For most gringos, Mexico is a place to retire. The Mexicans say, “The Americans come here to die.” Not exactly. It isn’t why they come, but it is what they do, there being eventually no choice. Everybody has to croak somewhere, so why not in the sunshine with little brown kids running back and forth and the street dogs lounging contentedly about? It beats, for some anyway, a wretched sanitarium and lots of tubes.
In the hills on the north side of town, where the nice houses are, you see aging couples like couples anywhere. It could be Lauderdale. They have each other and insurance and pensions and savings. In the bars you see the old single guys. They have close to nothing.
At nine in the morning they sit on green iron benches and wait for the cantinas to open. Little beyond white hair unites them in appearance. Some are thin, others fat, others whatever you can think of except moneyed. “Drunks” is not quite the right word for them. They are just old guys whose lives are spent and they sit around and drink beer and wait. It’s what they have. They seldom fall off stools or get into fights. They are anything but dangerous. They are just old guys with nothing, waiting.
Some would find them reprehensible. Why don’t they do something improving, learn to knit, or take up square dancing? This is harsh. What does a man do when he is seventy years old, his wife died eight years ago in Louisiana, and the trucking firm no longer wants him as a driver? Social Security and a small pension don’t go far in America. He comes to Ajijic and moves into the residential hotel, Italo’s, a block from the plaza and easy walking distance to the bars. It’s cheap and decent and the rooms come with kitchenette and the maids clean them. I’ve stayed there.
He’s seventy and tired, too old to learn a language and probably not of that bent anyway. He doesn’t want to learn to square dance. He is not looking for a cultural experience, not looking for much of anything. Women no longer interest him except as nice people, and anyway the diabetes doesn’t help in that department. So he talks to his friends. And he drinks. It takes the curse off. Besides, if he bothers no one else, it is the business of no one else — n’est-ce pas?
It is a mistake to think these men to be of no account because they are ending their days on a bar stool. They have had lives, traveled, drifted, worked, loved, had families or not, seen things and done things. Often they are intelligent and thoughtful. They are just through.
We live in a censorious age in America, an age of “Gotcha!” in which drinking looms loathsome, smoking is a crime to be punished, second-hand smoke a fearful threat to children and plants and wallpaper. Oh dear. We all must be vigilant for racism, sexism, and the rest. Psychologists call it “passive aggressiveness,” though I think that “the Higher Priss” does nicely. Well, I say, each to his or her or its own. Still, I have always found people who smoke and drink and do the occasional doob to be more interesting than those who don’t — certainly than the drab Comstocks of the current Carryan Nation.
So I’ll cut these guys some slack. You choose an exit door, or fall through one. They have. So will you.
Not all stay in one place. In Italo’s when I was there I met a guy well into his seventies who was about to get on a third-class bus to Guatemala, I think it was. He didn’t walk too well and moved as if he had sand in his joints. He seemed sad but was keeping his chin up. He knew a hotel in a nice town outside Guatemala City where the food was cheap and the young girls just so pretty. He meant nothing sexual. They were just pretty, like pictures. He liked watching them and the kids and Guatemala.
Now that’s rough, I thought. To be at the end of his days and bouncing around bad roads on a Guatemalan bus, alone, going where he probably knew nobody — that’s not the feather-bed route out the door. But he didn’t want to spend the winter in Ajijic. At least he was free. I wished him well.
Some drunks have other stories. There was a fellow, in his thirties I’d guess, who always wore a white cowboy hat and lied compulsively about what daring things he had done. This is common. It’s called “border promotion.” You know: “I was a SEAL team leader before I was an astronaut, between being a fighter pilot and president of IBM.” Sometimes it seems like half the gringo population used to be in the CIA.
Anyway, the guy with the white cowboy hat said he used to be a dead-end drunk, and had the tremor to prove it. But he was over it, he said, and in fact seemed to be. Then one night he got a ride home with somebody, pulled a pistol from somewhere, put it under his chin and blew the top of his head off. AIDS, or at least HIV. We make our choices. The consensus was that he should have done it somewhere else, where it wouldn’t have put a hole in the roof of the car and generally made a mess.
Sometimes one of the old guys will take up with a poor Mexican gal of twenty-five with four kids. They move in together. You could say that it was absurd, that neither knew the other’s language and he was a dirty old man and she a gold-digger. You could also try to exercise a little decency. Not everybody has choices. Usually he treats her well, puts food on the table, maybe gets her some dental work or insists that the kids go to school. It’s better than nothing. She cooks and keeps house and has a few years of security, and he leaves her whatever he can. I’ve seen such couples who seemed happy together. You play the hand you draw.
Things are different for those of intellectual resources, who take up photography seriously, fly ultralights, read, or keep on at whatever they did for a living at a reduced level. I’m not sure how different it is. They too are waiting. So are we all. But there were drunks before there were moralists, and I hope there will be drunks after, as they are so much less tedious, and closer to the human condition.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.