
For the old soul slumped against the wall,
His gray mouth covered by a beard of wind and dirt.
I place the coins into his cupped hands
And he stacks two neat columns of cents
Next to his seat on the curb.
He nods his chin half-solemnly.
I turn back to Mother,
Suddenly a cop—he came out of nowhere—
Tells me, Take the money back.
I brush the coins
Back into my palms like table crumbs.
As the old man,
Silent as those pennies,
Gets cuffed and hauled off to jail.
I ask Mom why—
We only tried to help.
The cop says bums make thirty bucks a week
Begging for change
And are not too unhappy
Since they get food, shelter,
And a hot shower for at least a week.
My mother pushes the grocery cart without a word,
Knowing that as newlyweds she begged outside markets for change
While Dad stole bread and sliced honey-ham inside.