Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The decline and demise of everybody

One of the oddest books I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, is Roz Chast’s “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?”

She’s a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine and her book, illustrated with cartoons, handwritten text and a few photos, zigzags with hilarity and grimness through a reality no one wants to talk about: The inevitable decline, and most often messy and tragic end of one’s parents, and by direct extension, ourselves.

Chast is the one at the right of the couch. 

No wonder her parents wanted to talk about something more pleasant. Credit Chast’s humor and talent as a writer and cartoonist for her ability create a book such taboo topic.

At our church, the non-denominational Blessed Lady of Medicare, a few months ago someone handed out a questionnaire called “Five Wishes” that congregants were supposed to fill out to specify their last wishes for burial, the sort of memorial they want and other end-of-the-road details no one really wants to think about let alone put down in writing.
   
It’s a sensible exercise given the demographics of the congregation. Quite often the weekly church bulletin reads like a litany of people with “conditions” and those who’ve succumbed to the final “condition,” i.e. death. 

The questionnaire doesn’t seem daunting until you realize the prospective stiff in question is you.

Stew and I picked up a couple of copies. Stew didn’t want to deal with it at all. I took both of copies and dutifully buried them in my nightstand under a stack of magazines and books. Occassionally I would pull out the questionnaires, look at them, harrumph, and promptly re-bury them as if they were contaminated with kryptonite.

Both questionnaires eventually disappeared. I must have thrown them out. I just don’t have Chast’s sang-froid.

The early church service we attend is more like a discussion group but other than prayers for the ill or the dead-and-gone, the subject of death and dying—our own or that of our loved ones—rarely is up for extended discussion. And when it pops up it’s usually wrapped and Fedex-ed Upstairs quickly with a brief note about life everlasting or a comforting scriptural passage.

Of recently I’ve adopted what I describe as a Buddhist take on dying.  It's probably a glib denial under another name.

I try to concentrate on the moment and to be a reasonably decent person right now.

I’ve concluded that obsessing about one’s eventual departure, which is certain, and the circumstances, which are anything but, only extends the potential unpleasantness of it all from the future to the here and now.

It ruins the day, and done daily it ruins the life we have left.

Indeed, there have to be more pleasant things to talk about.
   
The genius of Chast’s book is how methodically and unflinchingly she took notes and drew cartoons about her parents’ last few years, from the beginning of the end, to the very end, including some indignities and dilemmas like her mother’s incontinence, her father’s dementia and the mounting bills for nursing homes, ambulances and the services of a saintly Jamaican nurse, among others.

I recommend Chast’s book. Despite the topic, it’s not all depressing. If anything, I found many parts of it inspirational, particularly her courage in writing the book.

I’d bring it up at church though I don’t think it would be received with much more than a polite groan.

May I also recommend a new HBO show called “Getting On.” It’s set in a geriatric ward of a hospital populated by folks with all sorts of physical and mental problems who are attended by medical and nursing staff with problems of their own.

Yes, it’s a comedy and it’s hilarious. Trust me.  


###

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tuning in to Mexican politics

Just before leaving for lunch a few minutes ago, Félix received a phone call from his wife Isela who had some big news: A truck had dropped off a brand-new 23-inch flat-screen television set at their house, with no other explanation except it came courtesy of Mexico's photogenic president Enrique Peña Nieto.

This cornucopia apparently extended to all households in Sosnavar, Félix' town with a population of 800 or so, and other impoverished hamlets nearby such as La Biznaga, Corralejo, Doña Juana, Providencia and La Campana. A rough guesstimate would be that a couple of thousand TVs dropped out of the sky on the towns around the ranch.

And that's just the latest in a gusher of government services to swamp this part of the world in the last year. Fifteen kilometers of a highway going near our ranch were paved recently, though not very well, and the road now has striping and cat's eyes, reflective signage and other mid-twentieth century amenities to keep people from driving into the ditch at night.

An oversize billboard advises drivers it all came from to the Federal Government of Mexico.

In addition, the main street in Félix' town, going from the highway to the church, roughly about one kilometer, was paved with concrete a few months ago and received new sidewalks with curbs nattily painted yellow, and speed bumps.

Likewise, the main road to La Biznaga, a small town visible from our bedroom window, has been neatly asphalted over.

Mind you, neither one of these towns had ever seen one inch of paved streets during the one or two hundred years they've been on the map.

And then there were lights. Maybe hundreds of street lamps have been installed to make the dark countryside sparkle at night like a Christmas tree.

But a more telling sign of the political tug-of-war around here is a billboard, located by the garbage dump on the way to San Miguel, that has been painted and repainted at least three times during the past two weeks.

For many months the billboard had trumpeted the accomplishments of the state government of Guanajuato, whose governor belongs to the National Action Party or PAN, a right-wing, Republican-type apparatus. Coincidentally, the color scheme of the billboard was blue and white, the colors of the PAN's emblem.

Two weeks ago the same billboard was painted over to proclaim that San Miguel was a "municipio priísta" or a bastion of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Indeed, the current mayor of San Miguel, Mauricio Trejo, as well as the president of Mexico belong to the PRI, a leftish party that holds the largest number of seats among all the parties in the national legislature.

Appropriately, the color scheme on the billboard changed to white, red and green, the colors of both the Mexican flag and the PRI's logo.

Four days or so later the billboard was painted over by the state government and so we went back to white and blue.

Two days ago, the last time we drove by, a crew was painting over the PAN billboard once again, to restore the "municipio priísta" message. We'll see how long this dueling billboards battle goes on.

Félix, one of the most cynical political creatures I've ever met, one who professes not to trust any politician or policemen of any stripe or party, laughingly told Stew that everyone one in Sosnavar now is ready to vote for the PRI.

As well they should, I say.

Unlike a 1928 Republican flyer in the U.S. that only promised a "chicken for every pot," when the PRI in Mexico promises a 23-inch, flat-screen TV set in every home, they deliver—right to your front door.

###


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Waking up to a world full of cobwebs

This morning Mexico went off Daylight Savings Time so we turned our clocks back last night. I'm never sure if we gain or lose an hour in the process, maybe neither.

Stew woke up grousing about the soupy morning fog that lapped at our windows, coming after several days of iffy, partly cloudy weather. You get spoiled by a climate where full sun catapults you out of bed each morning three hundred or more days a year.

This piece of spiderwork was about eighteen inches across. 

Resting after a hard night of work.
This morning the fog brought an eerie landscape of cobwebs that spiders spent all night creating, a spectacle I remember once before. A mix of fog, mist and dew, plus the low sunlight at dawn, created a spooky scene Edgar Allan Poe would have liked.

A ground-level enchanted forest.
How do spiders cast the threads of their webs
from plants that are several feet apart?
Stew and I walked outside for a half hour oohing and aahing like two five-year-olds seeing cobwebs for the first time. The dogs, their fur soaked by the morning dew, dutifully followed us though theirs was a businesslike strut as if either they had seen this show before or had more important things in mind. 

The cobwebs came in all shapes, most the usual star-like configurations tenuously hanging between plants, other seemed like bundles of fine yarn lying on top of the ground covers while a few enveloped groups of plants with a gooey embrace. There were hairlike cobweb filaments spanning trees yards apart. How did a spider do that and why? While some webs were neat and finished-looking others looked disheveled and ratty.

These didn't get too far off the ground. 
Then it dawned on my that maybe that's the purpose of the change in time: To force us out of bed earlier—or later?—so we can catch a stunning spectacle of nature we'd otherwise miss.

A wrapping of cobwebs in time for Halloween. 

Location, location, better to trap any insects trying
 to get between these two organ cacti. 
###



Friday, October 24, 2014

Last night Negro put himself to sleep

It's sad when a pet dies, really sad, but not quite as much so when it dies by itself, sparing you the awful task of putting it to sleep, putting it down, putting it out of its misery. Pick your own euphemism. Any hackneyed turn of phrase will do except admitting you decided to end the life, to kill, a most loyal companion.

Negro, was the mellowest of campo dogs, one of those free-roaming customers who lived, ate and stayed out of the rain by his wits and supplemented his precarious fortune by sidling up to any human who was kind to him.

Even before our house was finished five years ago, Negro, Chucha (his mother?) and Brenda (his sister?) accurately spotted in Stew and me two softies who were good for a handful of dog food once, two, even three times a day and, just as important, a reassuring pat on the head every time. All they had to do was show up at the gate of our ranch.

Negro was fifty or sixty pounds of canine mush, all black (hence his name) always ready to run to our gate, tail wagging, usually followed by the other two dogs and sometimes a fourth named Osita, or "Little Bear," whenever he spotted our car or pickup approaching.

Predictably, the two teams of dogs, the outsiders led by Negro, and our five insiders, led by Lucy, would launch into a round of raucous barking at each other.

The outside foursome, or now a threesome, technically belongs to Don Vicente, the rancher down the hill from our place, who never seems to care much for them except allowing them to stay in a tin shack at night and when it rained.

For the past week or so Negro had been glaringly missing from the gate—normally he would come at least once a day to get some food—and so three days ago Félix went looking for him. He found Negro lying by the tin shack, emaciated and barely moving.

In our pet cemetery lies our cat Ziggy, or Ziggi as Félix spelled his name.
We took him to the vet—Negro returned the favor by peeing all over the back seat of our pickup—where he was diagnosed with a respiratory infection, though he looked far worse. When he didn't respond to a couple of injections of antibiotics, we ordered a blood test that revealed all his organs and vital signs way out of whack. He was nearly dead.

The young vet said he'd give Negro another round of antibiotics but Stew and I started that dreadful talk about "putting him to sleep", an expression I loathe because it sounds so sappy and evasive. If Negro didn't come around by Saturday, we'd have to end his life.

Negro spared us that awful decision: He died on his own last night at the vet's office.

Félix and his nephew are digging a new grave at our pet cemetery for Negro, next to his suspected mother Chucha, and Chupitos, one of Félix's dogs, and our cat Ziggy.

Stew is on the way to the vet who was supposed to do an autopsy to find out what exactly killed Negro. One possibility is poisoning.

I'm here writing a story, which is my escape in stressful situations.

I would like to think, wistfully for sure, that Negro tried to repay the kindnesses we extended to him and his family over the years by sparing us the decision of  "putting him to sleep."

Even if that's not really true, thanks, Negro.

###

My blog about Chucha: https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=6672834250325632231#editor/target=post;postID=6297721931355461361;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=80;src=link




Thursday, October 16, 2014

On the road north again

While immigration reform languishes in Washington, Mexicans from around the ranch keep marching on north, illegally, to look for work. The last departures were two of Félix' three brothers. One forty-year-old brother left eight days ago and already called from Dallas to report that he's alive, well and working at a construction site. A twenty-three-year-old sibling left yesterday.

I'd thought that stricter border patrolling by the U.S., which made illegal crossings more dangerous, and better job opportunities in Mexico's growing economy might have dampened the urge for workers to take such a chancy and dangerous route to a better life.

That equation may be true at the macroeconomic level but clearly not among the poorest of the poor in the countryside around us. For these desperate people, too uneducated and unskilled to benefit from Mexico's improving economy, the only way to survive still is to head north where there is demand for their labor and well paying jobs.

As Félix describes it, the trip north is almost like going on a rough camping trip. Both Félix and his brother had gone to work near Dallas about five years ago, at a construction site building Walmart stores. (Even wonder how Walmart makes its billions of dollars in profits? Squeezing their employees with low wages and marginal or no benefits and using building contractors who hire cheap illegal labor from Mexico may be part of the answer.)

Félix came back after several months. I sense he was homesick. When we hired him five years ago I remember him asking if ours was going to be a permanent gig because otherwise he was ready to go back to Texas. We're grateful he decided to stay, and probably so is he.

According to Félix, smuggling workers to Texas is still a very lively business. Each town has one or more coyotes or polleros who will take anywhere from four to as many as twenty or thirty workers across the Rio Grande. His brother went up in a small group of four, and had to pay $2,500 dollars to the coyote, plus his bus fare across Mexico up to the border.

"Dollars" is in italics because that is a fortune for people around here who work only occasionally and then in back-breaking agricultural or construction jobs that most often pay as little as $80 a week. When workers start their jobs in the U.S. they gradually pay off their coyote fees. In fact, it was Félix's former employer, a subcontractor with a construction company, who called him and his brothers three weeks ago and offered them jobs.

Despite the billions spent by the U.S. in personnel and high-tech surveillance gadgetry along the border, crossing the Rio Grande and getting into Texas still sounds almost like a B-grade adventure movie. On the Mexican side, entrepreneurs sell rides to the other side on horses, boats or on homemade contraptions. Unless flooded, the river is a modest stream. Once on land, the coyote takes his clients across open fields, and sometimes private land, to a meeting point along a road where they get picked up by a smuggler and taken to their final destination.

The coyote who took Félix' older brother is still doing good business though there are reports of heightened security. For example, closed-circuit cameras now are mounted on the windmills used for pumping water that illegal immigrants drink. Despite this and other obstacles, his brother made the trip across the northern third of Mexico and to Dallas in a little more than a week.

Still, it must be a wrenching decision to leave one's family and children and undertake a trek north whose outcome is anything for certain. It also reflects the continuing desperation of many Mexican workers untouched by the apparent prosperity gushing around them. 

About forty-five minutes from us an enormous and spectacular shopping center—the "Antea Lifestyle Center" as the advertising proclaims—recently opened and includes high-end retailers such as Brooks Brothers, Calvin Klein, Crate and Barrel plus a huge Palacio de Hierro, Mexico's equivalent of Neiman Marcus. New housing subdivisions surround the shopping center clear out to the horizon. 

What feeds this retail frenzy is presumably the appearance of a dozen industrial parks in nearby Querétaro, a booming city of about a million, offering well paying jobs in aeronautics and other sophisticated industries. On the other side of San Miguel several automobile assembly plants also have sprouted around the boom town of León. 

In the middle of all this, in San Miguel's rural areas, populated by people like Félix and his family, despair persists. Félix, is 26 years old and is smart, enterprising and hard-working but has only a sixth-grade education which affords him some basic math and reading abilities, but marginal writing and spelling skills. The brother now in Dallas has a second-grade education and is functionally illiterate, as are Félix' two sisters and another brother. The brother who left for the U.S. yesterday has only a fifth-grade education. 

As much as we respect Félix abilities, enterprise and basic decency, his prospects for benefiting Mexico's new prosperity are dim. For his siblings the chances are even dimmer, closer to zero. Even a job pumping gas at Pemex, Mexico's oil monopoly, requires a ninth-grade education plus and working writing and math skills. Neither Félix nor his siblings need apply. 

The brother now in Dallas has seven children and in Mexico managed to land only occasional jobs in construction. Two of his teenage boys work in agriculture jobs paying the rough equivalent of $80 to $90 dollars a week. When he left, according to Félix, his brother was mired in debt acquired trying to keep his family afloat and an ancient pick-up running. 

Now in Dallas, he is reportedly earning $11 dollars an hour, bolting and soldering together prefabricated steel structures which are then refinished into retail stores. When his job ends in Dallas, he's headed to Louisiana for more construction work. How long he will remain the U.S. is still unclear but given his prospects back in Mexico, I suspect it will be a long while. 

On Monday morning, at 8:30 sharp, Félix shuffled to our kitchen door, clearly hung over. He told me couldn't work because he "had gone overboard with the cervezas" over the weekend. I didn't ask what he was celebrating and thanked him for being honest about his condition, instead of feigning some ailment, and sent him home. 

On Tuesday, as we were about to leave in the car, Félix tapped the window. When I rolled it down he was fully recovered and visibly happy: His brother had made it to Dallas safely.
***



 







Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Loving and loathing Las Vegas

When we arrived in Las Vegas, our second eyeful looked like a Potemkin skyline featuring the Chrysler, Empire State and United Nations buildings, along with Grand Central Station, the main building at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, among other New York City landmarks.

Except these were for-real buildings, albeit one-third or so the size of the originals, substantially constructed of steel, concrete, stone, brass. They had been fused together by some miracle of architecture, engineering—and most of all torrents of imagination and money—into a monumental hotel-entertainment-gambling complex named "New York, New York." A roller coaster pirouetted outside atop, in between and around this collection of faux landmarks like a bee buzzing a patch of very strange flowers.

"New York, New York" as seen from the crenelated
ramparts of the "Excalibur" across the street.
So if you want a hotel room on the tenth floor of the "Chrysler Building" overlooking the "Statue of Liberty," the staff at "New York, New York" probably can arrange if at a certain price which like most attractions in Las Vegas will be a multiple of whatever you planned to spend.

As Stew gazed at this visual mayhem he made perhaps one of the most naive observations ever made by a visitor to Las Vegas: "That roller coaster is inappropriate, out of place."

"The roller coaster?" I said. "I think just about everything about Las Vegas is going to be garish and inappropriate. That's the whole idea."

This exchange came after our first eyeful of Las Vegas, when we checked into the Luxor Hotel, a thirty-story glass replica of an Egyptian pyramid topped by a searchlight pointing straight up into the night sky.

To accommodate the shape of the structure and still leave space for a huge interior atrium required some tricky engineering to run the elevators, by now old and rattly, on a track at a 45 degree angle on each corner of the pyramid. Giant replicas of pharaohs and other faux-Egyptian bric-a-brac also are impressive at first, but tired and dusty close-up, like most of this 21-year-old Vegas landmark. If Ramesses II were still around he would have had 'er redone long ago.

There's an endless number of things to mock and snicker at in Las Vegas, particularly if you think of yourself as some well traveled sophisticate. Yet by the second day, Las Vegas—in all its shameless and over-the-top garishness—begins to win you over: Like one of Liberace's ermine-trimmed capes, this place is both awful and awesome.

Greatest fountain show on earth, every fifteen minutes. 
How could anyone think to cram pyramids, the Statue of Liberty, the bell tower from Venice's St. Mark's Basilica, high-rise buildings topped with Roman cornices, medieval turrets and the Eiffel Tower within a couple of miles of each other? That's what Las Vegas is all about, where building codes may cover fireproofing and structural integrity but leave everything else to the imagination of the builder.

Still, as you watch the breathtaking fountains of the Bellagio Hotel—located in a lagoon several acres wide and across the street from replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera—shoot up thirty or forty feet into the air and then dance and wiggle seductively to music playing from hidden outdoor speakers, your snickering fades as your mouth begins to drop.  Whoever thought of this spectacle and how many tens of millions did it cost? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=401wv1eKc2c

If Chicago is "The Windy City," Vegas is the city of "What the ----!?"—and proud of it—and no amount of snootiness can keep you from eventually laughing with Las Vegas rather than at it.
"Honey, tonight why don't we take a Venetian gondola
 with a singing gondolier to a Mexican restaurant?"

As you wait for the light to change, on you right there's a fully decked-out Elvis impersonator driving a 1956 pink Cadillac with plates "56 Elvis." Following that comes a tan-colored Humvee driven by a beefy guy in military drag: He'll take you to one of several shooting ranges outside the city where you can shoot pistols, machine guns and AK-47s to fulfill all the Rambo fantasies your credit card will tolerate.

Young body, very old trade. 
By the entrance to the Caesars Palace shopping mall and all its classic nude statuary, a very well built and very contemporary man wore nothing but a Stetson, cowboy boots and diminutive Lycra shorts with stars and stripes. He was plying a very old trade I suspect.

But for all its outdoor dazzle, the true life of the city beats in air-conditioned, windowless caverns where machines constantly blink, chime and bang in a trashy, round-the-clock cacophony designed to keep gamblers gambling.

At the Luxor the gamblers were low-budgeteers—cutoffs, flip-flops, raggedy tees—who drank beer and chain-smoked while absentmindedly pushing the Play button on the slot machines. The casino looked like a place where the poor come to get poorer.

At Caesars Palace and the Bellagio, though, there were tuxedos, cocktail dresses and a more upscale ambiance but the visual and audio racket of the machines was the same. At the Paris Casino, amid Parisian landmarks such as art nouveau Metro entrances and an amazing crepuscular trompe l'oeil sky, we found a Mexican Day of the Dead slot machine with Spanish instructions.

That was where Stew lost seventy cents faster than he could even say "­¡Híjole!" or figure out what he was supposed to do. I'd warned him about those one-button bandits.

Stew's Doom, where he lost 70 cents. 
Despite differences in the clientele the bones of the casinos seemed predictable as if they followed some agreed-to guidelines based on science, tradition or gambling psychology. Ceilings were relatively low, except at the Paris Hotel, and there were no windows or clocks in sight. It felt as if casinos embraced you and didn't want to let go as you coursed through the huge hotels just trying to find the way out.

I'd fantasized about the majestic, tuxedoed ambiance of James Bond casinos but what we found in Las Vegas was closer to the utilitarian hustle of a train station. There was an occasional whoop or holler but generally these gambling venues seemed joyless and mechanical.

Even if you don't gamble or drink, Las Vegas restaurants—justifiably reputed to rival any anywhere—can amaze and perhaps trigger a call from your credit card company to check it's really you spending all that dough.

"Twilight" in "Paris"
Our lack of reservations and preparation only allowed us a couple of nibbles. Dinner at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, overlooking the Bellagio fountains was memorable and so was a late lunch the next day at one Bellagio's maze of restaurants. Almost every name chef is represented in town: Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay and on and on. Our simple Bellagio lunch, at Todd English's Olives restaurant though excellent, came to $150 with no alcohol and a shared dessert.

Entertainment and shows ranged from world class to a few crusty numbers like Donnie and Marie Osmond, and even the almost 70-year-old Rod Stewart. When is Florence Henderson coming to town?

We opted instead for the Broadway musical Jersey Boys at the Paris Hotel and the "Le Reve" at the Wynn hotel both of which were amazing. Criss Angel's show at the Luxor was awful. Ticket prices are Broadway-like, around $150 a piece or more.

What we'd forgotten was that Las Vegas has long been a legendary venue for both weddings and divorces. Indeed, there were giggly couples in formal wedding gear going up the escalators, at the shopping centers, wandering through hotel lobbies and meandering dreamily on the sidewalks. There were also sour-faced folks shuffling around kicking the lampposts who must have been the ones in town for a divorce, or those who lost their rent money at the slots.

Amid the Roman statuary of Caesars Palace's
gardens, a young Mexican girl poses for her
Quinceañera portrait. 
Most hotels have wedding "chapels" typically decorated with voluptuous flower arrangements erupting from huge marble vases and classic architectural touches in faint taupe and mauve palettes meant to suggest a dignified atmosphere but which instead reminded Stew of funeral parlors.

Two weeks after we left Las Vegas, and about a year after Stew and I got married in Massachusetts, Nevada lifted its ban against same-sex marriages, imposed in 2002 by voter referendum. I always thought it ironic that libertine Nevada which derives most of its income from gambling, boozing and legalized prostitution had such a fit of religiosity regarding people of the same sex getting married.

If we had known Nevada was going to legalize same-sex weddings we could have been married at Caesars Palace instead! http://www.caesarspalace.com/weddings/caesars-palace/clv-wedding-specials.html

I can envision Stew and I solemnly marching to our nuptials through one of Caesars' many lobbies or shopping malls, wearing matching togas and sandals, with sprigs of olive branches around our heads, with some of our friends alongside throwing rose petals on our path.

People in Topeka or Peoria might wince and howl in disapproval but hey, in Las Vegas they would hardly turn their heads away from the slot machines and if anything, might give you a thumbs-up.

###




















Monday, September 22, 2014

A small branch of a huge tree

Two weeks ago I visited the local Alcoholics Anonymous outpost, in the town of Sosnavar, pop. 800 or so and a kilometer away from us, and was struck by the awesome superficial differences—and similarities—among the millions of members and tens of thousands of branches of this remarkable organization.

In Sosnavar meetings are held in a stone granary dating back at least a century to when the town was a large hacienda and everyone worked for the owner much like in an antebellum Southern plantation but without the formal institution of slavery.


Different venue, same stories
The windowless granary felt dank and cave-like. The only natural light filtered through a few translucent plastic roof panels, half covered with dirt and leaves. Later someone climbed on a chair to screw in the lone and anemic bulb, connected to an extension cord that went out the door, garlanded over a couple of trees and disappeared somewhere in the property next door. As soon as the bulb went on a moth began circling it, projecting its shadow on the stone walls.

When I got sober in Chicago, about a year after Stew, I got to attend a myriad meetings and meeting houses, where I ran into just as many differences in people and stories of recovery.

Some meetings catered to special groups, such as gay men or women, ecstatic evangelicals or dour atheists. Some followed a special format such as reading excerpts from the Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous or listening to individuals talk about their personal travails. A few took place in discreet meeting rooms of corporations or hospitals presumably to protect the privacy of prominent attendees. One "gay" meeting I used to attend in the basement of a Catholic Church was held by candlelight that gave it the ambiance of a séance.

For pure spectacle, though, my favorite venue was the Mustard Seed, a converted Chicago firehouse not far from downtown. The name, I presume, referred to Matthew 13:31-32: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and landed in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch on its branches."
 
The seeds that landed at this meeting house, though, were more like motley wildflowers blowing in from all social and economic corners of the city: smelly homeless men; all age groups including a few teenagers; folk with years of sobriety or just days; laborers in their soiled work clothes; natty professionals in Armani suits; Gold Coast dames in fur coats smoking nervously as if waiting for miracles to occur—which often did as when individuals were able to cast, or at least hold at bay, their personal demons. Meetings were held and still are 
from early morning until late at night, though at a different location. 


Home, as humble as it may be.
Yet I never ran into an AA affair quite as dismal or startling as the one in Sosnavar. As I grabbed one of a half-dozen plastic chairs, the type usually found at beachfront cantinas, a voice in my head whispered incredulously: "Jesus Christ, if someone walked in here feeling miserable about their drinking, this joint could drive them over the cliff."

The seven o'clock meeting didn't start until twenty-past, in accordance to traditional Mexican punctuality. Even then, attendance consisted of only three other guys aside from me. A fifth guy showed up later but he was drunk and incoherent. Everyone was cordial but somewhat surprised by the arrival of a six-foot-three-inch güero, a white guy. My attempts at chit-chat in Cuban Spanish didn't break the ice.

Still, I stayed out of respect and later, growing sympathy and solidarity with this group of men trying to recover from alcoholism. As dissimilar as we were in appearance and the Spanish we spoke, we shared a common affliction.

The props, though some damaged by water leaks and general lack of housekeeping, were typical of AA meeting rooms throughout the world: posters of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions; a small book of daily meditations; framed photos of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the two founders of AA; a table, a few chairs and a wooden lectern from which hanged a sign with the name of the group and date it was founded—not quite two years ago.

Instead of the inevitable AA coffee pot this group had a two-burner hot plate, a sauce pan, a five-gallon jug of drinking water and plastic cups for instant coffee and tea bags. The draw from heating the water caused the bulb to flicker nervously and occasionally go out altogether, in which case there was a flashlight at hand.

Health concerns about smoking haven't reached Sosnavar and so there were tin cans everywhere filled with ashes and butts. In a room this large cigarette smoke was not bothersome, and when I heard my three companions' tales about alcoholism and their struggles to recover I realized that smoking was the least of their problems.

The guy with the longest period of sobriety—20 years—was named Cruz. Though he had deep lines crisscrossing his face and gray stubble from a skimpy beard, I couldn't guess his age. The ravages of the sun, backbreaking labor plus in his case a life of hard drinking, conspired to conceal his true age. He could have been seventy or fifty years old. Later I figured that whatever his age the feat of staying sober in Sosnavar, where there are no fancy rehab centers and until two years ago not even a local AA meeting or any kind of encouragement, should qualify him for a Nobel in survival and raw cojones.

He talked very little and kept his straw hat on except when he got up to the lectern to speak. His delivery was barely audible and almost prefunctory, which combined with his rustic brand of Spanish made it hard for me to understand. He chain-smoked, elegantly holding the cigarette in his left hand, between the thumb and index finger while flicking the ashes with his pinkie. His message was one which any recovering alcoholic could nod to, about how his pride always got in the way of admitting he had a problem.

Cruz concluded by thanking God and AA for the "good and happy life" he enjoys now. Looking at his ragged clothes and face I thought that was an ironic remark until I realized how much more of a disordered mess his life must have been before quit boozing.

Then it was Gregorio's turn at the lectern, who was a younger, much more talkative and affable fellow probably in his early thirties. If you listened to his mind-boggling life story through a partition you would have guessed he was at least seventy. From his father he learned to drink pulque, a cheap tequila-like type of booze derived from cacti, and later, at eight years of age, denatured alcohol that he mixed with Coke to soften the horrible taste.

I found Gregorio's vivid way of expressing himself as amazing as the details of his life. His delivery was not florid or dramatic but the descriptions were detailed and bone-chilling. Stories about entire nights of hallucinations when he felt his body gravitating off the bed and floating away while ant-like monsters crawled on his skin, plus, in his case, the less dramatic stories of mistreating his wife and kids.

"Ultimately I realized that suicide is the worst sin in the eyes of God and drinking was my own suicide," Gregorio concluded.

A round of the customary AA applause followed and then came my turn to speak. It felt like being shoved on stage to do a comedy skit right after a set by Joan Rivers or Robin Williams.

I stammered, hemmed and hawed, and cleared my throat several times before I explained how I had stopped drinking with the help of AA, my best friend Stew and Jim Winters, a friend with whom I have lost contact.

Anything I said sounded totally lame compared to what these guys had been through until I started connecting the links of denial, arrogance, resentments and other alcoholic traits that I and these lowly Sosnavar alcoholics had in common.

They nodded knowingly as I talked and I suddenly I didn't feel so out of place anymore.




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