Here’s a fable from my short story collection Who Put Scoundrels In Charge? (Available here.) I’d love for this to become required reading for anyone studying economics and/or political science. What do you think?
“Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius.” ~Fulton J. Sheen
No one could make a taco like Antonio, though many tried. His shells were so thin and light and crisp that only he could load one without crushing it. His lettuce was always green and fresh, his tomatoes always firm and ripe. Some say that the angels made his cheese and most agreed that if heaven had a taste, one could find it at Antonio’s humble stand.
Every day, long before Noon, Antonio would push his cart to the side of the plaza near the bell tower and prepare his ingredients. The people who worked near the plaza loved the aroma of his corn tortillas as they baked. Hours later, when the other vendors arrived, Antonio gave each of them a cheery greeting.
“Ola,” he said to Enrique, the sausage vendor.
“Buenos dias!” he cried to Olivero, the maker of pies.
“Como esta?” he inquired of big Rosita, who could eat a burrito for every one she sold, and often did.
Enrique only scowled, and Olivero turned away. Rosita would nod, but rarely spoke, for she and the others had made a pact. They knew that good luck accounted for Antonio’s perpetual cheeriness. He must have had many advantages as a child since everything he touched turned out so well. It clearly wasn’t fair, and so they decided to teach him a lesson. They agreed to ignore him as long as he refused to change his attitude. They had each other; it would be enough.
But after several weeks nothing changed–Antonio remained the same. So did the lunch lines, which stretched farther from his cart than any others. He didn’t have all the customers, of course. Some people simply couldn’t take the time to stand in Antonio’s line, and those from out of town didn’t know any better. A few simply didn’t like tacos, even if they did taste like heaven.
Since the pact failed to change anything, the others formed a guild. Enrique and Olivero named it The Brotherhood of Plaza Vendors. Olivero even designed a noble banner with words in somber black and a drawing of a man baking meat pies. Enrique liked the banner because he thought the pies looked like sausages. Rosita argued against the word “Brotherhood,” but finally settled for “Fellowship,” though it didn’t sound exactly right. She agreed to the drawing since the man in it wore an apron and could just as easily have been a woman, albeit a big one. Besides, she thought the pies looked like burritos.
They called to order the first meeting of the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors in Rosita’s home one morning about two weeks before the annual Harvest Festival. Working very hard, the three decided on all the important rules, including the one about membership. Anyone who attended the charter meeting automatically qualified as a charter member; anyone who joined later must pay a fee. That would show Antonio, who was too busy worrying about himself to attend the meeting.
The members of the Fellowship pushed their carts close together on the side of the plaza away from the bell tower. They erected their impressive banner and explained to anyone who would listen how they had organized for the betterment of the entire plaza. Oddly enough, the lines remained longer in front of Antonio’s cart.
“Perhaps he is closer to the fountain,” said Enrique, “and the people do not have to go so far to get a drink.”
“That may be,” said Rosita, “but notice also that his cart is in the shade of the bell tower. The people stay cooler there, and that is why they buy from him.”
Olivero disagreed. “The real reason is much more simple.” He waved his hands in the air. “The breezes always come from the west. They blow right across the plaza to the bell tower. The insects and the bad smells are thus blown away. I’m certain that’s his secret.”
“It just isn’t fair.” Rosita fanned herself. It had never seemed so hot before. “Antonio should not have all that shade to himself.”
Enrique nodded. “Nor should he be so close to the fountain. His customers should be as far from the water as ours are.”
“And may I remind you,” added Olivero, “no one owns the wind.”
“I agree,” said the big woman. “It’s time we did something.”
“Absolutely,” said Enrique rubbing his chin. “But what can we do?”
“We must come to the plaza before he does,” suggested Olivero, “and be the first to open for business by the bell tower.”
“Excellent idea!” said Rosita. “One of you can hold the space for all of us.”
“One of us?” Enrique and Olivero looked at each other. “What about you?”
“My burritos are made with a secret recipe, known only to my family. If I come to the plaza early, someone is sure to steal it.”
“You too have a secret recipe?” exclaimed Olivero. “It is the same with me. If anyone learned my special technique, I would be ruined. Enrique, my friend, for the good of the Fellowship, you must come to the plaza early.”
Enrique clapped his hands to his face. “Alas, I cannot. Indeed, I cannot even tell you why.”
“But we are friends. Surely you can trust me,” said Olivero.
Rosita pursed her lips. “I never knew you were such a man of mystery, Enrique.”
“All right,” he said, “but I’m counting on your confidence. This is something known only to my family these many years.” He looked around to ensure no one else could hear. “You see, my sausages must be made by the light of the moon. I must work nearly all night just to be ready for the next day’s trade. I cannot work all night and get up early, too.”
The Fellowship struggled with their dilemma all afternoon before they found a solution. That very day they called upon the Mayor.
“Senior Mayor,” said Rosita, “you must help us. Antonio has the water, the wind, and the shade all to himself. The people are so uncomfortable they will not trade with us.”
Enrique added, “If we earn no money, we cannot pay taxes. If we cannot pay taxes, you cannot maintain the town. If you cannot maintain the town, the people will throw you out and find a new Mayor.”
Olivero summed it up. “Clearly, Senior Mayor, it is in everyone’s best interest for you to make Antonio move his cart to the other side of the plaza.”
What the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors said sounded logical, and though the Mayor would have liked more time to think it over, he knew that elections would be held right after the Harvest Festival. Choosing between Antonio’s one vote and the Fellowship’s three required no great intellectual effort. “I will talk to him in the morning,” he promised, but he didn’t look forward to it.
The next day, Antonio arrived at the plaza as usual and wheeled his cart over to the bell tower where he found the Mayor waiting for him. “Good morning, Senior Mayor! How are you today?”
“Fine, thank you,” the Mayor said, “but I’m here on official business.” He explained that a complaint had been lodged against Antonio by a prestigious and highly influential organization. “They insist that you move to the other side of the plaza,” explained the Mayor who then spelled out all the Fellowship’s objections. “I tried to reason with them, but they threatened to call a higher authority.”
“I see,” said Antonio. “Did you point out to them that there is no shade at lunch time since the sun is straight overhead?”
“Indeed I did,” said the Mayor, wondering why the thought had not occurred to him.
“Then of course you must have also mentioned that the plaza is round so all vendors are the same distance from the fountain?”
“Of course! It goes without saying.” Which was true, for the Mayor had never said it.
“Then I know you explained about the wind.”
“Probably,” said the Mayor, “after all, we spoke at some length. Uh, which aspect of the wind did you have in mind?”
“Simply that in order for the wind to reach the bell tower here, it must pass through the plaza over there. I’ve been meaning to say something to you about the smells and the insects from that side.”
The Mayor bobbed his head in agreement. “I wish you had said something to me before. Now, it is too late. Will you move peacefully, Antonio?”
“Certainly,” said the taco vendor. Without another word he wheeled his cart across the plaza and parked beneath the banner left behind by the Fellowship. He noticed that one of the two poles supporting the banner was stuck in a sizable hill of garbage also left behind by the Fellowship. A dark green frog, as big as his fist, sat behind the pole snaring an occasional fly with its long, sticky tongue.
He sits there like a king, Antonio thought, staring at the mound of rotted pie fillings, discarded sausages and rancid burritos which served as the frog’s throne. Disgusting. Antonio shook his head and sighed. He almost envied the frog. “How easy your life is,” he said.
The frog eased around the pole where it could see him better and replied, “Easy? How would you like to spend your life sitting on a garbage pile eating flies?”
This so startled Antonio that he nearly forgot to breathe, a blessing considering the awful stench from the garbage. “You spoke!”
The frog rolled its eyes. “Can’t get anything past you.”
“This is a trick!” Antonio spun around quickly to see if someone was throwing his voice like one of the visiting performers at the Harvest Festival, but he stood alone. Scratching his head, he asked, “Are you enchanted? Are you really a prince or a king or something?”
“How did you know?” exclaimed the frog. “I thought my disguise so clever that no one would ever recognize me. What gave me away, the webbed feet? The big eyes? The long tongue? No–I’ve got it! The green skin! That’s it! Of course–all kings and princes have green skin! How stupid of me.” The frog drummed his tiny fingers impatiently.
Antonio felt a flush of embarrassment. “What I meant was, you see…” He paused to gather his wits. “I’ve heard stories about princes and evil magicians. I thought maybe you were someone important who had been turned into a toad.”
“I’m a frog,” said the frog, extending a limb. “See? Smooth skin. Toads are all warty and dry.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll capture you and sell you to the circus? Surely there’s a fortune to be made from a talking frog.”
“Worried? Nah. I wouldn’t cooperate. And if I didn’t talk, no one would buy me. Listen, I’ve thought about it. A circus job would be too much work. After all, I’m only a frog. I’m just tired of eating flies.”
“So what do you want from me?”
“Tacos, of course! Everyone knows yours are the best.”
“Frogs don’t eat tacos,” said Antonio.
“They don’t usually talk, either,” said the frog.
“Good point. But it doesn’t matter. I can’t work here. The smell is terrible, and the Mayor says I cannot use the other side of the plaza. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The frog appeared to give deep consideration to Antonio’s problems. “Hm,” he said at length, “maybe we can help each other.”
“Will you stop with the magic already?” The frog did nothing to hide the exasperation in its voice. “I’ve got a deal for you. It can’t hurt to listen.”
So the frog talked and Antonio listened, and when the frog finished, the two made a bargain. Antonio squared his shoulders in preparation for the tasks ahead. He started by taking his cart home. For the first time since anyone could remember, the taco vendor did not open for business.
Later that day, across the plaza, the other vendors worked feverishly to keep up with demand. Long lines formed in front of all three carts. They reached the end of the day exhausted, but happy. When the Mayor came by to check on them, they heaped their praise upon him.
“You have done the entire village a great service, Senior Mayor,” said Rosita.
Enrique favored him with a weary smile. “We are in your debt.”
“Would you care for a pie?” asked Olivero.
“I think not,” said the Mayor, wrinkling his nose. “I just wanted to see how things were going. It’s only a week until the elec– I mean, until the Festival.”
“We can’t wait,” exclaimed Rosita. “This will be the best Festival in years!”
In the days which followed, Antonio left his cart at home and spent his time cleaning up the garbage, just as the frog suggested. Meanwhile, the members of the Fellowship enjoyed greater profits than they’d ever seen–right until the end of the week when Antonio reopened for business.
Garbage no longer occupied the western side of the plaza. In its place Antonio had installed a long, wooden table. He even planted flowers. In the space of a single day, all his customers returned, plus a few new ones. Everyone smiled. Including the frog, who sat in the shade of Antonio’s cart, munching on a taco.
The following day, as the aroma of corn tortillas and fragrant spices filtered through the air, the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors met in emergency session. “The Harvest Festival begins in two days,” lamented Olivero. “There will be twice as many people in town.”
“Then we should have twice as many customers,” said Rosita.
“Not if we have to battle Antonio across the plaza,” said Enrique. “There is something sinister about what he’s doing.”
“Like what?” Clearly intrigued, Olivero and Rosita leaned closer.
“Does anyone really know what kind of spices he puts in his tacos?”
“I think it’s a secret,” said Olivero.
“Precisely! And why is it a secret?” Enrique squinted at the others, his voice dropping low. “What is it that makes his recipe so special? For all we know, he could be mixing vile narcotics in with those spices of his. I fear he has already addicted the poor people of this village, and that is why they rush to buy from him.”
“I never thought of that!” said an astonished Rosita. “Of course! You’re right. But what can we do about it?”
“I have an idea or two,” said Enrique. “But first we must hold elections.”
The actual voting was concluded quickly, since there were only three voters, but getting to that point proved problematic. Considerable wrangling had to be completed before they settled on which of them would run for the various leadership positions. Once they agreed in principle to exchanging titles at the annual elections, the rest became easy.
After the election, and in the spirit of good citizenship, the three newly elected officers of the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors visited the village physician to voice their public health concerns.
“Though we surely represent our membership,” said Chairman Enrique, “our first concern is for our fellow citizens.”
Vice Chairman Olivero wrung his hands. “Have you heard? This Antonio character encourages people to eat their meals on top of a garbage dump!”
“How can that possibly be healthy?” Secretary-Treasurer Rosita wanted to know.
The village doctor agreed the situation sounded serious, else the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors would not have sent their entire Executive Committee to complain. Using the authority given to him by the Mayor in cases of emergency, he dispatched his assistant to post public notice that henceforth, no food could be sold in the plaza until the village physician was satisfied of its safety. Pleased with the good doctor’s wise decision, the Fellowship gleefully provided samples of sausage, meat pies and burritos for inspection. All three vendors received certificates attesting to the purity of their wares.
When Antonio returned to the plaza the next morning, he found one of the notices tacked to his wooden table. As he read it, the physician’s assistant arrived to collect a sample.
“But I’ve only just arrived,” said Antonio. “Perhaps you could return later, when my tacos are ready.”
“Impossible,” said the official, “we were told this would be the best time to examine your food. Indeed, we received a warning that you might try to trick us with delays.”
Antonio struggled to hide his chagrin. “I’ll be happy to deliver a taco for inspection. Just tell me where to take it.”
“It must go to the physician, but it must go now. We will be too busy later in the day, and the Festival begins tomorrow. So bring it next week.”
“But by then the Festival will be over.”
“I don’t make the rules. But your clever tricks won’t work on me. It looks like you won’t be selling anything for awhile.” He waved as he walked away. “Adios, senior. Have a nice day.”
Antonio felt like weeping. He sat at his wooden table with his head in his hands, wondering how he could make it through the winter without any profit from the Harvest Festival.
Just then, the frog woke up. “Why aren’t you busy? I’m getting hungry.”
Antonio explained his situation to the frog whose advice had seemed so good after the last calamity. “So you see,” he concluded, “there’s nothing I can do.”
“Nonsense,” said the frog. “There’s just nothing you can do here. Now, load your table on the cart, and dig up those flowers. There’s little time, and you have much work to do.”
Once again the workers in the plaza missed out on Antonio’s tacos. Once again they had little choice but to patronize the Fellowship. But on the first morning of the Festival, the workers were greeted with cheerful music even though the celebration would not officially begin until after siesta. Two musicians went round and round the plaza playing their guitars and singing. After every few songs they made an announcement: “Antonio, vendor of tacos, invites you to join him for a Festival lunch! Free food! Just a short walk outside of town near the crossroads. Beverages available for a small fee.”
By the time the other vendors arrived, the word had already spread. Not only was Antonio back, but he was giving his food away! Since the Fellowship had no customers at all during lunch, they held yet another meeting.
“He has truly gone too far this time,” said Olivero.
“How can we compete when he gives his food away?” demanded Enrique.
Rosita was puzzled. “How can he afford to give his food away? Surely he must pay for his ingredients, just as we do.”
“Not if they’re stolen,” said Olivero.
“Or worse,” suggested Enrique.
“Perhaps. What kind of man would violate tradition and begin the Festival with music before the good padres have blessed the harvest? What greater sins would he commit?”
“Antonio? In league with the devil?” Rosita was shocked.
Olivero slapped his leg. “Of course! Why didn’t we see it before? We must inform the church. It’s our sacred duty.”
“And we must do it now,” said Enrique. “There’s no time to waste.”
By the time the priest and the other vendors arrived, the luncheon party was over, and all the celebrants were gone. Antonio, who had worked all night, rested in the shade of a tree and appeared to be talking to himself. The ecclesiastical crew kept their distance, in order to observe the obviously deranged taco vendor who kept looking down at the roots of the tree as he spoke.
Rosita crossed herself. “Do you see, Padre? He has found El Diablo’s door!” Enrique and Olivero shuddered.
The priest looked around at the setting Antonio had created. Nestled among the trees just beyond the village limits, the taco vendor had erected a second table to go with the first. Gaily colored paper streamers hung from the trees and pockets of flowers brightened the grounds. A huge container of lemonade sat in the shade beside the taco cart, which was still fragrant from lunch.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” said the priest, for indeed the little clearing was most appealing.
“Do you see a cross?” asked Enrique. “Or any sign of the holy nature of the Festival?”
“No,” admitted the priest, not entirely sure the Festival was intended as a holy occasion. “We must not be hasty. I would speak with Antonio before I decide if he has done anything wrong.”
The four advanced on the recumbent restaurateur who was too weary to rise.
“Who are you talking to?” asked the priest.
“My friend, the frog,” said Antonio, waving a hand toward the amphibian.
Olivero kept the priest between himself and the taco vendor. “And does the frog respond?”
“Of course.” Antonio yawned. “This whole thing was his idea.” His voice trailed off briefly before flaring into life for a few more syllables. “I’m indebted to him.”
In a whisper, Enrique addressed the priest. “Padre, must I remind you that frogs are kin to serpents? And did you not teach us yourself that the devil is often disguised as such?”
The priest nodded, and the three vendors stared hard at him as Antonio drifted off to sleep. “He is doomed,” said Rosita.
“There’s no hope for him,” said Olivero.
The frog, guessing how the conversation would turn out, sneaked away before the zealots came after him. His disappearance provided the final proof Enrique needed. “You see? Even the devil has deserted him!”
The taco vendor slept as the four walked away, shaking their heads. They returned to the village and spread word of Antonio’s fate. After that, no one dared go near him, not even the musicians he had hired the day before.
“I’m ruined,” said Antonio to the frog.
“Only if you stay here.”
“Where else can I go?”
“Anywhere!” said the frog. “You make the finest tacos in the world. You will be welcome anywhere you go. If I were you, I would have gone to the city long ago.”
So Antonio moved to the city. Soon the people there began to say if one wanted a taste of heaven, Antonio could supply it. His fame and his business grew. He married into a respected family and fathered enough children to run an entire chain of taco stands.
In the village he left behind, the members of the Fellowship rejoiced throughout the Festival. Without the competition from Antonio, they sold everything they could make. But it wasn’t long before sales faltered once again, and they called a meeting to discuss the crisis.
Rosita pulled Olivero aside. “Everyone knows the aroma of my burritos is very subtle, but my customers can’t smell it because of Enrique’s pies. We should consider asking him to move to the other side of the plaza.”
Olivero turned to Enrique. “People need us, and they need the good, healthy meat we sell. But they think they must also buy Rosita’s burritos. It’s obvious they stay away because of the expense. The people will be happier if Rosita moves across the plaza.”
Enrique found a moment to converse with Rosita. “A balanced meal means meat and vegetables. With your burritos and my sausages, people really don’t need Olivero’s pies. He should move his cart as a public service.”
They concluded the meeting by disbanding the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors and replacing it with three new organizations, each one-third the size of the original: the Congress of Meat Pie Makers, the Brotherhood of Sausage Stuffers, and the League of Burrito Bakers. They often held their meetings in the middle of the day since customers remained scarce.
The frog, meanwhile, made a killing selling brown paper lunch bags to the people who no longer purchased their lunches in the plaza and opted instead to bring food from home. In the end, the frog and the labor leaders were the only ones who didn’t miss the humble taco vendor.