Sunday, August 29, 2010

Smooth Criminal

This is the first time in my life I get mistaken for a criminal.  Such is life in sunny, petrified Caracas. Here's the story.
We arrive home almost at midnight to find that the electronic garage door opener of the apartment doesn't work.  Luckily, a neighbor shows up in their car, so I get out of the car to ask them if they can open the gate for us, ours is broken, yadda, yadda. They don't open their windows, and like every car in Caracas, their windows are tinted black, so I can't see them.  This is all very confusing to me.  I ask them with hand signals to roll down their windows. Nothing happens. I go back to the car and report that they won't talk to me. Not only that, they seem to be retreating. Finally, the driver rolls down his window. It's a couple in their thirties. I ask him if they can please open the gate since our thingy is broken. I tell them the apartment number where we live.  They look at me as if they were constipated and mute and I am some sort of evil alien. She is shaking her head. So I lose patience and I ask what's the problem. "The problem is we don't know you and we don't want to open the gate". But you can see that I'm not gonna mug you, I say. A middle aged goldilocks with glasses, for crying out loud.
I go back to the car, retrieve the opener and bring it so they can see it. They get really upset and start screaming at me, "You don't understand the reality of this country and you have the wrong attitude".
My appearance and my story do not reassure them in the least.
Somehow finally they open the gate. Now I realize that what I saw in their faces was naked fear. They were afraid of me. And every single thing I did, did nothing but reinforce their fears. Who knows, I could be part of an elaborate ruse to deprive them of their possessions and perhaps their lives, probably with unspeakable violence. It has happened before, with the most outlandish scenarios.
Shit is so bad in this place, people can't even trust their instincts any more.  Civility is gone.
Common sense has left the building.                        

Monday, August 23, 2010

Life's a Beach

Darlings! I can't believe it's been weeks since I've kvetched in this here space. But I am now in one of the most dangerous capitals of the world, basically crapping my pants every time I venture out. There is certainly a lot to be enjoyed in Caracas, except every time you set out to do it, you fear for your life.
The weather is magnificent. The fruit juices are sublime. The food is great. The city is in a beautiful, lush place, surrounded by the greenest tropical mountains. Magnificent Arepa got the toothache from hell, walked into a government clinic and was treated immediately and well for FREE.

And the beach is an experience.
Going to the beach here is both supremely pleasurable and not for the faint of heart. The good part is that Venezuelans, like most Latin Americans, understand that the beach is the place where everyone can feel like royalty for bubkes. There is plenty of shade, and folding beach chairs. People are super simpatico. There is a combination of good manners and street smarts that I love (compared to Mexico, people here are more equal, and treat you as such). Beer flows and so does a parade of yummy food. Delicious fried cheese empanadas, coconut sweets, wafers with both arequipe, which is like dulce de leche, AND condensed milk (and sprinkles to taste).  A tray of fresh fish arrives for inspection and selection and a couple of hours later, platters of the same arrive cooked to perfection. The water is clear and warm. Considering the crowds, the beaches are clean. Paradise.

But. Venezuelans park their cars right next to the shore, they open the backs to reveal  sound systems that rival the loudest dance clubs in the world. They proceed to crank it up to the maximum decibel level that can be tolerated by the human ear and reggaeton, with merengue and salsa thrown in, blast out from every other car. It is impossible to have a conversation without screaming at the top of your lungs. People dance. Babies dance. The dancing looks like copulation, but never mind. This is one crowd that can shake their ass. I saw a fat old guy putting together a grill and dancing at the same time.
People drink, and not just beer; also hard liquor in vastly imprudent quantities, which makes you wonder if this will be your last day on Earth as you drive back to town. The way these people drive when sober is scary enough to give anyone pause. Drunk is an entirely new plane of experience. I saw a pickup truck driver on the highway with a baby on his lap, the baby playing around with the side mirror. No seat belt.  I saw behaviors on the road that left me breathless. Aggressive passing in the no passing zone, 3 lanes where there are only two. Teenagers drinking and driving. Utter disregard for the rules. It's similar to Mexico, but I think Mexicans tend to be a bit shy of being totally suicidal. Venezuelan irresponsiblity is not fatalistic, like in Mexico, but defiant, the recklessness stridently proud. People here are oblivious to their own fragility.

Mr. Ex-Enchilada once went to a cantina in Mexico and a man gave him his wife as a gesture of friendship and welcome. Yesterday, I had a similar experience at the beach. A very drunk man came to tell me I was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen (I think he was blinded by my paleness). He then offered to give me any one of his nine sons, I could pick and choose. When I respectfully declined, he called some of them, to parade them around in case I changed my mind. Three young men came by, quite good naturedly. I was amazed at how such an unattractive man could have such incredibly handsome offspring. Two of them were actually quite yummy... anyway... this guy told me he was in the army, he told me about the Bolivarian revolution, which according to him belonged to the people, not to Chavez, he expressed his absolute worship of Fidel Castro and went into a lengthy diatribe about how the US is to blame for absolutely everything that is wrong with his country. I had told him I was Mexican because, except for Arizona, being from Mexico always gets plenty of love abroad (which is not the case with being American). So I didn't think that engaging with him on a political argument was the right tack to follow. But this is where I beg to differ. The mighty machos in Latin America need to stop whining, grow a pair and stop blaming the imperialists for their own regressive, moronic penchant for chaos.

Today, I wake up to that sobering article in the New York Times about Venezuela being deadlier than Iraq. The statistics are appalling. One awful newspaper picture of bodies strewn about in the Caracas morgue did what public outrage (and anomie and cynicism) couldn't do in years. Immediately, the government ordered the press to stop publishing images of violence. Hopefully, Venezuelans have reached their tipping point. I hear Chavez has lost popularity among his loyal constituents because of this issue. He may blame the gringos for trying to discredit his regime. But people here know the truth. Everybody has a horrifying story to tell. For years, the regime has willfully ignored the rise in crime. And the worst part is that the majority of the murders happen among the poor. The Times article concentrates on Petare, which is a giant slum. The rich and middle class are victims too, but they have more resources to defend themselves. When the shit hits the fan, those who can hit Miami.
It has always been a mystery to me why Chavez, who has created a lot of positive social programs, and who is genuinely interested in improving the people's lot, has been so callous and indifferent towards the insecurity problem, which is dire. He could come up with measures to lower the ownership of guns and the homicidal mayhem in the same idiosyncratic way in which he does everything else. I think that the deliberate avoidance of this scourge (perhaps to scare the rich into fleeing, or to blame everything on them) has finally backfired. It is beyond unconscionable that it has taken the lives of over 150,000 people.
It's really a crying shame, because Caracas does have its charms.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Poor Tourists Part II

Thanks to my friend Cynthia, who misses NYC so much she is now reading the New York Post, here is a lovely breakdown of everything that drives New Yorkers crazy.
I agree with all of them, and then some.
Here's my own abridged breakdown:
1. Street Fairs. I loathe them. They sell the same awful shit all over town, they create traffic and they leave garbage. Speaking of garbage, why is this city so goddamned filthy?
2. Honkers. Why this is not on the list is beyond me. People who honk should be paralyzed with a silencer. Forever.
2a. The noise level at restaurants. We don't have enough noise on the street that we need more inside? Bloomberg should fine restaurants with deafening decibel levels. Even better, close em.
3. People who block subway doors. Also: Men who sprawl themselves on the seats as if they were in a jacuzzi. People who sit their packages on the seats. People who get into the subway before letting people out. Young, sturdy people who do not give their seat to the pregnant or elderly. And I don't even use the subway that much.
3a. The MTA.
4. Slow walking tourists. Yeah. Those who walk 5 deep too. And who decide to look at their map pinkt on the corner, blocking everybody's way. Move to the side, dears.
5. Hipsters I hate more than panhandlers. And more than panhandlers I hate those dudes from Children International or Greenpeace who block the street with their moral loftiness, closely followed by the people who want to give you a free haircut. I also hate people who give free hugs. Creeps.
6. Cabdrivers on cellphones. Cabdrivers who brake as if they want to torpedo the passenger through the windshield. Cabdrivers who drive like maniacs. Cabdrivers who HONK. Stinky cabs. Also: people who steal your cab.
7. Surprised that no one mentioned parents with military style prams that yell "excuse me!" as if the very Son of God was bundled in there and was late to his appointment to save mankind. This is not the Red Sea and your son/daughter is not Moses. Chill.
7a. I don't mind film crews at all. I do mind idiot PAs with attitudes. 
8. Bike delivery guys I don't mind as long as they follow the rules and don't ride wrong way within inches of colliding with pedestrians. Oh, wait.
9. People who act deliberately crazy in Washington Square Park. We have plenty of authentic nutjobs down there. Don't be cute.
9a. Skateboarders in public spaces. Go to your room.
10. Drunks who leave bars in the wee hours and scream at the top of their lungs. Newsflash: people live in Manhattan, you idiots. Pipe down.
11. What's with the tip jars?
12. Big groups of girly girls on nights out who drink appletinis and start hollering as if they swallowed a microphone (same goes for guy-ey guys). Composure, ladies (and gents).
13. Staten Island. 
13 a. Rats. 

Having said this, I love New York.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Stupid is Winning

During the Bush years one marvelled at the cornucopia of stupidity we had to deal with for eight years, but now it seems to have gotten much worse. Now that the stupids don't have their man in the White House, they are really going above and beyond what is considered reasonable in terms of idiocy. It's getting out of hand.
The Mosque thing. All over America. Listen, I'm not a cheerleader for Islam, but this latest regression to idiotic prejudice is appalling. And it seems to be dangerously contagious. Even the ADL, which is supposed to work tirelessly against all defamation, joined the stupid bandwagon. A real shanda, that one.
It amazes me that the same people who are always spewing patriotic bromides and huffing and puffing about America's freedoms are the first ones willing to tear the Constitution to shreds. They wouldn't know a real human right if it bit them in the ass (unless it was the right to bear arms, which is no right at all). Whatever happened to freedom of religion? Wasn't that how this country was founded in the first place?
Then comes the even more appalling attempt to do away with the 14th amendment.
Everybody covets the American citizenship, rich and poor alike. Rich people from Latin America come to give birth here at tony hospitals in San Diego or Miami so that their progeny can have an American passport. No one cares about that. But if you happen to be poor and brown and working your ass off mowing someone else's golf course, then you can't. Do we really want to be like Germany, which doesn't grant citizenship to children of non-Germans born on its soil? Every time I hear about that one, it seems to me that they didn't quite learn the lessons of their painful past. Sounds pretty awful. Just don't be surprised then when these children grow up to hate your ungrateful, hypocritical, self-serving ass.
A word on Michelle Obama's vacation. All you whiners, get a life. The country could be experiencing a gold rush, and I bet someone would kvetch about how dare she. Yes it's a bad economy, yes, we're all crying all the way from the bank, but so what? The woman has a right to take a vacation, a concept that most Americans do not fully understand, wherever she damn well pleases. If I was her, I'd get out of Dodge too. That she chooses to go to Spain, instead of a ranch in Podunk, and she does it in style, is what is really rubbing you the wrong way. I perceive a frisson of uppityness in the whole outcry. Michelle Obama is stylish, sophisticated and not afraid of abroad, like you ignorant hicks. She is also rich. Deal with it.
President Obama comes out strongly defending the right of the downtown Mosque to exist and then he backtracks. Stupid. Dude, it's time to stop pandering to the haters. You are not going to win any converts. They all think you are a Muslim anyway.

On the other hand, let's count our blessings: thank God for Judge Walker (and for Ted Olson and David Boies). That was very, very smart.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Fly the Friendly Skies

As if. These days, air travel has become a humiliating nuisance for absolutely everybody: crews, passengers, geese, you name it. This is perhaps the one turn of events that can be blamed squarely both on the Republicans and Jihad.
Screw them both.
Me? I hate all of it. From arriving at the airport to leaving it, with the flying in between. I hate the airlines and the passengers pretty much equally.
My biggest pet peeve among millions of them is the shoe thing. The removal of the shoes in the security lines in the US drives me absolutely bonkers. Who came up with this stroke of security genius? Surely the ninety year old granny with a cane has stashed Acme Brand TNT between her soles and her support pantyhose.  
Delta, an airline composed of a fleet of ancient food blenders, and which I've been loyally flying for decades (to earn miles), is now trying to screw me about the miles. It's telling me that if I want miles for a Mexico trip that I'm booking months in advance, I have to spend 50,000 instead of the usual 35,000.  On top of that, they sit me in a nasty ass window seat all the way at the end of a plane that as of now looks 3/4 empty. But if I call them, they'll charge a fee for reservations over the phone.
I don't understand how the citizens of this country, instead of their stupid tea parties and whatever it is that liberals organize when they bother to look up from their navels, don't rise as one and just make bloody war against the airlines. This is one issue that could unite us all.
Also, can we do something about those pretzels? Hate 'em.
On the other hand, you have the passengers. Has anybody at this point never taken a plane before? Don't people know the drill already? How many times do they have to tell you not to stand up before the captain turns off the seat belt sign? How many times do they have to ask you to turn off your stupid phone or electronic devices before takeoff? Are you deaf? Blind? Retarded? Why do you disobey?
Readers: please do whatever is in your power to read David Sedaris' hilarious piece on air travel in America in last week's New Yorker (it's not online). I howled with laughter.  Nothing that I say here can possibly top Sedaris' dead on observations about the great unwashed that now fart in the seat next to you.
And here, from the excellent novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer, is another hilarious description of some of the horror that afflicts us today:

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Memo to Manhattan District Attorney:

You better prosecute this bitch.
Otherwise, I will call for a massive rampage of shoplifting at Sephora, since they are so very forgiving. 

I posed this splendid idea to my fellow blogger Laura Martinez, but as she wisely pointed out, if she or I attempt to shoplift $100 worth of beauty goodies, we're as good as deported and wearing pink boxers chez Sheriff Arpaio. (Actually, not me cause ich bin ein American). But maybe Laura and any other girls without the right papers, complexions, connections or last names.
So (and I say this with pain in my heart, for I heart Sephora), let's boycott Sephora, or vote against that particular district attorney when the time comes. Or express our enormous displeasure at the fact that the very spawn of a self-righteous law enforcer, is getting a pass. And that goes for La Lohan, too. Wasn't she supposed to spend 90 days in the slammer?
No Justice. No Peace.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

My 2 Cents on The Mosque

At first, when I heard somebody wanted to build a Mosque near Ground Zero, I thought, like I assume most everybody: why pinkt there, of all places?  But now that it looks like it's going to happen, and after learning that it is not going to be the headquarters for Al Qaeda or the Taliban, as some people seem to think, I say why not? It's gonna have a swimming pool, for crying out loud, how fundamentalist could it be?
We have been complaining since that terrible day that there haven't been enough, if any, moderate Muslim voices in the West, or elsewhere, to REPUDIATE and neutralize the fanatical fundamentalist minority. That there is not enough public presence of moderate Islam to shift the balance back to the religion as most Muslims practice it (without bloodshed and savagery).
So now that there is such a thing, The Cordoba Initiative, people react as if it Osama Bin Laden himself was building the thing. Stupidly, they counter radicalization and extremism with more of the same.
The people who display knee jerk reactions against the Mosque are not interested in context, content or subtleties, and probably don't even know what Córdoba stands for (the greatest period of prosperity, scientific and cultural advancement and interfaith tolerance during Muslim rule in Spain). Their arguments go from the emotional to the idiotic. From "it's an insult to the memory of the fallen", to the ridiculous "Muslims like to put victory monuments in places they conquer".
There is not much more I can say that Mayor Bloomberg did not say more eloquently in his excellent speech yesterday in favor of the building of the Mosque. He was a shining example of common sense: a Jew and a Republican (at least on paper) making an impassioned and sensible case for why blocking the Mosque is contrary to everything this country stands for.
I'm tired of people like Sarah Palin and her fellow Republicans, most of who live outside of this town but appropriate 9/11 and pollute it with cheap patriotism (still the last refuge of the scoundrel) for their own political gain, who do not understand what New York is all about, but who represent everything that is anathema to this city and the diverse people who live in it: censorship, pettiness, intolerance, racism, ignorance.
Not that we are perfect, but the haters are mistaken that this is about political correctness and liberal bleeding hearts. It is about true democracy. It is about true freedom of religion. About true separation of church and state. About the true values of the Constitution.
In New York City we share the sidewalks with people of all stripes and we live together in close proximity, unprotected by cocoons of cars and forbidding suburbs that bore people to inanity and keep everybody safely separate in their stupid prejudices.
That is why we are the greatest city on Earth. And why we refuse to have the mentality of a suburb. We are not Arizona. And never will be. So back off. 

Monday, August 02, 2010

Phil Kelly

Amarillo Anáhuac
I'm very sad to learn that my friend Phil Kelly passed away last night in Mexico City, the city he loved and that loved him back. Phil, who was originally from Ireland,  painted his adopted city with wit and verve. Not many local painters train their eyes on the urban jumble that is Mexico City; not many people can see the beauty beneath the grime, but Phil did. He could look at its ugliest buildings, its most impossibly trafficked intersections, its mustiest cantinas, and bring them to life with loose but precise strokes and an amazing use of color: witty, generous, expressive, and never overwhelming. He could distill the essence of a place and fill it with light. His paintings of Mexico City, Oaxaca and other cities afford you a totally new way of looking at places that you recognize, even if you've never been there.

I am very lucky to have a Phil Kelly, a generous gift from Mr. Ex-Enchilada. It's an oil painting of Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City's version of the Champs Elysees.
In Phil's hands, the avenue is a vertiginous river of cars, an orange swath of paint, stubborn blue palm trees billowing in the exhaust wind, and what I most love about it, a sky the color of clotted cream, a classic Mexico City sky on those days where your throat itches and your eyes water. Rising in the middle of this wide panorama is the Monument to the Independence, El Ángel, almost dwarfed by all that crazy motion around it, but still shining over the fierce metropolis like a little fairy.

I saw Phil last January in Mexico City. I parked myself at the Xel-Ha and let people know I was there (something you can do at the cantinas of Mexico City, where there is always one more chair to add to any table). Not many came but I was happily surprised when Phil arrived with his indomitable wife Ruth. Sweetly, he came bearing  gifts for my birthday. A lovely little etching and a lovely little book with some of his paintings of Mexico.

El Angel

Circuito de Noche

León Condesa Jardín Principal
I met Phil when I was in my twenties and moving out of my parents' house to go live in la Condesa (in those days it was full of old Jews and new artists, and gracefully bereft of enforced hipness). I moved into Phil's bedroom in an old apartment building in Campeche Street. Phil moved out to a bigger place where he had much more room to paint, and if I'm not mistaken, which was his home and studio until last night.
Phil had a wicked sense of humor and he was a lovely man. I'm very sad that he is gone. But we are lucky that he left behind all that color, all that incredible art.

Parnell Square, Dublin, I believe

If this isn't Paris, I don't know what is. 

Mexico City, no doubt.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Poor Tourists!

New Yorkers, we love to dump on tourists. They don't know how to walk, dress or eat. Couldn't tell a tourist trap if it bit them in the ass, etc, etc.
But what happens when tourists come to see you and you have to shpatzir them around town? You become sort of a tourist yourself. Let me tell you a little story:
On Thursday I met my friend Esther and her lovely 13 year old son, Benjamin, who were visiting from Mexico. They wanted to see the Meatpacking district. We went up to the High Line, had shaved ice and a popsicle from People's Pops (note to shaved ice hipster guy: you need to get some lessons from the Mexican or Latin masters of the craft -- not enough precious Bartlett pear syrup).
As we made our way back to Soho, we are walking, yes, three deep on a narrow sidewalk in Washington St.. A middle aged lady wearing a wide brimmed hat with a bow, starring in her own private Easter Parade, is coming towards us. In situations where tourists take up the entire sidewalk, usually I command "excuse me" and barrel through. I have an invisible semi-automatic rifle pointed at them. That's all. This person could have done the same, particularly as she was not behind us, but had plenty of time to approach us from the front. Instead, she mumbled at us to get out of her way, we don't even speak English and suggested we go back to where we came from. She was actually surprised when I reared my ugly head and screamed at her to shut the fuck up and chill the fuck out, and what the fuck is wrong with her, I fucking live here, you stupid fuck, etc, (remnants of the Middle Eastern fighting spirit, perhaps). She was slightly taken aback at being addressed in such a classic New York fashion by someone she deemed to be a clueless tourist. In truth, I wanted to run after her and knock that stupid hat off her head, plus a couple of teeth. But that would have been a bit de trop. Was she originally from Arizona? I found her xenophobic sentiments quite out of character for a citizen of this town.

One of the quintessential humbling experiences of locals hosting tourists, is eating out.
How is a tourist supposed to know that going to a restaurant in New York requires planning and execution of military precision? Not only arriving at the restaurant on time (to Mexican tourists, the concept of the entire party must be there to be seated is like astrophysics: unfathomable), but also ordering within three seconds of getting the menu, and being expected to know what's a ramp, what's sous vide and what's heirloom whatevs. One feels like a benign shepherd, steering the poor innocent creatures towards more adventurous choices, discreetly rolling our eyes and begging mercy from the waiter. A couple more minutes, no, they don't have fried rice here...
This in no way reflects my experience with Esther and Benjamin, who are urbane, sophisticated and as cool as cucumbers, as are most of the tourists that come to see me, mind you.
Once in a while it helps to see New York City with the eyes of a tourist. It also helps to have the manners of a New Yorker.