(Photographs included are views from inside my apartment, and outside on the building’s roof patio)
October 12th was the celebration for a precious ten-inch doll, who on arrival was secured upright in a glass keyhole shaped box and dressed in radiant blue. Her residence is a two-tiered colonial sanctuary, the Basilica of Zapopan, a town that eclipses the west side of Guadalajara.
Lifted by the zealous palms of her worshippers, residents of the culturally rich Mexican state of Jalisco, the doll’s glassy eyes stared straight ahead, stoically, as she waded through muggy crowds from church to church. Her cheeks remained as white and sweet as baby powder as her fans sweated and cried; her countenance was unchanged. The virgin, as I imagine, was resisting the onset of emotion at first sight of home and the glorious demonstration of love, prayer and appreciation her people exuded on arrival.
The virgin’s return to her basilica from her solemn months-long pilgrimage is the largest celebrated homecoming in Jalisco. By coincidence, my homecoming was destined for the same morning. My cheeks, however, were as flushed as the red tiled stairs I ascended to reach my apartment for the first time, pulling overweight bags, and if my expression was stoic it was only to avoid stares.
The apartment might be better suited for a person closer the size of the virgin statuette. It was, more or less, a capricious decision (based after all on a few aesthetic assets—a rooftop garden, being one) after an exhaustive search of Guadalajara. The city is like any other: expensive. It’s possible, of course, to find a one or two bedroom apartment for $1,000 to $2,000 pesos for a month’s rent, but only in the seedier neighborhoods, and not furnished. The same in a decent colonia might run $5,000 or $6,000 pesos a month. As a poor American immigrant with all her worldly belongings in two suitcases, that would not do.
My first home on arrival was the Hostal de Maria, which I reserved for two nights. I was pleased by my choice. The hostel is tucked in a small plaza shared by a waterless fountain and car repair shop, near Nueve Esquinas in the historic district.
I met there a wandering Canadian who did not know to drink only purified water, and became sick a few days into his stay. He nevertheless followed my tourism advice, and one morning set out for Tapalpa, a cozy, hilly town south of the city where three years ago I camped beneath a boulder on a freezing night.
I also met a brainy young man from Monterrey whose eyes bulged slightly and whose near-perfect spoken English reminded me of the interpreter’s narration in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (he said he learned English almost exclusively from reading books). Days later I received an email from him—a rather existential account of his life and misgivings, which also led me to believe he fell in love with me over a few drinks of tequila the same night the Canadian fell ill.
I was “rescued” from that home by the concerned mother of a Tapatia friend of mine whose children I looked after in Greensboro. Carmen was not as convinced of my safety at the hostel as I was. So, three days after coming to the city, I forced my pregnant suitcases into the trunk of a taxicab and was escorted to Carmen’s immaculate home in a neighborhood behind Plaza Mexico.
On the way I was probed by the chofer on my origins and purpose in the city, and though not in the mood to converse in depth, explained that I find the Mexican way of life quite nice and easygoing. The chofer enthusiastically concurred and began to lecture me.
“Here, I can do what I want. I have no reason to go to the States. If I want to work, I work. If I don’t want to work, I don’t. In the States, you have no freedom!” I prompted him to elaborate.
For example, the chofer explained, Americans cannot drink outside, in the street. In America the stores and bars close early, so you can’t buy alcohol when you want. He had a point, although I was tempted to counter his negative view of our Puritan tendencies with a certain Mexican stereotype he may have just confirmed.
Carmen was not home when the chofer dropped me off, and instead of sitting on my suitcases at her driveway for several hours, I knocked on the door of a convent across the street and asked if they wouldn’t mind me leaving my things in their garden until Carmen returned. After permission was sought and provided by the mother superior, I dragged the bags inside the door and onto a patio.
Carmen later expressed surprise at the nuns’ amiability, as she holds a fifteen-year grudge against them for uprooting a gorgeous old tree from the front sidewalk during renovations.
I had met Carmen a day before, when she cooked a pasta lunch (it made her unspeakably happy, as her grandchildren refuse to eat carbohydrates). Afterwards in Carmen’s silver Honda we went to investigate a room for rent ad in the online classifieds of El Informador, priced well and in an approved neighborhood.
The house itself was pleasant looking from the outside. But the interior was dismal, cast in shades of maroon and sepia, the walls gilded with faded portraits of a family photographed in the seventies.
Upon our entry, the disembodied voice of a elderly man guided us up the stairs and into the bedroom where he reclined on an ugly brown lazy-boy. The chair was situated dead center in the room against the foot of a tall bed and, rather disconcertingly, directly faced the door leading into the hallway. The old man, wearing only a wifebeater and a blanket, lifted his left arm weakly and tugged on a long cord to illuminate the room. Thick-rimmed glasses overwhelmed his blank eyes and pitiful face; sickly spots gathered on his shoulders and chest, and both feet, the size and roughly the shape of a pair of coconuts, were entirely wrapped in bandages.
The old man summoned his “wife” to show us to the room for rent. A woman no older than thirty drifted out of a steamy shower room, twisting her dark hair into a long ponytail that fell almost to the waist of her gray miniskirt. She shuffled in blocky high-heeled shoes back down the staircase. We followed her through a kitchen, opening into a sunlit foyer where dirty birdcages filled with unhappy creatures hung on hooks.
Up a staircase, then another until we stood blinking on a green roof. The woman pointed me toward a fearful, black spiral staircase. I climbed it reluctantly, and paused as she fiddled with a key ring and opened the door. The room was damp, windowless, and more dismal than I could have expected even at that point in the tour. Carmen remarked after our quick retreat that it would have been like waking up in a Kafka novel.
The first night in my apartment I spent immersed in Saul Bellow’s The Victim, spread out belly-down under a bedside lamp that leans at an unnatural angle, hardly necessary for the streetlight that filters a dim orange through nylon curtains.
At the exact moment that Bellow’s restless protagonist Leventhal, alone in his Manhattan apartment, paranoidly believes he has heard a doorbell ring (“Eagerly he pulled open the door and shouted ‘who is it?’ The flat was unbearably empty…”), I heard a bell myself and started. Then, a sharp, though possibly distant, tapping. My bedroom being directly under the rest of my apartment by way of a narrow spiral staircase, sounds originating upstairs are difficult to gauge.
Not two hours before I had been squatting on the staircase in order to better reach the outlet adapted for my hairdryer. I sat in a cocoon of white noise and warmth for three minutes, poofing my hair under the appliance. My focus was instantly shattered the moment I switched off the dryer and next to me, it seemed, a man released a sickly chuckle à la Beavis and Butthead, and a bit deeper: “Huh huh.” I sat petrified until I realized the voice was down on the sidewalk, directly below my stoop and separated from me by a solid whitewashed wall. (“What really concerned him was that perhaps his nerves were to blame and that he had imagined the ring just as he had imagined that he slept…”)
Like Leventhal, I kept the bathroom light burning all night.
The fact that I should feel disarmed has more to do with my choice of reading material since my arrival in Mexico than an actual security threat in my neighborhood. Up until 3 a.m. and my left side irreparably cramped from leaning sideways under the lamp, I read In Cold Blood till Capote assured my conscience that not only were Perry Smith and Dick Hickock captured and properly secured behind bars, but that their hearts no longer beat after 1965.
City living is not frightening, but it is colorful, smelly, crowded, and loud. There is a telephone somewhere outside my apartment building that rings on some nights religiously, without pause, from sunset until long after I fall asleep. It’s faint enough to be smothered by my radio or TV, but persistent enough to keep me up later than needed inventing scenarios related to its cause and intended recipient. Several dogs keep the night air on its toes, particularly one sullen, long-eared mongrel often leashed to my landlady’s stationary bicycle, who satisfies his vengeance against his captivity with an ungodly nocturnal howl.
In the daytime there are the gas and water trucks that announce their products with happy-go-lucky ditties spit out of double-mouthed loudspeakers, sounding like the refreshment ads that screen before a drive-in picture, the dancing popcorn boxes and hot dogs and soda pops. Unwieldy square buses jolt down the avenue like cement blocks on roller skates, careening around street corners in gravity defying lurches. Sometimes a man sings with an accordion a few blocks down my street, where people gather midday for fruit and a hot lunch at a taco stand.
Beneath the volume of the main avenue, there are softer city sounds that reach my ears: kids chattering, whining, street cleaners combing the sidewalks with bushy straw brooms, the bass echo of reggaeton blocks away. The sounds wash under my curtains, pushed aside by a steady cool breeze, and find me while I rest on top of my sheets. They wallow in my little room without a proper door through which to exit, and eventually drift upward over the spiraling steps.