..First Glyph

February 16
7:15 p.m.

On Sundays the museums are free. Today, a Sunday, I visited the gigantic National Museum of Anthropology. Twenty-six different salas comprise that vast complex. All but the introductory salas showcase a different culture indigenous to Mexico. I spent three hours in just the sala of the Mexica, or, Aztec. Three hours in just that one sala. I knew the immensity of the museum. I knew better than to try even to skate through it idly. I entered. I marched straight to the sala of the Mexica. I carried out my work.

First, a pleasure walk through the sala, occasional pauses at objects that particularly appealed to me. Then, every relic in the sala, I examined, every curatorial description, I read. I sketched in my notes three figures: The god of night and earth, Tlaltecuhtli. The goddess of the dead, Mictecacihuatl. And Xiuhcoatl, the fire-serpent god. I sketched them for possible imagery in my unfinished novel. I scribbled down, too, their curatorial descriptions. I will use these descriptions to better remember the figures' symbolism. Tlaltecuhtli, for example, the god of night and earth, is depicted with four creatures surrounding him: A spider, a scorpion, a moth and an owl. The species of creatures suggests his divine role, that of the god who receives the dead into the earth. It took me three hours to study this sala, to make these sketches and notes. Some people go through all twenty-six salas in that time.

One sala of the anthropological museum stands apart from the other twenty-six. This sala is reserved for traveling exhibits. The old masters show I've been mentioning is being presented in this sala. After my work today I went to this sala with hopes of seeing these paintings. When I arrived, I gave up my hopes. It was a mob.

The wait to enter the exhibit was easily an hour. But the wait itself was not what repelled me. It was seeing that I would be driven through the exhibit like a head of cattle that repelled me. I can spend an hour just taking in one painting. This would not be allowed. I like to stroll through exhibits at a leisurely pace, pause before this or that piece, move on, and then return to the pieces I particularly like. I sit then and try to understand those pieces. This would not be allowed. I could faithfully reproduce various paintings I've studied in this way. Crudely but faithfully, I could. That Rubens I liked so much in San Diego is one. A Boucher there, too, in San Diego. I can still see the statuettes of that Boucher in my mind, the cherubim on the pedestal above, their poses echoing that of the lovers below. The bright white and pink of the woman's dress, too, I see, against all that cool green and blue of the French rococo. I don't really understand the point of seeking out things so beautiful if you do not try to internalize them somehow, if you do not try to make them a part of you, if you do not let their mystery touch you. That is missing the point, I think. That is stripping beauty of its meaning. Beauty is not just to be looked at, it is to be looked into. Within is the meaning, I think. Study and repetition is how I try to get at this meaning. And it takes a little time. But this time would not be allowed at that exhibit. I wonder how many spectators--herded through that show of the old masters--will leave feeling let down, or, worse, unaffected. I wonder how many of them will understand why they feel this. I will deprive myself of that great art before I let it become the source of my disappointment. There is something sacrilegious in it. So I just slouched on a big rock after my museum work and munched carrots and watched the line for the old masters thread out of the sala almost to the very street. Congratulations Mexico on your keen thirst for the greats. But I would rather meditate over a book of photographed pieces than spend thirty seconds before a work that Tintorretto spent thirty weeks perfecting. That is a profanity, I think. Genius deserves more attention than your average television commercial.

The young man behind the counter at La Michoacana was serving another customer, the only other customer in the shop, a woman. He looked up at me gloweringly as I entered, as he scooped at her ice cream. He continued then scooping at her ice cream and scooping at her ice cream and scooping it. He took his time. He was in no hurry. But neither was I in a hurry. I did not care. A third customer entered then, though. A man. A Mexican man. He stepped to the counter. The young man looked up to the Mexican man gloweringly. The young man finished scooping then the woman's order. The woman paid the young man. The woman continued on her way. Slowly, even angrily then, the young man counted the money, coin by coin, into the cash register. Slowly then, even angrily then, the young man looked up over the counter. His expression was that of a bully dragged to church. He muttered, "Sí," directly to the Mexican man. The Mexican man ordered. Slowly then the young man began to scoop out the Mexican man's ice cream. Slowly.

Sometimes I think this kind of thing happens to me because I am never exactly sure of what to say. In the United States when your turn comes you are served, regardless. Here sometimes you have to prompt them to serve you at all. Like the other day. I sat in that Sanborns reviewing my notes. That grave severe man sitting near me asked if I was a foreigner. I think he asked this because I had been sitting for some five minutes with an empty coffee cup. And I kept trying to get the attention of the busy waitress. And I kept failing. Whereas, suddenly, at some subtle gesture or look from the grave man, the waitress appeared before him to refill his cup. How did he do it? What expression was it? What gesture? What cue? Whatever he did came to him naturally. And whatever he did I obviously was not doing. Just three seats from him and still she left me unserved. It was then, I think, even at the confused knit of my eyebrows perhaps, that the grave man asked me if I was a foreigner.

You never really know, you know, what to do. You can never be completely comfortable when you first arrive abroad. I mean you can't know. You can't read these cues. You can't perform them. You always have to imitate everyone around you. Take a task as straight-forward as grocery shopping. Inside that large supermarket, that Gigante where I shopped last week, stood a separate room full of fresh bread and pan dulce. Wheeling my cart out of one of the aisles, the detergent aisle, I think, I came upon this bakery and, continuing on, wheeled my cart right across its threshold. It was not until I was well inside the room that I realized I was the only person inside the room pushing around a cart. Of the dozen or so women around me, none had brought in her cart. No sign or rule forbade carts. But there was some understood agreement among the ladies that carts were to be left outside the panificadora. They would not think it criminal, of course. They were women too gracious to even look twice at me. But violating this unwritten code flagged me immediately as a foreigner. And at the checkout stand! I didn't know whether to push the cart through it or not. The lane was so narrow! I watched others for awhile before forcing my cart through and purchasing my provisions. And do I tip the kid who is bagging my groceries? Do I tip this twelve-year-old boy wearing a starched shirt and a red necktie? There is no rest really. I tipped him because I didn't know if I should tip him or not. You can take nothing for granted when you're a foreigner. You exist in an environment where you cannot be yourself, you cannot be natural. You have to observe what's happening around you, or offend the locals, or play the fool.

The Mexican man paid for his ice cream and departed. The young man took the Mexican man's money and very slowly, coin by coin, grudgingly counted it into the cash register. Then the young man shut the cash register. Then the young man stooped down to look underneath the cash register. Then the young man turned his back to me. It was not until then, then that he turned his back to me, that I suspected something besides my misreading of social cues was afoot. It was hostility I sensed now. A hostility in the young man that I could not have provoked. I thought, "Sorry, but I'm not going away."

Finally, the young man turned about. He scowled at me almost threateningly. He said nothing.

"Una de melón?" I asked.

He appeared confused.

I repeated, "Una paleta de melón?"

He softened somewhat. He answered, "Una paleta de melón?"


He opened the freezer door.

He reached into the freezer.

He handed me my paleta de melon.

Two pesos I handed him in return. I departed.

The young man's softening suggested something. What, I'm not quite sure. By no means did he become suddenly friendly. But he did no longer look like he wanted to punch me in the face. Maybe he was afraid I was going to ask for directions or something. Who knows? Whatever he expected, it was not that I would order a cantaloupe popsicle.

10 p.m.

For the past two evenings I have enjoyed a real delicacy of the Mexico City streets. In front of the metro station near my hotel there leans a potato chip booth. At the back of the booth squats a large drum full of cooking oil. Behind that drum sits a broad man on a tiny stool skiving round chips out of fresh potatoes. And before that drum is a row of crispy plastic-bagged potato chips. For three pesos the woman leaning against the drum will dribble over the chips a hot sauce, squeeze half a fresh lime over that, and sprinkle it all with salt. Two nights in a row I've devoured a bag of these potato chips. Very delicious.

Another delicacy readily available is nuts. At the foot of my hotel an old indigenous woman toasts about six varieties of nuts on a large greaseless skillet. I've tried two of the varieties. One, whose name I did not understand, was very crunchy. I asked the old woman to repeat the name. Sounded like "vergüenzas." I doubt that's it. Crunchy they are though and rolled in a red chili powder of some sort. I've really been craving salt for the past few evenings. The other variety was peanuts.

I breakfasted on molletes again this morning at Sanborns. These are halved and toasted bread rolls topped with a layer of beans and melted cheese. Molletes are always the cheapest item on the menu. I also consumed a pan dulce called a "bigote," or, a moustache. Pan dulces are the sweet breads of Mexican cuisine. Their variety is infinite.

I just perused the newspaper Novedades. I may try to watch this new telenovela I keep seeing advertised: Al otro lado del sol. And a good arts channel rides the airwaves here: Trece. But I don't have much time for television really.

Tomorrow I go to the Zócalo again.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers