..First Glyph

February 15
11:30 a.m.

He wore a red and brown ski mask. He wore the yellow jacket to a 1970s sweat suit, filthy. He wore a pair of dirty blue jeans. He wore soiled gloves. His English was almost unintelligible, unintelligible for his accent. He stood above me.

"Do you speak English," he queried through his slight intelligibility.

I sat on steps of volcanic stone. I sat on steps in front of the very large municipal building of Mexico City's Zócalo. It was morning. Across the Zócalo from me rose the Cathedral of Mexico. I was trying to scribble some notes on the Cathedral of Mexico at morning. I was not succeeding in my description of the Cathedral of Mexico at morning. I did not want to be interrupted.

But, "Do you speak English," he queried through his slight intelligibility. He stood above me.

"Yes," I barked. My patience was short because my scribbling was going badly. I thought if I actually spoke to him in English he might desist. I was wrong. Something unintelligible then garbled from him, something about money.

I shook my waspish head. I dismissed him. I said to him "no" sharply. I tried frustratedly, intently, to continue then with my scribbling, to continue scribbling my notes that were not succeeding.

The garbling persisted.

"I'm working," I spat then in English. A fine edge of annoyance cut the words. I was not succeeding. This man was making it worse.

"Sí," he spat back. Then something more he said about money. Something about money. He would interrupt me, I prevised, until I paid him to go away.

"Estoy trabajando," I said to him in Spanish now, but sharply again, with flaring desperation. "I am trying to take some notes over this plaza." But I'm failing, I thought. And you're at fault.

Relentless though, he was. He became now belligerent. He nodded an uncompromising nod. He gestured impatient circles with his filthy glove, fanning away my words of inconsequence.

"Give me some money," he demanded in Spanish through his ski mask.

"I'm not going to give you nothing."

"You're not going to give me nothing?"

"No, I'm trying to work. Leave me alone, señor."

"And what if I told you I was a terrorist?"

My irritation became anger.

"I am a terrorist," he claimed. "And what would happen if I told you I was going to kill you?"

My anger became fury: "You are not going to kill me, señor!"

"Look!" he said. And this was a command. He bent down toward me. He thrust his gloved hand right before my face. It was a threat: Money, or violence.

I stood. I looked him dead in the eyes. I restrained my instinct to strike him. I stalked away, away from the steps upon which I had been sitting, upon which he still stood. I crossed the street onto the Zócalo proper. There a lamppost, I found. I squatted and leaned against that lamppost. I returned to my scribbling attempts, to my failing interrupted scribbling attempts. My fury burned. The wrong encounter for the wrong mood. If my scribbling had been going well the scene would not have turned toward conflict. If my scribbling had been going well the scene would not have turned toward violence. It was the failed scribblings, my frustration that sought the conflict, the violence.

The man in the ski mask crossed away from the Zócalo. He loped onto a side-street. He seemed to have come only to mock my imaginings of yesterday. But still this was not an assault. The man had no weapon. I never believed his threats. There was no palpable danger.

To stand in the center of the Zócalo is to stand on the moon. A flat open space in a smaller city, or in rural Mexico would not create this sensation. But such a wide flat open space among the cramped ever-hoverings of this megalopolis does. It is the juxtaposition. To step into the Zócalo is to step from beneath overshadowing buildings, out of the thronging jostlings of the passerby, away from the onslaught of traffic. You stride across a vast field of meter-square ash-gray stones and you feel you have escaped to some other more naked place. No trees stand near, no benches, no vender stalls. And the light is strangely complete--for there are no shadows to be cast. And the sun's position is dominant and clear--for it is not obstructed from view. Even the inescapable auto sounds that surround the great plaza are transmuted by its breadth into a mere rush of wind.

Today in the Zócalo makeshift tents were scattered about. Fifteen of them or so. They were of blankets or of plastic tarpaulins raised by aluminum poles and tied to stakes driven into the mortar between the flagstones. People reclined on straw mats or on cardboard beneath these tents, under blankets. But they were not squatters. Squatters are not tolerated in the Zócalo. Demonstrators, they were. And these are tolerated. They converge on the Zócalo, these demonstrators, from all across the country almost every day of the year in the name of whatever cause you might imagine. The Zócalo has been the political nexus of this country since the empire of the Aztecs. And Mexicans know that for their complaints to be heard they have to come here, en masse, and make their complaints heard. Even so their complaints are not always heard. Leaflets today described worker's rights or something. They were pinned to the tents. I did not look at them very carefully. But I did smell a woman's tamales cooking as I passed by one tent. The tamales steamed before a queue of men. They sweetened the stale city air.

The Zócalo is not just for demonstrators. Every year in September thousands of Mexicans gather there for independence celebrations. Thousands, too, will assemble to watch big screen broadcasts of the Mexican national soccer team during World Cup play; or mass for presidential or gubernatorial campaign speeches. It is not uncommon for the attendance at these events to number over two hundred thousand. It's an immense plaza. The crowds that come to fill it are just as immense. It is a very Mexican site.

Then, of course, the tourists. Today the Zócalo swarmed with the buzzing of French and German and English speakers. This must be the European travel season because I've never seen so many of them. They paid little heed to the demonstrators. They were more drawn by the guy who does the Aztec dancing over in front of the Templo Mayor, and to the murals of the National Palace, and to the architecture of the Cathedral. I was going to scribble some notes on the Cathedral interior myself but was crowded out of the building. Impossible to find an observation point. Impossible to concentrate. It was a flood of foreigners today, I a part of it. I will try to return tonight for some interior notes on the Cathedral. I did note the mildewy rose color of the Cathedral's exterior though, and its towers and gothic face. It would seem to me rather a grotesque edifice, I think, were it not for its antiquity and sheer scale. And I like how the monumental rectangles of its shape are softened at their extremities by cupolas and domes. A nice smooth geometry there, daggered by crosses. And that ambience of sanctuary. And those bells chiming tinny and deep.

I found a theater nearby showing Romeo and Juliet. A poster outside says the movie is dubbed in Spanish. I think I might enjoy the movie better dubbed in Spanish than with Spanish subtitles. How does one translate Shakespeare into Spanish and then abbreviate him into subtitles? Sounds egregious. I know the story well enough that I might be able to follow it in Spanish anyway.

I finally finished Henry IV part 1. Not until the end did I really have a sense of its theme. I like its theme. I like it so much that I'm going to read the play again. Things are not always what they seem. I am challenged by that idea. It is an ongoing issue for me. I seek to see how things are instead of how they seem. When I go to scribble my notes I look for what the Zócalo is, not what the Zócalo seems to be. When a man approaches me begging, and then threatens me, I try to describe him as he was, not as he seemed. But what does this mean? How is something not what it seems? I mean, the Zócalo is a quarter-kilometer square of volcanic flagstone. The Cathedral sits on one side of it. The National Palace and Templo Mayor sit on another. The Federal District Department sits on a third. And some nameless hotel on the fourth. Yes, this is the Zócalo. This is how it seems. But is that all the Zócalo is? Even from my brief description above I think it's clear that there is more to the Zócalo than this admittedly impressive architectonic appearance. There is the constant coming and going of unhappy demonstrators. There is the constant coming and going of happy tourists. There is the blood that was shed as human sacrifice when the Aztecs ruled over it. There is the blood that is sipped every night as a sacrament in the Cathedral. Humans worship in that Cathedral. Humans execute politics in that National Palace. Humans get drunk in the hotel bar. Humans fight during the soccer games. Humans shout during the gritos of independence. Young lovers lean against the lampposts. And all of them come and go through, move around, and are part of the spirit of the Zócalo. But this spirit is invisible. It is not there. And yet, the spirit is there. The Zócalo is what happens in the Zócalo, I think, what the Zócalo means, not how the Zócalo looks.

So...intangible. Impossibly intangible. There is something to every place, to every thing that is beyond what it seems to be. And it is this something beyond that makes it what it is. The appearance is a deception. The essence behind that appearance is a truth. And yet the appearance is our avenue to the essence. The deception leads us to the truth. How does one manage this paradox? How does one get at this truth through this deception? I go looking for it all of the time, this truth, everyday, and I can say I don't know. Everyday I look at something, I sit down near the Zócalo, for example, and I tell myself that what I am looking for is beyond this Zócalo, within this Zócalo and that only through great insight can I get at this something beyond, within. But...I do not know what this something is. So I simply begin where I can. I begin with the deception. I begin with a description of the appearance of the Cathedral, of the National Palace, of the architecture that makes up the Zócalo, and sometimes, after a period of scribbling, after a listening to all of my senses, the sounds, the smells, the light and the feel of the air and atmosphere I can pierce through the appearance into something more real, an essence of what is there, a meaning, the meaning of the place, the meaning that lies behind the form. A rare occurrence, this is. A rare thing. This has to be part of what the greats did. This seeing the essence. This elucidating the truth. This stripping a thing of what it seems to be and showing a thing for what it is. Yes, this has to be part of it. They let us look through their eyes, maybe, and hear through their ears, and interpret through their thoughts the essence that lies behind the appearance, the truth behind the deception. Art that lasts strips a thing of what it seems to be. Art that lasts shows a thing as it is, for all eternity, bares it for us, frees it of its seeming.

But how does one begin? I've been thinking that maybe one simply begins with oneself. How much of how I perceive myself is appearance, and how much is essence? How much of what I know of myself is deception, and how much truth? It makes sense to begin there, I guess. But even that is intimidating. The appearance of the beggar was filthy from head to foot, you know. But the essence of that beggar was not filthy, I do not think. That beggar claimed to be a terrorist. He claimed that he would kill me. But I looked at him and I knew it was not truth. His threat, that gesture of give me your money or suffer my violence was appearance, was deception, not truth. I saw this. I just moved away. And so did he. Both of us acceded to the truth, abandoned the deception. How much of my self concept is just this outer filth that I cannot see beyond? How much of what I believe is me is really me being a beggar pretending to be a terrorist? Maybe this is why I have such difficulty calling myself a writer. I am not even a writer, I don't think. The writer is the appearance, not the essence. It is the deception, not the truth. It is the form, not the meaning. If I am to begin here, with this, with myself, I have to begin with what I am, not with what I call myself. I am not a "writer." I am not even my name. I am just what I am. So...anyway...Henry the IV, Part 1. I am re-reading it.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers