Don Keating at Apaches on New Year's Eve 2008
When I first met Don Keating a few years back at Apaches, the same bar in which the photo here of him was taken, I became overwhelmed with the feeling I’d met him somewhere before. Perhaps I had, but more likely I was feeling his keen sense of connection to everything and everyone around him. Barely a person passes that doesn’t say hello to Don. He’s been around Vallarta a while, but that’s not the reason. He has a few cocktails at one of the most popular happy hour haunts in Vallarta, Apaches, but that’s not the reason. The reason: this man has the soul of a saint and the heart of an angel. He’s also funny (even witty), intelligent and has great stories to tell. I’ve heard a few of them and laughed at all of them. He has a way of drawing you in when he talks.
So last night, as I sat with Don at a table on the sidewalk at Apaches, we talked about the neighborhood, El Coloso, where he lives. It’s a typical Mexican colonia up near the tunnel at the approach from centro to Vallarta’s southside. Not the glamorous neighborhood you might think a man like Don would settle. Nearby Conchas Chinas’ fancy but mostly walled in, gringo owned homes just wasn’t right for this successful businessman from Palm Springs. El Coloso is the neighborhood Don chose. He’s lived there for years and when he steps out of a cab at his home, a neighbor is never far away. They run over to help him inside his home if he needs it (most times he doesn’t) or just to say hello or shake his hand. He gets around quite well, thank you. But his neighbors like him too, so they always want to help him. Sure, they get a small coin from time to time for helping with groceries or carrying his packages in, but that isn’t why they do it. It’s only a gesture of thanks and it isn’t required.
Over the years, Don has helped his neighbors care for their colonia and on one patch of open land near the river, he takes part in tending to the banana trees and vegetables they’ve planted there for the neighborhood to share. This gives them a reason to come together, I suppose, and promotes some civic pride that goes along way in curing the less wonderful things about the neighborhood.
One of those less wonderful aspects of living in El Coloso (or any neighborhood for that matter) is the trash that is sometimes scattered carelessly on the stairs and sidewalks. A few years ago Don saw that several young kids were eager to help keep the trashed picked up if he paid them a bit for their efforts. And there was one particular young boy, Enrique, who cleaned the stairs two or three times a week, quietly earning his 20 pesos or so for each day’s work. Enrique would give the money to his mother who used it to buy extra rice or tortillas at the market. It was Don’s hope that the clean stairs and visibility of the boy’s (and the other children’s) efforts would discourage littering by building a sense of pride and accomplishment. For some reason, though, after several months of the arrangement, it hadn’t. Don began to notice that each morning, the stairs would be littered with more trash than seemed possible, given the small amount of foot traffic in his area. It seemed the more the boy worked to clean them, the more trash was on them the next day.
On one particularly nice Vallarta morning, Don rose early to get a good look at the sunrise over the mountains behind his home. As he gazed at the lush green of the Sierra Madres which framed his view, he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a young boy emptying the contents of a bag on the stairs next to his home. It was trash. And, not just a single piece, the boy was tossing a bag load of it strategically down the steps and walkway. This guy was a real entrepeneur, Don thought to himself as he realized it was his sweet friend Enrique, tossing yesterday’s collection of trash back on the street to sure up his job security. It seemed maybe Don’s efforts had indeed paid off. There wasn’t enough trash to keep Enrique in business. A good thing, right? Not for Enrique.
Enrique never made another peso for cleaning the stairs. Don told him he admired his entrepeneural spirit but that he couldn’t earn money by being dishonest or by creating a false market for himself, no matter how many Wall Street demons have done so. Enrique does still clean the stairs. But now, instead of monetary rewards, he gets candy. And so do about a dozen other kids who take part from time to time in the work. When I asked Don which one got the best results, (the candy or the money) he quickly replied, “The candy, for sure. The kids love it. And the sidewalks are clean.”
And I suppose Enrique’s conscious is a little cleaner now. Even if he does have a bit of sweet tooth.