Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Holiday Season Begins

Thanksgiving dinner didn’t get off to a good start. I left my pocketbook in the taxi on my way to a potluck for ten at Patty’s house. Generally, I’m not careless but had lots of packages. I grabbed the kale and mustard greens but left my purse. I didn’t have much money, only about 150 pesos, around 12 bucks, and no credit cards. I stopped carrying cards more than two years ago when purse snatchings became more frequent after tourist left and the economy floundered. I stood outside for about 20 minutes; hoping the cab driver would return with my bag, take pity on a gringa with less than $20. When he didn’t return, I adjusted my attitude with champagne and smoke and decided to enjoy the day.

As a child I loved Christmas but after I turned 30 my most vivid holiday memories were of Thanksgiving Day. The first time I cooked, the food was great but everything else went wrong. I was buying my first house—scheduled to close on November 10th—and had invited 15 people to dinner. But the title report was late, the sale delayed and I had to stuff my guest into my apartment on Convent. Then a couple of weeks later, I found out that a friend’s son spent the evening talking on my phone to his girl friend in California when I got a humongous phone bill that his father didn’t make him pay.

My favorite Thanksgiving was at my Harlem brownstone, years later. That year my friend Van and I cooked dinner for more than 20. We had multiple tables and Aunt Sis, my mother’s oldest sister, and her husband, Eddie, were seated in different rooms. My Aunt, who was at least 85, flirted scandalously. I can still visualize bantering with the young men—batting her eyes, throwing her head back when she laughed, lowering her gaze. Periodically she’d remember that she’d come with a date and call over her shoulder to me, “Cynthia, go check on Eddie.”

I’d never done potluck for Thanksgiving. When everyone brings a dish the food can run the gamut from wonderful to horrendous. And this meal, in my family, was supposed to be perfection. No one would take chances with its deliciousness quotient. Whoever hosted, did the cooking. I climbed the stairs to join the others on the roof with no expectations about the meal but knew I would enjoy the company. San Miguel is beautiful and it has almost perfect weather, but I think what draws foreigners to live in this community is how easy it is it to make community. We were a mixed group, people whose paths might not have crossed in the States—four from California, two from New Yorkers, a couple who aren’t in Kansas any more, and two Oakes—people who’d found commonality within our vastly different life experiences. I put my lost purse behind me, and went up to the terrace to enjoy the day. The weather was perfect, mid-70s, and the views from Patty’s patio spectacular. Iven had ornamented the table with gold to rust, fall-colored roses. We ate outside, something you could never do this time of year in New York. And the food was fabulous. Because I wouldn’t have access to leftovers, I ate way too much. Got seconds of Jim’s brussels sprouts, a veggie I’d never liked before.

I didn’t think about my purse again until, one of the Californians, Brady dropped me off at my house. I didn’t think anything in my pocketbook included my local address but my keys had been inside. I could be coming home to a ransacked house. They could have stolen my computer. I had a high anxiety moment opening the door but everything was fine, just like I’d left it.

I didn’t get the purse back. I didn’t lose much money or any credit cards but my bag was filled with little things that will be expensive to replace. I listed them in order of importance—necessities, glasses, FM3, driver’s license, INAPAM card; wants, digital camera; and indulgences—the largest number fell into the latter category because to my fetish for chic leather accessories and exquisite pens. In this economy I can’t afford to replace the luxuries. I could moan about that but instead will be thankful for years when I could. This won’t last forever but if it does, I realized years ago that I enjoy life when money is plentiful and when it’s scarce.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happy to be here

I spent the end of February being pissed. I’d had to use my meager travel budget to go to Baltimore for a personal emergency at the beginning of the month during one of the coldest winters on record. I tried to add a little vacation energy to this trip, went to New York for a few days, but it was too frigid to enjoy the City. Since my discretionary money was gone, I’d be stuck in Mexico until I found more freelance work.

I assumed I’d be bored. Since I came to Mexico in 2005, my San Miguel life had coexisted with travel, both in the States and abroad. I needed a bigger world, was used to the stimulation of New York. What would I do for entertainment during low tourist times when there are few activities here? But I wasn’t bored. With new friends, non-stop partying in the foreign community this year, and increased weekend events in town, I had a good time.

Being here non-stop also allowed me to see how much the town has changed. During the past two years, it has transformed from a seasonal to a weekend tourism town. Upper-income Mexican tourists have replaced the foreigners who abandoned the city following the outbreak of swine flu in April 2009 and continued to stay away out of fear from what they read about the Mexican drug wars.

The transition has been hard on merchants and restaurants—the nationals don’t want what attracted foreigners. Foreign tourists are attracted to town’s colonial charm. The Mexicans want modern and sleek. But I like the new San Miguel; like the juxtaposition of the modern interiors behind colonial walls. Like the more young people are coming both to stay and visit. I’ve always had a multi-generational life and my time here has been populated mostly with people my age. I like that SM is flooded with the frivolity of nationals out to have a good time on the weekends. Like that TEDx San Miguel has become part of our annual landscape; that Cervantino, Guanajuanto’s International Festival that celebrates all the arts, is hosting some of its events in our town; that more restaurants are offering live music some night and that, during the week, more have specials to lure locals out.

I’ll always want New York for friends, jazz, theatre and Alvin Ailey. Always want to travel, explore other worlds. But as long and work is scare and money tight, this is a good place to be. There’re things to do ranging from the Writers’ Conference in February to November’s Jazz and Blues Festival. We have year round sunshine. Even during January highs reach the 70s, and May’s heat is oppressive but we’re in the mountains so it cools down at night. If you choose, live here can be expensive but there’s still lots that, compared with the US, is cheap. US luxuries are affordable here. Most expatriates can afford to have someone help with the housework, at least one day a week. Many have gardeners. Hair salons and body pampering costs a fraction of what it does in the States.

Rather than bitch about what’s been lost, am enjoying what is.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Short Rants

I’m awful about posting on my blog when I’m doing other writing. Mentally I’ve posted several times during the last almost three months.

I wanted to rail against the cost of medical insurance for those of us between 60 and 65 when I was doing my annual search for a new policy. My first policy in SM was $2,000 less than I’d been paying in the States—I was estatic—and it wasn’t limited to Mexico. I had the option of doctors and hospitals in the US. When I turned 60, premiums began increasing substantially each year. Several of my SM friends no longer carry insurance. Medical care in Mexico is good and generally about a quarter of what it costs at home. They put an annual amount in a savings account and pay out of pocket. If I’d gone their route, I would have saved $15,000 in these five years. I don’t mind paying something for insurance but $3,000 annually seems high for someone who hardly uses the system. Can’t we get a good health rebate at the end of the year?

I had numerous comments to make about the congressional circus that ensued while conservative Republican legislators held us hostage to their views by refusing to compromise during debt ceiling debate. These boys and girls played chicken on the playground so long that S&P downgraded our debt producing more financial insecurity and extreme volatility in the markets.

And this past weekend I watched the Iowa Straw Poll. Michele Bachman’s win frightens me. In a news clip that aired yesterday morning on CNN, she said, “We will take the country back.” Her we is the Tea Party, a minority opinion. And take implies force. That’s how I felt watching the debt ceiling debate, that the minority was forcing the majority to their outlook. What happened to consensus and compromise? Did that die with Ted Kennedy? This “my way or the highway” approach, typical of today’s conservative Republicans, is not what we need. It’s killing us.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about something Angela Davis said the last time I heard her speak in New York. I was during Mayor Dinkins’ era, uptown on Columbia University’s campus. Dinkins described New York’s diverse population as “a beautiful mosaic,” rejecting the more traditional “melting pot.” Angela commented on this. She said the problem with this idea was that we were all expected to jump into the pot and come out as white men. Bachman seems to have a similar one size fits all approach. It was impossible then, even less likely now. Wouldn’t the color be some shade of brown?

Saturday, May 28, 2011


The heat spell finally broke last night. Our normal four weeks of intense heat doubled this year and for the last two weeks the temperatures did not drop significantly at night. It was sweltering. After 11am it was too hot to be walk further than a block or two and ants were everywhere. If I left a speck of food on my counter, in a few minutes it was covered with them. They took up residence in the pots on my roof garden. I killed thousands every time I watered my plants. Everyone is waiting for the rains. We’ve had sprinkles the last two nights, which hopefully is foreshadowing the beginning of the rainy season—the all-night downpours that transform our Puebla from dry and dusty to green

I haven’t seen the town this empty since the onset of the Swine Flu two years ago when every foreign tourist left San Miguel within 48-hours. The US warnings against travel in Mexico have been unrelenting since then—initially due to health concerns, since then because of the drug violence. Yes, there are areas that should be avoided, but most of Mexico is safe. The Canadians are still coming but Americans are reactionary. About six weeks ago reportage of beheading in Colonia San Miguel, a Mexico City suburb, prompted an avalanche of cancellations here, 200 miles away.

It’s always empty in May, our hottest month. Few tourists come and many in San Miguel’s foreign community leave the city. Hopefully the town will begin filling up, like always, mid-June. Since Martha arrived last November, for the launch of her friends’ artisanal tequila, several articles have been published that give a more balanced picture of Mexico. In January Travel and Leisure listed San Miguel as one of 2011’s hottest travel destinations and recently Vogue Daily featured San Miguel as The Destination of the Month. Both the San Francisco Chronicle and CNN published articles this spring that let their readers know there are safe and wonderful travel destinations in Mexico.

Uhm, maybe Steve Schwab’s March blog wasn’t just the latest conspiracy theory. Maybe the reason for the biased reportage of Mexico in the US press is economic. What did Deep Throat say in All the Presidents Men? “Follow the money.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Catching Up

This post is a week later than planned—I got some kind of intestinal thing that got me off schedule and then was lazy for the rest of last week. It is so easy to be lazy here—it’s hard to maintain discipline in an environment where most of your friends are retired. It was much easier to stay focused in New York where everyone was hustling.

I experienced a facsimile of Girls on the Roof a couple of Saturdays ago, less than a month after I blogged about missing those gatherings. I hosted a soul food potluck at my house for some of the African-American women in San Miguel. We were a smaller group, seven, and didn’t gave the familiarity of years of friendship. But our conversation was as uncensored as it had been with my New York crew and the women equally as independent and interesting.

We talked about the politics of post-Obama America. About Black movies and actors—Denzel’s refusal to do any movies his children can’t see, Whoopie’s career, Oprah and Danny in Beloved, whether Halle’s career was affected by doing Monster’s Ball, a film that included a frank sex scene. We talked about how our lives both as Blacks and women have changed over the last 60 years and how life in Mexico differs from life in the States. And we talked about sex—the question we examined that afternoon was, which was more important, the size of the vessel or the motion of the ocean? It was a great afternoon. As I cleaned the kitchen that evening, I wondered if Women on the Patio was emerging.

Luckily I had some DVDs I could watch while I was stuck in the house four straight days. I watched Frankie and Alice, a film about a woman with multiple personalities that won Halle a Globe nomination, Small Island, a BBC miniseries that examines the lives of two Jamaican men who migrate to England after volunteering to fight for the British in WWII, and Treme, the HBO Series about New Orleans six months after the storm. I had watched the first three episodes months ago but couldn’t finish it because it made me nostalgic for the New Orleans that was. This series is a wonderful tribute to NOLA, showcases all its people and its different musical heritages.

It’s hotter than normal for this time of year—generally our hottest month is May but May temperatures begin at the end of March. Hopefully the rains will come early otherwise the next six weeks will be unbearable.

The Easter pageantry began here last Sunday when the Nuestro Señor de la Columna, a statue of Jesus credited with miraculous powers, made its annual pilgrimage from Atotonilco to San Juan de Dios Church. And tomorrow the city will be decked out in purple and white, honoring Mary with its Our Lady of Sorrows altars, erected on the streets and in homes and churches. The Friday of Sorrows, this prelude to Holy Week, Semana Santa, is my favorite part of the yearly Easter celebration in San Miguel.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Girls on the Roof

Loss brings reflection. Now that Van is gone I’m looking back, not all the way but to my 40s. By then, I had learned a few things. I still wasn’t wise but was no longer stupid.

In this post-Vandelear world what I am missing most is our rooftop girls' gatherings. Van is the second one of The Girls on the Roof we’ve lost in less than a year. MS took Sandy, who hosted us on 112th Street, last July. Up on the roof, overlooking Bank Street School, Van fleshed out the details of Vandelearia, the island she was going to buy when she hit the Lotto. She wouldn’t have to do anything mundane. I’m not doing a thing when I hit the Lotto. I’m going to hire someone to pick my nose. Vandelearia would be the ultimate women’s paradise; delicious, chocolate, long, tall drinks of water would be fanning us in loincloths.

On the roof, the food was great and the champagne flowed. But the highlight was always the peace-pike enhanced conversations. Most details are foggy now but the gathering I remember most was the one where we discussed old lovers. Linda, who had recently completed her film Flag Wars, was mulling over a new idea and wanted to do some informal research. Asked if we could recall all our lovers’ names. I remember thinking, This could be embarrassing, even with my girls. Remember wondering if I’d be completely honest. But, as the woman began to talk, I heard that we all had embraced the sexual freedom that came with the pill. We all had numbers, except Minnette who’d been married to the same man since she was 25.

We all had numbers but we couldn’t remember all the names. Recently Bianca—the only youngblood we let hang with us on the roof—told me she’d been shocked that we’d forgotten some names. She was mid-twenties then; now, at almost 40, she understands. Has had one or two herself who weren’t memorable, whose names are difficult to recall.

I was somewhat ambivalent about Bianca’s participation. Often asked myself, is hearing our no holes barred conversation a good or bad thing? I didn’t think any of us were jaded but naiveté, for the most part, was out the window. Replaced with real life experiences. Sometimes I wondered if there’d been valid reasons for the information my mother, aunts and grandmother withheld? Bee never had any ambivalence, knew she was receiving essential information, feels these dialogues helped prepare her for life.

It wasn’t just the conversations but the company—my girls were an accomplished group of women. Bianca received a top-notch education listening to the uncensored chatter of a world renowned jazz musician, a filmmaker and founder of an interdisciplinary art gallery, a published author/editor/stylist, a couple of actress/writers, an educator, and a dancer/choreographer. We were women who weren’t afraid to take risks, women whose lives illustrated a myriad of possibilities. Bee credits the Girls on the Roof sessions for making her the woman she is today.

Although I’m getting to know a new group of women here in San Miguel and am being enriched by our interaction, my recent trip East reminded me I miss my old friends. What’s that old cliché say; one is silver and the other gold? Got to mix my gold with my silver, find more ways to integrate my old and new lives.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eulogy for Van

My dear friend Vandelear Walker died today at five. The death certificate will say that she died from bone cancer but she was really a Hurricane Katrina casualty. We’d moved to New Orleans a scant 10 days before the levees broke and washed away all our belongings. Van never found her way back. Starting over is always hard but harder when you’re 55 and the American workplace is downsizing everyone over 50. It broke her spirit and when she had indications that her breast cancer had returned she didn’t go to the doctor. She’d lost her job, didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t find the energy to fight for the medical treatment that should have been her right. When she finally got to the hospital several months later, her cancer had moved from breast to bone. She fought a valiant fight but didn’t win the battle.

I met Van one hot summer afternoon in the 80s at an outdoor jazz concert in Brooklyn where Cassandra Wilson and Olu Dora were cutting up onstage. It was instantaneous friendship. We read the same books, liked the same kind of music, loved theatre, dance, photography and art. While everyone else was sleeping in on Saturday mornings, Van and I met early to do our weekly shopping, take care of our other chores. We wanted to get the weekend business out of the way so that we could get to the real purpose of days off from work, fun. Van was a good time girl. Almost from the beginning we were road dogs. We often traveled together, to New Orleans, Atlanta, the Caribbean, Ghana. When the National Black Touring Circuit started booking my one-woman show, Sally of Monticello, Van was my stage manager, handled all the details of life on the road so I could be free to perform. She was the sister I’d never had.

Van had moved to Baltimore when Bianca, a young woman who became my adopted daughter, had a seizure and was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation of the brain. Bee didn’t have medical insurance and Van returned to New York as often as she could to hold my hand as I fought the Medicaid bureaucracy for Bianca’s surgeries. A few years later, Van took the Greyhound to New York every weekend when I had a tumor removed from my spine. And I was there for her, when she was sexually assaulted, when she bought her first house, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We celebrated life’s high, propped each other up during the lows.

Van was excellent cook, loved nothing better than preparing food for her friends. She was larger than life; had a personality that matched her full name, Vandelear Venita, and almost six-foot statue. She was generous, took people at face value and never judged. I love you Van. We all do, all of us who knew you. You will be greatly missed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Memory Lane

I recently saw a film that took me down memory lane, The Radiant Child, a documentary on Jean-Michele Basquiat, one of the greatest contemporary artists of the late 20th century. Basquiat arrived in Manhattan in 1978, when the City was considered dangerous and was graffiti decorated. It was also the epicenter of all things artistic, a place where neophytes and established artists rubbed shoulders and exchanged ideas. What fed The City’s creativity was its diversity, on all levels, both ethnic and socieo-economic. And its subway system that provided easy accesses to most of its five boroughs.

I had to watch the film a second time, not because I’d missed details of Jean-Michele’s life, but because I enjoyed reliving the time in New York that I’d love most. I’d been present at a couple of those art opening, thought I’d been to one of the parties, had bought several of Basquiat’s postcards when he was selling them on the street. I hope at least one of the people I sent them to saved theirs. I hadn’t kept one for myself.

I hung out a little with the downtown art since but it was the theatre world that got my attention in the late 70s. Lots of Off Broadway theatres had seasons. Every weekend we were saw a new play at La Mama, Henry Street, the NEC, the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn and the myriad of other venues that were producing theatre in New York. Most of these companies have folded—fewer plays are being produced.

Manhattan still has a subway and it is still replete with galleries, museums and theatres but its explosive creative center is gone. Now. It’s much more homogeneous now. The City is more sanitized; artists from opposite ends of the economic spectrum are no longing mingling at the same social gatherings, fringe New York is disappearing. It still has ethnic diversity but to come to NY now you need bucks. New York isn’t the only city that’s gentrifying away its artist. Recently a friend from Austin said she felt the same thing was happening there. There is no one city that is the center for all things creative. Up and coming artists are scattered in small pockets all over the US.

Is this why we have U-Tube, why social networks continue to grow? A jazz bassist who relocated here more than a decade ago is reconnecting with the US jazz scene through Facebook, has had videos of some of his recent performances posted on U-tube. I guess our artistic epicenter now exist on the Internet—effective but sterile. Was glad I had the hands-on experience but reactivated my Facebook page. This may be sterile but it beats a blank.