Thursday, July 21, 2011

Street Walker (Mexico City, Mexico)

July 17, 2011

After dancing for over five hours yesterday in the Ciudadela, I feel a bit tired today. The muscle I pulled before I left the States no longer hurts, but that could be because my big toe, my calves, my arms, and and my torso are aching so much that all previous pain is overshadowed. Be that as it may, I resolve to spend the day taking it easy.

On Sundays, Reforma -- a major thoroughfare -- is closed to vehicular traffic. People stroll, skateboard, roller skate, and bike for miles, often bringing their dogs along for the ride. Bicycles and wheelchairs are available at no charge, if you are willing to leave your I.D. at a kiosk. I prefer to walk along the street.

Street vendors are out in force, selling everything you never knew you wanted or needed. A line of children and their parents patiently await their turns on the merry-go-round in Alameda Park. Toddlers tote balloons. Japanese tourists pose for photos with people dressed as Sponge Bob, Cat Woman, and Star Wars characters. A turbaned man will write my name in Arabic, for a small fee. (He looks like the same guy -- minus the turban, plus Hassidic garb -- who wrote peoples' names in Hebrew, last year. Will 2012 be the year of my name in Chinese?) Four thousand people cross the street, all coming towards me at once; I've got my own posse of at least 4,017 strangers, streaming along beside me.

The enticing aromas of cooking and the sight of just about everyone eating something -- bags of chips, tacos, giant lollypops, sandwiches stuffed with meats and cheeses, ice cream, corn swathed in mayonnaise, coated in grated cheese, sprinkled with hot chili peppers -- make me want to join in. I purchase a cup of esquites, large chewy corn kernels, hold the mayo, but drenched in lime juice and sprinkled with cheese.

Fatigued from hours of strolling, people watching, and chewing (of corn, not people), I escape the crowds by stopping at a Starbucks and lingering over a small coffee. (There are hordes of police milling around outside the entrance; I learn later that that they were present, for crowd control, at the wonderful parade that I am either missing, had missed, or was about to miss.) The sloping glass skyscraper which houses the cafe is undergoing re-construction, and I notice that there are no ceilings or floors above me, just randomly placed beams, boards, and sheets of plastic. It sounds, however, as if ungainly mastodons (were there any gainly ones?) are playing tag overhead, so I begin to fear that I am experiencing an earthquake. My feeling is that I should get the hell out before being turned into sashimi.

There is no earthquake; however, I do feel a bit shaken. So, I purchase a ticket for the final chapter in the movie chronicles of Harry Potter; I need a bit of unreality to settle me down. I attend the subtitled, non-3-D version, which probably explains why there are only seven other people watching with me, as opposed to the roughly 7,086 seated in each of the ten other theaters of the multiplex. Still, the film is fun and doesn't require any thought or activity on my part.

I wander through other closed-to-car streets, stopping to listen to a group of young musicians playing their brass instruments. I join the crowd surrounding them and observe two elderly couples dancing gracefully. One pair waves frantically to someone behind me, I think, but it turns out that they are greeting me. After the number ends, the man comes over and says, "We know you from the Ciudadela. Will you dance with me?" I say no, but only because it's danzon.

My friend, Ingrid, is due to arrive at our hotel at around 7:00 p.m., so I head back. She hasn't come in yet, so I go out again to find something to eat.

Roast chicken sounds tempting, but the rotissomat is closed. The stand around the block that sells quesadillas looks just a little too iffy. The spot I've been wanting to try for a turkey sandwich is being cleaned up for the night. What shall I do?

There's a place on the corner, only two streets away, that's still open. I peer in and notice some women. What I don't notice is that they are with men and that the place is not really a restaurant, but a bar. Oh, well. They're advertising turkey tacos, 3 for 25 pesos, just the thing -- all that serotonin -- to help me get a good night's sleep.

Unfortunately, they're out of turkey. There's no chicken. No fish. No seafood. Steak, yes. And other man-food to accompany the alcohol that all of the men are downing.

The bar is full of men. Three at a neighboring table are already toasting me, one across from me is giving me the eye, and another man is either winking at me or suffering from tics.

I request an order of cheese quesadillas. "With beans?" my waiter asks, hopefully, as if they wouldn't, otherwise, be substantial enough to serve.

"Yes, please," I reply, because I've developed a man-sized appetite.

I pull out a magazine and try to read over the blare of the TV and music. One of the men from the table for three plops down across from me, tries to engage me in conversation, invites me to go out to dinner with him, and leaves in a huff when I turn him down.

That's the cue for another fellow to pull up a chair and offer to buy me a drink. I've already polished off my quesadillas, the lemonade I ordered, and half of another one the waiter said was on the house, so I sweetly say, "No, thanks. I'm leaving." I manage to do so, just as another man -- either intent on being "the chosen one" or interested in apprenticing as a waiter -- approaches my table.

(Note to self and warning to solitary female travelers: Next time you're hungry on a Sunday, stop at the 7-11 or OXXO, and buy some crappy sandwich to eat in your room, alone and in peace!)

By the time I reach the hotel, Ingrid has checked in. We catch up on each other's lives over the last year and agree to meet on Tuesday, to visit a new museum that I passed earlier in the day.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Face to Face with My Food (Mexico City, Mexico)

Every four or five days my body craves vegetables, tons of them. That's when I heap my plate at an all-I-can eat Chinese buffet. So far, I've done this twice on this trip.

The first time, I loaded up on zucchini, carrots, bean sprouts, cabbage, green peppers, jicama, broccoli, onions, and cauliflower. I had a bowl of seafood soup, and a bit of chicken. I also grabbed a fried chicken wing and a chicken-carrot croquet that tasted sour and neither chickeny nor carroty.

The second time, I´m at a different place, gorging on a bowl of broth and two plates of the vegetables above, plus string beans. I also help myself to the chicken and seafood that some of the greens, yellows, and oranges accompany. As I finish up, I am struck by a debilitating MSG headache.

Through the headachy haze, I hear what sounds like someone screaming. I feel unnerved, as the screaming keeps getting louder, coming closer. Then I notice a girl, heading for the restaurant kitchen, toting a big plastic bag in each hand. One bag holds three large, live ducks. The other, four white pigeons or doves. I know this, because their heads are sticking out and their eyes peering at me as I watch them. A young man follows behind the girl. He's hoisting another, larger bag, in which a small goat -- the source of the screaming -- is struggling.

Now, I am not a vegetarian. I know that some of what I eat -- poultry, fish, seafood -- has a face. But, the sight of these animals, destined for tomorrow's buffet, is pretty disturbing. I can't tell if I've lost my appetite because of all the food I just ate or the soon-to-be-food I just faced.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dancing with the Stares (Mexico City, Mexico)

I've been meeting my gal pals at the Centro de Convenciones. We share a table and take turns buying each other soft drinks, raising our eyebrows about our partners, and fanning the hot air around.

To recap, I´ve danced with some pretty competent salseros. Then there are the memorable ones, who seem to crawl out of the walls when the dance hall lights are dim:

The little guy, exactly my height, who breathes heavily into my face and sends his breath up my nose, who stares nonstop and soulfully into my eyes, and who leers in a way that makes me fear his canines are about to grow, sharpen, and sink into my necky flesh.

The man with a small head and a shirt opened to reveal a thick, unwelcome mat of curly hair that hits me at face level and reminds me of an overgrown roll of sod or a misplaced toupé. This fellow has traveling hands which I am constantly moving off my derrière. I have no idea what he's mumbling into my hair: "My name is Fernando?" "Do you mind if I feel your bum one more time?" "Are you still breathing, or have I succeeded in suffocating you in my manly chest hairs?"

The nonmover and shaker. He stands practically in place, as he whips me around. Unaware of space, he swings me into the people nearby, causing me to get stilletoed by a well-heeled female and to rump-bump an innocent bystander. At one point, purely by accident and in self defense, I smack him in the head with a hand I flailed to pull back in time.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Daze and Nights (Cuernavaca, Mexico)

Day 1

I arrive in Cuernavaca three hours earlier than planned, so Horacio sends his mother and stepfather to pick me up at the station. They take me to Costco for some shopping, then we go to their lovely house. (Living room looks out onto the garden, the star of which is a swimming pool that beckons even me.) We dine on homemade lentil soup, Costco-made roast chicken, and nature's own mangoes.

Horacio stops by to get my stuff and me and gives me time to install everything in the guest bedroom. We go next door to greet his grandmother, and she and I agree to walk downtown and get something to drink.

At 82, Leonor is practically wrinkle free, has no pains or illnesses, and has no lack of energy. (When I grow up, I want to be like her, however, I'm gonna have to do something about these wrinkles...) The 20-minute walk is hilly and cobble-stoned, and our pace is quite clipped. Leonor made the mistake of wearing dressy shoes rather than sneakers, and she suffers, as a result. Next time, she says, she`ll forget her vanity and wear comfortable shoes.

We stop at a chic coffee house, but some kind of event is taking place, and we are ushered into a tiny, claustrophobic room. We leave, ending up at a sidewalk cafe, where I slug fresh lemonade and she sips a frappachino. We comment on the lack of United Statians in Cuerna, this year. We admire the view of the cathedral across the way, then up and walk around the zocalo (central square).

Leonor points out the changes that have been made since last summer: The huge, imposing statue of Morelos has been moved to one side of Cortes's Palace; a statue of Zapata on horseback rears up in its place. Zapata is half-encircled by smaller statues of an indigenous woman and child, a mariachi, and other Mexican types. The area where older couples danced Danzon is gone, replaced by steps. There's a more expansive view of the palace and a larger garden in front of it.

We cross the street to the nearby square that features a gazebo. This area, too, has been remodeled. Three-quarters of the vendors who sold corn on and off the cob, cotton candy, and fried dough in 15 forms are gone. The scene is still lively, with loads of people sitting on benches, children careening through and laughing, and couples snuggling; but the openness cuts into the feeling of intimacy, of closeness with everyone else in the crowd.

And then I look up and notice that the lights are not on in the dance studio where I took belly dancing and salsa lessons last summer. Not a good sign. As a matter of fact, there is no sign at all.

Day 2

Breakfast at a restaurant (similar to a hundred others) is cantaloupe, the ubiquitous instant Nescafe, huevos a la mexicana (with chopped tomatoes, green peppers and onions), beans, and tortillas. Tasty and filling, for less than $3.00 (USA).

I pass familiar signs as I get closer to Cemanahuac: Diario de Morelos (a local newspaper), KFC, Pizza Hut, Office Depot, and Estrella de Oro (a bus station). I stop by the school to greet my former teachers and to chat with owners and administrators. Harriet gives me a t-shirt, in celebration of Cuernavaca's 50 years of "teaching Spanish to the world." We lament the low number of students in attendance this year (fear? the economy?), and I take leave. On the side street, a four-legged wet mop (a.k.a. dog) waddles toward me, leaving me to my own devices only when I approach the main drag.

Horacio's mom and I meet for lunch in an off-the-grid, cheap, and popular hole in the wall, where we grab the last two seats at one of two long, communal tables. I've invited her, but Rosalba insists on paying for our delicious shrimp soup (23 pesos each), along with the several fried fish and their accouterments (guacamole, pasta) she's ordered to go (for the family). She allows me to buy three pastries for her to take home.

I'm off to visit more friends.

It's Santiago's seventh birthday. The big celebration has already taken place. This party is only for six of his school buddies and their moms, his parents and brother, and a few other relatives. The adults' conversations range from the pros and cons of yoga and zumba, to the remarks made by snooty parents of other children at Santi's school, to reminiscences of when my son and I first came to Cuernavaca, just in time for Santi's second birthday. Over 200 people attended the farm-party extravaganza, a toy store worth of gifts were given, two big piñatas were beaten to within an inch of their papier maché lives, and the more intimate, family-only party (25 attendees), like this one, was held soon afterwards.

I eat some of the carrot cake Santiago's mom, my friend Claudia, has baked; a raspberry gelatin made with yogurt, prepared by one of the friend's mothers; and a bag of popcorn that I douse with a salty, fruit-tinged hot sauce. Alternating glasses of water with agua de jamaica, I am counting on finding an opportunity to dance off these empty but delicious calories.

I get to visit with Beto's parents, his sisters and their kids, and Claudia's brother, Haciel, his Spanish wife, Tamara, and their three-year-old and one-and-a-half-month-old daughters. Before I go, Claudia, who designs and sells soaps and teaches classes on soap-making, presents me with an adorable aqua and white soap popsicle, with a "bite" taken out of it.

Day 3

There's no water this morning, so I can't shower. I've brought a package of baby wipes especially for such contingencies, so I'm good to go.

Horacio makes us breakfast: fried spaghetti and fried eggs, over easy. I brought my own coffee, instant but stand-your-hair-on-its-ends strong. Everything tastes fabulous.

We spend the morning running errands and then ride around a neighborhood for about an hour, searching for two seafood restaurants that are located somewhere in the maddening maze of streets. We finally find a quiet, pretty spot, where we enjoy the fish quesadillas that we dress up with hot sauce and cool, fresh lime juice. We each wolf down a small (translation: huge) bowl of fish ceviche with octopus, shrimp, and oysters, washing it all down with huge goblets of watery lemonade. So full, I could pop, I plop down around $20 (USA), which includes the tip.

Back at home, we invite Leonor to join us for a visit to the Brady Museum. It's Horacio's first time there, probably my eighth, in the charming art and artifact filled former home of the American born artist and collector. We run into Sergio, the curator and art restorer, who promises to arrange for me to see some of the other art collections in private homes around town. Maybe next time...

Horacio, Leonor, and I stop into a new hotel, three doors down and across the street from the museum. Beautiful rooms run less that $140 (USA) per night and include a continental breakfast, Internet access, use of a lovely swimming pool, an elegant common room, and terraces with views of the grounds and/or the cathedral. One room boasts a jacuzzi, another, a steam bath. A bungalow has a separate entrance, huge master bedroom and bath, a nice little kitchen, charming living room and a smaller, second bedroom and bathroom. If you want the website, let me know!

We take a bus back to the house. I nap for an hour and awaken to the smell of Horacio making toast. (To clarify, it's the toast that I smell, not Horacio.) I make myself two slices, spread on some peanut butter, and eat, contentedly.

Day 4

Horacio drives me to two small towns, to visit churches, with their monasteries and convents. The first place (TK) is also known for its cecina, thin sliced, grilled steak which one sandwiches in tortillas, with cheese, avocado, and green onion. Horacio orders some, while I munch on cheese quesadillas, with sides of avocado and grilled nopales (cactus paddle).

The second church-monastery is more interesting than the first. An on-site museum exhibits nine mummies -- the dessicated bodies of children, a man, and a women, who were buried in the church, preserved by the minerals in the soil, and who look like shriveled dolls with poorly drawn, cartoony faces and leathery hands and feet.

In the evening, Leonor and I go to Los Arcos to hear music and so I can dance. We order chicken tacos to share and some nonalcoholic beverages. Leonor catches the eye of an acquaintance, an older woman seated with four others and a man, all danzoneros. Leonor tells the woman that I want to dance and asks her to send over the man at her table. He is kind enough to dance once with me, when the band begins to play salsa.

Two young couples ask to join us at our table for six. They order beers and make multiple toasts with each other, and with us. The older (29ish?) of the two men asks me to dance. He has already had three too many beers and is becoming overly friendly. "Isn't that your girlfriend?" I ask.

"No, just a friend," he assures me, as he swings me wildly about. He's interested in a more mature woman, who knows more about the world, he tells me.

"I hope you meet one," I tell him.

"Just a friend" and her friend leave and leave us with these 20-something Romeos. The young'uns suggest we go somewhere else, while Leonor and I try not to splurt out our beverages through our noses.

I dance with a salsa instructor from Los Angeles, who was born in Mexico and on vacation in Cuernavaca. Before leaving, I run into a guy who took salsa lessons with "Rubber Legs," the dance instructor who seems to have changed locations once again. (See previous posting from Cuernavaca.) Although I don't get a chance to take lessons this time out, it's good to know he's still teaching.

Leonor and I bid good night to our besotted young friends and catch a cab back home.

Day 5

I say my goodbyes to Horacio and his grandmother. Rosalba walks me to the bus station. I feel as if I'm leaving family. I am.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A (Very) Little Black Dress (Mexico City, Mexico)

July 6, 2011

I lunch at the Pausa...Cafe, which is situated right next to my subway stop. It's almost always packed, so I'm assuming that the food is good rather than that yesterday's patrons have all died of food poisoning and that those of us who are here today are all here for the first -- and last -- time.

First, a delicious cream of red pepper soup. I remove the stray, floating herb or eyelash and add almost too much hot sauce, which ramps up the flavor, will probably kill anything that's not already dead, and leaves my lips stinging. Next course: steamed broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, bland but tasting like themselves. Finally, chicken with fine herbs and four petite, pink potatoes. Musicians plink their guitars and sing as the tastes play out quite pleasantly in my mouth.

Sated, I walk to the Banamex Palace of Culture (Madera #7, near Bolivar). I spend a tranquil hour or so viewing the temporary exhibit of religious paintings -- saints, the Virgin, the Immaculate Conception, the Resurrection, etc. -- by Zurburan, Rubens, Coello, and other noted and unknown artists from both sides of the Atlantic. These are not my favorite subjects, but they are well executed. Especially the saints.

On my way back to the hotel, I run into Irene, who promises to meet me at the Centro de Convenciones within an hour or so. Of course, it starts to rain cats and dogs, plus a few mules and a soggy goat, as soon as I am dressed for dancing and step outside again.

I step inside the huge Convention Center, and a woman asks me if I have already bought a ticket. When I say no and rummage in my bag for the 10-peso entry fee, she hands me an extra pass. An auspicious beginning...

The place is huge. There are tons of people. I walk up and down one side of the hall, trying to find Irene at a table or on the dance floor. "This is not going to be easy," I tell myself, but I'm not really listening. That's because he band is cranking out salsa, my toes are already tapping, my hips, hopping.

Before wading into the sea of bobbing heads and swirling bodies, I decide to put on my dancing shoes and put down the bag holding my "supplies": toilet paper, soap leaves, a fan, tissues, rain poncho, some business cards. I park myself and my stuff in an empty seat at an empty table.

Before I can buckle my shoes, I am asked to dance by a man twice as big and twice as old as I am. In the middle of the song, he asks, "Do you like chocolate?"

Now, those of you who know me know that I don't just like chocolate, I love chocolate -- to the extent that I consider it a basic food group. Dark, bitter-sweet chocolate, that is. None of that namby-pamby milk chocolate for me. None of that phony-baloney white-chocolate chocolate-wannabe substance for me. Not that there's anything wrong with them. (We can talk about your problems at another time.)

So I say, "Yes....?"

"I'm going to give you some later."

I thank him for the dance and no-thank him for the promised chocolate.

When I return to my seat, a thin, graying man is sitting across from me. I greet him, then set out again to look for Irene. Before I've taken two steps, a park acquaintance pulls me onto the floor. As I leave to re-search, another man I've danced with at the Ciudadela, grabs me for a cumbia.

There are two dance floors, one of which is sunken, adjacent to each other. I make may way around both, ever on the look-out and now, on my way to the ladies room.
Suddenly, a thin woman with long red hair runs up to me. "Excuse me, amiga. I'm sitting at a table for four, but we are only three. Would you like to join us?"

"Thank you," I say, "but I'm meeting a friend."

"If you don't find her, please come sit with us -- over there." She points to table at which two men are swivel-necking to see us. They smile at me, wave, and nod. I thank but no-thank her and continue on.

It's only by chance that I spot Irene, momentarily seated between dances at a table not far from my own. I return for my things, excuse myself from my table mate, and switch to a seat with Irene's entourage.

I notice the redhead and her male friends beckoning to me from halfway across the hall. "I FOUND MY FRIEND!" I mouth, pointing to Irene with boundless enthusiasm.

One of the redhead's companions, green eyed and hair gel slicked, comes over to request a dance. He's a good dancer but he carries with him a cloud of cigarette smoke that fogs the air around us as we salsa.

"My name is Memo," he says.

"Oh, short for Guillermo, huh?"

"Memo para ti."

"So, your last name is To You...," I joke.

"No," he says. "I'm Memo to you."

Just my kind of partner: smells bad and has no sense of humor.

Later, when I dance with him again, he pushes a crumpled napkin into my hand. "Call me," it says, followed by his number and his name. I have no intention of calling him, however, I don't intentionally blow my nose in the napkin. I realize that I've done so only when I look in a mirror and notice the blue ink on my schnoz.

I dance several times with the man who was seated across from me before my move. Both he and another of my younger dance partners are attorneys. The two offer me their professional services, which I hope that I will never need. They offer me their phone numbers, which I do not accept. The younger one proposes taking me to breakfast. I don't need that, either.

After dancing with three or four other guys, my first partner of the evening puts out his hand. Instead of leading me to the dance floor, he stops at his table and thrusts a small, black garbage bag into my hands. "I sell dresses," he says, "and I want you to have this."

"I can't accept a gift from you," I tell him. I wasn't about to take chocolate from him, much less a dress, although I haven't had chocolate since I left the States....

"No, really. I insist. There's no commitment. I just know that this dress will look great on you. It's a dress made for dancing. Please, take it."

I don't know why, but I do.

Later, in my room, I try it on.

Let me explain by using an analogy: shmatta: dress = me: Gweneth Paltrow (Translation: This thing is to a dress as I am to a movie star.)

It's heavy, black polyester, lined with black, heavy polyester. Three sequined horizontal bands run across the front, like sparkly bandages of death, hitting me at my chest, my waist, and my hips. The sleeves hang down, five inches longer than my arms. The hem hits just slightly below my hips. The neckline scoops so low and so wide, that if I lean forward an inch, you can see clear down to my belly button. The gaping front slit runs from the hem clear up to my belly button. In short -- in very, very short -- it's a cross between something that the Addams Family's Morticia would wear and a drum majorette's uniform.

I laugh so hard that I split a seam.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rats! (Mexico City, Mexico)

July 5, 2011

I didn't sleep well last night. The bags under my eyes are big enough to carry a change of clothing and a pair of slippers. My hair looks like it´s weathered a lightning strike. And I am not in a good mood.

It´s not a good morning for the Cafe Rex's lecherous owner to start messing with me. First, he places one hand directly on top of the page I'm reading in my book of short stories (Rest Area by Clay McLeod Chapman),which is populated by crazed killers, cannibalistic boy scouts, and pumpkin-screwing farmboys. (I'm not making this up, although I hope the author is!) Then, he puts his other paw on my chin, rotating my face towards his. "I like you," he says, in a way that translates not into like as in liking ice cream or foreign films or poetry but into liking someone in a sexual way. "Is there anything wrong with that?" he asks.

"Yes," I answer in a tone that rings at once calm and ominous. Sort of like spitting, but without the saliva.

"What?" he asks.

I look him directly in his beady little eyes as I enunciate: "I JUST WANT TO EAT MY BREAKFAST."

He obviously reads the subtitles of my thoughts, which translate into something on the order of "Touch me one more time and I'll smack you so hard even your mother won't recognize you," because he quickly moves away.

Tired and cross, I piddle the day away. I am cheered by the scrawny, green-necked, little chicken hopping in and out of a doorway that I pass on my walk back to my hotel and a much-needed nap.

I awaken to a sound that sends shivers up and down my spine, that raises my hackles, that makes me want to run, screaming from my room: Rats running around my closet? I´m afraid to open the door and find out. Eventually, I realize that what I´m hearing is not the pitter-patter of tiny rodent feet but the plinking-plunking of enormous raindrops against my window. Rats, rodents, raindrops. An honest mistake. The words all begin with "r."

It's pouring, but I have agreed to meet Alvaro for an evening of dancing at Caribe. Unfortunately, we have a bit of a miscommunication. I drip and wait outside the subway stop, while he waits inside -- for half an hour.

When we finally reach the club, I find it a bit depressing. We sit with some friends, I dance with Alvaro and others, and I'm back in my hotel room by nine. Tomorrow will be sunnier, I'm sure.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Dancing with Wolves (Mexico City, Mexico)

July 2, 2011 (Continued)

It´s raining again, so I arrive, completely drenched, at Salon Hidalgo. I sit with some women but, mostly, I dance.

A guy, exactly my height and with a charming smile, holds me too closely for my comfort. When I refuse to dance with him again, he asks me why, and I tell him. He promises to keep his distance. This time, he maintains a good foot (his size, not mine) or so between us.

"Better?" he asks.

"Much better," I reply.

My slovenly partner from the other day requests a dance. While he´s flipping me around the floor, he says, "Don´t get angry, but I´d like you to be my girlfriend."

"Thank you, but I´m sorry. That´s impossible." That´s the last I see of him.

Another man tells me that he recognizes me from last year. "I never had the opportunity to ask you to dance," he says. He slips me his phone number and tells me that I can call him anytime, for anything.

All dressed in white, a long-haired, skinny, young man twirls and whirls and whips me around. I am laughing hysterically, in part because of his frantic and athletic moves and partly out of fear that his strenuous yanking of my arms will separate them from their sockets.

Word has obviously gone out that there is a gringa in the house. The wolves are circling my table. They are knocking into each other in their attempts to ask me to dance. Good for my ego. Bad for my relationship with the other women at the table. And a bit scary. Where are my friends and protectors when I need them?

I know how to take care of myself, though. I leave.

Two Things I Like to Do (Mexico City, Mexico)

(July 1, 2011) Dancing and eating, not necessarily in that order.

I´ve already told you that I´m not that comfortable with numbers and, as I don´t have my calendar with me, I´m confused and out-of-date. So, forgive me for taking you back in time once again...

I´m dancing in the Ciudadela with Alvaro, Ricardo, Roberto (a sweet and charming friend of Ricardo´s), the cowboy in black (met him last year; so much fun to dance with), a tiny, dapper, mustachioed guy who won´t let me rest), and a fellow Acquarian (who makes me want to change my birth sign).

In the evening, I meet Miriam and her husband, Jorge. We get something to eat in my hotel´s restaurant. I must be really hungry, because I relish every last bite of my chicken, potato, and cheese quesadillas, despite the fact that the food here is nothing to blog home about.

(July 2, 2011)

Cafe Rex´s owner bends over me as I am eating my breakfast. He whispers in my ear: "I want to have your children."

"Fantastic!" I say. "But you´re going to have to pay their way here. My son´s in Rhode Island, and my daughter's in Colombia, so it won´t be cheap. I have to tell you that they eat a lot and they´re both at university, so it´s great that you´re going to take care of them! Thanks!"

He leaves me to finish my breakfast in peace.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Lot of Bull, Not Much Fight (Mexico City, Mexico)

(July 4, 2011)

As part of my quest to visit every last one of Mexico City´s 250-plus museums, I make my way to the Restaurante La Faena/Museo Taurino (Venustiano Caranza, No. 49, Col. El Centro). Actually, I´m lying. I just happen to pass by this place as I wander around and about. So, in I go.

Everything and everyone in the large space housing the collection of bullfighting memorabelia and regalia looks to have seen better days. Several dark paintings of bullfights hang on the walls. Faded, decaying trajes de luces (Suits of Lights) of some of the great matadors (El Cordobes is the name I recognize)are encased in dusty showcases. Mariachis serenade the one table of elderly diners; their music competes with a TV set blaring a soccer match between France and Mexico.

The most interesting things I spot are the small tiles, on which quotations are written, embedded in the entryway's walls. Alongside Descarte's "I think, therefore, I am," and other pithy sayings by the likes of Virgil, Shakespeare, and Stendahl, are: "You have to be careful when telling lies and eating fish" and "Paula, how nice you look from the front and from behind."

I spend the evening in my hotel room, watching two hours of old American sitcoms, with Spanish subtitles. Except that the subtitle machine must have gotten stuck; every line translates as "That's a load of garbage. You're full of it!"

Friday, July 8, 2011

I'm Starting to Like Carlos Slim (Mexico City, Mexico)

(June 30, 2011)

Breakfast today is yogurt with strawberries, granola, and honey and a cup of instant Nescafe (a weak excuse for coffee) at the homey Restaurante Lucy. Always crowded, you'll be forced to wait forever if you're unwilling to share a table with someone or somemore.

I share my table with Daniela, a recent college graduate who majored in communications. She has just returned from a conference in Colombia, accompanying her sister, a renowned environmental attorney. I notice Daniela´s intermediate English text, and our conversation shifts back and forth between our two languages. We exchange emails and phone numbers, so that we can get together; I'll help her with her English.

I´m running late to meet Pedro because I've stayed too long in the Internet Cafe. Still, I arrive before him at the Palanco Metro, from which we bus and hoof it to Carlos Slims' new art museum. Museo Soumaya, named for Slims's deceased wife, mushrooms from the ground, an asymetrical, windowless structure, covered in hexagonal metal panes. Inside is an impressive array of works from Slims' private collection, including sculptures by Rodin and Dali, paintings by Corot, Rivera, El Greco, Dutch Masters, and more. Even the restroom is a work of art, all marble and mirrors and adorned with vases holding white orchids. A fellow museum goer snaps photos as I close the door to one of the stalls.

The triangular excavation adjacent to Museo Soumaya is the future site of a second Slim museum, this one to house modern art. Two hundred and fifty seven museums to visit in this incredible city!

After he helps me re-activate my (Mexico only)cell phone, Pedro and I sit down to lunch in a crowded restaurant. Pedro worries about eating in a little street dive like this; he's already spotted a few cockroaches scurrying up a wall. As some of you already know, I never let bugs get in the way of my enjoyment of a meal, even if they are an essential or accidental part thereof. So far, my stomach has handled pretty much anything anyone can dish out. As Pedro's willing to take a chance with his digestive system, we dig into the meal of the day, squeezing lime juice into the shrimp broth brimming with cubes of potatoes and carrots. I push the sliced frankfurters to the side of my tasty plate of yellow rice. The whole fried mojarra (crappy, in English, but not crappy at all, in taste) with garlic is almost too big for one person. Almost. Of course, there are tortillas, and all we can drink of agua de jamaica. We stuff ourselves for 45 pesos each, less than $9.00 (US).

Two nice things happen: Pedro says I have a Cuban accent (when speaking Spanish), and the waiter asks if I am from Argentina. Flattery makes me feel...flattered.

Pedro walks me over to a place near my hotel, where I can use the Internet in comfort, thanks to Carlos Slim (whom I am starting to like a little). There are armchairs, sofas, tables, and artwork, and you can use a laptop at no charge, for however long you want, from 11am to 9 at night. I spend entirely too much time there.

Later, at the Ciudadela, I run into Jose. We dance to the sounds of a live band playing son cubano and then stroll over to the middle of the park, where Ismael is helping with a cumbia lesson. He teaches me some new moves and laughs at me, nonstop. I ask if he's making fun of me. He says that I dance well, that it's my constant smiling that makes him laugh. I guess it's obvious that I love to dance, huh?

I return to the area with live music and dance with a young Steven Segal look alike with whom I was taking cumbia lessons two years ago. Ricardo tells me that he wants to learn a couple more turns and then will move to Guadalajara, where he will teach dancing. There will surely be a line of women waiting to sign up; he is really, really good and easy on the eyes, as well. Plus, unlike the other Steven Segal, he doesn't beat you up if you make the wrong move.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

It Was a Dark and Stormy Day... (Mexico City, Mexico)

(June 29, 2011) As a storm rages, I wrestle with a restaurateur, meet with a foreign correspondent, hop on the wrong subway line, and tussle with a TV.

I awaken to a dark, chilly day. A tropical storm is pounding Vera Cruz and attempting to do the same here and in other parts of Mexico.

Julieta gives me a big hug before she serves me breakfast. I linger long after I´ve finished. It´s pouring, and I´m freezing in my light jacket. What to do today? Maybe I´ll visit a museum; there are at least 200 I haven`t been to yet. Perhaps I´ll just relax and go dancing later.

(Dancing starts at 4:00 pm and ends by 10 o´clock on weeknights, allowing time to decompress after work and still get a good night´s sleep. Pretty civilized, don´t you think?)

As I exit the Cafe Rex, I can`t avoid the owner, who is manning the cash register. I hand him 25 pesos, and he grabs my hand. "I know someone who makes sculptures of models. Should I make an appointment for you?"

I roll my eyes and try to retrieve my hand.

He pulls me closer, into a bear hug, and whispers, "I know we are going to make beautiful love together, aren't we?"

"Not while I´m alive," I tell him.

As I struggle to get away, he lets out a guffaw and releases me. I don´t eat here every day because I get tired of his overtures and expressions of unrequited like. I know it's all BS, but it's annoying, just the same.

I pass two hours in an Internet cafe, at the last minute receiving a message from a friend who wanted to meet me -- yesterday. I call and we arrange a get together in Colonia Roma, one of D.F.´s chic, upscale neighborhoods. Although Mexico produces superior coffee beans, it is incredibly hard to find a good cup of java. Temoris suggests Cafe Colon.

Temoris is rarely in town. Just returned from Colombia, where he lectured on censorship in the Arab press, he is now teaching a workshop on how to do what he has learned to do by experience. A freelance journalist who has written for major magazines throughout the world, he travels to places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, and Gaza. He interviewed the Ugandan politician who proposed the law which would condemn homosexuals to death and who compared himself to Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and others "who are doing God`s work." More often, Temoris tries to report the stories of people who are fighting for justice.

We talk until Temoris must leave for his workshop. As I walk to the subway, I´m considering whether or not to go dancing. Hopping onto a car headed in the wrong direction and spending an hour traveling back to my point of departure settle the matter. I will go straight back to my hotel.

The ride is always interesting: I listen to the young, tatooed boys hawking candies, two for five pesos, in that particular singsong the subway vendors use. An old man, with his trousers rolled up to reveal scabby calves, wheezes through a harmonica. A man touts the benefits of (believe it or not!) a miner's headlamp, which I am sorely tempted to purchase. I try not to collapse in laughter as I surely would, if my friend A. were with me.(See my second blog entry for more on miner's headlamps.)

For dinner, I buy about 90 cents' worth of roasted, salted pumpkin seeds from Sanborn`s. (There I go again, lining the pockets of its owner, Carlos Slim, one of the world´s richest men.) I eat them in my room.

I try reading in the dim light, but give up. I turn on the television, a cranky, crotchety contraption that promptly turns itself off. We tussle. On. Off. On. Off. I eventually win or, as the case may be, lose. I am subjected to an idiotic and obnoxious video -- the fourth most watched on YouTube -- of a drunkard explaining the meaning of the word "Fwa," which emerges from his lips as a great catharsis and (probably) the prelude to a bout of vomiting (which is, thankfully, not shown).

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Up Against a Wall on Regina Street (Mexico City, Mexico)

(June 29, 2011) Art! Dogs! Dancing in the park!

My breakfast restaurant won´t open until 9:00 a.m., according to one of the waitresses I meet on the street. I have an hour to while away, so I start walking and watching.

It's obviously time to take the animals out to people watch. A bevy of poodles and bichons frises, all white fluff, lead their walker on her leashes. A sweat-shirt-sporting sharpei, alert and energetic even down to his wrinkles, precedes his mistress down the street. A pair of the world´s ugliest dogs, hairless but for tufts atop their heads and tails -- that rare breed so beloved by Frida Kahlo, who included hers in many self portraits, and by the Aztecs, who no doubt thought they tasted like chicken -- pause to give me the once-over. They are probably thinking:"Oh, my God! Another one of those ugly humans! There are more of them now than in the good old days before the Spanish Conquest!"

A man pushes a cart laden with huge plastic jugs of purified water. "Ay, I´m so tired," he says aloud. Then he sing-songs his wares in a rich, resonant voice that reverberates through the concrete canyon that is Regina Street.

From 1560-1928, this was called The Street of the Heart of Jesus. That heart might break if it were to see what has sprung up among the churches, convent, and remaining buildings that date back to its founding. Now it is home to bars, to stores selling school supplies, to closet-sized food stands, chi chi restaurants, a rambling market,and raw-chicken mongers. Or, maybe not. Merchants probably hawked their produce and all sorts of merchandise in doorways and impromptu stands back then, as well.

I sit down on a stone bench, as I am mesmerized by the mural that covers the first story of an abandoned building. "Huellas de la basura" or "Traces (or Tracks) of Garbage," by Gorka Larrañaga (; shows man-like creatures with broad, squared shoulders, barrel chests, and skinny, bird-like legs. Hands and feet are claws, although one of the creature's hands have bolted knuckles, reminiscent of a robot's. Another figure has a beak. All are bald. Several have openings, in the form of keyholes, doorways, or tunnels, in their chests. In one figure's abdomen, a window --no, a medicine cabinet -- reveals a man's face, partially shrouded by netting and, on the cabinet door, a mirror. Connected at the hip to one of the strange man-birds is an armless child-sized being. A blue cup, from which a black palm tree sprouts, balances on its head. A seated man wearing a hat opens the door of what appears to be the interior of a car -- inside another creature's head. The host holds an empty bird cage.

It is at times like these that I wish I had a camerea, to show you the perfect incongruity between this at once horrific and captivating contemporary mural and the crumbling old building it adorns.

The maroon-colored edifice has been shedding slivers of its facade. Shards of glass have cracked or fallen from the windows. Balconies are chipping paint and earning rust. A still-perfect tile, imbedded in the middle of the top story, depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe. Another, lower down, shows two birds, necks craning toward each other, surrounded by flowers that hover in white space. Trees nest on the roof, no garden, but a scraggle of spindly shoots that testifies to the power and persistence of nature. Life adapts. Life continues.

I continue on to my breakfast.

Later in the day, I am at la Ciudadela, my favorite park. I dance with Paco, Ismael (the cigarette-reeking cabbie, one hell of a dancer), the pompadoured salsa instructor -- all acquaintances from previous visits.

A man with whom I danced last night runs up to me as I head toward the rest room. "Remember me?"

I do. Two lead feet, stiff as a board, trying to execute steps far too advanced for him.

"You dance well," he says. "When are you going back to the dance place?"

I shrug and take my leave.

On my way back to the hotel, I stop for a paste, an empanada-like snack. I pick one filled with tuna and chipotle peppers.

I'm in bed, two minutes short of sleep, by 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I´m baaaaack! (Mexico City, Mexico)

(June 28, 2011)

Other than a couple of new faces and the vendor or insane person attempting to sing, off-key, in an ear-splitting monotone that echoes off the walls of my room and makes me want to slit his throat and/or mine, things are pretty much the same at the hotel I call home. The first thing I do after unpacking is go for a walk to see what´s changed in the neighborhood.

I am shocked to discover that my preferred breakfast joint has been shut down, yellow tape strips announcing its closing according to law yadda, yadda, sections such and such. Probably a question of hygiene, or maybe a desire to extract a big fee/bribe for the restaurant to reopen? Who knows and who will tell me?

My favorite chicken rotisserie guy greets me at the restaurant across the street. "Where have you been? I went to Los Angeles to look for you."

"I don´t live in Los Angeles."

I order a quarter of his succulent, crispy skinned chicken from the sullen waitress. Within minutes of its arrival, I polish it off, suck the marrow from the bones. I even eat the the mound of potato chips that accompanies the poultry. I believe this is the way in which I am expressing my grief at the Cafe Rex's demise. I am sad to lose my cheap, filling, nutritious, and delicious breakfasts. More than that, I am worried about the fate of Julieta, my favorite waitress, and of the other employees. Work is hard to come by these days, especially for the not so young.

On my way out of the restaurant, I notice that the door is ajar at Cafe Rex. When I peer in, I see the chickens browning on the rotisserie. I enter and greet Julieta and the others. People are seated at the tables, eating paella, eating chicken, eating as usual.

"What happened?" I ask the owner, the lecherous older man who usually ogles me as if I were some spring chicken and he the fox, ready to spring. Today, he's obviously too absorbed in his restaurant's troubles to trouble me.

"It was a trap," he says, refusing to elaborate.

"Will you be open tomorrow for breakfast?"

"Yes, there´s no problem."

Still hungry, I stop at a hole-in-the-wall fruit stand and consume a bowl of fresh papaya, cantelope, and mango chunks, drenched in chili, salt, and the juice of half a lime.

I spend an hour at an Internet cafe, letting people know I´ve arrived. I´m so tired that I return to my hotel for a nap. After 10 minutes or so, my alarm shrieks me awake. Groggily, I redress.

Emerging from the subway, I am completely disoriented. The streets are closed to vehicular traffic, as thousands of people mull about, almost every one of them carrying a plastic Saint Judas, garlanded with flowers. Some of the saints are the size of a Barbie doll, others a foot or two tall. Occasionally, someone staggers by holding one that is bigger than life-size. I weave my way through the throng, among the men handing out cards covered with prayers and blessings, and around the numerous vendors of rosaries, corn on and off the cob, tortillas, quesadillas, sandwiches, saints, flowers, puppets, and manual can openers. I glimpse the church spires that tell me I'm close to where I want to be, but I can't see the dance hall over the heads of the saints.

After ten or fifteen minutes of false starts and middles, of ending up across the street from my destination, and of forging my way back, I escape the crowds.

"Salsa, tonight? I ask upon arriving at Salon Hidalgo.

"Pura salsa," the ticket taker assures me. "Nothing but."

My best bartender´s face lights up when he sees me. "¡Qué milagro!" What a miracle, indeed.

I sit down at a long table, empty but for a large pocket book slung across the other end. A couple turns up and, upon learning that the seats across from me are free, they drape their jackets on the chair backs and hasten onto the dance floor.

The music is playing. One cumbia follows another. Pura salsa, my eye!

A man holds out his hand. "I don´t know how to dance cumbia," I tell him. He withdraws his hand, along with the rest of him.

A quartet of women enters, searching for seats. I am happy when they join me. (It´s always a good idea not to appear to be alone.) We introduce ourselves: Irene (the only woman whose name I can hear and remember) is a dark skinned beauty with a strong, Mayan profile; there's the friendly, vivacious, and slender dyed-blond; a third woman is elegant in black and pearls; the fourth is very overweight, frowny, heavily made up, and the least receptive to me. We quickly start to joke and laugh. They fan me with their fans, and I wave my hands to do the same for them. The fans are more effective, but not by much. It´s hotter than hell, and we haven't even danced yet.

I walk over to a table to greet someone I recognize. "Don't you teach dance at the Ciudadela?" I ask him.

He leads me to the floor and says, "Yes, and I will give you private lessons wherever you want."

He holds me in a boa death grip; I push him away. He launches into a series of steps that translate into "LOOK AT ME! I AM SUCH A GREAT DANCER!!!!" and that make me look away. As soon as the song ends, I send him a message that translates into "LOOK AT ME! I CAN RUN!" I scurry back to my table.

My other dance partners include a slovenly, bespectacled guy of undeterminable age and girth, who turns out to be a wild man on the dance floor. He spins me multiple times, ending with a dip that drops me to within an inch of my life and the dance floor. An acquaintance from the park catches me on my way to the restroom and drags me into a poor excuse for a cumbia. A profusely sweating, mustachioed walrus of a man leads me so deftly in a cumbia that I remember the rhythms, the steps I've forgotten, and some that I never learned. Four or five other men pull me out of conversation with my new girlfriends. Angel, an excellent, smooth-dancing teddy bear, always hovers in the wings and swoops me onto the floor when nobody else does.

It's only 8:45 p.m., but I am exhausted. Lack of sleep is catching up with me, and my hips are aching. Gotta go!

My girlfriends decide to leave with me. But first, they program my name and hotel phone number into their cell phones. This takes about 10 minutes of yelling the spelling and misspellings of my last name over the band's blaring. Then we wait about 10 minutes for Irene to emerge from the Ladies' Room.

As we dawdle by the stairway, virtually all of my partners come up to me, requesting another dance. I refuse. Then, a young man with whom I haven't danced, asks me to. "Thanks, but I'm too tired and have already taken off my dancing shoes," I tell him. "But look! There are all those women out there waiting for you!"

"But none with blue eyes."

"Oh, no. I think there must be others. You just have to look for them."

The five of us women descend the stairs, stream out into the street and down into the subway. The blond gifts me a rose from a bouquet that she's bought for her mother's birthday. We all hug good night and goodby.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Break Down (Richmond, VA)

(June 26, 2011)

Wouldn't you know that just when I need to go driving all over town, gathering everything I need before leaving the country for the summer, my car decides to conk out?

I'm not referring here to the world's ugliest auto, which I've written about in the past and which, you would rightly think, would hold a mighty grudge against me for calling it homely and not finding a single positive thing to say about it. No, this is the old lady's car with the old car's body. The car that turns mechanics on -- not just because it needs lots of work and has probably helped them buy a couple of boats with the money I've spent to keep the thing running -- but because of the sexy roar of that turbo engine when it smacks into action. With just 88,000 miles, this 1988 paint-peeling baby has zip, speed, and looks just great when pealing (sp?) ahead of others on the highway, although it looks quite decrepit when parked, idling, or moving at the speed of limits.

It's this car, sturdy and reliable, hiding its inner beauty under a hood, it's this car that has betrayed me when I need it most.

First, it starts whining. A high-pitched, bird-like sound that I think is coming from another nearby vehicle. When I finally realize that no single car has been following me around for over an hour and a half, I am almost as unnerved as I would have been had I confirmed that I was being stalked. Any remaining nerve disappears when I glance at my dashboard, where there are more lights flashing than you'd encounter on the annual Tacky Lights Christmas Tour. Not only are they warning me of low levels of fluid and high levels of engine temperature, but they are sending me subliminal and superliminal messages: GET OFF THE ROAD! NOW!

U- and me-turning, I draw into a gas station, parking in the rear. What seems like forever after calling for help, the mobile mechanic pulls up alongside me. After a careful and thorough 10-second evaluation, he says, "You're totally out of coolant."

That's unusual, because this car is always up to my neck in coolant. That's because the malfunctioning coolant gauge always says that the level is low, so we're always checking to keep it full. I tell this to the mechanic as I pay way too much for a big batch of the fluid in the station's convenience store. I stand next to him as he pours the liquid into the proper container and assures me that I'll be able to go my merry way.

My merry way is impeded when the mechanic notices the liquid gushing out from the bottom of the car. "Uh-oh," he says, never a good word coming from a mechanic who is crawling under your vehicle.

"It's the water pump," he tells me.

"It's gonna cost a million dollars," I hear.

"I can order one, but since the car is old, the part might not be in stock."

I go into the convenience store to explain my situation and ask permission to leave the car until the mechanic can fix it. "It's okay with me," says the fellow behind the counter, "but if the big boss comes by, he'll have it towed."

"Can you call the big boss?" I ask.


"Can I call the big boss?" I beg.

"No." The big boss is "the corporation," and you never know when its representatives will do a drive by and tow anything that they come across.

Mobile mechanic suggests driving the car into the nearest residential neighborhood and parking it. "You can drive it for about three minutes..." he says.

"Before it explodes," my mind finishes the sentence.

I park the car in a subdivision, in front of a house where there are already six or seven vehicles. Maybe they won´t notice the addition... I ring the doorbell, but nobody answers. So I walk down the block, knocking on doors, hoping to have someone else inform the homeowner of my plight and my request that he or she won´t have my car towed. No one is home.

Later that day, I drive back to the neighborhood in the super ugly car. The woman who eyes me suspiciously from behind a screen door guesses that it´s okay to leave the car, but I´ve parked it in her husband´s spot and am blocking the mailbox. Can I move it?

I can´t because I´ve already given the keys to the mobile mechanic and I don't have the spare with me. "I´ll come back tomorrow," I tell her.

Husband and I return to the neighborhood the next day. I tell the woman and her husband that the mechanic won´t be able to fix the car until tomorrow, because the wrong water pump came in. My husband moves the car down the block, while I explain that the car doesn´t have an up-to-date sticker because I hadn´t noticed that it had expired until a police officer stopped me the other day, verified that the fee had been paid, and my husband had sent in the $1.00 to get a replacement for the one I had never put on and had subsequently lost, but the new sticker hasn´t arrived yet. I give them my business card and home phone, so they can call me if there are any problems. I obviously come across as completely pathetic because the couple has become quite sympathetic.

The next day, despite three phone calls made and messages left, the mechanic never contacts us. Turns out he had a family emergency. When he calls the day after, he assures us that he will fix the car that very next day.

That´s the very day that we learn that my car has died. The mechanic says that it´s a blown head gasket, but I think it is pure and unadulterated spite.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Make up and Make Over (Richmond, VA)

(Written in April, 2011)

My dental hygienist is cleaning my teeth, and I'm telling her about my horrific passport photos. I suggest that we set up a mini-makeup clinic and hair salon at every location where passport pics are taken, so that women could look their best when looking their worst. "We'd make a mint," I say, although it sounds more like, "Wud mukka munth."

Amanda has been up to dental hi-jinx for a long time, so she understands. She understands that this is a bad idea. She also understands that I need help, so she recommends that I meet her at the makeup counter of Saks Fifth Avenue for a makeover.

When her hands and instruments are out of my mouth, I make clear that my last and only makeover took place when I was 22. The woman attempting to remake me, certainly did. She spackled me with layer upon layer of plaster-like goop. I was the original American Idol -- one that could have been placed in the middle of town in the same way that Michelangelo's David graces the main piazza in Florence, Italy. Except that I was not that big or impressive or well crafted or male or, shall we say, statue-esque. I guess I should say that the only real similarity was that if the statue of David or the newly made up me had smiled, both our faces would have cracked.

Despite the heavy-handed application of facial plaster, I thought I looked pretty damn cute -- although dour. I remember catching sight of my unrecognizable self in a store window: My skin was unchipped porcelain. My lips were full and pouty, my cheek bones high and highlighted, my eyes, flashy. My eyelashes were so long, they were practically knocking into passersby. I quickly adopted a near approximation of a confident, sexy stride.

When I strode into my apartment, my roommate shrieked: "What the HELL happened to you?!"

It took me two hours, a jar of Vaseline, and a roll of paper towels to remove my faux face.

"My make-up lady will know just what to do to make you look great," Amanda assured me.

Several days later, Amanda and I meet at the agreed-upon department store makeup counter. As an averred mall-hater, I take pride in avoiding exactly this type of location. I had considered donning a big hat and large sunglasses to shield me from the glare of the sun and anyone who might know me, but I reconsidered; it would be very difficult to apply makeup through a lens, darkly.

The makeup applicator is on break, so we escalate up to the designer dress boutiques. We waste time rummaging through racks of teeny ensembles, designed for tall babies or anorexic tweens, with huge prices that we couldn't afford, even if we wanted to buy something. Which we don't. Then we wander among displays of equally pricey dishes, glasses, and knickknacks. I decide to forgo purchasing a bead-bedecked bread knife in favor of paying my monthly mortgage. Sure, it's not as pretty, but woman cannot live by bread alone.

We return to the makeup counter and wait some more, while I comment, in hushed tones, that I don't want to walk out looking like any of the cosmetics consultants who are hard or hardly at work there. Amanda tells me to be quieter.

Finally, our gal appears -- well coiffed and smartly made up and down. Amanda introduces us, and I immediately clarify my intentions and parameters: "I want to look younger and as close as I can get to beautiful. And the process has to take me no more than two minutes a day. Otherwise, we are both wasting our time. Can you fix me?"

Let's call her "Cherry" is up to the challenge. She concentrates on the things that need the most fixing: a tinted moisturizer will lend me a natural "glow"; some missing eyebrow hairs will be penciled in to give me a more youthful visage; mascara and eye liner will make my eyes "pop."

I am assured by both Cherry and Amanda that I have received the equivalent of a magical, miracle redesign. I look "fresh," "vibrant," "renewed," "finished." My eyes are not just plain ol' windows to my soul; they're picture windows, no, Palladium windows, framed by lashes so long they can't believe they're real! My complexion comes and "glows." Frankly, I can't wait to see me!

I look in the mirror. My mother looks back at me. I am totally freaked out to realize that I have become my very own mother!!!!!

Despite the disquiet I feel, I am now the proud owner of a small collection of makeup that takes me 118 seconds to apply, that gives me a look so natural that nobody notices, and that cost me the equivalent of half a dress I can't afford.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Picture This! (Richmond, VA)

(Written in March, 2011)

My passport expires in June, so I need to re-apply. Piece of cake. Fill out some paperwork, write a check, and -- uh oh! -- here's the hitch: include two, unsmiling, poorly lit photos that make criminal mug shots look glamorous by comparison.

I visit my friendly neighborhood pharmacy, scooting into the restroom to apply lipstick. To avoid looking like death warmed over, I dab some color on my cheeks. Then I run my hands (a.k.a. comb substitute) through my hair. Voila! I'm ready. The face reflected in the mirror isn't pretty, but it shouldn't scare the pants off or the be-jesus out of anyone.

I find the photo counter and the sweet 20-something who takes the pictures. He poses me in front of the white background, which helps create the desired effect.

Click. I examine the image: horror-film zombie.

Help! I've been face-snatched!

This can't possibly be me! Have I inherited my neck from a patchy, scaly, mottled dinosaur? Whose eyes are these? They're staring in different directions, indisputable proof of human evolution from a close insect-ancestor. Wrinkles I never noticed crease forehead and cheeks. A plethora of wrinkles -- maybe they've somehow moved from your face to mine. Hurry! Check the mirror! Maybe you are now wrinkle-free!

I am gazing at an unfamiliar map, crisscrossed with previously unchartered rivers and deltas, all etched in hi-def display. Freckles and shadows and dark discolorations vie with each other on an ashen background, coalescing in a patchwork quilt of splotchiness on what once I considered my face.

"Is this your first day?" I ask the photographer.

We give it another shot.

This time my eyes peer in the same direction, but I look as if I'm either facing a firing squad or viewing my own corpse. My hair, equally alarmed, stands on end.

I am visibly, as well as visually, distressed.

The camera man, momentarily perceptive, tells me that no woman is happy with her passport photo. Whipping out an album from behind the counter, he shows me a parade of highly disturbing and disturbed visages.

"That one's not bad," I say, pointing to the photo of a blue-eyed blond -- probably not at her photogenic best but passable -- about 20 years my junior. "I'll take it!"

Camera guy snatches the book from my hands. "You can't do that!" he admonishes.
"They won't let you use somebody else's photo. That doesn't look anything like you!"

"I prefer to think that's what they're going to say if I pull out the photograph that you just took," I reply and add, "Please do not say anything that is going to get you killed."

Of course, that's his invitation to say, "You don't really look THAT bad."

"You don't have a wife or a girlfriend, do you?" I ask him, sweetly. He shakes his suddenly pale-faced head, his eyes darting around the store like balls on a billiards table.

Female readers will understand with no problem that this fellow had just confirmed that I look terrible. But I must interpret his "manguage" into language that camera guy, himself, can comprehend. "This is not a compliment," I explain. "There is nothing, I mean NOTHING, that you can say to make me feel good about this photo except that your camera is obviously defective and that you don't know how to take a picture. Or you can just close your mouth and leave the building."

The poor kid is in shock. I pay for the photos, but only to console him.

I am depressed for the rest of the day.