June 30, 2011
A week ago today since I got back. Five weeks before I drove up to Texas, along the legendary, deadly coast of Tamaulipas, because I’d been under the impression it would be cheap, because I wanted to swim (at beaches that turned out to be bunk) and because I’m a fool who won’t take a warning seriously (conceived as I was in Missouri, the ‘Show Me State’).
Going up early in order to split the gas with my passenger Simon Russell – remember that name: the last time I was well acquainted with someone I was so certain would become famous it was Dave Matthews, and frankly I was less certain, and thought he would act - I had a week to kill in Austin. I picked up five choice boxes from a friend’s cousin south of town, swam every day at Barton Springs Pool, and slept in the van on a street in Hyde Park with a parking lot on one side and three empty houses on the other. The town was habitable enough, but everything was driving-distance, and there was no more walking culture now than when I’d left at 26. Less, in fact: now the Drag is a corporate ancillary to the UT campus much like Arizona State’s in Tempe, the oddball, slightly rough character it possessed nearly twenty years ago (can so much time have really passed?) now just two sides of a coin: money and destitution. (In the Whataburger, a deeply sunburned drunk borrowed a phone from the uneasy counterman and loudly told the woman beside him, ‘If he raped you, that’s a serious accusation. You need to call the police, and they’ll put him in jail.’ ‘No, forget it.’ ‘So he didn’t rape you. Charlene, this is serious, don’t mess around.’ ‘ ‘No, I was just saying that.’ ‘Eat your fucking burger. Jesus Christ.’) On the way in from my mail-drop (at a CSUN Sigma Pi brother’s house practically in the Pedernales) where over the course of the month 44 boxes would arrive from my generous Seattle donor Philip Wohlstetter, I pulled off the beltway and up Lamar toward Half Price Books for the daily check on the dollar clearance racks, through miles of hideous drive-in development, and passed the Broken Spoke, the old-style Texas dancehall I’d ridden out to more than once when it was on the edge of farm country, now deep in the sprawl and the last thing before the strip of South Congress itself. I’d decided to abandon Austin one day when I was 25 when I rode bikes with Jonathan Jubera south as far as we dared push ourselves conserving energy for the ride back, and found, above us suddenly among the trees, under construction in the farm country, that same beltway I pulled off of at 43. I decided then that the choices being made here were going to make this a place my kids would want to leave as I had shunned Los Angeles, and I’m sad to say that seems to have come true. But for Barton Springs – an amazing public place, testament to the resistance of an insistent few – the Austin I knew and tried out as a home fresh from college is gone. I hoped to establish my mail drop there and come and go for a decade or so, but the place compels me not at all.
The rest of my three weeks stateside was social time, courtesy of my oldest and closest friend: up to Houston for a few books and to see old friends, who dragged me to a splendid monthly literary event called Poison Pen, a liquor-fueled reading series held in the garden of the bar Poison Girl. I’ll be doing an event there, maybe Paul Constant’s patented 2-for-1 book exchange, next time I pass through. I was taken other strange places: a secret bar in what looks like the abandoned space of a strip mall whose name immediately left me – Marfreeless or Mapfreeless, you’ll have to find it on your own – a place decked out like an English hunting club that started as a haven for oilmen to bring their mistresses and fuck them on the mezzanine and retains its secrecy, where the bartender with the Texas accent turned out to be French and who I half-convinced to work for my friend’s forthcoming bar in Mexico City, and where every man in the room was out-of-scale-enormous and in a competition to fumble stacks of hundred-dollar bills and stand the entire clientele for drinks; the dark central room at the Manil full of surreal curios gathered over the eponymous oil baroness’ lifetime: a ‘wild man’ suit covered with spikes from 18th century Switzerland, zoetropes and oscilloscopes and paper-lantern theaters, a bright blue necklace of tanagers: I wanted to stay in there forever. Houston is not a city that thrives in the open, where it is either a horror spacescape out of Logan’s Run or as dull as Des Moines. But in these closed venues, it is scintillatingly strange and proudly alive, a Mexican America. I passed a weekend with dear friends in College Station, which was like a set visit to The Tree of Life (review: 0ne thumb up; one thumb on fast-forward – the movie, not the weekend) which I saw the following week in New York courtesy of the last private person in America whose name thus will not be spoken here. And I walked the cicada nights of the Confederate capitol where he lives and its boulevard of Southern generals that ends in a Black tennis player with children gathered at his naked knees, and came into Gotham overnight on the Chinatown bus and ate Chinese food in Flatbush which is so Chinese now a friend says Filipinos get stared at, and sat for an hour in a Bohemian beer garden in Queens with my Grassroots handler, documentarian Jonathan Miller, and for another in a bar a block from Penn Station with Cthulhu actor and poet Keifer Grimm. (My young friends are the busiest.) I Amtrakked into Wilmington for the best week of the year in that city, when Ross Stump opens the neighborhood porch he calls Cafe Rossi a block from St. Anthony’s Feast, and excellent times were had. If I had two lives I’d write a book about Delaware, that odd small corner that is a world, where walking the curvature of the Earth swings apparent past the mind’s eye: a room extenuated into fields, a nation in corrupt miniature. Strange fucking place.
I got back to Austin just in time to rendezvous with an old friend from high school (Facebook!) I hadn’t seen in twenty-five years. This trip was full of such reunions, and I only mention this last to conserve space and say that for the people I went to school with, on that island-on-an-island of an American base in England in the last years of the Cold War, the Social Network is a revelation. Our lives were always virtual, widespread: the delay in transoceanic phone calls, airport terminals, foreign languages and heartache. Having left behind our sudden friends in a place to which we could not return, we continued through serial towns, surviving on absence, thriving on displacement. Here on the web everyone is home, as in a dream of Heaven. They have grown up, too. We are on the downside of life’s arc: when you see people at forty-something for the first time since your teens there is no denying youth is past. My friend and I stayed up all night – and I do mean all night - drinking and transversing the swath of the time since 1985 and tallying up the character of our common acquaintances, and the lessons learned, and the sad and terrific choices made. And the next day I set out toward my distant chosen home.
It was easy, or it was made to look easy by the trip north five weeks earlier. But it started rough: after car-camping in Laredo in an uneasy, floodlit Wal-Mart parking lot that was busy all night, I set out early to cross the border. Bad surprises there. #1: My stateside car insurance company wouldn’t let me suspend my policy with less than a week’s notice, and thus dinged me for the $89.00 for July; #2: Tax on the books, 800 pesos ($65 US – half-expected, no biggie were it not for what came before, and after); #3: New law as of NINE DAYS PREVIOUS saying all temporary vehicle imports require a minimum deposit of $200 US, refundable when you leave the country, in my case some six months from now. Put on top of that the first toll of twenty dollars before Monterrey being nearly the total the Guia Roji had led me to expect clear to DF, and I was left with maybe enough gas money to reach the San Luis Potosi line.
I pushed on two hours to Monterrey, where the thriving bars that had filled the Barrio Viejo three years previous were mostly shuttered – an ominous crowd of candles in the doorway of one clearly closed for months – and the end of the workday had the atmosphere of a Western where men pulled their wives and their wives pulled their children by the wrist from the wooden sidewalks out of the way of incipient gunfire. A frightening place. I took the rest of my cash – $40 - out of an ATM, found the free internet of a Starbucks, and messaged my most steadfast supporter. (Her name is KIM SUTHER, and she has been a Godsend for this project and for my stormbattered trajectory. She made sure I would not have to car-camp in a city where the narcos seemingly rule the night, and have enough gas to get home. For about 25 minutes there, I had no idea where this might go.)
In the old section where I’d read the Mexican army quartered against the approach of the Americans under Winfield Scott from the northeast, in these very buildings, I found the worst hostel in North America. (I’ve thoroughly enjoyed hostels in D.F., Puerto Vallarta, Morelia, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, Portland, OR and Port Townsend, Washington, and found in them on occasion even something of a refuge.) It is called La Casa Del Barrio. The caretaker insisted the area was perfectly safe to walk at night despite all evidence to the contrary, and after accepting my 200 pesos couldn’t find the internet passcode, before bed brought me outside to move the van into a spot that would clearly not accomodate it – ten minutes later we went back inside, my van where I’d originally parked – joined myself and the two other guests in our room to watch television as we were falling asleep, and spent the night there, despite there being four other rooms available, turning the TV on at full volume at the crack of dawn while two of us still slept. There was no drinking water, and the shower fed a lake that appeared to have not drained completely for days. I stole everything I could lay my hands on.
Next day clouds obscured the steep mountains crowding close to Monterrey, and it was a straight shot out to Saltillo and the cuota toward D.F. To my surprise, the road continued easy, branching off to cities where I wouldn’t go, and in a slow zigzag climbed to the Altiplano, the high plain that composes the country’s northern middle. Up there there are few people, and so the road is smooth, with hardly any topes, the speed bumps that make driving long distances here an ingenious form of torture. The towns are small and sunbaked, and how foreigners usually think Mexico looks when so little of it actually does: low, broken stone walls, painted white with crude advertisements for political parties and conciertos de banda. Roads leading from the highway are white dirt, and forty-year-old American cars displaying chiaroscuro layers of flaking Bondo in varying shades of light-bleached gray send up plumes of pale dust. Cactus happens. Once or twice I might have even seen someone in a sombrero.
Somehow this long, flat place must function as an acoustic mirror pointed at the atmosphere: here the radio picks up stations from all over North America, from the Yukon to Veracruz, talking about towns and people in a distant context the announcers find needless to explain. By late afternoon I’d crossed into the state of San Luis Potosi to Matehuala, where I pulled into an improvised RV park (a parking lot with a bathroom) behind a bungalow hotel advertising itself as the midway point between Laredo and D.F. I was the only car in the back lot. At the pool I met a fiftyish American couple driving down from Nashville to their second home in Patzcuaro, Michoacan (a magical town I have been to, birthplace of Dia de los Muertos and death-place this January of the late and great American journalist John Ross) and we spent the rest of the evening talking, over food and drinks. Good people, building something here alongside what they have in the States, not as fully invested as myself, but moving toward some combo as yet unfinished or decided. We knew the same life-territory of America, a decade apart, them bridging the gap between the Sixties People and my late-Punk contemporaries. We ranged over the same comparative complaints and enthusiasms about living in America, careful not to hurt the America we carry in ourselves, singing our select allegiances, countrymen in a sad time. What will come of this?
And next day, wealth-dulled San Miguel de Allende, gray storms flirting with the bends of the highway, greening toward home. To my great surprise down, off the higher Altiplano, angling into the city at the turnoff to Jilotepec and suddenly on Periferico for miles with excellent radio, Naucalpan, a wrong turn to fifteen minutes lost on the roads that spaghetti through the Aztec woods in the Place of the Grasshoppers, dropping me out for a second time a block from the Redmond, WA chemical company where I taught English at dawn every morning last spring (I know this!) and onto Reforma, the taxi pattern left off Baja past the late-night Cuban bar, across Benjamin Franklin, left and left again, not even scratching the van on the pillars of the garage…
The very next morning the American novelist Matthew Stadler was to arrive from the States (on a 12-city tour to promote his new novel) for the first reading at the store. As such, the store is still only a space: two medium-sized, empty rooms in the front of a late Deco (they built in that vernacular here until the Eighties) house in Roma Norte, my dream vicinity, owned by my roommate Sylvain Missemer, immigrant from France, sound engineer and sweet and generous soul who will rent me this frontage onto a residential alley for $580 US a month without fiador. If you tuned in too late to catch the near-miss fiasco on the Calle Queretaro property (the new locale is bigger, better located, and cheaper) back in March, a fiador is a property-owning cosigner, required in Mexico not by law but custom on any lease, commercial or home, save for impossible measures such as prepayment of a year’s rent, for instance. This presented an obstacle to the store that promised to sit like a sleeping hog in the middle of the path to opening day for quite a while. Abracadabra, poof – gone. Cerrada Chiapas is smack in the middle of the neighborhood where I’d hoped to locate, two blocks from the healthy and booming Orizaba strip of restaurants and bars where Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal are going to open a repertory cinema, and practically next door to the studio of Javier Marin, one of the most important sculpture workshops in Latin America. La Roma is still charmingly rough around the edges, not yet the stiff Condesa it threatens to become. I couldn’t be happier.
Notice of the event appeared in the national English language daily The News, but selected other arrangements were subject to the impredecibledad of doing business here - the printer who two months ago promised the banner in time for the 24th forgot me, and the deluxe copies of Matthew’s book sent from Lake Forest Park, WA were in a FedEx warehouse in Naucalpan, leaving us with a stack of the homemade-looking edition Matthew had in fact made at home which I’d brought down from Austin. Two 24-liter garrafones half full of pulque from Pulqueria Los Insurgentes, a bare couple rooms full of promise, good friends and a fine mind to lead us through a strange work were sufficient to conspire toward a very memorable evening. Chloe Jarren’s ‘La Cucaracha‘ is a ‘cover’ of a fifty-year old John LeCarre novel, as a band would cover a song: Matthew charted the structure, the character relationships and turns of plot, and played the score with different instruments: Guanajuato, where he was living at the time, NAFTA, mining, the swirl of expat life there centered around the city’s famous orchestra. Next day I picked up the glossy copies at Fed Ex, and drove Matthew to his reading in the city where the novel was written. On the way back, he asked me to write the screenplay adaptation. (More – much more – on that later.) Despite the official opening I’ll throw in September after the store has been running as a book-speakeasy all summer -once we get all our legal ducks in a row – this felt like the birth of the Under the Volcano Books.
The store needs help getting there. I’m searching high and low for secondhand bookcases and cheap carpenters, but it looks like the buildout will cost twice the $500 US everyone said it would. The first month’s rent is $580 US (a booksale rent-party will follow and keep us afloat from there); incorporation, FM2, taxes, et cetera all to the tune of $1000 US, for a total of about three grand. Small beans to start a business in 2011, but as this project has relied on its friends and supporters thus far – who will never be forgotten and always have a second home here - it must do so again - for this final push down the birth canal into the world.
I cannot fully express the depth of my gratitude to those who have gotten the store to this point. (It has changed me.) If you want to join them, or help make what you fed as I carried it around the last nine months breathe and open its eyes (how far will I go with this metaphor?) click here:
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
June 24, 2011
Writing this as I wait for multiple deliveries and arrivals: Fed Ex with three boxes of Matthew Stadler’s Chloe Jarren’s ‘La Cucaracha’, his actually groundbreaking (the book is a ‘cover’ of an early and obscure John LeCarre potboiler) novel about spooky expats in Guanajuato, for the inaugural reading (his) at the future location of the store tonight; Matthew himself and his cohorts on this ‘NAFTA Tour’ including restauranteur/host Michael Hebb to arrive at my apartment for showers, preparatory talk and a tour of the grounds; and my fucking banner, ordered from the printer five weeks ago and seemingly forgotten – punters will have to squint even harder tonight to imagine a bookstore in the two empty rooms on Cerrada Chiapas. But this glitch is only emblematic of the difficulty of starting this or any enterprise here: the ease of relations that is such a psychological relief to the North American refugee makes things hard going when it ‘absolutely positively has to be there overnight’ etc. But the frustration and excitement nicely provide a practice launch for the store, and nobody will fault me on the details or their absence (Stadler and Hebb’s well-known savoir faire will certainly blot them out). We made the national English newspaper The News – http://www.thenews.com.mx/index.php/living/L02-11562.htm though the headline is slightly misleading (we however appreciate ANY publicity we can get for this), see the EVENTS link on the website for the hometeam rundown.These things go slow and must fall back sweetly on improv here – the human moment is savored when often there is nothing else, staged perfection impossible as it is in this life. A generous donor has paid for the bookcases, which begin construction right away – another 500 bucks would pay our first month’s rent, and we’ll become something of a private club for a while, a reader’s speakeasy, until September when the owner of the house gains title to change its designated use, and presumably we come up with another $1500 US to get our legal ducks in order and become a business that can advertise, have a sign, pay taxes, and help its single employee (yours truly) take that first steady step toward citizenship. I’m shameless about it now: if you can help, click that DONATE link.
I’ll write about the trip down soon – despite bad surprises at the border necessitating an emergency call and trip to Western Union in Monterrey, 57 is smooth way for all future bookruns, fun sidetrips notwithstanding. Roomie is playing speed metal on his laptop and I think I hear boxy noises outside, our buzzer being broken I must go—-
June 9, 2011
I’m tossing and tussling with what is certainly the longest post on this blog yet several times over, trying to get the hazardous drive north two weeks ago through Tamaulipas. It’s taking multiple nights of greasing my writing finger with enough Presidente to get the blood flowing and the visions rising easy but not so much that I, say, sit in a stupor and watch that Drive-By Truckers video over and over until 3 AM. It will appear soon, I promise.
Meanwhile there’s something happening I want to draw people’s attention to. I’ve been wide-open about how this blog is to a great extent a means of letting people get to know this project sufficiently they want in – to contribute in some way: books, money, connections, patronage, spreading the word. I’m about to need three grand pretty soon to open the store (Cerrada Chiapas 40-C, Colonia Roma Norte, solid). But a close associate of mine, Javier Gonzalez, my producer on the travel show pitch-project I spent most of April shooting in D.F., is in New York right now trying to get something of his own off the ground. I won’t fundraise for it here on my blog, for the reason just stated and because this project’s blog is damned compelling enough to make it on its own:
There’s something special about bikes, and about bike people. I’d say we don’t know yet what the solution will be (other than to generally live on less) to our deepening global predicament, but I am certain that the concerns and strategies of bike people lie very close to what will begin to save us. A young man - of a particularly observational and philosophical bent – plans to ride his bike across the United States next month, and film the experience. Javier is his producer. There have been a lot of books on this type of journey – I think just off the top of my head of DeTocqueville, Steinbeck, Peter Jenkins, William Least Heat Moon – taken in very different periods of the country’s history, and they have strongly helped to define what was happening in their time and to essay the character of America overall. I think a ride and a film like this - by a man seeing things in this year of 2011, posting and following links, absorbing music and images from the internet and throwing his own back – could be a fascinating and necessary thing.
But look at the blog, I think it speaks for itself. And I’ll get back to you in a few days with the longest shaggy dog story about driving through Mexico you’ve ever strained your eyes to look at on a screen.