I Bury You
Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, México
Something happened last night that has had me upset and spinning until now. Marco Antonio just stopped by my table here in the Zócalo and we spoke about it. I feel better and am a bit more informed.
Every night Marco Antonio wanders the Zócalo with his guitar, singing for tips. He is an excellent performer, guitarist and composer. We have become friends over the last eleven days; we talk and he plays as people gravitate to him like moths to a hot light. My donations for his music are tequila and cigarettes. At a sagacious 32 years of age with a degree in psychology, his obvious passion is his beautiful music.
Last night he sat down at a table where I was talking with Rene and Dora. After playing a song for them, Rene invited him to work a couple of nights a week in the Hotel Victoria where Rene is the manager. I left them to their business discussion, drifting off to the other side of the Zócalo and later caught up with him. I told him I wanted to go to La Luna y Sol, an upscale student cafe, to hear music. He agreed and we went there, only to find it was closed. He suggested another club, which was unknown to me, and I was adventurous; we headed off. Candela is an expensive bar with live music, linen tablecloths and a dance floor. It holds about 100 people and the crowd is tourists and dressed up locals. The music is very good.
We were let in for free because Marco Antonio used to be the doorman. I met the new doormen, waiters and owner and received a warm welcome. The band was playing salsa with a fusion of jazz and we searched out dance partners. After a while, a guy came up and asked if I were North American. It turned out he lived for a short time in San Francisco about eight blocks from my flat. We laughed and agreed the world is very small. At the end of the night, Marco Antonio and I talked with the band, who were a great group of guys, and left exhilarated. This night almost rivaled three nights ago when Marco Antonio, Juan Jose, Dorón and I sat at the corner of the Zócalo until 4:00 AM making music before the police told us to go home.
We walked out of the club, laughing with stories about a tourist from Mexico City whom I had asked to dance. We had given her the nickname "tomate" and had a terrific time. She was round and funny and her friends said she was really crazy- a locachona. While walking along in high laughing spirits recounting the evening, we saw the guy who had lived in San Francisco. We waved our greetings, saying, "Nice to meet you!" and "Good luck!" and all those things one says at the end of a great night. I said in English, "Take care, homeboy, take care!" He looked confused and in Spanish I explained, "You lived closed to my house - we are neighbors - you are a homeboy." Flying over like a bolt of lightning, he grabbed me and started yelling in almost intelligible English. He slapped me hard in the face twice and shoved me, screaming, "Don't you EVER talk that me AGAIN! I bury you. I BURY you! I am OAXACEÑO and YOU stupid Norte AmeriCANO. I think you queer and I BURY YOU!!"
A blinding, hot-white explosion went off behind my eyes. The sound bounced back and forth between my ears like a neon racquetball on a dark playing court. In that stunned moment, there was that release which comes just before diving into water from a high place, and the terror just before a car accident. My head fell forward and I did not move. We were on a deserted corner with no one around except for Marco Antonio, me, and he and his two friends (one six-foot friend stood next to me and another by their car a few feet away.)
By this time I was trembling in anger and fear, wanting to kill him and also afraid that either I would get hurt (which was highly likely) or that the police would come by and make trouble. He continued ranting but I wasn't listening. At one point, he shifted his stance and I moved through the space between him and his friend. Turning the corner, I walked slowly down the empty street. My ears were peeled for footsteps but there were none. A slow, heart-pounding two blocks later, I turned around; Marco Antonio was just turning the corner and I waited. As we walked on together, I told him that people in my city would kill the guy for that kind of behavior. I was still furious but had stopped trembling. We said our goodnights just as a car came down the street with the three monsters and stopped across the street up ahead of us. I said nothing and turned the corner towards my hotel. Sleep was fitful.
In my room, I replayed the scene dozens of times. My mind captured it in lurid detail on an endless loop, playing over and over and over. I came to realize that he had not understood me and began to fear I would see him again. It seems his English was limited to a few sentences, which made one believe he was somewhat fluent but, in fact, beyond those conversational phrases he understood nothing of that foreign tongue. I composed a statement in Spanish explaining the word Homeboy, that it was a word which good friends use. I know he thought I was calling him a Homo.
Earlier tonight I spoke with Marco Antonio about it. I asked him to explain to the asshole the next time he saw him because Marco knew him. Marco said the guy was bad news and had been taken to jail before by the police. I said I did not want to run into him again unless he understood. Marco said I would probably never see him again since he was already in trouble.
* * *
So. A slice of the belly of life was tasted and regurgitated. The incident struck deeply and disturbingly. The encounter did not prompt a judgment about the whole of this city, but in all of my travels in México I have never felt the tension that I have here. Although there is so much I love about this city, and even visualize living here, I am an outsider. There have been times I have seen it in the faces of old Indian women and cocky teenagers; the teenagers have always just been young jerks in my mind, but the looks of some of the old women have been chilling.
Lately more thoughts have come about traveling further south alone. I know I will not get the photos I want- at least not until Vera Cruz (they say the people of Vera Cruz are the friendliest in all of México.) Everything I read warns of intrusion by outsiders in certain areas. Already I have learned to say in Spanish, "I am here to learn the language and understand the culture - I do not want to bother you."
So the pictures must be stored in my mind. I have tried to see clearly the things that touch me. There are pictures of ecstatic beauty, moments of common life that I find fascinating and tableaux of moving pathos. The images combine to express the pulse of this very different world. They are like the songs that the people here love most and Marco Antonio sings - songs of a quiet grand beauty and a sad wonder. They are songs of a people who live beneath the sun and moon, who tread their land with a careful step and understand powers bigger than they. At times, it feels both dangerous and magnetic, like being sucked into the underside of the world. But, of course, this is the same other side that the civilization of the Western world has worked hard to hide or simply ignore. For all its savage polychromatic beauty, it is a world that speaks immediately to one's heart.
* * *
I have often said that life is a Savage Beauty. There is a shining, almost hidden secret that seems to lie in looking through the glass of this temporal reality out into a conundrum of things beyond us, outside of what we know momentarily. Here, in this labyrinthine grandiosity of culture and time, and the surface simplicity of a late night drunken misunderstanding, I sense both sides of that glass. Occasionally, the puzzle that is our lives presents itself-- there are no walls, even though there is distance in some eyes one meets. When all is finally said and done, it is all exhilarating and spinning.