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Don Aristides’ World

Coyote Moon
(my portal to Mexico & Latin America)

Coyote Moon es una tienda maravillosa. Aristides vende muchos articulos agradables de todo el mundo. Mis cosas favoritas incluyen prendas de vestir como blosas y sombreros de paja Sudamerica y las Muñecas Quitapenas de Guatamala. Me gustan las esculturas pequeñas. Aristides vende los articulos de otras regiones tambien. Una mesa en su tienda tiene platos, copas, tazónes y palillos de Japón. ¡Fue de estos objetos que yo aprendí a como decir las palabras, para la vajilla en espanol! Me gustaria comprar en la tienda si tuviera mas tiempo, pero yo voy a la tienda a aprender español. ¡Aprendiendo español es mi cosa favorito acerca de Coyote Moon!

Don Aris
(tendero extraordinaire)

Coyote Moon majestically appeared in the middle of a modest and tidy downtown Vermont village square that had been vacant for quite some time. Previously the space had been held down by Radio Shack, teeming with its expansive array of goods and gadgets. The next minute the entire storefront was eerily quiet, like a stealthy thief repelling upwards in the night.

“They didn’t give any notice…” I was told by the posse of town tenderos.They just up and left.”

“Well, then good riddance,” I thought. But I was saddened too. Our town, attempting gentrification, was again sagging back down against the ropes. Too many “For Rent” and “For Sale” signs were popping up. Vacancy became the elephant in the room; the gadfly in the weeping eye of the town. Not enough new business. And the businesses that were there often seemed older than the “shoe polish” (my husband swears) Ronald Reagan used once upon a time to dye his hair.

But then, just as suddenly, a jewel appeared in the empty space. Like an oasis in a blistering desert, a whirl of color and cadence, style and chic danced in like a merry dervish. A business sign was posted high above the once-drab storefront. Oh yes, I remembered this place. It had been way down the Exnor Block, stuffed into a little corner space that could hardly contain it’s fanciful feast of sheer light and sparkle. I’d shopped there, in fact. Bought a bracelet made of starfish shells for my mother. The shop with its color and lilting cadence spoke to me of parts unknown–parts about as foreign to the stark white Puritan church steeples of New England as it was possible to get. The merchandise, squeezed tightly yet decorously on the too-small counters, had been marshaled by a shrewd and meticulous eye. Nothing about it hinted remotely of Yankee sensibility or thrift. So the question was…who owned this place? Where (and who) was the little man (or woman) behind the curtain?


Colorful & Dynamic
(some of Coyote Moon’s exquisite merchandise)

Not long after cogitating on that question, plain old retail need brought me squarely inside Coyote Moon’s new location. I was dazzled by color, but saw nobody at the helm of this beautifully folksy operation. Then, slowly, he emerged from behind one of many long jewelry counters laden with silver. Smiling a dazzling smile.

“May I help you? ¿En qué puedo servirle?”

He was a handsome man in his early 60’s with an elegant manner, who spoke a heavily accented English. I knew instinctively that he had hand-chosen every item of merchandise in the store, that he had shone each piece of silver jewelry to a lustrous finish. That he had Windexed these gleaming counters, vacuumed this spotless floor and painted the bureaus housing the wonderful Peruvian sweaters, hats and scarves. That he had created a Little Mexico in Bellows Falls, Vermont. He had done it all, somehow, by himself. I would learn later that my instinct was correct.

I bought a hat. “Que bonita, senorita.” I could also tell that he was more comfortable speaking Spanish, a language I spoke not even un poco. The hat was simple, straw, and banded with a bright red sash. I liked the hat, but I realized I had only bought it because I wanted something from this tiendita, from this charming tendero.

La Plata Counter
(don Aris’ specialty)

Later I would learn that he was a native of Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he had lived happily with his American wife, and where he had had no desire ever to set foot in the United States or learn the English language. There he had had a successful veterinary practice and had seen to the needs of farm animals. His had been a privileged life in an underprivileged country. When his wife had wanted at last to return to the United States, he came, albeit reluctantly. He spoke no English, which meant that his days as a practicing veterinarian were over. It was also the end of a life of color and vibrancy, sunshine, and a deeply noble, ancient heritage. He was leaving it behind to come to Vermont, a place about as radically different from Mexico as it is possible to get. A world that is insular, and, at times, lonely and dark to new initiates. Especially in the winter.

“I’d sit in my house shivering from the cold, and think: now what?”

The Yankee sensibility and arms-length approach to strangers seemed odd and alien to Don Aris. But he forged ahead regardless. First as a distributor of grain for large animals, and later with a jewelry business. He drove the measured miles of New England, selling wholesale to strangers with only a grade school student’s knowledge of the foreign language he was attempting to speak.

“My family needed money,” he shrugs. “What else could I do?”

Teach Spanish, for instance, to the likes of me. As I was sitting in my office across the street, fuming about the rebellious Macromedia player that wouldn’t load properly for my on-line Spanish course, I thought grumpily: “This should be easy. I’ve had about one hundred years of French and Latin. What gives?” What gave was the pronunciation, which I couldn’t hear, and which became further obfuscated by the countless Spanish movies that had become part of my punishing regiment of self-learning. Epic sentences, hurled out with a long trip-on-the-tip-of-the tongue (to freely paraphrase Nabokov) from powerfully lisping speakers, were causing me to despair that I’d ever be able to learn this so-called “easy Romance language.” Finally, I conceded, I needed help. I marched over to Coyote Moon, fat binder of Macromedia rejects printed out and stuffed into stationary submission.

“Can you help me? I’ll pay you $20 an hour,” I begged.

“You can’t afford that much, Doña Maria,” he replied kindly. “And you need two lessons per week. So pay me $10. For two lessons. And maybe clean some plata,” he laughed.

I told him about my pronunciation worries brought on by Spanish speakers. He made a garbling sound and affected a strange accent. “Yes, that’s how they sound. grrgrr..They think they’re so…but listen, don’t worry Dona Maria, you’re going to speak good Spanish like we do in Mexico.”

Luckily I have a good ear and the sounds soon came easily. There are some exceptions, of course. The rolling ‘r” of “perro” can become embedded in the back of my throat. He laughs at my occasionally hard Saxton-tinged vowel sounds. And delights me with renegade language training tools that seem to be as carefully selected as one of his shawls.

“Now Doña Maria, you tell me, is this B de vaca or B de burro?” he once asked me with a merry twinkle in his eye, trilling his double R.

No entiendo, profesor,” I responded, confused.

“This is how they taught us when we were kids in Mexico. Is it ‘B’ for the burro, or ‘B’ for the vaca?’ He laughed, delighted at his humor. “You won’t forget the vaca or the burro now, will you, Doña María?”

No, I wouldn’t. It became so ingrained in my brain that when I received an e-mail from him while I was in Spain this past May, inquiring about my “biajes,” I immediately pounced upon the error. I also wasted no time in wagging a scolding finger in his face promptly upon my return to the U.S. and Coyote Moon.

“¡Usted olvidó su propia regla, maestro. ‘Viaje’ es B de vaca!”* I announced triumphantly.

(*You forgot your own rule, teacher. Viaje is b for the vaca!”)

He smiled brightly. “Bueno, Maria. Tu recordaste la regla!”
(*Good Mary. You remembered the rule.)

Other similar amusing experiences as a student of Don Aris included the time he insisted I chime out (until I had the pronunciation perfect) three sentences with the thricely distinct word “Papa.” The fact that there were several disgruntled customers in the tienda waiting for service seemed to be somewhat beside the point. Therefore, I strove for brevity.

Uno: “Mi papá es en casa.”

Dos: “El Papa es en Roma”

Tres: “La papa es en la tienda”

He shook his head patiently, waving off an anxious out-of-town silver seeker. Apparently I had failed my own father via a distinct lack of a discernible accent on the second syllable.

Pa-pá

Papá,” I huffed (with, I thought, impressive clarity)

Pero no, pa-pá

“¡Eso es lo que dije!”

Bueno. Now where is The Catholic Father? And the vegetable you ate for dinner?”

And so it went…

Alebrije From Mexico
(Despite mishandling from patrons, Don Aris refuses to install a “Do Not Touch” Sign)

I work at Coyote Moon as a tendera sometimes, simply because I love to be surrounded by all of that lush culture. On one such occasion I spied a few sticky-fingered youths grabbing at the delicate alebrije with hammy paws. And, since I feel almost as protective of Don Aristides’ merchandise as I do of my own son, it raised my ire to see it mistreated thus.

“Let me put up a sign for you, profesor. A simple DO NOT TOUCH.”

But he shook his head firmly. “No, no, Doña María. People need to be able to touch the things they see in front of them. It makes them feel good, it warms the heart, no? To hold a beautiful object. People need more of this in their lives. I want to make people happy. I want them to leave my store happy. And if things get broken…que sera, sera.

And it’s true: people are drawn to those irresistable objects. They are drawn to the merchandise and the colorful portal between two Americas which are, in reality, one. But mostly, I am convinced, they are drawn to don Aristides who, like the quietly generous Jonathan Jo of A.A. Milne’s poem, always has a “wheelbarrow full of surprises” ready to dispense. Along with a liberal dose of happiness to those lucky enough to enter the marvelous portal of Coyote Moon.