May 22, 2008

Dostoyevsky's Lesson in Mexico

"When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything."
--B.K. Chesterton

It's no use trying to be chronological in this memoir. It's impossible. I don't want to leave important things out. The past is like a snowy television screen now, and memory is imperfect. And not only mine, but yours, too. You think that you remember perfectly how it was or how it looked? You're probably wrong. Details are forgotten. You can't recall exactly where you were or what color her shoes were that night, though you were in love with her at the time, and scrutinized every facet of her beauty. Details are forgotten or distorted by wishes and even lies. You knew all the details then, but she has been long gone, and by now though you've ruminated it for decades you've changed and so has she. I think that the only thing constant and absolute besides God is change. Where many fear and avoid change, even when not-changing traps them in a secure but boring or even a malevolent situation, I expect and welcome it. My whole life has been one change after another. I've seldom stayed in one place for long. Everywhere I've traveled has been different. Jobs, people, geography, climate, attitudes, manners or the lack of them, and how the public roads affected my suspension system. I've returned to those places years or even decades later to find it all completely altered, as if a giant bulldozer had come through and re-landscaped the whole town, and the people had been shipped off to Patagonia; not a trace, not even a memory of them on the block . What happened to Pierre Remillard ("Remy,") the smallest SEAL in Vietnam? He seemed so stable and settled in Seattle with his family, that I hadn't imagined he would ever be gone; but he was.

Once I laid a map of the world flat on a table and stuck colored pins in every place I could remember having been. Then I strung threads of different colors between them, each color representing a different journey and time. But it was too complicated. What year had I met colorful Pat Clary? Which trip to Galveston introduced me to Susie Quick? Which time had I gone to Seattle through San Francisco, and which time from Sandpoint, Idaho? Every place I remembered evoked images and memories of people I had known and worked with, but I couldn't remember their faces or even their names, though I would probably know them if I saw them again. So I gave it up. Of course I remember flying over bright white Guatemala City from Managua to Mexico City, and taking a 24-hour bus ride to Laredo, where a nasty customs agent had gazed at the Nicaragua stamp on my passport, and proceeded to destroy my electronic typewriter. But was it 1985 or 1986?

It doesn't matter that much, of course. The important thing is to remember the lessons, if you learned them. So these recollections are necessarily as imperfect as I am. They will jump around a bit and perhaps sound like Benjy is the narrator, but it's as good as I can do. I don't remember which summer it was that I lived on raw fruit in Corpus Christi and made $15 every two weeks by donating blood, but it happened. I don't remember how I paid for gas for the old 1962 Chevy C-10 van I had rebuilt in New York. I think I parked it and hitched a lot. I spent that summer in the library of the University of Corpus Christi reading about the Holocaust. It had an extensive collection, which strongly impressesd my mind with some unforgettable details.
____________________________________________________________________

A small dog barked furiously, terrified by my eruption of coughing next door in a house near La Iglesia de San Antonio in San Miguel de Allende, whose off-key bells rang about six times a day for various Catholic services. I didn't mind the bells so much. The little yapper had almost set the bigger dogs off, but perhaps they were exhausted from having kept the whole neighborhood awake for the previous 22 nights, 21 of which I had not actually slept, but dozed. One dreams of killing them, outlawing them, jailing their owners, or removing their vocal chords. My vote was to kill them. Not the seeing-eye dogs of course, but certainly all the others. It would be a rotten shame to have to do it, I was thinking. A terrible betrayal to chop them up and feed them to the poor, because after all the unfortunate beast is the only other animal to voluntarily take up with mankind, and possibly the only other creature that can love us. My tired brain was spinning and I was seething with resentment.
Without suspecting anything, I had arrived in San Miguel at the beginning of September, 2005. September is the month when Mexico celebrates it's Revolution against Spain. Mexicans don't blow up firecrackers; they explode what can only be described as small bombs. They sound like hand grenades without the hissing of shrapnel through the air. Cherry bombs are nothing in comparison. The Mexican bombs go off randomly and everywhere all hours of the day and night. They rattle windows and set off car alarms. If you are out of shape--and I was, due to my slow recovery from the cancer operation--a nearby explosion can startle you enough to pull a muscle.
San Miguel is only 20 miles from where the Revolution had begun with "El Grito," or, "The Cry," which was, "Down with Spain! Long live the Virgin of Guadelupe!" Imagine a revolution in the name of a historic virgin who gave birth to God. Our own Revolution was fought in the name of freedom from a monarch and a tyrannical Parliament that taxed us to death. We celebrate it with parades, concerts, food, a day off, and maybe a day at the beach. The Mexican government issues free fireworks--it's Nero's Circus--and they are set off anywhere and everywhere. If there are accidents, it can't be like having a firecracker explode in your fingers, but more like losing an arm and blowing your head off.
The barrage drove the dogs crazy. Their hearing is more sensitive than ours, as we should know, since the reason humans started feeding them in the first place was to keep them close to camp to warn of larger predators. So it goes like this:
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! RUFF! RUFF! RUFF! RUFF! BOOM! RUFF! BAM BAM BAM BAM! RUFF RUFF RUFF RUFF!! BOOM! RUFF! BOOOOOM! RUFFRUFFRUFFRUFFRUFF! BOOM! BAM! RUFF! RUFF! BAM! BOOM! RUFF! BOOM! YAP! BOOM!! RUFF! RUFF! RUFF!
You get the idea. All day. All night. For a month. A whole damned month. It was driving me crazy. I have about as much love for fireworks as I do for football games, which is to say, not at all. I couldn't imagine how the old folks, in pain and discomfort in their dying beds, could take it. Or the mothers up all night with squalling infants, needing to rise early to make breakfast. But I never heard anyone but myself gripe about it. It was accepted the same way we accept the murder rate.
If I were a Mexican, I daydreamed, I would start another revolution, named The Quiet Revolution, and every Independence Day the people would kill their dogs and eat them.
These were the thoughts and feelings distracting my mind as I limped over the uneven cobblestone streets of the town, from restaurant to library to store to bar to restaurant to the hot springs and back to the bar to read the Miami Herald and write in another notebook. I spent a fortune on two-dollar taxis. I went to the library almost every day and managed to read all the Somerset Maugham it had. What a storyteller! If I could do that, I'd be sitting in the quiet of a high terrace in Italy overlooking the Adriatic Sea and writing in a plush leatherbound notebook with the finest ink pen, enjoying my royalties, instead of a three-dollar spiral composition book in this noisy, slightly dirty bar in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. Don't take it wrong. The Half Moon isn't bad; but it's not a terrace in Italy.

But it wasn't only the dogs and the bombs bugging me. During my first week there, I'd stayed in a small and comfortable hotel that was too expensive for my budget, and was looking for a cheaper place. One day I ran into a nice 77-year old retired American named Clark, a real artist and an expert copyist, and told him what I was looking for. Clark hailed another American who was emerging slightly drunk from Finnegan's, and introduced us. Sure, the guy said, he would rent me a room in his place for $200 a month. I took him up on it. The next day I moved into a large upstairs room with a bed, closet, mirror, chest, and a balcony. Steve slept downstairs on a couch with a television beside him blaring all night. After he started snoring, I always crept down and lowered the volume. He was from Maine, where I had recently lived and nearly died from cancer, so at first we had something to talk about. Steve had a big scar on his thigh from a shark bite in Puerto Escondido. He complained that his sister was robbing his bank account. He smoked marijuana incessently, and at first I joined him. The next day he told me I would have to find and buy my own. But I knew better than to buy pot from strangers in Mexico, so I stopped smoking it. It wasn't a big deal with me. I'd had my share already. But Steve needed it. He drank constantly, starting in the late morning until he passed out at night. I soon learned that he was the best painter, the best sheetrocker, the best carpenter, the best builder, and one of the best lovers in the world. He was about 40, getting fat, had a round red face and a balding head with a circular fringe of wispy blond hair that he covered with a porkpie hat. Conversations with him went well for as long as you agreed with every outrageous statement he made. And he knew everything and that was all there was to it. He had it all boiled down to the essentials: Capitalism, good. Communism, bad. Bush, good. Castro, bad. Reagan, good. Sandinistas, bad.
So you can see that it was useless for me to talk with him about anything of importance, especially politics, which was more important to me then than it is now. I wanted a discussion and he wanted unconditional surrender. I soon shut my trap about anything but the weather. He hated all Mexicans. He said, "They're only niggers to me." But, I pointed out, you are a guest in their country. "F--- THEM!" he shouted. He said that he had spent time in Central America working for the government. Which government, I asked innocently. "THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT YOU A--HOLE!" He wouldn't say what he had done, and I saw that he'd never been there at all. He said it was all a secret. I soon saw that he was a cheap gangster and wannabe mafiosi. He bragged that he was a fugitive from a tax bill and was in Mexico to evade a large penalty for concealing income. He said that he'd lost all his documents somewhere one night, and had no i.d. or visa, which Americans must have in Mexico when they are south of the brothel towns along the border. He'd been in Mexico two years and had about 10 Spanish words already.
One day he invited me to meet his friends and I said okay. It was at an outdoor restaurant with a roof. The American owner, a pretty nice guy who'd been in Mexico 15 years, poured drinks from the trunk of his car, because he didn't have a liquor license. On the day I accepted the invitation, I found Steve sitting at a table with his four friends, who were about the same age as he was or older. It was plain that Steve looked up and deferred to them. It also was plain that the young American women who waitressed the place were tired of this daily roundtable. These guys probably made suggestions. I sat and ordered my customary vodka and grapefruit juice, probably the worst concoction a person with recent stomach surgery could drink; but who knew? I soon realized that Steve had already told them about me.
"So you like the Sandinistas," said one fellow.
"They're not so bad," I said mildly. "They were teaching the illiterate people to read and setting up medical clinics in parts of the country that had never seen a doctor. They encouraged farming cooperatives so farmers could pool resources and make more money. They were treating diseases like spinal cancer which comes from the use of DDT, which we sell them because we can't sell it here anymore. They weren't any threat to their neighbors, unless letting unions flourish and taking care of their poorest people was some kind of threat..."
"Fidel Castro financed their revolution," he said.
"So what? France and Holland financed ours."
"Fidel Castro is a murdering bastard!"

I told him that if he was, so were Batista and Somoza.
"I get so sick of people who like Fidel Castro!" he spat.
I asked him if he'd ever heard, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Irrelevant. And so it went.
I stayed about a half-hour, wondering if these guys were going to have me murdered. The
standard rate for a murder, Clark told me later, was about $75 cash in advance. There were plenty of mean drunks around who needed the money. It happened now and then. Clark had been on the Gringo Trail for years, and knew what he was talking about. I said my goodbyes and never went back.
Naturally, you can see where my sympathies, if not my allegiances, lie. It's almost automatic with me. My youngest years were spent in a small two-bedroom house by the Southern Pacific work track in Westlake, La., about a mile from one of the largest chemical complexes in the United States. We weren't dirt-poor like the blacks who lived only a hundred yards distant beside the same tracks in shacks with rusty tin roofs, but we were poor. My grandmother, who took in sewing, knitting and crochet work, and got a small pension from the government because my grandfather was a wounded WW I veteran, counted every dime. Occassionally my sister and I would be given a nickel or a dime and would walk to Budge's Drug Store to buy an ice cream cone or an RC Cola. We turned the lights off and the gas heaters down when we left a room. We ate simple meals and cleaned our plates. My sister's dresses were made from flour sacks and my shirts were too. I don't hate or envy the rich, in fact I like a lot of them. But if I have to choose between the rich bullies and the poor bullied, the choice isn't hard. On the other hand, I'm aware that the poor aren't automatic angels. But these guys imagined that Fidel and Danny Ortega went into secret dungeons every night to personally torture and kill their enemies, who were innocent of any crime except not liking them; and how would I know? Perhaps they do. I wouldn't be surprised. Nothing really surprises me. I wouldn't be surprised if President Bush was masturbating in the Oval Office. In fact, I'd be surprised if he wasn't. It might be his only relief from plummeting polls.

Steve was an alcoholic, and all true alcoholics are liars. Most of all they lie to themselves, and believe their own lies. I know this because I am an alcoholic as well. (Sober two years now.) It is the dishonesty and resentments of alcoholics that carry us to ruin. It nearly ruined me. As I was contemplating this and remembering that I hadn't been to an AA meeting for several years, I came across "The Brothers Karamazov, which I had read imperfectly 25 years previously.

Father Zossima: "...Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to the bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more offended than anyone. You know it is very pleasant sometimes to take offense, isn't it? A man may know that no one has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill--he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offence, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness." (The Brothers Karamazov.)

One night I returned late to the apartment and accidentally woke Steve. He became violently abusive and insulting. Told me that I would have to pay more money or leave. I had a week left on my rent, and a better apartment waiting for me at the same cost, but I was damned if I was going to let him cheat me. He'd been stealing my medicine and had gone through my bags, which I had never mentioned. I let him rave for five minutes before I finally boiled over. I'd had enough. I came halfway down the stairs and sternly told him, " If you keep this it up I'll have you on a bus back to Texas in 24 hours!"
He realized then how foolish he'd been to tell me he was a fugitive without papers. The cops bused such people back to Texas every week. He mumbled an inaudible threat, then, and shut the mouth. We didn't speak again until I departed a week later. When I left, I laid the key on the counter and said goodbye and thank you. He didn't answer.
The new place was in a better neighborhood with fewer dogs, and the Revolution was finally played out. I spent nearly every day at the ancient library, which supposedly has the largest collection of English books in Mexico. Many, though worn like old rocking chairs, had obviously been donated, and rare first editions with dust covers were all over the shelves. There was a cool garden and quiet Mexicans and English-speakers studying and talking quietly on benches. It had a nice coffeeshop beneath flowering trees and delicious coffee, as well as good films (and bad ones) once a week. I want to donate a hundred thousand dollars to the place, but I'm down to 40 bucks. There were art exhibitions as well. I also visited frequently with Clark, one of the most iconoclastic, articulate and creative of men that I have ever known. I'll tell you more about him another time. But after another month, San Miguel was boring me to death. There were said to be about 6,000 Americans and Europeans of various incomes living in that prosperous valley about 250 kilometers north of Mexico City. Their presence had raised property values, taxes, and incidentally, wages; but many Mexicans resented the changes their foreign residents had imported. Occassionally, I saw Steve staggering the streets red-faced and bloated with his chest stuck out, the perfect model of an ugly American to the modest, serious and family-oriented Mexicans, most of whom are courteous to a fault, worship God, and love their church and country, despite its corruption and violence. I met some of the wealthy people, too, and was invited to parties. I went to one party where people were celebrating the "marriage" of two chihuahua dogs. The tiny dogs were dressed in perfectly-tailored bride and groom outfits. They trembled in their owners' arms. Everybody was kissing everybody else. Three women kissed me on introduction. It was a ritual, and, sweet and lovely as they were, I didn't like it. It amazed me to see that Fitzgerald was right--they aren't like you and me--and how some of the idle rich waste their time on such extravagant and trivial matters. I recoiled when thinking what the Mexican waiters must have thought about it. I haven't known many wealthy people in the United States. Mostly, I just painted their houses or took them here and there in taxis. I had to go to another country to be invited into their homes.
The most interesting was a couple from London, who were so rich they had bought a hacienda 20 miles from San Miguel, whose construction had begun in 1650 and finished in 1703. It cost them $3.5 million. I'd never been in such a house. The walls were three feet thick, the beams were whole trees, and a wide terrace surrounded an inner court of fountains and gardens. It had orchards and a swimming pool, a stable, garages and a full-time gardener. They had modernized it to the max. The pantry was bigger than some of my apartments and stuffed with enough food to feed the homeless in New Orleans for a day. There was a library with floor-to-ceiling books and a rolling ladder, and many other rooms as well. They liked me because I liked books and kept my mouth closed most of the time. The bedroom where I stayed overnight was Fairmont-quality, I imagine. My bathroom would have contained two 1957 Buick Roadmaster 8's and had a bidet. The bedroom was so quiet I thought I was dead. They were extremely nice to me, and the woman encouraged me to read Somerset Maugham; and I did, as I mentioned. They went back to London for a month and when they returned told me that their hotel had cost $26,000 a week. But they were down-to-earth and serious readers. Their library was stuffed with quality books. I had absolutely no idea how they made the money, and didn't ask.

When my rent was up I took a bus north to Batopilas, where my old friend Micah True lives. It's a mile-long town with only one street beside a rolling river, where the Spanish had discovered a boulder of pure silver. It's been gone of course. Batopilas is at the bottom of Copper Canyon five hours from Creel, which is nine hours south of El Paso. I'll tell you about this extraordinary man, too, but later. I was still reading Dostoyevsky when I arrived. It was remarkable to me how much of the book applied to the experience I'd just had with Steve. It sort of topped off the lesson.

Father Zossima: "Are you speaking the truth? Well now, after such a confession I believe you are sincere and good of heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road and do not leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every form of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch into your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of observing it in yourself. Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don't be frightened overmuch of even your own evil actions...Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on a stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, a complete science..."

In Batopilas a few weeks, I developed a terrible pain in my left leg, and a blue swelling that I assumed had come from a sprained ankle. Micah was off on a hike with some American hikers. It finally got so bad I went to the VA in El Paso and was diagnosed with a six-inch clot in the femoral region--a Deep Vein Thrombosis. These things occur sometimes after serious surgery. After treatment and rest for two months at my sister's place in DeQuincy, La., I hitchhiked and took a train to Florida, and, thanks to God and Alcoholics Anonymous, stopped drinking. That was nearly two years ago. Things are looking up. I'm still living in a van and almost broke, but old demons have shriveled up and died. I'm aware that I still can't get a job with the Department of Love, but maybe that's because I haven't enough respect, as Father Zossima said. The habit of defiance and confrontation is engraved deeply in my worldview. For most of my life, I've been torn between trying to love these poor suffering buggers, or blowing them up.

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