What Is – What Was

Ahh, life.

If there is anything at all wonderful about aging it is you’ve finally moved to the front of the bus, waiting to get off, but still have just enough time to turn around and look back.

And ‘what I once was, I no longer am, nor shall I ever be again’, resounds as I write this.

I was reminded of this subject yesterday in a series of two encounters; first with my landlord, then with my neighbor, Max.

What is:

My rent has been overdue for 6 weeks. After the first week of trying to pay I gave up. The only reason I got from my landlord’s son was he was drawing up a new contract.

That kind of made sense. I’ve been living here without a contract for the past year. And he just put a new roof on the terrace access. So I expected a rent increase. Hence a new contract.

But the devil in my head – the devil of doubt – was whispering all sorts of things. Like maybe he was just waiting on one of his many relatives to decide if they wanted the building before giving me the boot. Or maybe he was going to sell the building. But that still didn’t explain why he never followed up my requests to pay my rent.

I don’t want to move. I live in the best neighborhood, on the best street, on the best block in the old center of town. I maybe have one of the greatest apartments in the entire city. There is a very quiet boutique on the first floor but I rent the rest of the entire building: the second floor for my workshop, then the third, fourth, and the terraced rooftop.

I have the only key to the single steel door opening to the street side stairwell so I am like living in my own cozy fortress of solitude in the midst of all mad Mexico. And my neighbors are all lovely people. The best coffee/pastry shop is right across the street. Everything I need can be found within a four block radius. Living just can’t get any better than this.

Max told me weeks ago that Delfino didn’t need the money. That Delfino trusted me. That the lawyer was taking his sweet-ass time to draw up a new rental agreement. In other words, chill and don’t worry about it.

So yesterday I texted Delfino that I just received the building water bill and what should I do with it? He texted back to bring it to him.

I went to see him 20 minutes later. I paid up on my rent. And although he didn’t ask me to, I paid the water bill for the whole building for the whole year. I thought at first the boutique was getting a freebie but he said the boutique was on another meter. (There are water meters here?)

He said a new contract was in the offing and I politely asked if he was going to raise my rent.

He said ‘a little bit’, pinching his thumb and finger together.

A little bit? I asked, ‘What’s a little bit?’ He said 175 pesos or about $10 a month. Yup. Just $10. So my rent, given present exchange rates will go up to about $200 a month.

He gave me a hug as I left and told me to ,’Go with God’.

I stopped off to see Max for a quick minute to tell him about Delfino’s gracious generosity.

Max said, ‘People here love you.’ I said, ‘No, the people here are kind.’

Max replied, ‘No. You are unique. The people here do love you.’

Note: I took extreme pause at this. And I’ll explain why by telling you what was.

What Was:

I grew up in a very adversarial environment. I was the typical small town poor smart kid with absolutely zero social advantages. Consequently I battled for every single thing I ever gained because I was given nothing.

Growing up was always a series of competitions even with my friends. I clawed my way through elementary, middle school, high school, then finally the job market and university. And then the job market again.

I choose the most difficult and competitive undergraduate program on the planet: electrical engineering and came out very close to the top.

I worked ten years for one of the most brutally competitive and challenging companies on earth, Intel and got stabbed in the back more times than I care to remember.

I had a select few colleagues I’d call friends but it was still all so very competitive.

I am not complaining, I am just describing what was.

I learned.

Did I really care if people liked me?

No. I only cared that they were wary of me. Being liked was at the absolute lowest of my priorities. As Trevanian once said, ‘Being nice is how you pay your way into the party if you don’t have the guts to be tough or the brains to be brilliant.’ And I lived by that.

Truth be told, I was a plain spoken prick to many people. I have one personal specific axiom that says, ‘Tell me whatever you want – however crazy it might sound – but be prepared to defend it’. For example, I am a Christian. Can I defend my faith? Absolutely. Christianity is surprisingly rational (you’ve just got to read the book).

That said, I was decidedly not a political animal which also probably best explains the abrogation of my Intel career. All of my bosses were business major assholes and I punished them publicly and mercilessly when their only response to one of my technical inquiries was to seek ‘consensus’. Which meant nothing technically ever really got resolved as the manager’s solution was just to add another nitwit into the decision making matrix.

Which meant  – Reset. Reset. Reset…

[So back to] What Is:

Now my values are totally upside down. My past is the past. I don’t have to compete anymore. I have nothing left to prove to myself or anyone.

But I’ve learned to care about people. Especially these people. And I’ve worked hard to gain these people’s trust and respect.

Respect is no longer about proving you’re smarter than someone else. Respect is more about kindness and conveying dignity on others while maintaining your own.

Dolores – one of my neighbors and my friend, Clemente’s sister – caught me on the street yesterday and introduced me to three of her elderly friends as ‘my love’. In her 70’s she remains a shameless flirt.

I laughed with her and her friends at that before tipping my hat to them in an old fashioned way and wishing them all to have a great day before taking my leave.

I see this kindness everywhere here. And I work conscientiously to return more than I receive.

That’s truly a battle because I’ll never be half as good as most of these gentle people are to me and each other.

I might not be the person I was in the past. But I still remember that bastard.


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