Selling Matches in Montevideo, Uruguay
He is a small framed man with a beard. Everyone who boarded at the last bus stop takes one of the last remaining seats or grabs a hand hold. Except for this man, who stands in the aisle facing the passengers. I wonder if he is selling something, but I don’t see a tray or box of goods and he isn’t saying anything. The man’s head is slightly bowed and his eyes are shut. After several seconds the man’s eyes slowly open and he looks up and around at us.
He slowly reaches into the large shoulder bag he is wearing and takes out two small boxes of stick matches. He holds one box of matches up high and moves it back and forth so we all can see. He has not yet said a word. Except for the creaking and bumping of the bus, it is completely quite. All the passengers have their attention on the man with the matches.
He lowers the box of matches and looks at it. He smiles. He smiles as though he has never seen anything quiet so wonderful. It is as if holding and seeing the box of matches gives him a sense of deep reassurance.
At this point he begins to speak. He speaks in a respectful, almost reverent, tone.
“These matches are wood matches. The trees used to make these matches were grown over many years using all natural processes.”
He takes a match out of one of the boxes and holds it up. “There are no knots or imperfections in these matches. The wood is almost pure white. The matches are all uniform. They are all the same length and thickness.”
After a pause he continues. “These matches are reliable. I have personally used several boxes and every match has successfully lit. The striking surface for the matches is included on the side of each box.”
He stops speaking and looks at the box of matches again. This time his expression is one of knowing appreciation. It obviously does not matter to him if we understand how good the matches really are. He has truth, the kind that is not conditioned by the understanding of others.
He continues. “The printing on the match box has three colors, and is different on each side.
This side has an attractive design.
And this side has writing. Even this side with writing adds a decorative element to any kitchen.”
The match salesman goes on to say that he does not want any of us to be thinking of buying a box of matches. It is not a decision we should make until we hold the matches in our own hands and personally examine them. He goes through the bus handing out a box of matches to everyone who will take one (which is more than half the passengers).
He then announces that for anyone who wants to take his or her box of matches home, the cost is five pesos. Everyone with matches (including myself) reaches into a pocket or a purse to find five pesos. A few people offer ten pesos and ask for a second box.
As the bus approaches the next bus stop, the man moves more and more quickly collecting his money. As he takes the last five peso coin the bus comes to a stop. He steps down from the bus before the passengers at the stop start to board.
As the match salesman disappears into the pedestrian traffic of Avenue 18 de Julio I think to myself, I should have bought two boxes. No, I should have bought four.
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