The long corridor is quiet now. A reasonable facsimile of Willie Nelson lies dozing in his shorts, on his back, in the dark, the door to his room open to the caressing balm of a Pacific breeze that drifts easterly along Coahuila Street. No lights ignite the dark; there is only the shadowy simulacrum of Willie at rest, his head pillowed at the foot of the bed, his feet up where his head should be. The day before, he was on a wild-eyed rant. Walking up the staircase, I heard him singing this ditty from my childhood: “Whistle while you work, Hitler is a jerk…” Then he started over again. When I got to the top of the staircase, this gray-bearded, gray-braided spectre caught in mid-song smiled weakly. “A song from my childhood,” he said. I looked into his sad eyes, nodded, and ambled past. Best to let grogged dogs lie, I thought. So what if we both knew the same bit of musical doggerel from the same post-war era. Does that give us common cause? Make us “soul brothers”?
He has been here for several days now, sweeping empty Tecate cans and cigarette butts out of his room on a daily basis. In another room, not far from here, a few years back a much younger man was doing the same, spending days cloistered in a Mexican hotel, drinking red wine from the green bottles that, empty, lined up outside his door, while he chain-smoked American cigarettes. Eventually, they all break one way or another, like a cueball rolling slowly on a green felt plane. Left or right. They stay or they go, but they do break, finally, in one direction or another. The young man stayed, until one morning I saw him sitting on the stairs weeping, his bare and bleeding feet having left crimson prints all along the mottled gray concrete hallway outside his room. Broken green glass trailed out of the open door of his room, as did a trail of cigarette butts and ashes. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. I could tell he had had his own personal Night of the Iguana and was about to leave. Some can take it, some can’t. Mostly, when they go, it’s because it isn’t their time…not yet.
The old guys, like doppelgänger Willie, they don’t care so much. They have reached The Point. They have enough life experience, have seen enough that the trail ahead seems more like a backtrack of the trail behind, a pointless and Sisyphean task, and so they seek out a legendary graveyard, as the elephants do. The young man of the bloody feet was too young to stay. If he did, it would had to have been under a new set of terms, self-evolved, but he still had some esperanza roiling about inside him. So he left in a cab, to go back to the place from where he came, a place most likely of tightly manicured hedges and well-watered lawns. As for the old guy, well, this may be his moment on the beach. But some of these old guys are tough and tricky. You never can tell if they might not get away at the last moment, sucked back out by a stronger tide…to return to friends, family, the society they knew…or maybe just rehab.
The notion of the therapeutic retreat, the pulling back from the life one lives is an attractive one. I tendered such fantasies myself as early as high school, wanting to avoid the pressurized hurly-burly of society and its claims upon one’s person, the multitudes of expectations, the burdens of responsibilities imposed by others, bellowing bosses, demanding wives, disappointed and disappointing children. I had the nagging perception that everything would be made all right if I could just spend three days alone, lying in bed for 72 hours in an air-conditioned motel room in Centralia, Washington. It never really leaves, this desire.
That’s who comes here, this is what they seek. For the old guys, however, it’s the majesty of disappearing into Mexico, finding the graveyard of godforsaken gringos and then letting Nature take its course. We have a progenitor, of course — Ambrose Bierce. He left a cushy job in San Francisco as a newspaperman in 1913, in order to find out what the Mexican Revolution was really like. He never went back. He simply evaporated, a puff of vapor under a hot Mexican sun.
For those who have crossed this Rubicon, there may be salutary moments of lucidity, when a man can turn back, but if you stay on track it gets harder and harder to make the timely retro-spin northward, back to Anglo-Landia. You make your bones every day down here, until you become bones yourself. There is no rest, no respite for the live-in gringo. You get beat up, you get robbed, your pockets picked, you have your ups and downs with Mexican cops, you learn some Spanish, you meet other, similar ancient ones, like the chimerical Willie Nelson at the top of the stairs.
The Walrus arrived one week. He is another like Willie, religiously drinking a few caguamas a day, strolling the streets in huarache sandals, letting the summer sun bake his feet into bright-pink balloons, so painfully burned he could not walk for days at a time. Once, he sent me to the corner store for a caguama — he could not take a step.
The Walrus plays music that seeps from under his door and flows down the hallway. “I’m in love,” sings Wilson Picket. “Love, love, love makes me do foolish things,” sing the Marvelettes. Yes, yes, indeed…
Love makes the world go ’round. Especially if you’re an old coot on Social Security or a government pension. Stateside, the chicks just don’t get it, they don’t understand you, but down here there are a multitude of Mexican cuties running around looking for a handsome bloke like you. You never knew you were that attractive, and you’re so glad that at last someone sees the real you. And loves you, too. For many of the old bulls, this is the last roundup, a final fling, an opportunity to have it their way, just once.