217 San Antonio, TX: Amigos

One main tourist route is the Riverwalk, which trails the brackish green water of the San Antonio River. Calling it the Riverwalk is misleading if you're used to a river going all one direction. This river forms a horseshoe through downtown. Restaurants have placed tiny metal tables on terraces where you can sit and eat beneath tavern balconies and lush vegetation overhang.

Along the Riverwalk, I interviewed one of the Centro San Antonio helpers. He was in their standard uniform: a denim vest and straw hat with a green ribbon on it that read "Centro San Antonio." He was African American with heavy jowls. [As I was writing this chapter, San Antonio took over the title as the U.S. city with the highest rate of obesity.] The corners of his dark brown eyes were heavily veined. He seemed affable, a good fit for the job. Unlike most interviews for this book, which I had to initiate, he approached me. "How are you doing, sir?"

"I'm fine," I rejoindered. "Since you're here to help, can I interview you for a book I am writing?"

To my question whether he thought people in San Antonio were isolated, he answered in a rich deep tone. "No, not since I started this job. Because they're promoting tourism. And now it's easy for people to see the world. People come down to see the Alamo and walk along the Riverwalk."

"We've lived here about a total of eight-and-a-half years. Longer than other places. We moved a lot. My wife's 20 years Air Force. So we've been to California, Florida, Great Britain. Everywhere people are so nice. Before, we lived in Great Britain. It was like five Air Force bases in a small country. But they're very Americanized. They had Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonald's, Burger King's.

"But she wanted to retire here, so we came back here. A lot of people move here. It's like the military. You get all different cultures. This job has made me branch out. Even though we've been here so long, we've been on the military base. You don't really have a reason to come downtown. Everything you want you have right there. I have to learn all the names of streets, emergency procedures, what they're doing downtown. I had no clue it was like this.

"You get some people that look at you like, 'we're not used to this.' Because, first, they think we're looking for a handout. I have to tell them these are free. 'They're free? Okay, we'll take one.' Yeah, we get these official badges. When they see that, I'm safe then. They walk up and say 'Do you work for the city?'"

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