Dos Tostadas: Two Toasted
The year was 1987; I had recently been discharged from the Marine Corps and had managed to quickly secure a pleasant position as a liquor store clerk in a particularly rough part of Inglewood, California. The pay wasn’t great, but compared to military pay of the time it was a gigantic financial leap—besides, I didn’t require much money in my life; for my life was a simple one.
On a specific and memorable Sunday morning, I was hunched over the countertop enjoying the sports pages—like every Sunday. And as I recall I was totally enthralled with an article, so enthralled in fact, that I failed to register what her mousy little voice said. I was slightly annoyed by her presence; however, being that she was a customer I put aside the local newspaper and shifted my attention to the small Mexican girl who stood in front of me. A cute little thing, about nine years old and four foot nothing, sporting a pair of white dirty tennis shoes, a tattered blue dress, and a black church shawl wrapped around her head that emphasized her facial features. Within the shawl was an angelic little face with striking brown eyes that could be described as two bright orbs that seemed to glow and inspect simultaneously. Truthfully, that’s exactly what her eyes were doing: glowing, inspecting, weighing, categorizing, classifying.
Now, I don’t like being stared at, never mind being inspected and classified by anyone, especially a child, and I quickly wanted to say something like, "You eyeball me kid, and I’ll pluck your eyes out," a variation of one of my old drill instructor’s favorite lines, but I refrained, after all she was not my equal. And yet, there she was sating her curiosity while holding a half-grin and waiting patiently for a response, that is, until she realized that a response wasn’t forthcoming. At which point she upgraded her smile, raised her left hand while forming a numeral two symbol with her middle and index finger, and started anew. "Me da dos tostadas, por favor?"
Having been born and raised in California, I had naturally picked up some Spanish along the way and had even taken some Spanish classes at the local community college. So, yes, I did understand what this child was saying. Literally, she was saying, “Will you give me two toasted?” Which points to the fact that the literal translation is awkward at best and flat wrong at worst. But colloquially speaking, she was saying to me that she wanted two toasted tortillas. Sensing her intrusive eyes, I quickly mimicked her left hand with a numeral two symbol, which incidentally and ironically is also the universal symbol for peace, and said, "What?" feigning language ignorance.
"Habla Español, Señor?"
“Yes, I speak Spanish, but this is America, and you’re going to have to learn English!” I responded, vigorously and pompously.
I was shocked and embarrassed by the forcefulness of my own response. I wasn’t a bigot, and I had plenty of Hispanic friends who chattered endlessly in Spanish. Nonetheless, I quickly rationalized my ugly and forceful response with the knowledge that I was somewhat correct, that in fact, this young girl was indeed going to have to learn English if she was going to prosper in this country. It was a kind of "cruel to be kind" rationalization.
"Si," she added.
"Yes. Yes, what?" I responded once again abruptly and little too forcefully.
Ignoring my emotional unraveling, she raised her left hand and signed the number two symbol, again. I took it to mean that she just wanted her toasted tortillas and cared little of my thoughts, so I in turn pointed nonchalantly toward the second aisle in the back of the small store. With a twinkle in her eyes, she quickly trotted off in the general direction of my finger.
Unsatisfied with my poor emotional state and my childish behavior, I quickly reached for refuge within the pages of the sports section. My retreat didn’t last long. She returned triumphantly with a grin from ear to ear, and a small plastic bag of toasted tortillas in her right hand and a number two symbol in her left hand.
Determined to make amends for my terrible behavior, I said, "And peace to you, my little sister."
It was a good effort on my part, for like a good trooper, I knew how to give ground. She began to open the bag, I assumed to withdraw two tortillas, and I immediately halted her.
"No, no, no little lady, we don’t sell them individually. You’ll have to take the whole bag.”
She slowly shook her head side to side to indicate that she didn’t understand what I was saying. Her bright orbs added a little more wattage to their glow. I could have replied in Spanish, but I refused to surrender any more ground. After all, this was still a combat. “Be cruel to be kind, jarhead. No pain, no gain," I repeated to myself while shaking my head at the young girl.
“Yo, nomas quiero dos tostadas.”
“I know, I know, you only want two of them, however, we sell them by the bag. We don’t sell just two.” Unsure of what else to do, I pointed at the price on the bag. “Look, they’re only eighty-nine cents.” She was still unsure of what I was saying. I proceeded anyway and waved her forward. “Moneeey.”
She didn’t hesitate and came forward, laid the bag of tortillas on the counter, and withdrew two quarters from a small pocket in her dress. With her left hand she gently dropped the two quarters on the counter and quickly retracted it, to form her now accustomed number two symbol.
“Dos tostadas,” she sweetly repeated as she took a step back from the counter.
A truce had to be declared. I raised the two quarters with one hand and signed my own numeral two symbol. "Wow! You’re in luck little lady, there’s a sale today on toasted tortillas, small bag, only fifty cents. "I took her quarters and smiled at the little girl and then motioned her to go. Pleased with herself, she scampered off in a blink. I added thirty-nine cents to the register.
In my eyes this hadn’t been a real truce. In fact, I had lost. Well, I thought to myself, at least I will live to fight another day.
At lunch time she was back, and I immediately thought, "Oh no, now what!" Business had been slow, but I still hadn’t had time to take a lunch break.
She ambled up to the counter and placed a plastic plate, containing two toasted tortillas with melted cheese and sliced strips of ham on the counter. The plate had been covered gently with aluminum foil, and the plate was still warm. She smiled, turned, and walked away, and as she reached the door she looked back and said, "Thank you."
I stumbled on my response, "De nada."
And we waved good-bye with our universal peace signs held high in the air.