Saturday, November 3, 2007

Tumble

Arráncame la vida
Con el último beso, mi amor.
Y si acaso te hiere el dolor,
Debe ser por no verlo.
Porque al fin tus ojos
Me los llevo yo.

Anonymous


My time in the country is difficult to explain. Suffice it to say that I fell into the company of people who found life disillusioning and preferred to live in a foreign land with their imaginations. When we left finally it was under varying conditions but the universal, perhaps misleading impression that we were once again exercising our right to free will.
In the spring I shared a ground-level, comfortable apartment with a German, Wolfgang Mueller. He was an amiable man with many friends who worked teaching English at government offices, and he rose early and went about his day with well-bred, cheery resoluteness, with purpose in the purposeless tumble of the anarchic city. I worked at night, on a movie shot in an abandoned mine in the ancient and decrepit outskirts of Tepito, a notoriously crime-ridden suburb of Mexico City.
We gathered at the Estudios Churubusco in the afternoon, the thirty or so of us that had been hired as extras, struggling young artists and marginals, wearing boots and silver jewelry. Che was an Argentine who had studied economics. Juliana was a daughter of a Catalan university professor. Francois, a Frenchman writing a travel book. Max, a Vietnam veteran from Arizona. These were just some of the characters brought together at that time, finding ourselves working together on the Hollywood gig.
After a bus ride through dusty streets thronged with the homeward bound, shopkeepers closing for the day, we arrived at a fenced-off compound and were transformed by make-up crews into futuristic mutants of a desert planet, a warrior tribe, products in fact of a technological sensibility. There was nervous heckling and joking around while we waited in lines for our costumes and weapons. The Mexicans had a great sense of humor about the whole operation, amused at this brand of efficiency in the name of art. Nobody took it very seriously apart from the director and his assistant, Cookie, an irritable little Spaniard, who would shout at us to hurry. We took our places on the hill. The stars would appear, looking charismatic and sculptured, under the tutelage of the director, a very serious and young looking David Lynch, with a long blonde forelock that he kept sweeping away from his eyes and white, self-effacing deck sneakers. He apparently had made a name for himself with some low budget cult films. At the time I had never heard of him.
The extras clambered on the rocks, falling, scraping the expensive rubber suits, and prepared to begin the scene, which involved a shootout with some bad guy.
“You are not Apaches, please. You are dignified, noble. You draw your guns with calm. This is not a Western," said Cookie.
"It's obvious he's never spent any time in Tepito," said one of the extras, twirling the ray gun on his finger. Max laughed loudly in appreciation, causing Cookie to tremble with rage. Max had gone native in his sense of humor. He claimed in private conversations to be the victim of a CIA assassination plot. He said this to test your reaction. He'd been in the Green Berets in the Mekong Delta, spending months at a time alone in the jungle up a tree as a sniper, and the experience had marked him. Cookie hurried back to the director's side. From above, on the rocks, those of us who could understand English could follow their conversation.
"Did they understand, Cookie, what it is they have to do?" asked the director, breaking away from consultations with the camera man.
"Yes, David. They understand perfectly well."
We worked on scenes interminably while the action perfected itself in this recreated world. We looked on like reverential and half-understanding aboriginals at the deeper and intriguing excesses that passed for drama. Our faces bore the right amounts apparently of reserve and hostility.
At midnight, breaking for a meal, we pulled the rubber suits off and let them hang around our hips. This was against regulations, but the wardrobe personnel did not have the heart to enforce rules, understanding that it was hot under the lights and we were tired of the interminable repetition of some action, standing for hours. The food, served from the back of a truck and eaten under a tent, was plentiful and wholesome, stews, steamed vegetables, apple pie, Perrier water. The crew and the stuntmen cut in line on front of us as a matter of rank, but we just laughed. After eating we drank coffee spiked with tequila, and the more enterprising mixed marijuana and tobacco in hand-rolled cigarettes.
I was transfixed by the clash of egos that happened off screen, between takes. It seemed more dramatic than the actual narrative of the film. The director did his best to soothe over any difficulties with an unctuous, eager manner, but it was clear there was dissatisfaction in the air. The two stars, a young man and woman with all-American good looks, were feuding.
One night the executive producer appeared on the set. By then we were disenchanted with the supposed glamour of the business. We didn't care that he was signing all the checks. We just saw a balding old man with a potbelly and a funny silk jacket. That night there was an unusually long after dinner break as the cast confined themselves to their trailers. Some of us walked to the top of a promontory, and Juliana broke out a pack of Marlboros. We smoked, leaning back against the rocks like the languid primitives we were supposed to be playing. There was a half moon, a spray of stars and orange smog over the city.
"This stupid suit. It cramps my style," said Juliana, tugging at one of the arms.
"I suppose we are soldiers, not sex symbols," said Francois in his Parisian accented Spanish.
"Still, they could have tailored them a little better," said Juliana.
"Looks like these bastards are having problems among themselves. Some of the others are talking about a strike. I think it might be a good time," said Che.
"If we went on strike they'd just fire us and get some other people," I said.
"It would be a problem for them. Remember, they already have us on film," said Che.
One of the production assistants yelled from below that the extras were to take their places.
"What are we doing now?" I asked.
"Who knows?" said Francois ironically.
"We're still trying to get that idiot to cry," said Juliana.
Juliana considered it incomprehensible that a professional actor could not shed tears as the scene demanded. We had already spent the whole night waiting for the miracle to happen.
"I'll give him a good hook on the ear and see if that might work," said Che.
"It might," I said.
We walked down the hill, blinded by the lights, to our places at the mouth of the canyon. I stood on a precarious ledge, preferring the vantage it gave. Juliana, more practical, stood on solid ground below where she could lean and rest between takes. The dust machines started up, fouling the air with red powder meant to imitate some distant planet's atmosphere. The director checked the camera view, conferred with Cookie. The make-up crew placed some drops in the young star's eyes as he leaned his head back. A production assistant yelled for silence, punctuating the night with his single command. For his consistently irrelevant responsibility, we had settled on him as our favorite object of derision. Everyone was anxious as the producer sat in a high chair behind the camera, observing. Make-believe desert dust was blown in the air by large, noiseless machines.
The work was called off in the early morning. We traded in our weapons and rubber suits for civilian gear and changed in the tent reserved for us. Some of the women tried rubbing the caked grime off their faces with paper towels, but it seemed a painfully slow operation. We looked strange as we boarded the bus. Someone caught sight of the assistant, our nemesis, trudging across the parking lot.
"One, two, three."
We stuck our heads out the windows and gave him back his epitaph in splendid mimicry. He gave the whole bus the finger. We were rolling now.
Juliana, the last one on, slid into the seat next to me. I watched storefront colors bloom and wraiths of daybreak glide on the sidewalk.
"I don't feel tired," said Juliana.
"Neither do I."
We held hands as I stared out the window. I never looked at her until we got back to Churubusco.
"What a shame," said Juliana, letting go of my hand as the bus parked and the tribe stood and stretched.
I caught a ride with Francois up the Avenida Insurgentes. He usually gave two or three of us a lift in the old Chrysler that had traversed much of the continent. He let me out on the street into the ephemerally fresh morning air. In no time the city would be overrun.
I walked across Condesa, leaving footprints in the grass of the old horse track that runs down the center of the street. Two Indian men, Oaxacans by their dress, walked silently by, faces lowered under their hat brims. I looked away. I was in the realm of ghosts again, over the bridge and on to the empty avenue. I looked through the tinted glass at the early morning customers in the coffee shop on the corner. A woman stared vacantly past her man while he stirred his coffee. The new waiter's face spelled fear. It was an unbroken, monotonous, grey, evil-smelling landscape. The movement of shadows took on a degenerate sensuality. In my doorway, a drunk lay asleep, his shirt unbuttoned and draped on an obscene gut, spittle on his beard and his arm stretched over a bundle of newspapers. He used his shoes for a pillow. I unlocked the door and stepped over him into the hallway. Wolfgang was still asleep. I took a shower, running the lukewarm water over my head for a long time. Deltas of reds and purples formed around the drain, the sediment of planet Dune. Then I got into bed and fell asleep. The noise of the taxi stand intruded on my dreams. I woke up. The drivers liked to shout and honk their horns at each other and at women walking along the sidewalk. I rolled out of bed and opened the window a crack to stave off the heat. I wiped dust off the Venetian blinds with my finger. The telephone rang. It was the studio calling to say there would be no need for any extras that night. I made myself some eggs and reheated some beans. I called Francois. He'd been given the same story.
"Who cares? I'll come over and we'll go shopping. I found a friend's credit card in my suitcase."
"How'd that get there?"
"Don't ask too many questions, kid."
Francois knocked on my window a little while later. He came in and rolled a joint as he
talked, assuring me about the credit card business. Then we went out, driving along the Perisur, stopping at a cement, garrison-like shopping mall smelling of perfume and sugar. First we had something to eat in a gourmet food outlet, ham, brie, croissants and espresso. Francois picked up some olives and cans of pate on the way out. There was nothing in the stores that I really wanted.
While Francois wandered through the mostly empty stores in a celebration of consumerism, I sat under potted palms and read a Time magazine. Francois emerged with a pressure cooker and some Japanese steak knives. Almost as an afterthought, I suggested we purchase bottles of champagne and some rum.
It was mid-afternoon and the fire eaters were plying their trade at the intersections. I popped open a bottle of champagne and we drank it in the slow moving traffic. I asked Francois to let me off by the University stadium.
"I'll see you around," I said.
I walked over to Juliana's house. Her brother answered the door. He was wearing a Felix the Cat tee-shirt and listening to Led Zeppelin, drumming his fingers on the door. Juliana wasn't in, so I took a crowded bus up to Napoles, breaking into a sweat from the heat on the bus, watching closely for pickpockets.
Juliana's boyfriend lived on the second floor of an old, yellow building. I called from a payphone across the street. She always spoke in a monotone that sounded on the verge of cracking.
"Can I come by? I'm on the street."
"Yes. Come by. Can you bring me some milk?"
"Where's Roberto."
"He went to Guadalajara for the weekend, and I don't have anything to eat."
"Anything else?" I asked.
"Some Marlboros."
The hallway smelled of rotting garbage, and there was a hole in Roberto's door where somebody had taken a crowbar to it. I knocked and she opened. She smiled with a slight overbite and flashing teeth. Her eyes looked dark and tired. She was busy rearranging the furniture. I helped her with a sofa, pushing it to one corner. Juliana laughed in surprise.
"Your face gets so red," she said, coming closer.
"I've been drinking," I said, and explained about Francois and the credit card. Juliana sighed. She had plans of her own and needed money. She wanted to open a cafe to be frequented by poets and musicians. She was taking a bus up to Valle de Bravo the next day to see if she could find something there.
"What about the movie?" I asked.
"I don't give a shit about it. Why don't you come?"
We kissed. I had no good answer. We lay together in the night, motionless. Juliana held my hand.
In the morning we caught a bus that ran over the Desierto de los Leones and into the forested mountains. The bus was full, mostly of young people returning to their villages. Juliana fell asleep and slumped against me. The people on the bus were quiet, enjoying the mystery of the journey. We stopped at Toluca and several smaller towns along the way. Families of peasants gathered at the side of the road to greet the homecoming sons and daughters.
At Valle de Bravo we climbed down from the bus and descended the cobblestone street to the zocalo past groups of marketgoers. We had a coffee at a restaurant that smelled of ammoniac village cleanliness.
"Oh, what the hell. I don't really care," Juliana blurted out.
"About?"
"Finding anything. It's such an empty thing after all, isn't it? I mean ambition."
"I don't know. You're worried you won't find what you're looking for."
"Yes."
"You will."
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