Opportunity didn’t bother to knock. It just walked into my shop in the guise of a man with a broad face and pronounced epicanthic eye folds.
Of course I didn’t recognize him as opportunity. Nor did I think he was a customer. In the twenty years I’ve been in business, I’ve never had an Indian buy a pot.
He made no eye contact as he turned to the first piece of merchandise, an ancient olla from Santo Domingo. He studied it for perhaps thirty seconds. His movement to the next pot was so contained it seemed as though he was still and I was the one moving. Like when a boat moves away from a dock, something I never experience in Albuquerque.
I watched him survey the merchandise in this fashion for a few minutes then went back to The Wooing of Malkatoon by Lew Wallace, a book so bad I couldn’t put it down.
When my visitor finally approached the counter, I marked my place in the book and studied him. The heavy-lidded eyes looked weary, his face impassive. His sparse facial hair was unshaven. His worn jeans and stained chambray shirt gave him the look of someone who might ask you for spare change.
And yet… there was another layer, a sort of pentimento. What could be read as resignation might also be strength. Someone comfortable enough in his skin that he feels no need to demonstrate it to others. Did his countenance reflect five hundred years of white dominance or five centuries of quiet resistance?
He stopped four feet from me. His hooded eyes seemed to take in the entire room without focusing on anything specific.
“You don’t have any pots from my people.”
His sibilant words drifted across my eardrums like tumbleweeds over dry sand.
“Taos,” he said. “How you know?”
He probably counted Picuris as a correct answer because Taos and Picuris are the only two places that speak the northern Tiwa language. I thought I heard the accent. The southern version is spoken in the two pueblos closest to Albuquerque - Sandia and Isleta. A variety of Tiwa was also spoken in Texas, where it was spelled Tigua. The pueblo there – also on the Rio Grande – was named like the one near Albuquerque but spelled with a ‘Y’ in the little village of Ysleta, long ago swallowed up by the El Paso metropolis.
But my fascination with Taos stems not from their language but from their traditional pottery. It was unlike any produced in the other pueblos of New Mexico. Their utilitarian style made Taos pottery less popular with collectors than the elaborate polychrome works of San Juan or the black-on-blacks of San Ildefonso.
The reason I had no pots from Taos wasn’t a matter of taste. I specialize in antique pieces, and old pots from Taos are rare because they were often purchased by local Hispanics and Anglos for everyday use which led to their eventually being broken or discarded. Very few people collected them.
When I explained this to my visitor, he nodded.
There was a long silence. I knew to avoid small talk. I looked outside to the deserted sidewalk. Too late in the year for skiers, too early for summer tourists.
“I can get you three Taos pots from the 1920s,” he finally said, eyes looking through me.
I told him I was interested.
“First you have to get an old one for me,” he said.
The offer to get me three pieces if I got him one seemed odd. I asked how I could get an old Taos pot for him.
He finally looked me in the eyes. “You’ll have to steal it.”
Maybe he wasn’t opportunity personified. Maybe he was temptation.