Avi Davis is based in Brooklyn. He has contributed to the Best American Travel Writing series, the Believer, Vice, and n+1. More of his writing can be found at shredsandclippings.blogspot.com.
“Do you feel there are too many limitations placed on you? On your relationships? On your life?” Israel Benito Canseco was eleven years old and he sold personal development for twenty-five pesos. “Have difficulties facing the challenges that impede you? Want to overcome personal and professional obstacles, but don't know how?” He worked the green and white buses that rumbled from Portales in the south of the Distrito Federal north to Azcapotzalco, carrying a backpack full of softcover books. “Feel that you are not using your true potential, your true knowledge, your true self?”His nasal sing-song leaped out of the side of his mouth and filled the bus. It was not the way any normal person spoke, but it was the manner that all street hawkers and vagoneros in Mexico City learned to cut through the noise of grinding axles and construction. Foreigners on the metro held their ears when Israel worked near them.“Today I am carrying on sale this book of wisdom and knowledge...” It was three-thirty on an afternoon in May. The bus Israel was on lurched along Calle Florencia. On the sidewalks the people nodded like palm leaves in the heat, returning to their offices after three-course lunches, suit jackets drooping and high heels tottering. The bus was almost empty. “...for twenty-five pesos. This book of simple advice and counsel will help you...” He moved toward the front of the bus droning his formula, looking left and right for a raised hand. “...help you break the limitations that control you...” Glancing ahead he could see the huge traffic circle and the Angel of Independence. No one wanted to buy. “The teachings of Don Tonalli Zaragoza, doctor of sociology, make the perfect gift. For only twenty-five pesos, twenty-five pesos it costs you. The Seven Vows of Fulfillment teach you to see the opportunities that surround you and take hold of them. The first vow is: Acknowledge your actions. The second vow is: Ackn—” A massive electronic drumbeat cut off Israel's speech. He looked toward the back of the bus. Another boy had jumped in the back entrance as the bus crawled through traffic. A subwoofer sewn into his backpack pummeled the choked air of the bus. “....time of my life and I owe it all to I'm sexy and I know it I work rolling in the deeep you had my Johnny la gente esta muy...” The other boy was Raul. Sometimes he worked Israel's route. A seller wasn't supposed to cut in on other sellers' pitches, the jefes made that clear. But Raul was older and bigger than Israel. The second vow was: Acknowledge your limitations. “Ladies and gentlemen, today I am carrying on sale,” Raul started, “this disc with fifty big hits. Fifty hits of the dance floor and the club. Mp3 format. Twenty pesos, twenty pesos it costs you!” Several hands went up. Israel turned toward the front window. The bus was just pulling into the traffic circle now, picking up speed around the outer edge where the taxis stopped. Israel counted the coins in his pocket. The third vow was: Acknowledge your opportunities. He could get off here and buy a few tacos. Suddenly there was a thud and the bus lurched to a stop. Israel looked out the front window. A man in a suit lay sprawled on the cobblestones directly in front of the bus, almost under it, his face away from them. His leather shoes glinted spotlessly. “No mames,” the bus driver let out a curse. Raul came up behind Israel and saw the man on the cobblestones. He was pushing himself onto his elbows with difficulty. The bus driver put his hand on the gear stick and glanced guardedly over his shoulder. Israel followed his gaze. None of the passengers could see what had happened. The driver put the bus into gear. It grunted backwards briefly, then started to pull around the prostrate form of the man in the suit. Israel looked at Raul. The older boy shook his head. He knew what Israel was thinking. Israel ignored him. The fourth vow was: Acknowledge when others are limiting you. He grabbed the handrail and jumped down the steps to the cobblestones. “What are the jefes going to say?” he heard Raul sneer as the bus lumbered away toward traffic. The man on the cobblestones was now propped on one elbow. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. His suit and thick-woven shirt were impeccable, his double-knotted tie barely askew. He gave off the rare sheen of air-conditioned realms. On one side his hair looked like he had just come from the barber. The other was plastered with the grime of the cobblestones. He turned around slowly and saw Israel. Just then a small man popped out of the driver's side of a cab parked by the curb, and Israel knew what had happened. The passenger door was still open on the side nearest traffic. “Is he alright?” The little cabbie rushed over. “I told him to watch out! Are you alright, sir?” “Yes,” said the suited man, not convincingly. “I go for a police,” the cabbie said, hurrying away. “Did I trip?” said the man, looking up at Israel. He had a face of helplessness that surprised the eleven-year-old. “No, you got out in front of a bus,” said Israel. He grabbed the man's arm and helped him scramble to his feet. The man sagged on his left side. “Chinga, my leg.... Where is it? The bus.” “It drove away.” “Mmm. Suppose I would have done the same.” “We should go over there,” Israel said. He helped the man limp to a stone bench on the sidewalk. No one was around. “Where were you going?” Israel asked. “The bank.” The man pointed to the thirty-floor tower that rose above the traffic circle, its foreign logo gleaming redly down on the Angel. “I was coming from a lunch meeting.” “You work there?” Israel asked. “Yes. I'm manager of accident insurance. Ironic, no?” The man smirked. He looked more composed now. Israel said nothing. The fifth vow is: Everything happens for a reason. “And where did you come from? I guess you're not in school.” “I was on the bus,” Israel said. “I sell books.” “You were just getting off here, or what?” “No. No one else was there. So I came to help. Recognizing when others need help.” “Well, the cops will be here in a minute and I'm not carrying any change, so...” “I didn't want money. The sixth vow is: Recognize when others need help.” “The sixth what?” “The sixth vow of Don Tonalli Zara—” “Oh, god. I know, I know. The Seven Vows. I know them. I teach that shit. Are those the books you sell?” The banker chuckled, brushed the dirt from his hair. “Let me see one.”Israel handed him a paperback.“Yep, I'm a weekend personal development mentor. Let me tell you something about The Seven Vows,” the banker said, turning over the book, fanning the cheap paper of the pages. “They're a guide to getting what you want. Do you know what the sixth vow is?”“Yes. The sixth vow is—”“Then you know it's about self-fulfillment. For yourself.” He looked at the blank spine, the inside cover. “Listen, why are you out here working on the buses?” No one had ever asked Israel that question. He didn't know how to answer.“How do you think I made it to the bank?” the banker continued. He was examining the back cover of the book, the pixelated photo of Don Tonalli Zaragosa.“You didn't make it to the bank.”The banker handed the book back to Israel.“What I mean is,” the banker said, “why do you think I ended up working at the bank, and you'll probably spend the rest of your life selling crap on buses? That's the seven vows, my friend. Vows to yourself. That's personal development. Most people are like you. They think it's going to make them good people, make them happy and their families happy, and that's why they'll shell out fuckloads of money to take the courses. So sure, we'll teach them. But only a very, very few are brave enough for real self-fulfillment. What's the last vow? The seventh vow?”“The seventh vow,” Israel said, “is, take nothing—”The squawk of a police cruiser interrupted Israel Benito Conseca. The banker stood up as quickly as his hurt leg would allow and limped to the officer stepping out of the car. They talked, glancing often toward Israel, the officer taking notes. After several minutes the officer gestured to the boy."I need to review your bag," said the officer. Thirty seconds later the cruiser was pulling away from the curb, the backpack of pirated softcovers in the trunk. Israel looked out from the cruiser window at the banker standing on the curb. The banker held up seven fingers. The seventh vow was: Take nothing personally.