What goes around again

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — The used clothing lady comes around to the office here about twice a week, pulling an improbable amount of clothing from her shoulder bag — dresses and blouses she insists are maternity (maaateeeerniteeeeeeeee, she says, caressing the word) to our pregnant colleague, sweaters and pants she predicts accurately are a perfect fit for a buxom colleague, and various blouses, sweaters and dresses with supposedly seductive potential, that she calls “slinky.” (Sleeeeeeeeenk-eeee, Sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeenkeee, is how she puts it. For one long, linen rose-colored, off the shoulder dress, she accompanied this with pantomimed laugh, her head thrown back, one hand holding an invisible cocktail, the other an invisible cigarette.

All the clothes are wrinkled wads when she pulls them out, so depend in part on her dramatization for their appeal.

In this way affordable scraps of American culture show up in the streets and offices here. Back home, businesspeople pay charities to use their names on donation bins where spring-cleaners stuff them, and they are eventually sold by the bale here, where enterprising women like the one who visits our office make a living from them.

In a circuitous way, some do make their way to charity, and so end up on the backs of street children here. One boy, probably no more than nine years old broke my heart my first week here when he drifted by in a Disney World T-shirt, the tumble of stars over the Magic Kingdom all I could discern in the grime.

Today another boy approached the cars ahead of mine in that most awful spot — the light at the intersection on the way out of the shopping center (where those of us who can buy things we don’t need. At least compared to food and a bed. In my case today it was four bottles of a good crisp South African white wine I discovered the supermarket sells sporadically). This boy had approached my car before, producing a crisis of conscience when he dropped to his knees next to my window rubbing his stomach and insisting he hadn’t eaten that day. He was too big, the knee-dropping to calculated, and something else I didn’t put together froze me, and I didn’t give him anything.

I realized a week or so later, when I saw him and half-dozen other grimy boys in a dazed heap on the median strip, some still drinking cheap alcohol and sniffing glue, part of what had put me off.

But today, by the time he got to me, he had given up the knee dropping routine, so his t-shirt, bearing a map of my country was eye-level. Some of the states were blue, most were red; the key underneath: Blue=Democrats, Red=Total Morons.

I gave him the 1,000 kwacha I had never stopped wishing I had given him the time before.

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