Night of the Mariachis

Tuesday, February 1, 1983 4:28 AM

That Mexican manhole I fell into was, mercifully, not deep enough to swallow me up. My pal from prep school, Charlie Sayers, and Karen, his erstwhile girlfriend, and I were rushing through a bleak back alley past midnight somewhere, and paying no attention to the ground in front of us. I was flying high on tacos, Mexican beer and tequila. Then abruptly the sidewalk was no longer there, and I found myself knee-deep in an open manhole in the middle of the sidewalk.

One leg was scraped and bloodied. No matter. I had lucked out. Off to my left, close by the curb, there was a tram--a ramshackled monster, careening toward us. I could have knocked myself out on the pavement, or cracked knee, and then fallen onto the tracks, where the monster would have finished me off good and proper. But thanks to the beer, wonderful Mexican beer, I was too relaxed to be knocked out. Now with a limp, I kept walking. So this was Mexico City....

Some months before, I had run into Charlie by accident in Miami, after having not seen or heard from the guy since prep school days up in the wilds of Connecticut. Ten years out, he informed me that he was working as a junior engineer at cement plant on the outskirts of the everglades. He had become a pilot as well, and had his own plane parked at the Hialeah airport. He flew to Key West and the Bahamas on the weekends. He knew his way around little Havana. He showed me some of the sleazier spots, plus the cheapest place in town to find a good Cuban steak. He loved cheap hangouts. Later, when Charlie quit his humdrum job and headed home to Mexico, he invited me to visit.

I had never been to Mexico and was not doing much of anything at the time, so I decided to take him up on the invitation. Charlie was living there up in the hills, with his mom, dad and sisters. He slept between Yves St. Laurent sheets, in a high-walled, three-story hacienda that overlooked the sprawling jumble of millions. Down the horizon somewhere, in that concrete, matchbox-mazed jumble, lived Karen, Charlie's former girlfriend. To be precise, she had a cozy apartment over a bar.  She was from Los Angeles; a marginal, blond knockout.  According to Charlie, she recently had a nose job. If true, the results looked just fine to me. How or why she got mixed-up in Mexico City, I never bothered to find out. She was a good-looking girl. That was good enough.

On the night of my arrival, I found myself sitting on Karen's sofa and trying with no success to keep her mutt off me. I'm a cat man. Dogs get on my nerves, all that noise and excessive energy. Charlie informed me that Karen was slightly cracked and a model. She was in the bathroom, putting on her face and powdering her new nose. A bottle of Dos Equis in one and her dog in the other, I was still adjusting to the high altitude of Mexico City.

Charlie stood in the middle of the living room, arms folded, voice raised, carrying on a running conversation with Karen. When Karen spoke, responding to Charlie's many inquiries, catching up on what was happening to various mutual acquaintances, about whom I knew nothing, Charlie looked at me bewildered, rolling his eyes, as if to say, “What a screwball!"

We were stepping out. First, to what Charlie touted as “the best damn taco stand in the world," and then on to a saloon at the Place Garibaldi. Charlie spoke Spanish, of course, as did Karen. Being your run-of-the-mill, junior jet-setter, I spoke good French and some German, which achievement wasn't going to come in handy. On principle, I never bother to pick up Spanish, Miami's second language.

The best taco stand in the world turned out to be the best taco stand in the world. The tacos--or whatever they were--were fantastic! I wolfed down ten, and consumed three more bottles of beer, this time Superior. I was impressed and excited but still dizzy from the altitude difference between Miami and Mexico City. The dizziness came in waves and subsided. Then we jumped back into Charlie’s reconditioned Peugeot van, direction Place Garibaldi.

It was on the way to the saloon that I fell into the open manhole in the middle of the sidewalk. You don't forget an experience like that. It’s so unexpected, out-of-the-blue. Charlie had parked a few blocks away from the madness of Garibaldi, on a quiet street. We headed out on foot into the cool night, talking excitedly like school children, not paying attention to anything but ourselves. Then for several long seconds, the ground disappeared. It was scary, especially with a rusty streetcar fast bearing down on you. The garbage  and detritus from the neighborhood had been thrown into the manhole. A lucky break. It did a fine job of cushioning my fall. I could feel rivulets of blood, but  kept walking.

Before entering the square, I rolled up my pants’ leg to see how bad it was. Karen was aghast at the blood and torn skin. It reminded me of what used to happen to my knuckles and fingers during football practice at prep school. It was normal to suck the blood off my knuckles and fingers between plays. They called me  a defensive specialist.  It was an easy job, requiring no thinking. Just destroy the man with the ball, create confusion, and turn end runs back toward the middle. It was wonderful not having to think. I was going to make a career out of it. And somehow it felt good, getting bloodied-up. I told Karen not to worry. 

My leg was still throbbing when we entered the saloon. They swung those doors aside, and it hit me even stronger than the carnival taking place in the streets. Those magical Mexican trumpets, the singing, the flashy guitars and the colorful senoritas, joy and the pleasant aroma of tequila everywhere. All of this was thrown into your face at once. Then you were walking through it. Nothing in the world existed at that moment but the sights, sounds and smells inside the saloon. At such times you think it is lie, the notion that life cannot be a continuous festival. The pain in my leg subsided.

Karen and Charlie ordered tequila and fried spring onions. I had another beer. I saw a wheelchair roll toward me out of the chaos. Someone was in it. An old-timer, pie-eyed. He rolled up alongside the table. He wanted to do a portrait, a caricature. He showed me some samples. They looked swell. Charlie was well-heeled and liked to have good time. But he didn't like to spend money, especially on obvious non-essentials like caricatures. He gave me a disapproving look as I nodded for the old man to go ahead.

Karen, the blond wonder, got up to look over the man’s shoulder. It took all of five minutes. Karen screamed and giggled as the work progressed. Presently, I was handed a nice, full-color sketch of freak bulldog, obviously American, sporting an outsized sombrero. The dog was taking a wee-wee under a tree, while puffing contentedly on a cigar stub and holding onto bottle of  tequila. The old-timer grabbed some pesos on the table and disappeared back into the chaos from which he came.

Taking my cue from the portrait, I switched from beer to tequila. We all sat there in a sort of hopped-up daze, drinking our tequilas out of glasses about twice the height of a normal whiskey shot. We followed the time-tested ritual of licking salt from between the thumb and index finger of the left hand, and taking a shot of tequila, and then biting into a thin-skinned lime. I sampled the spring onions.

"Let's get our picture taken!" Karen shouted.

“Good idea!” I went back to licking the salt off my hand.

“It’s not worth it," Charlie said. "They'll rip us off for sure."

“You speak Mexican," I said. “Tell them how cheap we are.”

Charlie called over the senorita with the nightclub camera. He was all business when he turned to face her. He spoke four or five words, heard the answer and fell silent. "Well?" I asked. “Rip-off,” was Charlie’s answer.

“Let’s do it and negotiate later. I want the negatives, too. Where is she going?”

“To get the sombreros, you fool.”

"Don't worry, Charlie, it’s on the gringo." I bit into my lime.

“We are all gringos here." Karen smiled when she said it.

“Yes, but I'm the tourist. You guys live in this nut house."

Just then I caught sight of giant sombrero, black and silver. He strutted nearby, chatting with trio of mariachis. What I mean is, the fellow who was wearing it, but he counted nothing. All you noticed was his hat, which dwarfed him, a huge black and silver work of art. It was the biggest sombrero I had seen on human being, and I had seen plenty during the six hours since landing in the country, starting at the airport.

"Charlie, what is the story behind the sombrero?"

Charlie stared at the man for long while, thoughtfully. Charlie was not a man of profound ideas, so his opinion merited attention.

“Just a custom."

"It does not seem at all practical."

"It looks distinctive."

Our sombreros arrived. Someone put one on my head. I looked at Charlie and Karen. They looked ridiculous. Without a doubt, I looked ridiculous, too. And I was paying for it. We clinked our tequila glasses. The camera flashed twice. Someone took the sombrero off my head. Our time was up. I was just another gringo again.

“How long before we see the photos, Charlie?”

“She says about ten minutes. That means twenty.”

Karen and Charlie fell back into speaking Spanish to one another. seemed to be enjoying themselves. I heard a noise. It sounded out of synch with the mariachis. I turned to see a patron being punched off his stool at the bar by one of the waiters. Three more waiters, all of good Indian stock, converged quickly and punched the patron some more in the face. The patron was an ugly, mean-looking character.

One of the waiters had a nice choke-hold on him now and  was dragging him backwards with some difficulty toward the door. The waiter dropped the punched-out man to the floor by the swinging doors and joined the other two waiters in kicking the body under the doors, out into the madness of Mexico City. And that was the end of it.

“Are there guns in here?” I asked Charlie. He and Karen had not witnessed the incident.

“Behind the bar, yes."

“Ever used?”

"Almost never. It would be bad business. But they have to have them for emergencies, like if someone goes completely berserk.”

“Or comes back with a gun,” I thought to myself. “So where is the famous shockman?”

"Don't worry, partner, he'll be along...he's probablv out working the streets." Charlie said this with a big, mischievous grin on his face.

I forgot to mention that the shockman was supposed to be one of the highlights of the evening. Charlie wanted to introduce me to the joys of being electrically charged.

“Maybe he fell in your manhole," Karen said.

“He must know the area, Karen," I said.

“There is more than one," Charlie said.

“Open manholes?"

“That and shockmen."

I was thinking about the shockman and about what his equipment would look like and do to me when the photos arrived. They were five-by-seven inch, still-wet prints in folders. You could smell the chemicals from a makeshift lab. I had my head turned in profile, with eyes leveled intently on the tequila shots. My Miami sun tan and the serious expression, combined with the sombrero, made me look almost Mexican. Charlie and Karen were gazing gaga straight at the camera. Their expressions made their sombreros seem all the more preposterous. They looked like a young couple from Columbus, Ohio. I was the Mexican; they were the gringos.

I switched to submarines as the mariachis closed in. Charlie had introduced me to the drink earlier on in the evening at a classy bistro in the Pink Zone, before we drove over to Karen's place. Pay attention. This is important. A submarine requires another routine, not quite so messy as tequila drinking.

The waiter brought a shot of tequila, a bottle of beer and a beer glass with a flat bottom. I took the shot of tequila in one hand and turned the empty beer glass over it so that the shot was fully inside the glass and flush with the bottom of the glass. Then I turned the beer glass right-side-up, with the tequila shot remaining inside, upside-down, full of tequila. I poured beer into the glass, submerging the upside-down tequila shot. As I drank the beer, the tequila shot was progressively tilted to let just the right amount of tequila escape and mix with the cold beer. Can you beat it?

One minor problem with submarine drinking is that toward the end you may want to retrieve the tequila shot to keep it from falling into your face. I must admit, it is rare to see anyone drinking a submarine outside Mexico, and I'm hard put to understand why.

I drained four or five submarines while listening and joining in with the mariachis. Every now and then I found myself out of control, screaming god knows what. I couldn't help it. I wanted to let the Mariachis know that I was with them and shared their joy. Charlie and Karen stuck to tequila and spoke in Spanish to one another most of the time. It looked like they were getting back together. Finally we had to call it a night--the sun was coming up.

We danced out of the saloon and into the square. I had another dizzy spell. It was nothing. And there we found him. The shockman! It's true. Everything worthwhile begins and ends in the streets.

The shock machine turned out to be homemade device, a sort of converted lunch box stuffed with batteries and wires and whatnot. It was strapped around the neck of the shockman and rested on his stomach. For a modest price, as these things go, you were invited to grasp two steel handles connected to the machine by wires, while the shockman turned on the current and gradually increased the voltage. The purpose was to test your machismo and your sanity.

Charlie went first. He tried to talk Karen into it, but she wouldn't have any part of it. Charlie scored a “90”, before giving up with a howl. The shockman indicated that “90” was a respectable score. It wasn't a scientific number. It did not mean anything. It was just a number the shockman had painted onto his lunch box, next to the controls. Now it was my turn.

By this time, I was hardly feeling a thing. It had become strangely silent on the Place Garibaldi, not even breeze. I wanted to cartwheel my way around the square in the cool twilight. Instead, I grabbed the steel barrels with both hands, squeezed hard and waited.

It was not long before I detected  a faint tingle in my hands, nothing else. I squeezed tighter. The tingle became more pronounced. The dial glided past “100” and my hands began shaking, vibrating. No problem. I shouted for the shockman go full blast. The dial now read “125”.  Still I held firm. Charlie looked anoyed. Karen looked perplexed. The shockman couldn't understand it. “Viva Juarez!”  I shouted into his clean-cut, Indian face.

The shockman produced a screwdriver from his back pocket. Without explanation, he jammed the screwdriver into an opening on top of his shock machine. I saw stars, and woke up on the sidewalk


Copyright 1983 Patrick Foy