Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Social Experiment

October 11, 2011 – A Social Experiment

I go and watch the children play. Since Katrina has returned and taken back her class schedule, my normal daily routine has once again changed. Technically I have nothing I’m required to go out and do. This is both delightful and frightening. After only a few days of blessed freedom, the walls of the apartment start to close in around me. The dirty white facade of the complex outside the window where I write inches nearer. I choke on the city air and fantasize about grass and trees and clean air, mountains and blue sky. I’m a country girl playing a city girl’s game.
“You want to have a roommate night tonight?” Katrina asks as she’s heading out the door. “We could get a bottle of wine and watch the fútbol game. It’s Peru versus Paraguay. What do you think?”

“Sounds fun,” I say.
“Do you think you could go get the wine?”

“Sure, no problem. I need to get out of the house anyways,” I tell her. “How much do you want to spend?”
“Less than twenty soles would be nice,” she says, waves goodbye and goes.

I head out into the world on a price checking mission. Occasionally Metro has some deals on wine and Katrina told me that the gas station near our house usually has some sales. Twenty soles is approximately seven dollars, but we’re poor gringas buying low-end red, and it works. I hit the gas station first. Concha Y Toro has a decent Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s on sale for 16.80 S/.
I record the price in my head and walk over to Metro. The air feels good and the exercise even better. Half the walk I keep my eyes down, the other half I walk the way I would if I were in the States—meeting the world head-on. The latter way feels so much more comfortable, like putting on an old pair of jeans and finding they still fit. Metro’s price beats out the gas station’s at 13.80 S/. I buy us a bottle and stand for a moment indecisively in the grocery store entry way.
I’m not quite ready to go back home.
Behind the Metro is a park. The same one where I encountered Frank Senior and Frank Junior several Saturdays ago. I find an empty bench across from the playground and pull out my notebook. My To Do list falls to the ground. When I pick it up I see Smile.

This is the perfect place to implement my social experiment on smiling. It’s a busy park. A lot of people of all ages pass through it to get to and from their point As and Bs. From my bench spot I can glance surreptitiously both ways down the sidewalk as people approach. This way I can gauge who to smile at.
The arbitrary and unwritten rules to my experiment are:

Smile at any woman.
Smile at any child.

Smile at some men; almost any old man, some father types, select teenagers, some peers.
I settle on my bench and try not to look like a scary TV show predator as I sit opposite the playground without a child of my own.

The first stream of people I just use for practice. I try on some smiles, half smiles, acknowledging smiles, a grin or two and a more formal polite upturn of the lips.
Then I put the experiment into a full trial.

A woman, her hand steadying the steps of the old woman walking beside her, meets me eye to eye. I smile. She smiles a small smile back at me. The old woman’s eyes are downcast and she misses the smile I give her as she shuffles down the walkway. She looks like she’s sleepwalking. Out for a mandatory stroll with her caretaker. When they pass me on their return trip fifteen minutes later, the younger woman’s smile is like a secret we share. Like a note passed in class.
The playground is full of children. Their caregivers follow them around, sit on the bench inside the grounds or stand watching from a safe distance. Young voices rise and fall with emotion. Playing is fun.

I eavesdrop on the teenagers who walk by, listening in to their conversations, catching words, phrases, thoughts, worries, ideas.
“I told him—“

“It’s on the corner of Dos de Mayo—“
“I tried to call him back but I’d run out of minutes—“

I smile at them and get some smiles in return.
A teenager boy and girl cut across the grass and catch my smile as they take the sidewalk towards Metro. The boy says something and the girl looks back at me. They catch me watching them. I grin unembarrassedly. The girl smiles back. The boy gives me another look, laughs, pulls the girl to him and kisses her soundly. Then they go on.

Some, mostly women, answer my smile with no change of expression, but their eyes follow me, they stare at me longer than seems socially acceptable (to me) as if I’m affronting them. They eye me with suspicion, distrust, and a slight hostility.
I wonder what they’re thinking behind those hard, unbreakable expressions.

A young mother keeps pace with her tottering baby daughter. When I glance up from that pretty child face the mother responds to my automatic smile I have with one of her own. Her eyes sparkle. She knows that little one is just precious. I can tell.
Several moments go by before I smile at an older gentleman. He’s business class, wearing slacks and spit shined black shoes. “Señorita,” he says. If this were the Old West he’d have accompanied the word with the lift of a Cowboy hat. But he’s hatless.

I smile at all the children who go by. Some smile back with freedom and joy. They don’t know they’re supposed to hide that from a stranger, especially a foreigner. To me they feel more human, more known than so many of the people I encounter day to day. We connect as kindred spirits, as friends. One little girl, dragged along by her mother’s hand, sees my smile and watches me like a hawk until she can’t crane her neck back any more to scrutinize me. She reads me like an unrelatable experience. Her face unchanged, hard, too young.

Several men pass by and just as I decide I’ll smile at them I don’t because they don’t look at me. The creepy ones who look at me with unblinking invasive stares I pretend to not see.  If I were a ship in a Star Trek episode, someone would say, “Shields are holding at thirty percent,” because I haven’t let all my defenses down.

My mood lifts as I smile. I feel better. More alive. More myself. The fog in my head clears even though the Lima garúa doesn’t. The sun gave up trying to break through the clouds an hour before and retreated in defeat. I zip my jacket up to my chin and shiver against a chill breeze that skips by. I watch the three girls who are practicing volleyball sets and spots just to the right of the jungle gym. There’s a warmth in my heart as I watch a pink suited little girl make monster faces and sounds at her mother and chase her around the slide. I flip through my notebook, rereading notes from other days.
“Señora,” a small voice interrupts me. It’s a boy between the ages of seven and nine. “Qué hora son (what time is it)?” Katrina would probably be upset if a little boy called her Señora instead of Señorita, but I figure to this little guy any older person is a Señor or Señora. He’s being polite. I wonder if smiling makes me look more approachable. He comes up close to me, his older sister at his elbow.

“It’s 4:30,” I tell him.
“Cuatro y media,” he repeats. He and his sister go back to join their caregiver.

“Gracias,” she tells me from her safe distance, a prodding to the boy to not forget civilities.
“Gracias,” the boy says remembering, turning to tell me, sincerely meaning it.

“De nada,” I say. I smile at them all.
“Es temprano (it’s early),” he says excitedly as they walk down the pathway, as if that means they have more time to play.

Two older ladies, hair perfectly coiffed, meander by. I smile at them both. The farther one gives me a reserved yet sincere smile and even goes so far as to say, “Buenas tardes.”
“Buenas tardes,” I reply.

The other lady gives me a polite smile and leaves it at that.
I smile at the girl who’s selling Tupperware. She holds the plastic wrapped, tall stacked dishes out for my inspection in her left hand. She starts her spiel.

“No gracias,” I tell her. “I don’t need any, but thank you.”
“Gracias, linda (pretty),” she tells me as she goes to offer her wares to another sitting soul.

A lady dressed in a blue pants suit passes by. Her black shoes match her handbag. She’s pleasant, motherly. I pass her a smile. She grins back. An open smile. Like one she just cracked out of cellophane to try on for the first time. I fall in love with that brand new smile.
From my right a very ancient man shuffles into view. So slowly it pains me to watch. He keeps his balance with a metal, rubber capped cane, placing the end carefully before him and then inching, literally inching, his feet forward. He’s carrying a bag from Metro in one hand. After an interminable amount of time he is just past my bench. He stops to shift the bag to his other hand. When two boys roll by on skateboards, the old man stops, waits for them to be a safe distance away and then begins his slow journey again.

I wonder how far away he lives. I want to touch his elbow and say, “Permiso, Señor (excuse me, sir), may I carry that bag for you?” I want to grasp him up in my arms and run him home. I wonder if he remembers what it was like to move with speed and grace. I wonder what I’ll be like when I’m ancient too.
He never looks up. So I collect all my remaining smiles and throw them at his slowly, ever slowly vanishing figure. I blow one into his grocery bag and wish one into his shirt pocket. I know he’ll find them when he finally gets home.

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