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We arrived in San Miguel de Allende at five in the morning one week after leaving Memphis. It was an oasis:....

 


NOTES ON BARE EXISTENCE



Patterns from a Rooftop

PARTY CRASHING A MISSION TOWN

Chapters: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

by Jerry Murley

"It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings...to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings..., for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of "honest journalism"..., of humanity...." (James Agee, 1941, p. 5) [1]

* * *


Moss hung over flat vacant swampland in February like shabby tangled hairs on the withered fur coat of a fallen aristocrat. It moved, if at all, like the disintegrating feathers of a dispossessed chieftain.

Though fragile, Mrs. Smith's forearm, wrist, and fist looked like an inarticulate board fixed to a worn stone: they appeared to be one simple limb, primitive and useless in stillness. Her wrists and knuckles were squared and thick. Her skin was transparent, revealing a labyrinth of bulging blue veins clawing toward her long crooked fingers. Traces of white ligament and the faint red of blood lay in plain sight beneath the tissue of her feeble flesh.

A Southern lady in grace, a matron, a sculptress, oblivious to an evolving world, she confidently held her ground. At 74 years old, she had outlasted men, segregation, illegal abortion, American wars, and cotton chopping.

The day I beheld those hands in Greenwood, Mississippi, the US sold 700,000 bales of cotton to Red China. And I left home for Central America.

* * *


In my descent south from Memphis to Mexico in 1973, I pondered Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, who began the work in 1936. To this day, I am uncertain as to whether the words propelled me down that Mississippi highway or the improvised and impoverished destination conjured the words.

* * *


The driver said, "Freedom is a continual escape into oblivion, to happiness."

The passenger replied, "I think there is a progressive freedom, an increasing awareness. The only happiness is the necessity, or the following of it."

* * *


"...A house of simple people which stands empty and silent in the vast Southern country morning sunlight, and everything which on this morning in eternal space it by chance contains, all thus left open and defenseless to a reverent and cold-laboring spy, shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive...." (Agee, 1941, p. 117)

* * *



The trip to Mexico seemed interminable. Northern Mexico was dusty, plantless, rocky, uniformly poor, very poor, with square flat-roof mud and brick shelters, cacti, mules, and nutrition-bleeding sweat. The indignities of travel had started. Poor travelers in a rich land, we were richer by far among the natives along the road laboring to move with us. Beside those haggard many – and some few like ourselves, and fewer still who considered themselves our betters – my journal of colliding souls began.

* * *


We arrived in San Miguel de Allende at five in the morning one week after leaving Memphis. It was an oasis: a small, old hilltop mission town founded in the 16th century. For three days, we stayed with an art student that we barely knew from connections back home. Much of that time we sat and slept on the roof of the two-story building in which she and other students lived. We gazed into the night, watching the sunset, sharing a bottle of tequila and an ample supply of limes. We climbed the narrow stone streets among the children, old dogs, beggars, and shoppers. We walked among men, women, and mules toting kindling and buckets of water for miles on foot to and from meagre homes cohabited by an assortment of animals. We went to the open market for fruit or to the park to sit, to hear a local group of musicians serenade the area's youth, and to watch young and old and their companions court and promenade beneath a string of lights on Sunday night.

* * *


The jewelry maker talked of buying opals, of projected income, of a trip to the Yucatan. But there was not a single question about us. The sculptor advised, "Abandon the obscurity of painting, the difficulty of style. Find yourself in the medium, with the object. Take the meaningful abstraction. Take the tangible and visible durability of sculpture. Settle for less money and the barest suggestion of form or movement."


The student from Oregon talked of natural cures found in Guatemala; a liver infection; a blind eye damaged by surgery; diagnosis through the eyes, windows to within. Coloration of areas on the eye (and foot), our continual connection with a separate nature, correspond to one's blood content and the state of organs in one's body.


Is there authentic community anywhere in the Americas untouched by such chatter from Western European and North American exiles, temporary residents, and tourists – a sanctuary where silence prevails at times and casual conversation with strangers goes undominated by promotion of eccentric causes? We traversed the barren environment of northern Mexico, rife with dust, and landed outside a quaint tourist-infested little town full of artists and an amalgam of rediscovered and concocted cures.

The topics exchanged between English-speaking compatriots might satisfy artists in residence in San Miguel, but I wanted to set to work on a project so as not to fritter away all my time on a journey dedicated to frittering time. A dabbler may learn a little about art and a little about life and achieve little else. But a marginal artist who takes it as his sole occupation and righteously proclaims the superiority of his trade, as if his kind alone has raised humanity, deceives and shortchanges himself.

I had expected poverty in Mexico, but not from this quarter: a swarm of exiles in Latin America on the cheap, blurring the line between the place and its people and these foreign distortions and irritants. To mute the influence of imported enthusiasms, my thinking turned away from art and back to observing things local where possible. Ill-fitted for this art community or for primitive healing, I considered a practical place for myself in my own world back home. San Miguel and Mexico could nudge me some, but not far, in a direction better suited for my limitations and leanings.

* * *


I read in the late Sunday afternoon after taking photographs in the market place. The garden in the center of town was effervescing with anticipation, movement, and color. Booths selling tamales and cakes were being prepared; decorations dawned. Slow parades of awkwardly shy Mexican girls, giggling like ducklings trailing a mother or an older sister; boisterous groups of boys; a big and a little brother in black slacks and white shirts; and slick, well-dressed young men, some of whom taunted the pride of homely little girls with jeers and whistles, which in turn were mistaken for compliments – all accumulated in the square. I moved down the dusty stone street to the apartment inhabited by a group of American art students. I had planned to lash on a tie, grab a new roll of color film, and return to the festivities. But the students were on one of the private patios celebrating a late birthday with a rich, flat spice cake, and Mike's and my bottle of tequila. Thus I was detained by two limes and a third of a fifth, as well as a meal of one tomato, one onion, and four peppers. I hastily grabbed my camera and volunteered to fetch another bottle from town.


I took a picture of the enlarging crowd scattered around a small band and snapped a shot of people making their way to the affair, including a drunk as he was arrested. Then I went to a bar and paid for a small bottle but was persuaded by a few happy customers at the bar that I needed a bigger one, which I bought. I quickly grabbed a bottle to rush back to the apartment party. But I was halted by a volley of loud laughter. Bewildered locals were holding up the bottle I had just bought. I glanced down to find that in haste I had grabbed a half-empty bottle of beer. I suppose that I considered at that moment that I didn't need to be on the streets if I drank anymore tequila that evening. I made it back to the apartment, but most of the students had gone and the two yoga devotees who remained declined an offer of a drink on health grounds. Mike and I, and a slow, lanky Oregonian with long hair, went on the roof at sunset for a few more shots and a puff or two.

* * *


Commonality radiates in the ferment of twilight. Connections abound when fertile minds and hormonal drives engage early night.

The view from atop the apartment building roof was stunning as ever. As the orange rays of sun sank behind a distant mountain range, it appeared as if the thin, scattered clouds were gravitating toward it. Over half the sky to the west looked like a stormy sea with fiery caps. Then as the hearth of setting sun burned deeper, brittle clouds seemed to pull together and become an inverted golden snow-peaked mountain, until hues snapped and the sky became a yellow-white background to small blotches of gray clouds, making the whole sky the coat of a spotted pony.

The narrow streets, the barking dogs, the simple flat-roof adobe-style houses sporadically illuminated by bare 60-watt bulbs, and the glow of a prism of colors easing behind a range of rocky mountains – all brought to mind ancient mythology and my own slight experience of Greek towns. I thought about how easy the myths and gods must have come to men and women gathered on a highpoint overlooking their town and distant mountains, beckoned by whispers of the sea.

Myth and twilight are dually wove. The marriage warps and mends the motives of men, masking urges without their masters.

* * *


Despite an earlier resolution to the contrary, I set out with Mike for the center of town. Then dusk worked its magic and intelligence, emotions, and aesthetics mingled harmoniously: children in the steeply inclined streets moved under naked white light in which details hardened in stark relief; illumination thrown against stucco buildings revealed their deep indentures; on the street, shadows accented cracks between the paving stones; and old adults were cast in extremities of value. Only darkness lay beyond the reach of stepping stones of bright light. Within the darkness, objects were vaguely perceived as in a mist. Objects and people at a distance, silhouetted against the harsh bulbs, were the blackest of shapes. A caravan of smoke-spewing tut-tutting cars, the most I had seen on the town's streets in four days, quieted our laughing and stumbling, threatening to terminate our progress toward the town center. The cars contained both tourists and locals who circled the night's activities but did not blend with them.


At the central garden, there was a confusion of people, noise, and movement, which overwhelmed us with its novelty. We sat on wrought iron benches for a while watching the antics of a boys ensemble with its bass fiddle and lutes. The band's star serenaded, acting out each song, playing to others in the group, trying to impress a passing girl or friend. A second singer made nonsensical noises near the microphone between songs.

We were verbally accosted by a white-headed elderly man, accompanied by his equally inebriated wife. He asked where we were from. "Tennessee," I said. "Ever heard of it?" "Why sure! We're from Pennsylvania." To the agony of a nearby, dignified white-bearded gentleman, who resembled a local American artist, we were told a brief history of this brazen drunk's life: how he had taught school until he learnt better, began to sell insurance for Blue Cross, and came to San Miguel every October. He commented extensively about how the band was usually very good but was acting up that night. At that point, the bearded gentleman made an exit – acted out to express disgust – probably going home to do something drastic like undertake a inspired painting of Hades. The ramble of a drunkard sticks in the head; it makes the queasy rumble of an underground river. We began to stroll around the outer square, leaving the American talking near the band stand with his next victim.

* * *


We had been told about the practice but we doubted it, until we found ourselves walking with the local males in one direction while all the available young girls demurely circled on the other side of the sidewalk in the opposite direction. The boys eyed each girl and struggled to build up the nerve to pick out his choice and talk to her. At times laughing and at others sighing in envy of innocent youth, we left for the apartment. I went on the roof to sleep, disturbed by the periodic howling of dogs, lonely protests in the night surrounding us in every direction.


We were awakened by plan but with a start and urged off the premises by our kind but wholly reluctant hostess for the week. To finally rid herself of us, she had agreed, and was more than willing, to drive us in her Volkswagen down a long pitted dirt road to the train station outside the western edge of San Miguel. As we bumped along the two-lane road at midnight, our headlights flushed from the darkness, like jack rabbits, sudden appearing then disappearing figures of shriveled men and women walking home from town carrying packages. They appeared much as the town's dogs did – slow, knowing, and unfearful – or like their own donkeys, lead-bottom weary.

The station was dark and lifeless. The waiting room was unlocked but without lights. Only the platform light dully illuminated the rear of the building. As we stepped out of the car, a small car labeled "Policia" pulled up revealing four casually dressed men within. They stared, probing for advantage as they sized us up. Our hostess, who could speak Spanish well, said nothing to them. She only mumbled that they were being nosy. Finally they asked why we were there. Then, as if to answer their own inquiry, they said that the train would be arriving at 12:30 a.m. With a twisted smile, they asked the senorita if she would need assistance home; then they murmured, nodded, and left.


We shook hands with our hostess, thanked her, and parted, grabbing a bag in each hand, plus one thrown over a shoulder of us each. We slowly penetrated the cool, homeless uncertainty of the waiting room to wait alone on the heavy stone steps in the rear of the building. There was a string of train cars sidetracked along the main rails of the station. A candle flickered behind the curtains of one, and a radio played muffled rock music from another boxcar. Pairs of temporary wooden steps told us that these cars served as shelters for some residents or passersby of the town. The dogs of dark continued to bitterly complain, and then a telegraph tapped plaintively with some pressing business that roused the station master. And still we did not know if the train would come on time. We had been exposed to the night air for an hour when a mail truck drove up and thrust sacks of mail ten feet onto the platform, reassuring us of the trains appointed stop.

The train arrived loudly, and we jumped into the rear-most passenger car. The car was quiet and unlit compared with the second-class car, which was also full but excessively lighted, with soldiers sleeping outstretched on hard, barely covered seats. From the second-class car, a baby cried at the untimely jolt and noise of the stop.

We slept, so to speak, and by 10 o'clock, the train being two hours late, we were nearing our destination and ready to depart. We were happy that it appeared the night's train ride might be free, as no one asked for a ticket all night. However, when the conductor came, it cost us more than we had expected, particularly after I guiltily confessed our true boarding station. At 12:30 p.m., after passing tin-roof hovel after hovel on the outskirts of the great place, the train pulled into fatiguingly hot and hazy Mexico City.

Despite the mild and genuine pleasures of San Miguel, simplicity and want – state dysfunction and neglect – were not adequately defined for me until I traveled through northern Mexico, then on to Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. The deeper I got in the journey, desert turned to jungle, and dearth turned into an overabundance of sorts. Touching the most exaggerated prejudices, the apprehensions that had disposed me against this impromptu trip south were dispelled along the way. Unprepared as ever, without a penny too much, we descended into the smoggy, choking air, wondering where our next steps might take us for the two months more we would spend touring this neighboring part of humanity and nature, so familiar in its Southerness yet so dissimilar to our own world in countless charming – and frightening – ways.

[ Next Chapter ]

* * *


FOOTNOTE:

1. Agee, James & Evans, Walker. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988 (1941).

 

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