(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.