Punked and Pimped at the Jardín
Only after he was long gone did I realize that I got punked. The afternoon started out cloaked with innocence. The tourist ambled confidently into the Jardín, only slightly noticed by me, someone who is usually an astute observer of foreign visitors. That I failed to take note of him betrayed that on that day I was easy prey for a punker. How could I have missed that he was pimped up, displaying his sartorial stance with a bow tie accenting his dress shirt with its spear point collar, double-pleated trousers with Hollywood waistband, and his fedora covering his waxed hair? Totally out of time on Earth and out of place in Oaxaca.
Mari offered him a table in the middle row, three places away, and he sat facing the catedral, but at an angle. I was speaking with the Capitana at the time and did not really pay attention to him after he sat down. Suddenly I heard him call over to me. “Pardon me, Panama. I hear you talking the native tongue. Do me a favor, will you? Ask the waitress to bring me a bottle of champagne.”
Despite being somewhat taken aback by his abrupt, self-serving intrusion, which was definitely out of character for unassuming Oaxaca, as was the champagne order, I glanced at him and motioned to Mari. When I relayed his request to her, she appeared puzzled, confirmed that he wanted a bottle, not a glass, and asked me if she should serve it to him in an ice bucket, and I answered that she should. Mari headed to the bar, the tourist gestured a thanks toward me, and I returned to my platica with the Capitana and Karen.
Shortly thereafter, Mari placed a coupe and an ice bucket holding an open green bottle on the tourist’s table. The tourist motioned for Mari to fill the coupe. A good while passed before the tourist and I communicated again. Like before, he initiated it. Raising his champagne to me, he complained, “Panama, I wish this gin joint served these champers in tulips not coupes.”
Obviously the tourist called me Panama because of my hat, even though it was a truly a jipijapa from Bécal, Yucatán. So I played along with his hat theme. “Well Fed,” I responded, “they use coupes for margaritas mixed with their best tequilas. The thin lips, you know. They use thick lipped cactus glass for common tequila or a frozen margarita. They sometimes serve clericots in tulips, but usually in goblets.”
Fed’s pause lingered while he watched a street pigeon pecking around his table. “It’s different all over. Everyone has his own style. Just like me.”
“You? What do you do?”
“I’m a saloonkeeper.”
His choice of occupation designation surprised me. Barkeeper would be the ordinary term, but the closer I studied him, the less traditional he became. His manicured fingers drew my attention because he always pulled on his right ear when musing. I decided to examine his character by asking seemingly innocent questions. To test his affability, I questioned, “Fed, do you ever drink with your customers?”
Fed’s eyebrows arched almost imperceptibly as he lingered cautiously before responding. “My aren’t you the clever interrogator, Panama.” With a tap on the tabletop, he remarked, “Not unless I invite them to my table. And they must drink French 75s if they accept.”
That pithy pronouncement warned me to expect more of the same, and to be shrewdly discreet with my questions, so I let silence settle the moment. Mari passed by to refresh Fed’s champagne. Afterwards he raised his coupe to us, so I took advantage of the moment to become gingerly personal with him. “ How did you get here?”
So quickly that I wondered if he had anticipated my inquiry, he replied, “I came from Oran with a letter of transit.”
That response surprised me. “Okay. What’s your nationality?”
“I’m a drunkard.”
Successfully hiding my amusement, I asserted, “That makes you a world citizen.”
His frozen face remained reticent. Suddenly the zócalo marimba band appeared. A velvety, sonorous tone spilled over the Jardín tables and I noticed Fed’s eyebrows twitch. “I prefer the piano,” he pompously opined. A moment later he added sly sarcasm, “That sounds wooden to me. Play it again Dooley,” he muttered. After sipping from his coupe, “Fed looked directly at Karen and asked, “You know the Bible, Kid?”
Karen replied, “Some. And I’d rather you wouldn’t call me kid. I’m a little too old to take it kindly.”
Fed flinched ever so slightly. “Slim said that to me once.” He sipped from his coupe. “Well then. Ol’ Noah, what’d he do?” Not waiting for Karen to respond. He said, “That’s right. He built a floatin’ zoo.”
The light-hearted humor was unexpected. Sensing that maybe Fed wanted to loosen a bit, I ventured a question. “How long have you been away from home?”
A cold stare accompanied Fed’s sarcastic response. “This is about the time for it, isn’t it?”
I answered, “The time for what?”
“The story of my life. How do you want me to begin? Mister, I met a man once when I was only a kid?”
Before I could retaliate, Sordo the bolero appeared at Fed’s table. The lefthanded bootblack motioned toward Fed’s footgear. For the first time I looked at the shoes, observing them to be ventilated, apron toe blacks, right out of 1940, more evidence of his pimping up. Sordo received a curt dismissal. Fed muttered, “He’d just smudge ‘em up.”
Unexpectedly Boss Carmen stepped into the Jardín with her two ever present bodyguards. All the mamas sprang to attention and manager Rafael rushed out to attend her. The commotion caused Fed to stare in astonishment. The zócalo boss lady and her two escoltas headed up the stairs to her command perch, a tempest of superiority trailing her, as did Capitana Teresa and Rafael.
Fed stared in awe until Carmen had disappeared before he sipped again from his coupe. I noticed his eyebrows raise and his lips purse. “That high pill pulls the strings. Who’s she?”
“The bill collector. She runs the plaza, the space. She has to be paid before you can work in the zócalo. She is the leader of all illegal activities, very respected and influential. She is known as the Black Hand.”
An expression of profound respect covered Fed’s face as he bowed his head up and down. “So she controls everything that has been smuggled in legally. There are many things someone will do, but I can see that dropping the dime on someone for a price is not her. And I can sense that you don’t have to trust her as long as you can persuade her to trust you. She follows the golden rule. The gal with the gold makes the rules.” Fed sipped quickly and continued, “Do they ever arrest anybody in here? Anybody sell diamonds?”
We ignored his question about diamonds. “Arrests are handled in the back. Never in public.”
Onto the lip of our beer pitcher landed one of the ubiquitous bees that frequent the Jardín, one of the bees that the mamas claim come in, get drunk, and leave without paying or leaving a tip. Fed silently eyed the bee while we ignored it.
After musing a while, Fed advised, “That bee is alive so he’s not dangerous.” Detecting that his apparently nonsensical statement had captured our attention, Fed continued. “An old acquaintance of mine, a rummy, warned me about bees. ‘Was you ever bit by a dead bee?’ he asked me. I told him that I hadn’t. He declared, ‘You know, you have to be careful of dead bees if you’re walking around barefoot. If you step on them, they can sting you just as bad as if they were alive, especially if they were mad when they got killed.’ Rummy told me that he’d been bit a hundred times that way. I figured that ol’ Rummy was just wagging his tongue, so I asked him if he ever bit them back. He told me no, that he didn’t have a stinger.”
Anticipating us to chuckle, we did not disappoint him. Karen glanced at me with a “Haven’t we heard that before somewhere” expression. I answered her with a shrug of “Seems like, but I can’t remember it.”
Suddenly street hustler Villalobos entered the Jardín. His arrival surprised us because he had been permanently barred for speaking grossly to the mamas. We speculated that he had seen Capitana and Rafael go upstairs to attend Boss Carmen, providing him an opportunity to slip in and flirt with Isabel.
Villalobos’ entrance did not go unnoticed by Fed. “There’s a cozener if I ever smelled one. Armpit farter. Reminds me of a pettifogger named Tulkinghorn. He once came to my saloon. When my picket Dedlock questioned him, the rook roared, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Before Ded could respond, I stepped in. ‘Yes I do. And you’re lucky the saloon’s open to you just this once.’” Fed flung his empty hand in disgust. “That rook was guilty of rescuing a lady’s estate from her rascal banker and keeping it for himself! I told him that he shouldn’t throw away women, that someday they may become scarce. Especially ones who wear blue.” Fed gave a slight nod toward Karen’s blue huipil.
With a sly grin curving his mouth, Fed continued. “My lady Gaye happened to be there at the time. She watched it happen. It isn’t often that a man has the opportunity to display heroics in front of his sweetheart.” Fed stared at Karen as he avowed that wisdom. He reassured himself with a sip from his coupe and our tables settled into silence.
Unexpectedly, Capitana, Rafael, and Boss Carmen descended the stairs, the dark tattoo on Carmen’s left arm clearly visible. Seeing the two bodyguards, Villalobos quickly ducked out and hurried into the zócalo. Fed focused on Boss Carmen, obviously intrigued by her palpable powerful personage. “Her influence is as hot as lime on habanero,” I quipped to Fed.
The departure brought our tables back to his life. Fed abruptly blurted, “Lady Gaye’s glare could freeze a candle moth in flight. She told me in the Keys that if she’d known I was gonna act like I did, she’d never have come there. I told her that if I’d known what she was like, I’d never have invited her. She told me that I didn’t have to be nasty about everything. I told her that I didn’t have to be, but it was more fun that way. I asked her what made her so mad. She told me that she’d been mad ever since she met me. I told her that most people are. She asked why I didn’t like people. I told her that I think of the reasons later.”
Fed’s personality commenced to unveil itself to us. Our instincts warned us that he might be dangerous. But he might just be acting. And to whom might he be dangerous? Probably to anyone who threatened his freedom and ideals. But not to people who embody what he believes. His voice was the elaborately casual voice of a tough guy, but it was a feint for his loneliness.
With his eyes focused on nothing but clear air, Fed dryly announced, “Lady Gaye planted a kiss on me after she told me she was mad. I asked her what she did that for. She said she’d been wondering whether she’d like it. I asked her if she did. She said she didn’t know yet. She kissed me again. Then she told me that it’d be better if I helped. So I planted a good one on her. A long slow one. Mouths open. Teeth knocking. Tongues dangling. The kind I call a Saturday Night Special. She had her eyes closed when I let up.
“She asked me if I was afraid of her. She told me that she was hard to get. That all I had to do was ask her.” Fed’s sentimental thoughts set him adrift and we could see that his attention to his surroundings had silently deserted him. Tugging gently on his right ear, he emotionally vanished in solitude for a prolonged respite.
Eventually Fed escaped his nostalgic rapture. He snapped to attention with an apology. “Sorry about checking out like that.” Then, for the first time, he asked about Karen and me. We told him we lived in Oaxaca, and he showed surprise. “Crikey! Todger! No wonder you speak the tongue.”
“You don’t sound British,” I simpered.
Fed ignored my appreciation of his slang. More silence elapsed. I continued to watch him. He sat almost totally motionless, frozen in loneliness, just twisting the stem of his coupe with his left hand, appearing to wear deep thought. His eyes eventually drifted toward the zócalo and his lips quivered slightly, almost like he was whispering to someone. His pensiveness ended only when attentive Mari stopped by to motion if she could pour him some more champagne. Fed remained taciturn and accepted with a slight nod.
Abruptly Fed turned to me. “Panama, do you play games?” Fed spoke earnestly, so I answered sincerely that I enjoy word games in a foreign language. That seemed to push him to ask another question. “So you might use words that not everyone understands? Do you care who understands you?” Assuming the question to be jocular, I retorted that the only people I want to understand me are the governor, the judge, my lawyer, and the bartender. Fed grinned slightly and ventured a third question. “How old were you when you thought of that?” Again considering the inquiry to be disingenuous, I answered that I was not old, that mountains are old, that I am ancient, a more elegant word.
Fed dipped his chin and took a sip of champer before declaring, “Panama, I have a sixth sense that any witch in the world would give her left broomstick to have, so I know that there’s more to talking than just words.” He concluded his remark by staring at Karen who stared back icily. She appeared fed up with Fed.
The man in the fedora continued to stare at Karen. “Bird, you remind me of a kid I thought about last night.”
Karen stared back dismissively and asked, “Where were you last night?”
“That’s so long ago I don’t remember,” Fed mumbled with a slight smile.
Sensing sardonic sadness, Karen mockingly sympathized. “Will you go back there tonight?”
Coldly Fed shrugged, “I never make plans that far ahead. I’m a careful man who never lets thoughts about the future interfere with present business. I watch what’s going on around me. When there’s noise, you know where to look and you know what’s happening. When things are quiet, that’s when you’ve got to be careful.”
Suddenly the military guard that lowers the national flag from the Palacio Federal trotted by with the drawn-out patriotic banner strung under their arms. Fed watched with a smirk of scorn, revealing his revulsion for something likely from his past. Gruffly he asked, “Have you ever been to Tampico?” Without awaiting an answer, he spat out, “A perfect neighborhood for the crowd with bad habits. A hotbed of hoodlums and cutthroats. Pat McCormick wasn’t even the worst one. Honesty went out of style there a long time ago. I always put crumpled up newspapers on my floor there so I could hear anybody trying to creep in. Tampico taught me that the worst isn’t so bad when it happens. Not half as bad as you think it’ll be before it happens. I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble. And I don’t mind a parasite. I just object to a cut-rate one. Trouble and parasites thrive in Tampico. The cots at the Oso Negro hotel are full of cockroaches and scorpions. When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses. Lucky I got out of Tampico on that train to Durango.”
The significance of Fed’s rant escaped us. We let it simmer without inquiry. We know that there are some things you just don’t ask a man. Enough it was to paint Fed as a suspicious, bitter loner who trusted no one, who did not give a hoot about what people thought about him, a man who has staked his claim to what he considers private to himself alone. And it was obvious that he liked to be alone. Undeniably he was lone and lorn, longing for the comfort of permanence that the unchangeable past presents.
As if on cue, Fed sustained our judgement. “A barfly used to buzz into my saloon. Vivian. She told me she didn’t like my manners. I told her that I wasn’t crazy about hers either. I told her I didn’t mind if she didn’t like my manners, that I didn’t like them myself, that they were pretty bad. I told her that I grieve over them the same way she does about herself when she drinks her lunch out of a bottle. She snapped at me and told me that people didn’t talk to her that way. She asked me if I always handle people like trained seals. I told her that I usually get away with it. She claimed that I didn’t know anything. I swatted her down by telling her that what a man knows isn’t important. It’s what he is that counts. She told me I was a lonely old grump, and I didn’t object. We only got her shooed away after Dedlock asked her why she always left a wet spot on her bar stool.”
Despite attempting to withhold laughter, I was unsuccessful, although Karen displayed her disgust by sneering at Fed, who smugly shrugged back at her. A pause sustained just enough for Fed to sip from his coupe before he insisted, “The only people who fear or dislike me are my adversaries. The good and bad in me can be known simply by seeing who dislikes me and who doesn’t.” Karen’s grimace disclosed the camp to which she belonged.
I decided to lighten the mood, so I answered Fed’s inquiry about Tampico. “You asked me if I’d ever been to Tampico, Fed.” He nodded. “Yes, first in 1965. Your assessment of that dreadful, oily, stinky seaport is the same as mine. One good thing came out of my time there though.” Fed jerked slightly, begging to know what that might be. “I learned about the Vaquita cantina, a saloon, as you being a saloonkeeper would say.” Fed leaned forward with increasing interest. “So when I got to Mexico City I looked up that famous place. The cantina first opened the bar in 1920. Located on the corner of Mesones and Isabel La Católica, it was frequented, some say inhabited, by Cantinflas, the famous Mexican comedian. You might remember him as playing Passepartout, the valet of Phileas Fogg, played by David Niven, in the movie Around the World in 80 Days.”
Fed raised his chin slightly and sipped from his coupe. Seeing that I held his attention, I pressed onward. “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera drank liters of tequila there. Part of the legend about the saloon is that Frida gave it the name vaquita, likely after the emblematic vaquita de madera of Mexican folklore. Frida and Diego were Communists. The Vaquita was the de facto headquarters of the Mexican Communist Party, the offices of the comrades on the floor above the cantina, the tables in the cantina itself where the Party newsletter, El Machete, was written.”
I noticed that Fed flinched slightly when I said communist. “La Vaquita was six blocks from the Hotel Gillow, where I stay when in Chilangolandia. Both on Isabel. The pandemic of 2020 closed the cantina for good. I heard that the floor was awash with tears that last night.” I caught myself sagging into forbidden nostalgia and noticed that Fed was staring at me with a expression of wonder. Maybe he recognized my demeanor as being one of his.
Fed continued to stare at me and implored cautiously, “Do you ever wait for something, like the longest day of the year, and then miss it? I do it every time.” We watched him shudder after confessing that. He drooped in mournful isolation. Insufferable loneliness consumed Fed. When people feel alone, they often desire to mentally time travel to when they enjoyed social connections. Becoming nostalgic accomplishes that yearning.
Loneliness is a powerful trigger for nostalgia. Memories of the past, almost always involving other people, are produced by nostalgia. Most people tend to be nostalgic about holidays, vacations, trips with friends, weddings, and class reunions because they include camaraderie. When people feel lonely or excluded, nostalgia helps restore feelings of social connection and inclusion. Nostalgia has its dangers however. What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you had witnessed.
Music is a common trigger for nostalgia. Piano players in clubs represented Fed’s music – Dooley and Cricket – because they activated nostalgia. For Fed, piano music generated loneliness and nostalgia, those cohorts masquerading as Hope and Comfort.
Fed pulled on his right ear for a long time as he silently scrutinized me. Eventually he asserted, “You’re not a close-mouthed man. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice. You talk Panama, but you’re deliberate with your words. You sound like a man who sleeps well and doesn’t owe too much money.”
I laughed. “Right on both accusations. My old grey passport ensured that.”
Fed flashed a puzzled countenance. “How did a passport make you sleep well?”
A spark of recollection about an encounter with a respected corporate executive prompted my response to Fed. “Okay. When we were younger, Karen and me traveled all over the world. Our passports were grey, not like the blue ones today. Our decade of overland adventures included many border crossings, where an entry or exit permit was stamped into our passports. After several years, all our passport pages were full. At an American embassy, I can’t remember where, we had pages added. In the end, all those pages got filled, too.
“After our return to America, that’s the USA, I often met with corporate executives. One of those officers, I remember him because of the occasion, asked if I would be interested in a project in the North Sea, adding that it would provide an opportunity to enhance my resumé and to travel, that he had traveled and enjoyed it. I responded that I preferred warmer climates , that my resumé was personal, and I added that I had traveled quite a bit already, that I was enjoying not living out of a backpack, so I would decline the offer. Unaccustomed to having his overtures abnegated, he was offended, and he judged me with a look of cavalier dismissal as he walked away.
“We were scheduled for a luncheon meeting the following day. To that lunch I spitefully brought my old grey passport. During a break in the meeting, I silently approached the executive, where I opened my passport. The length of pages fell from my shoulder to the floor. The executive lurched back in astonishment, but he quickly recovered his composure by protecting himself with laughter.
“After the meeting ended, the officer pulled me aside to speak privately. With sincerity he whispered, ‘Much respect to you. I’ve never seen a passport like that.’
“I laughed, ‘Nor have I, except for my wife’s. Eight years younger than me. An early free spirit, a woman of the world.’ His reverence being apparent, I spoke to him frankly. ‘Those pages reveal not just border crossings, but also certification of transformational experiences. Life changes. Vicissitudes. Travel produces wisdom about life because travel demands recognition and tolerance for newness, as well as the requisite for quick adaptation to the unexpected.’
“The executive replied with the confession that he envied me because I had heeded my call to adventure, while he had simply existed in the way his parents and peers had directed.”
“What else did you tell him?” asked Fed. With a smirk, he added, “You don’t lack for attitude.”
I refused to be badgered, so I answered him succinctly. “I reminded the exec that his parents, and their peers, were products of the Depression and the war, folks just happy to have a job and an opportunity, folks just thinking about survival and security. Be careful of whose advice you heed. Advice is a form of nostalgia. I asserted that his parent’s counsel was inappropriate for his moment. He had other chances, ones his parent’s generation had never enjoyed.
“Fed, have you heard of Alvin York. War hero Sergeant York?” A slight rise in Fed’s left forefinger revealed that he had. “I told the exec about one of Alvin’s habits. Alvin always wet the front sight of his rifle with saliva. He claimed that it allowed him to see through the haze. After he was awarded the Medal of Honor, he explained to a reporter that seeing through the haze meant not just haze in the air for a shoot. It meant resolving the dilemma presented him by the advice he had received from his Christian mother and his pastor mentor. Both had preached that he should not engage in killing, that the Bible forbid it. Haze was the advice of his elders and counselors that he had to cut through.”
Fed unceasingly tugged on his right ear as he listened. I watched his lips move ever so slightly, so I knew he was thinking about what to say next. After two sips from his coupe, Fed blurted, “Panama, you know about those Christian mothers don’t you?” I shrugged that I didn’t. Fed glanced at Karen. “Bird?” Karen’s frozen face revealed her response. Fed ignored her dismissal and proceeded. “Some of my acquaintances from youth were destroyed from the git-go by the hands of their Christian mothers. A Christian mother’s first duty is to soil her child’s mind, and she doesn’t neglect it. Her kid grows up to be a missionary, or a preacher, or a populist politician, someone who preys on the innocent and uninformed, the vulnerable weaklings. So those mothers spawn kids that infect the world with ignorance and bigotry, and the indoctrinated kids attract a following of dumb voters. You’re right, Panama. Be careful of who you listen to. Some flimflam prophets destroy all chances of having any fun.”
I grinned amiably at Fed. “Those Christian mothers are to blame, eh?” Fed nodded in agreement. “Well, I got away from them,” I declared. “Do you know the book The Greening of America? A paean to the 1960s counter culture?” Fed shook his head, but not in a dismissive manner. “Profound word in that book. Consciousness. When Karen and I hit the road, many nights we spent with travelers from all over the world sitting around cheap hotel rooms sharing cosas, those illegal smiles. Many times arose the question, ‘When and how did you get radicalized?’ Radicalized meant ‘get consciousness.’ Meaning to question your upbringing, your culture, and the advice of your parents and peers. To challenge authority. To not be afraid to reject your past, to agree with whom were once your cultural enemies. Consciousness and radicalized were a long way from the Great Bubble of 1960s Middle America paralyzed by meritocracy and rejection of egalitarianism.”
Fed seemed open to the discussion, so I continued. “As I understand the term, woke is what these days are called people whom we labeled forty-fifty years ago as conscious and radicalized. Woke really means alert to what’s going on around you, especially with respect to racial or social discrimination and injustice. Don’t be numb and dumb. Get a clue. Wake up, man. Get woke. But opponents of wokeism consider the ideology to be nothing more than a weapon used by progressive activists to silence social conservatives.”
Mari arrived to refresh Fed’s coupe, so I paused, noticing that Fed had begun to tug on his ear, a sure sign that he was listening. “Well Fed, my green shoots first sprouted in the hipster community where I lived in New Orleans. My greening exposed the hollow shell in which I was living and the meaningless life into which I was sinking. The Sisyphean nature of the job: redemption through repetition. My future being entrusted to a group of delinquents. Men who for whatever reason had fallen into the waiting game. My greening caused me to question those Christian mothers who had formed me. They had preached first to college, then to a professional job, both expected of a good son. My professional position with a prestigious corporation and high salary was earned and tempting, but the sphynx of great Waldo had drugged their boy’s cup, had mixed their boy’s bread, and with sadness and madness had turned their boy’s head. The lure of the green road mercifully captured me.
“So Karen and I set out for the true Promised Land. We didn’t know what or where that was, but it surely wasn’t where we lived then. Never miss a turn in the road because you can’t know what’s around that bend. Only can know those who go. We went. All over the world. We carried nothing but confidence in our hearts and a backpack full of hope. We never walked to arrive, and the reason we came was the reason we couldn’t stay.
“We never returned to the real USA, the one we had left. We traveled for almost all of the 1970s. When we did return to USA in 1981, we had wearied of the road, but we had determined what we wanted. So we sought a life in a third world country, living on the land, eating a lot of peaches. Our third world was Catron county, New Mexico, on an 1870’s homestead that needed rebuilding. Make new what is old, make old what is new. The truth is always changing. So we went and we did and we prospered and our greening deepened and we spread it to our children. Three things we wanted for them – bilingual, bicultural, independent. We gave them all that they would take, and now them are one.”
Karen smiled at me and I paused to smile back at her and to give her hand a squeeze.
Fed softened. His mouth relaxed when he sipped. So you avoided the three D’s that bring a man down. Death, debt, and divorce.” Fed sipped again before staring at me. “Did you and the exec depart on good terms?” His question contrasted with my opinion of him. The question inferred caring for another person, a quality that I considered lacking in Fed.
“Yes we did. The exec told me that I had done it right, that he had done it backwards. He had worked first, tried to play later, but had discovered that he was too old and opinionated to play. He told me that his biggest mistake was waiting so long to play that he lost his chance to learn. He said, ‘You played first, so you learned first, so you were ahead when you stopped playing.’ I curtly apprised him that I had never stopped playing.”
I gazed at Fed. “The exec was like most aggressive, high-reaching individuals. They treat the present moment, if they even recognize it as the now, as if it were just a stopping point on the way to some great purpose that will happen in the future, and they are sadly surprised when that doesn’t happen. Eventually they might look back introspectively on their lives and see that the things they considered irrelevant, the incidents they dismissed so carelessly, these were likely quite significant in their lives. They might even realize that living for some future goal is a waste of a life. Life is what happened to them while they were busy making other plans.”
I gazed mournfully at Fed. “The exec exemplified the fundamental conflict between what one wants from life, such as meaning and order, and what many find in life, just formless chaos. In his youth, the exec had sought meaning, had failed to find it in his dedication to a mundane work ethic. Predictively, he had come to view life as inevitable chaos, and had concluded that life is therefore meaningless. That conclusion made him bitter and resentful of those whom had successfully found meaning in life, contrarians like me.”
I watched Fed tug his ear while staring into his coupe, so I knew that he was pondering. “Fed, there’s a heck of a story about a guy I call the Rock Roller. He made a couple of bad moves during his youth and his supervisors punished him by forcing him to roll a boulder up a hill. Every time the Rock Roller got the boulder to the top of the hill, it would roll back to the bottom, and the task had to be repeated. The Rock Roller symbolizes humankind because most people are rock rollers, performing the same thankless task every day, achieving nothing, epitomizing a meaningless, absurd life. I’m not a rock roller, I’m a rock ‘n roller!” Karen erupted in laughter and nudged me with her elbow.
Fed had sipped thoughtfully while I recounted the event with the executive. His lingering silence prompted me to continue. “Maybe more about why I sleep well and pay my own way?” Fed motioned me onward.
“Travel awarded me confidence, assuredness, security, self-esteem. Those walks in the wild taught me poise under duress, the urge and strength to forge ahead because you never know what wonders hide beyond the next bend in the trail. Possessing those qualities allows me to sleep well. Travel also taught me to live on the cheap, to live on what I had in my pocket. No credit was available of course, I was a stranger, so I had to live on my available means. I’ve never stopped doing that.”
Fed’s countenance encouraged me to tell him more, so I warily waded into possibly turbulent waters. “Fed, I perceive you as having a penchant for living in the past, having a fondness for an earlier time. Oftentimes this predilection is apparent by a man almost always speaking in the past tense, but I haven’t heard that in you. What clues me that you are fond of the old days is your outmoded mien of pomaded hair, your shirt and trousers, your shoes and bow tie, and your manicured fingernails.”
My assessment impelled Fed to abruptly rise straight-backed in his chair and to stare at me. I expected a sharp rebuttal or defensive reaction, but I was surprised when he bobbed his head and mimicked playing a piano on the table. “Play it again, Dooley,” he smiled, appearing eager to hear more.
I chose to continue by exposing my personal credos. “Suspicion and bitterness never claimed me. Nor did fear of failure. Nor did I salute nostalgia, that emotion that is truly denial of the present. I don’t yearn for anything from the past. I don’t think that an earlier time period is better than the one I’m living in now. Nostalgic people are those who find it difficult to cope with the present. I don’t cope with the present, I accept it as the now and relish it. I live for the moment, always in the now, which is all that really exists. I’m not into nostalgia, and I only look back to find lessons.”
Fed looked directly into my eyes. “Nostalgia is the only friend that stays with you forever.” Poignant pain sliced through me when I heard that. Sadness incarnate. Not my world at all.
Fed added, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” He paused and recounted what I had purported moments before. “You claim that only now exists. Nostalgia is a tonic for those who haven’t realized that today is tomorrow’s nostalgia. The past will be here tomorrow. It’s waiting in line.”
I burst into laughter. “Touché! That’s one way to dismiss the paradox!”
Fed’s face tightened. “Sometimes you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory. But be careful with memories. It’s never safe to be nostalgic about something until you’re certain it’s not coming back.” He grinned impishly. “Based on what I’m seeing now, nostalgia will soon be another name for the United States.”
Wanting to delay a political discussion, I ignored his forecast and continued wading into Fed’s water. “I’ve noticed that when someone first meets another person, he tends to notice first the differences between the two people. As one gets to know the other, similarities attempt to surface. It’s the similarities that bond. Lack of recognition of similarities prevent bonding. ‘Birds of a feather flock together,’ ‘two peas in a pod,’ ‘patches of the same quilt,’ ‘joined at the hip,’ those are expressions that denote similarities. Expressions like ‘oil on water, ‘and ‘not on the same page,’ denote differences.”
Fed cut in bitterly. “The oil and water is mostly what I find with other people.”
“That’s your protection,” I quickly posited. “Like your yearning for the past because you don’t like the present. Here in Mexico, we have a saying that denotes despair. Si no es Chana, es Juana, y si no, su hermana. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Also said here is ni modo. This means there’s nothing you can do about it, so what’s the use of trying to change anything? These expressions of hopelessness are affiliated with nostalgia. You can’t change the past, so the past appeals to you because it’s permanent. You said just that. ‘Nostalgia is the only friend that stays with you forever.’
“People who thrive on nostalgia are prone to accept dogma. That’s because dogma provides the comfort of permanence, which provides security from that arch enemy change. The problem with dwelling on dogma is that it requires living the results of other people’s thinking. Dogma produces a man who views his life at fifty the same way he did when he was twenty, proving that he wasted thirty years of his life. Don’t waste your time trying to explain that to him. People only hear what they want to hear anyway.”
I pulled mockingly on my right ear to see if Fed noticed. He didn’t, so I continued. “Nostalgia is not my friend. Nostalgia befriends people who fear change. I don’t fear change, I welcome it and thrive on it. That makes me a liberal, not a conservative. The real definition of a liberal is someone who wants changes, while the meaning of conservative is someone who want to maintain the status quo. Those definitions have become lost in the current political zeitgeist.” Fed remained passive, twisting his coupe stem and staring into the zócalo. He had lost interest in anything I had to offer.
On the wide corridor, the family trio of father marimba player and sons saxophone and guitar players set up and began with Bésame Mucho. Fed obviously recognized the song and tapped slightly on the table. We watched his lips moving, but he was whispering to himself, not singing. After a while, he shared his recollection. “María Vargas. A dancer I knew in Spain. She liked that song.” Fed chuckled. “She was fond of claiming that to a girl with nothing a man with hundreds is just as rich as a man with millions. I taught her to sip champer. She taught me a few things, too.”
Continuing to twist his coupe by its stem and eyeing the bowl seductively, Fed baited me wittingly. “Panama, surely a gentleman like you knows about how the shape of the coupe came to be.” My shoulder shrug served to answer him. “Panama, that’s a surprise. Bird, do you know?” She didn’t either. “Accepted. Do either of you know any history about champagne?” More shrugs. “Then for you two zythophiles I will tutor you about champer. María educated me on what I’ll share with you.”
After a sip from his coupe, Fed began his oration. “Mistakenly, most sippers believe that the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon should be credited with the birth of champer. These misguided quaffers trust the myth that in the middle 1690’s, the monk discovered that when he bottled his wine that winter, the fermentation halted due to the low temperatures. But, during the next summer, the bottles warmed up, and the yeast triggered a secondary fermentation directly in the wine bottle. This resulted in carbon dioxide build-up, which in turn made the wine bubbly, or sparkling, ergo, champagne. Discovered by accident.”
Fed paused to let us absorb his tutorial. “But that’s the French side of the story. The Brits render a different version. Glassmaking was patented in Britain about 1615. This resulted in glass bottles becoming available, notably stronger bottles that could withstand the pressure of secondary-fermentation. British vintners and cidermakers began to add raisins and sugar to wine and cider at bottling to start fermentation in the strong bottles. The most legendary of these originators was English physician, butterfly collector, and birdwatcher Christopher Merret, who documented how to put the fizz into wine in 1662. That sparkling concoction became champagne.” We bowed in approval of Fed’s history lesson. “One last grin,” he finished. “For the first fifty years, because it was considered plebeian, only prostitutes imbibed in champer.” That bonus tidbit produced happy laughter at our tables.
For whatever reason, Fed suddenly stared me in the eye and confessed, “Panama, at first I didn’t give you any thought. When I did, I didn’t like you. You have an imposing confidence about you. Very certain of yourself. Disarming to some men I would guess. But when we started sharing stories I began to like you.” He motioned toward Karen. “Even if Bird doesn’t like me.” Karen ignored him.
Fed kept on. “By sharing stories I learned about you. You’re beginning to like me, too. I can tell. I also know that we’re the oil and water boys. I have unwarranted faith in fools who provide me a specious sense of self-confidence. You are self-confident because you can recognize fools. I am a lonely defeated loser. You know you are only defeated when you quit. You are trusting, I am distrustful. You are optimistic, I am pessimistic. You are happy, I am uncertain. You are alert, I am dull. But we like each other. At least for this short time.”
Fed paused to sip before staring straight into my eyes. “So I disagree with you. You claim that similarities create bonds, and that lack of similarities prevent bonds. If you were right, then we wouldn’t like each other. You are fond of those old sayings. Remember the one claiming that opposites attract? Well, here we are. No similarities, all differences, but a bond of sorts.”
I chuckled. “Maybe just tolerance.” Karen lifted her chin ever so slightly upon hearing that. Fed grinned and used his left hand to mimic shooting me with a pistol. Then all three of us laughed. Mari hurried over to add to Fed’s coupe.
Fed picked up again. “You’re not an asshole, Panama.” Since I did not respond, Fed continued. “Assholes sometimes come into my saloon, but usually just once. Dedlock prevents a return visit. The asshole, as I define him, is the guy who allows himself special advantages in cooperative life, this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people. He’s the individual who thinks the general rules don’t apply to him because he’s somehow smarter, better, or more special than his fellow citizens. He violates right-of-way customs, whether in line at the grocery store, on the road in traffic, or at work. He’s the arrogant creep who is convinced he’s fundamentally superior, and thus free to conduct himself in whatever way he sees fit. His type is universal. There are also some femmes that fall into that category.
“At first I thought that one of the tipplers who visit me often was an asshole. We let him in a second time just to make sure, and I changed my mind. Allnut. That was his real last name. I never knew him by any other name. His last name fit him like a tuque. The very first time he came in, another tippler seemed to recognize him. They engaged in chatter and after a while the tippler asked Allnut to pose for a photograph, a request I found to be curious. Standing back, the photographer told Allnut to stand as close to the bar as he could. Allnut wisecracked, ‘That’s one of my lifelong troubles.’
“After Allnut and the photographer separated, I asked Allnut how he was doing. He told me he was hiding. From what I asked him. From his wife, his friends, his family, from everybody. I told him it couldn’t be that bad. He challenged me to go spend some time with his wife Rosemary, then see if I was still in my right mind. He insisted that Rosemary was as strait-laced as a Pentecostal missionary, that knowing her convinced him that things are never so bad that they can’t be made worse. When Allnut pleaded that his alleged bad conduct was just human nature, Rosemary admonished him, preaching that nature is what we’re put in the world to rise above.
“I asked Allnut why he was still married to her. He declared that it’s a great thing to have a lady around with clean habits. It sets a good example for a man. A man alone, he gets to living like a hog.”
Fed dipped his chin at Karen. “She’s got clean habits. Lucky you, Panama.” Karen raised her eyebrows at the unexpected compliment. Fed cast an overture to her. “Bird, do you know the Hotel Los Amantes?”
Karen nodded and answered. “Yes. It’s the most expensive hotel in Oaxaca. Great terrace with a view of Santo Domingo. A goblet of wine there costs more than a bottle anywhere else. What about it?”
“That’s a contemptable assessment. Where would you stay?”
“If you mean which hotel, I’d go to the Golondrinas. The blue hotel full of art and gardens. Makes me think about Frida.”
Fed nodded slightly. “Frida? One of your old friends?”
Exhibiting a pensive scowl, Fed lectured, “To be sociable is a risky thing. Often fatal. Because it means being in contact with people, most of whom are dull, perverse and ignorant, and are really with you only because they cannot suffer their own company. Most people bore themselves and greet you not as a friend, but as a distraction. That’s why it’s much better not to have friends if you have the strength of character to do without them. In the end friends always turn into a nuisance of one kind or another. But if you must have them, best to let them alone and accept that everyone has the right to exist in accordance with the character he has, whatever it turns out to be. My acquaintance Gwendolyn always corrects people when they refer to her friends. She says her associates.
“Most cabbies always consider you a friend. They try to strike up a chit-chat as soon as you’re seated. Like they will say, ‘Nice looking suit you’re wearing.’ And when you tell them that you don’t feel chatty, they insist that most fares like to talk. And when you tell them that you don’t, they ask if you’re always that way. And I answer yes, and tell them that’s why I don’t have many friends.”
Karen stared didactically at Fed as she spoke. “Picking friends is like choosing a place to dine. Eat where they can tell you where the food comes from and that they cooked it themselves. Always remember that paying for the view is a completely unacceptable approach to dining. As for friends, know where their values come from, know that they learned those values by themselves, and that appearances are almost always illusory.”
Tugging his right ear, Fed laughed. “That’s good, Bird.” After a few more tugs while he mused, Fed remarked. “Yes, those assumed friends. They come in and out of your life, like tipplers in my saloon. You don’t indenture most of them forever, but you can’t wipe some of them out your memories. Especially the ones from your impressionable youth. I never had any acquaintances later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” I watched Fed’s friable face dissolve in the water of nostalgia as he thumped on the table like he was playing a dirge, and then he hastily jerked his hand away from his ear and asked impulsively, “Did you ever wish you could go someplace where nobody knows you?”
His question prompted awareness of traveling. I nodded in response. “On the road, where one continually changes locations, one is almost always where nobody knows you. Perhaps more interesting, traveling allows one to be whomever one chooses. If you don’t like who you are, be somebody else. No one will know the difference anyway. So, in a sense, traveling is going to where no one knows you, so you can be your own self of the moment, any self you prefer.”
Fed pursed his lips as he pondered my declaration. “Agreed. The time always arrives when you must judge for yourself what’s going on in your world, without trusting to the hearsay of others. Slim cautioned me to believe nothing I hear, and only half of what I see. And she warned me to beware of men who don’t look at her legs, that they are desperate.”
Before I could laugh, Fed paused and shrugged. “Slim and sanity. I was cautious with what I said to her. I couldn’t be sure that she was sane. There was a certain restless intensity in her eyes that led me to imagine she wasn’t. Like death can’t be prevented, madness can’t be cured. That was Slim. She was exciting because she wasn’t normal. Even when I was carrying a gun, she scared the be-Jesus out of me. My first impression of Slim was that she was an unqualified liar. Later I concluded that she just used her imagination rather than her memory.” Evident to me at that moment was that Fed had once again been captured and enraptured by nostalgia, this time by passionate memories of Slim, whomever she was, or is.
After a sip from his coupe, Fed asserted, “There comes a time in your life when you have to choose to be who you are, or to masquerade as an imposter, or to change yourself permanently or temporarily. I prefer temporary changes. I tell some of my tattlers that I’m their phantom dance partner, their shadow. Phantom dancers and shadows appear and reappear. I like the chance to change in a twinkle.” That character trait admission was pure Fed. He didn’t want the present if it was unpleasant. He wanted to be able to escape in a twinkle.
Unexpectedly a young lady appeared beside Fed, pointed to his wrist, and said bracelet in English. Before Fed could react, Karen sharply barked at the girl, a warning for her to leave, Karen emphasizing the demand with a scowl, and the trickster scurried away. Fed appeared baffled. Karen explained, “She wanted you to let her make you a friendship bracelet. You wouldn’t have been able to get it off, so she would demand a payment.” Fed caught on quickly once the scam was explained. He beamed admiration at Karen, “Bird, you tipped me off PDQ about that hustler only wanting my dough. You’re a good man, Sister.” Karen tugged on her right ear to acknowledge Fed, but he didn’t seem to notice, just took a quick sip from his coupe.
Fed appeared to remember something and he blurted it out. “Dough is what she wanted. Dough is usually what partners look for together. Gold prospectors come to mind. Gold fever is like a shot of gin. It makes your blood race and your spirits soar. I know what gold does to men’s souls. An old gnawed bone in Tampico warned me that so long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood between two prospectors will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow, well, that’s when the trouble starts. Money’s not evil in and of itself. The purpose for which it’s used is the determining factor.”
Mari stepped over and refreshed Fed’s coupe. The interlude allowed Fed to consider what to say next. “I used to think that drinking with your partner could cure gold fever. Drinking can usually cure some things. The problem with the world is that most people are a few drinks behind. I gave up drinking once. It was the worst afternoon of my life.”
We laughed at that one, which encouraged Fed to continue. “I’ve seen this hundreds of times in my saloon. There never seems to be any trouble brewing around until a dame puts her high heel over the brass rail. Don’t ask me why, but somehow women at saloons seem to create trouble among tipplers. The trouble with women is they ask too many questions. They should spend all their time just being beautiful.”
Karen responded sharply to Fed’s misogynistic remark. “Your wife must have treated you terribly.”
Clearly taken aback, Fed demanded, “ Why do you say that?’
Karen stared coldly at him. “She took all the heart out of you. Do you look down on all women or just the ones you know.”
Fed sat very still and tugged on his ear while we waited for what he would say next. After a hushed lingering, he looked at Karen, “How did you know I was married once?”
Sharply arrived her rejoinder. “You’re too lonely to live alone forever. Or you were broke and needed dough. Or you wanted the wedding gifts. But most likely is that you two fought well.”
I erupted in laughter. Fed sat stone still. Then he grinned widely, “Yes Sister, we had good fights. I loved that part. I wouldn’t give you two cents for a dame without a temper.” All three of us laughed together.
A long pause tangled us up in blue until Fed started again. “Of course we met in a saloon. That’s where you meet people that’ll talk. People who don’t drink are afraid of revealing themselves, so they aren’t tipplers. They avoid saloons. The first thing she asked me was if there was a floor show at the bar. I told her that it was finished, that there had been a canary singing scat. She asked me if the singer was a blonde or a brunette. I answered, ‘Do you think I was looking at her hair?’ She eyed me judiciously, like she had planned the question and expected the answer. I have to admit that she wilted me on that one.”
Fed paused to sip. “Later she told me that she had been the den mother of a sloth of cubs who proudly proclaimed that their sole purpose in life was to quaff all the gin they could and to stay up late. That role fit her precisely. Right off I noticed that she suffered from the buzz of the weekend, when there was nothing to do but drink. She yearned to stay busy doing nothing, and when she wasn’t occupied, she bore the stench of free time.”
All three of us sat still and quiet while we gazed into the zócalo. Eventually I said, “Fed, earlier you mentioned that nostalgia will shortly be another name for the United States. That’s a bold prediction, but not unexpected because all civilizations or empires eventually become decadent. Decadence is over-emphasis of style, like excessive indulgence in something. The USA over-emphasizes individualism. You asked Karen about the French. Here’s one from a Frenchman. Alexis de Tocqueville recognized individualism as an American problem, not an American virtue, as far back as 1835. He’s the one who actually coined the word individualism.
“Tocqueville argued that as each individual becomes the center of a small, private world consisting only of himself and his immediate family, that individual loses sight of the overall community. He focuses his energy toward improving his own personal life, thereby developing a tendency toward an exclusive preoccupation with personal well-being, resulting in a steadfast pursuit of material comfort. Such a pursuit erodes social and political bonds between people, resulting in a society of single-minded people striving toward individual wealth and accumulation above all else, rather than contributing to the common good. You know, a bunch of selfish bastards.
“As one digs deeper into the national character of Americans, according to Tocqueville, one learns that they gage something’s value by the answer to only a single question: how much money will it bring in? Consider most any American at any period of his life, and you will usually find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort. This trait is actually universal, not strictly American. Buddhism warns that increase of comfort will lead only to the desire for still more, and this in turn will lead to endless war. The Sanskrit word for war is gavisti, which means the desire for more cows. Tocqueville saw America as a world in which everyone was competing against each other for their own benefit, rather than for the benefit of society as a whole. You know, getting more cows.”
Fed listened attentively, and when I paused, he grinned widely. “Selfish bastard accepted,” he confessed. Then he added, “And I like those cows, too.”
I continued ahead. “Tocqueville’s posits fly in the face of how most Americans believe. They think that individuals having the ability to strive for their own betterment is democratic and egalitarian, that self-reliance is a virtue. But Tocqueville argues that true virtue lies in needing to rely on other people, since doing so creates ethical bonds between citizens, which begets peace. You know, it takes a village. Most Americans oppose the village concept and consider it believed by only the village idiot. Americans prefer the rugged individual, like, you know, John Wayne.
“Patriotism and religion are the only two motives which can permanently direct the whole of a body politic to one end. This is clear when the era of Manifest Destiny is examined. This imperialistic notion was the idea that the United States was destined by God to expand its dominion and to spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. At the heart of this cultural presumption was the pervasive assertion of white-male supremacy. Native Americans were perceived as inferior, as were the Hispanics who ruled Texas and the lucrative ports of California. American men disparaged the Spanish for letting their dogs hunt the Mexican natives, insisting it was barbaric and unmanly, and proof of their inferiority.
“The white-males vowed to do anything that would hasten the ruin of these inferiors. They were determined to have their lands, and believed they would be innocent of their deaths. Satisfied with his reasoning, the Americans went to church where they heard the minister of the gospel repeat every Sunday that all men are brothers, and that the Eternal Being who has made them all in like image, had given them all the duty to help one another as equals. Individualism denied in church, but dominant in society.”
Pulling on his ear, Fed wondered, “I’m waiting for you to tell me what this has to do with nostalgia becoming another name for the USA.” I wagged my finger at him, indicating that he should have patience.
“Individualism spawns credos like ‘it’s my right,’ and ‘it’s my choice.’ These two tenets endorse acceptance by Americans of the right to make personal choices that are detrimental to society as a whole. The phrase ‘My body, my choice,’ widely repeated during the covid pandemic by citizens refusing to wear a sanitary mask, is a good example of individualism trumping public safety. No pun intended on trumping.
“Individualism is pernicious to public leadership. Exclusive preoccupation with personal well-being and comfort inevitably diverts the attention of talented individuals from politics to business and from public life to private affairs. Getting more cows. Tocqueville confessed that he didn’t know if Americans would vote for talented men if they ran for office, but he had no doubt that such men do not run. There are many men of principle in both parties in America, he observed, but there is no party of principle. Today in America, there is a plethora of corruption and a dearth of leadership. Tocqueville predicted that the American Republic would endure only until the day Congress discovered that it can bribe the public with the public’s own money. That day has arrived. Hello nostalgia.”
Fed sat stoic and still for a good while after I silenced. He didn’t even tug on his ear or sip from his coupe, he just sat there until suddenly he blurted out, “How tall was Tocqueville?” I motioned that I didn’t know. He offered a vague explanation of why he asked. “Carmen once asked me, ‘You’re not very tall are you?’ I answered, ‘Well, I, uh, I tried to be.’ She had been talking about Napoleon. Another Frenchman.”
Mari came by and Fed motioned toward her pad and pen, indicating that he wanted to see her pen. She passed it to him and he handed it to Karen. “Bird, will you write the name of that blue hotel on this napkin?” Using Mari’s pen, Karen obliged him. Hotel Las Golondrinas. The Blue Swallows. Fed folded the napkin carefully and inserted it into his shirt pocket and patted it flat. I considered his action to be affirmation that he was a careful man, as he claimed.
“Bird, do they play chess at that blue hotel?” Karen signaled that she had no idea. “Okay. Slim averred that the ability to play chess is the sign of a gentleman. The ability to play chess well is the sign of a wasted life.” Since we did not respond, Fed added morosely, “I’m a master at chess. That’s because I’m having fun when I’m playing!” We all laughed at that self-disparaging assessment. “Actually I’m pretty much a patzer.”
Fed gazed at Karen some more. “Bird, that blue color is likely to give me a wild impulse to do something. Never resist an impulse, Bird, especially if it’s terrible.” Karen expression illustrated dismissive ice.
Fed tugged on his ear and stared musingly at me. “Panama, hoofing around like you did, you must have met some colorful cats. Rather than tell me about those, tell me who you would like to have met but didn’t or couldn’t.”
Fed’s inquiry caused me to pause. Lots of names came to mind, many of them obvious. But feeding Fed the banal would be boring, so I decided to tease him. “Well Fed, the same experiences can be said about you. So I’ll flip the question your way.”
Without a flinch, Fed blurted, “Swifty Lazar.” When I failed to respond, he added, “I suppose you want to know why.” I nodded the affirmative. “Because of all the people he knew and could tell me about. Now it’s your turn.”
“My choice is fairly easy. A bicycle rider from Argentina. He put a motor on his bike and rode it from Córdoba to Caracas in 1952. He traveled the same route I did in the 1970s, the Gringo Trail. He could tell me about that, and he could tell me about all the people he knew, too.” Fed exposed both his palms, a clear indication that he wanted the bike rider’s name. “Ernesto Guevara.”
Fed moved his head ever so slightly, prompting me to wonder if he knew the name I mentioned. I certainly did not know Swifty Lazar. He turned to Karen. “How about you, Bird?”
Karen did not hesitate. “The barefoot ballerina who danced as scantily clad as a woodland nymph, who defied conservative restrictions on her art, liberating the dance so it could become expressive and creative.” Fed again presented open palms, and Karen sighed, “Isadora Duncan, of course.”
Fed studied Karen while he continued to tug his ear. “Bird, did you like her dance or her defiance?”
“Those are both the same,” answered Karen brusquely. Fed almost winced at that fiery retort. He jerked his hand away from his ear and reached for his coupe. Karen fired an enforcing assertion. “Dance is defiance. It’s a snort in the face of the orthodox who fear change.”
“That sounds very French, Bird. Do you tolerate the French?”
Karen pursed her lips and then grinned slyly. “The French yes. Not so much the parasites.” Fed appeared puzzled. Karen winked at him. “You probably call them the Parisians.” Fed stuck his tongue into his cheek and nodded approvingly before reaching for his coupe. Karen smiled at him. “Isadora spent time in France, you know. And Edith Piaf really sends me. I miss her.” Fed’s blank expression revealed that he did not know that chanteuse. Karen added to Fed’s perplexity. “Fed, you might heed the advice rendered by La Môme Piaf, the little sparrow. Three years before she died, she sang about her life. ‘No, absolutely nothing. No, I regret nothing. Not the good things that have happened, nor the bad. It’s all the same to me. It’s paid, swept away, forgotten. I don’t care about the past. I set fire to my memories. My troubles, my pleasures, I don’t need them anymore. I’ve swept away past loves with their trembling. Swept away forever. I’m starting over. Because my life, because my joy today, it begins with now.’”
Fed stared in bewilderment at Karen. “Bird, that’s a fine recital. A poem?”
“No, Monsieur. It’s the lyrics to Môme Piaf’s song Non, je ne regrette rien. No, I regret nothing.” Fed remained wonderstruck. Karen finalized her admiration of Piaf. “No nostalgia for La Madame. We could all benefit from that wisdom.”
Karen put a stare on Fed. “And I like Nina Simone when she sings French in her lusty, husky voice. She’ll put a spell on you. I miss her, too.” Fed remained nonplussed, submissively stoic in order to hide his unawareness. Karen recognized his discomfort and gleefully continued her provocation. “Agnès Boulloche loved escape and freedom. She believed in jinn, and she knew that owls keep their secrets. Her oil on wood paintings inspire me.”
Fed winked at Karen. “I believe in gin, too. And I sip it with secret night owls on occasion.” Karen laughed and wagged a naughty finger at Fed. “Bird, those singers you mentioned are all dead. Do you listen to any who are alive?”
Karen bobbed her head at Fed. “Today’s beautiful living jazz diva is Andrea Motis. Her Spanish voice singing English lyrics is divine. So are her Catalana and Portuguesa voices.” Karen bobbed her head at Fed.
Fed’s bewilderment continued. So Karen kept pushing. “Of course there was Django Reinhardt in France. His classic style is best modernized by the Sant Andreu Jazz Band. Madame Motis often sings with them. When I’m in the mood to coquet, I like the Duke playing Flirtbird.” Mystified Fed held his coupe to his lips way too long, so Karen eased off.
Fed’s frozen countenance signaled that a switch of subject was desirable. Twisting the stem of his coupe, Fed stared at us and questioned, “Where can I eat tender mutton chop?” We shrugged to answer that we had no idea. “Chicken à la king?” Another shrug. “Chop suey?”
“We’ve heard that over in La Cascada is a Chinese restaurant called the Casablanca. We’ve never been there. Any cab driver will know where it is.”
Fed silently twisted the coupe stem. Belatedly he sighed, “Captivating name. If I go there will they let me leave? Reminds me that human life is cheap. What I had to do wasn’t war. It was more serious. It was what I wanted in life.” He looked away and sipped while we sat mutely.
We sensed tearful melancholy rushing to saturate the air around us. Mari noticed Fed’s empty coupe and offered to refill it. He nodded. Mari poured the last drops of champer into the coupe. El ultimo veneno. The last poison. The empty bottle emphasized the finality accompanying our enigmatic encounter.
Exhausting his coupe, Fed rose and tossed two blue 500 peso bills on the table. “The Casablanca you say? Maybe they’ll have a piano there. Maybe even Cricket playing.” He looked at us and touched the brim of his fedora with his ear-pulling hand. “Might even be the start of a beautiful friendship. The best goodbyes are short. Adieu.” His ventilated shoes walked him out of the Jardín into the zócalo and he was gone.
Karen and I stared quizzically at each other. She wondered, “Who was that guy?”
I answered, “Several people. Mostly a zeitgeistier revering the 40’s. A man trying to survive the vicissitudes of life.” With that said, we grudgingly permitted entrée to our table that dangerous intruder Speculation.