Wintering

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AJIJIC, MEXICO — on the north shore of Lake Chapala, in the depths of a Mexican winter. It is cold, hellishly cold. Sometimes a tee-shirt isn’t enough. We may have to eat the neighbors if the temperature drops ninety degrees. It could be the Donner party all over.

When life hangs on a thread — I sense that this column isn’t going to be obsessively organized. This could be the result of residual pharmaceuticals from decades back. Or Padre Kino red, or some shift in the earth’s magnetic field. I don’t know. Details can wait. You have to deal with whatever state of consciousness you find yourself in.

Anyway, when life hangs on a thread, you can’t afford mistakes. In mid-afternoon we went to Tom’s Bar, which is never a mistake — me, my quietly wise-ass stepdaughter Natalia, and my wife Violeta who sings Aida while driving. If you are going to freeze to death, do it in good company, I say. The girls are splendid co-conspirators in any plot. Tom’s is the center of hemispheric intellectual, cultural, and social life. It is where everyone goes who is anybody.

More correctly, everyone who isn’t anybody, but this is a much better crowd. I mean, who would you rather talk to, Alaskan bush pilots and Navy fighter jocks, guys from the oil rigs and fishing fleets, disreputable writers peddling lies and distortion to unprincipled editors — or some bubble-brained socialite in one of those wretched Georgetown cocktail herds?

Tom’s was bleak, though. Instead of NASCAR or the NFL playoffs, all the televisions had some guy being enthroned as president of the US. It was awful. I can stand singing commercials for toilet paper. I once watched a half hour of Oprah and recovered, though with psychic scars. But twelve hours of embarrassing imperial pomp, chattered about by boringly dressed dullardesses with the intelligence of catfish? A freaking coronation with everything except inbred hemophiliac nobles?

In a sane world, a president would sign in online. User ID, password, bingo, he’s president, spare me the media circus. Why involve the rest of us? When I get a new job, I don’t need a $150-million parade that blocks the streets everywhere. It’s a sign of a defective character.

In fact we could probably do a president in software, and save the upkeep on that funny-looking double-wide on Pennsylvania Avenue. Server space is cheap these days. Little processing power would be needed to simulate the average president. An abacus would probably do it.

Anyway, Tom’s. The place is a monument to the familiar and comfortable. It’s like a worn leather bomber jacket you’ve had for years. There’s nothing really special about the jacket. You could get a fancier one at a store in Houston for gay cowboys for a thousand rapidly rotting green dollars. But you like the jacket because you’re used to it and it works — stops the wind, mosquitoes can’t bite through it. You like the Air Force patch, “Ad Astra per Scrotum” on the shoulder. That’s Tom’s. Good music running to blues and rock, fine chili and wings, bartenders you know. No lobbyists.

Anyway, I claim comfortable familiarity is in short supply in too many places. I knew all manner of restaurants and bars around Washington, but none of them was mine. At Tom’s you feel like you are going into your own living room. That’s how it should be. That’s how it is in English pubs and a lot of corner joints in Chicago. No bartender in these places ever says, “Hi! I’m Luis, and I am so happy that you chose to patronize Tom’s, and I’m going to be your wait-person today, and you just call me if you need anything, ooooh!” This is important as it probably saves me from a murder charge.

On the lobotomy box the babble-blondes kept nattering on like concussed parrots about how wonderful it was that we had a black president. Oh God, I thought, spare me. I mean, so what? So he’s black. Lots of guys are black. It’s a pretty common thing, really. He isn’t a freak, an unexplained natural phenomenon, just some guy who probably couldn’t find a better job so he took what he could get. I mean, if we had elected, say, a giant fronded barnacle from a geothermal vent, then, sure, I’d want to hear about it. For at least five minutes. Or maybe if we chose a hitherto-unknown tube worm. Though I grant we came pretty close last time. What’s the big deal about a black guy?

I figured a black president couldn’t possibly be worse than the white ones. This O’Bama guy hadn’t done anything terrible yet. Good as any, better’n some. OK, I figured, we’ve done that. Now can we watch NASCAR? I like looking at really fast Japanese cars.

Tom’s in fact belongs to Tom. You’ve heard of Caesar’s in Las Vegas? It’s a fraud. Caesar isn’t even on the board. He died even before the Beatles started singing, but they don’t tell you that. Tom is an actual person (photo entered in evidence). Good guy, checkered past, really nice Mexican wife, three swell kids, dog till somebody poisoned her.

Dogs. (I told you this wasn’t going to be coherent,) Tom’s policy is that if you have a civilized dog and it wants to curl up under the table while you fertilize your dendritic pathways with elixir of grape, that’s fine. I like this. I grew up with dogs and preferred them to most people. They never drive while talking on cell phones or say “Have a nice day!” like gurgling metrosexual smiley-faces. There’s a Weimaraner the size of a small burro that occasionally wanders into Tom’s. Perfectly good dog.

Once I looked up and a horse had its head in the door. Its owner had ridden to Tom’s and parked, and I guess the horse wondered what was inside. So it stuck its head in to see. It’s what I would have done.

Some of the local gringas get their skivvies in a knot over, ewwwww, dogs. These feral drabs, who may really have come from a geothermal vent, probably having been asked to leave, seem to think it their mission to remake Mexico in the image of the US. This is the principle of American foreign policy writ small. You know how well that works.

In a notorious case one of these militant frumps began hollering “Get that dog out!” The reasonable response, which I was not there to make, was that if she didn’t like Tom’s, she needed to find another bar, and better yet, another country. Actually the reasonable response would have been to hit her on the head with a table.

In any event she demanded her tip back from the bar tender, and went storming out. Given a choice of dogs, I would have preferred the Weimaraner. He is a mannerly beast.

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. Visit his blog.

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