There’s a web site called Snowflakes in a Blizzard which each week features books that its editor feels haven’t received the attention they deserve. This week he chose my novel, ONE LIFE, as well as another novel brought out by Unnamed, the same publisher — FINGERPRINTS OF PREVIOUS OWNERS, by Rebecca Entel. As always, I’m grateful for the attention. Click here to link to the page and read brief interviews with Rebecca and I.
I suppose that many countries around the world celebrate one form or another of Independence Day. Still, given what is going on these days, one can hardly help but wonder how many countries have anything about which they can be proud enough to wave their flags. In Mexico, we celebrate the night of September 15th, where at 11:00 at every town square -- from one-horse podunks to the Zócalo in Mexico City -- hordes gather to shout "Viva México!" This will be the last time that Enrique Peña Nieto officiates at this ceremony. According to opinion polls -- practically since he was elected -- there are very few people around who will be sorry to see him go.
Our new president assumes office on December 1. While he has many followers who believe in him to the marrow, I think that many other Mexicans voted for Andrés Manuel López Obrador because they simply couldn't stand another moment of the status quo. They wanted the PRI and the PAN, who have been in power here since 1929, to get buried as deeply as possible. I wish our new President well and truly hope that he will be able to fulfill the voters' expectations of him. Certainly his predecessors have been so disappointing, many would even say disastrous, that they provoked the kind of mood that the metro rider, pictured below, is in.
In 2009, Anthony Bourdain came to Mexico City to film an episode of his show No Reservations. Someone in his production company found my book, First Stop in the New World, and they hired me to help them find taco stands, cantinas, and hole-in-the-wall eateries from which they could film. They even put me on camera in a couple of segments, for instance eating tripe tacos with Bourdain from one of my favorite stalls on Calle Bolivar.
The crew was here for about a week, but Bourdain didn’t get airdropped in the city until the last minute, the night before filming began. He struck me as exactly as he appeared on camera. In the van moving between locations, he spewed monologues full of dirty jokes and scatological references. When the clock struck 1:00 pm, he wanted to know where was the closest place to get a tequila. His energy and sense of fun were infectious. Those of us who were along for the ride, as well as the crew who worked with him, all seemed to enjoy ourselves.
Despite eating for a living, he was a slender man. While we filmed, I observed one of his strategies to stay that way. When they shot him eating something, he’d take one bite and leave the rest of the food on the plate. Usually a crew member would finish it for him. Unless he really liked something, such as the tripe tacos. Not only did he finish that taco, he ordered more.
Bourdain told me that, since he became a TV personality, he traveled all over the world to do lectures in front of groups. (I’ve heard that, before he agreed to do an event, he had a list of exigencies that rivaled that of a rock star.) He complained about the weariness resultant to being in perpetual motion, and I asked him if he ever thought, “I don’t really need to do this any more -- I can quit.” He looked at me like I was crazy, and explained that the kind of money he was being offered to make these speeches was impossible to turn down.
Walking down the streets of the Mexico City, many people stopped and asked for his autograph. One guy even had him wait while he called his wife, so Bourdain could say hello to her and realize that the story wasn't a figment of her husband's imagination. Bourdain was gracious and accommodating to all of the fans.
He was a constant champion of Mexico. He often made it a point to say that, when he ran the Brasserie Les Halles in New York, most of the people with whom he shared kitchen duties were immigrants. And that nearly every restaurant kitchen in New York was heavily staffed by them. He was extremely proud of Carlos Llaguno (in photo, above), who started out as a dishwasher at Les Halles, and ended up executive chef when Bourdain left the business to do his TV show. (Sadly, Llaguno died of cancer at age 38 in 2015.)
At one point, in the van between locations, Bourdain told me that he liked First Stop in the New World, but that he’d loved Travel Advisory — my first book, a collection of short stories. I was completely taken aback that he’d taken the trouble to read it. It is always a surprise when someone who appears to “have everything” commits suicide. A New Yorker profile of Bourdain, which appeared in February of 2017, hinted at a dark side. Still, life is a torment for a lot of people, and a case like this, where it becomes too overwhelming to bear, is always a tragedy. If you or anyone you know is thinking about suicide, the resources listed on this page might be of help.
Versailles in downtown Mexico City
I've written on several occasions about why I like cantinas. A few afternoons ago, I was at La Vaquita, a traditional watering hole on the corner of Mesones and Isabel la Católica in the centro histórico. Lots of botanas were on the menu that day, among them paella, breaded cauliflower in tomato sauce and tuna croquettes. I was with a couple of friends who pointed out, almost as an afterthought, that there was a mural of Versailles along the back wall. I have visited La Vaquita literally dozens of times and had never noticed it before. I wasn't sure why -- I'd noticed the altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the old talavera tile, the juke box. But never the mural. Was it because I always position myself facing the swinging doors to the entrance, rather than the wall? Was it because I, um, drink a little too quickly when I'm there? In any case, I asked my friends to take a picture of me with Versailles in the background. Diego, the exemplary waiter who took care of us (and who is a lot more cheerful than his expression suggests) asked to get into the photo with me. Happy New Year, everyone.
I often tell people that one of the things I like about living in Mexico City is that it allows me to skip Thanksgiving dinner. A long story: I come from a very conflicted family, and I've never been a big turkey guy. However, I confess that I try as often as possible to think about how much I have to be thankful for. My work as a mitigation specialist, which gets me very close to families that have no resources -- neither financial, emotional nor practical -- makes me think about what my family, difficult as it may have been, was able to offer me. I hope those of you who are in a similar position will reflect on this, not just on the holiday but whenever you can.
And yeah, that's my thumb in the photo. One of the things I can't be very thankful for is my talent as a photographer.