I witnessed something exceptional and extremely depressing at the same time on Friday afternoon. In truth, my friend and I technically caused it.
We had met up in at a simple restaurant to discuss an upcoming project. It was a typical Carioca small street restaurant with red plastic chairs on the sidewalk in front, which is where we chose to sit.
While catching up we were approached by a street child who was about 14 years old. She asked if we could buy her a meal. We said of course, asked what she wanted, and requested stroganoff to go. The to go part happened somewhat automatically, as if a there was an understanding between the girl and the restaurant.
It is quite typical in Rio de Janeiro for street kids to ask diners for a meal and the restaurant to wrap it up for them to go. They normally take it back to their group to eat on the street somewhere nearby. This is the social norm here.
After we ordered the waiter went inside and the girl sat at a neighboring table to wait. The restaurant, aside from a couple other people, was basically empty.
While she waited she was joined by two more street children, a girl around 15 or 16 and a boy around 18. All of them were dressed appropriately for a casual restaurant and no one was acting erratically, which is an important thing to note with this story.
When I saw the three of them at the table it hit me, why aren’t they just eating here? After confirming with the kids that they were all going to share, I called the waiter over. I told him that the three of them were sharing the meal and requested that he instead bring three plates and the meal to the table.
In retrospect, this was a very naive gringa move. There was no way they would let them sit at the restaurant. Of course it didn’t even cross my mind at the moment. However I did notice that the waiter who had been taking care of us was replaced by some sort of manager. I assume his presence, which only happened once we offed to buy them a meal, was because of the kids.
After hearing my question he gave a look, that could be translated as “Fucking hell this woman is going to cause some drama,” and said that they could not eat at the table.
That pissed me off.
I looked the manager dead in the eye and told him, in Portuguese: “They are clients, I have purchased their meal, and they can sit at a table!”
I was dead serious and feeling very proud of myself. Of course that ended quickly.
He replied, in only a slightly condescending manner, “I understand what you are trying to do but it is more complex than that.”
He continued to comment on safety, glue sniffing, and the lack of government care for those who need it.
Seeing that the 3 three kids were sitting next to us, they heard everything. I watched the young man, who was standing next to the table, stand a little straighter. He stuck out his chin and took a deep breath.
It was as if had been waiting for a moment just like this. If I had to bet on it, I would say that he had been waiting for this moment for a long time.
“This is discrimination.”
It was not the voice of a beaten down street kid who has forever been ignored by society, it was the voice of a strong young man standing up for himself and those he cares about.
The manager walked straight up to the boy. He stopped about three inches from the young man’s face. It was a very alpha male move if you want look into it deeply. The manager was challenging him. It was as if he wanted a fight. It felt like it would almost be easier for the manager if the kid got aggressive. It seemed as if this manager was so jaded at this point in his life that he would rather fight the street kid than let him eat at one of his crappy plastic tables.
Both my friend and I were afraid there would be a fight, which would obviously make trouble for the young man as he is homeless as opposed to the manager who is considered “a respectable working man.”
It didn’t matter that the young man wasn’t the aggressor, we all knew that.
Regardless the young man continued. He completely ignored the man in his face and continued with the utmost composure. I don’t think I will ever forget it. If I were that young man, with all my education etc etc, I would have hit that mother fucking manager in his holier than thou jaw. Then again, by societal standards, I am allowed to feel that way.
The young man spoke, even stronger than the first time:
“I have no money so I am no allowed to sit at the table. They (pointing at us) have money so they are allowed to sit here. Even when someone with money invites us to sit, and pays what needs to be paid, we are not allowed to sit. That is discrimination.”
And it was. Both my friend and I strongly agreed, and we told the manager. Hell, we basically told anyone walking by at the moment.
The young man didn’t lower himself to the managers level. He said his piece (I must say that I have the desire to throw in peace as a play with words) and then told us that he would return to the plaza as to not cause anymore trouble. The thing was, he wasn’t causing any trouble. What he was doing was pointing out a very serious problem.
He walked away and we lost the battle with the restaurant. They brought the meal to-go for the girls. They did give, quite literally at the very least, extra to-go bins and silverware for the three of them to easily share the meal… in the plaza.
In retrospect we should have left the restaurant that very moment. I should have stood and said that we would then take all of our business elsewhere.
What do you think? Should we have left and taken all of our business elsewhere? Is this just something we have to accept? Was I being overly naive to think that maybe we could start change with the person in the mirror, which is very Michael Jackson of me?
Or is life not that simple? Have street children, with their drug related crime, made their own bed? Is something caused by extreme differences in class and education?