The whiskered man was missing his front teeth, and those at the corners of his mouth were crooked and yellow. His closed right eye suggested injury. A red T-shirt billowed from his bony torso, emphasizing the whole shaky way he had approached us from across the highway, where the gas station was flanked by a tiny soda shop that featured the mural of an iguana and a tortoise looking at the sunset as a swordfish bursts from the water.
Arriving at the driver’s window, he asked, “Do you need any help?”
Supposing it was as much English as he knew, I replied in Spanish that we were just waiting for friends. But he continued, “Where are you from?” When we answered, he said the United States was a very big country, unlike Costa Rica. “Canada, States, Brazil,” he elaborated. We agreed that Costa Rica is big on friendship, and then I asked about his English. “I learn it in the streets,” he said. “I never went to school.” He offered his hand. “My name is Alex.”
Now that he had our confidence, he showed us the scabbed inside of his left wrist. Some trouble with his wife had led to his sleeping under the Rio Diria bridge, two hundred meters behind us. The scabs formed after ants bit him.
“Hormigas.” I said, bringing a big smile to his lips.
“Very good! Hormigas.” Alex proceeded to explain about his eye. He was sanding a floor when a particle lodged. Drawing apart the lids with his fingers and exhibiting the bloodshot pupil, he waved his other hand in front to prove that he couldn’t see it. How was this said in English?
“Blind,” I told him. “Blind in one eye.”
The clinic here in Santa Cruz couldn’t help him. He needed laser treatment at Hospital Mexicana, in San José, but couldn’t get there. “I’m broke. Could you help me out? I’m hungry.”
I handed over 2000 colones: what we had paid for breakfast at a tipica restaurant in Tamarindo. I couldn’t remember the name but said it was near a better-known beach place, El Pescador. With a tottery bon vivant’s air, Alex said he knew it. Then, sensing I wanted assurance the money was really going for food instead of beer, he pointed down the highway, where a restaurant that was just out of sight would assuage his hunger in plenty of time for him to catch the 12.30 bus home. His wife might take him back. He wobbled away on the road’s dusty shoulder.