Writer’s note: I visited Nuevo Laredo in April 2003, a relatively peaceful time between the drug war madnesses.
The name has changed, but the small neon sign outside is altered, not replaced, as if to send this message: It’s really the same, amigo. Don’t let the new name bother you. The inside is exactly the same. The good lighting, the white tablecloths, the long stand up bar with the brass foot rail, the plump old waiters in white coats and black bow ties, and you can still get frog legs and quail and what may be the best bolillos in the world. It’s just like the old days, back when you walked across the bridge and headed straight through the hot crowded streets for this air-conditioned oasis. Nothing could beat it: warm bolillos, a cold beer, and an aguacate cocktail.
But what most people really did, it should be admitted, was drive, not walk, over the bridge, and they parked in the back, a guaranteed safe haven for cars (for a small tip). Those people for the most part were Texans, and all day long on weekends the place would be packed with them. Given the chaos of the Nuevo Laredo streets, and the heat, it really was an oasis, a gringo oasis, one that had been there since the 20s, a good place for a drink or dinner on the way to and from shopping. The Texans felt secure because they were always in the majority, and since the owner was a Texan, they never had to worry about the salads, the water, the ice in their drinks, or even the arbitrary nature of Mexican authority, a circumstance that might have caused more than a little incautious behavior. See those mirrors behind the bar? For years it was one long mirror, or so the story goes, running the whole length of the bar, at least thirty feet, until one day a Texan decided to shatter it with a beer bottle. An oil rich drunk Texan, no doubt, maybe even Glen McCarthy himself, the man the James Dean character was based on in “Giant.”
The three Texans I saw in there one Wednesday afternoon not long ago weren’t totally sober, but they weren’t making trouble. Old money was my guess, probably oil, but maybe even cattle or cotton. All three had the round rosy cheeks of prosperous middle-age, and they looked totally at ease in their jeans and polo shirts. They were drinking at the bar with a couple of lean Mexicans who were more sober and dressed more formally. The Mexicans looked like their ancestors had come over with Cortes. A business deal had just been completed, and everyone was feeling pretty good and acting like old fraternity brothers, arms around shoulders, half whispered dirty jokes. The Texan who did the most talking spoke good but heavily accented Spanish, and he was almost too dandyish for the crowd. He had curly red hair that came down over his collar, and he made a grand exit after a lot of hand shaking with his fellow Texans, abrazos for the Mexicans, and assurances that doing business with them was a pleasure. The only thing that felt wrong to me was that it was five o’clock in the afternoon and those men were practically the only people in the place. While I was there, for as long as it took me to drink a couple of beers standing at the bar, only two tables were occupied, one by two old ladies who’d probably been coming to Nuevo Laredo to shop, and to this place to eat, since the Second World War, and the other by a young couple who looked almost painfully out of place. Maybe they’d read about it in Lonely Planet, or maybe I was getting it all wrong. Why should it be busy? It was the middle of the week, George W. Bush’s Iraqi war had just started, and not too long ago, the papers had been full of drug wars in the streets. It was probably different on weekends and in normal times. A Carlos and Charley’s sat right across the road, which had to guarantee a certain amount of traffic, at least on weekends. But still, that afternoon it felt like an exclusive private club, as if I’d wandered into one of those places in Texas cities called the Petroleum Club. One of the Texans even looked at me as if he were trying to figure out who I was.
“Nobody,” I might have told him if I’d let myself stay for a third beer, which might have led to a shot of whiskey, just for the edge. But I had my heart set on cabrito, so after the two beers, and no whiskey, I went to the most obvious spot near the bridge, La Principal, where baby goat carcasses have been displayed prominently on spits in the window for at least forty years, probably much longer. No one was there either, but they did a steady take-out business, the most popular items being cabecita, little head, and machito, liver wrapped in intestines. I thought about it, but then cautiously settled for more familiar parts, after which, mellowed out with just the right measure of barbecued kid and alcohol, all thought of standing at the bar until I fell down safely tucked away, I decided to sit in the plaza for a while and soak up the atmosphere. The clock on the nearby municipal building actually kept good time and chimed, I noticed, and there were no beggars, no chicle sellers, no gunfights. No one even approached me for a shoe shine. Which was fine. Everything was fine. It didn’t need to be exactly the same. Over the rooftops the sky in the west had turned a soft yellow, the air was cool and dry, and although the streets around the plaza were crowded, the plaza itself was tranquil, unless you counted the noisy flocks of lean black birds that were starting to roost in the trees.
I remembered seeing those birds forty years earlier, but in the middle of the night as I was walking back to my hotel from a whorehouse called El Diamante Azul. I thought about asking someone if the whorehouse was still in business, but my Spanish probably wasn’t good enough to explain nostalgia to a stranger, at least not in a way that would be convincing, and besides, I doubted if it was worth a long explanation even in English. I was of two minds about the whole notion of tracking down old haunts. On the one hand, what was the point? So what if they hadn’t changed? So what if they had? Surely, there was no way to wade into those waters for long without getting sucked under by an undertow of nostalgia. But at the same time I had to admit that what had brought me here in the first place was an almost obsessive preoccupation with change. My plan was to take buses all the way through the center of the country, stopping for a few days in several towns and cities, and ultimately arriving in San Cristobal in Chiapas at the beginning of Semana Santa, the week before Easter. As such, it would be a rough approximation of the trip Graham Greene chronicled in The Lawless Roads, the trip he took in the spring of 1938. The idea was to compare notes, both about what there was to see, then and now, and what should be thought about it. It would be a study in change, or the lack of it.
For the most part, then, it would be Greene’s old haunts not mine that I’d be tracking down. Nuevo Laredo and Mexico City were the only places on the route where my own previous experience might get in the way, and I was pretty sure that Greene’s presence, having him constantly in mind, would serve as a corrective to any nostalgic tendencies I might have. On the whole, Greene hated Mexico. He was scandalized by the squalor and corruption and irritated by the shoddiness of the goods and services, which he saw not as local color, but as depressing symptoms of the barbaric and godless corruption of the whole society. My own response had usually been more indulgent, and morally uncertain.
Although many things in Mexico had improved since 1938, the country is still plagued by the kinds of problems that Greene encountered, and it seems irresponsible to resist change. Nevertheless, I’m suspicious of it. I’m afraid that a country for which I have a great deal of affection will disappear, which may explain why, as a rule, I’ve ignored or tried to be amused by the problems I’ve experienced, an attitude that was put to the test not more than ten minutes after I checked into my hotel in Nuevo Laredo.
It was nothing serious. In fact, it was comic, but it was exactly the sort of thing you don’t expect in the United States and that you have to learn to live with in Mexico. A moderately priced hotel, the room looked like any you might find in the States, but when I took a shower, the drain didn’t work. The issue had been anticipated, and more or less solved, by a second drain in the bathroom floor, but that created another problem. The tile became hazardously slick, which I learned when I nearly broke my neck trying to solve yet another problem–the wrapper on the soap. I had to turn the water off, get out of the shower, and put on my glasses to struggle with the soap wrapper, which it turned out had become pretty much a part of the soap, and the same was true of a second bar. It was hopeless, so I used the soap with the wrapper only half off, but I had to wonder how a respectable hotel could get away with having soap that, like the drain, basically didn’t work. Defective soap? It still seems bizarre, even though by now I should be used to the fact that many things don’t work well in Mexico. The mail, the roads, the police, the plumbing, and yes even the soap, can be, as they were to Greene, infuriating.
Or not. In a book called American and British Writers in Mexico, 1556-1973, Drewey Wayne Gunn makes an interesting distinction between the reactions to Mexico of twentieth century writers like Lawrence, Huxley and Greene, all of whom visited the country before World War II, and post-war writers like Kerouac and Burroughs. The prewar writers, Gunn maintains, have a conventional moral dimension that is either lacking or turned on its head by the later writers. Greene, for example, assumes moral indignation on the part of his readers to certain unpleasant details of Mexican life, details that, as he is more than happy to point out, the guidebooks fail to mention: deformed beggars, swaggering pistoleros, and the smell of urine from the hotel bathrooms, just to name a few. But less than twenty years later, Dean Moriarty in On the Road has another take: “Dig all the foolish stories you read about Mexico . . . crap about greasers and so on–and all it is, people here are straight and kind and don’t put down any bull. I’m so amazed by this.” Oblivious to corruption and poverty, never mind persecution and godlessness, Dean and Sal Paradise find everything good in the Mexico of On the Road: the cops, the whores, the dope, the desert, even the mosquito infested jungle, where Sal, sleeping on the hood of a car with his shirt off, actually enjoys the heat and the assault of insects. They help him lose himself in the country. He isn’t satisfied with just digging the place. Sal wants to become Mexico.
Greene makes his opinion of romantics like Kerouac and the Romantics clear early on in The Lawless Roads when he rants against arid landscapes and anyone who likes them. Deserts are ugly and useless, he says, and anyone who thinks otherwise is guilty of thinking of God as “a kind of alienated poet,” a close match to the way Sal Paradise must have been thinking that night in the jungle. Kerouac doesn’t mention God explicitly, but Sal clearly wants to become part of something not just bigger than and different from himself, but something strange and conventionally unappealing, something that all the squares, like Greene, would turn up their noses at. He would probably have preferred, though, to think of what he was looking for as transformation, or even metamorphosis, rather than alienation. Greene most often thinks of it as escape. He’s not interested in finding himself or losing himself. If anything, he’s afraid of it. More than halfway through his trip, when he arrives in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco, the state in which all the churches have been destroyed and the priests deported or killed, he learns that the names Greene and Graham are not uncommon. There is an unremarkable explanation (immigration from the southern United States after the Civil War), but Greene uses the fact, only half-jokingly, to explore his increasing unease, as he gets deeper and deeper into “godless” territory, about going native. Or in his case, I’m convinced, to the devil. The quasi-official purpose of Greene’s trip was to report on the persecution of Catholics in Tabasco, and in the prologue to The Lawless Roads he proclaims his faith, telling us that his boyhood experiences in English public school, where “appalling cruelties could be practiced without a second thought,” led him “to believe in heaven because (he) believed in hell.” He sums up conditions in “socialist” Mexico at the time as “a war . . .for the soul of the Indian.”
In 1938 Greene saw the world in general and Mexico in particular as a battleground of faith, and even harmless picturesque towns like Taxco, which were overflowing with romantic types, were nothing more than places “for escapists with their twisted sexuality and their hopeless freedom.” This streak of Puritanism is so strong in The Lawless Roads that when Greene does find something to like, he’s suspicious of his own reaction. San Cristobal, for example, is “lovely in its way,” with its little balconies, tiled roofs, and narrow streets, and the Chiapas scenery is “magnificent,” but when he compares his first view of the town, nestled quaintly in the mountains, to a Rider Haggard novel, it’s as if he needs to remind himself that in the right circumstance he’s as vulnerable as anyone else to romantic nonsense. And the circumstance couldn’t have been more right. That first view of San Cristobal came after two miserable days in the jungle, riding on a mule and sleeping on the ground in Indian huts with rats for company. First sightings after long hard journeys can apparently bring out the romantic streak in even the sternest moralist. Earlier, after a hellish boat trip, the lights of “godless” Villahermosa, viewed from the Rio Grijalva, remind him of Venice.
A very evil land, a priest had said of Villahermosa only a few days before, but soon after he arrived Greene was drawn to a plaza by the sound of music, and he asks the reader to imagine, of all things, what is undeniably a romantic scene: a camera panning across couples dancing among palm trees and old colonial buildings, young people ritually walking around the plaza in opposite directions, and prisoners watching the festivities through the barred windows of the jail. Greene is enchanted, but not for long. He soon corrects himself. The other reality is there waiting for him the next morning: the heat, the vultures on the rooftops, the burned out and looted churches. It is a place, he tells us, where the criminals look more respectable than the police, and he seems relieved that on the whole, in the clear light of day, it has so little charm, and so much evil, that it couldn’t possibly seduce him.
Throughout much of his trip, Greene reads himself to sleep with Trollope. It enables him to keep in touch with the familiar and works as an antidote to the sordidness, and the temptations, of his immediate surroundings. He knows of course that Trollope’s England no longer exists, and probably never did. It’s a fantasy, a comforting myth of middle class civility, a sedative against the bugs and the rats in his room and the smell of the toilet, which he understandably associates with Mexico’s violence and corruption. But he’s homesick, which tempts him, as it does all of us, to idealize home and set ourselves up for the inevitable letdown. At the very end of The Lawless Roads, home at last, he finds England disappointing. “Mass in Chelsea seemed curiously fictitious,” he says. “We do not mortify ourselves. Perhaps we are in need of violence.”
What he misses, and his subsequent travels bear this out, is not Mexico, but the battleground itself. Throughout his life, wherever there was trouble, Greene was there: London in the blitz, Vietnam when the French were giving up, Haiti during Papa Doc. He was attracted by danger, and by corruption and squalor, by hell, but that shouldn’t obscure the consistently moral message that came from those travels. In later years, he was far less insistent upon Catholicism as a remedy, but he never let up on his criticism of totalitarian regimes, and his emphasis was always on the hollow, bankrupt nature of any society, socialist or capitalist, that places materialism above faith. Even after he started calling himself an “agnostic Catholic,” he looked at life more as an ongoing struggle for spiritual redemption than as a quest for earthly perfection.
Which made Greene, I think, have more in common with Mexicans than he knew or cared to admit. I’m familiar, as a failed Protestant, with the stereotypical lore about how Catholics balance sin and redemption; how, allegedly, they go to Mass on Saturday evenings just so they won’t have to get up early on Sunday mornings to confess with a hangover. I wasn’t surprised, then, when right after a Mass in San Luis Potosi, a Mexican friend, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, suggested that we should get drunk and maybe even look for some women. Ivan had studied for a year to be a priest before dropping out and had perhaps given the human condition more thought than most. That’s what Catholicism is all about, he explained, life as a cycle of sinning, of feeling miserable for a while, and then of getting clean, which makes it only sensible to love sin as an essential part of the process.
On that first day in Nuevo Laredo, after my cabrito, as I sat alone on the bench in Plaza Hidalgo, enjoying the black birds and the pale yellow sunset, I wasn’t thinking about sin or redemption, or any kind of struggle. I was sleepy and sober, just glad to be there, but I did think for a minute about that Texan looking at me and wondering who I was and how I happened to be there in what was once the original, pre-franchise Cadillac Bar and is now the El Dorado. If we’d talked, he’d have thought my plans were crazy. What was wrong with me? With the possible exception of the resorts, Mexico is either depressing or scary. Why did I want to punish myself? The fact that I didn’t plan any extreme hardship would have made no impression on him. He would have told me, after latching onto the only explanation that made any sense to him, that in spite of my foolishness, when it came right down to it all we gringo Texans were alike. For that matter, all men of any stripe were alike. All Kerouac wanted, in spite of his recycled New England transcendentalism, was a little cheap Mexican tail. What else in Mexico is worth the trouble? And what do you think Greene, in spite of his high flown and tedious Catholicism, was thinking about when he sat in that plaza in Villahermosa watching those dancers? The glory of God? Forget about all this change business, partner, whether it’s Mexico or yourself you’re worried about, and no matter what you call it. Alienation. Transformation. Redemption. Salvation. You’re thinking too much. Forget about all the old places that may or may not still be there, and Kerouac’s nirvana dreams and Greene’s piety and mortification. Go to Cancun, my friend, or better yet, stay home.