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Archive for the ‘~ New Stories of Mexico and Elsewhere’ Category

My wife was visiting in the north, helping our friend, who is Mexican, married to a Frenchman and living in Madrid, research Mexican engineering students studying in the U.S. in the 19th Century.

 

I stayed home in my small colonial city, practicing no longer being dependent on my wife, as well as exploring solitude, bachelorhood and cat farming. The latter can be explained by the fact that a small stray cat family that lived next door decided to live at our house. My neighbor, who had given sanctuary to the family—on her laminated tin roof held down by stones borrowed permanently from our property—argues that it was enticement. Not by us but by our cat, an earlier immigrant. Who always leaves food in his bowl. Hence, enticement.

 

The new family consisted of a mother with a brown moustache, a doting father and two young ones. Then one day I reported to my traveling wife that the mother cat appeared to be pregnant. And after a bit more time, that she appeared to be un-pregnant.

 

“Did you look for the babies?” my wife asked from the archives of one of M.I.T.’s libraries.

 

I said no I hadn’t. I had more important things to do. Like Yoga, writing, getting a massage, and finding a place to eat lunch, followed by a nap, putting together something for supper and watching horrible news from the country she was visiting.

 

“Have you looked for the babies?” she asked from the archives at Cornell.

 

I said I hadn’t and wasn’t going to because they could be anywhere, near or far.

 

Then one day, after climbing the 203 irregular Mexican steps to our house—plus long, steep, slanting stretches—I came through the garden gate, then the garden itself, and spotted them. Two little things, on a patio. I counted them again. Two. I had expected more and was relieved to arrive at the same count.

 

I climbed some outside stairs to the terrace off our main living level. The house is small but has two main levels and three terraces, two terraces on the lower level and one on the upper. Sometimes I call them patios. When I reached the terrace on the upper level, my neighbors’ seventeen-year old son Evan was standing on his flat roof—which we call an azotea here—which is level with our top living level.

 

We both heard a third kitten, but it was not clear where the sound was coming from. Evan kept looking at a drainage hole near the top of the stairs I had just come up. I climbed our iron spiral staircase, thinking the crying was coming from our azotea (an Arabic word). The crying was weaker. When I descended the spiral staircase again, I saw Evan still staring at the drainage hole. That was where the kitten’s cries were coming from. Somehow it had gotten up to our upper level—I suspect his mother—and then entered the hole and dropped twenty feet down the 4” PVC drainage pipe. And was trapped—essentially entombed by tons of cement and brick.

 

“What are you going to do?” my wife asked.

 

I said I had snaked a thick rope down the pipe, and if the kitten couldn’t climb up it, it was going to die.

 

My wife said I should call the builders who built the house. I said they would never be able to find the exact spot where they could break through to the kitten.

 

“Do you want me to call them?”

 

My wife is the most take-charge person I know, and at eight-thirty the next morning our two chief builders and a helper were at the front door. They had dropped whatever other project they were assigned to by their boss, who is our former presiding builder-architect. At the same time a close family friend—a great animal lover—called to see whether he could help. I told him how hard I thought it would be to reach the kitten. That the rope I had worked down the pipe was synthetic and therefore too slippery for the small frightened claws.

 

My friend is a busy artist. “I’m coming up,” he said.

 

Including me, five men were now working on the matter. The helper unlatched a heavy case and brought out a powerful hammer drill, something like a small jackhammer, and began chipping away at brick and cement.

 

My wife was calling every half hour. She told us to drill in an area circumscribed by the circumference of a quarter circle radiating from where two walls met at a ninety-degree angle. The pipe had to be in that area. We could not miss, she said. Unless, I thought, the pipe had not dropped straight down.

 

The first mason left to go to work on their current, official project. I think he had only come to reassure me and make sure the correct measures were being taken. And because he feels we’re part of his family and he’s responsible for us.

 

After more than five hours of pounding with a sledge and chipping and drilling away with the machine, we could not find the pipe. And I ordered a halt. Everything else had failed as well. My next-door neighbor, who argued enticement, helped me wrap strips of cloth around the slippery rope. That didn’t work. The cloth bunched up and wouldn’t descend. She then started making a cloth rope. I rigged a weight to carry it down. The weight wouldn’t go around the corner just in from the entrance hole. We tried a chain as a weight. That worked, but the kitten’s cries had weakened and then ceased when the chain descended. I was afraid the chain could pin the kitten and keep it from breathing. The masons tried to snake black half-inch PVC tubing with a sharp end down the pipe. It wouldn’t go around the first corner. Plus, I was afraid it could injure the kitten.

 

At the beginning of all this, my friend the artist took off his clothes, donned my bathing suit and went down into the cistern on the lower living level patio, while I drained the sludge-fermented rain water from the cistern down into the garden.

 

There were two drainpipes entering the cistern, and my friend was able to determine where the kitten’s cries were coming from. They got stronger during the blasting and drilling, as the kitten fled the noise and came closer to the cistern.

 

I went into my shop and built a bridge that extended from the entrance pipe the kitten could approach from to the rebar ladder that descended into the cistern. I rigged a piece of screen so the kitten could climb the ladder. When everyone had left and I had thanked them and arranged for payment, I placed a frozen salmon patty and some dry cat food at the end of the pipe entering the cistern.

 

I was beginning to realize the kitten’s plight. It hadn’t drunk or eaten for thirty-six hours now. I went up to the upper level and poured some purified drinking water down the pipe. Not a lot, but enough to lick, at least. Then some dry kitty food. Whenever possible the kitten’s mother had hung around the fatal opening and made encouraging noises. So I blocked off the opening. I want the kitten to go in the direction of the cistern and not linger at the mother’s end of the pipe twenty feet above. I also didn’t want a downward air current carrying the smell of salmon away from the kitten. I rigged what they used to call a trouble lamp in the cistern—a light bulb with a screen around it, equipped with a hook. I wanted the kitten to see light when it was night and everything was completely black.

 

My neighbor had been up on our roof watering plants, which is part of her job. The water had run off, I realized, passed around the kitten and had started to fill the cistern. Where the kitten would drown, if it missed the bridge and fell in. So I drained the cistern again.

 

It was all I could do. Survival now depended on the smell of salmon and dry food, the kitten bridge and the trouble light. I went to bed and slept fitfully, worrying about the kitten. It’s crying had grown weak, and I wasn’t too hopeful about its escape.

 

At four-thirty, I woke up and heard it crying, seemingly close by. I hopped over to the bedroom window and listened. The cries were coming from the cistern. I got my flashlight and went barefoot down to the lower level and stuck my head down into the cistern. Its cries were very loud, but there was no little head at the point where the pipe entered the cistern.

 

Then I realized the cries were coming from below the pipe opening. I shined my light lower, and there in the far corner at the bottom of the cistern, in the mud, was the three-week old kitten. My bare feet hurt on the narrow rebar ladder rungs as I descended. I squished through the mud to the far end of the cistern, had a moment of hesitation when I considered whether little wild thing would claw me, but picked it up anyway and held it to my chest to give it warmth and to calm its shivering.

 

I climbed the rebar ladder with my left hand—with the kitten and flashlight in the right, but I needed more of my right hand to get up onto the patio above me. But each time I set the kitten down on that level, it ran back toward me, I suppose to not lose contact with me. So I put the flashlight down and held the kitten and I finally managed to get my bottom up onto the patio floor, my knees under me and stand up.

 

I unplugged the work lamp and went upstairs to the higher living level, found towel and dried off the kitten. I wrapped it in the towel, found an eyedropper, warmed some soymilk and slowly squirted the milk into its mouth. When I thought it had drunk all it should have after a period of starvation, I found a plastic bottle, filled it and heated it in the microwave. I found a shopping bag, lay the warm bottle on one fold of the towel and the kitten on the next and wrapped it and the bottle with the rest of the towel. I hung the bag on a knob of cabinet at the foot of the bed. The kitten cried softly maybe five or six times and then was silent. And slept for more than three hours.

I sent a telegraph to my wife (via WhatsApp), announcing that the kitten had walked through the pipe, fallen into the cistern and was now safe, fed, warm and asleep.

 

Later that morning it, I placed the kitten near where I thought the mother and other two kittens had their den. It started to cry immediately when I put it down. The mother eventually approached, nosed it, and then hopped up on a sifting screen that placed her a good three feet above her baby. The screen rested against the vine-covered, twelve-foot wall at that end of the garden. With mother always above her, the kitten managed to climb up through the vines until it was about six inches from the top. At that point, the mother reached down, took it by the back of the neck with her teeth and hopped a few times until she entered her leaf-covered hiding place. Silence ensued and I was sure the mother had started to nurse her wayward kitten.

 

An hour later, I heard the kitten crying again. I looked down from one of the patios and saw that it had fallen down the other side of the wall and was lying on one of several old chicken cages. That’s when I began to form the theory that the kitten didn’t see very well—as many don’t, I later learned, at a young age. It had fallen three times. Once twenty feet down the drain pipe, once from my bridge down into the cistern and now down the other side of the twelve-foot wall. I remember mumbling something like, “Oh, God, you’re on your own now. Either you climb up the wall or your mother goes to get you. Or natural selection takes its course.”

 

A few hours later, the kitten was on the other side of the wall again, crying for its mother. It was there when night fell, and I carried it to a cat bed on a couch under our arches, wrapped it up with a warm bottle and small blanket. When I got up the next morning and checked, only a small portion of its head was exposed to the morning chill. I peeled back the blanket enough to see that it was breathing. It opened its eyes and said something to me. I took it upstairs to feed it warm soymilk, which my wife told me by phone was not good for kittens.

 

Eventually, the mother took the kitten back into good standing and kept hiding the three babies every time we tried to check on them. Now they all eat dry and wet kitten food from the palms of our hands. The mother supervises but does not hide them. The rest of the family serve as loving, concerned aunts and uncles, or half-sisters and brothers. We tried various names for him (his sex having been determined), settling on something that sounds like Tooby for the kitten that fell down the tubo, the pipe, but saved himself with a little help from others who felt it was no small matter.

 

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Living here, I have learned to be alert. Each lesson where I have not done that has been costly. We were held up at knife point a couple of years ago, maybe more. You can read about it in The Knives of Mexico in this blog. In that case, a young man ran up the stairs past us—203 to our house from the old city center—twice, and the last time planted himself in front of us, brandishing his knife, a few yard from our garden gate. The missed clue? The lack of awareness? No one runs up the stairs in this city. Unless they’re high on something and/or have robbery on their mind.

At the beach a year ago, staying in a converted trailer, I followed the landlord’s advice and did not turn on the air conditioning. Instead, I kept a window opened (with screen) and turned on the fan. At 07:45 the next morning, I was aware that a man was standing a foot from where I slept. He darted out with my iPhone, a book, my one pair of trousers and other items that came to a tidy sum. I ran after him, without success. I had my money and credit cards in plain sight, tucked into a small Indian-woven purse. He missed it for some reason, or I’d have really been jodido. The lesson: keep windows locked and the air conditioner on, regardless of what any landlord says. He had taken off the screen and come in the window under the cover of the noise from the fan.

Yesterday, a Saturday, I started home wearing my expensive Ridge Runner’s 25 LLBean day pack. Nothing wrong with that, except that it signals you have enough money for that and for what’s probably inside it. I fell in behind a woman in her thirties. She was wearing medium-length high heels and very short black shorts barely covered by a black skirt, with black straps crisscrossing her mostly bare back. Every once in a while, she would reach back and adjust her shorts to a more modest length. Mexican women dress carefully and rarely, if ever, adjust as they walk along. There was something not ordinary about her and her progress through my neighborhood. Plus, I had never seen her before.

At the first alley, a good-sized man came up behind her. He was leering at her, which was also out of the ordinary. How do I know that? Because one notices those thing. We got to the stairs where I have to begin climbing. She turned into the darkness there—there was plenty of daylight left. The stairs are always in shadow. Something I have never done before: I sat down on a low wall on the other side of the road and waited, to spare her me climbing up behind her, if she was so worried about her modesty.

The man had not followed her. She had distracted me from thinking about him. I only knew this in retrospect. After a while, I started up the stairs. At the top, at the level of the higher road, there was no sign of her. Which seemed a little odd. So I started up the next flights of stairs. Half way up, I decided not to rest. The same man was coming up behind me, and I had already decided there was something making me uncomfortable with that. After all, where had he been before? Why was he still around? Why hadn’t he climbed up behind her, or continued on the road below?

At the very top, I sat down on a low wall, as if taking in the extraordinary view of the various church towers, the university and the rich cluster of old colonial buildings in the city center. And I watched the approaching man. Ten feet away, he glanced at me three times, and looked away. Out of the ordinary. Ordinary would have been holding my gaze long enough after the second glance to add a greeting. That is how it works here. But he looked away each time, his face in neutral. Then he sat down on the opposite low wall and looked at his phone.

But my wife and I had been stalked before by a couple of thugs in Guadalajara, and that was what they did: keep referring to their phones. To show their disinterest. Plus, what was keeping him there? There is ordinary behavior, which includes sitting for some reason. You’re old, your children are tired, you’re tired from lugging a heavy bag of groceries up to your house, you’re making a call, or you’re visiting with someone. But no one sits without one of these reasons. I could also tell he wasn’t delighting in the view and wasn’t reading anything on his phone. He and his face were blank, empty of activity. And I wasn’t going to let him get me isolated from that public spot, where five narrow alleys came together, six, if you include the stairs. So, I got up and went back down the stairs, as if, as a tourist, I had taken in the sight and was now retracing my steps. Which I did, all the way down to the center of the city, where I hailed a taxi and went up the side of the canyon and home that way.

I looked back a few times to see if he was following me. But he wasn’t. And today I climbed home, taking a different path, just to throw off anyone bothering to be watching for me.

These things happen here every once in a while. A social predator or two roll in to town and try their luck. That was what the knife holdup was. A chance spotting by someone passing through in a car, who got out and ran up after us. In this case, this series of little things out of the ordinary, is probably a one-off occasion. But I am still curious to know whether the man in this story was working together with the woman so concerned  by the length of her shorts and so successful in distracting me from the man who was tracking me.

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It’s as if a whole army of Canadians and Americans had been parachuted into this once sleepy town. I suppose it’s the nature of occupation that the invaders bring their culture with them. At the same time, the invaded culture has struck back with its own forces, in that Mexican vacationers—largely the class with money—could well outnumber the foreigners. I am an equal opportunity snob, so it doesn’t matter to me. I can get into a snit over all of them—overlooking the fact that I am one of them.

The larger crime is that all of us have landed on this strip of coast and are putting enormous pressure on it. So many pleasure seekers, sun worshippers, escapees from grinding nine to five jobs, from car payments, mortgages and insurance, from the ongoing search for love and meaning. All of it dependent on oil for the suntan lotion, delivery trucks, aviation fuel and the surfboards themselves. Still, apart from the half-treated sewage water pouring into the ocean not far from the right-hand break, the bay seems to be holding its own. Pelicans dive twenty feet from the edge of the sand, meaning the sea is still rich in food. Farther out, the oceans boils with waves from distant Pacific storms, changing the beach every night, casting up—for this beach—rare black sand, and more than capable of drowning those who are not confident swimmers.

I find myself sitting on the beach, watching all this, calculating my surfing skills and strength against the turbulence of the sea, observing the deployment of the tourist armies and Pelicans—the former, not entirely comfortable in their exposed skin, as they stroll the beach. And I am thinking about the greater threat. All of this is part of a planet that will probably become uninhabitable, because we will not be able to keep the oil in the ground, not sufficiently understand what we have to do in order to avoid disaster for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

And so, later and farther to the northeast, my friends and I sit on the beach and watch the light soften and the orange fade from the ribbed cloud formation suspended above us. We sit looking out at something that will not be as it was, nor support life the way it always has.

We see a gathering of people a quarter of a mile up the beach in the opposite direction. It is a sizable group, and it moves out toward the water. I say it must be religious in some way, some sort of organized superstition. Or maybe something like twelve steppers, born-agains, or boosters. In a way, I am right on all accounts. Our Mexican companion, now a resident of Madrid, formerly of Paris, before that, Guanajuato, hits on it.

“Turtles,” she says.

We explain this to her two and a half-year old, who is half French, half Mexican.

Tortues,” says her mother, in French. “Tortugas,” in Spanish. And since she is attending an English-speaking immersion school in Madrid, we throw in “Turtles.”

We gather up our things and head down the beach. People have placed stakes and the equivalent of police ribbons to demarcate a corridor with an opening at the end where the incoming tide has left the sand wet and gleaming. The light is dimming, the evening chosen, I suppose, to make it harder for predators—gulls and humans—to interfere and poach. We squint at the sand inside the corridor. It has been raked in order to smooth the way. There are little things, perhaps the size of a soup spoon sitting immobile. But, no, here and there, their little legs begin paddling at the sand. Each one leaves an un-straight track in the sand. (See attached video clip.) A tongue of wave and foam, a tidal impulse, sweeps up and over the most advance ones. The children and adults behind the police tape utter a collective, wondrous “Ouuuu!” And when the wave recedes, twenty or more of the tortuguitas have disappeared into the vastness of their new home. It is an uncertain future. A young volunteer from the Czech Republic says five percent of them are eaten by fish in the first day. She places more within the sea’s reach. Another tongue of foam sweeps up and across, and then those too are gone. One or two get turned around or try to cross the ribbon. Onlookers reach down and get the strays oriented again.

Finally, they are all gone. The sea knocks down the stakes holding the ribbons. Nearly everyone leaves. Except those like me who are still stunned. I see a young man, sitting cross-legged, facing the opening where the turtles left us for the sea. It occurs to me he might be praying—something that would normally touch my cynic button. Instead, though I am not religious, I feel a similar impulse. And that is to pray for their safety, that they won’t be eaten or be too lonely. Pray not to some god but to something older and more important. Perhaps pray for the earth’s wanting to continue in all her ways. If only we would make it so.

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What is a day like in my little Mexican city? I stretch my spine, put on a jacket and go into the kitchen. I get on my hands and knees to light the fake wood stove in the corner. A modest gas flame surrounds modest fake logs. I switch on a small silent fan that hangs in back of the stove and pushes warm air out into the room. There are two folded cotton blankets, multicolored, in front of the stove. This is where our two cats take their positions. My position is in front of the refrigerator. I take the homemade loaf of bread out. I cut a slice and put it in the toaster. I pour Mexican Alpura corporate yogurt into a glass bowl and, on top of that, ladle out homemade, crude applesauce, spiced with nutmeg and Vietnamese cinnamon. I add seven Costco home-roasted almonds. I find a treasured implement. An inexpensive Czech butter spreader purchased in Prague, serrated on one edge. I pluck the ready slice of homemade bread out of the Chinese toaster. It is the miracle food, depending on what you read and what your culture is. We import the Winter Red Wheat berries from California in sealed three-pound plastic bags. Larger quantities are vulnerable. There are critters here that, given enough time, can bore through thick plastic and reach the rich, organic, whole-wheat egg-laying environment. I am still using the same Seventh Day Adventist or some other survivalist kit electric stone mill that I put together at least forty years ago. With the Czech butter spreader I lift old fashioned peanut butter out of a Laura Scudder’s jar we scored in the larger gringo community an hour and twenty minutes to the east of us. San Miguel de Allende. To the locals there, SMA.

 

Our black alpha cat Lilus Kikus comes up the stairs. We took the name from Elena Poniatowska’s first novel. She is the grande dame of Mexican literature. One of us has released her from her room. She wears a cat cone so she can’t lick the treated abscess on her rear end. She bumps into things. Today, we take her to the vet’s, where she will be in shared solitary, hopefully with similar species. I suppose it is like going to prison, where we have been five times since August, to visit our friend, a Mexican who loves his two horses and who might destroy himself if the false charges stick. In other places, I have written about the Mexican justice system.

 

Alpha cat used to be invisible in the dark. Now she advances like a small bull elephant with white warning ears.

 

My made-in-China iPhone dings. My dear friend and writing partner’s mother has died. It’s a Spanish I’m not familiar with. “El donde hoy falleció mi mamá.” It is sad but not entirely unexpected news. There is always the end of life waiting for us.

 

As I eat my yogurt mix, I utilize my made-in-China, slave-wages mini iPad to read my Kindle version of Phillip Kerr’s Les Ombres de Katyn, The Shadows of Katyn. I read it in French translation to maintain my contact with the language. It is riveting in a sad sort of way. I am a child of the Holocaust in the sense that, when I was eight years old and in the thrall of a couple of Walt Disney movies in Norwich, New York, the News Reel divided the two movies with footage from Dachau, or some other KZ, in black and white of an American or German bulldozer pushing white, flopping skeletal Jews, Russian prisoners of war or gays into a massive pit, with German citizens forced to look on. My fellow witnesses to something inconceivable.

 

The Phillip Kerr novel is about the circumstances and intrigue surrounding the NKVD’s, Stalin’s secret police’s, execution of 4,000 – 5,000 Polish officers, along with 18,000 others, so that no organized resistance would ever arise on the Polish flank again. A single German bullet—to throw off possible future forensics—to the base of the skull, wrists wired in front, a loop of wire around the neck, being forced to the edge of the pits. How is an eight-year old supposed to understand this? Or the man who is now seventy years older? As you can see, there has been little progress. But now I test the gravity-fed water in the bathroom sink, after running it for a while. It is solar-heated. Barely. I decide to risk it and step under the miserly shower head. I am grateful when the clouds have spared me  their presence, when the water is warm enough to comfort the base of my skull.

 

In the cafe where I am writing this, an impoverished indigenous boy drifts my way. He is selling chicle, chewing gum, in tiny packages. He goes past my little table and me for some reason. He is more interested in the young woman giving haircuts in this my favorite writing cafe. The cafe is some sort of a collective of educated, bright young people, gentle and smart. Its customers are mostly students, including French, German, Japanese and Americans studying at the university or at one of the several language schools. The Indian boy with the chicles does not go to school. No one sees to it that he does. He belongs to a marginalized, forgotten group. There are adults that run him 19th century Dickensian style. He is one of many faces of poverty and neglect in a land full of billionaires. He stands close to my small, open backpack. I wonder whether my attention should be on him or on my writing. But he glides away from me and closer to the object of his interest. The twin sister of someone I know in the collective is visiting from Mexico City and is cutting hair nine feet away from me, like a visiting country priest dispensing blessings. She is capable and conducts conversation as she cuts and snips. Neither the boy nor I will need a haircut for some time, but both of us I think were imagining her gentle hands touching our hair, the comb on the back of our head. A series of her friends and their children are taking advantage of her visit. None of them marginalized. They are Mexico’s best, invisible to the largely self-serving national leadership. They are young people who want a better Mexico. I feel lucky to share their lives. This scene, this stage, is the very opposite of Katyn. The forest just east of Smolensk.

 

After a brisk shower, I dress, gather my knapsack and writing things, including a little notebook, and descend the 203 steps from our house to the Old City on the canyon floor. My love has delivered Ms. Alpha Cat to vet prison, where her abscess treatment will continue while we are at the beach on the Pacific side of Mexico. At the bottom of the stairs, I turn left and then enter what we call the Vegetable Alley. I see Pilar’s boy-like frame in front of me. Her face is strained. She is too thin. She takes something like a qigong stance and holds her hand out to me. She’s very dark, very dirty and beyond bi-polar high.

 

“Un peso!” she shouts, her voice hoarse.

 

And I always say, “Solamente tengo diez!” and hand her a ten-peso piece. I try not to touch her hand, because I don’t think she washes. She takes the coin, whirls around and spits out a curse at someone thirty feet down the alley. Someone who has mocked her. I think she’s saying, “Eeh, cabrón? Chinga a tu perro!” Or more like the plural: “Chinga a tus chingados perros!” I’m pretty sure she’s using the masculine ending. I say, “Cuídate, Pilar.” Take care, Pilar! To show her and others that I recognize her as my friend. I touch her on the shoulder to show friendship. People catch my eye, as I proceed. Crazy, dirty lady, say the grinning eyes. I smile back, betraying Pilar. But these mockers are also part of my world. It is a rare day that this exchange does not occur. Sometimes when she is more coherent and her mind is racing less, Pilar asks, “Hey, do you want a sexual?” That’s the expression, a sexual. An adjective with no noun, sort of like what she is. I thank her and say no.

 

I pass the young woman and her sister with the comal who sell warm tacos. The younger one always wears a wool cap, no matter how warm it is. She is smart. I know their names. I always make some joke when I pass. They are generous with their laughter. I think they will live out their lives selling tacos. That idea used to bother me. It no longer does. There is much to be said for work that does not shower Hellfire missiles down from your country’s drones. Their food is not popular. Even I do not eat there.

 

I enter one of the city’s few busy streets. The traffic is one-way, the sidewalk narrows to the width of about fifteen inches. You have to be aware. There is a curve and when the buses that are too big make the turn their rear ends swerve to within twelve inches of the building touching the sidewalk. It is fairly exciting unless you are someone who is both wide and  not paying attention. It helps that the buses are probably not exceeding five miles an hour.

 

I duck into the pedestrian alley where the cafe is located. Mexican and South American New Years tourists stroll toward me. They are in no hurry and don’t worry about approaching me five abreast, as if family takes the right of way. I step up into the cafe. I see the young woman cutting hair. I am surprised, but not very. I say hello to a few of my young friends. They greet me warmly. I sit down and begin to write. It is what I need. Being surrounded by these gentle people. Watching the hair cutting. Smiling inside, then also on the outside. So far from Katyn—if not from the missing and still unaccounted for 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

 

 

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Today I got my Honda smogged at Nissan in Guanajuato. Then I drove over to the new Honda dealership and pulled into the Service entrance. A young woman in a jacket came out of an office to greet me. It was 11 in the morning, long after cars had pulled in for service. She held out her hand and said Buenos Días. I reciprocated, bowed a little the way my mother must have taught me, and brought my heels together—maybe from seeing movies. There was no click because I was wearing sandals. I did have to go to dancing school when I was about eight years old. I do thank my mother for that, since it gave me a life-long advantage over male competitors who are reluctant to or don’t know how to dance. Your value as a male leaps when you know how to dance and bow a little. The young woman was a facilitator. I told her one of my lights wasn’t working, on the left side. She went away and came back with a mechanics’ supervisor. I turned on the lights, he nodded and walked away. He came back with a mechanic. I had thought the matter was going to be complicated, involving removing a lot of things under the hood to get at the delinquent bulb. He signaled that I should open the hood. He reached in and in maybe eight seconds had the bulb in his hand. With a look of satisfaction, a detective finding key evidence, he held it up to show us all that it was blackened from the short inside it. The two men went away, the supervisor to the Parts window to inquire about the bulb. I did not expect them to have the bulb. They are a relatively new branch of Honda, plus it is my experience that in Mexico you often have to come back for something you need. I believe that comes from a culture that has learned to avoid the cost of maintaining an inventory that may not be sold. The work area was a high-ceiling shed, with big doors open at either end and a chilly wind passing through the work space. I chatted a little with the young reception woman. I am sure, aside from cleaning people, she is one of the lowest paid employees at the dealership. She had a jacket on and was clearly still cold. I stood in front of the engine looking in. “It’s pretty clean for ten years old,” I said. She agreed. The supervisor came back and said they would have the new bulb the next morning after 9. Maybe, I thought. The engine gave off heat. I was like standing in front of a very warm radiator, the old fashioned steam kind. I mentioned this to her and invited her to join me. We stood with our backs to the motor and chatted. She was a smart person, personable, friendly. And poised culturally and socially that she could stand beside an unknown gringo of years and feel relatively comfortable. If I were head of Honda, I would make sure she rose in the ranks as far as she wanted to go. I just thought I’d mention it. The moment. And where a burned out headlight bulb can lead. 

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When I’m about to have a new Mexican experience, in this case visit a friend inside a Mexican prison, I like to write about it as if the event has already taken place. This way I can explore my frame of mind before the fact.

I write in the voice of my friend.

“I was seized and put in prison for [                 ]. With some pain, I stand most of the day at the door of my cell, looking across at my neighbors. One of them, they say, carried bales of marijuana in the back of his pickup from one dusty village to another, when two young horses bolted in front of him and, even at low speed, got their legs broken and had to be shot. The police came and detained the truck as evidence. When they later came to the driver’s house, they said they had found a package of the illegal herb. He said he didn’t know that hay was illegal. I say he deserved to be in prison for stupidity alone. He also never caught on that the police had taken the whole load for their own purposes, except for the one little package. Later, he received a warning: Say where the marijuana is or pay the consequences. Yesterday, while in line to enter his cell, someone stabbed him in the kidney and he died quickly.

I have to turn around every so often. There are five other men in my part of this tomb, and I have already been raped by two of them, while the other three held me down.

I would kill myself if I had a weapon. After I had put a bullet in each of my five roommates. On the other hand, maybe not. I understand their thinking—a vigilante justice, even if it was delivered through an unjust act.

They give us pills. Mine are small and pink. They lower the stress, but not the fear. When I whispered news of their crime against me, the guard said I needed to smell the shit I had left around me, and that he would slit my throat if I ever came near his family.

The pill makes it hard to link ideas, remember facts, remember anything at all about my alleged crime. I’ve just received my morning pill. I have been spitting them into the toilet for a week now. That is because I need to remember.

The American and his wife came to visit today. I knew they would avoid mentioning the charges against me. It’s better that way. It’s too complicated, there’s too much uncertainty. But the charge was still there, floating in the thick glass between us. Here’s the context. We hold the old phones and look at each other. I am bad, they are good. I appreciate them coming, but they cannot help, cannot lift the shame or save me from my roommates. I think they could see some of my pain and hopelessness. We joked as we always do. Hadn’t I paid my telephone bill? he asked. No, nor the water bill, I replied. I am glad they came and hope they will come again. Though I may not be here. If I remember something and see that I am guilty, I may take action. The only question is what action that will be—if the state wants to take my freedom away from me forever.”

***

This is what actually happened when we visited the prison.

In the parking lot, we left our valuables under the mad collection of things we keep behind the back seat of our car. We hid cell phones, house keys, credit cards, pepper spray and a jackknife. We approached the first gate—a small building, part of the main fence. Just inside the door, on the left, there was a counter, and a young guard standing behind it. Cordial greetings all around. He was friendly and professional, without attitude. As we had been advised, we present our Mexican driver’s licenses. He asks if we had knives, cell phones, any kind of weapon. We said we didn’t. He pointed at D’s black pedal pushers. He said shorts we not allowed. D. said she didn’t think they were shorts. Plus, they’re black, he said. Only guards wear black. Still, he said she might get through the next gate. Across from the counter there was a window, with a woman officer seated behind it. We stepped up to it and presented our driver’s licenses. The woman entered something into a computer. She held up a wand with what looked like an eyeball taped to the top of it and took a photo of each of us through the glass. A kind of grocery store receipt came out of the computer, twice, with our photos on our respective receipts. With those pieces of paper and our licenses, we crossed an open area and entered the main prison entrance.

At something like a wardrobe counter in a museum we gave up D’s car keys, my belt, and one other not too dangerous item, which I’ve forgotten. I stepped into little room marked “H” for Hombres, D. into one marked “M” for Mujeres. An agreeable guard frisked me. He seemed to concentrate on the top of my shoulders and my upper back. He never went down my pant legs. Out of the blue, he asked me how Mexico is treating me. Not anticipating something other than an instruction, I asked him to repeat what he had asked.

“How is Mexico treating you?”

I said I loved Mexico—which I do. He liked that.

I walked out the exit door of the frisking booth. They pointed us to stairs leading below ground. At the bottom, we walked along an underground passageway to where we could see a heavily guarded control booth in front of us. But our way was blocked by floor to ceiling bars. We had to turn right, walk thirty feet along the bars, slip through a narrow opening, then walk back along the bars until we were at the guard booth again.

There was a small square opening a little higher than head level. One at a time, we passed our driver’s licenses and grocery store receipts with photo through the opening. We were allowed to proceed. We climbed stairs and came out in the visiting area, rooms separated by thick glass and bars. A female officer took our passes and licenses through a slit below the glass that enclosed her and placed a call to summon the interno, the prisoner, the friend we were going to visit. She told us to take a seat in a line of chairs against a glass wall. It would be a minute or two.

A middle-aged woman climbed the stairs, showed her pass and sat down beside us. Our friend came through a door, saw us through the glass, beamed and waved.

I went first. A wall of bars slid to one side, just enough so that I could slip through and sit down in front of my friend, separated by thick glass and bars. He picked up his phone. I picked up mine.

“You didn’t pay your rent?” I asked.

He laughed. There was some initial embarrassment on his part and his face flushed a little.

I ask him how he was. He wore a neat khaki uniform, hair and moustache neatly trimmed. Good, he said. In fact, he looked the best I had ever seen him. His eyes were clear, he was slimmer and his color was good. I saw no sign of stress. I asked about his health. He said when he mentioned being a diabetic, they had given him a special diet, and the food was good. I asked him about his safety. No, none of that, he said. You show respect to the people around you, and you’re treated well. He said he was learning guitar, going to various classes, there were weights and a walking area. He had friends. He was in fact the picture of a happy man leading a well-ordered life.

He said he didn’t think he’s going to be in the place very long and that the matter would be cleared up. He said he had not one but two lawyers.

Some of his problem, I realized has to do with legislated changes that have not yet taken place. In practice, the law is still Napoleonic Law. You are guilty until proven innocent. Plus everything moves very slowly.

After something like five or seven minutes, the guard cut the phone and we could no longer hear each other. Continued contact requires some gesture. He put his hand against the glass, I place mine against his. Then my other hand, then his too. It is a curious moment, two men showing closeness and loyalty through thick glass and bars.

Then he visited with D. While I was waiting, several women arrived with shopping baskets packed with full food containers. Matter-of-factly, each time the guard got up and opened her door and took the basket of food and placed it carefully against the wall behind her chair—in common understanding that families should maintain contact, especially through food.

Though there was a choice in the line of waiting area chairs, the women sat down close to me—as if there was a common bond—waiting for their turn to visit.

I wondered how the food was handled. Did they search each container for a pistol? Did the men share the food with each other? How often did the women bring food? Why the drop in security? The guard seemed part of a larger family, opening her high security door and taking the food baskets to hand them on to the prisoners after their loved ones had left.

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I went on a rant when I returned to Guanajuato after two months in Paris. Now I have returned from St. Louis, Boston, Brattleboro, then we went off to Tampico, Mexico for four nights, then four nights in Mexico City, then home again. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to return to this small colonial walking city Guanajuato.

In Missouri, we biked the Katy Trail in St. Charles, where the Lewis and Clark expedition started, then paralleled it by car from Fulton to St. Louis, where it was hot and overly urbanized. I met talented, intelligent and thoughtful people there, but I think I also sensed loneliness and disenchantment.

Brattleboro was too small and too uniformly culture and counter-culture. The best hotel plays classical music over a loudspeaker in order to drive the latter group, youth without privilege, from the parking lot. They have a wonderful coop grocery store that rivals or surpasses Whole Foods. The first of two bridges crossing the Connecticut River over to the New Hampshire side still vibrates alarmingly when lumber trucks crawl across it—a disaster waiting to happen. I’m sure there are good people there, but they are probably too spread out from each other for my taste.

Downtown Boston—we have a friend who lives in Chinatown—seemed overrun with tourists and irrational in its planning. It is nearly impossible to leave the airport, go through the Sumner Tunnel and turn south toward Chinatown and the whole South Shore. Like other cities, the wealthy have abandoned the downtown. The subway—its ridership is largely people of color and working class—shuts down at 1 am, as if working people did not work at night, or need to get home. I did enjoy the two modest AirBnBs we stayed at in East Boston, across the harbor from the downtown. There was a lovely, beautifully planned walking path along the edge of the harbor to a dock where water taxis stopped, along with larger ferries. Except that it cost $12 to cross the mile or so to downtown Boston, $20 round trip. And therefore not an option for the working class—as opposed to the salaried class.

We visited family in Portsmouth, NH and stayed in a charming, old little house and walked all over the town. I could live there, except that I’m not sure there’s enough happening, for me. There was an interesting monument honoring African slaves that had died there.

We returned to Mexico. While approaching León/Guanajuato (BJX), I realized I could not find my permanent resident card, my “Credencial de Inmigrado.” And so I ran headlong into the Mexican immigration bureaucracy, itself a study in irrationality. It did not matter that I held in my hands a paper that said I was a permanent resident when I left three weeks before. I had to write a letter then and there explaining how I had lost the card. That document was stamped, and I received a tourist visa, good for only 180 days. There’s no stress like this kind. I protested that they had a record of my status in their computers. Not good enough. We drove over to Inmigración in San Miguel. The agent there told me my status had been automatically erased when they issued me a tourist card. Again I mentioned my status as permanent resident was established after ten years of paper work. Not good enough. I have to return to the U.S., to a Mexican consulate, with the proper documents (that’s no mean trick, knowing what they are), get a certain stamp in my U.S. passport, then approach Migración in San Miguel again, fill out more papers, have an interview, present documents, pay a fine and come back for the piece of plastic at some future date.

Then, after a few days of rest, we were off to Tampico, Mexico for four nights, to do research for a novel on the nationalization of oil in 1938. Tampico is rich in oil history, especially at a time when the world was gearing up for a world war and radicalized oil workers were demanding fair wages and benefits. If it had not been for Roosevelt liking Lázaro Cárdenas, the U.S. might have listened to the U.S. and English oil companies and landed troops in Tampico. Instead, the companies instigated a boycott and withdrew technical support, shipping and machinery. Mexico turned to Germany and Italy for machinery and oil sales. There is an interesting photo of a German freighter tied up next to the elegant customs house, flying the swastika.

Tampico makes St. Louis seem cool. It was hot, and the dew point was so high you couldn’t sweat and cool yourself. Depending on who you talked to, the city was either completely safe or extremely dangerous. We found a good tourist consultant, who linked us up with a trusted guide. He took us places only a novelist would want to go to. Starting from shadows underneath a railroad bridge—where people waited for outboards to take them to various landings up and down the Pánuco River, a river system a little like the Mekong in Vietnam—our guide lined up a ponga with outboard plus boatman, and we crawled up and down the Pánuco for an hour, observing freighters, navy ships, fishing vessels, wrecks of every sort, shoreline vegetation, old oil rigs, oil platforms being built and places that might reveal a large crocodile or two.

People were very sweet and helpful in Tampico. Like most of Mexico, people look out for you and warn you when you shouldn’t go somewhere. Our taxi driver from the airport told us the Army had driven out the city police and replaced them with military police. That seemed to mainly apply to the Old Town Plaza de Armas. You’re wary when you don’t know the parameters of safety and danger in a new place in Mexico. Eventually, we trusted out consultant and took small, clean, air conditioned share taxis to lovely Miramar beach (8 pesos for a twenty-minute ride), where I swam in the Gulf of Mexico—but not too far out where larger crocodiles cruise.

Mexico City on a weekend, in the Historic Center, is a mad house. We met with my publisher, then gradually succumbed to our accumulated travel fatigue and took long naps. We had a momentary fright when our Uber taxi that was to take us to the airport was blocked by Transit police. You can read about that in the post just below this one.

The point I’ve been trying to get to is this: I was overjoyed to get back to Guanajuato, where it seemed safe, simpler, calm and rational. Where all ages and classes mix in this walking city. Simplicity is the key word. There are few surface roads. You hear the sound of chickens and dogs. The rains build up and come later in the afternoon. There are the figs, avocados, oranges and limes in the garden, the many people we know and who know us, the many people we like and who like us. We seldom get into our car, because there is no need to. From the roof of the restaurant and cultural center called the Casa Cuatro—where we do yoga—you hear the Symphony practicing César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor in the next door ancient cathedral called the Compañia after the Jesuits.

There are things that bother me of course. While I was writing this, a small plane circled over the city with a loudspeaker pointed down at us, as if fighter-bombers were coming and we were being warned to leave immediately. The pilot was hawking mattresses, or something else that the sound of his motor drowned out. And there are the bandas de guerra, the adolescent bugle and drum squads, maybe holdovers from the Cristero War 1926-29 in which 90,000 people died. Recently, the lads have drummed more and bugled less—but together or separately it is little more than an ugly blaring and the thump of war. All in the name of the man who said to turn the other cheek. I can live with it, just barely—because the rest it here is so livable and good.

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