Wednesday, May 25, 2011
(A brief hunk of my unfortunately destroyed novel that was sort of a love song about Los Angeles.)
You couldn't see faces when they came in, not at all, not whatsoever. Early summer evening Pico Boulevard southside sunlight shooting in sideways through blue and green paint letters on La Frontera's elaborate blue-green quetzal-elaborated front window on La Frontera's blue and green and yellow storefront, it kept you from seeing any of their faces. Three of them came in, one with a soccer ball under his armpit, three dark little short little men all shadowed blue-green, and parked the ball there square on the table top while Mauricio brought them beers and chips and salsa. They didn't move the ball. He didn't have much to say to them, and they had nothing whatsoever to say to him. Which was weird. Because everybody who comes into La Frontera jokes and horses around with Mauricio, and Mauricio horses and jokes around with everybody. Plus, also, moreover, Mauricio is one of the central ways that word gets passed about kitchen jobs, busboy and dishwasher action. He's a big main stem on the Guatemalan grapevine. It was strange. It stuck out. What was up with that?
So then Mauricio goes to me, "I got to go to El Otro Lado for got some more Cabros. You wanna go with me, maybe we take your troca — I maybe can drive us if you wanna'ed." I'd let him drive the El Camino when I first started coming around La Frontera de Guatemala y Mexico (that was the formal name, its baptismal name, the name out front) after he first spotted me parallel parking it out in front of the window so I could keep an eye on it in our lively, lovely, rotten little neighborhood — he'd come outside to direct traffic and make sure I didn't dent it up. Nowadays, he pretty much preferred that I keep my own use of it down to a minimum.
I fling him the keys. He catches them backhand, lefthanded, like a Dodger fan, which he most definitely is not. Mauro is a lifelong Giants fan, so much so that he's been known to switch the tv station if the Dodgers start to pull ahead, incurring all manner of wrath and such. Yet another thing he and I have in common.
Out the door to the parking lot, and Mauricio grabs, seizes, snags, shakes, rocks, rattles the ladder with Hector the muralist up there aboard it, chingaderoing him in mid-air fresh paint motion. Hectoro's up there painting another brand new flower basket high on the wall, another fresh new one, and Mauro grabs the ladder and gives it a good solid set of serious shakes. Hector offers, in contemporary Spinglish (on my behalf, for my benefit, because I'm there) to dump his wet yellow brush on Mauricio's perfect grey-and-black New Wave rayito pachuco pompadour. This mural, this former brown brick wall full of flowers and girls and super-scenic scenery, is very much A Work In Progress, has been for years now, maybe always will be if Mauricio has much to do with it. As he does, It's his place, even if it's Hector's mural — Hector's and Mauricio's both. Generally, I try to park the El Camino upwind of Hector's ladder.
It's Hector's place too, in the sense that La Frontera's mural is primarily, basically, allegedly, pretty much a street scene from their shared Guatemala, from somewhere probably a whole lot more like Antigua than Guatemala City, somewhere where the streets are cobbled and quiet, where willowy long-ankled peasant women in skirts sway with baskets balanced above their braids. You'll be waiting a good while yet in life to see your first willowy Guatemalan Indio gal, but both Hector and Mauricio know what they like and what they remember best. And that's what they like. Only it keeps changing, what they like and what they remember. And it's subject to discussion and revision and renegotiation, over chips y salsa y Cerveza Cabro y campechanas negro in the late hours. The street grows trees; the trees go away because now they block the mountain, a volcano shaped like an upside-down sno-cone looming on the horizon. With smoke coming out of it some weeks, other weeks not. Clouds crash into the volcano even though it looks to be a sunny day, even though for a year or two it was twilight there in Antiguatitlan. A window opens up where there was only wall before – Hector sometimes spends weeks and months painting elaborate bricks onto the brick wall — and then another willow-waisted campesina is sitting coyly in the window, and then a window box of flowers, great gorgeous flowers like a prodigy-kid would paint, maybe perhaps a little extra large and glorious and gorgeous for so small a window box, only now the girl is gone, painted out as a result of some all night aesthetic argument with Mauricio — all those flowers were stealing away her glory anyway — and her window is slammed closed. A burro shows up on the street, and then a great squared-off, squared-away, square-shaped load of green onions weighs him down, as it would, because practically every onion has its own painted-in personality. Plainly, obviously, Hectoro loves onions. A month or two later, after a long, long, very long series of discussions about the ways of burros and the ways of green onions on their way to the market, a little girl arrives to lead him. She has sweet ankles too.
"Este es el corrrrrido del ca-ba-a-a-l-l-l-o-o blannnnn-co..." Mauricio sang as he cranked over the Chevy, as he sang each and every time he stuck the keys in the El Camino's ignition. Turning it over, he turned to me. "So how come you don't never write some story for Motor Trend?" Mauro had been a faithful Motor Trend reader ever since he was a junior shoeshine kid carrying his matching deep-sea-blue box y banquito, the shoeshine box on a shoulder-strap and the banquito fitting just so, carrying them first all around his own little atitlan town, and then all across grim-ass, grimy-ass, brutal-ass Guatemala City, where the bloodstains began where the bullet-holes ended.. El Gran Tiempo. Where if you got there plenty early enough, you could park your personalized tuck-and-roll metalflake banquito next to a newsstand that was directly across from maybe probably the biggest turista hotel in all Guatemala, all full of crewcut American military advisors wearing casual beach togs and sunglasses (if no actual beach-togged sunglass-wearing American tourists — Guata-fuckin'-mala?). Mauro told me about twenty times, or thirty, maybe that he used to always shine the black Beatle boots of the actual gringo guy who wrote and sang "The Ballad of the Green Beret," and so now he was always trying to find a copy, a 45, to put on the jukebox at El Otro Lado. And since Pico Boulevard was littered with what was left of the old school Rhythm & Blues jukebox 45 single business, all these scattered storefronts that had once been the original R&B record labels, loose teeth still sticking around but now morphed into Mexicanismo labels and distributors, banda y Norteno y tropicalismo y mariachi y mas, staying low and loose under the table then and now, traditional record business practices still in place, never actually paying anybody not holding a loaded pistol but only just skidding by and sliding and surviving on smiles and promises and shiny cars and signed contracts and contracts specifically unsigned, and on shoe shines as well . . . well, sometimes me and Mauro would stop in on our way to and fro up and down Pico and we'd see if we couldn't locate a clean-ish vinyl copy of the Greatest Hit of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, Green Beret. "Fighting soldiers from the sky... fearless men who jump and die... men who mean just what they say... the brave men of the Green Beret...." Ah, but no dice, dude — it does not say — all that ever happened is I ended up scooping up even more Carlos y Jose albums and cut-rate Los Tremendos Gavilanes cassettes, and Mauro would end up being ceremonially presented with a few more free tropical bikini gal posters for the restaurant, so that he'd have to Scotch-tape 'em up amidst all the current ones, amidst all those ever-so-unlikely svelte sexy dark brown-eyed Budweiser morenas, the ones who obviously didn't ever drink beer or eat beans or tortillas or anything else from the starchy side of the border.
Meanwhile, back in Guatemala City, back in his shoeshine days, wedged in there somewhere beween the newsstand and El Gran Sheraton-Hilton, the patrón-proprietor of the newsstand liked to leaf philosophically through Motor Trend himself, and he charged a very reasonable quetzal-rate rent for thumbing though any fresh copies he got just as long as Mauricito covered his shoeshine-smeared manos with yesterday's newspapers and didn't get any shoe polish smudges on the pages. Yo, you smear 'em with Shinola, you just spent next month's masa harina money. But all very well worth all the big risk, extra especially since back in Mauro's metalflake tuck-and-roll banquito days, Motor Trend was bulging with brand new muscle cars from Detroit, wicked Mopars and fierce Fords and each-and-every God-entirely-forsaken division of General Motors, Pontiacs and Chevys and Buicks and Oldsmobiles — hey, and even those long-forgotten Javelin's and AMX's from American Motors, with red-white-and-blue paintjobs — all of 'em ramming massive big block boat-anchor high-performance engines into indisputably the best Body by Fisher design since the late 40s, and then swathing them in spoilers and racing stripes and colors that vibrated long after the ignition was cut off.
In fact, Mauricio had squatted on the very first banquito in Guatemala with a racing stripe. Bright amarillo-yellow against that azul anil, taped off officially by a body-shop hombre who'd received in exchange daily shoeshines for a solid month — although Mauro told me that he'd stinted on the ultra-valuable Kiwi polish as much as possible by making grand gestures and spitting and popping the rag twice as much, doubletime. With great stealth and cunning, he'd ripped from two successive months of Motor Trend ads the Dodge SuperBee logo, a mean little cartoon bee with racing helmet and goggles and a maniacally gleeful grin; then, after that, he'd shellacked them both to either side of his shoeshine box with the somewhat inaccurate legend "440 cubic inches" hand-painted in yellow underneath them. A pristine version of my own SS-396 El Camino had been righteously representing right there in the Motor Trend ads too — with the inverted hoodscoop, and Chevy's own big-belt version of a racing stripe — and it resonated, vibrated, rumbled Mauricio's ribs to this day, right up against his corazon. Few things in life, let me tell you, are anywhere near as enjoyable as driving east against the incoming late afternoon traffic tide on Pico, heading downtown when everyone else is heading home, staring into the glare, then you cutting over at Alvarado to Olympic on the way to the Garment District with Mauricio popping down into neutral at every red light so's he can rev the engine so loud he can only just barely be heard singing Jose Alfredo Jiminez' classic corrido "El Caballo Blanco" over it. Which is not on the radio, but in his head. And now in the clattering LA air as we blasted down Olympic.
"So what's with those guys with the soccer ball, with the football? What's up with that?"
He quit singing, kept revving. Long ago I'd given up on guarding the redline on the tachometer; I might mention it to him occasionally when he got too enthusiastic but he was more interested in how the revving harmonized with his singing while we waited at the intersections. He had a sense of the harmonics, if not the tappet valves. "These guys, these guys, they think I'm all a cholo, because of so they don't give me no respect I deserve. See, they like to come to at La Frontera at this time of the day, when the sun still lives in the sky high up still, so they can eat Elena's tamales, tamales estilo tipico Guatemala, con crema de Guatemala, not no Mexican tamales with the crema de Mexico, that you can get everywhere. And they eat Elena's tamales and drink lot of Cabro beer from Guatemala we like to drinks, but only they don't think so much about how this Cabro comes here to get out from Guatemala to from here. To their mouths. Because they are so traditional. Because they are all indigenous. Because they are Indios. Because I am not Indio because I live in Los Angeles and own and have a restaurant. And because they don't need a job for today for them or their hermanos." His eyes rolled back quick, back and again. "If they are so indigenous I don't know how they can kick some football no Maya din't make for them. That their women din't weave it. Out of the pattern of their village, traditional. And they think maybe I got to pay them money for who they know back in Guatemala that they might know Elena's family that still stay there, or else maybe they try to make me some trouble here too. Pinche cabrones who don't know me or they don't show me more respect."
"So how come they call you a cholo? Junior's the cholo, not you..."
Junior was the white t-shirted cholo, born in Guatamela, definitely, but raised in LA among Mexicans, 17 or probably 16 or so, a vato loco de la old school, complete with all authentic accessories except the hairnet. He'd been romancing Mauricio and Elena's daughter Estrella in the only way he knew how to romance her, which, in the absence of a zocolo, in the absence of your basic central plaza around which to take her promenading around counter-clockwise while all the vatos with no sweetheart came silent or sneering around clockwise, well, in the absence, he mostly just sat around and acted stupid. So far it had mainly been a methodology of hanging around the restaurant in the afternoon watching the telenovelas and American talkshows and sit-coms and cop dramas and Dodger games and teasing her while she did her homework and trying to talk her into serving him beers until she finally got annoyed enough to scald his sad ass out the door by telling him all the things he wasn't and many he was never going to be and a lot he would never even be smart enough to know he wasn't. All true, but it was tough on the both of them. Mauricio's solution was that maybe I should marry Estrella.
"Because, see, in California, in the U.S. United States, in California, see, Junior, they call him a cholo. But see in Guatemala, see, cholos are Indios who wear the clothes of like the Ladinos because they want to look like they are Ladinos and not Indios. Because they don't wanna be be Indios."
And the Ladinos? "These are the ones who own all up of everything in the big cities and the towns and in the little small villages also most of the time too. Because they come with a name of Spanish from Spain. Because they're not Indios. The Indios don't got a Spanish name, or if they got it, they don't look nothing like Ladinos, see? Ladinos, see, they try and look more like gabachos. They come there with the conquistadores, the Ladinos. From the time of Don Alvarado. The Ladinos got the land. They end up got all of the land. In Guatemala, everybody wants land or else they wanna look like they got land. That's what they like in Guatemala, is land. So they can make corn. Corn and land and coffee. That's what they love. They kill you for corn and land and coffee. These kind of guys. "
Mauricio and Elena's place downtown was called La Frontera too — Hector had painted La Frontera en el Otro Lado, blue-green, naturally, high upon the facade, way up where hardly anybody ever looked. The Border on the Other Side. Mauro used to call it La Frontera de Guatemala y los Estados Unidos, but nobody who actually noticed it ever got the joke. They kept telling him there wasn't no border between Guatemala and los Estados Unidos, that Mexico was the one with the border with the U.S., so finally he had Hector climb up his ladder and paint a whole new name. "I thinked about maybe La Frontera de Guatemala y Cañada but then I mostly got to spent all my time telling to people that I already know that they don't got no frontera of Cañada and Guatemala. So I just had him put "El Otra Lado." And where the other words had been, Hector painted a cartoon of Mauricio running away from a dog with longanizas, sausages on a string, trailing out of his mouth behind him. Mauricio's mouth had the sausages, and the dog was chasing after him.
The garment district was always deep forest blue-green quiet by early evening, but the watch peddlers stayed late and some were talking together as they put their things away, box by box, re-wrapping the display models in their fittled plastic wrap, perfectly painstaking, box by box, each into a box and then a larger carton, each motion it's own prayer. They were African, dark black, darker than blue, as Curtis Mayfield said.
"Ola, Abraham — que paso?" Mauricio said after we parked and walked over to them. "How is the weather in your tuba today?"
"Hot and dry and perfect, my friend, my amigo. Always perfect there."
"Sometime we got to go there. Maybe me and you go sometime together there."
"Sometime we will go soon, amigo, mon frere. My cousin has just come from there, back with all the news. It is peaceful and perfect there. You must come with me."
"Probably they don't got no Guatemala food there. Maybe when we go, we can set up a little restaurant. And you can sell watches from it."
The African laughed so hard he had to lean in to his friends and tell them too. "Your food we sell, but there are too many sellers of watches now already now. Maybe I must become your cook for you there."
"When we go, I will be the cook and you will be the one who speaks the language to the peoples. Together me and you will have together the first Guatemala restaurant of your city. We will be rich. We will wear fine watches and fine clothes."
"Already we have fine clothes and fine watches here in the District. What we will have in that city will be perfect peace."
Mauricio began unlocking the restaurant door. "Then soon we got to make our plan. Maybe my amigo here comes with us."
"If he comes, he will have perfect peace there too."
El Otro Lado was a lot more along the lines of a taco stand than La Frontera on Pico, with its big three-man hand-carved wooden marimba and its relaxed late evening atmosphere — El Otro didn't even have a jukebox, but just a ghettoblaster hung by its handle between the cash register and the grill, where he and Elena could fuss equidistantly over which radio station they played. Just around the corner and down the street from Callejon Santee, Santee Alley, the seven-days-a-week bazaar, El Otro most served as a loncheria for the Garment District — the Fashion District, as the city government determinedly kept trying to re-label it, upscaling it away from images of little Asian ladies and little Latin ladies and little Latin men and little Asian men and little men and women from all over the world hidden in the upper floors of every building downtown that wasn't a bank, rip-racing through piecework, tossing their days into white canvas hampers on wheels. Then again, in general, as a whole, lumped together, the immigrants of Los Angeles are unquestionably the nattiest immigrants ever, thanks to the immeasurable outflow of pirated designs, the unstoppable inflow of boatloads of containers of crates of cartons of boxes of sporty shoes, the unceasing clatter of color and cut and logo and label and brand name knock-offs and no-name knockdowns, socks three pair for five dollar, cinco dollores para tres.
I still hadn't gotten past the beginning of their conversation. "What were you saying to Abraham about the weather in his tuba? I couldn't figure you out."
"Ibrahim — he's called Ibrahim, not called Abraham. He come here from Senegal, in Africa. All these guys who sell the watches, they all come from there, from Senegal. They are Senegaltecas, those guys with watches. And where they want to go is they all want to go back to their city they got there call Touba. In Touba they always say everything stays always perfect. The weather is perfect and the peoples there is perfect. Everything perfect. Nobody never fights and they don't got to pay no taxes because they all of them send money there to Touba from selling watches and purses. It is a place that is perfect. It's maybe for them like Guatemala used to be before when my father was a niño. Or right before then, maybe. From long before."
We were loading cases of Cabro, the beer so refreshing they dare to choose to use a realistic goat on the label, when a yellow Nissan pickup pulled up, piled up impossibly high with flattened cardboard boxes, and parked in front of us. Yellow plastic rope held flattened boxes way high over the top of the cab, maybe three or four feet higher. A little Mexican-looking lady was driving; she got out and yanked a rope loose but before it was loose, her children were scattering all down the alley, climbing up into dumpsters to check for boxes. "Mijo," Mauricio called to one, a nine-year-old kid or so. He shrilled his whistle, his Mauricio whistle, so the kid would know him next time forever. "Venga, mijo." The kid came along as Mauricio went back inside. They came back with half a dozen boxes each, and the other kids instantly dismantled them, taking them apart and stomping them flat, then winging them up to their mother, who stood balanced on the edge of the truck bed, spreading them out evenly. I asked the mother if she hablar Ingles but she smiled and pointed to the kid handing her up the boxes. He was probably eleven or twelve. What I wanted to know was just how much a truckload of flattened cardboard boxes was worth. "It's worth a whole lot," he told me con mucho enthusiasm. "The recycling center, they give us thirteen dollars, probably. Sometimes fifteen." So how long does it take to get a load? "It depends — depends on if you get lucky. A lots of times you get lucky. But sometimes you don't — sometimes you get there and somebody else already just been there and they already got all the boxes before you." And then you try and go somewheres else and and somebody already just been there too. But a lots of times you get lucky. The bad thing is when they make you wait for too long a time in line at the recycling. And sometimes they close first before you get weighed and paid. And then you got to sleep in the truck there so nobody don't steal your boxes."
Mauricio had climbed in the back of the El Camino and — cracking up the kid's little brother and sister — was personally stripping the cartons out from the cases of Cabro. He dumped the bottles loose in the back of the bed by the cab and tossed the beer flats one after another down to where the kids were seriously stomping boxes on the sidewalk. The kids leaped on his offerings with giant glee, and then they flung them up to their mother like frisbees, like flying tortillas, like flattened cardboard boxes. "Buena suerte," Mauro told them, and then "Suerte," he called again as they pulled off, all the little four of them pressed into the cab of the little truck, the imperfectly high load just a little higher now, just a little slightly more impossible. Only slightly.
He drove us back to La Frontera with six or eight cases of beer bottles clanking loose in back, a clattering brown tide sloshing forward when he stopped for lights, sliding all the way back at the tailgate once he took off again. No delicacy involved between him and a big-block El Camino. He was certain the superior construction of Guatemalan beer bottles would keep them from breaking, and so he drove con mucho gusto — after all, you only go 'round once in life. At La Frontera, parked beneath a lavender-blooming jacaranda tree, I guarded the beer while he went in for green plastic garbage bags. We loaded them up with beers and laid them over our shoulders, beer delivery Santas, and Mauricio dropped off a couple of free beers at the table of the soccer players. Tops popped, foam flew furiously forth, cursing commenced, Mauricio crowed like a rooster, a gallo, a chingadero. A couple of the marimba players, saxophone straps hanging loose over their shirts, their guayaberas, began to warm up. Commenced. Evening light ended, lightly, over with, blue-green night descended on La Frontera de Guatemala y Mexico. I left a little later, not that much later, walked the maybe half a mile or so home. The jacaranda had rained lavender blossoms entirely all over the El Camino; the hood, the bed, the roof, the windshield, all littered solid with wet lavender-purple, a fresh paint-job of petals that would have dried up and blown off if I'd tried to drive. Spring was beginning its ending; summer was coming, on the way, here now. Incoming.
Posted by Nasrudin at 3:11 PM