..First Glyph

February 14
6 p.m.

I ordered a manzanilla tea. Hmm, is it manzanillo, or manzanilla? I can't remember. In any event the tea is one herbal, and one acquired readily at any marketplace, or at any chain restaurant, or at any herb stand. I sit in a VIPs waiting for the chain restaurant variety to be brought to me. It is said to balm the stomach, this tea. This explains, I guess, its wide availability. For even the most scrupulous of Mexicans will suffer the occasional stomach infection here. I like the tea for its flavor.

Evening, Valentine's Day, and quite a few Mexican men preen in this restaurant before their Mexicana lovers. Flowers for sale everywhere on the streets today: Bouquets being carried to the feet of unsung heroines. They do this Valentines Day stuff right. The girl at the hotel counter even slid to me a small foiled chocolate under the bullet proof glass. "Dulce-nea" said the script across its heart shape.

A concrete bench crouches outside the Novedades building on Balderas. A perfect observation point, it was, for the descriptions I went in search of today. You might call Balderas the nerve center of Mexico City's publishing district. More than a couple of major newspapers sit right on it. Others lie within a short walk. Many intelligent young faces, therefore, pass concertedly along that street. Eateries, they pass, newsstands, shoeshiners, an occasional van marked prensa. It is a busy, engaged scene. One you would not think conducive to an assault. At least, you would not think it.

The man sat down directly behind me on the bench, abutting me on the bench. He faced the opposite direction. After yesterday's near-attack in La Alameda I noticed the awkwardness of this and was alert to what it might bring. But again my backpack was in my lap, a sort of desk. And so if the man was waiting for the "opportunity" mentioned by the guy in the blue nylon shirt I felt he had long to wait.

I finished my scribbling. I unzipped my bag to insert my notes. But then, in my imagination, I saw the man grab at the bag. He leapt to flee me, to abscond. One of the armstraps of the bag was caught on my forearm, however; then caught in the crux of my elbow as I flexed it. I flexed the arm to save my bag and notes. I pulled. He stepped back, worried the bag. There was a knife.

I was wondering, you know, what it would be like to experience an assault. I was wondering what the man sitting there behind me might do; and, if resisted, what might occur. Of course, this invented scuffle enlightened me not at all. An assault would doubtfully progress so. More unpredictable it would be, I'm sure. But still, it jogged me onto a train of thought that drove me to this realization: No scene, no story, no tale can really be dramatic without the threat of death. Without it, without death, there is no drama. A man with a knife has to be involved. The man can be a surgeon, I suppose, as easily as a thief. But he has to wield a knife, or a pistol, or some blunt object--some thing that can interrupt your existence, compromise your continuance. I guess its mortality then, really, mortality that is dramatic. That thin invisible thread of ours. How severable it is! An excruciating vulnerability we carry about with us. It is a marvel, really, that we are so difficult to kill when you think about how simply it can be done. A hand over a mouth, a turn of the head. I guess it's this that makes mortality so dramatic--its tenuousness--our innate knowledge and fear for its tenuousness; and the stakes of that tenuousness; and our complete lack of knowledge of what's to follow. Truly dramatic pieces of literature compel us to contemplate this. They compel us to acknowledge and wrestle with this mortality of ours. They are like looking down off a high building. In that high place you stand with your mortality palpably in your hands. The thought of severing that thread never seriously tempts you: you never seriously think you will jump. But the fact that you could jump does dig at you. Being reminded that your mortality is in your own hands is quite a dramatic thing. You look down from the high place. You feel yourself gripping, tightening that thread of your life. You are forced to take a breath. A lump thickens in your throat. You are forced to turn away. Real dramatic literature has the same affect, I think. It forces you to turn away. It gives you that same lump in your throat. Hemmingway brought this off pretty well, I think. He really did that mortality thing pretty well.

I exchanged a few words with three people today. First, as I was scribbling down the carnival quality of mid-morning Balderas--Its ambulant vendors, its beggars, its lottery ticket stalls--a girl called out to me. I was leaning against the marble entrance of the Juárez metro station. She was perched on the curb before a small skillet and a propane- powered flame. Slight, in a print dress, she aged maybe twelve. She held aloft a high round highland face and bright open eyes that smiled. Little pancakes were her offerings. A half dozen uncracked eggs, too, waited behind on a small rack.

"Joven," she called out. "Quieres alguna comida?"

I declined.

The girl pinched two corners of a hand towel between her forefingertips and thumbs. She spun the towel round. When she spoke to me one of the towel corners slipped free and snapped her on the cheek. Her younger partner stooped by scrubbing a second skillet. Her partner laughed. They both then laughed.

"No tienes hambre?" she asked me now, now chagrined.


"Por qué?"

And as I formulated the response, "I have just eaten," she said for me, "Already you've breakfasted?"

And so, "," I simply said.

Two other girls in green and blue school uniforms were leaning against the same marble wall as I. They leaned maybe two arm-lengths away from me. They snickered at this palaver.

I rarely eat street food. I am always sorry when I eat street food.

Second, I was taking a coffee in a Sanborns just three blocks down from the girl with the pancakes. I was quite studiously reviewing my notes from the morning, troweling in a word or two on the sickly trees lining the street, on the bicycle side-cars over-stacked with bundled newspapers, when, "Usted es extranjero?" I heard.

The man who spoke this sat four seats away from me, also at the Sanborns bar. We were positioned catty-corner from one another. So, just a glance showed to me the strained and grave severity of the man's face. The young man impressed as one carrying a heavy burden; as one welcoming, even thriving under the weight and challenge of that heavy burden; as one mastering that heavy burden. He appeared both noble and fierce. He exuded a weightiness.

My answer was: "Comó?" This my first answer to many questions here. "What?"

"Usted es extranjero?"

And "," I answered. Yes, a foreigner. But a much deeper line of questioning gathered now behind the young man's brow. I could see it.

He nodded severely. He said sharply, "Qué tal?"

"Bien," I answered. Fine. "Y usted? Comó está?" I followed up politely.

And again he nodded severely. And then very severely but very respectfully he folded his arms before him and began to wait for me to finish this work that I was doing so that this deeper line of questioning gathering behind his knotted brow could commence. He was very respectful about this. And very severe. But I never looked up. I kept my head in my scribblings. I wanted him to leave me alone. How many times would I have to call myself a would-be writer to these strangers? Hemingway was a writer. Not me. Eventually I did look up though. But he was gone.

Third was an American girl pacing in front of the Palacio de los Belles Artes. She paced in the Palacio's courtyard out near that avalanche of traffic where yesterday I sat to gather my descriptions. But in a too-short shift she paced, and with her arresting güera hair she paced, and for too long a spell. I didn't pay much attention to her until a young Mexican man parked his car illegally, tramped up over the curbstone, and propositioned her. The shock in her face made clear to me his suggestion; that, and the cigarette the young man lit for himself afterward. I was scribbling down impressions of the Torre Latinoamericano as this happened. Through the rest of my scribbling I observed the girl slyly, wondering if I should offer her some help. She did not seem lost. But she did seem abandoned.

At one point she came near enough that I could call out: "Do you speak English?"

"Yes," she answered.

And nearer then she came, near enough that we could naturally converse.

"Are you waiting for someone?"

"I'm waiting for a taxi a friend called for me."

"Oh," said I. "Yeah, I saw you ask that taxi that stopped earlier. I wondered if maybe you had been abandoned or something."

And even as the words left my lips I saw them ill- chosen. I had been watching her, I had just told her. So she was being watched by me, she had just been told. Self- conscious, her posture became. Or maybe just cognizant of her exposure. In any case, defensive, she was suddenly, her eyes widening with alarm.

"Oh no! I'm waiting for a taxi!"

And the wide eyes saw in me now a threat. Best leave her be, I concluded. She was going to be suspicious of everyone now. I regretted my insensitivity. And I really might have helped her get home. By metro, maybe, or as a knightly escort in a free cab. But that swagger of hers! That confidence! Faultlessly sure of herself, she was. Had she shown even the slightest fear I might have been more careful in my phrasing.

She turned away from me smartly. She marched back to the Palacio de los Belles Artes.

So you stand a few feet behind a Mexican as he or she awaits a break in traffic. The Mexican can be old or young, a prostitute or a businessman, a streetchild or a pretty girl shouldering a potted plant. It matters not who it is or what it looks like as long as it is Mexican. For the Mexican has the instincts to survive this circus. You puppet them. You stop when they stop. You go when they go.

There are no luxuries in the crossing of a nine-lane- one-way street. You cannot wait for all lanes to be clear at once. So you shadow the Mexican. You find yourself weaving in and out of moving autos. This is the art of artful dodging. You can trust the Mexican to know which drivers will stay in their lanes and which will not. You cannot trust yourself to know these things.

Feel the thrill of standing on a mere stripe of paint as two cars speed astride you. Feel the heart-pounding joy of the leap that comes just afterward to the next mere stripe of paint. Or better, melt into a crowd at a street corner just as the light turns green. The cars will continue to pull tight right turns even as that crowd moves out into the street. The cars will continue then to pull wider right turns around that crowd as that crowd continues moving out into the street. And still the cars will continue to pull longer looser wider right turns around that crowd as that crowd pushes outward and outward, until finally, ultimately, one lone car, one brave car, will cut behind the crowd as the crowd continues on to the far curb and the right turns will then continue uninterrupted.

Make this a part of your daily life! Shadow the Mexican. But never take his instincts for granted, gringo. Stay alert. And never, gringo, never be first into the street. To do so is to toy with your mortality.

It is Manzanilla tea, with an A. Manzanillo is a city in the southern state of Oaxaca. And I've just discovered from the package that Manzanilla tea is Chamomile tea. I did not know that.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers