Tag: Tampico

Frida’s Earrings

It has not been easy to admit I stole Frida’s jade earrings when she was accompanying Trotsky on the armored train to Mexico City. Let me mention again that the President of the Republic, Lázaro Cárdenas, had entrusted me with the security for that entire moving fort of soldiers, sand bags, Howitzers and communist-leaning dignitaries. The President fired me for it, probably at the insistence of the fat painter husband. And that should be the end of it.


I had been had charged to ferret out the concentric rings of graft and extortion that would surely form around him. Which is precisely what I was doing and would have continued doing, had it not been for the independence of my fingers. I am talking about the common swindles learned from scam artists, then practiced by police. Beginning with the trickery at the bottom. Police selling magic bracelets, the kind with healing properties that last a year then have to be renewed through the purchase of a new one, even though you no longer believe in them. The seller gives you no choice.


Or swindles on a higher level. A man knocks at your door. He has a heavy package addressed to your neighbor. That person is not home, and the package is surely important, judging from its weight. Who will pay the cash on delivery since the owner is not home? The answer is: I, the good Christian. But when my neighbor returns, he denies all knowledge of the package. Together we discover it contains rocks. We have been taken. And you could say, with complete accuracy, that decency was to blame.


Newer technology brings more complexity. The local freezer allows you to continue receiving a dead relative’s pension by cutting off the proper finger and keeping it frozen—making it possible to continue supplying his fingerprint each time the government devises new and different ways of preventing fraud.


A trick I approve of less—because it tempts our venality—is the stack of ink-darkened paper money, in large denominations, that you can turn into clear crisp bills by using a special chemical. You demonstrate the procedure on a few of them. You explain that the original darkening is applied in order to get the money through customs. The victim buys the bills at a steep discount, given, you say, because you have to cross the border again, right now, in order to get more of the smuggled money. Later, when your victim repeats the procedure, the paper currency remains black and worthless. But I ask you, who in their right mind would not demand a random testing from deep within the stack of blackened bills?


As far as I’m concerned, God must have included scam artists and swindlers on his larger Noah’s Arc to keep us on our toes. Perhaps as a counterbalance to New Testament gullibility, so common in my own country—a ship of corruption that leaks oil, money and blood in a thousand different ways.


I prefer to look to the north, to a land with its own fair share of fools. Consider citizen Carlo Ponzi and his highly successful Securities Exchange Company, which offered 50% return in 45 days and 100% in three months. Or Philip Arnold, who planted industrial diamonds mixed with cheap garnets, rubies and sapphires purchased from Indians, and convinced bankers, generals and even the conservative Whig Horace Greeley to make disastrous investments in the worthless land.


Or better yet, George Parker, who sold the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for years, before they were on to him. And then, the Baptist minister Prescott Jernegan, who announced he had a machine that could turn water into gold, planted nuggets in underwater collection buckets and attracted large investments from crafty New Englanders known for their common sense.


Then there’s the Great Florida Swampland Scheme, whereby innocents bought land that is underwater and teeming with long-toothed reptiles. On dryer land, all the federal money swirling around the construction of the U.S.’s transcontinental railway. Financial illuminati set up the Credit Mobilier, a clearinghouse for the many government contracts given. They skimmed a portion of it and invested it in Union Pacific stock. Then they sold shares of that stock to U.S. Congressmen at a discount, who then approved more construction grants and therewith fed the Credit Mobilier. When it all collapsed, investigations led to the highest levels of government, including to Vice President Schuyler Colfax.


Closer to home, at the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, marking the end of Mexican’s costliest War, our country ceded all or parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Texas to the United States. That government said it would honor existing property rights in the new territories. A certain James Addison Reavis, a man of keen imagination, claimed he was the hereditary Baron of Arizona and owned a large holding that spanned parts of Arizona and New Mexico, including Phoenix and rich mining areas around Globe and Silver City.


To back up his claim, he spent years digging up and altering various archived deeds in Spain and Mexico and even married a poor half-Indian in San Bernardino, California whom he had identified as the last heir of the Peralta family and now rightful owner of the counterfeited deeds. With these in hand, he demanded cash from those occupying his land, including from the owners of railroads and mines.


I must admit I am partial to schemes that defraud the rich and not the poor. I suppose you can persuade a man who is both stupid and poor, plus hungry, to buy rats that you swear are quickly proliferating Australians meat rabbits. But that is hardly fair. Poor wage earners also seem like they should be protected from either monetary loss or the humiliation of being tricked. The rich and their financial empires—Standard Oil, for example—seem to deserve being bilked, since they are involved in the same game, simply on a more massive scale.


As for the individual rich, I ascend the scale of tricks to include the Inexcusable. By which I mean the pilot Charles Lindbergh, the anti-Semitic ass who could find his way blindfolded for 33 hours across the Atlantic but could not keep an eye on his sleeping two-year old son. They finally found the German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann and, in April 1936, cooked him in the electric chair for extortion and murder.


The lesson in all this, I say, is to learn to see what is hidden. To be able to see the Brunos coming. To always test the river’s depth with one foot, not two. To understand that the mother of stupidity is always pregnant—most of all in oneself. As manifested by me not being able to keep an eye on my fingers when they were near Frida’s not very expensive jade earrings. Which I gave my wife. Whose love for me, if it still exists, is well hidden. I, the President’s detective, who was too dumb to know that one falsehood spoils a thousand truths. Well, perhaps more than one.


But I need to shake myself out of this spell. None of this ranks with the on-going mass executions of young democratic unionists and Trotskyites in the cold morning courtyards of fascist Spain on the one hand, or by the NKVD, Stalin’s leather jacketed secret police, on the other, who have come to Spain not so much to help the Republicans as to thin their ranks of their anti-fascist leaders who are not sufficiently Stalinist. Or who stay in Russia to execute Stalin’s enemies. First the show trials, then a bullet to the base of the skull, and then even a few more reserved for one or two of Trotsky’s own children.


Now, outside of Goethe’s Weimar, in Germany, witnesses report what they call the Singing Forrest inside the gates of the concentration camp called Buchenwald. What they hear, they swear, are prisoners—mostly Jewish or homosexuals—hung by their feet from scaffolds and left to slowly die. Governments, it seems, have agreed not to call this barbarity corruption. Even when it is its most venomous form: corruption of heart and soul. They are events beyond our control, we say, and we hurl no damning condemnations and gradually learn to profess ignorance.


By comparison, I must have sympathy for the harmless moral failings of my fingers. Stealing is the cleaner crime, especially when it is a few pesos here or there—or the un-extraordinary earrings belonging to a weekend communist idealist who owns another thirty pair just like them and whom I can help along the path to frugality.



Why I Love Guanajuato

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.