..First Glyph

February 13
7 p.m.

He came up running and through alarmed tones spat, "Excuse me." I looked. "Do you speak Spanish?"

"A little."

"Okay, let's see." And he gathered himself.

Five-feet-sevenish. Unshaven. A blue and white long-sleeved nylon shirt with a round patch over the left breast indicating some medical equipment company. He gripped two plastic bottles in his two hands. A solution of some sort. He appeared the ambulant salesmen. One of those everpresent wandering hucksters of balloons, of popsicles, of frying pans. His mien though did not suggest the sales pitch.

"That young man next to you was going to assault you," he told me.

I looked at him more intently. A strange flush, I felt, of belated alarm. Surprise, too, and a wariness at this accosting. I ventured, "The one with the crosses tattooed on his hands?"

"I'm not sure. He was watching and waiting for a moment to take your backpack."

I had been situated in a central park of Mexico City, La Alameda. I had been situated on one of four large curved stone benches that encircle a statue there of some nameless Greek goddess. I had been scribbling some notes. I had been using my backpack as a sort of desk. I recalled the people who had come and gone near me. I tried to recall which might have been the would-be assailant. The man in the blue nylon shirt flounderingly tried to describe him for me.

I asked, "The feminine one with the brown backpack that sat down next to me?"

"No, the one next to him."

And, "Oh." Suddenly I visualized him. Something animal had been in his eyes, yes, something predatory. I had marked this. But I had not feared him for all the people about us. I felt protection in the numbers, you know. I did not expect an attack in broad daylight amidst a crowd of people. My travelers checks were in my money belt anyway. And I was using my backpack as a sort of desk. I always arrange myself so, securely, to feel secure, so that I can concentrate.

"Be very careful. This can be a dangerous area."

The newspapers say the number of assaults in this city has risen exponentially over the past few years. Even so, I would never have anticipated someone stalking me like that, with such calculation. I wonder what would have happened had the mugging been carried out. I wonder if that man in the blue shirt was security. Was he there to prevent the crime? To catch the criminal? To help me after the attack? He seemed an undercover agent of some kind. And he spoke with a definite and experiential authority when he warned me to caution. He involved himself too much to be a mere bystanding salesman of medical solutions, I think.

I started to speak. The man in the blue nylon shirt interrupted me. Then the man in the blue nylon shirt interrupted himself. He said to me, "Speak."

"I thought that was possible," I said after a pause.

"Ah, so you noticed him."

I inclined my head. Again, I examined the blue nylon shirt of this man before me, his unshaven face, the plastic bottles he held in his hands. Something kept me from asking if he were a policeman. His appearance belied his honor. I thanked him warmly. We nodded to one another. We separated.

I gauged a scene from my unfinished novel against the Palacio de los Belles Artes today. I actually scribbled three hours worth of notes sitting in the courtyard before it. I was taken mostly by the building's ambiguous time. Antique, in a way, it is, classical in its marble and columns and statues and bronze dome; but also fresh. It might have been built yesterday it seemed so fresh. Maybe the morning sun did it. I don't know. The marble seemed simultaneously to soak up the light and reflect it, like a girl's skin. And so the building seemed ensouled, living, while at the same time exuding an ancient age. Young and old, it was. Fresh and wise. Vibrant and mature. I liked this ambiguity. And I could see it; I could describe it somewhat. But I do not really understand it, how it works.

Herds of tourists came and went through the Belles Artes building as I worked there. I watched them enter and exit. None stayed long enough to really take in the murals inside. And nice bronze statues stood in the courtyard where I sat. Liquid men astride strain-winged horses. These went unremarked by the tourists.

Spent, I was then, when finished. I was so spent I did not even consider continuing on to the Zócalo. I will go there tomorrow or the next day. I strode back through La Alameda. I stopped in La Alameda for some much easier and much briefer scribblings on the park. Then, as I continued on, the man in the blue nylon shirt came running up.

After I worked today I found a conveyance to my old neighborhood. I strolled then through my old neighborhood. Colonia Napoles, it's called. I lived right off Insurgentes Sur in the backroom of a fifth floor apartment on Calle Michigan. I found again the ice cream shop behind it, the small grocery, the grassless park. There was the British-style pub near from which late night Beatles tunes sometimes wafted; and the pozole cafeteria directly across; then the VIP's restaurant where I sipped a lot of coffee; and the Sanborns. Then I turned right on Eje Angel Urraza and it was a long hike before I arrived at the Gigante--The supermarket where I usually bought my provisions. I wheeled my basket through the aisles rather gaily. It was two or so in the afternoon. I had hardly eaten all day, just one apple. I purchased, of course, carrots and tortillas and fruit. My big indulgence though was a half pound of Oaxaca cheese. Oh, Oaxaca cheese! White and mild and rich! I've encountered this cheese only once in the United States, in a small San Antonio restaurant near the mercado there. I consumed at that small San Antonio restaurant one quesadilla fat with Oaxaca cheese. I identified the flavor immediately. I expressed my extreme joy for the cheese to the proprietor. He seemed discomfited. Maybe the cheese was his trade secret. Maybe the cheese is easier to acquire than I think--easy enough, maybe, not to warrant my very vocal effusions. Anyway, this is the first time since San Antonio I've partaken of Oaxaca cheese. That's five years now.

The work I am doing has changed since I arrived in Mexico. For the sake of continuity I have retained the same language when describing it, but I think I will abandon that language now. Above I mentioned how I gauged a scene from my unfinished novel against the Palacio de los Belles Artes. In other words, there is a scene in my unfinished novel which takes place in that courtyard before the Belles Artes. So I carry that scene to the courtyard and I read that scene in the courtyard and I look for what is missing, I look for what I missed. The problem is, gradually, over the short course of this endeavor, it has become clearer and clearer to me that I pretty much missed everything. That first description is bland and unalive. I place myself before the scene in reality and what I have written bears little resemblance to what is there. So, off and on over the past couple of weeks, I have gone to the actual site of a scene without even reviewing the scene that pertains to it. I have gone to the site of the scene knowing that what I have written does not measure up; knowing that, in effect, I have to start afresh. My effort, consequently, has turned from one of looking for what I missed, to one of looking for what is there. This is a different kind of looking. And it is a more productive one. But how does this relate to the undergirding point of this journey? That of discovering the mystery? The secret? That something that makes the great works last? This recognition, I think, this change of my perspective might be a step toward it. I was working very specifically from art to life before this perspective shift--taking art aside and trying to find room for life in it. Now I use art as an indication toward life. I say to myself: Art has brought me to this courtyard. For the sake of art I come here. But I will not try to wedge the life of this courtyard into my art. I will describe this courtyard in its own right. I will find the life of this courtyard. And then, afterward, I will weigh the art and the life against one another. I will try to merge the two, to reconcile the two, to fuse the two. Then, it seems to me, the art will be alive, will be real. And then, it seems to me, life will have found a truer expression through art. This method, if not that of the greats, at least gets at what they found: That truth: That life. And I like it. I feel more open when I work. I see more. I am not limited, circumscribed by the scene I bring to the courtyard, constrained by its borders. I go instead for the essence of the setting. And so I see it fully, and more immediately. The waterish sheen of the marble floors below the imposing columns, I see; the blue of the shadows across that marble. The bronze statues and dome, I see. The cool air, I feel. That burning bacon smell of exhaust from the street behind. That roaring of that avalanche of traffic from that street behind. And, then, in the end, through all of this, finally, that strange timeless quality of the Palacio de los Belles Artes.

When I arrived home from the Gigante with my provisions I washed out my clothes in the bathroom sink with a powdered detergent; and then rinsed them; and then hung them to air near the bathroom window. Some Oaxaca cheese, I nibbled then, and a carrot, as I scrawled this entry bending over looseleaf pages on my firm hotel bed. Now I will organize my notes for tomorrow's Zócalo work. Then I will read the newspaper Excelsior.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers