Or Not to Be
"No matter where I go, there I am."
A man they call "El Regio" tells me this after he reveals that he has spent most of his life running. "We're all running," he says. He tells me that's why he drinks; that's why his wife left him. He thinks we're all running, and it's just a matter of figuring out what, exactly, it is that we're running from. He says he still doesn't know. He's 60 years old.
I met El Regio in a public plaza at the crack of dawn, in the center of Puebla. As I often do, I woke up before sunrise to head out into the lonely morning, in search of interesting people and interesting light. What I found was El Regio. I initially approached him for the same reason I approach most of the strangers I photograph when I'm traveling: he looked interesting.
And interesting he was. "You're a humble man," he tells me. "You're humble, because you're talking to me, and you're not judging me." Most people who look like I do don't really talk to him, he explains. He doesn't pin down exactly what he means by "look like me," whether he thinks I look like a tourist, privileged, white (or all of the above). But he says most people take one look at him, assume he's homeless, poor, and ignorant, and treat him either with pity or contempt.
I offer to buy him some breakfast, and he gives me a big grin. He tells me he's not really that hungry, and that he'd prefer if I bought him a small bottle of cheap booze from the convenience store instead. I'm torn, because I'm not sure if I want to enable his habit. At the same time I appreciate his honesty, and I also know that he's going to keep drinking, whether I'm the one buying or not. So I decide to oblige, for better or for worse. We head into a convenience store, and I spot him a small bottle of tequila. He smiles again, and asks me to sit down with him on a bench in the park.
We talk. He says he's free. He tells me that he's been to every capital of every state in Mexico, all 31 of them. He claims he's been to every major port in the country. Most people have to follow rules, wake up at the same time every morning, answer to their boss, pay their taxes, he muses. El Regio squints and smiles as he tells me he sleeps on a bench in the park, but that he can also come and go as he pleases. He relies on the kindness of some, and avoids the disdain and abuse of others. He says he has tastes, likes and dislikes, just like anyone else. He talks about the poetry he writes, and the books he's read, and the things he's seen. He says it's painful when everyone assumes, just because you're poor, and live on the street, that you're ignorant.
Then he tells me he hasn't seen his family in 20 years. His wife divorced him shortly after they had their second child, because he wouldn't stop drinking. "I know I'm an alcoholic, and I know that I hurt the people around me." He says that's why he left. He says that's why he cut off all contact with his family: so that he wouldn't hurt them any more. I can't quite tell whether he believes that, or whether it's his justification for running away. Something tells me it's probably a bit of both. I ask him if he has ever tried to communicate with them. He says no, and that he doesn't think they miss him very much. There is sadness in his eyes.
"To be, or not to be... that really is the question, isn't it?" He asks me this rhetorically, it seems, and looks off into the distance. He talks about how many artists have committed suicide, or overdosed so young. I'm not sure I understand the connection to Hamlet. He says that we are all fighting, and running, all the time. He says that for some, the running gets so exhausting that death seems like an easier way out.
He's been fidgeting with his watch for several minutes, and I get the sense he's done talking to me. I thank him for his time, and he thanks me for mine. He thanks me again for taking the time to sit with him, and have a conversation like two human beings. He thanks me for the drink, and for not judging him. I'm still not sure I did the right thing, but he's smiling at me, so I let it go, and we say good bye.
He gets up, heads into a nearby convenience store, and comes out with another bottle of cheap tequila. I hang around in the little plaza taking pictures of the church, and the holy week decorations, and am walking past him as he leaves the store. I make eye contact with him and wave, smiling. He barely glances at me, and walks right past. It's as though he's forgotten me entirely, as though he wiped the slate clean as soon as he walked into the store. Or maybe he just wanted me to buy him a bottle of tequila, and decided talking to me for thirty minutes was about as much as he was willing to give me in return. Either way, I don't hold it against him.
Either way, it's still somewhat disconcerting; it still is. I don't think I'll soon forget my conversation with El Regio, and he seems to have dismissed me so quickly. Perhaps that's part of how he runs. He forgets, he moves on, he moves forward. Like he said, there he is. He's still there; he's still running.
What are you running from? Do you know that you're running? Do you know how far you've already run, or how far you've left to go? I ask myself these questions as I walk back to my hotel. I know I'll never see El Regio again, but I'm grateful to have met him. I hope I have the courage to keep approaching people like El Regio and listening to a little piece of their world, whatever it is they're willing to offer me. And I hope I have the courage to face whatever it is I am running from, too.