Writer’s Notebook

Potato Chip Maker

On our walk to school in the morning, we sometimes take a shortcut through the small barranca that lies just off the center of town. At the bottom of the barranca runs the aguas negras–a small, polluted stream that may or may not be full of sewage. Plastic bottles and styrofoam plates squat in the collection of soap bubbles that collect on the dark water as it snakes through the canyon. This is our reminder that Mexico is still a developing country. Small clay pebbles scatter in front of us we quickly and carefully pick our way down the small dirt path.

At the bottom is small cement footbridge that takes us across the aguas negras and just on the other side of the bridge lies a cement house. Well, it’s a tall cement building. On the top floors are some business that are out of the barranca. But in the bottom floor lives a family with small children and a smattering of hungry looking cats. Our pace quickens here because it feels a little like we’re walking through their living room. The building are constructed closely, and the high walls make the space feel small, almost intimate. There are usually a few plastic toys scattered around and sometimes a few young kids stare at us as we pass. The kitchen is open and wash basin is usually full. I have tried extending a friendly “buenos dias” but have never gotten a reply.

The adults are usually busy when we pass. The man of the house makes a living by frying up potato chips in a giant make-shift fryer. A large oil drum is cut in half and filled with oil, heated by a gas tank that is almost as tall as the man who fries the chips. Potato chips are a common street snack–with chile, limon and sal, of course and you can find a small plastic bag of them nearly everywhere. I wonder if I’ve ever eaten the ones fried here, by this silent man with bed head, a dirty white shirt, and the ganas to wake up and start cooking a mountain of potatoes.

There is always a heavy bag of dusty potato propped up against the house as pass and the man is usually warming up the oil. A few times he’s been peeling potatoes as we pass, and one particularly late morning he was scooping them out of the oil with a giant mesh spoon. The smell is reminds me of county fairs and carnival rides–a memory oddly incongruent in this place.

We hurry past, feeling a little embarrassed..for what? For witnessing his work? His house? The aguas negras? Or for walking through someone’s front yard because we want to hurry to school.

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