It was getting late in Ajijic when Vi and I headed for the Camaleon. The narrow streets were empty and somber. Gringos do not go out as much as they once did now that the narco wars have reached the town.
Light and music poured from the door. For some reason I thought of what the country must have been like in 1900, a wilder and cruder time with dirt streets and few people. Not much law, less schooling, raw tequila and suchlike bust-head in adobe cantinas, horses, guns, and rattlesnakes. Not a great world, but I would love to have seen it.
The Camaleon by night. Photo: Jim Coyne
We took our usual table next to the fireplace. It is seldom lit. When it gets really hellishly cold here, you might need a light sweater. We ordered drinks and I wondered at the strangeness of life. (I know, I’m the only one who has ever done that.) I mean, what am I doing with an exotic Mexican woman in a town in Jalisco? (The exotic part is absurd, but I like saying it.) I communicated this to Vi. She responded that I wasn’t exactly what she had expected when she was fifteen either.
Which will interest nobody. But it supports my view that living wisely is a bad idea. I’ve seldom done anything sensible that wasn’t boring. Maybe my only contribution to the sum of human knowledge is that if you get sick of being a news weasel in Washington, Gualalajara isn’t Washington. By a long shot.
Ajijic is pretty much Mexico as conceived by sappy drones at Disney and gelded by expats who don’t really want to live here but don’t have the money for Lauderdale. Still, traces of Mexico remain among the boutuiqes. This is especially true at night when the bleakness of blank walls and cobblestones—actually empedrado—hold the modern world at a distance and hint at Mexico as it was. And, in many places, stilll is.
Mexico still has bars that are bars, joints where if the owner’s dog, or a customer’s, or the dog belonging to the bar down the street wants to come in to see what is happening, no one cares. So far as has been recorded, no one has died of dog poisoning.
The Camaleon is such. The jukebox bellows and rumbles purpelly. The place does not look to have been designed at corporate and when you order you don’t get a very nice waiter who says, “Hi! I’m Bruce and I’m going to be your waitperson and I hope you have a wonderful dining experience.” When you take a leak you do not feel as if you are profaing a surgical suite. The urinals have character.
A nation’s character is embodied in its whizzenzimmers, loos, and johns. From this example, at the Camaleon, one sees that Mexicans are stark mad. It is a pleasant condition, and I hope that it spreads northward.
In the United States real bars still exist, corner joints in blue-collar Chicago, the Last Chance Saloon at the top of the Florida keys, maybe the Sunset Grill in Wasington, a million others. Yet the trend is toward the unpleasantly clean, obsessively controlled, captiously regulated, and over-policed with cops lurking outside with Alkasensors. However spelled. From a Commie under every bush, America has moved to a Mommy behind every bush. Can I have my Commies back?
An air of predatory virtue diffuses across the US, of passive-aggressive goodness by do-gooders taking out their unhappy lives on others. I would rather be left the hell alone. This isn’t what the country was. It is what the country is.
Mexico used to be stranger than it is now. I think I was nineteen when I first dropped down into Saltillo from Laredo. In those days bars were for men only, except, in Saltillo, for the Arizpe Bar in a hotel. I found myself one night in a murky working-class mescal chute where your mother definitely would not want you to go. I was probably the first Caucasian the place had seen. A fellow came in with a wet-cell battery and a step-up transformer slung over his shoulder on a strap, with two cables leading from it to silvery hand-grips.
Los toques. The idea, if it rose to that level, was that to demonstrate your toughness, you held one contact in each hand while the proprietor of the things gradually turned up the voltage. Your muscles would begin to spasm and at a certain point you would not be able to release the toques. Or so I was told. I didn’t make the experiment. The wisdom of applying a voltage across my chest did not leap to what mind I had at that age.
There is in segments of the American population a sniffish sense that bars are vicious places, ridden by Demon Rum and productive of drunkenness and maybe even billiards. In the parlance of those limited souls afflicted by these notions, one doesn’t drink, but “uses alcohol.” One should therefore seek help from a therapist. I think therapists need to go to bars.
In fact bars are places of philosophy, of conviviality and conversation. Yes, any town has its drunks, chain smokers, and people dependent on Prozac. They are few, except for the Prozac gobblers. In any event, I prefer the occasionally sozzled to the Depakote zombies, the Xanax-disabled, and the Valium-dependent.
Mexico still has bars that by custom though not law are for men only. This works no hardship on women since bars inegrated by sex are everywhere, and in any event the male-only establishments are not such as to be attractive to women. It apparently infurates a subset of the American women here who, having a sort of Rosa Parks complex, go barging into taraditionally male cantinas to integrate them. This creates considerable ill-will.
Which is curious. If women started an all-female bar, men wouldn’t care at all.
A horse gallped past outside. I love it. Mexico is nothing if not motley. Teen-agers rush around with smart phones and build websites and engage in the cyber-larceny of music. And yet horses—real ones, with feet, ears, tails, all the credentials—clop about. It isn’t really primitivism. If you are going to raise cattle and goats in the rocky hills hereabouts, a horse is the only practical vehicle. I like hosrses. They eat grass and mind their own business. I can think of countries that might try the approach.
So much for searching insights. Actually there are probably only a dozen or so insights to be had, and everybody has already had them. We paid and left. The streets were again empty and silent. A cat saw us and ducked around a corner.