Someone was shouting from across the parking lot.
The man approached, carrying a camera — mine.
“This is yours, yes?” said the fellow, a waiter at the restaurant we’d just left.
“Mine,” I said. “Many thanks — gracias.”
The man smiled and nodded and moved away so quickly that I knew he wasn’t angling for a payoff.
“Hey, thanks, again,” I called out. He waved and went back to work.
This happened years ago when my wife, Wink, and our four little kids — little, no longer — took a day trip into Mexico from Southern California.
We were on the coast visiting relatives and wanted to get at least a glimpse of the country to the south. We’d be international travelers, imagine that.
In a big maroon Buick borrowed from Wink’s mom, we crossed the border, edged through Tijuana — did you know it is a city of more than 1 million? — and headed to a little resort town on the Baja Peninsula called Rosarito.
Before leaving the good old U.S.A., we were given the usual tips for rookie tourists: Don’t drink the water or eat a salad. More important: Hold on to your wallet. Leave nothing up for grabs.
No point in being naive about this kind of stuff. Things happen. But I get edgy about oversized opinions. This group is shady. That group will take you for all you’re worth. Don’t turn your back on them. My genes are mostly German but, so far, I haven’t felt the need to grow a silly mustache and plot world domination, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, we — six of us East Coasters and my California mother-in-law, Naomi — ate lunch at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. I have loved Mexican food forever and was one blissed-out guy when colossal platters of tacos and enchiladas arrived.
True to her contrarian ways, Naomi drank the water set before us, and chomped the complimentary salad, too. No problem. I devoured everything in sight and cleaned the kids’ plates. I had my beloved old Pentax 35 mm camera with me and took photos. Then I hung the camera by its strap around the frame of my chair.
We had a grand time and, finally, full and happy, herded the kids — at that time, ages 6-11 — back to the big maroon Buick, an auto far more grand than many of the old trucks and sedans we saw on the road.
With everyone seated, I had just opened the driver’s-side door when I heard the waiter calling out — “Señor!” — and saw him running toward me with the Pentax swinging from its strap.
I have thought of our Rosarito outing a lot since that day — the waiter’s honesty and earnestness — and, on a recent trip to the local car wash, remembered the encounter again.
First stop was the vacuum station where workers busily went over the rugs and crevices, lifting away the remains of many movable feasts — pretzel pieces, bagel debris, popcorn, who knows, maybe even a shriveled grape or petrified hunk of cheddar cheese.
Next comes the wash tunnel, water spraying, soap foaming, big buffers taking off months of road muck — some show. At the end, a couple of guys dry the outside, clean the windows, wipe off the dashboard, spritz a little auto after-shave for good measure.
At the tip jar, I am generous. These are hard-working folks — most speaking another language — and, I figure, if I can afford a car wash, come on, I can afford a fiver for the fellows reviving the upholstery.
Car ready, I got behind the wheel. The hatchback had a showroom shine. Gone was the faint scent of cheese calzone and tuna salad. Then something in one of the cup holders caught my eye.
At the bottom were two quarters. Not big money — about one-tenth the cost of a caramel flan latte at Starbucks — but money, nonetheless, and my money, at that.
The coins hadn’t been in the cup holder when I arrived at the car wash. Somebody — the vacuum crew, the wipe-down guys — found them and put the quarters where I’d notice.
You don’t want to make too much of something like this. No reason to believe the car washers would be less honorable and upright than anyone else.
But there’s a lot of talk lately about who belongs, and who doesn’t. Politics aside, all I’m saying is that if you think the best of people instead of the worst, it might pay off — maybe 50 cents at a time.