Monday, March 31, 2014

On Duty

They never sleep. They only sweep.

I tripped down the stairs — four flights or three, depending on how you count them here — and exited the building. I was once again in the realm of noise, dust, dog droppings, and diesel smoke — on the street.

No matter what hour, there is always something happening on the streets here. I haven't been out late at night, but I can hear them. They're out there, often with dynamite-sized fireworks, or thumping on musical instruments at frequent, randomly-located concerts.

I have been out early though, before dawn, and it's the same, without the noise. At the odd early hours, or during rains, people are more sparse on the streets but they are always there.

So it was this day, an ordinary day in every way. I headed out, intent on finding breakfast.

I saw a man coming toward me, draining a small white paper cup. Then, when done, he chucked it to his left, toward the street, where it fell and came to rest. One casual motion by someone who actually lives here. A true resident. I, as a visitor, was shocked at this disregard for his home, but waste gets into the streets somehow, and this was proof of how.

Oddly, I saw four more of these cups before I made it to the next corner. I began to wonder if this was a special day. Was there a holiday with its own drink, served in the traditional paper cup? I asked later, of someone who has been here a while. No, not that I know of.

But the cups would be taken care of. Cuenca has that figured out. The city has street sweepers, all over the central part of the city. Individual human employees and not machines. They wear distinctive blue coveralls, blue baseball-style caps, and many of them also use matching blue bandannas to cover their lower faces (nose on down). Each has a small, wheeled cart with a broom, dustpan, and tall cylindrical trash bin.

These people are out early, and are always at work. They stand in traffic and sweep the gutters. They hunt along sidewalks for scraps of this and that. They never stand still. They never quit moving. They only work. At times I see two together but they are not leaning on their brooms, talking, joking, or laughing or smoking. They are always working at making the city clean.

I don't recall seeing any sweepers Christmas Day, but I did see them New Year's Day, using their brooms to shape piles of ash and burned sticks, the residue of the previous night's effigy burnings, and brooming up the remains of spent fireworks. All sweepings went into the dustpans, and then into the trash cans.

They are quiet, almost anonymous, these people — they all, in their uniforms and bandannas, almost seem to be copies of one person, almost always the same height and shape, whether male or female, young or not so young, and they never pay attention at all to what is going on around them.

Except to find trash, and to remove it.

As much as anything else, they are the iconic symbol of this place.

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