Published On: Sun, Mar 9th, 2014

Cheap Bob

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Cheap Bob                     ©2014 Robert C. Walker

Walking down Calle 56 toward Plaza Santa Ana past this place where they roast coffee, my eyes followed my nose in the door and sitting at a table I spotted my old friend, Armando, the Cuban. I went in to speak. He said, “Long time, no see.” I asked him how he was doing. He said, “So far, so good.”

Armando has lived in Merida since his family fled the revolution in ’59, except for a few years when he worked for a man in Kentucky. “Is too expensive, the Junited States,” he said with the Ricky Ricardo accent. Years ago, overcome by nostalgia, Armando went back to Cuba “to die in my home.” Everyone there thought that since he’d lived in the U.S., he was a rich gringo and they kept asking for money, so he came back to the Yucatan. He still hasn’t died. He’s 93.

In the society that circulated around Plaza Hidalgo, Armando was known for being cheap. He wouldn’t spend a peso for anything. In the morning, he picked up a free paper, the rag Novedades, rather than the gray imminence Diario Yucatan, from a friend who ran a newsstand. He got a free cup of coffee at the Café Express and nursed it through the morning. Then he sat in the park and read and visited and shooed pigeons with his big feet. He had smooth skin like café con leche, and he wore snug guayabaras, tennis shoes, and a baseball cap on his bald head. For his health, he chewed a clove of raw garlic each morning and chased it with a litre of water. (The waiters at Giorgios turned on the fans when they saw him coming.)

Armando was the gentlest soul in Mérida but he wasn’t the cheapest. That would be Cheap Bob. “Cheap Bob? That man cheap,” Armando would say and you could sense the admiration.

Cheap Bob came into Mérida on a boat from Tampa with his tail between his legs still navigating the dissolution of his marriage. He was a little nut of a guy, short and brown and hard and tan with white hair cut high and tight. Sometimes Bob would splurge on the plata del dia at the San Jose. (Frijol con puerco or albondigas were his favorites, and the meal would sit in his belly all day.) The ladies selling tamales from aluminum pots on the sidewalk put a fat one aside for Bob and flirted as they would with any gringo. Weighing the overstuffed cornhusk in his open palm, Bob smiled a million-dollar smile.

What really got Armando’s attention was Bob’s unusual documentation: he had a lifetime guarantee – he kept the paper in his pocket – for a pair of ragged brown shoes he bought years ago at Sears Roebuck in Tampa. “Cheap Bob going to get him a new pair of shoes for free one day,” Armando said. “You watch and see.”

Cheap Bob took a room at the Hotel Oviedo, with its 15-foot ceilings and tall French doors, opening onto a balcony that overlooked Calle 62 where on a good day the street life was mayhem. It had one light bulb dangling from the ceiling, no seat on the toilet. The sheets were so worn they were translucent. There were a couple of plastic chairs and a plastic table, and the floor, mopped daily by a tiny Mayan housekeeper, was made of fine old Mexican tile. The proprietor let Bob keep a gas burner in there so he could cook. The Mercado Central was just a few blocks away and Bob could pick up onions, garlic, tomatoes and various calabazas for his rich and healthy caldo. And it was cheap. Still, Bob was melancholy and kept to himself at first, but things picked up when he met Armando and began adopting the pattern of frugality. His growing success at living cheaply in so lovely a place gradually brightened his outlook, and he’d smile and tell jokes at the table at Café Express or in the park, which he referred to as “my office.” He even borrowed books from Armando, and didn’t mind getting the copy of Novedades second hand. His Spanish wasn’t so good so he could spend most of the morning trying to understand the articles on the peso devaluation, traffic accidents out on the Circuito, and the ofertas, sales, at nearby shops. (Bob rarely bit.)

One day some passing traveler told Cheap Bob that he could live even cheaper in Guatemala, and Bob enlisted Armando to go down there with him to check things out. They packed their bags – Bob, a cardboard suitcase, Armando, a plastic grocery sack – and headed down to the Pan American Highway on a second-class bus. Somewhere in the wilderness, robbers boarded the bus and took what little they and the other traveling peasants had. Cheap Bob was devastated. Eventually, the busload of victims limped back into Merida, and for no apparent reason – who can explain these mysteries – misfortune turned to good fortune. Bob stepped off the bus and his shoe, the guaranteed-for-life oxford from Sears Roebuck, split. Cheap Bob was smiling again.

With Armando following along out of curiosity, Bob took the shoe and the guarantee to the Sears in Merida and presented it to a young man, a clerk, in the shoe department who furrowed his brow and waved Bob along. They approached his supervisor, a frowning matron with glasses propped at the end of her nose who shook her head and said simply, “No es posible.” No one had ever heard of such a thing as a lifetime guarantee on shoes. Bob smoothed the paper out on the countertop and read the bold print. “Guarantee,” he said with a wave. “Lifetime guarantee.” Next, the little group went to the head of the men’s department who exhaled noisily and read the guarantee out loud. His English was not so good but he seemed to acknowledge the veracity of Bob’s claim. Perhaps he was a frugal man, himself. And on up the ladder of authority Cheap Bob went surrounded by Sears’ employees of high and low station, guarantee in his hand, split shoe on his foot, until he finally reached the store manager.

Armando nodded and smiled as he recalled the denouement. “Cheap Bob sat in that man office until he honor the guarantee. Cheap Bob come out of that store with new shoes on his feet. He come to his hotel, pack his bag, and catch the next boat to Tampa. No one ever hear from him again.”

By Robert Walker

Rob Walker spent 17 years in the daily newspaper business, mostly in Richmond, Virginia, working as a reporter and editor. He has taught high school English, and journalism at a university. He has edited a magazine, worked as a freelance writer, and engaged in other enterprises he’s not about to admit to here. For more than 20 years, he’s spent time in Merida and around the Yucatan, mostly when it’s cold up north.


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  1. George says:

    Good thing he went back to Tampa.. Lets hope he stays there

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