October 31, 2008.
Los Quince Letres
On Friday night, October 31, I walked down to my local greasy spoon restaurant for dinner. It is a large, white tiled space, with whole chickens roasting in the window, and man chopping up beef for the tacos, and coolers holding Pepsi and beer. On each table is a blue plastic box filled with napkins, Corona advertisements on the side, and a collection of plastic bowls: green salsa, red salsa, liquid green guacamole, onions, and cilantro. All the waiters are young Hispanic men, and they all wear orange polo shirts with the restaurant logo.
I sat down and ordered without the menu, two tacos with cheese, refried beans and chips. After ordering, the people at the next table called my attention. It was the German gentleman who I had met at the hostel earlier, and another person with him.
(I want to apologize right now about the lack of names in this story, for some reason, even thought they told me their names, I cannot remember them, I must, after meeting people, surreptitiously write down their names)
The German was a quiet and subdued type, he was in his late thirties or early forties and wore glasses and was balding in a way that told you he spent his time indoors staring at a computer. It is amazing how we type people when we first meet them. I expected him to be one of those geek boys who never go out and never date women and sit and watch things happen. That is what his demeanor told me. But I was wrong and right all at the same time.
He was the one, when the conversation starting flowing between me and the other person at the table, that just sat back and just listened. Like he was used to being on the edge of conversations. But when he told stories about the places he had been, how he had traveled for five years, about New Year in Seoul and New Year in Australia and living in Thailand, and living in London, they were interesting stories, but were boring to listen to. Somehow his wonderful stories of travailing the world were dull. I feel guilty when I meet people like this, they have such interesting lives, but their personality is so boring they cannot make interesting stories interesting.
The other person at the table had fewer stories, but they were more exciting. He had some sort of glow when he told them, an enthusiasm that was enticing. He was English and looked it. He was about six foot tall and thin in an early twenties sort of way, his hair was dark brown and short back and sides, with the shock of unruly hair growing on top. He related the story of him and a friendâ€™s 13,500-mile journey across America. The two of them rented a car, and drove from New York to the south and Texas, to Las Vegas and up to Canada and down the Western Coast. He told of the three speeding tickets they got, and how they had to return to a town in Georgia to go to court. Then he said his friend drove the whole way because he does not drive.
They spent the time couch hopping, and met some wonderful people.
When dinner was over both the Englishman and I decided to have a beer, the German was not interested in drinking, I got the feeling that he never drank, but would join us anyway.
I have not visited bars in Zacatacas. There are two reasons for this; part of the reason for visiting a bar it to put yourself in a good mood, and that does not usually happen when you are by yourself, and no one speaks the same language, and the other reason is that I am here to work, not be a drunk.
A few days ago a man staying at the hostel who was from Arizona told me the place to go was a bar called â€˜Las Quince Letras.â€™ So the next day, in one of my meanderings about the city, I followed the map and found the bar, but did not go in, it was good just to know were it was, if necessary.
So on this Friday night, Halloween, I took my German and English friends to the â€˜Las Quince Letrasâ€™ (The Fifteen Letters). Once I stepped inside I knew this was the bar for me. It was like when I arrived in Anchorage Alaska and saw a bar sign hanging from a short metal post sticking out into the street. On the sign was a monkey holding a skull, and the name of the bar, â€˜Darwinâ€™s Theoryâ€™.
Once through the full-length swinging doors of Las Quince Letras there was the perfect classic bar. On the left wall was the bar, made from dark wood and stretching almost he length of the room. Behind the bar stood an older gentleman, with graying hair opening a beer bottle with the opener mounted to the bar. Behind him was the double row of liquor bottles and the sculpted wooden backboard climbing up the wall.
The rest of the room was filled with small round tables and chairs.
And full of people, SRO, Standing Room Only.
But it was not just the raised voices and the music and the smell of smoke and stale beer and excited people. It was the walls. They were covered with crap. Like the old bars that are overflowing with character, those old bars have random crap stuck to the walls, like stuffed birds, and brass instruments and panties and pictures and records and scribbled notes.
But the crap on the walls here was different; it had a purpose and a meaning. It was art. Mounted on all the walls and hanging from the cross beams were paintings and photographs. I first noticed a self-portrait of Frieda Kahlo, later I noticed a famous black and white war photograph in the corner.
The reason their art was up, was because they drank here. Damn cool. It felt comfortable, this was definitely the place for me.
Our German friend bowed out when he saw crowded bar, heading back to the hostel. So the Englishman and I stood next to the bar, in the walkway between bar and tables and held onto our beer and moved out of the way while people squeezed past us. The two young men in front of us kept trying to get us to do shots of tequila and my English friend turned them down saying that he had a bad experience with shots some years ago and would puke at the smell of whiskey. I did not want one either, so I kept my mouth shut.
It was uncomfortable standing in limbo. There was no table to sit down, and no space to lean against the bar. We swayed back and forth with the movement of people, trying to keep a conversation between the loud music and the interruptions of the flowing people. I looked at the art on the wall and some of it was really good.
Then the Arizona man, who had told me about the bar, tapped me on the shoulder. He was at the end of the bar, and had some standing space away from the traffic.
We went and talked to him.
He was in his early 40â€™s, balding and with a look of someone who knows his shit, he does not know business, or how to fit in an office, or hold a normal job, but he looked like he knows his shit and has seen and done stuff that most people will never see. A few days ago at the hostel he told me why he was in Mexico.
He was pulled over for a DUI and caught with a large amount of Marijuana. He went to jail for a month or so, and had to do to classes and pay a large fee and all those things that go along with getting caught by the police. After that he decided to leave the states, and move to Thailand, somewhere up in the north, Chaing Mai or so, because he can live there for 500 USD a month and not have to worry about anything. Now he is in Mexico, relaxing for a month before leaving. He said, that his family said, that he would never leave the country, but he gave his nephew his 20,000 USD truck before leaving for Mexico, so they believe him now, he said.
The three of us talked at the bar, we drank beer and the Arizona man did tequila shots and he asked me how my book was going. I said it was going well, it was too loud and late to really discuss how I was having problems describing people, how I found that the two paragraph long descriptions of the people that I have been meeting were too long and rambling and how I was trying to cut it down and come up with some short sharp phrases that will allow the reader to see the person quickly and then move on with the story.
But the Englishman asked what I was writing and I told him about the Travels in India and Nepal book I am trying to finish, and he told me about how before his trip he went to a bunch of different agents and pitched his book and they all said to come back when he had something written.
The Arizona man began to talk about how hard it was to make it as a writer, how it was as impossible as becoming a rock star, and my mind wandered back to dinner earlier that evening. The Englishman told me that he liked the Americans because they were optimistic. When you gave an American a problem, they figured out a way to fix it, and then fixed it. But when you gave an Englishman a problem he looks at all the things that could go wrong, he looks at all the, well, problems. The optimistic Americans, and the pessimistic Englishman. I agree, in general terms, with the statement.
I looked at the Arizona man as he said it was almost impossible to become a paid writer, and a brief flash of hatred flowed through me. Stop telling me I cannot do things! I thought to myself. I donâ€™t need to be told that I cannot do things! And then I realized that here was an American talking about all the problems, and an Englishman talking about how to get things done. It was reversed from normal, and I realized that most of my life I have been somewhere in the middle Atlantic. Somewhere between knowing that I can do anything, and knowing that everything will be a failure. The pendulum swing back and forth, sometimes the world will be waiting for the wonderful things that I create, and sometimes nothing I do is good enough for anyone.
At night when I have been drinking, I know that everything I do will be a success, but in the morning, after drinking, I know that everything will be a failure.
I looked at the beer in my hand, quickly finished it, said good night to my companions, and walked quietly home in the early evening.