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Dressing up for a Lindy Hop “social,” I thought I’d bring out my only bow-tie, which had been slumbering, inverted, in my wardrobe for years. And I mean years. Maybe thirty or forty. And, of course, I found out I had forgotten the motor memory in my hands and had no idea anymore how to tie it. My love of many years figured it out in seconds, and so we cast off for the social with me flying my “moño,” which is what my fellow dancers called it in Spanish. Although I thought, from quick research, that that meant “bun,” as in a woman’s hair. Waitresses in the famous restaurant Cafe de Tacuba in Mexico City wear large white moños, and those are bows. My dictionary calls it a “pajarito.” A little bird. I think of it as a bat that has come out, taken on color and reformed. You can see the effect it has on women fifty years younger than me. The lesson was taken, and at the next social, in the space of a day, two young men showed up to Guanajuato Swing wearing moños or pajaritos or murciélagos, the latter being my favorite word in all of Spanish. That made the three of us leaders in Mexico’s newest, most important revolution, one that brings hope to partners everywhere.


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I’m sitting in my favorite café in my colonial Mexican city. I think of it as a very small Paris. I am going over the Spanish translation of my first novel Playing for Pancho Villa. I must have started this project a year or more ago. My wonderful translators, a Mexican poet and a French professor of French, have long since finished the translation—an enormous job. And then I have to come after them, checking each word for its fullest correct equivalent. I am on my last two chapters out of thirty-two. I am hoping the huge Spanish speaking world will read this novel more than English readers have. Its plot and general flavor may seem less foreign to them.

The dog, a bitch, tail wagging and delighted to see us all, a sort of Labrador mutt—I have since learned her name is Chia—comes through the always open door. She goes to everyone in the big room, mostly university students working at things and drinking tea. Several young women are hanging an exhibition of photographs and calling out adjustments across the room. A small film crew comes in and sets up in the middle of the gentle chaos. A young woman sits across from me, brushing on makeup. What? To make her more pale, remove any blemishes? Perhaps they are making a one-day movie. It is the end of the annual Guanajuato International Film Festival, and little groups of young filmmakers are competing to win in that category.

Everyone—including myself—reaches down to Chia, who I now realize is attached to a familiar young painter family and their two children, several months and two-or-so years old. Chia obits around this attractive young family. What strikes me is how each of us in the room wants the same thing: contact with this happy, tail-wagging ambassador. And then, after a half an hour or so, everyone except for the one-day filmmakers leaves, including Chia and her family. And I am left to listening to “Belle Nuit, Ô Nuit D’amour,” Les Contes D’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach and to continue with the translation Playing for Pancho Villa. When I finish, we will sit down together, the three of us, the translators and me, and we will decide on the final changes and adjustments in another quieter café.

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IMG_2108.jpgMy friend has escaped from the local prison where we had visited him nine or ten times. He was there for eleven months, and then he could no longer bear the thought of a capricious ten-year sentence. What he loved most, beside his family, was his horse and riding in the mountains with his companion horsemen. They went on cabalgadas, seeing themselves as cavalry battalions in the war against Lucifer, led by the Saints San Miguel, Cristo Rey, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Virgin of Guanajuato. Sometimes, on such rides, as many as 1,500 men will participate. This afternoon, as an exuberant church band played and the afternoon sun beat down, we watched as a graveyard mason sealed my warrior-friend into a crypt at the Panteón (Cemetery) of the Pueblito de Rocha. My friend died of a broken heart. A heart that broke.

For more context, please scroll down to the post titled “Returning to Mexico and its Forgotten Prisoners,” published here on April 15, 2016.

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2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,100 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 52 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Yesterday evening, the Guanajuato writers gathered to read from their work. I read an excerpt from a novel in progress, in which a corrupt, fired Mexican policeman, who was once entrusted with guarding Trotsky and Frida Kahlo on a special armored train from Tampico to Mexico City in 1937, searches for his son in the chaos of Tampico, on the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil. In the midst of domestic and international intrigue, a question arises: Can a corrupt man also be good and accomplish good things?


The launch man cut the engine and we drifted up to landing under the railroad bridge, where the four strikebreakers had almost had their way with Mignon—the young striker, who had been dressed as a man, but was not one. Several of us stepped forward and climbed out. And others, who had been waiting, stepped onto the launch and took our places. I stood and watched it pull away, lingering for a moment in the Evinrude’s blue exhaust, listening as the motor faded downriver.


I was now only a few blocks from the center of town. When I emerged from under the bridge, the old woman with the white cat was again sitting on her steps as she had been before. I waved and got a nod back. On a whim, I left the path and walked over to her shanty, greeting her and slowing down while I was still ten meters away, to cushion my approach.


I’ve had a lot of experience interviewing witnesses and possible suspects, and here I was approaching an old woman living in a shack at the edge of a creek in the underbelly of Tampico’s city center.


Still, I took out my photo of Rey and held it up to her, not too sure how well she could see.


“Have you seen this man? He’s my son, and I’m looking for him.”


It took her a while to shift her gaze from me to the photo. The white cat slipped off her lap and went and sat in the shanty’s doorway. She watched me from there, trying to decide how much of a threat I was.


The woman turned to see where her cat had gone.


“I think she’s afraid of me,” I said.


The woman turned back to me. Her voice was raspy as if she had been a heavy smoker. I saw no yellow on her arthritic fingers.


“Should she be?”


I smiled and shook my head. “I’m not a bad person.”


“That’s your boy?”


I nodded.


“Those men before, under bridge, were strikebreakers.”


“I know.”


She looked down at the photo again. “Did you save the young man?”


“The big woman in the launch came along at the right time and saved both of us.”


“Are you police?”


“I am.” I brought out my badge. I didn’t feel too bad lying to her. The heralded protector of Trotsky and Frida, now in disrepute.


She studied it. “I don’t read too well.”


I waited. Sometimes, with old people, you just have to wait. The white cat decided to approach and sat about three feet away and said something to the woman.


“She’s hungry.”


I nodded. I put the badge away.


“I’ve seen your boy, but I don’t remember where.”


A chill ran down my spine. The remark threw me off. I also did believe her.


I humored her with a condescending smile. “Do you remember when?”


“On the trolley. I went to see my daughter.”


“Where does she live?


“Arbol Grande. I take the trolley and get off at Zaragoza.”


Inside, I was shaking my head. “When was this?”


Her face went blank. I tried to help her. “Did he stay on the trolley?”


“Most men carry babies facing forward. Women carry them facing inward.”


I tried to make out where she was going.

“That’s how I remember. And you don’t see men carrying babies during the week. That’s how I remember.


I humored her. “Which direction was he going?”


“The beach.”




She nodded. The white cat rubbed against her legs.


“You got off at Zaragoza?”


She nodded. “That’s where my daughter lives. Two blocks in.”


I showed her the photo again. She studied it. “Yes, I’m quite sure that’s him.”


Then she studied me. She had small white cloud in her left eye.


“Did you even know he had a baby?”


I shook my head.


“I didn’t think so. He was very gentle with the baby. You don’t see that that often. He’s a good father. I think he had something like a briefcase across his shoulders. That means he’s not an oil worker. Maybe an office somewhere. That’s all I can tell you.”


I shook my head. Openly skeptical. The white cat jumped up onto her lap and lay down with her back to me.


“Well, I thank you anyway….”


“You son has small scar over his right eye.”


That hit me, and I tightened up all over. It was a moment before I could speak.


“That could be him. We had a bicycle accident. He sat a little seat in front of the handlebars. He stuck his foot in the spokes. We flipped and I went right over him. We landed in a pile.”


The corners of her mouth turned up in a crooked smile.


“But how do you know he’s not an oil worker?”


“My husband was an oil worker. He’s dead now. Men working for the oil companies don’t carry babies around during the week. They don’t carry briefcases.”


I switched back to detective. “What time of day was it?




“Why morning?”


“Because I visit my daughter in the morning, and the baby was wrapped up against the chill.”


“Where do you think he was going?”


“Maybe home, maybe to the baby’s grandmother.”


“That would be my wife.”


She looked up at me. The crooked smile reappeared. Her left eye was weepy as well as cloudy.


“Or someone else’s wife.”


I stared at her.


“The baby has a mother—if she’s lucky. These are difficult times.”


I was having trouble following.


“And the mother has a mother. Or a sister. Or an aunt. Or someone they hire to look after her.”


I caught the pronoun. I suppose my mouth hung open a little.


Her boney hand rose up and she tapped once on her thin hair. “If I remember correctly, she had a bow on her little head.”


The old woman stroked the white cat, pulled gently at one of its ears.


I wasn’t quite finished. “May I ask how it was you saw him so clearly?”


“I sat down beside them. He let me hold the child.”


I stared at her. “Look, my name is Tomás. The child’s grandmother’s name is Mariana.”


“One of the grandmothers. My name is Marta. My husband was a union man. He had a lot of scars. One from a bullet. And then there was a final bullet. Your son is lucky. He has a beautiful child. You need to stay away from those four men.”


“Do you know them?”


“They’re foreigners and Mexicans. They come in from the outside. They carry guns. Guns make scars. The union—the Reds not the Whites—have taken many scars. Like my husband.”


I nodded in sympathy.


“And you…you should scour every Hidalgo trolley stop from here to the beach…until you find the rest of your family.”







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There is an old desert saying. If there were three camels, it is enough to say there were only two. That is to say, when recounting events, it is all right to limit and shorten, as long as the essential truth of the matter remains. I made that up, but I think it makes an important point. I have left out several days of notes on my French conversations, and so I will only mention two. The first one, horrible in all respects from which I came away feeling stupid, incompetent, as if I were in the wrong country. The woman, perfectly decent I suppose, when a few words had left my mouth, said she could hear my American accent and that she hears it in other students. I said merci as ironically as I could. She had great difficulty looking at me from then on, perhaps sensing a rebel. I should mention that all of us students in these ARC conversations expend massive amounts of energy trying to understand each other, often with great difficulty. You would never say to a, say, Vietnamese woman, obviously very intelligent, that you can’t understand a word she’s saying.

Our animator, unfazed, launched into a long discussion of French meat dishes. She brushed off comment or questions, as if they were bothersome and interrupted her monologue. I could see eyelids sagging, the drop in energy. She mentioned rôti boeuf, rump steak, perhaps into minute forty-five of her discussion. My handsome Turkish friend sat across from me. He seems endlessly composed and good-willed. He also seems to like to talk about meat. A little petulantly, I mentioned I was a vegetarian. I’m not entirely. I eat fish and chicken. Assan smiled at me, not giving away the reason why. She turned to me and said she ate vegetables, in such a way that indcated that further discussion was not needed. Assan mentioned a good Turkish restaurant, Gemlik, 49 rue d’Enghien, 75010. The 10 at the end means that’s the arrondissement. Gemlik is rated 4.5 of 5 and #5977 of 13585 on TripAdvisor. She mentioned boeuf bourguignon. With nothing else to do, I wrote down the word bourguinon. Trying to make the best of it and knowing I would not be getting the kind of conversation I wanted, I asked her what magret meant as in magret de canard. She said she didn’t know. I looked it up on my iPhone: borrowed or derived from maigre, containing little fat. The opposite of what I think of duck meat in France.

A soft-spoken young Iranian woman with a green headscarf that showed the round of her face began to talk. She was a medical student, her father worked at the Iranian embassy. She spoke softly. Her French was like the light here in our kitchen. In about a minute or two it is very bright, although it starts out a weak. Her French was very good. Her father speaks it and taught her since childhood. She wore expensive rimless glasses. She had been watching me closely since my remark about being a vegetarian. I mentioned that D. and I had seen the movie “Taxi Teheran” the night before. The leader said she had seen it. The young woman had not. The leader held forth on the repression in Iran. The young woman’s glances toward me seemed to coincide with the leader’s statements about how oppressed Iranian women were. After a while, I found myself rolling my eyes a little, looking for co-conspirators, I supposed, or just from being rebellious. Both the young woman and Assan were exchanging looks with me. I was not sure to what extent they were with me. The leader actually corrected me in a decent way. Réalisateur du film, film director, in this case, Jafar Panahi, a kind, creative man whom his government likes to imprison. This is a film you should definitely see before you agree to bomb the people there, especially this young woman.

I mentioned that D. and I had eaten at an Iranian restaurant in rue Mouffetard after the movie, one called Colbeh. The leader said there were no Iranian restaurants there. I said we had just eaten in one. I believe she said no two more times. Finally she permitted a correction in what she had believed to be real. I noticed that she had written in her notes for us “Théhéran,” with an initial extra h. Having just looked up the word myself, I reached across—her notes lay in front of her—as she was speaking—and crossed out the extra h in her spelling. I did this in good faith, being helpful. She thanked me.

I have gone on for a long time. I had meant to tell you about two camels. The other one will have to wait.

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Conversation class in Paris. A sixty-year old man from Costa Rica with grown out short hair flat on top. Maybe ex-military. He described himself ironically as un Flâneur (one who strolls through life?). A smart, compassionate woman of forty something from Brasil, white skin. I didn’t catch her job or project. I thought I caught a slightly slavic accent. A young man, dark skin, of thirty-five or so from Cape Verde, an island nation off East Africa, quite a way off shore. Another white-skinned Brazilian woman, late twenties or early thirties, very white skin, writing a doctoral dissertation on Sartre. I asked her if she could say what existentialism was in one sentence. She responded, saying, We are condemned to a life of freedom. That’s as far as she got before the men jumped in. Her French was very good. The best among us. Then there was me (Pete). I walked my usual thin line between irony and serious contribution, and survived once more! Javi, to my left, from Spain, a face always a little on the red side. I keep forgetting what he does, some kind of research. I think sociology. He has a dim view of what will become of Spain. Then Ross, a Scotsman, who is learning to detect and track laundered money. That brought up a discussion of what kind of money was being laundered: drugs, arms, child-adult sexual slavery and traffic. Then came a Turk, who is writing a book on the Turkish general Cherif Pacha, exiled to Paris, where he survived an attack on his life in January, 1914 because he had opposed the Young Turks (Ottoman Empire) and won their wrath. Each day, the discussion leader is an older French person, with great variety, always a puzzle at first because of accent, clarity of voice, and political views and other presumptions. This man today, seventy-maybe, one pack a day, never once addressed the very decent black man from Cape Verde (or I think even looked at him), one of the smallest countries in the world, perfectly placed for the slave trade, later a Portuguese colony. The leader treated him as if he didn’t exist. I kept thinking his turn was coming up, but it didn’t. Our leader also gave a short discourse on the benefits French colonialism brought to Southest Asia. The older Brazilian woman exchanged a look with me over that. I love these classes. I get to communicate with people from the rest of the world in a third language. It makes me very happy.

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