I didn’t go to the market to buy a hat. I went to buy a chess set. Twelve years earlier at a market in Mexico City, I had bought a polished onyx chess board with pieces carved in the shapes of Aztec deities. Before flying home I had packed the set carefully in my suitcase. At the time I wasn’t so wise to the ways of airline baggage handlers, and when I arrived home I found the board had shattered en route. I’ve never checked baggage since.
Now at another market, in Juarez, I found plenty of chess-board vendors. However, the boards were much more expensive than I had remembered. An onyx board and pieces were well beyond my price range. I don’t know if it was due to twelve years’ inflation, or to the proximity of Juarez to the United States. Both these possibilities were suggested by the fact that vendors here set their prices in dollars, not pesos.
Unable to find a budget-priced onyx set, I settled for a wooden board with hand-carved pieces, at a negotiated price of $18. It was more than I had wanted to spend even for an onyx board, but at least I wasn’t too much over my budget. However, I wouldn’t be able to buy anything else here.
I walked around the maze of the market, relishing the atmosphere of the place. I enjoyed watching other shoppers haggling with sellers.
Then it happened.
As I walked past a stall displaying hats, I turned my head ever so slightly. That was all the incentive the vendor needed to begin his pitch. “Do you like this hat?” he asked, picking one at random and holding it out in front of my face. Startled, I shook my head no. He grabbed another hat and repeated the question. I again shook my head, and started to walk away.
But he was persistent. He tried one more time, offering a straw hat with a black band and a wide brim, and I hesitated. It was a simple hat, but well-made. The merchant, sensing a potential sale, said, “Try it on.”
Before I could say anything he put it on my head and from somewhere produced a hand-held mirror. “This is a forty-dollar hat,” he said, “but for you, only thirty-five. I want you to have this hat.” He looked at me with an intensity that I found mildly disturbing.
The truth was, I could use a hat. Just the day before I had given mine to one of the local kids. But this hat was much too expensive, and anyway I was already over my budget. I removed the hat from my head and handed it back to the vendor, but he wouldn’t take it. “Would you pay thirty dollars?” he asked.
I tried to place the hat back on the rack, but now he took it from my hand — and held it out to me again. “What would you pay for a hat like this? Twenty-five dollars?” The look on his face resembled an odd mixture of hope and pity. “I want you to have this hat,” he repeated, as though my life forever would be unfulfilled unless I made this purchase. If I didn’t buy the hat, he would hold himself personally responsible for my lifelong misery.
He had already cut his price nearly in half without so much as a word from me. I felt obliged to make some sort of token counter-offer before walking away. “Fifteen dollars,” I suggested. It was less than I thought he would accept, but still more than I would have paid for the same hat in the States.
He gave me a mournful look. His eyes bored into mine with that disturbing intensity. “I am so sorry. I really want you to have this hat, but I cannot sell it for less than. . . sixteen dollars.”
It was too late to back out now. With just a dollar separating us, a razor’s edge between an unnecessary impulse buy and a life of misery, I could think of only one reasonable response. I reached for my wallet and found $16 as he placed the hat back on my head