Immaculately dressed, every salt-and-pepper hair in place, sporting a Clark Gable moustache, Mauricio Garcés starred in a series of saucy comedies in the 60s and 70s, in the role of a mature and world-weary seducer, famous for lines of dialogue like "Debe ser horrible tenerme y después perderme" (It must be horrible to have me and then lose me) and "Dios sabe que tengo miles de razones por ser vanidoso" (God knows I have thousands of reasons to be vain). He died in 1989, but in the hearts of many lives on: Recently I saw this stencil of him on a wall in the Colonia Del Valle.
Mexico City nightlife
Photo by Ana Hop
Few readers will need me to recommend the Bar Zinco, a jazz joint in the centro histórico located in what used to be the basement vaults of a bank. With red velvet curtains, black walls and exposed brick, it is a little like a jazz club from an old movie, and far cooler than most such places in New York.
The Zinco Big Band, composed of seventeen of Mexico City's best musicians, only plays once in a blue moon. If you are lucky enough to notice that they are doing a gig, don't think twice, just go. You're bound to enjoy their recreations of arrangements by Count Basie, Nelson Riddle, Charles Mingus and Thad Jones.
Here they are on a recent night with a New York singer named J.D. Walter, who performed a couple of sets of Sinatra numbers, punctuated by his continuous remarks that he doesn't regularly sing Sinatra numbers. Walter wore an earring in each ear, a look that, combined with a shaven head, suggested the words, "stronger than dirt."
Photo by Ana Hop
The band is conducted by Eugenio Elias, the gentleman in the dinner jacket central in the above photo. The caballero with the moustache at the extreme right of the picture is Don Roberto González Barrera, who owns Maseca, the corn flour from which most of Mexico's tortillas are made, as well as Banorte, one of the country's most prominent banks. He regularly appears on the lists of staggeringly wealthy people published by Forbes magazine. According to one of the owners, he shows up at the Zinco frequently.
Apparently, one way that Don Roberto stays so rich is by bringing his own liquor to bars -- he and his blonde companion arrived at Zinco with a bottle of Aniversario, a Venezuelan rum that is exquisite as cognac and not so easy to find in Mexico. Sadly, they diluted that good liquor with Coca Cola.
Click here to see more work by Ana Hop, the lovely and talented photographer responsible for the above photos.
Readers of my book FirstStop in the New World may remember the chapter about the Savoy, the last cabaret in Mexico City, with its live orchestra, plump dancing girls, a mariachi who sang to piped-in music, and the Euterpean talents of Claudia Tate, who had been the star of soft porn comedies in the 1970s. The Savoy is still here. But sadly, the floor show is gone (except for the warbling mariachi). It has become a table-dance and fichera joint, where you can cut the rug to live salsa with one of the women on the premises for a modest fee, and perhaps negotiate other services for proportionately higher honorariums.
About eight years ago my friend Sergio González Rodríguez “discovered” a tiny, hole-in-the-wall dive called El Bull Pen on Calle Medellín near Calle Yucatán in the Colonia Roma. At the time, it had a certain clandestine charm (that remained elusive to many) – one got the sense that anything was obtainable at the Bull Pen, if you lived long enough to obtain it. (This is not precisely a joke. At least a couple of friends were mugged while leaving the Bull Pen late at night, one of them by a policeman.)
In any case, Sergio published an article about the place in the newspaper Reforma, and the Bull Pen became incredibly (you might say insufferably) popular, particularly among the hippy-ish young. The place expanded to the property next door, live rock bands played at earsplitting volume ... it struck me as way too much of a good thing.
Then it closed down. For what at least seemed like years. This happens often to such places in Mexico City, and it is usually assumed that the owners haven’t paid the requisite bribes, or the person who was accepting the bribes can no longer protect them, or they have made so much money that it no longer matters … variations on a theme. The Bull Pen recently reopened its doors, now back to being a tiny hole-in-the-wall. We’ll see how long it lasts in its present incarnation.
When I first moved to Mexico City, I was perplexed by a figure named Jairo Campos. I saw his name on an enormous marquee outside the Hotel Diplomático on Insurgentes Avenue, which announced the show he gave in the hostelry’s bar. Several days later I saw the same name on an equally huge sign on Avenida Álvaro Obregón – only this time, the billboard broadcast his services as a dentist. Could they be the same person? How many people named Jairo Campos could there be in the same city?
I never went to him to get my teeth cleaned, nor did I catch his act at the Diplomático. Yet his legend increased: Friends mentioned that some years ago the good doctor appeared on TV commercials, performing dental chores on less-than-spectacular models.
Recently some friends recommended that I visit the bar of the Hotel Prim at the corner of Calle Versalles and Calle General Prim in the Colonia Juárez. It’s a blurry, amber-colored joint, which looks like a Technicolor movie from the 1960s. The regulars refer to it as la catedral del bohemio de la ciudad de México. During the day, Jairo Campos still puts in crowns and operate on gums, but several nights a week, the Prim’s stage belongs to him.
Plump, with dyed hair and goatee, the dentist has an adoring public, most of whom know the words to all the songs he croons, and sometimes go onstage to sing alongside him. Between numbers, Campos makes remarks that are intermittently coherent, often evoking memories. For instance, before singing Prohibida (Forbidden), he will recall a girlfriend he had in his youth Jijilpan, as well as the changungas and chimbiriches that he ate in Apatzingán.
On some nights at the Prim you can also catch the estimable Polly, more or less a Mexican Liza Minelli. She is a dyed blonde who gives it all she's got and then some, and whose passion mounts with each cocktail she consumes during her act. Sometimes, during her break between shows, she relaxes with members of the public. The other night she sat with two fans with white hair and black suits, who may have had some connection with the funeral parlor across the street.