Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cafecito Cubano

It is not possible to stop by Miami without having the cafecito cubano.
I am extraordinarily sensitive to caffeine, since I do not drink coffee and consider myself a naturally hyper person. But I can't come to Miami and not have a thimble full of this fortifying elixir. I thought I was going to be climbing the walls yesterday night, but I slept quite well. And it kept me alert and awake through focus groups, which is an achievement.
I also had a fine dish of ropa vieja with perfect white rice and excellent black beans. I love good Cuban food.
Now, I look at Miami, with its sunny weather and cheaper real estate and Spanish speaking people and the thought crosses my mind that "when I get older, losing my hair, many years from now", I may want to come here to retire?
Like the rest of those tanned elderly ladies who do aqua-aerobics in the freezing Biltmore pool?
A crazy, sobering thought, but I am hereby reporting it is crossing my mind.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Cheesecake Factory

My adventures in unadventurous eating continue, as last week I was in Oakbrook, Illinois, and had dinner at The Cheesecake Factory.
Let's say that compared to The Olive Garden, this place is like Per Se. It belongs in the category of chain restaurant that could be either a guilty pleasure or a cure for anorexia.
The interior is decorated as an Egyptian temple. Hard as I try, I can't possibly see the connection between cheesecake and the Pharaohs, except perhaps for the penchant of CF and King Tut of making everything huge.
The menu at the CF is several pages long, very colorful. It contains advertisements for local businesses. This to me is the height of tackiness, but nobody else seemed to mind.
The CF distinguishes itself for serving a hodgepodge of what Americans like to call food. There are tacos and linguini, pizzas and pu pu platters, and appetizers the size of the Marshall Islands. I can't imagine anyone making it to the cheesecakes after such gargantuan portions.
For instance, the menu promises that the "light" salads are all below 590 calories each. I guess you lose the weight just from gasping. But if you go to the CF, you should be nowhere near the vicinity of a diet. A glass of water in this place may make you fat.
Having said this, I went for their "famous meatloaf". How wrong can one possibly go with meatloaf? I was not disappointed. It was yummy. Classic, rich, the size of the Hammurabi Code and quite satisfying. It came with a very nice mushroom gravy (not with cornstarch and guar gum), a mountain of mashed potatoes and a land mass of zucchini and corn (the corn was a bit raw, but at least it did not come from a can). We ordered a decent bottle of California wine and everybody seemed happy with their enormous platters of food.
But this is what happens in restaurants outside of New York (brisk and professional, constitutionally immune to cuteness, God bless 'em). For some reason we were made to wait for the table forever, even though the cavernous place seemed able to acommodate us tout suite. They always make this big deal of gathering the menus at the door, as if you were being deployed to war and those are the training manuals. It took three people to sit a table for 5.
Then the lovely waitress volunteered her name and introduced us to Jason or whoever, who was being trained.
Not to be rude to either of them, but I don't care. I do not announce my name to waiters either. I find this custom of "I am Conchita and I am going to be your server" unnecessary and ridiculous. It reminds me of the quirky aunt of a friend of mine in Mexico who speaks like this to the waiters: "Pepito is going to have the steak, and Sarita is having the enchiladas, and Chuchito wants his milanesa without breadcrumbs." To the credit of heroic, long-suffering Mexican waiters, I never saw them bat an eye.
None of us made it to the cheesecakes, which are the size of Stonehenge.
I had lunch at the CF in the Houston Galleria and was not impressed. The one in Oakbrook is better.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Diego Macellaro

I met Diego only briefly, a few days ago. He came to New York to work on an animated commercial.
He was VP Creative Director at Saatchi Venezuela. We walked in the snow in Times Square and in the park in Dumbo, had fusion food at Koi and pizza at Grimaldi's, where he was appalled at the rudeness of the service and the Magnificent Arepa and I assured him, not very convincingly, that it was all part of the charm. He struck me as an atypical creative director. Nothing in him advertised the calculated hipness that is often customary in the advertising business. He was charming and easy going and laid back and very cool. He told us he still loved to draw. He enjoyed himself immensely, was totally not high-maintenance and he also seemed very talented.
He was 48 years old and had two young children.
He was killed by a female drunk driver as he got out of the car in front of his house in Caracas, coming back from the airport. He was standing on the curb, taking either his keys or his cellphone out. She struck him so hard, his body flew about 4 meters.
Even if I only spent a few lovely hours in his company, I am very upset about Diego.
Sometimes the untimely death of someone utterly tangential in our lives creates an enormous sense of shock and grief. Perhaps it was because I had just met him, there is a terrible sense of lost potential, and the shock and fear and disbelief of the random, stupid cruelty of the accident. The horrible reminder of how fragile we really are.
But besides a sadness I can't seem to shake off, I feel a terrible rage.
Even though the driver ended up crashing into a wall, nothing happened to her. I hear she is loaded and loaded with lawyers. So I hope guilt eats up her entrails every second of her waking life, and nightmares hound her in her sleep for as long as she breathes. Because most likely, she ain't gonna spend a minute in jail.
Car accidents are the number one cause of death in Venezuela. The roads and signs are terrible, there is not enough police and people drive aggressively and irresponsibly. There is a lot of drunk driving. Many families count 2 or three victims of car accidents. You hear people say: my grandpa, my father and my cousin all died in car wrecks. People think this is normal.
In fact, last year Hugo Chavez decided to ban the sale of alcohol over the weekend of Holy Week in order to curb road fatalities and people almost rioted against it (the one thing that could cost him his job, the people's right to drink themselves to death). I hate the macho irresponsibility, the constant flirtation with disaster, the mindless love of chaos, the childishness of it all. It's a Latin American thing, the cavalier disregard for human life, when it comes to sober, responsible behavior. It sickens me.
I feel for Diego's family: his parents, his wife and children, his friends and colleagues, who I am sure adored him.

Some Countries Never Learn

Thanks to Barry for alerting me to El Blog de Joy.

Joy reports that El Universal Gráfico, a Mexican tabloid, puts a picture of Obama on the front page with a gynormous headline reading:

"¡A trabajar, mi negro!"

Meaning roughly, "Let's get to work, my negro/black man." Or if you want to be uncharitable, "get to work, my blackie".
Of course Mexicans will never admit there is anything wrong with this. They think it's very endearing.
They love to make fun of people of other colors and races and sexual orientations and religions, but God forbid one of those should make fun of them.
Mexicans will always deny they are racists because they think being a racist is against Blacks or Chinese or Jews or gays. It doesn’t occur to them that they are first and foremost racist among themselves (see brown v. white) and about everybody else, they insist on being simply, stubbornly unevolved.
The problem with this condescending yet not unfunny headline is not in the use of the word "negro", which is not offensive in itself to describe a Black person or an African American (although in typical racist fashion, many people think it is).
It’s the entire headline, and particularly the “a trabajar”, which brings back memories of plenty of work during slavery. In Mexico they still use the expression “trabaja como negro” (to work like a black man), so I don’t think this was unintended. As some people have commented, the "a trabajar" is, to add insult to injury, a command.
“Mi negro” is indeed a term of endearment (more often than not, the endearments simply help to mask and soften prejudice), and the peeps at the paper probably meant the whole thing that way, but if it sounds iffy, it’s because it is, at the very least in very poor taste.
Coño, it’s the freaking leader of the free world we’re talking about here. Más respeto por favor.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Aretha would say.
I wonder what Mexicans would think if they saw an American headline along the lines of:
“A trabajar, mis nacos”, “O quédense en su tierra, mis prietos” ("stay home, my brownies").
Do they like being referred to as mexicanitos, even if they are adults? Would they find it so charming and endearing?
I don't think so.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Nation

Lovely to see all those happy people at the Mall, (for once, it's good to go to the mall). Many proud African Americans who came from all over to witness history. Right on!
I loved Aretha. I loved her Of Thee I Sing, with that voice of hers that moves mountains. And I loved the hat. A big, huge present with a big fat ribbon to the nation. Right on!
Rick Warren was totally out of tune with the sobriety the occasion requires. It was like inviting Dr. Phil. Like inviting a game show host. Like inviting a guy in a gorilla suit. Nowhere near the same league as the rest of the proceedings. What a fake fuck. I found his mentions of Jesus utterly offensive. What does Jesus have to do with anything? Warren reminded me of those ridiculous people who pray so that the garage door opens or so they can find a lost can of tuna. Totally wrong fucking choice.
I hope Obama learned his lesson.
Particularly since he was kind enough to mention us unbelievers in the part about the religions that make up this country. And he made a point about restoring science's rightful place in America. This means we are moving to the present! Everybody, don't forget your belongings from the dark ages! Yay!
As for 43. I thought I saw a shade of pain and humiliation. He looked stunned and lost. It must be hard to sit through a most joyous, unequivocal and universal celebration of your departure. In the White House he was sheltered from the people's scorn, but outside its walls, he is defenseless, and that is how he looked. Supremely depressed and uncomfortable. I almost feel sorry for the putz. But not quite.
Now, my Hispanic colleagues, sartorial experts that they are, upon seeing Barbara Bush and Bush Pere, were alarmed by the fact that both were wearing retina burning purple scarves. According to them, people wear purple to funerals. I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of whether it's some sort of inside snide joke or they are tasteless and clueless, they looked absurd. She seems like a rock, but he looks wobbly and frail. I guess his son's debacle hasn't been good for his health.
The speech was great.
This is the speech in essence: We are in deep shit together, so get your shit together, and maybe we can get out of the shit. I liked that he started out giving us a lengthy list of bad news. I'm no dreamer, is what he's sayin'.
It was beautifully delivered, nicely written and it had some wonderful remarks here and there. About not sacrificing our values for our safety, for instance. About his own father, who 60 years ago would not have been served had he entered a restaurant. About irresponsible greedy people. About all the touch points (Orwellian marketing speak) that got him elected.
He's promising a whole lot. God knows how he intends to deliver.
But as Malia says, it better be good.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Lo único que me faltaba

Carlos Slim is going to buy a huge chunk of the New York Times. Me, who was happy to have escaped his clutches, happy that I could live almost free from every product that man owns, now fear that the internet paper I read is going to belong to him too.
I think it's rather neat that someone is helping to keep the Times afloat, but I resent that it's him. He has to stop owning everything.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Olive Garden

I know it may not be exciting to you, my sophisticated and gourmand readership, but the other day I had the chance to eat at the Olive Garden, a restaurant that didn't even muster a glance from me before the opportunity arose. So I was in an adventurous mood. How bad could I-talian food be?
How bad could all-you-can eat soup and salad be?
Well, you may want to make yourselves comfortable first.
Let me put it this way: If I were Italy, I'd be declaring war on the United States, or at the very least, recalling my ambassador.
Let me begin by saying that I find the culture of terrible chain food in the US absolutely fascinating.
Having partaken of food at Applebee's, whose distinguishing trait is that they apparently use the entire contents of the Dead Sea in every dish they serve, I promptly realized that the Olive Garden was kind of like the I-talian version of Applebee's.
I'm not a rube, so I know full well that within the chain restaurant world there are peaks and valleys and abysmal holes of culinary despair. I happen to love Ihop for breakfast. So sue me. Popeye's fried Chicken, yum. Haven't been to a Denny's lately, but how bad could that be? In the fancy end of the spectrum, I've been to Houston's and it's pretty good. The kind of food that's a guilty pleasure to eat.
However, this fake Italian affront, belongs, together with Applebee's, in the abysmal hole of culinary despair category.
I really do not know where to begin to assess what has laid waste to the perfectly wonderful, healthy, inspired, and not too complicated genius that is Italian food, to the human art of cooking and to the human pleasure of eating. The affronts of Olive Garden are legend.
The decor is Tuscan generic, a cross between a fancy new hospital and a corporate office where a color consultant surely suggested that beige and earth tones may help soothe frayed nerves. The place is the size of a Best Buy. There is plenty of space, but about as much warmth as you find in a car dealership in Omaha. The scale is intended, I assume, to make you feel right at home in generic, scare-the-shit-out-of-me America.
There was a huge empty table when we arrived, but the hostess decided to let us salivate for more than 20 minutes before bestowing it on us, no doubt corporate policy to make us hungrier.
Somebody ordered breadsticks with Alfredo sauce for starters. What arrived were baskets with warm, artificial-garlic-infused full sized mini baguettes, roughly 20 times the size of an actual Italian breadstick. This was no breadstick. This was bread. The Alfredo sauce was the exact consistency of industrial grade Ranch dressing, congealing crust included. Goop with Guar Gum, seasoned with the entire contents of King Solomon's Salt Mines.
This didn't bode well. I perused the menu, with luscious photos of food and thanks to the fitness obsession of Mike Bloomberg, bless our mayor, calorie counts, which were really helpful to dismiss everything above 600 calories. I settled on the meat lasagna (598) and hoped for the best.
Suddenly, our waiter brought to the table four humongous salad bowls (the famed free salad). The veggies were pale and over refrigerated, but the I-talian dressing was the most briny, overpowering, pucker and heartburn inducing glop I've ever had (and I kinda like cheapo I-talian dressing). Impossible to eat.
My lasagna seemed Lilliputian compared to everything else so far, but I seemed Lilliputian compared to the size of the soda glasses and the salad bowls. In fact, it was basically a bigger portion of the kind of pasta you get on Delta Airlines.
I'm never insulted by the pasta on Delta Airlines (because the other shit is worse). But I am insulted by the Olive Garden. I'm insulted by the gall of whoever owns it thinking you can fool people into eating such terrible food. By even calling it food. And the worst thing about it, which is true of Appleby's as well, is that it stops short of inedible, and thus people eat it. People demonize McDonald's and such, but they should take a look at this crap. It's just as bad if not worse.
In the end, it ain't that cheap either. The all you can eat bullshit is a ploy to make you spend more.
It was a bunch of us and some people had wine (perish the thought), but I paid $22 for crappy food, no matter how much of it.
I think it is quite ungenerous and cynical to serve such terrible food in such huge portions. It is unconscionable and disrespectful of people; it treats food like cattle feed and people like cattle.
Pure evil is what it is.

Enough Already

There is a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza today, finally, and hopefully the violence from both sides will stop.
As I read about the crisis, it seems evident that the problems of the area are so horribly complex, that it would take the best humanity has to offer to come up with a Salomonic solution in order to achieve some semblance of lasting peace and quiet. Instead, we get hatred and carnage.
From my humble and limited point of view, I guess that this horrendous campaign by Israel was designed to send a message to Iran about the consequences it faces shall it keep hammering away at the destruction of Israel, whether it's via Hamas or any other means.
Unfortunately, Israel, by necessity a heavily militarized state, fights this war against a guerrilla terrorist group. Israel uses traditional warfare to attack or defend itself from an untraditional enemy. The battleground is a place teeming with civilians, and an appalling place at that. Too many civilians die. Israel looks terrible in the eyes of the world. Not that it seems to care at this point.
What appalls me, besides the reports of dismembered children and 1200 deaths, is, as always, the monolithic, knee-jerk reaction of most Jews living outside of Israel.
I am all for the absolute destruction and eradication of Hamas. But I can't turn a blind eye and a cold heart to the collateral suffering of civilians caught in the middle.
I totally love and support Israel, but that doesn't mean that I have to applaud everything it does. It doesn't mean that my love and admiration and support of it make me lose all sense of compassion or proportion, or my moral compass.
It also doesn't mean that having a dissenting opinion makes me a self-hating Jew or an anti-Zionist. It makes me a Jew and a Zionist with a conscience. Which is what all Jews should be.
You may adore your spouse, or your parents, or your children, but you don't cheer them on no matter what they do because of unquestioning loyalty. You can disagree with the people you love and that doesn't mean that you love them any less. Disagreement is not disloyalty, and people who confuse the two are tyrants.
It is reported that most Israelis supported this campaign. I can understand: they live under a siege mentality and they live in fear and frustration. It's also easy to do so when the casualties and the damage on their side are not dramatic. The last invasion of Lebanon was bitterly opposed by Israeli public opinion once it was clear that Israel was taking a surprising beating. I am sure that many Israelis are viewing this current carnage with a heavy heart.
Just today, I scanned the online edition of Haaretz and found a very interesting controversy on the front page. It was a fierce debate between a journalist who strongly criticizes the Gaza campaign and a famous Israeli writer, who feels the campaign is justified. Neither of them mince words, and reading their correspondence gives you an idea of how fraught, and how morally and emotionally complex it is to live under such circumstances, if you still have a moral conscience.
To be honest, I am tired of Qassam rocket counts on facebook. No matter how you spin it, they can't hold a candle to dead children counts.
We cannot lose our moral compass.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dear Barack Obama:

I paste the entire text of a NY Times editorial on immigration today (all caps and boldface are mine):

"A scene from the last days of the Bush administration: On a snowy afternoon last weekend, a church in New York City is filled to bursting with more than 1,000 people. Parents holding babies, teenagers, old men and women with heavy coats and canes. They murmur and shout in prayer, a keyboard and guitar carrying their voices to the height of the vaulted ceiling.

The music has a deafening buoyancy, but as congregants step forward to speak, their testimony is heavy with foreboding and sorrow. They tell of families terrorized and split apart.

A young woman from Pakistan describes humiliating conditions at a detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., where she was sent with her mother and ailing father. A mother tells of her son, an Army sergeant and citizen, losing his wife to deportation. A Mexican man, with theatrical defiance, waves a shoe at the unnamed forces that have thwarted his desire to legalize.

It is hard to appear sinister in a church, and the congregation at Iglesia La Sinagoga (THE CHURCH IS ACTUALLY CALLED "THE SYNAGOGUE" (!)), a center of Pentecostalism on 125th Street in East Harlem, seemed utterly ordinary. But as undocumented immigrants and their loved ones, they are the main targets of the Bush administration’s immigration war.

Families like theirs have endured a relentless campaign of intimidation and expulsion, organized at the top levels of the federal government and haphazardly delegated to state and local governments.

The campaign has been disproportionate and cruel. The evidence is everywhere.

On Monday, The Times reported that federal immigration prosecutions had soared in the last five years, overloading federal courts with misdemeanor cases of illegal border crossers, who are tried and sentenced in groups of 40 to 60 for efficiency. At the same time, prosecutions for weapons, organized crime, public corruption and drugs have plummeted. The Arizona attorney general called the situation “a national abdication by the Justice Department.”

And last week, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, in an appalling last-minute ruling, declared that immigrants do not have the constitutional right to a lawyer in a deportation hearing and thus have no right to appeal on the grounds of bad legal representation. Mr. Mukasey overturned a decades-old practice designed to ensure robust constitutional protection for immigrants — one needed now more than ever in the days of the Bush administration’s assembly-line prosecutions.

The event at the Pentecostal church was organized by local ministers and Democratic politicians to spur the cause of immigration reform this year.

It could be a difficult case to make. We heard far too little about the need for immigration reform from President-elect Barack Obama during the general election — and virtually nothing from the nation’s leaders since then. But the United States cannot afford to put immigration on a back burner and merely continue with the existing enforcement regime. The costs are too high for the country’s values. And they are too high for the economy.

Defending immigrants’ rights defends standards in all workplaces. Workers who are terrorized into submission, in families that are destroyed by deportation and raids, are more likely to undercut other workers by tolerating low pay and miserable job conditions.

Restoring proportionality and good sense to the criminal justice system also would free up resources for fighting serious crimes. Most important, repairing a system warped by political priorities into hunting down and punishing the wrong people — like those bringing their suffering to a Pentecostal church — would help restore a sense of what the country stands for, and remind us of who we are."
Dear Barack: Before you close Guantanamo (the sooner the better) you should pay attention to this. You have all but ignored and skirted this issue and come next week it won't be so easy to do so anymore. This is much more important than closing Guantanamo. Here you have thousands of decent people being intimidated, harassed, discriminated and abused by our very own government, who turns a blind eye when it so fits its own despicable hypocrisy, racism and incompetence, like employing illegal Mexicans to clean Katrina's mess -- FEMA: Find Every Mexican Available, or like baiting illegals with a promise of instant citizenship and using them as cannon fodder for your revolting excursion in Iraq.
And for those of you who shriek the mantra that being illegal is a crime, zip it. This country was founded by immigrants. If it weren't for Black slaves and immigrants we'd all be eating Lime Jell-O with mayo and listening to Lawrence Welk. You should be fucking grateful to these people. You are not good enough to shine their shoes.
And as I've always said: Don't want them, don't let em in anymore, not a one. But don't punish the ones that are already here, working hard and trying to make a life for their families. It's sheer racism, cowardly disguised as something else.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Inquiring minds want to know

This is a sample of the keywords this humble blog gets on a given day:
(my favorites in bold)
drill down36.12%chinese monuments
drill down24.08%sick from mexico
drill down24.08%sick in mexico
drill down24.08%mexican japanese
drill down12.04%mrs.kiernans boobs
drill down12.04%chavez y rabino cohen
drill down12.04%lime coated peanuts japan style
drill down12.04%camorran ny film
drill down12.04%the grande enchilada blogspot
drill down12.04%judy mam
drill down12.04%japanese peanuts mexico
drill down12.04%synecdoche ny worst movies
drill down12.04%hoquy beret
drill down12.04%is it that easy to get sick in mexico
drill down12.04%can guacamole make you sick
drill down12.04%mrs candela bbobs
drill down12.04%the wrestler is a metaphor for america
drill down12.04%enchilada pee smell
drill down12.04%paleton corona enchilada
drill down12.04%macarons, inland empire
drill down12.04%what the fuck is an enchilada?
drill down12.04%japanese guy on mexico city airport
drill down12.04%enchilada commercials
drill down12.04%bob & carol & ted & alice
drill down12.04%expensive hair salons in mexicodf
drill down12.04%celine dion torchers
drill down12.04%new york pet peeves
drill down12.04%mexican nazis
drill down12.04%woolworths of mexico city
drill down12.04%dirk bogarde blogspot
drill down12.04%what is the yellow drink on zohan
drill down12.04%fizzy bubbelech drink
drill down12.04%will the ice in drinks make you ill in mexico
drill down12.04%nishikawa peanuts
drill down12.04%get sick from the food in mexico?
drill down12.04%mexico water sick
drill down12.04%the grande enchilada
drill down12.04%fidgeting annoying
drill down12.04%japanese guy in airport
drill down12.04%yucca gnocchi
drill down12.04%let the last one in
drill down12.04%yuca in caracas
drill down12.04%yuca fries in caracas
drill down12.04%mrs snapp boobs

People are crazy. Blogging is fun.

In other words: impeach the bastards

It's nice to be able to rely on Frank Rich when one is just too tired for outrage. He has the goods, and commits them to paper:

THREE days after the world learned that $50 billion may have disappeared in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, The Times led its front page of Dec. 14 with the revelation of another $50 billion rip-off. This time the vanished loot belonged to American taxpayers. That was our collective contribution to the $117 billion spent (as of mid-2008) on Iraq reconstruction — a sinkhole of corruption, cronyism, incompetence and outright theft that epitomized Bush management at home and abroad.
The source for this news was a near-final draft of an as-yet-unpublished 513-page federal history of this nation-building fiasco. The document was assembled by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction — led by a Bush appointee, no less. It pinpoints, among other transgressions, a governmental Ponzi scheme concocted to bamboozle Americans into believing they were accruing steady dividends on their investment in a “new” Iraq.
Now it's our duty as citizens, and I wish I could invite Mr. Obama to join us, but I doubt he'll follow through, to demand accountability and put those motherfuckers in front of the firing squad they so richly deserve.
It's funny how people are outraged about Bernie Madoff but they brush off the 8 years of unmitigated corruption and slime of the Bush administration. If they channeled a small percentage of that outrage towards Bush and Cheney, those two would be in jail.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Get on the Bus!

Three atheists and an agnostic bus: Ariane Sherine, Richard Dawkins and Polly Toynbee.
(Photo: Leon Neal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Finally! We atheists and agnostics get our 15 minutes of fame. Yay!

Painful Violence

I have not written about the war in Gaza because it is painful. Nobody wants to see children and families killed. It is painful when things like these happen and the perception is of overreaction and exaggerated violence on the part of Israel. But Israel left Gaza in 2005 and since then all it has seen is Hamas using Gaza as a place from where to attack Israel. People say the Hamas rockets are these quaint homemade little things that hurt no one. Not so. The Qassams are stuffed with nails and metal to inflict maximum damage on contact. Thousands of them have been fired in recent years. The latest one fell 20 miles off Tel-Aviv.
It is clear that Hamas hides behind the Gaza civilians, not always with all their support. It is clear that they have been attacking Israel with rockets, not to mention suicide bombings and other forms of terror against civilians for years. It it clear that they want to destroy Israel. They don't seem interested in finding a realistic solution to the plight of their own people.
The problem, however is deeper, more painful and harder to solve than trying to destroy Hamas. The problem at the source of the conflict is what to do with the Palestinian population of the Gaza strip. Thy can't live in limbo forever. Have you seen a map? Gaza (and the West Bank) is a huge geographic and demographic problem. One that requires the end of violence from all sides, some major creative geopolitical thinking, some major show of political will and cojones and funding by everybody ...and at this point I might as well stop dreaming.
I imagine Israel is well aware of the collateral damage it inflicts, not only on the civilian population, but on its own terrible public relations with the rest of the world. So it allows 3 hour ceasefires for humanitarian aid, yet at the same time it curtails the presence of foreign journalists in Gaza. Not that it works. I wonder if Israel is also aware that this war may be continuing to fan the fires of barbarian Islamist fanatics, who are a threat to the entire world, and contributing to the further and already untenable radicalization of the Middle East. So it remains to be seen if this terrible operation is worth the potential damage.
I wish the war ends soon and innocent civilians stop suffering. I also wish for people not to be so naive as to think that the conflict is as lopsided as it seems. Major interests, not only the proverbial Goliath-like ones of the US and Israel, are at work preventing peace in the region. Many Arab states have no interest in finding a peaceful coexistence with Israel and they use the suffering of the Palestinians for their own nefarious means. Until both sides sit down and create a state for the Palestinians that is willing to live in peace and cooperation with Israel, and Israel with it (which means investing in making it work economically, socially and politically), there will be no end in sight.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Adieu to Woolworth's

When I was around seven years old, almost invariably on Mondays, I used to pretend I had a really bad stomachache and couldn’t go to school. My mom would look at me contorting in bed, like Professor Zovek in a straightjacket, and with mischief in her eyes, she would inform my father that I was sick and could not go to school that day. Then my dad, suspicion written all over his brow, would mutter about how expensive the tuition and how I have to go and learn whether I like it or not, and would finally leave for work. “Feeling better now?” Mom would say. “Wanna come with me to Woolworth’s”?
It never ceased to amaze me: she always knew when it was fake and when for real.
That was joy. Just me and my mom, hand in hand, walking to Woolworth’s at the corner of Insurgentes and Durango, Mexico City.

First stop: the record section. I would spend hours looking at Ziggy Stardust’s metallic painted face and the blond hairy naked women climbing a hill for Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention. I would stare at the dreamscapes of Yes and Pink Floyd. I had an inkling that one day, I too would understand what it all meant. It would be revealed to me and I would finally SEE. But I wasn’t too sure about that. Chances were that those album covers with scary, hypnotic names like Uriah Heep and Blood Sweat and Tears were going to remain a mystery that was not meant for me to ever crack. Somehow I knew there was nothing mysterious, arcane or taboo about Johnny Mathis or Shirley Bassey, though she scared the hell out of me. But I always looked over my shoulder when standing in front of Stones records. Their shaggy, unkempt hair, their skinny, menacing gait, Mick Jagger's satyr lips; I knew they were forbidden. The Stones scared the shit out of me too, probably for the same reason as Shirley Bassey: an intimation of feral sex. My mother used to boast that I made her buy me my first Beatles record at Woolworth's at the tender age of 3 (together with an olive green soldier's helmet that used to get caught in my hair, the very first toy I ever asked for). The record was Meet the Beatles and I had her playing it incessantly, scratched out of recognition, until it occurred to her that she could buy another one and defer going crazy until the next one came out. The last one they bought for me was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. By then I was 7 and after that I picked my own. The Beatles were my religion for a while. I mean religion in the sense of awe and faith and companionship. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such prolonged ecstasies and mysteries than when buying, opening, listening and re-listening, dancing and making up words to the records of the Beatles. I was mesmerized by the music. I was moved by its playful energy, by the urgent vibrancy of the young male voices. When songs were sad I knew their sadness was honest and simple, not twisted and heavyhanded like Mexican telenovelas. I could understand most of what the first records said: love, girl, you, me, honey, dance and so on. No mystery there. But Sgt. Pepper was like the Rosetta Stone. Something had definitely changed that made my spine tingle. That album cover! It looked like a Mexican Day of the Dead altar. My dad sat with me and explained who some of those people were at that funeral of the electric guitar. I recognized Marilyn Monroe and Chaplin, but that little kid sitting there slumped in the corner with his striped shirt, he gave me the creeps. There were people even my dad didn’t know, and he knew everything. There were lyrics in the inside jacket. That was new. And why were the Beatles wearing those silly lollipop-colored satin jackets and alarming facial hair? What happened? I think I asked my dad and he said: “drugs”. I could read but I had no idea of what the songs meant. And that made it all the more arcane and mysterious. A song like “For the benefit of Mr. Kite” fired up my imagination with strange, almost apocalyptic images, perhaps because the only words I understood were “fire” and “horses”. The word “handkerchief" in “She’s Leaving Home” was the object of almost Talmudic speculation. I had no idea what it meant, but I was sure it was esoteric.

The candy store was my second favorite department at Woolworth’s. I loved ambling down the aisles and taking in the salty smell of rancid “fresh” popcorn and warm nuts mixed with the cloying smell of citric acid and glucose. I used to marvel at the shapes and wrappers and flavors and colors. I’d buy chocolate covered white marshmallows or sour green apple or grape lollipops that sometimes made my gums and tongue bleed. They don’t make them anymore. I used to buy every flavor of a bubble gum called Motitas, that kept adding more and more flavors, in a growth spurt of imaginative marketing. They had fruit (red wrapper), banana (yellow, I hated it), grape, mint, coconut (blue) and orange. I once had a dream that there were endless flavors and colors of Motitas, yummy, excellent flavors like chocolate and vanilla and cajeta and honey and tangerine and watermelon. It was a wonderful dream. I tried to re-dream it many times without success.

Then I would visit the toys department, most of which exasperated me to no end. There were many toys that required children to be careful and industrious. They came in big boxes: erector sets, cake baking sets, the spirograph (my mom got me that when I was older, it lasted a couple of weeks). Glitter paint sets. Got that one too. Mom regretted ever buying it, since our TV room looked like Ziggy Stardust’s bedroom after I was done with it. When I was younger, mom used to get me coloring books and crayons -- Carmen -- the red and white box, with the ones that are sharp and dry and smooth, and the ones that melt and sweat and break in your hands, reeking of wax. I liked coloring books, trying to never get out of the black line. I used to get impatient with filling out the tiny details (crayons would always be too chunky for those) as well as the big open spaces, where you had to fill out the sky or the grass, and you always had to work one crayon to death to achieve that. Frustrated with my appalling lack of meticulousness and my impatience, I would not finish the drawing, plus, I would be hard on myself for never staying inside the borders. Yet I preferred coloring books to dolls. I got the requisite Barbies, but they always ended up armless, legless, hairless, truncated, with their head twisted back a la Linda Blair, or wires coming out of their knees, all in the interest of science. My neighbor Tete had both Barbie and Ken and she was scrupulous with them, their clothes, and their dollhouse. She would bring Ken up to play with my Barbie and at first they would run towards each other and kiss and hug with their clothes on. I suspect that later on we started undressing them and putting Ken on top of Barbie. I’m not sure I knew why we did that or what it meant. I don’t remember having asked.
I also got Crissy, the red-haired doll with the orange lace mini-dress and hair that grows out of a spout on her back. Since braiding and combing her hair turned out to be monumentally boring, I gave her a shampoo and rinse -- immersing her totally in the bathroom sink. Her body orifices; the crevices between the arms and the shoulders, and the junctures of the legs leaked water like teapots. Then I gave her a very stylish haircut. She looked like Ziggy Stardust’s little sister. It would have left her in tears, had she been one of those dolls that can cry.
Tete was one of those industrious children who took good care of her toys and got the baking set that my mother refused to get me claiming 1) a waste of perfectly good food, 2) a fire hazard. Perhaps this explains my current aversion to the kitchen. One day, Tete brought over her new “Mi Alegría” chemistry set. So we parked ourselves on my studio carpet and experimented with transparent red and blue liquids and test tubes. She went to the kitchen for matches, and all I remember is that the carpet caught fire. We left a small black hole in the carpet and a huge black hole of worry and fear in me, for when my mom came home. I blamed it totally on Tete, after listening to my mother giving hell to the maid who was supposed to be checking up on us, instead of reading stories of babies born with toad legs in Casos de Alarma. After that incident, I acted as if matches had bad faith of their own, and would not get near one if I could avoid it. This proved particularly embarrassing on Friday nights when we used to be invited to Tete’s house for Shabbos dinner and her dad would give the honor of lighting the candles to a different woman every time. My mom had to light the match for me because I could never muster enough strength to flick the match so it would light. I did it as if I was running my hand through the fur of an animal with rabies.

After doing my rounds at the store, I would come back to the wonderful, undulating red Formica lunch counter, with matching red vinyl stools where my mother sat with her friends smoking Kents and drinking coffee. This was before the time that some marketing genius decided to update the corporate colors of Woolworth from that wonderful blood red to a ghastly combination of cream and blue. I never forgave them for that. The lunch counter was like a slightly more cheerful version of Edward Hopper’s "Nighthawks". My mom and her friends always sat at the very end of the counter, near the toys. La señora Ofelia, la señora Amalia, la señora Estrella, la señora Yudes (what a name!), sometimes my aunts Dora and Clara.
I loved sitting at that counter. They had cakes adorning each counter. The cakes were always thick with waves of white or brown or pink icing a la Wayne Thibaud (every time I see his paintings of cakes, I want to eat the canvases). Many times a slice had been carved off, giving us a glimpse of the disappointing dry yellow dough divided in half by a line of either more icing or strawberry jam. The inside never looked as good as the outside. I thought the cakes should have been made of icing only. They sat on shiny stainless steel pedestals protected by see-through plastic covers. I never saw anybody eating them so I suspect that the triangular carvings were there to entice the customers. They also used to serve humongous ice cream treats, things with silly sounding names like Banana Split and Tres Marías (Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry with whipped cream and hot fudge and a cherry on top). The most I was ever able to get out of my mother was one single scoop of pedestrian lime ice. It was served on a surgical looking stainless steel cup with a delicious vanilla wafer stuck on top. They also served mounds of red or green Jell-O in tall sundae glasses with a dollop of whipped cream. Why would anybody want to order that was beyond me.
But the main reason to sit in that counter, (besides hanging on to mom and listening to the gossip and being fawned upon by all the nice middle aged waitresses, with their starched red and beige uniforms), was to eat Woolworth’s famous vegetable soup. Now, my mother, who suffered torments worse than those of Joan of Arc at the stake when it came to making me eat fruits or vegetables, saw in this soup our redemption. This was the only way, in fact, that I could stomach eating any vegetable whatsoever. She always ordered a cup for me, not a bowl -- probably thinking that my love affair with the soup would end as soon as she changed the size. The soup arrived from an invisible kitchen via a dumbwaiter, the doors of the mini-elevator rising like curtains on stage to reveal a little beige diner cup accompanied by a hot, delicious roll with a square of melting, salty margarine beside it. I have never since seen my food come down from the skies in an elevator. It was heaven.
At Christmastime, I would marvel at the rows of decorations at Woolworth’s, with their perfect silver spheres that mirrored me and the tinsel and foam. I loved playing around with the fragile colored balls, knowing full well they weren’t meant for me.
Then they started changing the store. They moved the departments around, they took away the pizza man, who had been preparing those awful ersatz pizzas that I loved, from a little cart like in an amusement park. They got rid of the red Formica and the red vinyl, and I became jaded of the toys and the records, and started exploring the lingerie and perfume and make up departments. I will never forget that late into the eighties, Woolworth's still carried ancient rice blotting paper and make up that seemed to have been designed with spinsters in mind. At the lingerie aisles, they had bras with cups the size of salad bowls, made of cumbersome, stiff white lace. To my recollection there were only four possible colors or underwear: white, beige, black and pink. The store detectives were always hovering near the ladies’ panties.
Then around high school, I stopped going with my mom to Woolworth’s. I wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with either one of my parents if I wanted to be cool, which of course I wasn’t. However, when I started going to college (UNAM all the way down Insurgentes Sur), and before my dad finally gave in and bequeathed me his old Datsun, I would take a bus up Insurgentes from school and my mom would be waiting for me at Woolworth’s to give me a ride home. We had moved to Polanco by then, which also had a Woolworth’s but it was not the same. The only thing that stuck around in my favorite Woolworth's was the smell of popcorn and warm nuts. The fifties charm was gone. Only one of the old time waitresses remained. Some of my mom’s friends still used to congregate around the lunch counter and schmooze. Their hair was grey now, their children married, grandchildren on their laps.
Years later I walked into Woolworth’s to buy soap and they had destroyed the lunch counter to make more room for retail.

Peace on Earth

Wouldn't that be great for a change?